A young polywog of the 2000s I was very excited to see a show called “Everybody Loves Raymond”, thinking that finally some producers and execs finally had a show for me. Very disappointed to find out the title was a lie, I saw yet another peak into the modeled dysfunctions that thrive in monogamous relationships (albeit with some fair takes on the positives of monogamous life… I jUsT cOuLdN’t dO tHaT).
The show I wanted would come out in 2008, ‘Family’ by Terisa Greenan found here. Without representation in media, examples seen in society, discussions amongst our family, or often even awareness among relationship specialists, expectations for what nonmonogamous relationships would, could, or should look like just don’t exist as a standard. Many come in with worries like what if I don’t like my meta, what if they don’t like me, should I be mad if my partner binged a season of a show we were watching together, what do we do about Valentines Day? Fortunately there are answers to all of these.
Make a blueprint
Dr. Gottman, the gold standard of relationship therapy research emphasizes creating shared meanings, helping life dreams to progress, and building love maps to understand a partner’s internal emotional geography. I have joked good relationships are like high end cabinets: well planned, custom built, and updated as needed… also some of us would really like some but it hasn’t worked out for us yet. Some of the best topics to use to guide your early discussions of what to expect in a relationship are:
- Sex. Kinks, fetishes, hopes, fears, and mismatched libidos. Knowing what’s coming, what’s not, with whom, and how can be vital to grounded relationships. It can also just be fun to talk about. For some there hesitancy and that’s ok. One resource is an online quiz to see where you match. Furthermore, STD safety precautions, contraceptives, and fluid bonding perspectives are good to share.
- Money. Whether you have a lot, a little, or just not enough, discussions on how resources and financial responsibilities are important. Shared accounts or individual only? Who pays for dinners? Who pays the vet bills? Are we going to try to save up for something? As Daniel Tosh quipped, money may not buy happiness but it’ll buy water scooter! In the mental wellness world research supports that money provides safety nets for security allowing for the pursuit of happiness that is found within.
- Ideas of the future. I’m a gypsy by nature, my dream home has wheels on it. My nesting partner is a permaculture farmer. Goats and trees don’t grow well at 75mph on the top of a camper so we had to make some compromises and you may too.
- Sharing responsibilities, like chores around the house. None of my partners minds putting laundry in. One hates putting it away leading to small mountains of clothes around the room and another hates how I put their clothes away. End result, I fold clothes for one partner and let my other partner do their thing.
- Childhood experiences. How we grew up, formed attachment styles (mucho importante), and came to understand the world is vital for letting our partners understand us as individuals.
- Relationship dynamics. Are we looking for new people to love forever or for the season… or for the evening? How many partner’s until we’re polyunsaturated? Are we going to be open, closed, or have a council of approvals for new metas? Relationship anarchists, kitchen table, or closed and hierarchical? Here’s some common ideas.
- Mental wellness. While a first coffee date may not be the most appropriate time to discuss your deep seated fear of people named John with white beards (we see you John! That was unethical!!!), if your planned activities are hopefully passionate, intimate, or prolonged, it can be helpful to be upfront about challenges you face. Example, hemophilia (being a free bleeder) is really helpful too disclose when setting up a scene with needles. Likewise, if you know your attachment style is anxious, be honest about it allows the new person to enjoin as a support rather then a confused combatant.
These and some other hard discussion down, we’ve now got a good idea of how we’re going to make this happen. We’ve even tried it out… what went wrong?
Adjust, Adapt, Overcome
Mike Tyson imparts his wisdom, “everyone has a plan ‘til they get hit in the mouf”, a general said battle plans rarely survive the first encounter. Your best intentions will also likely need some adjustment. A popular comment on unicorn hunting is that a couple often has their future partner’s entire role filled out for them before even meeting them. As we meet new people, they come with their own ideas for all the things on the blueprint and we may need to rethink that spare office with en suite bathroom and consider a separate bedroom instead. Common reconsiderations include:
- Do you hold out for that perfect other person / couple / group? Some are comfortable waiting the potential years until everything fits exactly the way they want, some are more eager to get into the lifestyle and will compromise a bit.
- The triad has simmered into a V, or someone(s) in the two couple quad isn’t feeling it. Can we accept the V or new meta(s) as they are forming organically?
- Someone is not following the rules! It is possible to breach trust and “cheat” in an open relationship. Did they not understand the boundary like you understand it? Did they follow the letter of the law but not the spirit? Do we need to revisit the rules as time goes by, or do we need exceptions in the moment to process some powerful emotions. There’s a common adage to only run as far as the person with the shortest legs… the caveat to that is that they are in fact actually working on keeping up.
Well, did you talk to them about it?
When I facilitated peer discussion groups for the Montrose Center it became a common joke in the first 15 minutes to note the whole group could end quicker by posting a sign that read, “have you tried talking to them about it?” It’s the relationship version of “have you tried turning it off and on again?” One of the best pieces of wisdom I got from a phenomenal friend is you can’t be ok with something you’re not even aware of. Living life drawing outside the lines of convention means we have to fill in the gaps of conversations generally not required by the normies, or that they’re not having yet. #MeToo like movements were alive and thriving in alternative communities well before trending on Twitter because we have to be more explicit about what we do. Having the hard conversations earlier rather than later can be the ounce of prevention that saves gallons of sweat. Here’s some ideas to help:
- HALT(S). Make sure nobody is Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Sex grumpy. To be clear, telling a partner you won’t talk to them until you have sex, a sandwich, and nap is not likely to end well ( 0/10 do not suggest). Being mindful of your current state and that of your partner(s) is worthwhile though. Note, the old saying to never go to bed angry. Research says get some sleep to feel better if you can.
- Use a talking stick if you need to. No matter how important that idea you’re about to lose might be, interrupting your partner devalues them and makes them feel unheard, meaning they’ll be less likely to hear you in return.
- Use “I” statements, avoid ‘never’ and ‘always’. Telling someone, “You never call when you say you will!” becomes an attack which often shuts people down. Saying, “When I don’t hear from you, I feel invalidated” has you taking ownership of how you feel and invites others to accept you.
- Discuss love languages and communication mediums. There’s 5 love languages. Learn how to hear and speak your partner’s. Also decide if intense conversations are best in person, through text, on the phone, or even maybe a shared doc. In my house, hard conversations are done in a Google Doc so we can take our time, remember what was said and agreed to, and can look back on the ongoing conversation easily.
Though poly and swinger lifestyles are prime material for classic soap operas, we’re not likely to get one soon. At best we’re going to get a “special episode” or reality TV which is not based on actual reality. Luckily, you can have fulfilling, amazing, and open relationships they way you want, like Burger King says, have it your way. If you are having trouble coming together on shared visions of what your relationship could like, contact me below.