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Your Doctor Needs To Know

In 2016, when I was 40 freaking years old and a divorced mother of three, I had a doctor tell me I should not consent to having barrier-free sex with anyone who didn’t have to pay to get rid of me [cringe]. She said this to me as we were wrapping up my annual exam and my semiannual STI panel, during which I’d mentioned having made the decision to stop using barriers with a sexual partner of mine. I spent about five seconds in a state of speechlessness and then asked her if she was open to some feedback on that opinion. She indicated she was, which was fortunate, because she was going to hear what I had to say regardless of her willingness.

I reminded my doctor that this particular partner already had someone he’d have to pay to get rid of, (this means “married to” in case you’re not following), and that I didn’t think I’d ever be in that position again with anyone. I told her that I saw her bit of unsolicited advice as incredibly mononormative and as such, it didn’t apply to me. Additionally, I wasn’t simply consenting to this: I wanted it. Oh wonder of wonders . . . it’s not always some guy pressuring some gal into ditching condoms *eye roll.* I went on to inform her I intended to continue to decide whether or not to use barriers with folks based on my comfort level with their sexual practices and that I may do so with more than one person at a time.

I wanted the ability to be transparent about that with her so I could receive the best medical care for my situation.

To her credit, she was quick to reconsider what she’d said and apologize. She also thanked me for calling her out on it. Her acceptance of my assertions and validation of my concerns meant I retained her as my primary care physician for as long as she practiced at my clinic. Had she not, I would have found someone else to provide my medical care.

After all, doctors are service providers, and if I don’t like how they treat me I will find someone who is a better fit.

When I started seeing a therapist a couple years ago, I told him I was non-monogamous, queer, and identified as non-binary in terms of gender. I also told him I needed a therapist who was not only tolerant of those things, but supportive and encouraging. I didn’t see a productive future in therapy with anyone I’d have to talk into accepting me. He, too, thanked me for that direct assertion. This was important to me because it empowered me to hold him accountable for anything that did not feel supportive in that regard. Therapists, too, are service providers.

In the greater non-monogamous community, I witness a lot of fear around being “out” in society. Some of this is a fear of rejection by family, friends, or social communities. Others risk losing their children in adversarial custody battles, or their jobs under morality clauses. But I see this fear leading to remaining closeted with medical providers, and that means folks aren’t receiving the best care for their lifestyles.

It’s important to remember your doctor cannot report any details of your care to your employer or ex-spouse, they can’t gossip about you around town, and it’s in your best interest to be completely honest with them about all aspects of your life.

I recently read a post from a woman who asked her primary care doctor several times about birth control options after her IUD was removed. Her doctor dismissed the questions because her husband had had a vasectomy! It was that post that inspired me to write this blog. Non-monogamous folks sometimes resist being transparent even in safe spaces because the judgement of mononormative folks can feel so very defeating. But I’ve got news for you about your board certified care providers: they aren’t better than you just because they have a certain degree. Nothing about their certifications qualify them to levy moral judgement against you and let it affect their treatment of you. They probably have more education in certain areas, sure . . . but you’re the expert on you. 

You wouldn’t take your car in for routine maintenance but withhold that it’s been making a funny sound when you get over 50mph. You wouldn’t hire a nanny to watch your children and keep it a secret that one of them is allergic to bees. You can’t expect anyone to provide services to the best of their ability when they’re missing pertinent information.

A good doctor will listen to you when you tell them about you, and then they’ll treat you based on the information you give them without shame of any kind. But remember: in the absence of information, all they have are assumptions, so you need to do your part and be forthcoming. 

So how do you go about moving from a fear of stigma to advocating for yourself with medical professionals?

  • Interview your medical professionals prior to enlisting their services; this could be a phone call, an email, or a quick chat before your exam. I like to keep my clothes on with new doctors until we’ve had a chance to meet fully clothed; I don’t find meeting new people in a paper gown to be a best practice. I have yet to meet a doctor who did not respect me for this practice.
  • Familiarize yourself with privacy laws in your country, (HIPAA in the US, PIPEDA in Canada, etc.). In the US, I haven’t been able to legally access the medical records of my children since they reached the age of 12, and that is exactly as it should be. 
  • Develop a sense of entitlement when it comes to the quality of your care. You are a consumer whose money is just as valuable whether it comes from an employer funded health insurance company or a government funded one. Your socioeconomic status does not mean you deserve substandard care or consideration of your situation. 
  • If necessary, fake it ‘til you make it. There is no greater boost to confidence than a positive lived experience. If you cannot summon a feeling of entitlement to good medical care, act like you do and see what happens.

Your medical staff rely on your trust in them to provide you with the best possible care – if they betray that trust, they deserve to hear about it from you. It might feel intimidating to bring something to their attention that made you feel invalidated, unsafe, or not listened to, but a good provider will be grateful for the education and correct course.

And if your doctor (or therapist, or nurse, or anyone in your chain of medical care) intentionally attempts to make you feel bad for sharing pertinent information with them? Get mad about it! Report them to whatever board is responsible for overseeing their license and find someone else to take care of you, because you’re worth that.

Look, the thing I want you to most take away from this blog is this: you deserve the best possible care for your life. You’re also the only one who can seek out the right people for the job . . . so that means you’re in charge. You are. So act like it. 

**Caveat: this blog is written from the perspective of a US citizen and some of the information is specific to that locale. 

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

Looking Out for Newcomers to Ethical Non-Monogamy

Once upon a time I was bounced from a polyamory-focused group on social media for insisting that their tolerance of certain behaviors in the group created a safe space for abusers. Specifically, allowing couples seeking to add a “third” to their existing relationship to do so unchallenged. For folks who’ve been in the non-monogamous community for a period of time, these couples are known as Unicorn Hunters, but to the vast majority of newbies, they’re harmless pie-eyed triad seekers who are being unfairly tried for crimes they have not yet committed.

Look . . . I’m not going to make this post about Unicorn Hunters. There are far more succinct write-ups already out there that my blathering couldn’t compare to. But I am going to address the defense I see most often hurled in the direction of those who seek to mitigate the potential damage caused by others in the community: There is no one right way to be non-monogamous.

They’re not wrong.

There is no one right way.

But there are plenty of wrong ways!

In the interest of community betterment and protection, I am compelled to advocate for vulnerable newbies of all ages who, coming from a mononormative society, are prone to accepting less than they deserve in order to explore this brand-new-to-them world. This inclination makes them a popular target for those who would benefit most from their naivete. And in many cases, those predators aren’t even aware they’re being predatory because they, themselves, are new to all of this and if everyone agrees, it must be okay! 

*heavy sigh*

So on to this “as long as everyone consents to this situation, it’s okay!” nonsense. We do such an excellent job of cementing the idea of consent as a non-negotiable component of ethical that we often neglect the fact that folks consent to horrible situations all the time through no fault of their own. Without a roadmap, many of us have found ourselves impaired by feelings of scarcity and agreeing to conditions we otherwise would not. When we’re talking about relationships in which folks risk their emotional, physical, and sometimes financial well-being, the stakes are much higher.

When I was a 21-year-old independent operator, I partnered with folks who kept me a secret from others in their life. I didn’t like it. I felt unimportant and a little ashamed. But I agreed to it because the cost of not doing so was not being in those relationships. More than half a lifetime later, I can look back and see that for what it was: a scarcity mindset. These days I am not inclined to accept less than I need and want in relationships because I see the abundance available to me if I don’t waste my energy on being miserable in a state of scarcity. That’s a lot of words to say “I grew up,” but it has far less to do with my age than my experience at this point. I’ve been around long enough to know a bad deal when I’m offered one; that is not the case for most newcomers.

So to all of you who are new to all of this: trust your gut. If it feels wrong, it probably is. If it hurts to be treated a certain way, you don’t have to put up with it. If you do not feel respected, you probably aren’t. If you feel like you’re being used, you probably are. Don’t keep your experiences to yourself! 

There is no one right way to do this . . . but there are a lot of wrong ways that flourish in the shadows. Sharing your journey lets some light in. Let your community know what’s going on and listen to them when they tell you about how they experienced the same things. They’re there to help you, and they want to, I promise.

Photo by Ash from Modern Afflatus on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Great Sexpectations

Many assume non-monogamy is all about the sex. So much so, non-mono folks often avoid bringing it up as an aspect of relationships. But guess what? You should talk about sex!

This isn’t going to be a clinic on how to have safer sex because: 

1) I am not a sexual health professional

2) Everyone’s risk profiles are different

My main goal here is to help you foster autonomy and agency with some tips and tricks I’ve found useful. Ask yourself these questions to get a solid grasp on what your risk profile is:

  • Do you have specific concerns around contracting or transmitting certain STIs? 
  • Do you have a comprehensive understanding of STIs, their risks to you, and access to testing/treatment?
  • What are possible gaps in your knowledge with regard to sexual health?
  • Is pregnancy a concern? 
  • Do you have mental, physical, and/or emotional concerns?

Next up, you need to find a partner(s) who is interested in sexual activity with you. This is on you. Good luck!

After you have your profile/risk matrix figured out and a willing participant, it’s time to talk about sex. Everyone does this differently. HOWEVER, and I cannot stress this enough, EVERYONE needs to have some sort of conversation about sexual health with those they want to have sexy times with. I don’t care if it’s an old fuck buddy you’re revisiting after some time, a one night stand, or the first time in a long running relationship: TALK. And you know what? If you or your partner only want to say “I do what I want and that’s all you need to know?” Cool. At least the other person can consent (or not) to that level of information and plan accordingly.

Many often talk about “best practices” when it comes to safer sex. Having this conversation is a “best practice” as it helps cover so many bases. While not all encompassing, here is a list of things people might consider sharing with potential partners as well as asking of them:

The frequency with which you tend to add new sexual partners

Find that balance between too specific and exaggeration. Specifically vague, if you will. For instance, I share that I may add up to [X] sexual partners in a year. Most years are less, but I’ve also had a year with [Y]. If I deviate a lot from my norm on a regular basis, that is a change I update my partners on. 

How quickly you are likely to become sexual with a new interest

Are you a fan of one night stands? Are you demisexual and tend to take awhile? I share that my norm is getting to know someone for a few weeks first, but I am not opposed to something happening right away. 

What you consider to be sex

Do you only consider genital to genital penetration to be sex? Unpack that. Sex comes in many forms (heh heh) so you should consider including things such as oral, anal, manual stimulation of genitals, etc.

How frequently you screen for STIs

The CDC recommends sexually active people get tested at least once a year. Personally, I get tested twice a year plus as necessary should an exposure present itself. A friendly reminder: testing by proxy is NOT effective.

What you test for

Don’t say “everything” because essentially no one is tested for everything. Penises can’t currently be tested for HPV. HSV strains are more prevalent than most realize and most doctors won’t test without symptoms . . . and so on. 

What your general attitude towards STIs are 

This can really vary. Some people are very accepting of risks since most STIs are easily curable while others may struggle with any exposure. This is good information to know about the person you’re having sex with.

Any past or current positive test results

Catch something 20 years ago that was cured and has no lingering impact? Not necessary to bring up. (But maybe you can bring it up to gauge how accepting someone is of folks having had an STI.) Last test was reactive to something, you treated it, but haven’t had a non-reactive test to confirm? Share that. FYI, terms like “clean” and “dirty” have fallen out of favor due to their problematic nature. Having what’s essentially a crotch cold doesn’t make one dirty. Please consider using positive/negative or reactive/non-reactive.

How you’re managing any current STIs

Have something like HSV-2 or HIV? Share how you are addressing it and what that means. There have been some amazing advancements in treatments. I learned in just the last couple of years that HIV can now become undetectable with proper treatment which means it can’t be transmitted sexually.

What your barrier (condoms, dams, gloves, etc) use looks like

Do you use condoms? Dams? Gloves? Only for penetration or oral as well? For all sexual contact? I’ve met a lot of people who aren’t aware that STIs and pregnancy can occur with just pre-cum. If you’re someone who goes completely barrier free with others, it’s good to share your approach with this, such as if you only do that with one person or are open to it with multiple people and how you make that decision. 

Keep in mind while having this conversation, your other partners’ private information, (such as their STI status or who they have sex with), is NOT yours to share without their consent.

It would benefit all involved if you had these conversations prior to someone new catching your attention.

There are a number of reasons I prefer a more comprehensive conversation when it comes to safer sex and the practices of folks I have sex with. More than anything, it helps me preserve my autonomy and doesn’t infringe on the agency of others to give myself an illusion of safety; boundaries vs rules, if you will. It lays out my risk profile, gathers information about theirs, and allows each of us to decide if and how to move forward. 

Another thing I find valuable about sharing a complete version of my risk matrixes and decision making processes is that it removes the need for a “heads up” any time a new sexual partner is added because we know how each other operates. Any deviation from it would be shareable, of course. But in the absence of those changes, we have all the information we need. Feeling entitled to more is a super common expectation of non-monogamous people, particularly those new to it. If your partner is non-monogamous and enjoys sex, assume they’re going to be having sex with other people. Do the work beforehand. 

Following these steps will help you form a more complete approach to sexual health. It sets well-informed expectations for yourself and potential partners, facilitates productive communication, fosters personal agency and informed consent. It peels away the ownership and entitlement many feel toward the private information of others.

For a more complete understanding of your sexual health, I recommend seeking guidance from a local clinic that specializes in the sexual and reproductive health realm (e.g. Planned Parenthood) or sites like Scarleteen. Yes, that site is geared toward teens. However, most of our readers are from the US and our sexual education here is generally hot garbage. You can and should also speak with your primary care physician, but I highly recommend including the others as I’ve experienced and heard about too many problematic PCPs.

Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was polyamorous in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Header Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash; bio photo by Rusty

When It’s Complosion, Not Compersion

** New Word Alert! Complosion: when you want to feel happy that your partner is experiencing something with someone else they are involved with, but it all blows up in your psyche instead. [see: opposite of compersion] **

. . . Yes, I 100% made that word up . . .

One of my most dramatic struggles is the attempted reconciling of my charitable, emotionally-mature, logic-brain with my resentful, decidedly petty, inner-toddler. When I watch the folks my partners date walk unharmed down the same path I got banged up on, I want to hike up my diaper and burn everything down. I know I’m just experiencing sadness for my past self, but the resentful toddler I apparently harbor doesn’t have a past self; it just has a Mad Now self.

I wrote about this a bit last fall, but it still comes up for me now and then.

My grief always manifests as anger, which is not the version of myself I like best. It’s not even second-best. It’s basically last and I really wish it wasn’t so easily accessible! I am mad about that, too.

There are complicated layers to this struggle:

  • I’m legitimately mad, which makes calming myself down difficult
  • I am mad about a situation where no one is doing anything wrong, but it reminds me of when they did – so I’m mad at myself for the inherent unFAIRness of this anger
  • The person I’m mad at is happy (goddammit) and they deserve to be
  • I don’t want anyone else to suffer, and in that there is some solace because that means I’m not an asshole (at least in that arena)
  • I want to go back in time and un-hurt myself, which of course cannot be done, and that pisses me off too 
  • It is beyond embarrassing to admit I’ve made zero progress on this issue in the past several years, so I’m mad at myself for that as well
  • It feels wholly disconcerting to throw a tantrum inside of your own body . . . 

It is as if my toddler-psyche sustained bruises that never quite healed, and when I run into the same hard thing over and over it stings just as bad as the first time but also maybe a little extra, because I was sore there to begin with. 

I’m not sure what works best for healing up those spots or if they will always hurt a bit. I’m sure the key to that lies in how one would handle an actual toddler, but the one handling said toddler really has to be the grown up steering said logic-brain. Which is to say, also me. 

“Now, now . . . is it really that bad?” 

No, it’s not. And I know it’s not. It’s a bruise I bumped again, but I am familiar with its shape. I know what causes the pain and I know it fades away again given a little time. This too, shall pass. I know all that. 

In the interim, it helps to simply admit that I am a little sparse in this area of my toolbox, because if you are too then we are not alone. And I believe there is strength in numbers. 

SO WE CAN ALL GET TOGETHER AND BURN THIS SHIT DOWN – just kidding . . . kinda ❤️


Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Forgiving Yourself in Relationships

Folks navigating relationships in a monoamorous framework benefit from a wealth of resources related to their journey. In non-monogamy we’re often left using a trial-and-error model to teach ourselves what works and what doesn’t. Understandably, we mess up a lot before we figure things out.

I promise you I am no exception to this rule. 

I know occasional failures are par for the course when existing outside the dominant narrative, but I still beat myself up for it from time to time. Wanting to be a different version of myself and watching myself not show up that way is hard. Some solace is available when I look back at who I was years ago and see how far I’ve come, but I still struggle with the idea that I am not perfect . . . and don’t get me started on the fact that I’ll never be!

I aspire to always show up as the version of myself I hope to someday be, but sometimes I forget she exists until it’s too late. Alas, I am human. I have a therapist (10/10 recommend), I only keep supportive people in my life (yes, boundaries, omg you need them), and I resolve to do better each and every time I mess up. These things help me forgive myself for the times I do slip up, because if I wasn’t able to do that, I wouldn’t be able to move on.

And this is a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to working on being the best version of you: forgiving yourself for not having always been that way. Even yesterday, or maybe this morning.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you are made aware of my shortcomings about a month after I become aware of them. When I speak to groups, I find catharsis in admitting where I’ve gone wrong in front of people who nod their heads in understanding because they, too, have fucked up in that particular way. I enjoy sharing what a terrible partner I am on platforms like this blog, because it feels a bit like atonement once I’ve moved past a thing and learned from it. I highly recommend sharing your seemingly shameful moments with those in our community who are also walking this path – they are there to love you through it, and commiserate. 

I’m a big believer in the universe providing second chances when our hearts are in the right place. Don’t spend too much time in a haze of self-loathing before you allow yourself to make amends and move on. Once you decide to do better next time, you will get a do-over, I promise. It might not be with the same person (or people), and it may not come with the same risks or rewards, but you will get another opportunity to show up differently, and that is a gift. Count on it.

Relationships are hard enough when the way you structure them is a well worn path through the society you live in. When you’re left to forge your own, you have to allow for some mis-steps. None of us is going to get through our time on this planet without fucking some stuff up; the human condition assures it. You can practice acceptance of this or deny you’re affected, but only one of those options allows you to learn and grow.

Meeting the Metas

There are various approaches to metamour relationships in the non-monogamous dimension. Some folks prefer to never interact with their partners’ partners in an arrangement known as parallel polyamory where folks are aware of each other’s existence in a mutual partner’s life but one or more of them has decided they do not want contact. In other set-ups, metamours have a lot of interaction and many form strong friendships. Regardless of the structure, the odds of meeting someone your partner dates is pretty high, especially if that relationship grows over time.

Getting to know your partner’s other partners can be beneficial in a number of ways:

  • Meeting someone in person goes a long way towards alleviating the compulsion to compare yourself to someone who can seem perfect in the absence of evidence to the contrary (not that you should be looking for the defects for Pete’s sake! You know what I’m getting at here . . . )
  • You’re a quality human, so chances are pretty good your partner finds themselves smitten with another quality human. Can you really have too many quality humans in your life?
  • Ganging up on your partner in playful ways is such a rewarding pastime.
  • Over time, metamours can develop into a solid support system.
  • Collaboration is useful when it comes to ensuring you’re not getting your mutual partner the same gift or you want to go halfsies on a big ticket item for them.
  • Special occasions and social gatherings become much more comfortable affairs when everyone knows each other.
  • If you’re running low on empathy for this other person, knowing them as a fellow human being and not just an abstract concept can help you get back into that charitable head space. When I’m feeling like I wish a meta didn’t exist, I make myself do something nice for them. (Dear metas: no, this does not mean that when I do nice things for you I wish you didn’t exist lol, I’m just saying . . . sometimes when I’m feeling less than charitable, I force it and I’m never sorry.)
  • Sometimes it’s just nice to know who the other important people in your partner’s life are! 

When one of my partner’s needed surgery last year, his wife and I were both at his side in the hospital and I sent updates to his long distance partner each step of the way. It felt like I was part of a support team while our important person went through something painful and it felt good to have others present who I knew cared as much as I did.

That’s all well and good, of course . . . but what’s a good way to meet this person, and what if you’re anxious or have other concerns?

Look: most of us live in societies that have told us our whole lives we should be competing for the love and affection of a single individual, and that territorial feelings are a sign of devotion. Maybe they are, I don’t know – I don’t like how they feel in my body, so I let that guide how I think of them; they feel gross and I don’t want to feel that way. On the flip side, I abhor being “fought over” and viewed as property by folks who vie for my finite resources against each other. YUCK. 

Are you having feelings that make you feel gross? Super normal. The other person probably is, too. And if they’re not? Perhaps they’ll become an ally you can turn to for support as you work on letting go of yours. 

As with most first impressions, being yourself is the best possible approach. One or both of you could be nervous, but nothing says you have to be friends or even like each other. And hey, that actually bears repeating: you do not have to be friends. If you’re going into meeting someone under pressure like that, you’re doomed to fail. 

Here are some other things to watch out for:

  • If your relationship with your partner is contingent upon being approved of by their established partner(s), this is not a carefree meeting of equals: it’s an interview, and you don’t have to put yourself through that. 
  • If all of a sudden meeting your new interest’s established partner is presented as a “package deal” relationship where you must date both of them or neither of them, run. Just . . . I shouldn’t even have to tell you this is fucked up. This is BAD, m’kay? These are bad people. 
  • If meeting your partner’s established partner turns into a seminar on what you can and cannot do with your mutual partner, then this is a bad-news situation and you probably want no part of it. Advocate for your relationship as a separate entity and if that’s unacceptable, chalk this up to a bullet dodged and don’t look back; you’re nobody’s doormat, I don’t care HOW good the sex is.

Even actively avoiding all of these things won’t necessarily mean you avoid an established-couple trap. Sneakearchy is rampant, and while the person you’re meeting might not have veto power per se, their influence over their partner might as well be. This is not said to scare you, it’s just a thing you need to be aware of because the failure in those situations is not yours, it’s your partner’s failure to honor their autonomy in the face of fear. You can’t fix that in someone else, but be gentle with yourself if you end up bruised by someone else’s shortcomings. It just happens sometimes. Challenging the dominant narrative is hard and not everyone shows up well all the time.

So what are some tips to have this meeting go well? Lucky you! I have some!

  • Make sure you both want to! It sounds so simple, but if one of you has no desire to meet the other, then don’t. No one should feel pressured to interact with anyone else for any reason. I used to harbor this deep need to meet everyone my partners dated because I thought that knowing them would help me feel safe. Over time I completely changed my mind and now prefer not to meet until my partner deems them a significant part of their life. And if I’m the casual partner in this scenario? I likely won’t meet any of my metas, and that’s fine! 
  • Meet somewhere neutral, like a restaurant or coffee shop as opposed to someone’s home. It can be really intimidating to meet someone’s established partner for the first time in the home they share together.
  • Leave your partner behind. Wait, what? You read that right. You don’t need a chaperone and neither do they. There are so many things that can go sideways in a three-way meet up I’m not going to bother to lay them all out here, but suffice to say the majority of anxiety newly minted metas might be feeling can be avoided by cutting out the mutual partner. Shit, they’re probably more anxious than either of you anyway.
  • Be yourself. I know I said it before, but please . . . do that most of all.

I am a very guarded person, but I feel a lot of affection for the people in my partners’ lives who bring them happiness. I haven’t met even half of the people my partners have dated over the years, but I know they’re good people and they care about someone I care about. We don’t need to be friends, but we can be if it works out, and letting that work itself out organically is the best possible route to harmony.

Photo by Ioana Cristiana on Unsplash

Refining Personal Boundaries

I came to a difficult realization recently: a boundary I thought I had was not, in fact, a boundary. You see I had what I thought was a solid set of limits around a particular safety issue. I stated them and they were accepted, but when it came time for me to enforce them, I faltered. Not because I was coerced or manipulated or otherwise challenged – I simply realized that if it came down to this set of limits forcing a difficult decision on my part, I wasn’t going to make it . . . and that was not a boundary, it was a want I was scared I wouldn’t find agreement on, so I issued an ultimatum to ensure I would.

My actual boundary was just a touch outside of my stated boundary, but enough outside to warrant a mea culpa.

I will tell you I had to swallow a pretty big lump of pride in order to make the resulting phone call that revoked the “boundary” before anyone had to make any big decisions on their end. And while I’m grateful I realized my mistake prior to it causing harm, it led me to examine a number of boundaries I consider myself in possession of.

If you bring up the topic of boundaries in a group of two or more people, you’ll get just as many explanations of what a boundary is in relation to a rule, or an agreement. Here’s my take:

  • A boundary is an edict you have for your own behavior as a result of your individual limits
  • A rule is an edict you attempt to levy against another in order to dictate their behavior
  • Most rules can be reframed as boundaries, but the transfer of labor to the person who has the boundary makes rules a lot more attractive if you can get someone to agree to them!

Some folks find the following example helpful:

  • Boundary: I will not be connected on social media to someone who is out about being polyamorous because anyone who sees my connection to them might surmise that I, too, am polyamorous and that is a hard limit for me
  • Rule: my partners are not allowed to indicate on social media that they are polyamorous because folks might assume the same about me since we are connected
  • Rule reframed as a boundary: if my partners choose to be out on social media about being polyamorous, I will remove our visible connections on that platform in order to keep myself safe

TL;DR – boundaries keep you safe and are solely under your control; rules transfer the responsibility for keeping you safe onto others

So why wasn’t my set of limitations a true boundary? I certainly formulated it to keep myself safe, it wasn’t challenged by anyone, and I was entirely able to enforce it by making a difficult decision . . . but I wasn’t willing to, and that’s the difference. If you aren’t willing to enforce your stated boundaries, then that’s not what they are. And that’s an important thing to know about yourself.

I don’t believe in rules for relationships. I believe that relationships find their balance in an environment where individuals are allowed to show up as they please and compatibility isn’t manipulated by a set of commandments each individual must adhere to. This doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t be nice to one another or not take each other into consideration, but it does mean that I don’t expect my partners not to do a thing just because I wish they wouldn’t. Not even if I really, really wish they wouldn’t. If it’s a safety issue for me, I can have a boundary, but that becomes my responsibility to follow through on. 

Boundaries can be really difficult to enforce, so just because you feel like you’d struggle to follow through doesn’t mean it’s not a true boundary, it just means there is a lot at stake for you. That’s okay. Over the years I’ve had to hold firm and process a fuck ton of  grief when my boundaries meant I had to walk away from people I did not want to leave. I also have experience with giving folks second chances when the boundary crossing occurred in a moment of weakness and the other individual acknowledged their role and resolved to do better. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a true boundary; it meant I was willing to give someone close to me another chance to show up well in our relationship. 

My boundaries keep me safe, because that’s what they’re designed to do. 

What I learned about my boundaries in this most recent situation is that I’m better off if I view them as dealbreakers. My relationships are the deals I make with individuals for us to be together in some capacity, and my boundaries are not secrets. My boundaries need to be the things I absolutely will not accept in my life, and nothing more. 

And that means I have to ask for the other things I want, and risk hearing a “no” in response. Uuuuuggghhhh . . . why can’t everyone just be scared to lose me and do everything I want instead? That would be GREAT!  

Okay no, that’s awful – but take a look at what you may have floating out there as a “boundary” and ask yourself if perhaps you’re just counting on that very thing being true to keep someone else from doing a thing you simply don’t want them to do. And if you think there might be something like that in your relationship? Well, maybe just look at it. You might come to the conclusion that you don’t need it to exist as a stated dealbreaker, because really it’s just a want, and wants are okay to have.

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

What Does “Normal” Look Like in Non-Monogamy?

Normal. There’s a loaded word if ever there was one . . . 

Our sense of normal comes from what we see every day. It’s determined by what most folks do and find acceptable. By their actions, words, values, and judgements. Normal is what you are conditioned to expect, and when it doesn’t manifest there are feelings to deal with – mostly negative ones.

Once upon a time I thought it was normal to settle down with a member of another gender, have lots of babies, and live happily ever after. Like most of us eventually do, I discovered that “happily ever after” was not a guarantee, or even a reasonable expectation. It was a misrepresentation of normalcy, and the price for deviations from that were paid for with shame and self-loathing. The reality is: most relationships end, and ALL of them have problems. We can add it to the list along with death, and taxes.  If only *that* were part of the dominant narrative . . .

In the absence of an authentic roadmap for relationships, most of us turn to groups of friends, a therapist, or support groups. But those are mostly doing so in a monogamous framework that validates their feelings about things not lining up with the dominant narrative. So what about those of us who already reject that? What do we look to as normal? How do we know we’re okay?

Oh man, I have been wrestling with this for about a year . . . let me tell you.

There is a phenomenon that happens in non monogamy. Folks open up a pre-existing monogamous partnership and baby step their way to full autonomy over the course of some years. Meanwhile, they place limitations on their new relationships because that shit is SCARY, okay? So this artificial limitation happens, but gradually it eases, and eventually most folks become comfortable with the idea that their partners aren’t going to leave them in a bout of wild NRE. But those new relationships forced to grow in a limited environment? Well, that will always be the foundation they were built on, and it can be very disconcerting to watch a partner experience freedom with new partners when they had to limit themselves with you. That’s not a thing anyone really talks about when they discuss how to protect their Original Relationship: the fallout that occurs when you build another long term situation with someone new and you don’t allow for the same opportunities to experience joy with you as someone else got to.

Or at least, that’s how I saw it. 

I was the partner whose relationship was artificially limited in the beginning but who later watched that same partner date, and even fall in love, with full autonomy. Readers, I grieved the loss of what never was for us HARD. Every time a new person got to experience new milestones unencumbered, I could only focus on how I had been made small in the same circumstances. It ate me from the inside and I did not expect to ever move past it.

But you know what? This is . . . normal. Just because it sucks, doesn’t mean it’s not normal. It doesn’t mean that a ton of folks haven’t worked through the same things. And there is actually a bright side, but I’ll come back to that.

More recently I am nearing a huge relationship milestone with someone I consider a life partner. We are moving in together, a thing we’ve talked about wanting to do since before our first anniversary. For years we saw ourselves living in a shared home with their other partner in a V configuration. My meta and I had, (and still do), a wonderfully close friendship, and it looked like a real possibility. That didn’t turn out to be the way we would eventually live together, and in fact this transition is a mostly negative one for my partner. I found myself experiencing profound sadness that this is such a happy milestone for me, and that I cannot expect him to experience the same happiness given the circumstances.

But it occurred to me that this, too, is normal.

It is normal in non monogamy to experience complicated layers at every turn. To taste the bittersweet reality and be unable to pretend it is only sweet in the way that monogamous configurations often take for granted (authentic or imagined). There is no denying that the original plan did not manifest, or that there is not more sadness in that for one of us than the other. I am gaining a nesting partner after nearly a decade of living as a solo parent, but my partner is grieving the loss of a life he’d believed in. And that, too, is normal.

Normal, in non monogamy, is coming out to your family and being asked not to bring “other” partners to family holidays, or to at least not tell your grandparents.

Normal, in non monogamy, is worrying that loving more than one person will cost you your job, your kids, or your life partner.

Normal, in non monogamy, is wondering all the time if you’re doing this wrong because there are no concrete answers or “professionals” or spiritual guides . . . and it seems like someone is always upset about something.

Normal, in non monogamy, is growing a steel backbone to deal with the pressure of toxic monogamous ideology as it creeps into your psyche and tries to tell you’re an asshole.

Normal, in non monogamy, is celebrating different things. It probably won’t be marriage, kids, and a white picket fence in the majority of your relationships – and you have to relearn what success looks like. Because success is just whatever works for the folks involved and brings them happiness along the way.

So back to that bright side I promised you, yeah?

I indeed allowed myself to feel envy and process grief regarding things I wish had been different, but I also know this: relationships that require effort on the part of the individuals building them will have a broader foundation than those built on relative ease. By the time we’d reached our one year anniversary, I already knew he was in this for the long haul because of how difficult some moments had been for us.

And, I know that living together will be the same; I get to be happy that we are moving forward, and I get to love him through the grief he’s feeling without requiring he be happy in the same way I am. Because this is our normal. It’s a mixed bag, but reliably so. This is just another hard won addition to what we’re both still choosing to show up in.

It will be what it’s supposed to be, just like every other normal thing.

Photo by Jonas Denil on Unsplash

Telling The Kids

One of the most common questions I see agonized over in ENM community groups is how to walk one’s children through the concept of intentional non-monogamy. The default position appears to be to keep one’s children in the dark, likening one’s rejection of compulsory monogamy to sexual deviance. 

I have a different take; no one is surprised!

I started having kids in 1995 while I was solo-poly and had a couple regular partners. Throughout the years, my son met the ones I cared for the most deeply. He wasn’t old enough at the time to grasp the difference between a platonic and a romantic relationship, but he did experience me caring for more than one individual. When he was four years old, I married monogamously and had two more children. When that marriage ended in 2014, I began dating again non-monogamously; it never occurred to me to hide that from my three children. 

I’ve only ever had the one monogamous relationship, so to me the return to non-monogamy came very naturally. My kids were 12, 14, and 19 at the time. The two youngest had a normal adjustment period seeing their mom date someone other than their dad, but bringing them out to meet the spouse and child of one man I was dating, and then introducing them to the spouse of another man I began to see regularly, helped them see that what society had taught them about compulsory monogamy was up for challenge and negotiation based on the wants and needs of the folks involved. I could not pretend to hold a view of non monogamy I did not agree with.

When it comes to my children, I am perhaps transparent to a fault when it comes to my interpersonal relationships. I never pretended I wasn’t a wild teenager, hid the fact that I was a mother at 18, or otherwise gave them the impression I lived a life conducive to being president of the United States. No, it was important to me to show them that I was authentically flawed, but still a good person. You know, normal. Honesty is highly valued by me. I believe you cannot be of strong character if you lie to manipulate those around you. This includes manipulating them into accepting you. It can be intimidating to be honest with your children about not falling in line with the other parents they come in contact with, but I assure you it’s worth it.

At first, my kids didn’t want their friends to know much about it, but I did let them know I wouldn’t be lying about my life to anyone, and if my partner’s wife happened to come up in conversation, that would just be what it would be. Gradually, their comfort with the situation grew. My kids participated in family holidays with my partners, and I made sure to ease new people into the situation with casual visits and zero pressure. Over time, it just became our normal. Beyond that, they learned that their mother is a safe place to challenge societal norms they don’t agree with.

Here are some talking points to keep in mind if you choose to open up to your kids:

  • Non-monogamy is not inherently sexual! Relationships can be sexual, but most relationships aren’t sexual as a primary driver
  • Emotional bonds don’t threaten other emotional bonds
  • Love is not a finite resource
  • Toxic monogamy culture values possessiveness and codependency 
  • Monogamy is a valid choice for a relationship structure, but it’s just that: a choice; monogamy does not mean a relationship is more successful, important, or meaningful
  • Most relationships end at some point, regardless of structure

When my oldest child got married, I had the privilege of performing the ceremony. Prior to the wedding I acted as their premarital counselor. The curriculum I devised included a discussion of monogamy; it was important to me that they not see monogamy as compulsory, and that they talk to each other about how they felt about it. After all, they were very, very young! To my relief, they’d already discussed it and decided monogamy was what they both wanted, for now, but also acknowledged that could change and they agreed to remain open to a conversation on that topic should it arise. Readers, I don’t know that I have ever been more proud of two young people. Also, I might be biased. Regardless, I felt validated in my decision to live my life openly with my kids resulted in open minds and accepting hearts.

I don’t think there’s a perfect time to “come out” to your children. Older kids may need to process some feelings of betrayal, particularly if they’ve been under the impression their parents had so-called conservative family values, but younger ones will accept whatever you present as normal. I treated it like it was normal because it was, and as the kids matured, they appreciated my honesty. 

Compulsory monogamy and it’s bodyguard, the Dominant Narrative, have some pretty harmful and long term effects on our society. Possessive and codependent tropes work against healthy relationships and not for. Just like you share closely held spiritual beliefs and political leanings with your progeny, I encourage you to share your authentic relationship values with them.

Whether you’re monogamous or non, if you champion monogamy without challenging its often toxic application, you will be doing your children a real disservice.

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

Guest Blog: The Need to Know

A common stumbling block in relationships, non-monogamy in particular, is feeling like you must know what your partner is up to in order to feel safe in your relationship. Inevitably we find this is just an illusion; a thing we tell ourselves in order to feel safe because that’s what we’ve been immersed in our entire lives. If we know our partners’ every move, then we have some sort of control. And control feels safe.

This compulsion manifests in ways you may not realize without introspection. Are you talking to someone else where there’s the remotest of possibilities that you’ll become romantically and/or sexually involved? Where are you going on your date? What are your intentions? Did you kiss them? What can I find out about your potential interest on my own by digging deeper than what’s probably healthy? OMG DID YOU TOUCH THEIR BUTT?!? True story. . . each of these happened to me and/or I’ve done them. 

The longer I practice non-monogamy, the less I need to know these things. Over time, I felt them becoming a burden and not a relief. They never brought the feeling of safety I sought. That’s not to say I don’t still feel the pull of those strings from time to time; I’m human, as much as I like to tell myself otherwise. When I struggled, I found myself asking questions of my partner that, in retrospect, were absolutely none of my business. I performed plenty of mental gymnastics trying to justify it, but every time I sat with it, it became clear to me that having the information was unnecessary. Worse yet, trying to source that information resulted in other problems. 

I’ve been there . . . Wanting a “heads up” for various things. Interested in someone. Asking someone out. Sex. Love. All of the usual things people in relationships do. Yet I NEEDED to know when they were going to happen for a partner so I could brace myself! Ultimately, I found myself obsessing over when each milestone would occur. This resulted in prolonged and more intense worrying. It fed upon itself. I’d worry about a thing happening. OK…I’ll be OK if I KNOW the thing is going to happen soon. Shit. Now I’m worrying about hearing about that. Eventually, I would realize these are normal things in normal relationships and accept that they won’t cause me harm.

Today I find myself in a place where I am comfortable not knowing as much. Not because my partners are less important to me or because they’ve done anything in particular to change my point of view, rather because I found security in myself and my relationships. 

I trust my partners want to be with me because of how they show up with me, and no longer feel fear when they show interest in others. 

How do we let go of this compulsion to know things that aren’t any of our business in the first place to ultimately be OK with it? 

Rusty’s suggestions:

  • Visualize your partner working through all your questions. Then visualize them not having to. Which version of your partner is happier? Which version do you want to facilitate?
  • Imagine yourself being asked for these details. How does it feel? Do you want others to feel that way?
  • Name the fear that exists in the absence of this information. Do you have a way to ask for reassurance that does not request this information?
  • Examine any feelings of entitlement you have and imagine how your relationship could evolve if entitlement was replaced with trust in your partner’s decisions.

How and where you enter non-monogamy can play a big role in this, as can our cultural upbringing. If you come to non-monogamy while single, you may have a fear of new partners not taking your commitment seriously. Many of us come to non-monogamy with an existing partner so losing them can be a big fear. Even those who have never practiced monogamy can struggle with similar insecurities. Regardless of which path you traveled, you might be tempted to start building obstacles to autonomy to feel safer. Or wanting to know the where, what, when and why related to a partner’s dating life. Work instead to trust that you’re special to those in your life. Find value in yourself. And understand that your partners think you’re a great person and want to be with you. Because you are. And they do.

Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was polyamorous in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash