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

Imposter Syndrome: I am so bad at poly!!

I suffer from Imposter Syndrome: the phenomenon of feeling like you suck at something regardless of evidence to the contrary. That label rings true for me when it comes to polyamory. People ask me for advice! Support! My opinions!! They read my blog! They come hear me speak! But OMG you guys, I am so bad at this sometimes . . . 

There are all sorts of ways folks measure success in relationships, but most of those are based on monogamous ideology. In non-monogamy we hold up concepts like autonomy, compersion, kitchen-table poly, egalitarianism, owning your shit, and being “out” as holy grails of doing things right. I’m not here to tell you any of those things are right or wrong, or that if you aspire to them, you should not . . . but I would like you to know that if you’re trying, and you’re not perfect, that that’s okay, too.

All of these things challenge the dominant narrative in the culture I hail from, and there are not a ton of viable role models or support networks readily available to reinforce my positive attitude towards non-monogamy.

Sometimes I find dark places in which it seems like it would be so much easier to give up my hard-won autonomy and submit to rules I don’t believe in just to feel like I’m at least doing something right.

I mean, I won’t do that – I know myself well enough to know that while I was able to function that way for nearly a decade and a half, I don’t ever want to do it again. I do, however, miss the security of following the path of greatest acceptance – that all my socially reinforced expectations of my partner were justified. I miss not second-guessing my wants and needs, and I miss not wondering if I’m just a shitty partner half the time.

At times, I feel overwhelmed spending large amounts of energy unlearning all the ways in which society taught me to experience love. Talking myself out of wanting to be prioritized above other people my partner is close to. Accepting family holidays don’t belong to just me and a partner alone. Dismantling ownership in close relationships. Relearning “special.” Relearning what it means to be sexually partnered. Relearning what love looks like. Relearning what safe looks like. Weighing how important it really is that other people approve of my life. Making sure I let that go. Thinking of the children!! Being brave. Being strong. No, not like that. Doing things I’ve never been taught and perhaps have to make up as I go. Being okay while I do it, or . . . faking it ‘til I make it.

But I also know this: it takes a lot of courage to live authentically, regardless of how others perceive you. And, to commit to doing “the work” when struggling, even when you don’t have anyone with experience to lean on. Challenging the status quo is totally worth it, but we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend it’s a cake walk.

I’m much better at finding compassion for folks at various points in their emotional journey than I am for finding that grace with my own self. 

What seems to help me the most is being transparent with others about my struggles. There is a tendency to feel shame and embarrassment when we don’t live up to our own expectations, but it can be cathartic to use our worst moments to make others feel like they aren’t monsters themselves. Especially anytime anyone seems to be under the impression I walk through this life with anything resembling ease. While it’s true I’m far better (by my own standards) than I used to be, my journey has been fraught with manifestations of my character defects, for sure. Whenever I get the chance, I share what I can about the times I’ve shown up in my relationships as less-than-my-best-self. Insecurity can be an asshole! What’s most important is learning from mistakes, and showing up better the next chance you get.

I’ve heard it recommended that we focus on progress and not perfection. Being transparent with others about my struggles helps reinforce to myself that I’ve made progress, and it gives others permission to struggle, too. At least that’s my hope, because misery thrives in isolation and we all deserve room to grow.

Image credit: Photo by Kolar.io on Unsplash