Descriptive Hierarchy is a Misnomer

When you view your partners, and yourself, as autonomous individuals who exist in proximity to each other but aren’t defined by it, you’re rewarded with relationships based on secure connections between adults.

Hierarchy gets a bad rap in the non-monogamous community for a number of reasons. It’s often the product of a formerly monogamous couple opening up and wanting to mitigate fear and insecurity by limiting what can happen outside of their relationship. Many times, the “primary” couple make agreements within their dyad that infringe upon each other’s autonomy as well as the privacy and agency of any other partners they become involved with. This type of hierarchy exists on a vast spectrum, but for many reasons, prioritizing the original couple to the detriment of all other relationships doesn’t find favor with most folks who’ve practiced non-monogamy long enough to have seen this go badly over and over again.

Anytime hierarchy is brought up in the context of non-monogamy to debate whether or not it’s a good thing for everyone involved, you will inevitably see someone break down the concept of “descriptive hierarchy” vs. “prescriptive hierarchy.” To those unfamiliar with these concepts, they basically boil down to:

  • a prescribed ranking of relationships (i.e. there is a primary/most important one, and all others will be considered lesser in whatever ways the primary couple has deemed works for them) 
  • and a descriptive one in which a relationship appears primary when there is actually just a lot of enmeshment, investment, and shared responsibilities, etc.

Unfortunately, descriptive hierarchy is often prescriptive hierarchy in disguise, but you can recognize it (in yourself, and others) when it asserts the following:

  • I am married to this person, (or I was here first), so I should have some say in what they do with other people because it affects me to a greater degree
  • I share children with this person, so I should have some say in what they do with other people to ensure that our children are prioritized
  • I cohabit with this person, so I should have some say in what they do with other people because I live here and it’s my house, too

I mean, I get it. But, I also know it’s possible to do these things with adults I’m not in a romantic/sexual relationship with, and I do not need my romantic/sexual relationship elevated above all others in order to ensure the mutual obligations we have in those areas are met. Instead, I trust my fellow adults to fulfill their obligations just like I plan to, regardless of any other aspect of our relationship.

To prescriptively rank a co-parenting relationship higher than others is disingenuous in that it’s the relationship with one’s children that’s the priority in that context, not the partnership of the parents. People co-parent with former partners all the time, therefore it behooves us to see parenting as a responsibility completely separate from our romantic/sexual relationships. Of course there should be agreements regarding mutual child-rearing obligations, family time, and a litany of other things . . . but there is nothing about co-parenting that requires your co-parent to be ranked above your other partners or granted special controls or powers that affect them. After all, if having younger children together is what elevates a relationship, what happens when they grow up and move out? Is that when all relationships will be allowed equanimity? 

Living together is a big deal, but platonic roommates don’t elevate their roommate relationship above all others simply because they cohabit. If you’re a non-monogamous person who lives with one (or more) of your partners, you could consider them an autonomous roommate during times you’re not scheduled to be with them. For me, this means being able to come and go as I please or have others over so long as I respect existing cohabitation agreements, such as letting housemates know when I’ll have a guest over and ensuring that I clean up after them.

Marriage is often elevated above all other relationships by default. This is supported by the society I live in and it’s not difficult to see that approach making a lot of sense . . . after all, most folks enter into marriage believing they will become and remain the most important person to this other person, forever and ever, until they die. Welp, that’s nice and all, but it’s also the monogamous marriage script. The non-monogamous marriage script doesn’t have to read like that, and perhaps it makes more sense for it not to, considering non-monogamy already rejects a prime tenet of traditional marriage by definition. But we have to write it as we go.

Okay, but how?

I’m so glad to pretend you asked!!

Here are some tips for surviving in a relationship model that honors the autonomy of each individual:

Calendars, planning, and schedules:

When you share responsibilities for things like household maintenance, childcare, or various other projects that require mutual investment, the importance of having a plan to meet those obligations cannot be overstated. A best practice in my life is negotiating what each party is responsible for, and then discussing how those obligations will be met in a way that works for each individual. 

I’m the kind of person who likes to clean my home independent of direction and free from the obligation to manage others. Simply put, I want the adults I cohabit with to do what needs to be done without needing to be asked. I also do not want to be directed in that area; if someone wants something clean that I have not cleaned, surely they are capable. I do not need or want others to clean while I am cleaning. I want folks to clean when it works best for them. I harbor no resentment for anyone who naps while I vacuum, but I want the same in return. There is a clear separation in my household between relationships and chores; one has nothing to do with the other.

When my children were younger, I co-parented with my spouse for a time, and then I co-parented with my former spouse. During our marriage and cohabitation, we had a defined schedule for parental responsibilities and scheduled family time when we could both be present. Outside of that, we had independent careers and social lives. Our children reaped the benefits of dedicated one-on-one time as well as family time, and we kept our co-parenting obligation separate from our romantic partnership which was fed by intentional time together with things like date nights and time away. After our marriage ended, co-parenting continued and the other things did not.

In the nesting relationship I currently enjoy, we have scheduled date nights once a week and some time every other weekend. We had a similar schedule as a non-nesting couple and agreed it was a good idea to retain it when we opted to share a living space. In many ways we are emotionally close roommates whose time is our own to do with as we please. There is no expectation of occupying each other’s free time simply because we both happen to be home. Living together doesn’t mean we have dibs on each other’s time.

Intentional autonomy as a guiding principle:

Recently, my live-in partner traveled out of town for a week and we postponed our regular date night until two days after his return because he had an appointment to keep. When he cancelled that appointment to schedule a date with someone else, I felt slighted because I had wanted that time with him if he was available. After sucking-it-up, I decided to go out and have a good time that evening as well. The day before his return, he said he expected to be home on the earlier side after his date and was looking forward to spending that time with me. I was taken aback by his assumption that I would be available! In the end, we both had to admit our assumptions crept into areas we try very hard to work against. Shit happens.

In that scenario, my inclination was to assume priority since we would already be missing each other and his was to assume my immediate availability once he was done with his evening plans. What we were able to remind ourselves of is that if we want to see each other, we need to ask for that time and agree to spend it together. The minor uncomfortable feelings associated with that reminder faded away when it became evident we really both wanted the same thing: to reconnect after several days apart. 

Rejecting the “default partner” narrative is difficult but empowering in the long term. You may spend the majority of your time with one partner due to enmeshment, shared responsibilities, or any number of valid reasons, but it doesn’t have to mean that person comes first in all other ways. 

  • Ask your partners to be honest with you about whether or not they feel ranked
  • Make an effort to unpack any latent desire you might have to be seen or considered “primary” 
  • Compartmentalize your adult responsibilities away from your adult relationships

When you view your partners, and yourself, as autonomous individuals who exist in proximity to each other but aren’t defined by it, you’re rewarded with relationships based on secure connections between adults. I find that infinitely preferable to ones filled with assumptions, unmet expectations, and resentments—all of which hierarchy (of any kind) is a fertile breeding ground for.


***Footnote: one of the originators of the term “descriptive hierarchy” has, themselves, come out against it. You can read their personal essay on the topic here: I Apologize To The Entire Poly Community For This One

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Finite Resources in Relationships

Love is abundant and not a zero sum game. That is, loving others will never reduce what’s available for others. We experience this all the time with friends, children, siblings, etc. It truly is an infinite resource. 

But while love is an infinite resource, our lives are full of others that are. Regardless of your relationship structure, you’re going to have to decide how to allocate them in a way that works for you and those you care about. Time, money and energy are three of the most common ones people struggle with.

Society tells us that once you find “The One,” your resources should largely go to them. Different people have different needs. For instance, I put the extra in extravert and enjoy giving my time freely to others; by contrast, an introvert may want to devote more time to themselves, or a parent to their children. The dominant narrative would have us sacrificing things that enrich our lives in order to allocate these resources to a romantic partner as a demonstration of our love. But love shouldn’t require you to suffer. Healthy relationships lead you to feel fulfilled, not stifled.

Divvying up finite resources can be a challenge. Obviously, multiple non-platonic relationships present unique challenges. It’s natural to want to commit much of your time, energy, and/or money to each of them. Sometimes this division will come easily, other times it may stretch you so thin that you snap. Ask me how I know!

Time is the resource I struggle with the most. When I have people in my life I enjoy giving time to, I do so without stopping to think if I should or even can. Spending time with people literally fills my cup but I need me time now and then. I used to book myself solid months in advance, but would grow frustrated at the complete lack of time and flexibility for me. Since the pandemic forced me into a more relaxed social schedule, I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for time spent playing narrative-rich video games, doing side projects for work, riding my motorcycles, catching up on miscellaneous household projects, and much more. I’d let much of that slip over the years and the pandemic actually helped me realize that. As restrictions have loosened, I’ve done a solid job of keeping my schedule a touch lighter.

At one point in my life, hardly a day went by when I didn’t spend most of it with at least one of my two very enmeshed partners. While I loved my time with them, I resisted carving out time for myself because I felt obligated (personal and social pressure) to give them whatever I had to give. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually with their encouragement and my recognition of my own struggles with codependency, I grew more comfortable doing just that.

Money is another finite resource that can get tricky. Some people have none while others have more than they could spend in one hundred lifetimes. Like many of you, I had a partner with whom I shared finances and assets. As we developed other relationships the need to have our finances separate grew. We found a method that worked well for us: a monthly allowance from our pooled funds combined with anything above and beyond that coming from our individual accounts. Eventually we separated our finances completely. Whether you’re working on de-tangling finances after decades or discussing who pays for dinner on a first date, a direct conversation with your partner is always a best practice.

Energy is perhaps the most difficult resource of all. In a world that idolizes self-sufficiency at all costs, we often find ourselves running low. The more enmeshed relationships you have in your life, the more energy you’re prone to spending. People have a tendency to put so much of themselves into relationships where they don’t get much back largely because of the romanticization of self-sacrifice in relationships. We can’t pour from an empty cup; make sure that you’re replenishing yours in ways that work for you. For instance, I find it important to find relationships that have a relatively even exchange. I’m a giver by nature. And if a new relationship doesn’t give back at a level that feels good to me? I’m going to modify my effort to a level that feels more equitable. It doesn’t need to be the same level, just one that feels more equitable to me.

Personal agency is paramount in finding a good balance to your finite resource allocation and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Having a solid grasp on your wants and needs as well as the courage to advocate for yourself is also important. Understand that they can and likely will change over time. Trust your partners to handle changes in your wants and needs like adults. Whether you’re talking about time, money, or energy, budgeting is in your best interest . . . we all have a finite amount of each.

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 Ben White 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

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

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

5 Things Every Newbie Needs to Watch Out For

I’m in an obnoxious amount of non-monogamy focused groups on social media. So many, in fact, that the majority of activity online most days is speed-reading the same queries over and over from various newcomers. I do not attempt to answer even a quarter of them because there are plenty of folks out there with as much experience (or more!) doing the good work of sharing what they find helpful. 

In an attempt to address some very common problematic aspects of the larger non-monogamous community, I’ve created this short list of red flags, if you will.

Couples Seeking a “Third,” aka Unicorn Hunters

Oh, it sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? An established couple who wants to make you an equal part of their relationship where everyone loves everyone else and you’ll all ride off into the sunset together on three majestic horses . . . except that never happens, and really you’re just what two folks play with for a bit until their underlying issues surface, you take the blame, and end up with no partners while they of course stay together. These people are assholes, and they often have no clue that’s what they are because they are typically new to the idea of non-monogamy and think that “sharing” a partner will help them avoid doing the necessary work of growing as human beings.

Spoiler alert: the relationship structure known as a triad is essentially PhD level polyamory and no one at the preschool level is going to effectively deliver that dissertation.

If you are being recruited by an established couple, or if you are an established couple looking for your missing piece, please read this gift of an op-ed and fully digest it. You deserve better; we all deserve better.

OPP/OVP aka The One Penis [or] Vagina Policy

Oh gosh, it sure would make sense that someone who has the same sex organs as you partner would be an unholy threat to your relationship, right? Dear god, how in the world could you ever compete with someone else who had a similarly shaped body part?!?! 

I HOPE THEY DON’T HAVE A NOSE!! OR A TORSO!!

Look . . . I’m going to give you 10 whole minutes to have those feelings up front as a newbie. Go ahead. You’ve got a lot of unpacking ahead of you but you can have this 10 minutes to just grieve the abrupt loss of your toxic bullshit. I’ll allow it.

Okay, now stop.

OPP/OVP policies are bad bad wrong horrible not-okay and super problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly because they’re both homophobic and transphobic. Not all penises belong to men; not all men have penises. Same goes for ye olde vaginas. Beyond that, your assertion that two women being in a relationship together is less threatening to your heterolovefest than another swinging dick in the pic means you see same-sex relationships as less valid than het ones. (That means you’re wrong, btw – and also, I think dudes should super be worried about my ability to both take a flattering candid picture of their female partner as well as fix her car.)

Okay, I’m kidding about that last part, but seriously – how fragile are you if this is something you feel you need?

Correct response to someone attempting to tell you which genitals are acceptable for you to interact with outside of your relationship with them: NOPE

DADT aka Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell

This is a common arrangement in uncomfortably open relationships in which partners agree not to discuss any “outside” relationships they engage in. This creates a situation in which folks are unable to verify whether or not they’re enabling a dishonest member of a monogamous relationship who claims to practice DADT in order to cheat on their partner while having all the valid excuses for why they cannot interact with you at any given time. But even in situations where DADT is on the up and up, if you enter a relationship with someone who has agreed to keep all other partners a secret, you’re also signing up to *be* a secret, which can feel acceptable in the beginning, but if things grow and progress will most certainly become a pain point.

Lots of newbies come from a mononormative society that tells them they have to sacrifice their needs and wants in order to find a modicum of happiness. This is untrue. If you don’t want to be a secret, don’t be. Not even for a little while. I promise you someone else will come along who doesn’t need to keep you hidden if you want to be visible and acknowledged.

Note: DADT is sometimes (but not often) simply a boundary that is managed by the person who has it – meaning that if they don’t want to know about other partners, it’s their responsibility to not ask, not seek information, not show up at events where other partners might be, and not allow their boundary to limit their partner’s other relationships.

Relationship Libertarianism

Relationship Anarchy is a relationship ideology, but it’s become a mis-used term by folks who will attempt to convince you that they don’t need to care about you in order to have a relationship with you. A very wise person coined this type of approach “Relationship Libertarianism” and it is best explained by this essay.

Stay away from folks who are assholes, mmmkay? If it feels bad, it probably is. Guts are guts for a reason and you should probably trust yours.

Primary Partners aka Hierarchy

Ahhh yes, the answer to all our attachment issues and fears of abandonment is, of course, the promise that we will always reign supreme in the heart of our loved one and that no other person will every matter as much to them, OR DEAR GOD MORE, as we do. But feelings don’t understand fences, and in order for hierarchy to work there have to be a lot of rules in place to keep the other relationships less important.

You may think you want this for yourself, but a view from the other side (where you are the lesser being) might have you reconsidering. Or it may take an experience in which someone back burners you in favor of another person, but some folks need a heartbreak or two to figure things out. I sure did!

Why should you avoid these? Because it is a ranking system designed to keep one person at the top of the pile and everyone else below them. Comparison is the thief of joy, and hierarchy is a relationship structure based on comparison. 

* * *

We have a saying in the non-monogamous community: there is no one right way to be non-monogamous. That’s not wrong . . . but there are sure as shit a lot of wrong ways to be. They “work” for some folks, but those probably aren’t the folks you want to spend your time with. If you are those folks? Then you probably don’t like me very much, and I’m okay with that.

Photo by Seoyeon Choi on Unsplash

Friends With My Exes

Not long ago, I connected with a guy on a dating app who laughed when I mentioned I retain most of my former partners as friends. He made it a point to let me know that he was certainly not friends with any of his former partners. I almost unmatched him on the spot! Instead, I explained that I really prefer to transition relationships rather than end them, and that I don’t tend to date folks who’d require that I cut them out of my life for any reason. I’m a nice person; I date nice people.

I haven’t heard back from him.

One of the questions I commonly get from folks who learn this fact about me is some form of “how in the word do you negotiate friendship with former partners?” and the answer to that is fairly simple: I lay the groundwork up front. And I do that by simply bringing up the fact that my expectation is that my relationships remain intentional connections for as long as they make sense, regardless of the configuration. I guess you could say it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

Here is a list of reasons I’ve terminated the romantic portion of a variety of relationships:

  • Substance abuse
  • Unchecked jealousy 
  • An unwillingness to communicate needs
  • Geographical distance
  • Lack of chemistry

Here is a list of reasons other folks have terminated romantic connections with me:

  • Serial monogamy
  • Quarantine (thanks, Covid-19)
  • Lack of chemistry

At the time of this writing, I remained friends with every single person on those lists. I can’t imagine cutting anyone I’ve ever loved completely out of my life unless they were maliciously harmful to me or others I care for. 

It’s a red flag for me when someone is not inclined to maintain relationships with their former lovers. It certainly doesn’t bode well for us, considering that most romantic/sexual relationships end. 

I suppose one of the things I really appreciate about non-monogamy, and more so Relationship Anarchy, is just the freedom to have the kind of relationships with folks that make sense for us. I don’t need to have any of them be a certain shape or check a certain number of boxes. I can have a partner I see once every few months with little to no contact in between, and have that work for us. Wonder that! I love it.

I also work hard to honor the hearts of the folks I connect with by being transparent about my feelings for them out of respect. I would never want anyone to spend time with me that they were not authentically enthusiastic about, so I don’t foster inauthenticity by showing up in my relationships only out of obligation. I am there because I want to be, and when I don’t, I say so. I also encourage my people to come and go without struggle. Anything less is codependence and leads to resentment. It has not been an easy road to becoming a person who can hear difficult things with grace, and I am not perfect by any means, but once I understood that this was how I wanted to be treated by others, I began to show up that way more ease.

My romantic connections are inherently fluid and entirely dependent on whether or not the circumstances are conducive to maintaining those feelings. Sometimes I’ll feel that way about a person for a few months; sometimes it feels like it will be a lifetime. I appreciate not having to blow up my connections every time it doesn’t turn into a lifetime affair. Instead, I get to maintain friendships with people who’ve known me in very intimate moments and seen me in ways others won’t. I see myself as lucky to still have them in my life, and I hope they feel the same about me!

Image: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash