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

Dismantling Romantic Relationship Primacy

We do a thing in the society I live in where we elevate our romantic relationships above all other connections. Sometimes that’s a good thing, for example: if your lame-ass family full of bigots sees your love connection as lesser because of some difference in race, creed, class, gender or sexual orientation. Indeed, fuck them. But more often than not, we elevate our romantic connections above all others out of a misguided sense of obligation informed by toxic aspects of monogamous culture known as amatonormativity.

Oh, we can pause here, yes . . . I can explain what I mean by that: monogamous culture is not inherently toxic, the same way masculinity is not inherently toxic, but I don’t think there’s any effective counterpoint to my assertion that aspects of these things are indeed bullshit. 

For those of us who’ve been socialized as feminine in the Western version of the gender binary, the concept of a very intertwined platonic relationship is not likely a foreign one. I have a friend that I truly consider a platonic life-partner. This is not hard for most folks who know us to understand, but it did raise some eyebrows when I would tell people how my former spouse used to willingly sleep on the couch when she’d come to visit from out of town, because he knew my relationship with her was not inherently lesser than my relationship with him. But then, this was a man who never struggled to tell other men he loved them, either. 

If you were socialized as masculine, emotionally intimate friendships may not have been as normalized for you, (in fact, they may have been outright discouraged . . .), and that’s terrible. I’ve been fortunate to have multiple close non-romantic friendships with masculine folks, but I also know that what we have is not their norm for friendships. Our society falls short here, big time. As a result of suppressed vulnerability being a hallmark of masculinity, and the human tendency to prioritize relationships in which we can be fully ourselves, the romantic relationships of masculine folks end up being elevated by default because platonic ones don’t often meet the same needs.

One of the biggest struggles I see crop up for folks in unlearning mononormativity, is the idea that one’s personal value is determined by how much your romantic partner needs you. I have absolutely struggled with this myself, even in the having of multiple partners. If they didn’t *need* me, how would I know they *loved* me? If I didn’t need them, what was the point? 

To be needed is to feel secure in the idea that your position in someone’s life is more certain, but to know that you’re wanted is, in my experience, a far more secure experience because what we desire is generally more attractive than what we require. Please let me be someone’s coveted chocolate mint ice cream over their fiber supplement!

That’s all easy to say, of course – but it’s really taken me a lot of practicing what I preach. If I go back to my first ever blog entry, Meant To Be, I very much wrote what I needed to hear. My partners are with me because they want to be. Taking that a step further, my partners are not important to me because I need them, they’re important to me for a countless variety of reasons, as are my friends and connections of varying labels.

And let’s just talk about labels – why do we need them to determine the designated level of importance of each relationship? I used to joke that the five most important people in my life were my spouse, my BFF, and my three kids – but not necessarily in that order. These days, I think of my life and connections more in terms of a radial chart than a prescriptive hierarchy of labels. I have platonic life-mates, comets, romantic life-partners, distant sexual connections, beloved friends I see every few years, family, metas, school chums, colleagues, co-leaders in community, and innumerable combinations of these descriptors. They all ebb and flow like a constellation in which some celestial bodies orbit much further away than others, while some are akin to permanent moons. I don’t prioritize time with one over another based on a checklist of roles they play in my life . . . I mean, can you imagine?

Jo gets 3pts for sex, 5pts for romance, 7pts for relationship duration for a total of 15pts, which means I prioritize them over Sam who gets 6pts for shared bank accounts, 3pts for co-parenting, and 4pts for knowing exactly how I like my coffee in the morning but only nets 13pts in the grand ranking of connections.

That’s just silly! But that’s how most of us do it.

But we don’t have to, yeah?

Look – in this relatively new world of reconfigured connections, it is perhaps the deep friendships that are coming through the most for us. Let’s take a moment (or longer) to appreciate how meaningful and impactful they actually are, and honor them in kind. Elevate the connections that feed your soul, not just the ones that would make good summer blockbusters. Make sure your priorities are hitting the high notes. Set aside romance as a metric and let your platonic heart have the microphone for a moment. Whose names get called out? What would it look like to assign those folks the same intrinsic value as your romantic connections?

And the pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow: when you allocate the amount of emotional labor and energy to platonic connections that you do to romantic ones, you find the return on investment to be rewarding in ways you may not have imagined. 

It’s a paradigm shift for sure, but one that’s time has come. 

Photo by Edvard Alexander Rølvaag on Unsplash

Your Metamour is Not the Problem

In online forums across teh interwebz, one question crops up more than daily: how do I get my metamour to stop doing xyz and negatively affecting my relationship?

Welp. You don’t.

Oh, and also, it’s probably not your metamour that’s the problem if there is a consistent pattern of Metamour Issues = Your Relationship Problems. That usually ends up being a case of the hinge partner being more invested in not rocking the boat than advocating for themselves, (and your relationship). 

Once upon a time, I was partnered with someone who at times felt that upsetting their other partner was too high a price to pay for advocating for our relationship with them. As a result, there were times when the insecurities of their other partner were prioritized over the development of the relationship we were in. It often felt as though because I was not the one with the power to make their life miserable, I was the one who lost. 

You’re likely familiar with the phrase “pick your battles.” You’re also likely familiar with the desire to not pick certain battles because just letting them slide is easier in the short term than addressing the issue head on. So that’s a thing we can have empathy for – yes?

In all reality… there is only one person who can choose a different outcome, and that’s the person making the decision. If that person is scapegoating their other partner in order to avoid being the target of your negative feelings, consider calling them out on that problematic behavior. Likewise, if you’re misdirecting your disappointment and anger towards your meta, perhaps look at what’s actually happening in that scenario. Regardless of the relationship you have with your meta, it’s in everyone’s best interests to tend to their own individual connections and not try to leverage things like insider information, duration of relationship, or ultimatums to get what they want.

But when you’re in the position I was in way back when, there’s a tendency to blame the metamour for being the proverbial squeaky wheel getting greased as opposed to your partner. It is difficult to accept that someone you care for deeply is unwilling to risk discomfort elsewhere to maintain harmony with you. It’s natural to want to blame someone besides your partner when it feels like issues in another relationship are being transferred to you to bear. Particularly when you know if this person weren’t behaving the way they were, none of this would be an issue. 

This can create a feeling of helplessness, but here are some things that are within your power to do:

  • Ask for what you want using clear language, and be willing to accept a no. I covered this topic some time ago in my blog The Big Ask. You can’t expect a partner to advocate for your relationship if you’re not advocating for yourself within it. 
  • Resist the urge to blame your meta for everything you don’t like about your relationship. It’s quite possible your meta struggles not to blame you from time to time as well – give each other the benefit of the doubt. You aren’t responsible for each other’s relationships anyway.
  • To that end, ask your partner not to communicate your meta’s insecurities as they relate to your relationship with them – it’s none of your business, and serves you in no positive fashion. Furthermore, you can be assured that if your partner is throwing your meta under the bus to you, they’re likely doing the same thing to you. Advocating for a healthy relationship sometimes requires asking someone to modify how they treat others in your presence as well.
  • Communicate your needs using clear language and don’t let a scarcity mindset convince you to settle for less than what you need. Your needs are valid, but not everyone will be able to meet them.
  • Consider that the reasons your needs or wants are not being met is because your partner has different priorities than you. Because being able to see these as mismatches in desire will help you frame this as a fundamental incompatibility and not a metamour issue.

Oftentimes it’s easier to choose the path of least resistance even when it hurts loved ones. There is an awful lot to be said for not being a doormat; when you insist on healthy boundaries, advocate for yourself with clear language, and don’t accept less than you need, the tides either turn or your alternative becomes clear. 

You do get to have boundaries regarding how you’re treated in relationships, and if your wants and needs are consistently sidelined in favor of someone else’s issues, you have the ability to opt out of that dynamic. And yes, I do mean you can break up. You can, and you should if you’re miserable and this is never going to change. 

I know from experience that it’s very possible to love someone with your whole heart, and still not be compatible or even good for each other as partners. I assure you, that’s okay. I also know that self advocacy and healthy boundaries go a long way toward shifting burdens from other relationships, back where they belong. They also inform future interactions by letting everyone involved know exactly how you expect to be treated. The good news is, when everyone is on the same page regarding the success of each relationship, progress is inevitable. And with progress, comes hope.

Image credit: Photo by Tom Crew on Unsplash