Privacy is a Fundamental Right in Relationships

Privacy. That thing where you get to choose how much of your personal life is on display, yeah? Privacy is pretty critical to one’s emotional well-being and sense of safety. We depend on those close to us to keep our confidence, and there is a reasonable expectation of privacy when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in intimate moments with a close connection, friend, or partner.

But there’s an unfortunate approach to privacy by many in the greater non-monogamous community. I see a lot of questionable behavior being championed and supported that, to me, flies in the face of reasonable expectations of privacy.

What the heckity-heck am I talking about?

Oh, you know:

  • “My spouse and I have an agreement that we can go through each other’s phones and private messages upon request. This is how we build trust. This is our version of transparency and open communication.”
  • “Oh, I have access to my partner’s email, Facebook, dating profiles, and phone, but I’d never actually look at those things. Sometimes I see them by accident though.”
  • “My partner shares all of their sexual exploits with me because that’s my kink and it turns me on.”
  • “I have an agreement with my primary that they tell me every time they have sex with someone else.”
  • “I expect to know every milestone my partners reach in their other relationships so that I can emotionally process those.”

I don’t really need to continue, do I? Of course not. You’ve either recognized these as pretty common tropes, or you feel personally attacked. If it’s the latter, never fear – we all start somewhere; hopefully you’ll take this opportunity to examine your values as they relate to privacy. 

I won’t even knowingly date people who have these agreements with their other partners.

This privacy gray area is born of hierarchy and entitlement, and no, there isn’t a gentle way to say that. Particularly in situations where someone feels insecure, or there’s been a previous breach of trust, folks feel somewhat entitled to information that does not belong to them about folks they feel superior to. They often feel this is justified by their personal feelings of security being a priority, and this information falling into a category of “will probably make me feel more secure.” I get it; information is power. But . . . too much information will make your brain weasels go bonkers! Also: you’d be pissed if the shoe was on the other foot, you know you would, so don’t even. The meta you’ve never met having access to your sexting chats? COME ON!

But hey, most relationships do not thrive on a sparse diet of “need-to-know” information; the closer you are to someone, the more you’re naturally inclined to reveal about yourself and your life, including the roles others play. If you find yourself intentionally withholding information from someone when it’s not a privacy concern, it may be a good idea to ask yourself why. Information *is* power, but it doesn’t need to be wielded. 

What information should be off limits?

Well, basically anything that someone doesn’t enthusiastically consent to you knowing. And by enthusiastically, I mean nothing you had to talk them into sharing. It’s entirely possible to have a partner you don’t know every little thing about. Yes, even if you live with them. Yes, even if you’re been together for decades. Yes . . . you are, in fact, separate people with lives that don’t always overlap, nor should they, especially if you’re cultivating healthy relationships with other adults.

So, what information should be shared?

This is really an individual decision. Some people are naturally more private about their lives than others. I don’t keep any of the relationships in my life a secret from anyone else, but I also don’t feel a need to report on them. I have a strong preference for conversational sharing that feels natural. It would be very out of character for me to not mention a first date, or that I saw a movie with someone, or that I had dinner at a new place with so-and-so. 

But some folks have lots of reasons for wanting to know details about relationships they’re not in just because they’re in a relationship with one of those people. I mean, think about what you might expect to be made aware of in a close friend’s life . . . is it more or less than you expect to know about your partner’s? For example: sex stuff. 

How do I manage my sexual health risk profile if I don’t know if my partners are having sex with others and when, where, how? Well, what if you just assume your partners have sex with folks they spend time with and that they’ll use the same framework for sexual health decisions with those folks that they used with you? If you have no clue what that matrix looks like for your partner, now might be a good time to find out. (For tips on how to have that convo, check out Great Sexpectations.)

How do I mentally prepare myself for my partner to start a new relationship if they don’t keep me updated on their interest level in others? Is it possible to do this mental preparation across the board so you’re just ready to rumble when it comes down to it? I generally ask my partners how they’re feeling about new connections, but it’s conversational as I don’t have much investment in where they go. If you have negative experiences when your partner pursues others, that’s probably not going to be solved with a heads up.

I was misled by my partner in the past so having them update me on each new development in their other relationships helps me feel more secure. Well, sure. And: this is still none of your business. Reparative trust cannot be built on a foundation of privacy breaches against another party. Please allow that to sink in. You don’t get to sanction injury to another party simply because you yourself have been injured. We move forward by not wishing this experience on anyone else, not by violating others.

Everyone consents to these conditions of “transparency” (privacy violation) as a condition of their relationship with me/my partner, so that makes it ethical. No, that makes it coercive. If someone has to accept trespasses against their privacy in order to be connected to someone, they’re forced to agree or walk away and that’s not a fair choice. Not when it’s so easy to not put people in that position. This is merely shifting the burden of your own issues onto others and that’s a thing you have the power to work on. 

So what if I’m the one having my privacy violated or being coerced into violating the privacy of others to preserve another relationship?

Well, then it’s time to ask yourself if you’re worth more than that. Spoiler alert: you are. Advocate for yourself with direct language. State your boundaries and your right to privacy. Advocate for your other partners’ right to privacy, and refuse to violate it. 

It is amazing what happens in all of your relationships when you refuse to accept the unacceptable.   


Photo by Franck on Unsplash

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

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

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