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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least, that’s how I saw it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jonas Denil on Unsplash

Telling The Kids

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

I have a different take; no one is surprised!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

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

Fostering Compersion

I wrote a while back about the greater non-monogamous community’s idealization of compersion and holding it up as the opposite of jealousy. This implies jealousy and compersion are mutually exclusive; I wholeheartedly disagreed. However, I don’t deny that compersion can still be a desirable thing to feel, regardless of what else is going around in one’s brain.

In general, I am indifferent to my partners’ dating lives. I prefer to focus on my relationships with them and not their relationships with others. Sometimes, however, when I’m tired or hungry or lonely or I’ve had a long day, I find myself feeling crabby about a partner’s dating adventures. The same would be true of anything they did that made them unavailable to me at a time I wanted more affection, but there are extra layers with dating and always will be. It’s not a way I’m a fan of feeling, and I certainly don’t want it to influence my behavior. 

I wanted to come up with a way to redirect my thinking and put myself in a better mindset when I’m feeling less-than-charitable, or let’s face it, selfish. SHOULD YOU NOT ALLOCATE ALL YOUR FREE TIME TO ME? WHY NOT? I AM AMAZING! DON’T YOU THINK I’M AMAZING? THEN WHY ARE YOU GOING OUT WITH SOMEONE WHO IS NOT ME ON A NIGHT I AM FREE? IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT I MAKE PLANS WITH OTHER FOLKS ON NIGHTS YOU’RE FREE BECAUSE MY BRAIN IS A JERK AND I AM THE ONLY ONE WITH FEELINGS. Sometimes I am an asshole in my head.

To that end, I have some exercises I run through when I’m feeling irritable about my partners’ other relationships:

What about this relationship makes my partner happy?

  • Asking myself this question reminds me that I am not the most important person in my partner’s life, they are. And they should be! In order for relationships to grow unencumbered by resentment, people should feel free to do the things that make them happiest.
  • A positive outcome of asking myself this question is that I am focusing on the benefits of the situation rather than the negative aspects. And to be sure, a happy partner is one of those benefits!
  • The last thing I do in this exercise is smile. I know that sounds hokey, but the mind/body connection is super real, and something as basic as a smile on your face has all sorts of subconscious positive effects on your mind. 

What would I want my experience to be with me if I were them? 

Well, I would for sure want my partner to be selfish and passive aggressive. I would also want them to expect me to manage their feelings and sacrifice my own happiness in the pursuit of theirs. RIGHT? Okay, no. Probably the opposite of that. 

And here is where I get to decide whether or not I want to be a supportive partner or an insecure bag of poop. Since this is the second exercise in my routine, I’m already at the place where I’m aware of their happiness, so it’s easy to be supportive of it by encouraging their enjoyment of it.

I know how much of a bummer it is when I’m excited to spend time with someone and the person I’m with is making sure I know how unhappy they are about it. I don’t care to be that in anyone’s life, and I certainly have been in the past. Unlearning stuff is hard, but that’s why I do what I do here on this blog.

What is something I can do right now to be a better version of myself?

And now that I’m done projecting my bad day onto my partner’s completely unrelated pursuit of happiness, I can focus on what I really need: to take care of myself. This looks different for everyone of course, but for me it’s usually eating a healthy meal, getting more sleep, or going to the gym. When I feel better, I feel better.

So to recap, my little exercise has done the following:

  • Fostered a little compersion
  • Allowed me to be a good partner
  • Probably made my partner love me a little more, which is hard, because have I mentioned that I’m amazing? 
  • Improved my wellbeing in a tangible way

The dominant narrative tells us that our partners should prioritize addressing our unhappiness in order to show us that they love us. There are times of crisis when of course the priorities of those closest to you will shift accordingly, but for the most part, we are all grownups that can be expected to manage our own selves rather well.


The new narrative I’m attempting to write for myself is one in which I prioritize my emotional stability by learning to manage it myself. In this way, I ensure the folks I love the most get to experience the best I have to offer. I won’t always be stoked to be alone while a partner is entertaining another interest, but I can be sometimes and I can always show up in support instead of opposition.

Photo by amin tn on Unsplash

Assume the Best

In nearly every corner of the nonmonogamous community at the moment, you’ll find a rousing debate about how folks should be structuring their time with partners who they do not also share a living space with.

With most of the world attempting some type of self-isolation to flatten the curve, there is no shortage of opinions on how those of us who don’t fit the dominant narrative should subscribe to edicts issued by it.

This will not be a blog post about what you should or should not be doing with regard to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

It will be a plea for you to take a step back and consider a few things before you launch into a judgemental tirade on behalf of the living world.

Perhaps you have found yourself upset with the laissez faire approach some of your fellow citizens seem to have for social distancing in the baking aisle. Or perhaps you’re forced to work in uncomfortably close quarters with other human beings because your job is considered essential (and your income is of course essential to you, personally) so you’d prefer anyone who can stay home, do that please. Maybe you’re up to your eyebrows in school-age children and cannot fathom how anyone would be so careless as to leave their home when they absolutely did not have to, but holy buckets you sure would if you could because omg these kids amirite?

We are all in some version of a stressful situation we weren’t planning on.

All of us.

Every one of us.

If you’re still employed, you are fortunate – particularly if your job doesn’t require you to interact with the public.

If you are cohabiting with someone you love who loves you back, you are fortunate – particularly if you aren’t also attempting to navigate or maintain partnerships across social distances you never planned on.

If you are fortunate enough to have it pretty good right now, please consider how you might find it necessary to do things differently if you did not, and allow for some grace.

In a community that doesn’t subscribe to the dominant narrative, we need to accept that edicts issued from that position should be critically examined. Not rejected, but examined. It behooves us all to consider the assumptions being made before subscribing to them. And to be sure, I’m not advocating for eschewment of educated guidelines, but I am asking for some critical thinking to be done in the areas of equivalency.

So here is my ask: please assume the folks you know are doing the best they can under the circumstances, even if what they’re doing doesn’t look like what you’re doing.

Be safe; be well.

~Rusty

Photo by Maria Teneva 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

Guest Blog: Acting out of Trust vs. Fear

Fear. 

Outside of our basic survival instincts, fear is perhaps the number one motivator for the human race. Maybe for all sentient life. Acting out of fear rarely gives us the opportunity to show up as our best selves, and this can and will often cause harm in our relationships. This has been true for me and has had dire consequences. 

Fear is pervasive in our society. It’s so common we don’t always notice it when it’s being leveraged or applied. When it’s factored into our decision making process, it often feels like a valid consideration vs. a problematic aspect. Or something that flies under the radar. This creates problems in a number of ways: we take away our partner’s agency, infantilize them, and rob ourselves of our autonomy, opting instead for the decision that appears to limit the perceived harm. Self-preservation is a tricky thing. This is born, at least for me, out of the desire to control the outcome and hopefully mitigate my partner’s bad feelings. Not a healthy move, but it happens.

Fear is a powerful thing. As I write this, I’m dealing with the repercussions of decisions I made out of fear. Looking back, I knew what the right choice was, but opted for the one that I felt would “hurt” my partner less. Doing so led to a host of issues; from unethical behavior to resentment. Doing the right thing would have caused less harm. I probably knew this, but I acted out of fear. 

It’s human nature to seek control when we are scared. In the above example, I was afraid of losing someone important to me. I sought to minimize my fear by controlling their reactions. If I can make them feel safe, I thought, I won’t need to face my fear of them having bad feelings and considering me unworthy as a partner. We can never truly control anything but ourselves, so it’s imperative that we learn to control how we act in response to what happens to us. I’m not talking about the feelings we get when things happen, but rather our behavior in response to those feelings.

The way we do this is by acting out of trust instead of fear. Not only trusting others as I should have in the earlier example, but also out of trust of self. And really, the latter is the most important.

When we act out of trust, we grant ourselves permission to act in our own best interests. We also stop trying to control others since we trust them to act in their own best interests. Both can be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact others. For me? I was afraid of hurting someone by doing something perfectly normal. Instead I hurt them by acting out of fear.

Psychologists have known a rather complex (and yet oddly simple) truth for decades: external events/people can not MAKE us feel a certain way, even though it seems that way.

We enter into situations with our own expectations and even baggage/trauma. Those expectations directly impact the way we feel about the event or person. Here’s an example Dr. Edelstein provides from Chapter 1 of his book Three Minute Therapy:

Suppose a hundred airplane passengers are unexpectedly given parachutes and instructed to jump from the plane. If a physical situation alone could cause emotions, then all the hundred people would feel the same way. But obviously those who regard skydiving positively are going to have a [reaction] very different from the others.

I made my decisions based on expectations I had of my partner’s reactions instead of giving them the opportunity to have their reactions, own them and show up as their best self.

So what does acting out of trust look like? 

  • Trusting your partner to own their insecurities regarding your actions. 
  • Trusting your partner to share their insecurities without expecting you to alter your behavior. 
  • Trust your decisions and actions are perfectly OK, even if it appears to make your partner feel a certain way. 

In my case, my partner’s feelings were valid and I didn’t trust them to show up as their best self because of those fears. Had I? Things would have gone very differently.

Trust yourself to act with integrity and work to show up that way. Trust your partner(s) to own their struggles and not penalize you for them. Trust that everything will be OK . . . even when it may not feel like it. Trust yourself so that fear won’t control your actions.

* * *

Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly 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.

Image credit: Photo by Scott Web on Unsplash

Imposter Syndrome: I am so bad at poly!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Photo by Kolar.io on Unsplash