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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Female privilege?

Hey guys,

My boyfriend of 3 years and I recently decided to start seeing other people. I should explain that it was my idea and it took almost a year of talking, reading the same books, more talking, working with a therapist and even MORE talking before my boyfriend was comfortable enough to give it a shot. He had a lot of self-esteem and abandonment issues to work out and needs constant reassurance from me. For the longest time I found this to be annoying and exhausting. But since this is really important to me I've learned to put out the extra effort to keep him feeling secure which is the only way that I'm going to get the freedom that I crave. Once I slept with someone else for the first time and came back to him he realized that he can do this after all and we lived happily ever after.

Not really, or I wouldn't be writing this. Obviously.

The only real problem that we're having is that I'm going on dates and meeting people so much that I can't even keep up with it while he's only been on a couple of dates which have been disastrous. As a result, his self-esteem and confidence has taken a really big hit. We all know that it's not that I'm so much more desirable than he is, it's simply different for girls, but that doesn't stop his feelings from being hurt (and understandably so). I've decided to take a break from meeting new people to give him the opportunity to catch up (for lack of a better term). We're going to Poly Cocktails on Monday and we've scheduled a date with another couple and we're making an effort to do more things together.

I think this is a good thing for now but it's not a long term solution. I don't want us only play together; having separate dating/sex lives is really important to me but it's no fun when one of us is sitting at home feeling rejected and the other is out living it up.

I would imagine this is a common problem. Any suggestions of advice for us?

Reluctant Scorekeeper


Inequality in date frequency IS a common situation. It's up to the people involved, however, to decide whether or not it's a problem.

I see two issues here. The first is the fact that - despite my distaste for reaffirming gender norms - our society almost always provides more sexual opportunity for the female in traditional relationships.  As long as sex is treated like a commodity with women as the gatekeepers, I don't see this changing anytime soon.

The second issue, and the one over which you have more power, is how that first issue affects each of you.  Insecurity is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to any happy relationship. It can feel warm and safe to have one partner you can count on to be there for you at all times; even if they're not physically available you know they've got you and your relationship as a top priority. However, that knowledge should exist whether or not your and your primary are monogamous.  In a poly context with multiple partners, there are many more opportunities to experience self-doubt, loneliness, and insecurity, which makes nonmonogamy potentially hard on people with histories of abuse or betrayal of trust.

For any relationship to be deemed successful, each person should be getting their needs met.  On one hand, doing what makes you happy - exploring new connections often - will likely keep your partner unhappy and insecure, even if you're committed to bringing your love home to him.  On the other hand, going much longer without having your needs met will eventually make you frustrated and resentful.

I think you both need to sit down and have a real conversation about what you each want, and whether the other is truly open to it. Just because you love each other doesn't mean your long-term visions are compatible, even with 3 years invested. It's quite likely that he doesn't want and will never be able to handle a poly relationship, while you need one. That incompatibility can't be ignored, no matter how you feel about each other.

If you both decide this relationship is worth working on, perhaps you could work together on negotiating agreements that address both your concerns, like saving weekends for each other, or having him meet your partners, or whatever suggestions he's able to identify and you're truly comfortable with offering. Ask him what he needs in order to feel secure in your love for him, so that while you're out he's feeling neither FOMO nor panic, but happiness for you. Perhaps ask him under what circumstances he would trust you enough to let you have your private dates?

I do think you've got some good ideas in place; doubledates and partnered events are a great way to have new experiences together, while making sure no one gets left out. Your taking a break from new solo dates is also bound to help him feel safer while he's in a tenuous emotional state. My question remains, for how long can you be truly happy while you're more concerned about his needs than yours?

Hi Scorekeeper,
As you say, the only problem is that you're dating more successfully than he is. So the key question to ask when you sit down and talk about this is: What can you do to make him feel loved, cherished and bonded to you? If you are both committed to the idea of non-monogamy, then his answer probably won't be for you to stop going on dates. If it is, then you two need to revisit your original intentions.

No, more likely the answer would be something like spending a certain amount of time together or behaving a certain way when you are on dates (with or without him), checking in or otherwise putting some kind of priority on your relationship with him without sacrificing your freedom to date others. So the first step is to identify what those key actions are so that you can make sure you are meeting his needs.

I think this is a common pitfall in poly relationships where one person tends to get more dates than another. And personally, I'll disagree with both of you in that it's not about gender, but about many different factors - clothes, wealth, personality, self-confidence - that add up to how attractive each person is to the potential target audience of any gender. There’s a sense among a lot of people (especially those starting out in poly) that “fairness” means “complete equality in experience.” But that's an impossible goal and wrongheaded to boot.

If my partner were dating four other people casually, and I found one other person with whom I felt strongly connected to, I wouldn't see any cause to complain. When it comes to people, it should be about quality over quantity. Sure, it's great to have 4,981 Facebook friends like Leon (as of 9/23) but really, when it comes to relationships you should invest your time carefully. So in addition to what you're doing with dating as a couple, you might consider looking at your self-restriction as raising your dating standards and only going out with the cream of the crop.

Lastly, I offer one more way of looking at the situation. I have heard this from many different poly experts over the years, and I think it's good advice. It's helpful for anyone, poly or mono, to remember that even if you're single, you are in a relationship with yourself. You are the one responsible for nurturing yourself, to make sure you get the care you need and develop into the kind of human being you aspire to be. What you do with your extra time after you've taken care of yourself is what you have to give to others and build friendships and loving relationships with them. So maybe part of the solution might be that he needs to work on his relationship with himself to build his self-esteem first, and then his relationship with you, before he tries dating again. 

Thanks for writing and good luck to you!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The game of mono-poly

Hello lovely bloggers,

I'm in a difficult place right now with my emotionally-closest partner.  We've been in an ethical, mutually-open relationship since the beginning of our relationship, but have been fighting extensively the past couple months.  It's quite complicated, but I think it boils down to:  he does NOT identify as "poly," while I do.

We're working things out as best we can, but our discussions are often one-sided, with myself on the "defensive" end.  (I tend to be soft spoken, scared of intense arguing, verbally "freeze up" when I'm upset.)  So my question is, do you have any advice on how to respond to these types of "anti-poly" sentiments/questions?

- Why do you need more than one partner?  Why am I not enough for you?
- Why are you making polyamory more important than our relationship?  (I'll admit that I have a lot of NRE with the poly community I've recently discovered in NYC, because it's been so wonderful to find other people who think like I do). 
- Why do you talk SO MUCH about poly-everything?  (I've been doing this out of defense of my feelings, and doing this more will just make the situation worse!)
 - Refusal to read anything I've suggested in the past (for example, The Ethical Slut), because it's disrepectful towards him
 - Why would you want to build a family/support network with lovers?  Why can't you do that with non-sexual friends?  (Also implying that I'm "trading sex for emotional support")
 - You feel "compersion" when I date someone else, but I think you're just happy it lessens your responsibility in our relationship.

We're in therapy, but even there I have a hard time standing up for myself and my beliefs without hitting him over the head with "poly-everything."  Any thoughts on how I can guide us towards our similarities instead of focusing on our differences? 

Stuck Playing Defense

Dear D-Fence,
Thank you for writing such an important and comprehensive question! This is certainly an issue that many poly people run up against, since we're obviously in the minority (for now!) and we often find ourselves dating monogamous people and trying to make it work.

It's difficult to give advice that keeps people from fighting when they have such divergent views on something that is so central to a relationship. Bravo to you for seeking therapy from what I hope is a poly-friendly therapist. And I certainly empathize with your differing communications styles, since I am also someone who is soft-spoken and tries to avoid conflict in relationships.

The best way I can think of to help is to offer a few options on responding to these questions in ways that I hope will stimulate discussions and not spark conflagration. Most of my suggested talking points are structured in an attempt to 1) make your partner see his position from your viewpoint and 2) reinforce your own agency in the relationship. So here goes...

- Why do you need more than one partner?
  • No one "needs" to be in a relationship. If you "need" your partner, then you have a very different kind of relationship than if you "want" them in your life. 
  • We do have "wants" and "needs" in our relationships, so let's talk about those. What do you want and need out of our relationship? What do you need from me to feel cherished and valued? What am I doing right, and how would exclusivity change that?
  • I want the kind of relationship where I can both be wholly myself AND a part of your life. Part of who I am is a person who makes emotional and sometimes sexual connections with other people and shares my love with them. Being in a relationship shouldn't mean I have to give up that essential part of who I am.
  • Asking me to give up people I love would be like asking Mozart to give up playing the harpsichord and the violin because you only love his piano playing.
Why am I not enough for you? 
  • This question assumes there is a limit to how much love we can have in our lives. Love isn't like food - our capacity to love isn't an appetite that needs to be satiated. We all have an infinite capacity to love and be loved.
  • There is no real reason why the words "love" and "enough" need to be used together. Instead of thinking of love as a weight that you must carry, think of it as the air you breathe.
  • We love multiple parents, siblings and children throughout our lives - we never put limits on those kinds of love. Other than convention and reasonable constraints on time and resources, why should romantic love be different?
  • Do you define love by the absence of desire to love others, as in "If you love me, you shouldn't want to love anyone else"? How does it make sense that love should be defined by the absence of desire? 
  • Isn't loving someone important enough to you that you'd want to experience it as much as possible in a lifetime? If our relationship is about supporting each other's growth as human beings throughout life, we shouldn't be limiting the range of human experiences we can both have, together and separately.
- Why are you making polyamory more important than our relationship?
  • Clearly, monogamy is just as important to you as polyamory is to me. The difference is that you don't have to talk about monogamy because it's the default (or privileged) relationship style in our society.
  • It must seem like I'm doing all the talking, but that's because monogamy is the privileged relationship style (for a easy-to-understand explanation on privilege as it's used here, read this article). It's like a white person saying people of color are talking 'so much' about civil rights, or a straight person saying they are 'tired of hearing' all the queer people talk about gay marriage.
  • Polyamory is important to me because my relationships are important to me. I don't want to just accept the default relationship style just because everyone else is doing it. I want a relationship with intention
  • When I talk about polyamory, I'm putting the work into making this relationship work for both of us. If you're not talking as much about monogamy, maybe it's because you're making assumptions about what our relationship looks like, rather than helping me custom-tailor it for us.
- Why do you talk SO MUCH about poly-everything?
  • I'm talking about it because it's an important part of my identity and I want to share it with you because you are my partner. You are important to me and our relationship is very important to me, so I want to put as much energy into it as I can to make it successful. That's the why. 
  • Now let me ask you - why do you object to me talking about who I am and how we're going to make this relationship work? Because all relationships, poly or mono, have a better chance at success if everyone feels safe to express themselves.
- Refusal to read anything I've suggested in the past (for example, The Ethical Slut), because it's disrepectful towards him
  • How does withholding knowledge and information about an important part of my identity show respect to you? If you want me to respect your beliefs and ideals, then you should respect mine. 
  • If I were Jewish and you were Muslim, would you refuse to learn about the Torah? 
  • Only by fully understanding each other's beliefs and values will we be able to find common ground and understand each other's viewpoints.
- Why would you want to build a family/support network with lovers?  Why can't you do that with non-sexual friends?  (Also implying that I'm "trading sex for emotional support")
  • Why wouldn't you want people around you who love you? Why exclude lovers from your support network? 
  • Friends are an important part of a support network, of course. But sometimes friends become lovers; lovers often become friends. Why draw boundaries at all? Is there any logical reason to have rules on who gets to be in the clubhouse?
- You feel "compersion" when I date someone else, but I think you're just happy it lessens your responsibility in our relationship.
  • Compersion is a real thing. The only expert on how someone is feeling is the person having those feelings. Telling someone else what they REALLY feel is insulting and denigrates their agency as a human being.
  • What "responsibility" do you feel is lessened by having multiple partners? What are you expecting from me that I can't deliver if I'm dating others?
  • If the answer is something like, "it makes me feel special that what we're doing together you're only doing with me" then is there a way to create those special feelings by doing other things exclusively? or does it have to be the whole relationship enchilada?
Also, there is an excellent resource on poly/mono dating and relationships on Franklin Veaux's More than Two website that is much more comprehensive and it will give you lots of context for future discussion. 

And finally, I want to thank Puck, my frubble* of almost six years, for vis help in answering these, and leave you with vis parting thought - Remember that your partner is not your enemy. You fight your enemy but you work WITH your partner toward a common goal.

* frubble: British synonym for compersion, used by Mischa and Puck to describe their intentional family relationship, characterized by mutual support and emotional safe harbor for each other to find more love in our lives

Leon, over to you - whatcha got?

Damn, but that's a great response. I, however, will take a different tack with mine.  My current primary is also monoamorous (isn't that a much more appropriate term than monogamous?), and I have a long history dating emotionally-significant partners who have sworn they supported my polyamorous lifestyle, but their jealous, possessive, and argumentative actions betrayed their words.  So take it with whatever size grain of salt you like, but my takeaway from your situation is that you are likely incompatible as long-term partners, and no amount of discussion will fix it.

Which brings me to one of the hardest but most important lessons I've ever had to learn: loving someone, even passionately or wholeheartedly, does NOT mean you should be dating them. 

The questions your partner asks sound sinkingly familiar to me, I've gotten them repeatedly in my prior mono/poly relationships.  My clear impression is not that these are questions asked altruistically and out of genuine curiosity, but rather out of passive-aggression, guilt inducement, and backhanded attempts to argue you out of your polyamorous worldview.  As a result, I don't think you'll each get much benefit out of therapy, or logically discussing these points, simply because I'd be willing to bet you and this particular partner have vastly different values, goals, and visions of what a happy long-term future looks like.  I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I'd wager you'd be better off as either asexual friends, or classic friends with benefits, but no long-term romance.  It feels great to be wanted, and to share affection with someone with whom you share attraction - but none of that is a substitute for compatibility.

You're fighting because with the NRE wearing off, you're realizing you each have different expectations of where this relationship should go.  I'd also be willing to bet the two of you haven't discussed any long-term goals, or if you have then one or both of you hasn't been honest. (It's quite likely the dishonest person doesn't KNOW they've been dishonest, as their good intentions and wishful thinking may have clouded their judgment.)  It's terribly frustrating to be completely candid and forthcoming about our polyamory, but have our partners eventually crack under the pressure of pretending to enjoy or support something they genuinely don't believe and would never want for themselves, except for the fact they were in love with us and were willing to do almost anything to make it work.

For the record, lifelong mono/poly romantic relationships are possible, but extremely difficult to pull off successfully.  It's quite hard to balance such an obvious inequality in attention and activity, but if both parties involved GENUINELY WANT THAT SHAPE OF RELATIONSHIP (note: mutual attraction, personality, and sexual compatibility are irrelevant here, I'm only talking about one partner seeing multiple partners and the other seeing none and both parties preferring that arrangement) then it can work splendidly.

By way of contrast (and a little schadenfreude - sorry), my current primary doesn't ask questions like the ones you've outlined. She and I have lots of open and honest communication, and she doesn't give the impression of jealousy or possessiveness at all. She'll ask daily about my other partners and our dates because she wants information and to stay in the loop, not to force herself to accept the status quo or pretend to be supportive because that's what's expected (while mentally gritting teeth the whole time).  She's never antagonistic or needlessly argumentative; we have our disagreements but they're respectful and reflect her genuine interests rather than an intent to change me.  And while there are obviously things I wish were different in our relationship (as I'm sure she does as well), we have enough of a long-term match in where we see this going that I feel comfortable calling her my girlfriend despite the poly/mono challenges. 

I'm sorry, SPD, and I wish I had more upbeat thoughts for you. You can definitely try to reason with each other, as Mischa and Puck have suggested some very thoughtful discussion points. But my bet is that this relationship is doomed as a romance, as you can't win an emotional argument with logic.  I hope I'm wrong and wish you luck.  Let us know how it turns out.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Communication with partners' partners... how much is enough?

I've got a poly situation and could use your "professional" advice - thanks for writing this column!  It's been really helpful for me in the past and I hope you can be again now.

I'm in a romantic, ethically nonmonogamous relationship with my girlfriend for over a year, our main agreements are that we tell each other everything, and ask for/incorporate the other's feelings into our activities with others.

I met a girl and her husband at a sex-positive play event earlier this month, and with her husband's blessing, she and I hit it off.  We wound up playing together one-on-one much of the night, and I traded Facebook information with them both at the end of the night.  She said they were relatively new to the open relationship thing, and I promised to keep that in mind.

A few weeks later, I was invited to another play event with some of the same people on a night when my primary partner was unavailable, and I reached out to ask her whether she might be available and interested in joining as my date.  She said she would check with her husband and boyfriend and get back to me, and I told my primary.  Everything seemed to be fine, up until she expressed dismay that I hadn't directly invited her husband or included him in my first request for a date. Apparently he or they assumed the proper protocol was to include all parties at all stages of planning a date, and their takeaway was that I somehow wasn't being respectful of their relationship.  My understanding is that as long as all parties are fully informed in advance and there's no jealous or divisive intent, it's reasonable to expect each person to share their wishes and plans with their own partners while planning dates, and if this is somehow a potential sore subject then that preference should be expressed beforehand.

I reached out immediately to the husband, who was less than friendly.  Needless to say, the date wound up falling apart as a result, and we haven't seen each other since. Which of us is right?

Trying To Do It Right in Brooklyn


Whew!  That's a tough scenario.  Let's assume for the purposes of this question none of the people involved was really being "jealous or divisive," and it's just a genuine face-value question of matching perceptions.

It's great to meet new partners, and understandable to want to explore a new connection, but sometimes people's comfort levels aren't all on the same page.  It's not clear how that couple's prior experiences have shaped their perceptions, maybe they had a negative history with someone who *was* divisive and they were particularly sensitive to that scenario, or maybe they simply had an expectation of communal planning that wasn't proffered.  Either way, they assumed a request for a date would be addressed to both of them, and you assumed an invitation to the wife would be well-received.  You apparently both assumed incorrectly.

This situation underscores the importance of effective communication.  Assumptions can be problematic, but they're insidious and every interaction by necessity includes them - we couldn't function in society without making some. (We assume a smile is a positive sign, we assume when someone wears a wedding ring they're married, we assume when someone tells us their marital status or even their name, they're being honest.)  This was a situation that in many situations could have easily been resolved once recognized as unmatched expectations via an apology and/or further discussion, but for the specific people involved it seems their hackles went up pretty quickly, and it seemed your overtures weren't able to defuse the situation in time for your date.

It might have been a nice gesture to have included both partners in an opening message, especially since this couple self-described as "new to open relationships," but in context it doesn't seem to me that not doing so was inappropriate.  In short, I don't see either of you being "wrong" - it merely seems what you naturally did and what they naturally expected weren't compatible. I'm sorry it didn't work out for your non-date, but if you all get to know each other better perhaps all parties can wind up developing mutual trust and maybe you'll all get the chance to try again.

Mischa, what's your take?

I agree with Leon that you didn't do anything "wrong" - other than fail to exercise your Charles Xavier-like telepathic talent about the other couple's relationship agreements. But there's a simple reason why I feel your actions are blameless in this particular situation - you didn't profess to be anything other than heterosexual in your narrative.

See, if you extrapolate the other couple's reaction, it seems they had an agreement of some kind that any new partners would be required to date both of them as a couple. Why else would the husband take offense that he was not invited to a social function if they didn't think of themselves as a "duo of one", a single dating unit? 

So the fact that you did not say you were bisexual or pansexual when you first asked to spend time with the wife should have clearly signaled to the husband that your primary interest is dating women. If he then had an expectation that you were going to date them as a couple, he should have asked you about your feelings about dating men. For him to remain silent until weeks later makes me think there is more going on here than a simple miscommunication.

It's possible that in the weeks after your first meeting, a new agreement was put in place (or unilaterally adopted) and you were not informed. It's also possible that the husband simply made up the excuse to complain in order to arrest the wife's new relationship. Either way, there's no way you could have prevented this outcome from happening - the wife would have had to inform you. The fact she didn't makes the first scenario unlikely, but the second is certainly a possibility.

Even if I'm completely wrong about these possibilities, you could have done a better job in setting expectations at the outset. For example, you could have said that your primary interest is dating the wife (with everybody's knowledge and consent) and asked them how they felt about that. This is actually a pretty common issue in the poly community. When one half of a couple gets more attention than the other, there is a high risk of resentment and destructive behavior from both partners. The courted partner may not want their partner to be left behind or feels guilty about getting more attention. The non-dating partner may feel unwanted, insecure and threatened by the new relationship. 

In these situations, successful poly dating requires you to put yourself in each other person's perspective and try to understand how actions and events might make them feel. Even being friends with couples can be a little tricky, so dating them takes a great deal of finesse. In fact, I would hesitate to even approach dating a married person before establishing a good rapport with both spouses (this is a hard-won lesson from experience speaking here).

Some of my closest friends and intentional family are monogamous couples who I enjoy spending time with each individually and in groups of three or more. We all make an effort to balance our one-on-one time and group time, and we're not even dating! I'm not saying all couples are like that, but if you're thinking of trying repair the situation, I would recommend reaching out to the couple with an offer of friendship (i.e. invite them to an outdoor movie screening or some other casual, public event) and build that base of trust and friendship before exploring more serious pursuits in the sexual arena. If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then maybe it's best to let it go and say lesson learned.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Objectification at a sex party

Leon and Mischa,

I know that a polyamorous person is able to have multiple partners, including sexual partners, and it's not taboo - even without a formal relationship. Do you feel as a result that people sometimes objectify their partners more?

I recently had a poly guy as a sexual partner, and while we mutually didn't want a romantic relationship, in many ways i felt objectified in that I was only there for a purpose and not for a connection. We attended a play party and I felt our sex became more of a performance, and in that sense I was an object to watch. When the purpose was over, then the ties were severed.

Is this a normal occurrence/feeling? Is this what I should expect from future poly partners?

Lost Panda

Dear Panda,

While I wouldn’t say this is a “normal” occurrence, I can certainly say it’s more common in poly relationships than it would be in monogamous relationships, but only because there is the freedom in poly relationships to create different models that may not be satisfying for both partners.

A key difference between poly and mono relationships is that in a poly relationship, there usually isn’t the pressure of being the ONLY relationship in someone’s life. When someone enters a monogamous relationship, there is usually an understanding that it will fulfill all the expectations they have for a relationship – emotional/financial support, sexual compatibility, companionship – and do so exclusively between the two partners. In a poly relationship, if it’s open and not closed (as in a poly-fidelitous triad, for example) the responsibility for fulfilling all these expectations shifts from the relationship to the individual, who is empowered to seek them out from different people, if necessary.

In your case, it sounds like you were clear in your poly relationship what you didn’t want, but not so clear about what you did want. When you tell someone, “I don’t want a romantic relationship” it can be interpreted many different ways. To one person, it might mean “we can have recreational sex.” For someone else, it might be “we have a relationship, but there is no commitment between us.” A third person might think, “I am not responsible for your emotional needs.”

It is a common fallacy that poly people are incapable of commitment. On the contrary, poly done well usually requires multiple commitments to multiple people. Each relationship may have its own rules and agreements worked out up front and adjusted over time. At each point, partners negotiate their terms for what they want out of the other person, and out of the relationship itself. Each agreement made between partners is a commitment you make to the other person. Breaking a commitment in a poly relationship results in the same violation of trust, discussion, healing or dissolution as infidelity does in monogamous relationships.

Panda, in your case as you’ve explained it, the problem is not so much that your partner was poly, but rather that both of you were not clear about the kind of relationship you wanted from each other. If you’ve been to sex parties before, you might have discussed your desire for connectedness beforehand. If this was your first sex party, he should have discussed with you what to expect, so you could decide how you might feel about it.

For example, when I used to go to parties with a partner where such activities might occur, we agreed to check in with each other to stay connected, even if we were spending time with others. Mind you, it took a couple missteps to figure out that this was what I needed.

Polyamory is a lot like democracy – you have to participate in order for it to work. While that’s true for every relationship, with poly there will be fewer assumptions so it requires more discussion so that false assumptions don’t take root. Think of poly as itemizing the deductions on your tax return, while monogamy is taking the standard deduction. It takes more work, but the rewards may be worth the effort.

Leon, your thoughts? 

   I'm just going to sit here for a sec and enjoy the income tax analogy you just made.  So awesome...

  Here's my take, Panda.  I don't know what your partner was thinking leading into, during, or after the play party - but that's only to be expected, since I'm an advice columnist and all I have to go on is your thumbnail sketch of events.  You on the other hand knew this person beforehand, you made the arrangements, and had whatever experience you did.  I agree with Mischa you probably would have been better prepared and had a better experience had you discussed expectations ahead of time - but since there's no universal handbook for play party etiquette and expectations (OMG there totally should be), you live and you learn.

  And learning is a good thing!  As a partnered newbie exploring the play scene, every experience you have should potentially teach you lessons about two people: yourself and your partner. Learning what you like and don't will shape your personality and desires for the rest of your life.  Now that you know you're personally sensitive to that situation, in the future you might adjust your expectations with this same partner (or at least have a good conversation with him - have you considered part of his turn-on might be the exhibition aspect of play)?  Alternately, consider other partners who are more into the personal connection than purely physical.

  As for learning about your partners, it's like dating in the default world.  A new person may seem fantastic, but after a few dates you realize they're self-centered, or they have poor manners, or they have an annoying habit of scratching their nose in a way that just gives you the willies.  You just discover those things as you go.  When you participate in sex play with people you don't know too well, the things that surprise and disappoint you have a greater likelihood of throwing you for a loop, especially if you're not supercomfortable with those type of events.  It's of course best to ask questions ahead of time - but if they're not situations you know are going to happen, there's really no way to know what's worth asking, other than general comfort with whomever you're sharing your time.

   To specifically answer your question, then, many people at sex parties are likely to value the physical connection over the personal - it's essentially the raison d'être for being there - but that's hardly endemic to poly people.  In fact, I'd say truly poly people are more likely to value you on a personal level due to our focus on connection.  Regardless, a person who has no interest in you beyond the sex act is going to make you feel objectified, while a person who's into cuddling and pillowtalk (not to mention genuine connection) is likely to make you feel less so.  The root of your negative experience seems to me to have more to do with that specific partner's personality, and less with his representation as polyamorous.  Better luck with your next partner and party!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Poly medical insurance shortcomings - and how you can help

Dear Mischa and Leon,

I have a strange question for you... What are the poly community's thoughts on medical insurance?   I can't put both my partners on my medical insurance because they are married to each other and because I can't have more then one partner on it anyway (and because people at my job don't know that I have two partners.)  I find this atrocious and horribly unjust, for obvious reasons. Do you guys do parades or outreach events that would bring awareness of our existence in the vanilla community, besides our internal meet and greet events like Poly Cocktails? What kind of political or community issues does the poly community of NY address? What are your thoughts on the whole issue of us staying below the radar? Poly families have no recognition by society? All that stuff? What the official response vs. your thoughts?


Dear Elise33,
This is a very unusual question, so we brought out one of our big guns to help answer it. This response is from Diana Adams, who is both a founding member of Open Love NY and a co-host of Poly Cocktails:

“I'm an attorney and political activist working to increase awareness about nontraditional family forms, and support couples who may choose not to marry or polyamorous families. Marriage between two people garners over 1,000 different rights and privileges, and it’s the primary way that our government recognizes and supports families, as with the way that you can provide your spouse with health insurance and get immigration benefits. The premise of the same-sex marriage movement was that marriage confers so many rights that to leave gay folks out is discrimination. But now we've just moved the line of discrimination back to marital status. Given that fewer than 50% of American adults are married, that’s a majority who are left out.

The polyamory community is diverse and does not have one monolithic political stance on what we should do about this. Open Love NY does not have a particular stance, but is one of many groups raising awareness about relationship options like polyamory. If you want to be raising political awareness, share that perspective with the group and help make it happen.

My opinion is that rather than fit in more romantic partners to get employer-funded health care, that we should be separating these benefits from whether you’re in a romantic relationship that’s approved by the government.

To get updates on this ongoing cultural conversation with opportunities to get involved, I invite you to join my monthly email list and follow me on Facebook or Twitter at:”

So there you have it, and I agree that the discriminatory treatment is unjust. But as Diana suggests, in the bigger picture the fight may not be about "getting poly rights" but rather opening up rights to everyone, regardless of marital status or romantic involvement. That's going to take time to parse out all the levels of understanding on the issue before we see any real progress in the law. 

The first step is coming out of the shadows and proving that this viewpoint is even relevant in terms of numbers. Change is never going to happen if the cause is viewed as one affecting an insignificant number of people. That's what Open Love NY is on the forefront of doing - getting the word out through media and growing our community, building an army, if you will. Only by raising the visibility of the issue will we ever hope to effect change.

In the past six months we've been on ABC-TV's The View and Dan Savage's radio show, plus and now Rolling Stone Magazine. I'd say we are officially "over the radar" but we need to do more. This month we might see a story in the Huffington Post and perhaps PIX 11 News. We need people to step up and share their poly stories to keep feeding the pipeline to the media, creating a steady drumbeat of our concerns and why our way of life works for us.

Before I turn it over to Leon, I want to share this quote that always inspires me as an activist and reminds me that nothing comes easy:

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." - Frederick Douglass, 1857

Diana is one of our community leaders helping to make poly acceptance (and all the legal rights and social recognition that comes along with it) a reality.  My hat goes off to her and all the Open Love NY volunteers, organizers, and supporters.

Right now, I don't know there's a workable solution for your insurance problem, simply because most applicable laws are behind the times and don't recognize the validity of familial relationships beyond nuclear/marital ones. This can and will change over time, but only when more public presence and support arrives for modern, nontraditional relationships.  The best you could probably hope for at this point is to cover the more accident-prone, or the one who has less access to coverage via other means (but reassure the other this doesn't mean you're intending to slight or undervalue your relationship with them)!

Open Love NY as an organization does participate in parades and rallies, and in addition to the great media publicity we've had lately as per Mischa's comments and monthly events we sponsor (Poly Cocktails each second Monday, Discussion Group each fourth Tuesday), we also have our website (which is about to undergo an exciting upgrade!), Facebook group, Google Group mailing list, and the advice column you're reading right now. We're doing what we can as an organization to provide both education to non-poly people, and resources for poly people and allies.

What we can't do as an organization is take the steps that you as our readers, question writers, and individuals of all kinds can: make change happen yourselves. If you can, be more "out" about your own situation. One of the best ways to change peoples' opinions on topics is to show them that the people they're potentially judging or misunderstanding, aren't mythical people elsewhere, but their own friends, families, coworkers, neighbors, and so on. If you can't come clean about your own situation, then be more vocal in your conversations with others about your feelings on those topics. You don't need to out yourself to have strong opinions on what you feel is "right". Staying below the radar might feel safe, but your invisibility doesn't help when you want to change the status quo.

I'll close by joining the quote bandwagon with one of my favorites, from Moms Mabley: "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Poly people vs Swingers = Montagues and Capulets?

Greetings. So, the deal is that am very honest and up front about who my wife and I are when meeting others for the first time; something that I think most people can and would appreciate. I like others to know where we are coming from and where we are trying to get. I cannot stress how much honesty means to us. In any case, the background of my wife and I will include that fact that we were in the swing community before we found the poly community. At that point it seems that I might as well have said we are serial killers based on their reaction. The reply that I received on a poly-dating site started off nice until she wrote about why she can’t look at ex-swingers without “remember what you [they] did.” To be completely fair, she also acknowledges that she probably shouldn’t have those prejudges against me, but she can’t help it. Another person explained that some swingers use the cover of being poly to simply have sexual relations with others, but not really wanting the relationship part. This couldn’t be further from what we are looking for. In fact, that is why we are seeking guidance and support from those that know the poly ropes well. Our goal from the get-go was in line with the theories, as far as I understand, of the poly community. We wanted relationships to go along with everything else. What we noticed was that goal for us seemed to scare some swingers away, but brought others closer to us. These were all signs that polyamory could and would work for us.

So I have a few questions: 

What is everyone’s opinion about swingers or ex-swingers? 
Is there a way to prove to others that I am genuine when I state that I prefer this community (relationship choice) to the swing community? 
In general, what should I be considering when communicating with others of the poly mindset?
Am I just being crazy, and I just had bad luck talking to certain people?

I’d hate to think that I would have to hide my past to be able to fit in.


Greetings back, SZ!  First off, let me commend you and Mrs Z for your commitment to honesty.  Without it, relationships of all kinds simply don't work. 

For those who don't know what swinging is, and why it may be seen negatively, an explanation is in order. While definitions vary widely, a reasonably simple distinction is that swingers are open to casual sex, outside of and in addition to any existing romantic or emotional attachment, and polyamorists are open to romantic or emotional attachments, outside of and in addition to any existing romantic or emotional attachments. 

With clearly a ton of overlap, why is swinging such a contentious issue in the poly world?  Well, some people don't think much of casual sex.  Many have had bad experiences which color their views.  Others believe it to be immoral.  Still others consider it a form of cheating.  In short, everyone has opinions on sex, but because it's so commonly avoided as a topic in both conversation and education, it's fertile breeding ground for personal baggage based on small sample sizes, gossip, media, repressed desires, lack of healthy information, and so on.  Swinging has developed somewhat of a reputation for being "all about the sex," and since many people in the poly world consider the sex secondary to strong positive interpersonal connections, some look down on swinging and swingers, particularly those who haven't made the effort to improve their own communication and honesty skills.

You may take some consolation in the fact that while you're likely to find people who are have negative views of the swing community, those people aren't likely to be a good match for you and your partner anyway, unless you're able to address their concerns and possible misconceptions in a positive way that builds trust. Which brings us to your second question.

As written earlier, I'm a big fan of honesty.  Don't ever hide what or who you are (or were); instead, understand your target peer group and find out better ways to help them feel comfortable with you.   In order to get in good with poly people, remember the priority poly gives to open and honest communication, and go out of your way to communicate that you both understand and prefer this system.  Have people already in the community vouch for you, if possible.  Spend time getting to know new poly people as simply new friends, and perhaps bring up sexual topics later, once everyone feels comfortable.  Regardless of your approach, no one should come down on you too hard for your swinging ways, especially since without a reliable Idiot's Guide to Polyamory (hey, there's a book idea) most of us have learned our way through the non-vanilla world through trial and error, including trying different ideas and experiences on to see how they fit and made us feel.  If you are able to express this to potential new partners, as well as what you and your wife are looking for now and why, I think you'll find that those certain people you've encountered will prove to be in the minority.  

Mischa, what's your take?  And kindly reference a superhero movie from a decade ago in your response.

Leon, that pretty much covers the whole issue of how people view swinging and the swinger community. Personally, I have never been in the swinger community, but have friends who are or were in it. I can't tell anyone else what to think, but it seems silly to me for poly people to have such a low opinion of swingers. Frankly, we're all under the same big umbrella of non-monogamy and each group should be supportive of the other. 

If you think about what polyamory is all about, at its core it is about making up your own rules. One of the things we say at the beginning of every Open Love NY meeting as a part of safe space rules is that everyone has the right to do what feels comfortable and right for themselves and should not be attacked for it. I view swingers as a subset of poly people who have very specific relationship agreements that allow sexual activity but not emotional attachment. If that's what works for them, then who is anyone to argue?

How would I "prove" your preference for this community? That's simple - to quote from Batman Begins (2005), it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you. If you're spending your free time in the poly community, learning the lingo and getting to know people, no one will question your intentions on which community you want to belong to. 

But as you said, there are people with prejudices and I understand not wanting to lead with a bad first impression. My approach is a little less direct than Leon's (being more of a woman's point of view) because to me, talking about your sexual history is not something I would discuss until it was relevant, e.g. there is sexual interest on both sides. At that point I would certainly be open about how many partners I've been with and in what context (monogamous, open relationships, sex parties, etc.) 

However, what I probably wouldn't say is that "I was a swinger." I don't view that omission in any way deceptive, unless you intend to remain a member of the swinger community. Basically what I'm saying is that you should define yourself by who you ARE now, and what you've DONE in the past, but you don't need to disclose who you WERE in the past. We all have past lives that we deserve to let go of so we can focus on the present.

Again, I stress that I'm a big proponent of honesty when it comes to sexual partners and under what situations you've had sex when dealing with a new partner. We all need to be able to be open about that without guilt or shame. But just as going to Poly Cocktails doesn't necessarily make you poly, and going to Suspension doesn't necessarily make you a kinkster, going to a sex party doesn't necessarily make you a swinger. If that's in your past, then leave it in the past. Good luck!