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!

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: www.DianaAdamsLaw.net.”

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 Nerve.com 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.”

Should I let my partner read my emails?

Hello there,

I am new to the poly world and consider myself an enthusiast at this point.  Still doing a lot of research and soul searching.  I think I still have a lot of personal work to do before I can decide if the poly lifestyle suits me.  I have gotten as far as discussing it seriously with my partner and she is willing to explore it with me.  I am so happy at her acceptance and our bond has gotten so much stronger because of it.

But I wanted to get your veteran opinion on a particular issue.  What is the general policy about a partner reading email between me and someone else?  This is one of my personal issues to be worked out, but I am extraordinarily uncomfortable with this.  I am willing to discuss the content in a summarized way, but my back goes up when I think about her reading what I previously wrote to someone else in a private conversation.  If we agreed to read email going forward, I would certainly write in a different style.

Just a newbie’s issue.  Any help greatly appreciated.

Hello G,
In my opinion, this is by far the hardest question we’ve gotten on this blog so far because it deals with so many issues all at once – trust, insecurity, personal privacy and intimacy. So let’s try and break this down to see if we can get to a satisfactory answer.

As with most things poly, there is no “general policy” about how things are done. That’s what makes being poly difficult for a lot of people – you have to create your own rules, rather than rely on the ones that society expects and continuously reinforces. But of course there is a “general policy” for mail and email – you don’t read anyone’s mail but your own. So your partner is starting off the negotiations by asking to violate a standard policy (and a law, when it comes to mail) of our entire society, poly and non-poly.

If the idea of anyone reading your email makes you uncomfortable, I don’t blame you. And I’m guessing that your partner might be uncomfortable with being poly if she is not allowed to read your emails to and from a prospective new person in the relationship. So there is definitely room for negotiation.

First of all, I would establish the parameters of what she’s asking for. Is she asking for your password that would give her free access to your account to read and impersonate you as she wishes? Or is she asking to see only the emails pertaining to a specific person, trusting that you will show her all such emails? Do you get to be present when she reads them? And do you get the same privilege with her emails?

Once you firmly know what it is she’s asking, then share your feelings and concerns with her. Most importantly, let her know that your discomfort has nothing to do with exploring polyamory – it’s a basic privacy issue. It would be easy for this to become a lightning rod issue for your relationship, but the simple truth is that you would probably be uncomfortable with her reading your email whether you choose to be poly or not. It’s not because you are secretive or hiding anything. It’s a basic right to privacy that we as a society have placed a high value on (which is why the NSA surveillance/Wiki Leaks/Edward Snowden matter is such a huge deal).

So ask her what she expects to gain from reading your emails. If you are exploring polyamory together, you should already have set up some agreements and boundaries, so does she think monitoring and enforcing those agreements will make her feel safer and more secure in her relationship with you? If that’s so, what about other forms of communication – Skype calls, texts, IM chats? Will all those be monitored as well? You could rightly make the argument that she might be spending so much time looking at your relationship with the other person that she will scarcely have time to actually spend with YOU.

Basically, what I’m saying is, if your partner doesn’t trust you to show you or tell you about the communications with your new person, how can she trust you to even be monogamous with her? If she trusts you enough to be sexually exclusive with her, it seems she would be able to trust you enough to tell her whatever you two have agreed to tell each other about new people. And if she does trust you to keep open lines of communication, then your idea of providing a summary (or just keeping her in the loop in general) of your progress with someone else really should suffice.

Because if she insists on reading emails, how long will it be before you stop using email for your other person and switch to phone calls, texts and IMs? Then if she’s reading all those, will she ban you from leaving the house except for work? Will she put a tracking collar on your ankle? Can you see how trust has to start somewhere? That’s why breaking someone’s trust is so devastating to a relationship – it’s really hard to win it back if you lost it before.

There’s also the notion that new people in a relationship should be afforded the same respect as other partners in the relationship. So if you and your partner are reading each other’s emails, the third person should also be given that privilege. If they are not, it puts them in a subordinate position in the relationship that they might not tolerate.

Bottom line for me: if your partner trusts you enough to explore polyamory together, that trust has to extend to creating workable and open communications about potential new people that everyone can live with, not just your partner.

Leon, what do you think?

/pees for like, 2 minutes straight
My, that was a wonderful hibernation.  It’s great to be back!  And – oh, look, a question. Let’s see what it says.  Mmm hmm…

Ah, this is a great question, and an issue I’ve discussed just this week IRL with a friend of mine new to the poly scene. My advice is (predictably) somewhat different from Mischa’s, but it is a topic I feel strongly about – and a policy I follow in my own relationships.

All healthy relationships are based on mutual trust.  If you can’t trust your partner, you can’t have an emotionally significant relationship with a future.  I would like to know her motivation for wanting to read your otherwise personal conversations – is it curiosity, suspicion, or simply a desire to take the whole “open and honest” mindset to its logical extreme? Understanding your partner’s underlying mindset should help you feel better about the request.

Let me tell you about my friend’s situation.  She had been seeing this guy for half a year – both had other partners, more of a “New York Single” than a “polyamorous” situation.  Two months ago, they became more serious, and decided on mutual physical exclusivity except at play parties, where they agreed they could play with others together, or separately if the other didn’t veto it.  Nothing here surprising for newbies dipping their toes in the responsible nonmonogamy pool: negotiated agreements, mutual veto power, pre-event discussions, and limited autonomy outside the other’s presence in a play space. 

They had amazing sexual chemistry and were growing closer over the last month in particular, spending lots of time together and she was thoroughly enjoying herself.  But despite (or perhaps  because of) their growing bond, she told me, she didn’t fully trust him.  The main reason for her discomfort was his not-infrequent late-night calls from girls he let go to his voicemail, even after two+ months of their supposed physical exclusivity.  She told me he was offering farfetched but plausible excuses for these calls, like that he didn’t deal well with conflict and preferred to let these girls “get the idea” by not taking their calls, rather than tell them outright that he was in an exclusive relationship.  But it didn’t feel right, and she asked me what she could do to learn the truth.

My first instinct was to look at his phone messages – and that’s what I told her.  If she found damning evidence, then she’d know her suspicions were right. And if she found nothing out of the ordinary, she could refocus her energies on making the relationship work, and strengthening her own trust by believing him the next time something seemed amiss.  Long story short, she wound up checking his phone – and spent a good part of that next day chatting on the phone with his long-term GIRLFRIEND.

Why is dishonesty such a huge part of modern society?  I don’t know. But it’s an incredibly pervasive problem in most relationships, poly or otherwise. There are lots of reasons why we hide things from our partners – some altruistic, most not.  Personally, I am a strong believer that – barring specific messages involving either finances, work, or third-party secrets – EVERY EMAIL AND TEXT SHOULD BE FAIR GAME FOR YOUR OTHER PARTNER/S TO READ.  Unusual?  Yes.  It’s a sea-change from the traditional mindset to imagine that anything you write to anyone might wind up being read by a partner of yours, with your blessing.  But it makes perfect sense. What better way to reassure your partner they are a part of your life, and you are hiding nothing from them?  In fact, an optimal relationship involves trust to such a degree that the offer to read any and all communications is always on the table – and (almost) never taken up on.  As you and your partner are entering this new phase of your relationship, one of the most important things you must do is maintain and develop your underlying connection. And the best way to do this is to build mutual trust. If you’re hesitant to let your partner read your private messages, you’re not being fully open and honest – and perhaps not fully trustworthy.

A Dear Abby advice column I read as a child really stuck with me and helped shape my perception of behavior and openness.  The gist of it was, “always act as if everyone you’d ever met and cared about was watching.”  This was long before I’d ever heard of polyamory and its “open and honest” mantra, but it applies marvelously.  Once you wrap your head around a life without secrets, it makes all your connections and communications so much better.

If you’re looking to build something special with a person, I recommend being open and honest with them in ALL things.  That includes your communications with other people.  And if you’d change your writing style knowing someone else is going to read it, my question for you is – what are you hiding and why?  Is your discomfort from fear over how your current partner might react if she sees you flirting with someone else in private – maybe using some of the same terms of endearment, or revealing interests you haven’t shared with her?  Hopefully not revealing trysts you’ve had without her knowledge….?  Still, you said you’d change your writing STYLE rather than the content – which tells me perhaps you should work on overcoming your own fears, coming to terms with the fact you are sharing your life with someone special, and that means sharing your genuine thoughts and wishes, too – even ones that don’t involve her, or involve others with whom you share a connection.  If she sees some things that upset her, you should sit down together, compare your feelings and expectations, and develop your connection on a deeper level.  You described in your question how much closer you and your partner felt after discussing some potentially tricky issues in your relationship.  This is just more of the same.  When it gets to the point where you are both okay, even encouraging, with your partner reading your messages without censorship, you will likely find it both a relief and a way to bring you closer.  While most of us are taught that our private communications are meant to stay that way, an open and honest relationship isn’t one where you should be picking and choosing which doors to keep locked and which to crack open for peeks.  My advice is: open it up, all the way.  Deal with any consequences like an adult, and use this as an opportunity to develop a stronger, healthier primary relationship.  Like with so many other issues in our community, I bet the reality will be much less scary than you imagine.

Poly Radio Blah Blah

Don’t miss your chance on Monday to ask us questions live on the phone!

Mischa and Leon will be the featured guests on Love Online Radio, with Laura Banks and Susan Winter, from 11 am to noon on Monday, April 30. The show can be accessed through your computer or iPhone at http://toginet.com/shows/loveonlineradio

To call in and ask a question or express an opinion, the toll free studio number is: 866-404-6519. We’d love to hear from our members and faithful readers!

There will also be a podcast version of this show available from iTunes in the next few weeks.

Update: the show is now available as a podcast on iTunes. Click on the show for 4/30 to download the podcast into your iTunes.

Agreeable relationship agreements

Hello Friends,
I’m looking for a list of questions that my partner and I can ask ourselves in trying to make an open relationship agreement.
Negotiating Newbie

Hi Newbie! Thanks for addressing what I consider an important but often overlooked part of poly: working together to make all parties happy. Since your question involves just the two of you at this stage, I’ll address both of you with my suggestions, although these should be easily extrapolated for larger groups.

I find that most relationship negotiations are best handled in this order: 1) figure out what you want; 2) figure out what your partner wants; and then 3) figure out the best solution for everyone. If you’re familiar with the concept of game theory – this is it, applied to real life. The idea is to find the path which leads to the most collective happiness and the least collective dissatisfaction.

Find some time you both can set aside uninterrupted, at least an hour (but could easily be more).

For step one, I’d recommend that each of you should on your own (no peeking!) write up a list of things you’d want in your relationship going forward, both long and short term. Include things you feel are mandatory, best-case scenarios, and what you’d be happy ‘settling’ for. Also include any dealbreakers you have which you would NOT consider at this point. Be as detailed or as general as you like, but cover as much ground as you can. Also remember these are ideas and talking points as much as they are ingredients for agreements, and nothing at this point is set in stone. It’s just a list of what you want – all of which your partner should know.

Step two, communicating with your partner, is more than just sharing the lists, although that’s how it starts. The biggest stumbling block in negotiating relationship agreements I’ve found is where people think they’re on the same page but it turns out they’re not. Therefore, be prepared to explain your underlying reasons for each item on your list, even if you think they are obvious. The key here is understanding why your partner wants what they want. I would recommend being as honest as possible about your true desires, even if you think your partner wouldn’t agree to or doesn’t share them, because the better your partner can understand what you want and why, the better chance you have of reaching mutual understanding. Conversely, when your partner is sharing things with you honestly, you may be surprised by some of what you hear. Keep an open mind, and remember that listening openly is part of the exercise. Make sure you each have the chance to speak as much as you want, and don’t move on past any item until you both feel you understand the other. Negative feelings may arise, but if you have a strong underlying primary relationship, and you mutually commit to holding your relationship as special, you will come to appreciate their sharing their desires with you, rather than feeling jealous or uncomfortable. Practice compersion.

Once you feel you have shared what is important to you, and have heard what is important to your partner, it’s time for step three, coming up with the actual agreement. Since you’re both new at this, your ground rules should be mutually agreed upon in writing, with definitions included if needed. (What is ‘sex’? What is ‘overnight’? What is ‘together’?) Try to include a catch-all, a plan of action to take if you’re unsure about what to do in a situation. Each of you should get a copy, and it’s a nice personalized touch to have each of you sign the other’s. Agree to revisit the rules after a set period of time (a week, a month, six months, whatever), or before then if one or both of you have concerns. Also remember that miscommunications happen, even after you’ve spent all this time clarifying them. Sometimes rules seem to conflict or become impractical in practice. In addition, negotiated rules cover the situations you can imagine, but what happens if something you haven’t covered comes up? This is where sharing the underlying rationale for your rules comes in handy; once you truly understand the rationale behind your partner’s desires you can usually extrapolate appropriate behavior for situations you haven’t yet considered. But check in with your partner if you’re not sure about something. I also recommend letting any new partners you may have know about your agreement; you don’t necessarily need to each walk around with your copy at all times in your wallet (although you could!), but definitely make sure new people in your life are aware both of your existing relationship/s and its relevant terms.

As an aside, I’ve found that most negotiated relationship agreements evolve over time, and after time they may simplify or even disappear entirely. The whole point of an agreement is to find ways to reach that mutual “win” that takes each of your wants into consideration, and the more you find you understand each other, the easier it becomes to achieve. Eventually you may reach the point where you each do the things you want, automatically incorporating the things you know make your partner happy, and you’ll find you won’t need that piece of paper after all. Good luck reaching relationship nirvana! Mischa, what’s your take?

Well, I really don’t have much to add to all that! You have definitely laid out the whole process soup-to-nuts….spoken like a real attorney! And if you are an attorney (like Leon is) then I’m sure this all sounds perfectly fine to you.

[Insert lawyer joke of your choice here]

I agree wholeheartedly about getting to the underlying reasons one person wants something from another person. Contrary to popular rumor, poly people aren’t immune to jealousy. But there is always a way to deal with it constructively versus destructively. Remember that jealousy is one partner’s issue; no one “makes” you feel jealous. You control your own feelings based on what you’ve agreed to with your partner(s). If they don’t honor those agreements, then you can feel disappointed and hurt, but put the blame squarely where it belongs and for a specific action without condemning the whole person or the relationship.

So a good relationship agreement lets each partner know where the boundaries are that makes the relationship valuable and sustainable for them. If you follow Leon’s process above and can’t come to an agreement, then maybe the relationship isn’t going to be what you want it to be. It could still be a positive thing in your life, but maybe it’s not sustainable. Or maybe it’s sustainable in a different form but doesn’t have the intimacy you wanted, meaning you have to find that component elsewhere.

The point is that everyone is transparent about what they have, and everyone has the choice to take it or leave it.

While I also agree with Leon that relationship agreements tend to loosen over time, I’m not a big fan of making draconian agreements in the first place. My one little piece of advice is to keep agreements as simple as possible and try to make agreements that you are confident you can keep. Not everybody has the temperament to sit down and go through the whole litany of relationship possibilities at the beginning.

So another option is to tackle one or two big rules first, and work in the rest as time and experience dictates. It’s like, instead of filling up your plate on your first trip to the buffet, just start with a salad and come back for the main course. The key is to create an atmosphere where every partner feels safe in bringing up new situations that might affect the relationship. Regular check-ins can be used to go over what rules are in place and what might need to change over time.

A great example of why this approach might work better is illustrated brilliantly in Franklin Veaux’s blog post titled “If People Approached Monogamy The Way They Approach Polyamory.” In reading this article, it’s easy to see how relationship agreements that sound perfectly reasonable to a couple might make absolutely no sense to a potential new partner.

It’s also a basic courtesy to include all parties that are affected by rules into the rule-making process (remember, we Americans fought a war over power imposed without representation – it’s not something easily tolerated). So especially if you are just a couple for now, maybe you start small and work your way through new rules if and when a new person joins you, incorporating that person’s specific desires and situation organically into your agreement.

And of course, if you get stuck, you might want to think about bringing in a professional, like our Open Love NY co-conspirator Diana Adams, a New York-based attorney who specializes in non-traditional and polyamorous relationship agreements. Her fee might be a small price to pay for a successful and happy relationship with the right person.

Good luck to you and let us know how things go!



First off, I’d like to thank you on running a great blog. I’m pretty new to polyamory and having this resource really helped me out a few times. I have sort of a general question about feelings of poly saturation. I have a primary and a secondary, and have been thinking about taking on a casual relationship with one other person, but I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed while talking to this third person about a possible relationship. While I don’t want to hurt them by outright rejecting them, I really think I’m biting off more than I can chew. Have you got any advice?

Thanks again for great information!

Too many feelings

Dear Feelings,

Ah, the old question about poly-saturation! Juggling three relationships certainly can be challenging, especially for a beginner at poly. But if each relationship brings you joy and happiness, it can be very satisfying and rewarding too.

So from the way you phrased your letter, it sounds like the part that makes you feel overwhelmed is the actual talking about a potential relationship, not the hanging out and spending time with this new person. So the easy solution might be to table the “relationship negotiations” and just enjoy a casual friendship for now. There’s nothing wrong with saying to the new person, “Look, I really like you and I want to keep spending time with you, but I’m just not ready to talk about entering a formal relationship with you right now.”

Love may be infinite, but your time is not.

A big part of being poly is recognizing and respecting what each person is willing and able to give you in terms of time and intimacy, and deciding if you want to accept it or not. Everyone has the freedom to choose, and everyone has boundaries. Negotiating what you want within these parameters is the key to making polyamory work successfully.

So step one is to decide what you want. If you want some kind of new relationship, is it going to mean giving up time with one of your other sweeties in exchange? How will they feel about that? Are you willing to give up some of your “me time” instead? Will having less downtime negatively impact all your relationships?

Of course, a new relationship doesn’t HAVE to take more time. Your boundaries could include a limit on the time spent together with your new partner. Again, they might not find that acceptable, so you’ll have to negotiate. I can easily see how this can get overwhelming quickly.

But if you feel like you have a genuine connection with someone, there’s no reason to reject them outright. If you’re not ready to pursue it, put it on the back burner until you are ready to give it the attention it deserves.

Leon, what’s your take?

Great question – and I agree with most of what Mischa wrote. The biggest problems when entering the poly world can involve jealousy, or communication, or simply shaking off the shackles of traditional expectations – but perhaps the biggest problem for people who are experienced with polyamory tends to be scheduling! There are only 24 hours in the day for each of us, and both cloning and string theory still have quite a ways to go before we can expect to be able to be in more than one place at once.

The fact you’ve gotten this far – where you’re making poly work for you and feel comfortable with what you’ve got – is a good sign that you’re doing things right, and sometimes you need to trust your gut when it tells you something is a little off. If you’re feeling like this third relationship might be too much for you, you might want to spend a little time figuring what it is specifically that’s giving you cause for pause.

If it’s really a time management issue, figure out how much time you have to spare for exploring with this third person while keeping your other relationships strong, and decide whether or not you feel comfortable committing it – especially if you’re not sure where you want it to go and how much time it might eventually absorb.

Otherwise, look at it clinically. Do they fill a need or desire you have but aren’t currently getting from your current partners? Or is it more of a curiosity about a/this new person? Is it the potential for New Relationship Energy (NRE)? Conversely, might it be a situation in which you don’t feel comfortable saying no?

There’s a lot of potential depth and many angles here, but I think the most important point to take is this, in which it seems Mischa and I are both agreed: first find out what it is you want, then take steps to get it in a way that respects your current relationships, with your partners and with yourself. Only you can tell whether or not adding someone new to the mix is a good idea – or prevent forest fires.

Good luck!

Am I POLY, or just HORNY?

You run a fantastic blog! Thanks for allowing us to ask these sensitive questions in safety and openness. 🙂

I read your excellent post on Open Relationships vs. Polyamory and, after examining my feelings and situation, I’m still uncertain as to where I fall.
I’ve been happily married for over two years. My wife is a delightful, open-minded and intelligent young woman who’s made no qualms about identifying as bisexual with strongly lesbian tendencies. While I tend to identify as straight as I feel no physical attraction to men – there are some very handsome guys out there, sure, but I don’t feel anywhere near as compelled by them as I am by women – I do feel strong attractions to women who aren’t my wife. I used to chalk this up to either animal instinct or (in a few cases) old emotional attachments, but as time has gone on I’ve felt such things towards women I’ve had no past history with.
The other thing that belies the “it’s just horniness” argument I keep trying to use on myself is that these ladies to whom I’m attracted invoke emotional reactions as well as sexual. Not the deep and abiding love I have for my wife, mind you, but the sort of bonds I forge with close friends. I care about them, delight in their triumphs and want to comfort them in their sorrow, make myself available to them and wish them every measure of happiness. In short: I’m not just looking for fuckbuddies.
I come from a very Christian upbringing. I still hold onto the barest of tenets of that faith – loving God, loving my neighbor and testing everything so I can hold on to what’s good – so for a long time I’ve considered such impulses and feelings to be wrong. The more I embrace them, however, the more at peace I feel. I feel more comfortable in my own skin knowing that I make women happy, even if they’re women who aren’t my wife. I think this might be pointing me in a direction I’ve never considered. I may, in fact, be poly.
I feel strongly about freedom, about the rights of the LGBT community and how, especially in a country founded on liberty and a lack of persecution (in theory), people should be free to love, live and interact as they see fit as long as nobody’s getting hurt. But I don’t know exactly how to deal with this other than just going with my feelings. Have other polys had experiences like this, sort of a ‘coming out of the closet’ moment? Am I poly? Or am I just putting emotions behind normal straight horniness and overthinking the situation? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
Sincerely yours,

Confused And Restless

Dear CAR (No relation to K.I.T.T., right?):

Here’s an interesting question for you in response to your question for us. Is our sexual orientation determined by our actions, or our feelings? If someone is born with a preference for homosexual eroticism, but never acts on it, are they “gay”? Conversely, could a straight person choose to have a homosexual experience, and still be “straight”?

If you believe that “being poly” means acting on your feelings, then you might not be, if you haven’t done so. That might make you repressed, and possibly affect you psychologically or manifest in other ways, but it doesn’t make you polyamorous.

If however you believe that being poly means having emotionally-charged feelings for multiple people, then – yep, you’re poly, regardless of how you might attempt to rationalize those feelings away. If you FEEL what you describe, you’ve proven that you’re capable of feeling that way. Of course, actually living a poly lifestyle and being in a poly relationship involves consistent honesty, openness, and communication between you and your partner/s – who knows whether or not you are or will in the future achieve that type of relationship? But the answer you’re looking for within yourself, is yes.

And you’re not alone. I think it’s clear most humans are *born* poly. Most of us (here in the United States, at least) are socialized away from it from a young age by external ideals of what is expected of us regarding monogamous romantic relationships, and only some of us are able to re/connect with our natural ability to develop and maintain multiple relationships with lovers as well as nonromantic friends and family. It would be completely illogical to suggest that we have the innate ability to care deeply for many people in our lives, but somehow lose that ability when sex or romance is involved. It makes much more sense to look at polyamory as an inherent capacity, a plus to be nurtured rather than a negative to be repressed, without which we are in fact LIMITED to caring for one person at a time, not from choice but because we have no other options available to us. Many people see a poly mindset as an enlightened or enhanced one, which allows many more options than those who are biologically limited to monogamy. It’s like having a Swiss Army knife at your disposal rather than a straight blade. (Make your own “gay blade” joke here, if you like.)

Your thoughts as you describe them show you have the ability to develop and maintain multiple emotional relationships with different women, but you are also apparently concerned with what that might mean, for your intellect or for your faith. I think you already know which of those is likely to win in a fight over which “feels” right, but I personally don’t believe the two can’t healthily coexist. All I can tell you is you may still CHOOSE a monogamous path of action if you want to do so, but the fact you are feeling the way you describe tells me you are what you consider “poly”. It remains now to be seen how and whether you act on it. Personally, I always recommend total honesty and communication with your loved ones regarding your feelings; it luckily sounds like you have a partner who would be supportive.


It certainly sounds like your wife would be receptive to the topic of polyamory since she’s bisexual and presumably can understand how someone can find love in different people, even if she doesn’t actually practice polyamory. And I applaud you for your impulse to spread happiness outside your marriage – the world needs more of that, always.

I was in a situation similar to yours in 2007. I was in a relationship with someone who was married, and we explored a triad together, which later turned into a “V.” I chafed at being in this position until I discovered the poly community in New York and came out as poly in January 2008. That was when I got the vocabulary and the awareness that I was in a poly situation but still following a monogamous mindset; a dichotomy that was the source of my discomfort. I realized that in order to be happy, I had to align my beliefs with my reality as much as possible.

As Leon says, this is all about communication. Since you wrote to us, I figure you are looking for advice, so I suggest that the first thing you do is talk to your wife and find out her feelings about the possibility of opening your marriage. Your marriage is an agreement between the two of you, and it shouldn’t be altered without mutual consent. So if you think about your marriage as an agreement, what exactly did you agree to? Sexual fidelity? Emotional exclusivity? Companionship? Eternal friendship? Ask yourself what your marriage means to you first and then ask her.

Then it’s time to negotiate. Talk gently about what you want in your heart, for yourself and for her. Do either or both of you feel constrained by your marriage agreement? Maybe you’re just looking for explicit permission to form close relationships with other women, and maybe she wants the same thing! Maybe it involves sex; maybe it doesn’t. Start by figuring out what is the core of your existing relationship – what must be preserved to make you both feel safe and secure. What is the most important thing that you give one another? Whatever that is, make sure to protect it.

Beyond that, create a safe space for yourselves to talk about your hopes, dreams and fears. Establish up-front that nothing will happen without explicit agreement so you can talk freely without misunderstanding your intentions. Think about how you will feel if your wife starts dating a woman or another man – what would you need from her to keep your marriage strong? Make new agreements as you go, knowing that they can be renegotiated in the future so you can take things in small steps. For example, if you’re both not ready to be poly, make an agreement to revisit the idea in six months, or a year. Ultimately, your marriage will be stronger if you both feel comfortable talking freely about things that maybe previously you thought were assumed. This is one way in which poly techniques can be useful for monogamous people.

All that said, as Leon pointed out, you can choose to follow a monogamous path after you’ve had this talk – maybe that will turn out to be the best option for both of you. But at least you will know that you made a CHOICE, rather than just assumptions or accepting the status quo.

If the two of you decide to explore poiyamory together, I strongly encourage you to seek out resources to help your find your way, either from several books available, your local polyamory group chapter, or come to an Open Love NY event if you can travel. Every relationship is unique, but it’s always good to see others’ mistakes so you can avoid obvious pitfalls. Getting support for a lifestyle that is not always accepted by family and the larger community also increases your chances for success.

And the bad timing award goes to…

Mischa and Leon-

First of all, THANK YOU for creating a place where people in all phases of discovering their preferred love and lifestyles – particularly one free from the LACK of anonymity attached to requesting to join the forum group on Facebook.

There are so many different ways of meeting people in the city- many of which haven’t been conducive to having an idea of where the person stands before the first date. I feel very torn between wanting to be direct, excited and unapologetic about it, and generally have brought it up on a first date. In some situations though, I feel like it has alarmed someone and throws a few great dates a bit off course.

So – my question- For those who are new discoverers of polyamory and not yet in any relationships- When is it common/most beneficial time to discuss the lifestyle with people you are dating?

You guys rock. I look forward to the continued reading. 🙂
Tentative on telling

Dear Tentative,

Thanks for the great letter! We’ve talked for a while about how to provide support for people who are uncomfortable being out enough to attend live events, so we’re happy people are reading. We’re always looking for ways to expand beyond what we’re currently doing and asking our members what they’d like to see from our organization.

As to your question, this is one scenario I actually don’t have a lot of experience with for two reasons. One is that I don’t date very often (insert sad violins here). And two, anyone who spends more than 15 minutes with me is going to figure out that I’m poly because of what I do with the majority of my free time. So just about the only time I “come out” to anyone is at work, and I’m certainly not going to date people in the office.

I know there are poly people who feel that you should come out as poly on the first date, but I don’t agree. Personally I think it’s arrogant and presumptive to say on the first date that you’re poly, because it’s like, “hey, I know we just met but I’m letting you know now that you’re going to have to share me in the bedroom because that’s where this is going.”

I think there are two rules of thumb about coming out. The first is – do it when it feels right. If there’s an opportunity to talk about your lovestyle, don’t lie or evade the question. It’s better to be honest upfront than to be later accused of hiding it when you had the chance to come out. And the second rule is when there’s any talk about actually having a relationship, then you’ve obviously got to come out. But until then, just enjoy the moment and let people get to know you as a person before you take a chance on shattering their blissful dreams of monogamy with you.

Leon, you date a lot more than me – what’s your coming out story?

Great, I’ve got that Diana Ross song in my head now: “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’m coming out, I want the world to know, got to let it show…” Thanks for nothing, Michelle.

To me, the key is to walk the fine line between being honest/upfront about things, and respecting the “getting to know you” process that can easily be upset by potentially big things (or big SOUNDING things) coming up too early in the conversation. Even if someone is potentially compatible with you (especially once they get to know and like you and are willing to take a leap of faith or two), there’s a big difference between dropping a bomb on someone right away, and working it into the conversation and feeling them out about it. (I’ll disagree with Michelle just a little bit here: if someone has blissful dreams of monogamy with you, I think those SHOULD be shattered pretty quickly. It’s like meeting a blind man at a KKK rally and not telling him you’re African-American until after you’ve been dating a while. Hooray for politically incorrect jokes!)

What I do when I meet someone new: We flirt, talk, etc. until it’s clear we are mutually attracted, and at some point I ask, “so, are you dating anyone?” When they return the question, as they invariably do, I say, “I’m actually seeing a couple of girls right now, but no one monogamously.” If they then ask for more information, I give it, in an open and matter-of-fact way; I have nothing to hide and I make it clear that I’m neither ashamed of my polyamory nor am I trying to sugarcoat it. Surprisingly enough, I find that many, many more people are impressed by it and my honesty about it, and even intrigued by it, than they are turned off by it.

I do try to have the full poly conversation before it gets ‘too far’ – but there’s obviously a lot of subjectivity in what constitutes ‘too far’. A good rule of thumb for me is that the more vanilla or conservative someone appears, the sooner I want to disclose that I am polyamorous. If someone wants to have sex on the first date, I feel much more comfortable NOT disclosing everything beyond the intro conversation I’ve described above, for two main reasons: 1) if they’re comfortable enough with casual physicality, they probably won’t be too put off if at all about my being polyamorous; and 2) they may not even be looking for anything beyond the casual physical experience, and if so, there’s no point in going into detail about my preferred medium- and long-term relationship structure. Conversely, if they seem to see me as potential boyfriend material, I definitely want to have a discussion about what poly means to each of us, before anyone gets involved enough to feel hurt.

In short, disclose whatever information feels natural as the conversation or relationship progresses, but when in doubt, err on the side of informing/not hurting the other person.