Couple wants to call the “Poly Police” on friend’s cheating behavior

Dear PWA:

I have an important question and would like to ask it anonymously. 

I am in an open marriage, she and I have full disclosure. I am actually the one who brought her into this lifestyle. She asked me a question and I gave what I think is the right answer. So now I want to take it to others.

My wife has a friend in an open relationship who has been flirting with someone else without telling her partners, including receiving gifts, sexting, and telling this other person she is not and has not been with anyone, and that she is in love with them. But in fact she has been with some of her partners almost as long as she has been talking to this other person. There has been no physical activity with the new partner, but they have said they would be intimate on a visit to see each other. 

She has lied repeatedly to the other person about her poly relationships. She received gifts from the other person and intercepted them from one of her live-in partners. If she was lying to one of them could she have been lying to the others? Is that cheating or not?  Why have openness with your poly partners but hide it from another you say you love? 

We suspect her long-standing partners do not know about this new person. We also suspect that she has lied to them saying this person is just a friend, when in fact there is proof otherwise. Is this cheating and should the record be set straight? Should her other partners be told the truth of her deceitfulness?

Looking For Answers

Dear LFA:

Like Lucy Ball, your wife’s friend likely has got some ‘splainin’ to do. But I’m not sure it’s as cut-and-dried as you’re presenting it.

To address your question, what is cheating? Relationship rules may differ, but whatever they might be, cheating means breaking them.  It’s possible she’s technically not breaking any, but my instinct is there might be more to the story. The tone of your question seems to suggest you want to feel vindicated rather than educated; it reminds me of my sister trying to get me in trouble with our mom twenty years ago for hitting her, but leaving out the fact that she totally started it!  In other words, I’m curious how your wife or her friend might present other sides of the story had you not written us first.

Regardless whether she and her partners have covered this scenario via clearly established rules, dishonesty is never the best policy. The things you’re describing certainly sound like flagrant red flags, but without understanding the full situation it’s difficult for me to say you are right and she is wrong. If this bothers you and your wife as much as it appears, I suggest the two of you pull her aside privately, express your concerns for her well-being, and ask her whether this behavior you’re describing is accurately perceived or whether you’re off base? I’d give her the chance to explain her behavior before deciding whether or not to “out her” to anyone else with whom she’s in a relationship. That might not be your place to do.

Personally, I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to “out” someone, unless it’s as a murderer or some actual threat to society. One thing we say at every meeting of Open Love NY is that everyone has the right to live how they want to live, and what works for some may not work for all. Even if you think you have all the facts (which I doubt) unless you are actually one of these affected (potential) partners, I would advise you to keep your comments to yourself. 

Of course, I agree with Leon that dishonesty will likely lead to trouble, but openness as it relates to relationships does not equate to total honesty. Many people distort facts to achieve their goals, even if there is a reckoning in the future. Perhaps your wife’s friend is willing to take that risk, but that is her own business.

Unless you are friends with any of the other parties, the only thing I’d advise you to do is for your wife to talk to her friend (you can join if you are also friends with her, but this may be more of a one-on-one kind of talk) and express concerns that her behavior may lead to trouble. Anything more than that comes under the heading of sticking noses where they don’t belong. 

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!

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.

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.

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:”

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.”

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!

Kinky conversations aren’t for everyone

Hello! I live in NYC and the organized poly events here always seem to be advertised to and heavily attended by people in the local kink community.  I am not into kink, and not interested in dating kinky people, so I have been really put off by the conversations that the kinksters try to engage me in at the events I’ve attended.  Seriously, it’s been gross.  They all seem to assume that everyone there is also kinky AND they don’t have a clue about what is appropriate conversation for a cocktail party.  Where can I go to meet some classy, available people who may be poly or open to it, but not into kink?  I do the online thing, too, but I much prefer going out and doing something to meet people rather than sitting in front of my computer.  Thanks for any advice you can offer!

Signed, New Life After 50
Hi NLA50!  You know, when I write it like that, you sound like a rapper.  Just saying.

OK, so here’s my take on your question.  One one hand, I can empathize with your initial observation, being myself a single male in my post-30s who self-defines as polyamorous but not kinky.  I’ve met many people at poly events with a strong interest in kink, which they are glad to share (and sometimes overshare) with people they meet at poly events.  I also prefer to meet people at events and in person, rather than online.  On the other hand, there’s a negative inference regarding your mindset I (and presumably others) can draw from your question.  Imagine the reaction you might get from others regarding your own interest in polyamory: “Seriously, that’s gross.  Don’t you have a clue as to what is appropriate conversation for a cocktail party…?”  I don’t know whether it’s because you’re first exploring nonmonogamy now after half a century of living traditionally, or whether you have some personal experiences that have colored your perception, but your characterization of kink comes across somewhat closeminded and uneducated.  Does it strike you as logical that someone such as yourself who presumably would like to meet other open, honest, and nonjudgmental people, would turn around and speak so dismissively and disrespectfully over someone else’s equally valid lifestyle preferences?  I mean, no one’s forcing you to DO any of these things, merely have it come up in conversation.  For poly, kink, and all other lifestyle choices, the following holds true: If you don’t want to X, then don’t.  But don’t put down other people for wanting/discussing/seeking it.

The responsible nonmonogamy community here in NYC has thousands of people, with just as many oft-overlapping interests, and not nearly enough social outlets for people in any particular lifestyle to be insular.  It may be nice for some people to imagine a place where they can interact only with people who think just like they do, but a Venn Diagram trying to isolate and identify all poly people by their areas of sexual and romantic interest would look like a Slinky that got run over by a thresher.  There are just too many people with too many interests to realistically narrow it down as you describe – and why would we want to?  Open Love NY is one of the largest polyamory groups in the world, with thousands of members and participants, and our events bring in people who run the gamut from polyamorous, to poly-curious, to poly-friendly, and beyond. Kink isn’t a subsection of poly, but there’s a good amount of overlap.  This isn’t even our first kink question on this blog.  In short, everyone is welcome as long as they follow our Rules of Conduct.  We don’t assume everyone who attends is poly, just as kinksters shouldn’t assume everyone who attends our events has an interest in kink, but surely you can see why kinksters have a much better chance at finding someone who does at an OLNY event than they might have at their own local bar?  In addition, not everyone is as experienced as Mischa and myself might be at interacting with others at poly events.  Many people might not be as aware of your opinions as you’d like them to be, but that’s going to be true in any group – and communication and tolerance both improve with exposure and experience.

My advice to you is threefold.  First, if someone brings up a subject in conversation that you find distasteful, whether it’s kink or anything else, simply explain politely that you don’t find that subject appealing and would rather talk/ask about (insert your preferred topic here). 
It’s a rare lifestyle person I’ve encountered at our events who wouldn’t go out of their way to be sensitive to someone else’s politely-expressed concerns.  There are always facilitators present at our events who can help you with that conversation, if you’d like.  Alternately, if you’re up for it, I’d recommend you consider asking those oversharing kinksters for insight on their rationale for discussing kink at a poly event – and perhaps by discussing their interests and reasons for attending poly events, you might find more common ground than you’d expected.

Which brings me to my second suggestion.  One of the hallmarks of the poly community is the respect we share for others’ consensual choices.  While kink may not be your bag of tea (nor teabagging, for that matter), please do your best to overcome your own judgmental instincts in order to accept that kink is just as valid a lifestyle for those who choose to participate, as is polyamory – or religion, or book clubs, or anything that consenting adults choose to enjoy responsibly.  I’d spend a little time sitting down with yourself and figuring out what it is about kink that upsets you so drastically, and coming to terms with the Golden Rule (or the Platinum Rule, as some have coined it: treat others as THEY’D like to be treated) in your interactions with others at our and similar events.  You don’t have to be best friends, or engage in their interests, but we’re all equals and allies in a world that only recently has begun to welcome nontraditional relationships.  It would behoove you to treat them as such.

Third, perhaps if there were a “meetup specifically for poly people not into kink” you’d find what would make you happiest – however, to the best of my knowledge, that currently doesn’t exist. If you aren’t happy with poly events you’ve attended because there are viewpoints and interests expressed with which you’re not personally comfortable, feel free to start your own! It’s as easy as creating a group on, or finding other people who share your views and agreeing to meet for a monthly meal or round of adult beverages.  Just be aware that most people in the nonmonogamy community pride ourselves on inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and creating a “kink-free” poly group clearly goes against that concept.  It’s sort of like hosting a comparative religion discussion group, but hanging a sign outside that says, “No Jews.”  Sure, you’ll get some people who don’t mind the exclusionary policy, but it would leave a lot of otherwise quality people feeling alienated or discriminated against, and it certainly wouldn’t result in the sort of experience I’d want people to take from my own cocktail parties.

Mischa, what do you think?

Leon, I think you pretty much covered the whole gamut of responses. I think the summary of the answer is that there isn’t such thing as a “non-kink poly event” in New York, to the best of our knowledge. We can be reasonably sure of that is because I can’t imagine how anyone would promote such an event. Would it be:

  1. Poly People who only have sex with the lights off
  2. Poly People into Vanilla sex between couples only
  3. People who want to love multiple partners who only believe in traditional and conservative expressions of affection
  4. And so forth and so on….

See, for many people, being Poly IS your kink. Group sex is kinky to most people. Spouse-swapping is kinky. Anything outside the traditional monogamous couple will be considered kinky to most people. So holding a poly event and saying there’s no kinky people there is like a black person saying they live in an all-white neighborhood.

For that reason, I can see that kinky poly people might assume that everyone at a poly event is also kinky, but that’s obviously not true and they are wrong to assume that. I agree with Leon’s suggestion that you simply and politely tell anyone who tries to engage you in kink conversation that you are not interested in kink and “bridge” to another topic or politely excuse yourself.

The other suggestion I can make is, instead of parties or munches, you might try coming to Open Love NY’s discussion groups, held on the fourth Tuesday of each month. In these events, we have moderated discussions or expert speakers, so you can get a sense of what the people in the room are like without actually engaging with them. Then, after the meeting, you can approach whomever you found interesting and invite them out to the post-meeting gathering we lead at a nearby diner.

Good luck to you and thank you for your question!

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

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.