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.

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