My advice to the partner of a Leeroy Jenkins-style Polyamorist

After nearly 5 years together, she tells him she’s poly.  After allowing him four weeks of “adjustment” she’s got dates lined up and tells him she’ll “probably” have sex with these guys.  He’s not ready.  She’s going all-in.

This is my advice to him:


I’m gonna share with you some of my thoughts on polyamory and how it can work in the abstract. This is by no means the one and only way shit works – this is just what I’ve found to be the healthiest way in my experience. Then, after that I’ll give you some examples on how to approach a very, very necessary conversation with your girlfriend and how to tell if she’s open to polyamory with you, or some sort of alternative in which she’s not really valuing your future participation in her life.

Polyamory in general can be, in many ways, a vehicle for personal growth. Some polyfolk like to say that it’s “more” love, but I think that’s just an imperfect translation. It’s “many” love. I’m going to use an imperfect analogy to illustrate the difference. You have a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, a box of Lucky Charms, a gallon of milk, a bowl, and a spoon.

Monoamory in its most ideal form is selecting one of the cereals, filling the bowl, adding the milk, and using the spoon to eat it.

Polyamory, in one of its most ideal forms, is pouring some of each cereal into the same bowl, adding the milk, and using the spoon to eat it.

Picture a monoamorous person sitting in front of their bowl of Lucky Charms sitting side by side with the polyamorous person sitting in front of their bowl of a mix of Cheerios and Charms.

The poly person doesn’t have “more” cereal. The poly person has more variety in their cereal. They have “many” cereal, not “more.”

(Don’t put the cereal analogy away yet, I’m going to come back to it later.)

Now, for this – I’m not gonna go into some of the more complex makeups of polyamorous relationships, meaning – no triads or quads or relationship anarchy types. Not gonna go into the ratio of charms to cheerios, either. In fact, for this – I’m going to focus on what I know best – which is how a monoperson (me) can be in a happy, harmonious relationship with a polyperson (my partner).

There is a metric fuckton of self work that has to go into successful polyamory, whether you’re on the mono side or the poly side. You have to be able to accept your feelings, analyze your feelings, dissect your feelings, explore your feelings, and communicate your feelings in ways that minimize their power over your actions. I’ll probably end up writing a whole book on this, so there’s no way I’m going to get through all of it in a comment, but…. the basic tenets of successful polyamory have a whole lot to do with personal responsibility, honesty, trust, empathy, and patience.

These are the bowl, the milk, and the spoon of your relationships.

When you think of your “needs” try to separate the difference between YOUR needs and the needs of your relationship. When someone is dating multiple people, it helps to think of each relationship as its own entity – therefore the “needs” that are attached to that relationship fall under the responsibility of both parties to be aware of.

Example: for me, sex is a relationship need. I have been in relationships that did not include sex, and it made me miserable. One of the things poly people sometimes say is “I can get my needs met with others that i don’t get with you…” and something they frequently advise when someone is complaining that they’re not getting enough sex with a partner is “Just go get sex with someone else!”

For me, sex is not the same as enjoying a fine, hand-crafted cocktail. That’s a want. That’s something I enjoy doing, and if my partner didn’t drink, I would be fine with finding someone else to enjoy cocktails with.

But, for a relationship (for me) – sex is a need. For me to feel happy and fulfilled in a relationship, I need fairly regular sex. Whether I had one relationship or twenty, they’d all need that. (There’s just the one, thanks.) That’s the spoon. Trust is the bowl. Empathy and validation of my feelings are the milk.

Without ALL of them, eating that bowl of cereal will be very problematic. Not impossible, but certainly not ideal. It doesn’t matter if I’m having Cheerios only, or a mix of Charms, Cheerios and Cap’n Crunch – I need to ensure I’ve got everything I NEED (and to make sure I’m not overfilling the bowl) in order to be in a happy and harmonious polyamorous relationship.

Now to the part where you need to set some boundaries and working that concept of personal responsibility with your girlfriend.

Relationships *should be* at will. Nobody should be coerced or forced to stick with a bad situation. I get that this happens, and that requires a level of help I’m not quite capable of giving – but in in this case, nobody is forcing you to stay with your girlfriend if you are not getting your needs met in a relationship.

If she is serious about exploring polyamory WITH you, then she is going to have to give you more than a couple weeks to adjust to the idea. That means having to listen to your fears, your insecurities, and your concerns and *validating* them. Not ignoring them or telling them you won’t know until you try or saying “eeh…i’mma do what i want, deal with it.” She’s got to LISTEN to you and understand what your issues are, even if she doesn’t feel them herself.

I remember I once worked somewhere that was folding into another company. They offered everybody who was leaving severance: One month’s pay for every year you worked at the company.

Your girlfriend basically gave you a WEEK per year you’ve been with her to adjust to a BRAND NEW RELATIONSHIP.

She thinks “But at least I’m being honest!” And yeah, she’s being honest. She’s telling you the truth – that she wants to date and sleep with other people.

But is she being honest about wanting to be sure that you’re okay with it? Is she being honest about wanting very much to keep you as a priority in her life?

Her recent actions tell me not so much.

And when people’s actions don’t match up with their words, I start to question just how “honest” they really are.

The NCSF has a listing of poly-friendly professional counselors. If she’s serious….truly serious, ask her to go with you to a counseling session. Ask her to read the books with you and discuss them. Ask her to go to local support group meetings or to join the poly groups on FB to get some feedback and learn how to poly in the most ethically responsible and healthy ways.

If she won’t…

Then just remember. Your relationship is at will. You deserve better than a handful of cereal with spoiled milk and no bowl.

The Honesty Exchange (Revisited)

I wrote a post many moons ago about this concept, but it was through the lens of two back-to-back relationships ending. The concept behind it was sound and something I continue to practice in my daily life, but the examples I used to present it back then were, in my opinion, too personal and not the most effective ones to get the message across. This is my attempt to do it better.


In the world of kink and BDSM, we talk about the “power exchange.” I love to focus on the word “exchange,” not as a “one gives and one takes,” but as a mutual give and take between the people involved. It looks a little bit like the symbol for recycling – not a one-for-one exchange, but symbiotic exchange running on a continuous loop.

This particular post isn’t so much about the exchange of power in BDSM, but about the give and take that happens in relationships (I’m more focused on romantic, but this is really a factor in all relationships) when it comes to honesty.

So many people say they want honesty. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and responding to people who are sharing some of their difficulties navigating (mostly) polyamorous relationships in advice forums. A common thread I see is that the person posting feels that they have been lied to in some way by their partner, and want to know what to do to recapture the trust in their relationships.

I hit a wall when I see those posts, because for me lies are a hard limit. I don’t make a habit of giving people a second chance to lie to me, so I just back away from responding because my response tends to be “Walk away from this – the trust is broken.”

But, I also realize that it’s easy for me to expect honesty from the people in my life because I make it very easy for people to be honest with me. That’s part of the Honesty Exchange that I’m talking about.

Expecting honesty from your partner isn’t only about wanting them to be truthful at all time, it’s also about learning to accept honesty graciously when you don’t like what you’re hearing, and learning to give honesty tactfully when it’s not what they want to hear.

I’ll start with that first part. Learning to accept honesty graciously is about not flying off the handle, or abandoning rationality in favor of knee-jerk emotional reactions when your partner tells you something you didn’t want to hear.

I have a very simple default response when I’m being told a truth that I don’t enjoy hearing. It’s similar to that commercial for the candy bar (Twix?) where someone is asked a question or put on the spot and they shove the candy in their mouth to give them a few seconds to come up with something to say….

When someone gives you information that you know to be true, but that is causing you some emotional distress – the default response is to say the following:

Thank you for your honesty.

There it is. That’s all you have to do. Breathe deeply, let your lip quiver, feel the feelings that you feel – but do your best to hold it together long enough to remember that you asked them for the truth.

And thank them for it.

Then, assess your feelings and give them some measured honesty back. Feeling like you’re too angry to discuss it? Say “Thank you for your honesty. This news is a bit shocking. I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions, and I’d like to ask for some time to process before we talk about it further.”

Feeling like your world is falling apart? Say, “Thank you for your honesty. I’m feeling really anxious about this information. What does this mean for us going forward?”

The result of having a measured reaction to bad news is that the next time your partner has something to tell you that you might not want to hear, they’ll feel less hesitant to share it with you than they would if you’d responded to them with white hot anger followed by three to five days of passive aggressive silence or unfiltered snark.

But, just like the recycle symbol, this feeds back into another benefit for you. If you know that your partner is willing to tell you the not-so-great things because they don’t fear you’ll have an extremely negative reaction, that means you can actually believe them when they tell you the super-fantastic things. What reason would they have to lie? The good news gets that much sweeter when you know it’s true.

There is so much relief in just trusting someone. But in order to reach that with someone whose default setting isn’t “be completely open and honest regardless of feelings or consequences” you have to let them know it’s safe for them to give you bad news sometimes.

Otherwise, you’re asking them to tell you the truth only when it’s pleasant, and that just leads to questioning if everything they tell you is 100% honest.

Now to the other part of this equation. The giving of truth when it’s not a pleasant truth to give.

This is sometimes called “diplomacy,” and not everybody is very good at it. Some people are really good at honesty, and go so far as to brag about their ability to be “brutally honest” with people.

I don’t like to be “brutally” honest.

I prefer to be “tactfully” honest, or as some people recently described it, I practice “gentle” honesty.

It’s the type of honesty that is compassionate in nature. It’s a type of honesty I’ve learned is best shared when requested, because not everybody is as good at receiving the bad news – and when they ask for advice, what they really want is pity.

I feel like the best way to go about being gentle with your honesty is to put yourself in the position of the person who has to hear what you have to say. Figure out how you would want to be told and do your best to be direct, but kind in your delivery.

I’ll give a really basic example. You go to your partner’s place for the first time and they want to cook for you. They spend a few hours preparing a meal and they’re very proud of it. You take a bite and…well, it’s not edible.

They ask you “How do you like it? Be honest.”

Do you lie? You don’t want to hurt their feelings. You don’t want to be an ass and just say “Oh, this is disgusting.” That’s honest, but rude.

So put yourself in their position: How would you want someone to tell you your food isn’t great? How would they tell you this so that your reaction wouldn’t be defensive or self-hatred? (And if you think there’s no way somebody could be honest with you without pissing you off or making you hate yourself, work on that whole “Thank you for being honest,” trick).

Personally, I’d find something good to say about it – “The meat is well cooked, but it’s a little salty for my taste.” Or “The flavor is great, but I prefer it a little more rare.” Or “Well, it’s not what I’m used to…I think I might like it better next time if…..”

What do you do if they’re hurt by your honesty? Be compassionate. Show them that it upsets you to hurt them, but it would hurt you more to lie to them. Give them the space to feel how they feel, and let them know that you aren’t going to react negatively to their negative reaction.

Again, earning the reputation from the people in your life as someone who won’t lie to them and won’t fault them for having reactive emotions has really excellent benefits. People tend not to ask me what I think unless they really want to know. Most of the time, I just listen.

And people respect you because they trust you.

Trust and respect are sexy as hell. I think they’re the best aphrodisiac and my top two kinks of all time.

So, well….hopefully this is a more accessible and comprehensive understanding of the Honesty Exchange as I see it. If you want people to be honest with you, you have to be able appreciate their honesty even when it hurts; and if you want people to trust and respect you, you have to be honest with them and give them the space to react however they’re going to react, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Trust and responsibility in BDSM

In one of my early posts on Fetlife long ago, I wrote “It’s not that I’m lying when I tell you I’m okay; it’s that it isn’t until much later that I realize I was mistaken.”

This week, there have been a couple posts out and about that are debating the issue of …I guess it’s personal responsibility in a bottom to communicate truthfully to their top on matters of consent, limits, and negotiation.

On the one hand, you have two posts making the point that many bottoms may be failing in communicating their true limits out of the fear that they will be “disappointing” their tops; and another that argues that if this is too often the case then we are setting up a situation where a bottom can’t be taken at their word.

It made me think of that little thought from such a long time ago. That it’s not about “truth” and “lies” so much as it is about being really self-aware and confident that one’s top is not going to be disappointed when a limit has been reached; and likewise that one’s bottom is not going to put you in a position of harming them irreparably.

There is a difference between pre-scene negotiation and mid-scene check-ins, and I don’t think anybody has a problem understanding how an s-type might agree to or give consent once their mind has been altered and later regret it. If you do have trouble with that let me know and I’ll clarify in a separate post. That’s why collaborative negotiation ahead of time is really important; especially if the relationship is new.

But there’s something else I’ve been exposed to that helped me a LOT in my ability to set my limits and boundaries during the pre-scene negotiation as well as during mid-scene check-ins. I think I’ve written about it before (though I don’t remember when) and I know I’ve talked about it recently as a panelist for an S-type panel discussion as part of the BDSM 101 series.

It was “safeword training.” See, back when I went by the label of “submissive,” I was one of those submissives that would pressure herself – potentially past my personal limit – out of fear of disappointing my partner. There were many times that I’d end up heavily bruised; and, I am on record as not a fan of heavy bruising.

But I didn’t stop them. I didn’t want to disappoint them by not taking what they wanted to give me.

When I explained as much to a partner I’d been spending some time with, he did what he called “safeword training” with me, where he told me he was going to spank me five times and on the fifth, I was to call “yellow.” I did so, and was able to witness what his reaction would be to my calling “yellow” during a real scene.

Then he did it again, this time, ordering me to call “red.”

And so I did. And so I saw what his reaction would be if I were to do that during a scene.

This was critical in my being able to accept the difference between what he wanted to do “to” me and what he wanted to do “with” me.

He wanted to give me a good experience that was not tainted with regret because I was too afraid to speak up for myself, and for what?

No top I’ve ever been with has actually wanted to harm me. None have ever truly wanted more from me than I would have been willing to give. That takes our scene into the “not fun” territory. And if it’s not fun for me, it’s sure as hell not gonna be fun for my top. Especially afterwards.

But I have played with inexperienced tops as an inexperienced bottom; and I have had tops who had no prior experience with me who have gone too far, and I didn’t stop them until too far had already been reached.

Did they have my consent to spank me? Yes. They did. But I didn’t specify to one that I required a warm-up before he went to town on my ass. And …well, the other accepted my consent after I was already inebriated, and left me passed out on the floor of the dungeon by myself after our scene. In fact, I remember enough of that night to recall that I approached him for the spanking, and not the other way around. He also never checked in with me again. (P.S. that was the last time I ever mixed drinking and kinking).

In the first example, I was self-aware enough to know I was not having a good time. In the second, the onset of that self awareness was quite delayed. Both times I let it happen for longer than I needed to because I was afraid of disappointing the top in question.

So. What to do? We can all write eighty-billion essays urging bottoms to speak up for themselves and to speak truthfully when they’re negotiating a scene for themselves; but remember – sometimes the opposite of truth isn’t a lie, but a lack of self-awareness.

And when someone who wears the label of “submissive” has agreed to something and then during said thing realizes they’re not really loving it – I guarantee you that MANY said submissives will try to grin and bear it because they don’t want to go back on their word and disappoint their tops.

Does that mean that the bulk of the responsibility falls to the top? You gotta question everything? You gotta take their consent with a grain of salt?

Not necessarily. It’s a power exchange. If you’re negotiating something new, or something edgier – try making sure your bottom understands that you won’t be disappointed if they ask you to slow it down because something doesn’t feel right. If you’re the bottom, make sure your top knows if there’s something on their list of things to do that you’re not entirely sure about.

You know….communicate.

And, before you play – make sure you know how you’ll react to a “red” or a “yellow.” Make sure your bottom knows what to expect from you if those words are called. If necessary, consider foregoing safewords and use ENGLISH (or whatever language you speak) to communicate during the early days of your playlationship.

“Ow ow….slow down, I need a minute” or “Oh holy shit STOP” are REALLY great words to use until you’ve gained a level of comfort with your partner where you are allowing them to push you a little further beyond your established boundaries.

Hell, I’ve been with my partner for over a year now and he LOVES to push me. There have been times when he’s about to do something and I cry out, “NO NO NO!” and he’ll pause, and look at me with a look of pure sadistic pleasure and ask, “No?”

It gives me a moment to pause and consider my answer carefully. It’s like my version of “yellow.”

Because my response is almost always, “Okay, yes,” but even when it’s not, I never feel like he’s disappointed in me.

Ever.

That’s why I am able to be 100% honest. And my honesty is why he’s able to push me further.

That’s the beauty of an exchange.

 


Photo credit: Renata Colette, rope by @MisterBacon, model…me 🙂

In which I win at life

Today would have been my sixth wedding anniversary.

Those of you who have been following along know the implications of that sentence. Or, rather, you probably think you know.

I barely understand the implications of that sentence.

On the drive home last night, I realized that where will come a time (approximately two years from today) where I will have been widowed for as long as I was married.

And the year after that I’ll have been widowed longer.

Weird. Right? It’s not just me?

It’s weird.

Anyway, here’s the thing. I’d almost forgotten it was coming. And then I saw the date on my phone last night and it clicked. Wedding anniversary.

I prepared myself to be all sad, or emotional, or something.

And instead, I keep thinking about earlier yesterday evening. It was the moment I realized I’d won at life. It was like a Sally Field moment:

He gets me. He really gets me. It’s when I got the text message from my partner that said probably one of the most heartwarming and loving statements I’ve heard in a long time:

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“I trust you more than I trust the SMS timestamp on my phone.”

That’s what he said. The context doesn’t matter, though it’s adorable then there for you to see. He trusts me.

DOES ANYBODY ELSE GET THOSE SUPER AWESOME SHIVERS READING THAT?

Just me?

To be trusted like that means the world to me. Last night I went to sleep truly feeling like I’d won at life.

Which is a really strange way to end a blog post that started as an acknowledgment of something so bittersweet.