The thing about not feeling “enough”

The most frequent statement I read from people trying to transition into polyamorous relationships for their partner is the sense that they feel like they are “not enough.”

Whenever I see that line, my heart sort of aches for them. I understand that feeling and where it comes from, but somehow it doesn’t affect me and I had a difficult time articulating why.

And I finally figured out the answer:

The trick is in realizing that not being “everything” is still enough.

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.

Rules are Condoms: An Imperfect Metaphor

I used to love rules. Rules, when my life was very completely out of my control, helped me make sense of things. I had rules for who I’d date and what I’d do with them and when. I had rules for who could do what to me and under which circumstances. I had rules about rules, and I was really great about closing loopholes in rules so that I would know exactly what to expect from whom and when.

I clung to the fantasy of a 24/7 D/s relationship. The idea of someone else making the decisions for me and absolving me of the need to willingly take care of myself appealed to me in the wake of my husband’s unexpected death and the realization that I’d lost my entire identity in that relationship.

And you know what? I don’t fault myself for that. It was my coping mechanism, and it worked for a while.

I didn’t know who I was, or who I wanted to be. All I knew was that there was too much stuff for me to carry by myself. I felt I would never be unearthed from beneath its heavy burden. As such, I was attracted to the “fixer” types. The “daddy” types of nurturers who wanted to help me get better. The ones who would set the rules down with the intention of moving me past my hangups and phobias.

And over time, they started having results.

I stopped being afraid of making decisions for myself, and graduated to just not liking it. I started to realize that I was entrusting some pretty important (and some not so important) decisions into the hands of people who weren’t particularly good at taking care of themselves, much less others. I began to understand that our dynamics had shifted – because I’d gone from the bird with a broken wing who needed a cage to be transported safely from point A to point B, to a fully-healed bird ready to take flight – were it not for the owner who kept clipping my wings.

The rules no longer felt like they were being set to help me. They felt like they were being set to control me, and I no longer wanted to be under that 24/7 type of control.

The rules were condoms.

The rules I put on myself and those I allowed to be put on me were an imperfect attempt to protect myself from ….whatever was out there. Just like condoms, the only way to truly be safe is abstinence; and I wasn’t willing to be kink-abstinent anymore.

Now I’m in a relationship with only one rule: Honesty. Everything else between us is more of a request. We’ve got a 24/7 love and trust dynamic. The D/s part is significantly more fluid.

I see people talk about setting “rules” for their partners to follow …especially when they’re opening up to some form of non-monogamy for the first time. Things like “My partner can sleep with whomever, but no emotions,” or “no sleepovers,” or “not in our home,” or “anything goes but kink is only with me,” or “I’m the only one they can use this term of endearment with.”

It’s a condom. These rules are meant to control your exposure to potential harm, but they’re not foolproof. Try to make a rule that your partner will never develop feelings for a sexual partner and be prepared to find yourself on the business end of a Klingon pain stick.

If you want to feel the full spectrum of sensation in your relationship once adequate trust has been established, then it might be time to assess the value of loosening up some of the rigidity of those relationship rules.

It might be time to explore the flexibility of allowing your partner to take flight, and see how they still come back to you – again, and again.

And if they don’t?

If you’d be happy with the bird in the cage whose wings you gotta keep clipping, then you do you.

I wouldn’t be, neither as owner nor bird.

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.

Another post-GRUE Post: Part 2 – Ownership of time

In the first part of this post, I shared my epiphany on thinking in terms of needs of a relationship instead of talking about the needs of a person.

But then I had to go to work, because I’m a responsible adult and stuff, who fills my time with all manner of things that are important to me.

Key word: my time.

So, from the last post:

The language I use and the way that I use it is specifically selected to internalize the very big lessons I’ve learned from past unsuccessful attempts at dating poly: that I cannot own someone’s time, nor can they own mine.

During the course of the poly discussion at this weekend’s GRUE in Los Angeles, someone brought up a very familiar topic in the mono/poly dynamic. It was that sense that the partner that’s not dating additional partners would get sad or lonely when their only partner was out on a date with someone else; and that the partner that’s out with someone else feels responsible for this unhappiness.

I’m going to add that this isn’t only a thing that happens in mono/poly relationships. Not too long ago I read a post a friend of mine wrote about feeling lonely when his wife was out on another date and he was home with the cat.

This sharing of his feelings prompted many well-intentioned folk to offer advice on how to “fix” his loneliness. They suggested he find another date for any night that his wife was having a date. The suggested that he not “allow” his wife to spend the night elsewhere, that she should come home to him. Many people offered to keep him company while he sat alone with the cat.

Thing is, he wasn’t asking for help or advice. He was sharing a feeling – a natural, non-life threatening feeling. In a way, he was removing the “photoshop” elements from the relationship and showing that it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, even in the strongest and most open of marriages.

When I am home alone on a Saturday night while my partner is out doing fun things with another partner, that is my choice. Nothing and nobody is stopping me from having a social life if I want one. I can invite people over. I can go to the movies. I can hang out with friends. Hell, if I wanted to, I could go on a date.

I don’t want to.

This isn’t some brand new revelation. I’ve written about it before, and often.

When we were still figuring out how all this was going to work between us, there was plenty of discussion on how I was going to adapt to fulfill the needs of a relationship with a poly partner. There was also a point at which I asked him if he was comfortable having a monogamous partner.

That’s when I became somewhat aware that there was a sense of concern he felt toward my not having a good time when he wasn’t around; or that he might not be “enough” for me to feel happy or fulfilled in the long term.

I realized I wasn’t the only one that had to make some concessions in order to make this relationship work. There was a very real insecurity that he had to overcome on not being “enough” for me. The irony, of course, is that you’ll frequently hear the monogamous partner in a poly relationship complain about not feeling like they’re “enough” to satisfy their partner.

But, a post on the relative meanings of “enough” are for another time. (Plus, I think I maybe already wrote one).

I made a conscious decision not only to remember that I cannot own somebody else’s time; but also to own the responsibility for my own time. He’s not responsible for the nights I fail to make other plans. He’s not responsible for my loneliness. I cannot force him to spend time with me.

He has to want to. And he does.

If and when my loneliness presents itself, is not a problem that needs to be solved. If it does need to be solved, I need to solve it myself, by taking it upon myself to engage in other interests with other people.


Related writings:

Another Post-Grue Post: Part 1 – Addressing the needs of each relationship

I’m a fan of using precise language to break down concepts in my own head. For example, differentiating between “my night” and “the night he spends with me” in relation to my partner and how he divides his time among his partners.

Key word: His time.

Does it mean the same thing if I’m trying to get a point across that Friday night is “my night” and that’s why I don’t go out on Saturdays as much anymore? Probably, to the person I’m talking to, but not to me. The language I use and the way that I use it is specifically selected to internalize the very big lessons I’ve learned from past unsuccessful attempts at dating poly: that I cannot own someone’s time, nor can they own mine. We choose to spend time with each other, and it just so happens that it’s usually on Friday nights.

During this past weekend’s GRUE in Los Angeles, I participated in another discussion – this one on polyamory. I do wish it’d been able to go on longer, but it was toward the end of the day and the circumstances were what they were.

It was very cool to participate in the discussion and have two other mono/poly participants in the room. While a lot of the issues that face polyamorous couples and groups have similar themes, the monogamuggles tend to adapt to them with slight differences – but enough of a difference that it felt good to not be the only one in the room.

During the course of the discussion, I had a bit of an epiphany. It wasn’t groundbreaking or anything, but it was another one of those things where the slight adjustment in language used helped deflate a common struggle I have with the concept of being “needy.”

Often, when you take a hinge partner, for example – the partner that has multiple partners, they’ll talk about what each of their partners needs separately. Partner A needs this, Partner B needs this, Partner C needs this. It sets up this sense that the hinge is the sole provider of any work in the relationship, and that at some point they might resent or burn out on this pressure of having to cater to the needs of all these different partners.

With a slight adjustment in the language, I think it might be easier to alleviate the perceived burden of responsibility.

Relationship A needs this. Relationship B needs this. Relationship C needs this.

P.S. there is no hierarchy implied in my selection of variables.

Anyway, in my own mind, it helps to think of it that way. When the needs of the relationship are addressed then the burden of being “needy” is taken away from one or the other partner specifically. When the needs of the relationship are addressed, it more evenly distributes the responsibility to either party to fulfill those needs.

And, when you’re in a situation where one of your partner’s other relationships needs something that somehow affects you, it might be a little easier to not grow resentful of that need by attributing it in its entirety to your metamour; and remembering that your partner has a vested interest in wanting that relationship to work. Their needs are wrapped up in the relationship’s needs as well.

That’s it on this. I have another point to make that came out of this discussion, but I gotta go to work. To be continued.

The Frustration with French Fries

The most painful part of my monthly waxing isn’t the part where she’s ripping the hair out my most sensitive places. It’s having to maintain a conversation with her for the two hours I spend on her table.

Yes, two hours. She’s meticulous. She’s “tweezers to the ass crack” meticulous. This is why I put up with her.

Anyway, so she knows about the kink and the poly. The kink, ’cause…well, I’m naked and spread eagle on her table once a month. Sometimes there are bruises. And the poly, ’cause I hate lying and unless we’re talking about a situation where my relationship dynamic is going to harm my career or cause my grandmother a heart attack, I tend to not keep it a secret.

In case you’re reading this and you’ve not been following along, the tl;dr of my relationship is that I am not polyamorous, but my boyfriend is. And it works out just fine.

Anyway, so she knows. She’s known all along. And last year there were a couple of sessions where she asked a lot of questions and I had the patience to explain it to her. She asked all the regular questions: “don’t you get jealous?” (not about sex) “doesn’t it bother you he’s with someone else?” (no.) “Don’t you want to get married though?” (negative.) And my favorite, “I’m just afraid you’re going to get hurt.” (yeah, ’cause monogamous men have never hurt me)

Eventually the novelty of the thing wore off and we didn’t really talk about it anymore. Or, when we’d talk about my relationship she’d ask about what we’ve done for fun or what our plans are for holidays and she knows when I talk about my metamours (who I am good friends with) that they are also my partner’s partners.

So I was a little surprised last night when she started using phrases like “on the side.”

Like, “couldn’t you have a guy on the side, too?”

1) We’ve talked about this before. I could have another relationship if I wanted to. I don’t want to. It’s not how I’m wired. I accept this about me. My partner accepts this about me. It is not a cause for concern for anybody else.

2) “Too?” The phrasing makes it seem as though she believes that either I or one of my metamours holds “on the side” status in his mind. That’s not how it works in our relationship. None of us are “on the side.” I don’t like what “on the side” implies, and I really don’t like what “too” implies.

But I didn’t correct her. Not then, because we’ve been through this before and she just doesn’t get it. She really just doesn’t get it and it’s not worth my energy to keep explaining.

Then she decided to throw a hypothetical situation at me. “I know you say you don’t want to get married again, and that’s fine…” (oh, I’m so glad you approve of my life choices), “But let’s say you change your mind and you marry him…would you still let him have other girls on the side?”

let him?

on the side??

At this point, I kind of lost my patience.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “That’s like asking if I’d ‘let him’ have blue eyes.”

“No, but you know what I mean,” she said.

“No, you don’t understand what I mean. He is poly. It is who he is. I accept that about him. I didn’t get involved with him so that I could change him.”

“So you would be okay with him having other girls on the side.”

“None of us are ‘on the side’,” I corrected her again.

She’s not gonna get it. She’ll never get it.

But maybe you might.