So, this poly thing, how does it work, then...?by people with prurient-yet-hopeful expressions on their faces. I suppose that because it's not (yet) a mainstream way of arranging things people are naturally curious. People are always curious about unusual things, as most minority groups find out to their frustration. I suspect it's also because most people can see the positives* but haven't really considered the negatives. The assumption from many people appears to be that because I'm both bi and poly, that means I will do anything to anyone with not a thought for the consequences. I'm kind of hoping to put that myth to rest with this post.
The problem with giving people a primer is that I can only do it for my relationships; everyone who does poly does it slightly differently. Poly is, at the end of the day, all about maximising freedom while minimising pain for all concerned, so every poly relationship starts with a negotiation of what each person involved is happy to do and not do.
Actually, my personal rules for poly relationships are remarkably similar to the ones I had for monogamous relationships in the dim and distant, and they are all there for a reason. So I am writing this post because
Why Do I need rules anyway?
I'm a Liberal, right? Rules are things for authoritatarians, right? Well, no. I have rules because, especially with my mental health issues, reduction of the potential for drama is an inherently good thing. I have broken most of these rules at one time or another** and a break in the rules always leads to emotional ructions sooner or later. Sometimes - rarely - it's worth it. Most times it isn't. Going all starry-eyed over a new squeeze is a wonderful and heady experience. But letting that make me relax the rules always leads to consequences for me, usually for other people, and generally it would all have been avoidable if I'd been sensible.
Sensible is not something I am good at, but that's another reason for having hard and fast rules. And of course, if I DO break a rule normally the consequences of that will remind me of why the rule was there in the first place...
- Proactive Honesty. Honesty is rule number one as far as I am concerned, and not just in the narrow sense of
if you get caught doing something bad, fess up. I call it proactive honesty because you need to tell people things as soon as they come up. This is because in poly it's not just two people's feelings you need to consider, it's however many people are in the relationship, plus however many people are in relationships with them, etc. If you upset partner A, and A has another partner B who has to pick up the pieces, and then B goes moaning to their other partner C about what a shit you are for upsetting A... One little white lie or failure to pass on information in a timely fashion can have knock on effects for a lot of people.
My belief about proactive honesty is that it applies to any relationship with anyone, but it's utterly vital in poly: if you can't be honest with someone about how you feel about them (whether that's good or bad) or if they have hurt you or if you have news they need to know but you don't want to tell them it's impossible to have an effective relationship. Multiply that by however many relationships are involved in a poly set-up and you have the potential for enormous amounts of drama, pain, and heartache for lots and lots of people.
Personally, I apply this rule to things like
letting people down gentlyas well. If you tell someone you're not looking for a relationship with anyone else right now when what you mean is you're not interested in a relationship with them, for an example I witnessed recently, you're only going to end up causing more hurt than if you'd just been honest.
- Informed enthusiastic consent. I toyed with the idea of not putting this one in because it should be bloody obvious, but to some people it apparently isn't. Everybody involved has to be giving informed enthusiatic consent, not just to sexual stuff, but to every part of the relationship. It's one of the reasons why honesty is so important. You can't give informed enthusiastic consent to X if you haven't been told about Y.
- Safety First. Safe sex is important. We all know this. But again, it's multiplied in it's importance in poly. If you have a drunken hookup and pick up the clap, you're not just hurting yourself, you're potentially infecting your other partners, and their other partners, and THEIR other partners... etc. One needs to bear in mind also that condoms are not a failsafe, too. Get tested regularly, just to be sure. I have one former partner who is only a former partner precisely because of his inability to stick to this rule***
- Consider the consequences. Another one that applies to any relationship IMHO: don't agree to anything with anyone without stopping first for at least a nanosecond to consider if it might cause a problem further down the line. Once you have considered the consequences, I'm not saying don't do it, but you need to be aware that your actions affect more than just you. Again, in poly, this is multiplied by however many people you are connected to in the web of relationships. This can be the simplest thing, such as checking your diary before agreeing to a date with partner X to see you haven't already booked in with partner Y that day****; or it can be more complex (for example: "if I start seeing this person will they cause problems with my existing relationships?"). Wherever a decision lies on the scale of seriousness, whereas in a monogamous relationship you only need to consider the feelings of yourself and your partner, in poly you need to bear in mind the feelings of a lot more people.
- Not without permission 1. I don't start seeing anyone new without consulting my existing partners first. I loathe the primary/secondary/etc terminology for reasons too complex to go into here, but for logistical reasons in this rule I do only mean "primary" partners rather than on/off long distance people like the Duracell Bunny. If anyone else ever approaches the level of seriousness of relationship I have with Mat and James, I'll consult them first too.
- Not without permission 2. If a potential partner is already in a relationship I won't do anything, not even holding hands, without permission from their existing partner IN PERSON.
Oh yeah, I spoke to my boyfriend and he's fine with itis not good enough for obvious reasons, but I prefer to do it face to face rather than over the phone/email as well. It's easier to be sure they mean it that way.
- Don't screw the Crew. Never, ever, ever have a sexual relationship with anyone you have to work with - and I apply this is the broadest sense of
worktoo. This is the rule I have most trouble sticking to*****, but that's also why I know it's important. NRE is a wonderful thing, but once it wears off and you decide that actually you're not madly in love with your colleague, all the little rankles that come with a relationship dying have the potential to fuck up an entire office/business/political party. It's really not worth it. Usually.
Also, as well as not starting relationships with people you work with, don't get someone you're in a relationship with a job at your workplace. The mechanics might be different, but the potential for drama is exactly the same.
Isn't this all a bit complicated?
Well yes. Yes it is. But human relationships are complicated, and poly ones exponentially more so. If you have rules to make negiotiating the trials of relationships easier it means that everyone involved can spend more time doing the fun stuff than worrying about problems. And the fun stuff in poly is absolutely worth it.
Poly is not for everyone, I freely accept that, but where the potential for hurt and drama is obviously multiplied by involving more people, so is the potential for good stuff too. There are more people to have fun with in good times and more people to help out in bad times. For me, it's absolutely worth it. YMM, as they say, V.
*yes, yes, lots of shagging. But also lots of people to snuggle and have mutual support systems with
**some of them very recently -_-"
***I also have people primed to keep an eye on me if I have beer when he's around because despite his irresponsibility and stunted emotional growth I am still incredibly attracted to him -_-"
****and, you know, USING your diary/google calendar/outlook/whatever is a GOOD PLAN (totally not aiming this at anyone in particular at all) (although, you know, I'm bad for this too)
*****quit it with the hollow laughter at the back there. QUIT IT.