wandering into a poly mess! i'm down
June 11, 2010 8:23 PM   Subscribe

A couple for me, poly for her -- how does entering into somebody else's polyamorous context 'work'?

I have kept up a wonderful fling while abroad for the past couple of months. Sex in beautiful places, long train rides. Yes, insta-romantic context, for sure, but the balance and openness and playfulness are getting to be more than just fling-variety. I care about her, to the degree that I'm willing to wander into some potentially hurtful new territory just to see how close we can get. She brought up the potential of seeing ourselves as '[gendermarker]-friends' kind of unexpectedly, and I kind of expectedly feel totally down.

The thing that makes it crazy is that she is romantically invested in two other people right now. One is a girl who she seems to love deeply, and I accept as part of the package deal of caring about her. The other is that girl's boyfriend, who invited SO into their relationship. This part is harder to accept -- clearly she has issues with him, he is older than their combined age and a minor cultural figure of famed sensitivity (ha I may have my own bone to pick with him..) He knows about and has anxieties re: me, and that's a source of tension for them. Her attitude: 'if he can't get over it, I know now and will just be involved with N. and you.' I should stress that she's also confused and just going along for the ride of current emotional bizarreness, and hadn't done or considered poly before.

I guess I would love to hear from people who found themselves in someone else's messy poly context before. How should I manage my own expectations? How do I check my homewrecker instincts/respect what's there, and at the same time, respect the fact that I deserve someone's (full?) attention and love?

I tend to enter into committed, vanilla/traditionalist relationships more for my partner's benefit (or anticipating it) than my own. So I'm not afraid to be led by my own desire/affection/curiosity into something new and bizarre, and certainly don't want to turn either of our wandering spirits into the archetypes of monogamy. I just want to hear a little perspective on this aspect of poly, as I have so little experience with it. Especially as we have talked about returning home, cooking for each other and smoking a joint in each others' houses, watching horror movies, etc., I want to understand how this could 'work' in the future, and prepare myself to the extent that is necessary (while still living in the moment/going with what's good/etc, yeah yeah I know!) Please inform me, mefi.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

How should I manage my own expectations?

By being realistic. If you need monogamy, then you need to admit that. If you feel jealousy, you need to own that. If you expect somebody's undivided attention, then you need to know that.

How do I check my homewrecker instincts/respect what's there

By doing so. I don't know how to explain this--it's like trying to answer "how do I feel angry?"

Extreme self-awareness is needed here. If you find yourself acting like a twat because of your jealousy, you have to be able to recognize that and stop it. If you find yourself trying to manipulate your lover against their lover, then you need to recognize that and stop it.

and at the same time, respect the fact that I deserve someone's (full?) attention and love?

The idea of "full love" implies that love is somehow finite. Does a mother who loves her three children give them each "1/3 love"?

Now, I will grant you that attention is finite, because time is finite. And you may find yourself wishing you could see more of somebody. And that's reasonable, but may mean that this relationship isn't for you. But, doesn't everybody juggle their attention between lovers, work, hobbies, family, and such? Do you really get anybody's full attention?

Is it reasonable to think that you "deserve" it? Or is it just that society has so inculcated the concept that a woman belongs, completely, to a man--and that this concept, instead of being cast away with women's lib, has simply been extended to people belonging to each other?

I'm not arguing here. I know my answers to those questions. But, for you, the answer may be different, and may lead you to decide that this relationship isn't for you.

Especially as we have talked about returning home, cooking for each other and smoking a joint in each others' houses, watching horror movies, etc., I want to understand how this could 'work' in the future, and prepare myself to the extent that is necessary (while still living in the moment/going with what's good/etc, yeah yeah I know!) Please inform me, mefi.

It works just like you describe it. Think about a long-term girlfriend (or boyfriend). You don't live together, but you do spend a lot of time together, and you do fuck.

I guess here's the way I've always considered poly relationships: you know your friends that you really love? The ones that you'd happily spend tons and tons of time with, that you rarely fight with, whom you're always excited to meet? It works like that, except you also fuck.
posted by Netzapper at 8:57 PM on June 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a situation that you're not going to really be able to understand until you meet everyone and get a sense of how everyone interacts.

This, for example, could end up being very simple, or very, very complicated: "I know now and will just be involved with N. and you"

This could be simple. Boyfriend and your new girlfriend break up, everyone is chill and personable, all other dyadic relationships remain intact. Woo! Or it could be not so simple.

Say she breaks up with boyfriend and only wants to be with N and you. That will affect her relationship with N. Are N and boyfriend a package deal? Will boyfriend attempt to break her and N up or, ick, try to force your girlfriend to stay with him using N as leverage?

Even if they don't break up, will the insecurity surrounding you affect boyfriend's relationship with new girlfriend and N? Will he try to micromanage your relationship or impose boundaries in order to render it acceptable to him? Will you be able to handle those boundaries? Will N be pulled in too many directions or used as a go-between?

You're all connected by invisible strings, whether you're technically dating or not. Get to know the people involved and all the little dyadic relationships before you fully commit yourself to working through this. And meet EVERYONE and try to spend at least a little time with everyone. Second-hand information about mystery people is not good.

Otherwise, you end up worrying about blown up, over-simplified, often villainous characters instead of people. You already are doing this a little--you seem to be framing this boyfriend as the enemy (as, admittedly, have I in my example) but the reality is that your new girlfriend sees something in him, and is in a relationship with him, and you should treat that relationship with respect instead of trying to undermine it. If she wants to end it, that's up to her.

(metamour is slightly geeky shorthand for your partner's other significant other.)

As someone who has been in your new girlfriend's situation, here is what I mean by treating her existing relationships with respect: Not talking smack about your metamours. Not trying to tell her what to do or act like you know more about her relationships than she does. Giving your metamours the benefit of the doubt. Communicating directly about any perceived insults or slights, instead of assuming the worst. Ask why they do things, don't assume that you know their motivations. Be polite. Be friendly. Be willing to chat with your metamours if you encounter each other in a cafe. Be flexible. Honor your agreements with her, and help her honor her agreements with her metamours. If you don't know what those are, find out.

I have never had a partner who has had another significant other, so I can't speak to making sure that you get your needs met, except to say that you should be willing to speak up and ask for things to change if they're not working for you. Before you get resentful.

Time management is very important, as are practical little things like dishes, but you don't live together so that is perhaps not as relevant to you right now.

Best of luck.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:59 PM on June 11, 2010 [8 favorites]

Good to see Netzapper come in with a much happier-sounding and less-thinky approach. This is what I mean about getting to know the people involved--approaches vary, personalities vary, and the more different personalities there are, the more complex it can get.

As a side note, relationships like boyfriend-N-new girlfriend, where an existing couple wants to be involved with the same person in a triad/triangle, seem to attract the most COMPLICATED and long-running drama of any kind of poly configuration.

Often the new addition will put up with a lot of bullshit and manipulation because they don't want to lose access to the other half of the original couple or break up the couple. They tend to renegotiate a lot, move boundaries around, do anything but break it off.

Sometimes only one of the dyads breaks up, making it a V instead of a triad/triangle in which case the two exes still have to be in each other's lives because they're both still with the hinge of the V. It's like having a kid together. Working out custody arrangements and shit. Complicated.

I don't mean that other configurations don't have drama, just that from what I've seen this kind of drama tends to take FOREVER to resolve itself. So...watch out for that and if you see it coming avoid becoming involved, and don't take anything for granted breakup-wise until you're 100% sure the dust has settled.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:23 PM on June 11, 2010

Having been in pretty much your position a year in a half ago, when I fell pretty hard for a married, poly guy, and having not yet recovered from our painful break up, which I initiated about a month ago when I realized that I wasn't getting my needs met, I have to say... go for it.

Don't ignore your instincts, if they're telling you that the relationship isn't right for you. And by all means follow the excellent advice of netzapper and ifdssn9. But... go for it. You will likely get your heart broken. But that is true of most relationships, isn't it?

Separate out what you think you need from what you actually need. There are a whole bundle of assumptions that come with a mono relationship that get questioned by a poly relationship. Make sure to look at each one and figure out whether or not it's for you.

Sexual exclusivity is the obvious one. There's also time. How much time are you going to want to spend with her? If she's seeing two other people and (presumably) living a full and exciting independent life, she might not have as much time for you as you'd like. Emotional security. Not that poly in any way excludes you being secure, but sometimes people do find that their partners' needs come into conflict and it can be scary to think that your lover might decide to put someone else's needs first. Being able to get along with and have mutual respect with your metamours.

Some of these things might not be issues for you. Or maybe you'll be able to work them out with this girl. Or maybe you just won't be able to figure out how you even feel about it. That's cool. Just make sure that when you figure it out, you stay true to yourself - don't let yourself fall so in love with this woman that you're willing to stay in this relationship if you discover that poly's not right for you.

I told my ex at the beginning that I had no idea what I was getting into but I'd give it a shot. It took me almost a year to come to the conclusion that it wasn't for me. And I wouldn't trade that year for the world.
posted by shaun uh at 11:07 PM on June 11, 2010

Don't fall in love with this person.
posted by Paris Hilton at 11:41 PM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, look. If you want to fall in love with this girl, go for it. It will probably end in tears, but so what? Pain is a part of life, right? Just go into this with your eyes open and enjoy yourself. Just don't expect it to work out in the end.
posted by Paris Hilton at 11:49 PM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agree with Paris, based on the experience of friends who have been through this.

To generalize (and I'm sure some will disagree): everybody would like to think they're not a jealous person, but anybody with the healthy level of self-respect necessary to enter into a healthy relationship is going to experience a healthy sense of unease when they see the man/woman of their dreams happily involved with someone else.
posted by ista at 12:14 AM on June 12, 2010

I wasn't going to say anything, but then I discovered I had left the tab open and couldn't resist any longer.

I also agree with Paris.

However, I've been on the darker side three times. Each time, I did my damnedest to deal, and dealt well enough (or so I thought). However, it seemed each time, my belief in respecting the rights of the other generally led to abuse of those rights.

So, despite my belief in the potential validity of poly relationships and my own feelings about them, I am not jumping back in there again.

I won't go on and on, but feel free to MeMail me if you want a more in depth discussion. If not, more power to you and I hope it works out for you. It's a lovely idea (in theory, for me at least).
posted by Samizdata at 4:42 AM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a perfectly healthy sense of self-respect, thank you, and it makes me happy when my partners are happy. If you don't get that, fine, but your broad-brush generalizations are neither accurate nor helpful.

That said, entering into messy contexts tends to lead to messy outcomes. Relationships in which your partner's partners are not okay with you and/or your presence tend to be messy for all concerned. If they stay together, be prepared for processing and drama at the very least, and for your relationship to be seriously affected by that; if they break up, your relationship is likely to be seriously affected by that too.

Go slow, be careful with your heart, and make sure to try and understand your needs and speak to them.

You may also find this site helpful. Good luck!
posted by streetdreams at 7:18 AM on June 12, 2010

It's hard for me to analyze this based on your description. What type of anxiety does he have about you? That you will monopolize her time? That you will not be cool with him? Maybe you could talk to him about it - not in a confrontational, pistols-at-dawn kind of way, but just in a friendly way.

By getting involved with this woman you are going to have him in your life, and it will be better for all involved if the relationship between you and him is a comfortable one. My other boyfriends have never been entirely one-hundred-percent comfortable spending time with my long-term bf, but things have at least been respectful and friendly which has helped a lot.
posted by mai at 12:05 PM on June 13, 2010

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