Authors: Tristan Taormino
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Self Help, #Sociology
Before my husband and I ever met in person or played, I completed a BDSM checklist where you check off likes and dislikes.
I think you should have the same kind of conversation early on
about poly. Had I filled out a checklist for poly that included "interested in relationships with other men," I probably would
have checked Yes. If there was "interested in falling in love with
other men," I probably would have checked Yes, or Maybe.
Whereas, in his mind, that was never going to come up... There's
a lot of serious negotiation in BDSM that's kind of formal and
maybe we could do with a little more of that around relationships... Spend a little time talking about what all the possibilities
could be in the relationship. I wish we had done that.
Ginger raises a good point about the importance of being specific
about not only what you want but what you may want down the road.
As BDSM practitioners, they were clear and detailed in negotiating
what they wanted, but as practitioners of polyamory, they were not.
Miscommunication can also come up when one person acts on an
assumption about how the other person will react. It's important to
listen to your partner's point of view and act on the information you
have. Sometimes, when you don't have enough information, or just out
of habit, you make a decision about your partner based on you: This is
what I would do or this wouldn't hurt my feelings or this would totally
be okay with me, so it will be okay with my partner. It's common to
assume that the people we love share our values, ideas, expectations,
and boundaries. In fact, they often do, but on a specific point your
partner may feel quite differently than you. People can get into lots of
trouble when they take action based on their own perspective rather
than asking for their partner's.
For example, Elizabeth and her secondary partner were having
some problems in their relationship and their sex life. They spent an
intense weekend together during which they had sex, reconnected,
and worked out some of their issues:
Spending three full days with each other alone was a big deal. This
was the first time we had to spend with each other uninterrupted
in a long time. She had a new lover and I was feeling really insecure about our relationship. We had a wonderful three days.
When we parted, I was feeling hopeful and optimistic about our
relationship. The night I left her, she went and spent a nonsexual
overnight with her new lover. From my lover's perspective, her
new lover and I were separate people; one didn't affect the other.
She felt we were on good, solid footing after three great days
together, and she didn't owe me any additional negotiation. So she
was deeply upset that I would undermine the great weekend we
had with unfounded insecurity about another person. I, on the
other hand, was deeply hurt that she would bed-hop like she did.
I felt it was disrespectful to me and undermined all the progress
we made in those three days.
Elizabeth's conflict represents what happens when two people see a
situation differently: she saw her partner's bed-hopping as disrespectful
and callous, whereas her partner saw it as perfectly reasonable based
on their agreements.
Elizabeth's problem raises the issue of what I call "the challenge
of the gray area." The challenge of the gray area arises when you are
faced with a situation that isn't specifically covered by your current
agreement; the scenario falls in a gray area. Let's call two male partners
C and D. C and D are nonmonogamous and both are serious about not
hooking up with people they might know in common in their daily
lives. They agree that they won't have affairs with any guys either of
them works with. At a party, C meets the brother of a co-worker of D;
the brother sometimes does temp work at D's office. C has a dilemma:
is the brother off limits or not? The easy solution to a situation like this
is simply to ask your partner, but sometimes that's not possible. It's
good to have a "contingency plan" for these gray areas. For example: If
you're not sure, just don't do it. Or: If you're not sure, use your best
judgment and we'll deal with it. Or: If the person is not on an explicit
list of people you may not fuck, then go for it.
Callie and Samira encounter problems when they go out to parties
without having set clear boundaries about flirting, making out, or picking up others. On the one hand, they don't want to impose a rule such
as No flirting or picking anybody up, ever, while we're there; that feels too
restrictive. On the other hand, Samira does not want it to be a free-forall. For her, it's simply about respecting the person you come to the party
with. She might say, "Could you get that person's number, rather than go
make out with them right now?" In the past, when Samira has requested
that they not do anything with other people at parties, Callie has
accused her of wanting to be monogamous, and it has caused a fight.
For Samira, the happy medium would be for the two to "check in a lot"
because she recognizes that hard and fast rules don't always work in an
unpredictable situation. Without clear boundaries, though, these two
continue to have misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and arguments.
When people negotiate their needs, desires, and limits, the negotiation
culminates in some sort of agreement. It may be verbal or written, brief
or detailed, but an understanding has been reached. Agreements are an
important part of open relationships. They help to clarify what partners
need, want, and expect from one another. They give people a sense of
security, reassurance, and commitment in the relationship. One of the
most difficult things for people in open relationships to deal with is a
partner violating an agreement. This can be especially devastating
because of the work you put into the negotiation: you pondered your
wants and your boundaries, clearly articulated them, discussed them,
and agreed on certain rules or guidelines, only to have them violated.
Imagine that it's your birthday. You haven't told anyone, so you
don't get any gifts, and you just feel a little blue. Now imagine that you
told your friends it was your birthday, sent them a detailed wish list, and
you still didn't get any gifts. You're devastated. When we are clear about our desires and we express them to others, it raises our expectations.
Similarly, when someone agrees to a rule or boundary, we expect them
to keep their word.
Not all agreement violations have equal weight. They can run the
gamut from "You were supposed to call me once a day while you were
out of town, but you didn't" to "You agreed not to fuck Laura, then you
fucked Laura." Its beneficial to the relationship, and keeps the drama
to a minimum, if your response is appropriate to what agreement was
violated. Overreacting only adds fuel to the fire.
The first step toward resolution is for everyone involved to acknowledge what happened and talk about it. Begin by giving yourself and
your partner the benefit of the doubt: no one is perfect; we all make mistakes. Next, think about the circumstances: was this a case of miscommunication, a gray area, bad timing, or a total disregard of the rules? Thus
begins the process of digging to see why the violation occurred: what were
the person's intentions, what were the motivating factors? Sometimes
people break rules in the heat of the moment, when they're just not
thinking clearly. The instance could be circumstantial and simply a case
of bad judgment. Or the behavior may signal something deeper. Did
the person who broke the rule act out of anger, resentment, jealousy,
Sometimes people think a rule is unfairly restrictive, agree to it
anyway, then go on to break it. Not adhering to an agreement can be a
passive-aggressive way to get a partner's attention or retaliate for a
previous incident. Some people simply don't like rules; they often test
an agreed-to boundary to see what they can get away with, how far
they can push it. If a pattern develops where someone is constantly
breaking the rules, you should ask yourself whether that person is
Among the people I interviewed, blatant and deliberate agreement
violations were considered the most serious. Interestingly, the most
common of these were equivalent to cheating:
• A partner has unprotected or unsafe sex with someone they're
not fluid-bonded with.
• Someone sees a partner they agreed not to see (whether temporarily or permanently).
• A partner has sex with someone without prior permission.
• Someone begins a new relationship without checking in with
Ingrid recounts what happened when her husband broke one of their
Shortly after my husband and I talked about opening up our
relationship, he slept with my best friend, Adrienne. I suppose she
is our best friend, but nevertheless, he did not have previous permission, which [was] a violation of the rules we'd set up, and
therefore cheating. After a lot of soul-searching and some arguments, I came to the conclusion that if he had to break the rules
or make a mistake, this was probably the "best of the worst," so
to speak. We both love Adrienne, and we'd been involved with her
sexually before in a threesome, so it wasn't afar stretch. She did
know of our relationship status and thought he had prior permission, and he admitted his mistake to both Adrienne and myself
right away the next morning. We revised the rules to clearly state
that permission must be explicitly given beforehand, and we're
working through it.
Sandra is a member of a five-person polyamorous circle in which all
members are faithful within the group. "My husband had an affair with the
next-door neighbor, which was incredibly convenient for him, and bad
timing. Everybody was a little pissed off about it. He didn't bother asking
for permission or even telling anybody for about three months, which is
just bad form. He told us from the other side of the planet [he was out of
the country]. I was really pissed off, because, you know, you don't do that."
In another instance, one member of the circle wanted to have a
relationship with a friend of the family:
She mentioned to three of us that she was interested in this
friend, but not to our girlfriend on the East Coast. She said, "I'm
interested in pursuing this sort-of relationship with this person."
And I said, "That's interesting, let me know how that develops,"
because the rules are you ash for permission and get permission
before you initiate intimacy. She didn't bother doing that. She
thought that just mentioning it was tacit approval. Well, I don't
know if she actually thought that or she was just trying to get
away with it, but at any rate I found out about it in an unpleasant way. After being intimate with this friend of the family, she
was intimate with her husband, who is my partner. He told my
girlfriend, and she turned around to me and said, "Gee, I can't
believe you're being so casual about this thing that happened."
And I said, "What?" I hadn't heard of it, so I was furious. I was
really angry. It was almost a deal breaker.
As these examples show, open relationships are not immune from
cheating. Resolving problems like these takes patience, time, and understanding. The person who made the mistake has to take responsibility
for their behavior and apologize. When someone breaks a rule, people
feel confused, hurt, and betrayed-those feelings do not heal overnight.
Trust must be reestablished between partners, and that takes time. The
broken rule may signal that one of your agreements needs to change;
perhaps one partner wants an amendment to accommodate some new
desire or person. You may find that you need to renegotiate your terms
so that they reflect a shift in the relationship. Agreements should be
dynamic, just like the people and relationships behind them.
There are books, websites, and workshops on open relationships that
can be of great help when facing problems. When dealing with common
issues, it is useful to talk to other people in open relationships. Whether
it's through an online community or a Listserv or, even better, a face-toface support group, reach out to people who have experience to share.
Peer-based support and advice from knowledgeable folks who've grappled with similar issues can be invaluable. (See the Resource Guide for
Individuals, couples, and polyfidelitous groups who face challenges
in their nonmonogamous relationships can also benefit from some form
of counseling. An objective, experienced, compassionate therapist can
help you to explore the underlying issues in your conflicts, communicate
and understand one another's perspectives better, and resolve problems.
Unfortunately, many professionals in psychology and psychiatry
(and other medical fields) still have little education or experience when
it comes to ethical, responsible nonmonogamy Mainstream textbooks
and courses in relationships and family structures rarely include information about nonmonogamy and polyamory5 Some professionals
believe that any form of nonmonogamy-even when consensual-is
dysfunctional and pathological. Nonmonogamy is not by its nature a
psychological problem. Nonmonogamous people deserve mental health
care from open-minded, knowledgeable professionals.
Whether you seek a psychoanalyst, a therapist, or a relationship
coach, it's important for you to find a professional who believes nonmonogamy is a valid choice and who has experience in counseling
nonmonogamous clients. It is not your responsibility to spend time
educating a therapist about nonmonogamy or arguing with him about
its validity. For some resources on finding a professional, see the
Resource Guide at the end of the book.