Poly couples: What do you really have to offer new partners?

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September 5, 2012 by aggiesez

In any relationship, from intimate partners to business partners, everyone always wants to know: What’s in it for me?

Cunning Minx, host of Polyamory Weekly.

A few weeks ago my friend Cunning Minx, host of the awesome Polyamory Weekly podcast shared her thoughts on a thorny topic: How well (or not!) people in established couples consider the needs and well being of someone who’s in an newer intimate relationship with one or both of them.

This is my first post in which I’ll expand upon some of the points she raised in her post, From two to three: advice on opening up.

In my experience (from my own relationships and those of my many poly friends), it’s pretty common for people in existing couples to treat newer partners thoughtlessly — often at the worst times, yielding lots of avoidable drama and heartache.

Usually it happens something like this…

You’re in a primary relationship, and you also regularly see your non-primary partner one night a week. Then something happens to make your primary partner stressed or insecure — maybe she lost her job, or he broke up with his boyfriend. Suddenly, to spend more time supporting your primary partner, you start deferring or canceling many weekly dates with your non-primary partner. And this happens without everybody sitting down to discuss the situation and perhaps finding other ways to help them all get what they want from their relationships.

Occasionally there are more extreme circumstances. Say, a primary partner gets seriously ill and needs more care or help at home, which ends up cutting into time for other activities (including dates with non-primary partners). But even then, there’s probably room for everyone to discuss what’s going on and either find new ways to arrange time and activities — or decide mutually that the non-primary relationship needs to take a break, ramp back, or end.

Usually primary partners don’t act this way from a conscious agenda to pull rank or put the non-primary partner “in their place.” Most of the time, the people in the couple are afflicted by a huge default blind spot, thanks to the couple privilege that dominates mainstream thinking about relationships.

“Couple privilege! You and your hubby are soaking in it, honey!”

Couple privilege is blatant in monogamous society, but it’s an insidious, pervasive and powerful influence in poly circles, too.

Like any kind of privilege, couple privilege can trip up the primary couples who ostensibly benefit from it. And, of course, it can brutally suckerpunch non-primary partners who reasonably assume that their needs and opinions matter, too.

This is especially common when the people involved are new to polyamory — but couple privilege can arise even among people who’ve been in poly or open relationships for years.

From the perspective of the non-primary partner, it sucks to find out — perhaps after years of love, intimacy, and apparent goodwill and commitment — that when it comes down to navigating changing or difficult circumstances, the people you love and trust may assume that it’s okay to ignore your needs, or even dump you, rather than negotiate a compromise with you.

Yes, this happens. Far more often than most poly people in established primary couples usually care to admit.

Minx wrote:

“OK! You’ve done the scary part and told your partner you want to be non-monogamous, and that partner didn’t leave the room screaming. Great first step! So… now what?

Most couples begin with this mindset: “How do we move forward without damaging our current relationship and without my getting hurt?”

This may seem to be a logical question, but in the dating world, fear of change is self-defeating. Of course your relationship will change; you’re adding another full human being to it! Not being open to changes, including those within yourself, is the #1 killer of first-time poly relationships.

The first person you date outside your relationship is a human being with needs, quirks, desires, sarcasm, giggles and a whole wealth of emotions, just like you do. And adding another person to a family always changes the dynamic. Going into defensive/protection mode isn’t beneficial for you, your current partner, or your new partner.

Rather, try asking yourselves this:

 – What value do we have to offer to someone else?

– How can we/I make a new partner feel loved, comfortable and included like I do?

– How can we enrich this person’s experience with us and with poly?

…When I first read her post and listened to the associated podcast episode, Adding a third without making a third wheel, I loved Minx’s core points. At first I struggled with how she framed and phrased some issues, but now that I’ve thought it over I see that she pointed out some core aspects of how poly/open relationships tend to play out in the real world.

Is beginning an intimate relationship with someone new really “bringing someone into” your existing primary relationship? It’s easy to conflate this key point with the red herring that an equilateral triad relationship (where all partners are intimately involved with each other, stereotypically involving a hetero couple and a hot bi babe) is the goal of most poly folk.

Most polyamory looks like this. Although the edges aren’t quite so sharp. Caution: It can present a choking hazard.

Reality check: The vast majority of poly and open relationships are comprised of a bunch of dyads that fit together like Legos: two people have an intimate relationship, and each individual may have other overlapping intimate relationships.

Despite what you may see on reality TV, we’re definitely not all leaping to move in together to live as one big family and have nonstop group sex.

That said, even if your primary partner (spouse, etc.) is not intimate with your new lover; even if they’re simply acquaintances; even if they haven’t met yet — they still have overlapping interests and needs concerning the relationships they’re in. This is why every individual involved in a poly relationship (at least, ones that are more emotionally invested than strictly casual sex) always has a relationship with everyone else in that network. That is, they all affect each other, whether they see/admit it or not.

Every individual in that network matters, has value to offer, and should have a voice in choices that affect them.

Like any Legos construction, poly relationships are a system. Each interlocking piece (read: dyad relationship) exists in context with the others. If you insist on viewing the construction only from one perspective where the same blocks always end up on top, you’ll miss the big picture — and most of your options to make things better for everyone.

Meanwhile, the same person will keep ending up on the bottom, or left out of the picture, time after time. Who’d want to put up with that for the long haul?

Minx nailed it. This is one of the key things that seems to completely unnerve people who are new to poly, or couples who are firmly attached (consciously or not) to a rigid “our relationship must ALWAYS comes first” hierarchy. It’s fear of change, and particularly fear of a loss (including loss of perceived status).

These are very human and natural fears. They warrant care and consideration. The trouble is, major decisions or assumptions that are rooted mainly in fear tend to grow twisted and ultimately yield bitter fruit.

So: if (even in some extreme circumstances) you’re willing to completely disregard or jettison your other partners, you really have to think hard about the first question Minx posed: “What value do we have to offer to someone else?”

Most people don’t consider being disposable to be much of a value proposition.

When figuring out what you have to offer, being honest counts.

Honesty is another core value of polyamory. It’s not just about everyone knowing and consenting to multiple overlapping intimate relationships. At a more basic level it means having the courage to be honest with others — up front, in a forthright manner, volunteering important information and context, not waiting for new partners to figure it out for themselves.

In any relationship, everyone involved deserves enough information, early enough to decide for themselves whether or how to proceed.

This is especially important when it comes to owning up to your potential downsides.

In order to be this honest with your non-primary partners, you first must be honest with yourself, and with your existing relationship partner(s). Extremely honest. This also requires courage, because this is the part that can get awkward or embarrassing.

Ideally, people in established poly or open couples should ask themselves: Are we willing to compromise in order to be fair our to non-primary partners? Really? Do we always need to put our existing couplehood above all other considerations? Are we truly open to listening to and negotiating with new partners? Might this vary with certain issues (such as kids) or under certain circumstances (such as tight finances or bipolar mood swings)?

If you’re not open to considering or negotiating with your non-primary partners  in any significant way on matters that affect or concern them — or even if you’re not sure about this — make sure you state that clearly to them. Maybe not on the first date with someone new, but at least say this once things progress beyond casual sex or a short-term strictly-fun fling.

Telepathy causes headaches. And breakups.

How inclusive and considerate you can be is crucial context. Don’t just hint at it, and don’t expect your new partner to read between the lines. Take a deep breath, look them in the eye, and tell them the real deal.

Otherwise, you’ll just end up trying — and eventually failing — to shepherd your non-primary partner around a lot of invisible fences. And yes, they will figure this out, and probably be pissed off about it. Manipulating people is disrespectful.

…The hard part is, you might feel like a hypocrite or coward to basically say, “Well, I/we love you and respect you. However, for anything really important we’re always going to put our needs above yours. And when that happens you’ll have no say in the matter.”

Because really, not many people would willingly sign up for that. Even the masochists I know expect to be negotiated with and considered about how they will be abused.

The trouble is, poly people tend to be optimists, which is why poly couples often overestimate their willingness to include or consider other partners in decisions about time together, social recognition of additional relationships (being “out” about your non-primary relationships), boundaries, or other relationship matters. You may honestly believe you’ll be inclusive and flexible — until you start feeling lonely or insecure, and then those other partners start to seem not as important as you feeling better.

Here’s what many poly folk in primary couples often don’t fully grasp: People who choose to have an open, honest non-primary relationship with someone who already has a primary partner (or other significant life commitment) usually aren’t trying to usurp anyone’s primary role. We understand that often we won’t come first.

That’s okay — as long as we don’t automatically always come last. Or worse, if we don’t even show up on the primary couple’s radar at all as a consideration.

We generally realize, going in, that we won’t ever be your “top” or sole priority. News flash: that’s not the kind of relationship we want to have with you!

Furthermore, we’re usually autonomous, stable adults who don’t always need to come first or get everything we want in order to feel loved and valued.

Still, if the truth of your primary couplehood is that your non-primary partners will sometimes or never be a priority worthy of direct consideration and consultation — well that’s a hard truth. But it’s information we deserve to have volunteered to us, up front (or at least as soon as you see that’s how it’ll be).

Couples who fail to think this issue through up front, or who claim to be more inclusive and considerate than they actually are, usually leave a lot of sorry wreckage in their wake.

If you and your primary partner choose to fall back on couple privilege, that’s your choice — but please make it a conscious choice. Don’t just slide into it by default. Recognize what you’re doing.

And above all: If being fair and honest truly matters to you, don’t kid yourselves — or other people who might love you — about whatever couple privilege you’re reserving the right to wield.

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