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Monday, March 5, 2012

Poly or Not?

EvErEwhErE writes:

I managed to get myself in an interesting situation in the last year...  after a wonderful but short period of time with my girlfriend she needed to move to the east coast for work, and then I took a job out of the country for a year.  Before I left we had a very brief conversation about staying together, and decided that we would stay together but were free to see other people, and when I got back we'd go from there... The only stipulation I made was that I wanted to know what was going on, and unfortunately she forgot.  So after being away for a year we had a week in Hawaii that was wonderful, but included my learning that she'd been dating occasionally most of the year, and had just started seeing someone a bit more seriously.  I was both surprised and hurt that she hadn't told me before. After a year of feeling like I knew what was going on with all aspects of her life this really was shocking, but in her mind she was just doing what we'd agreed to.  

I've been traveling for the last few months, and our relationship has been quite strained. I've slowly learned about the extent of the current relationship one painful detail at a time (they see each other 3 or so times a week, don't use condoms any more, most of her friends are his, etc), but although she is always willing to answer these direct questions the relationship itself really isn't something that she wants to share with me.  When I've mentioned people I've seen or slept with in the last few months she just accepts the fact but doesn't express any interest in knowing any more than what I tell her.

We have slowly established a much more open conversation about the other guy, as well as our desires and expectations, and this has been an amazing source of growth for us, but it's made me realize that she had never even considered the idea of an open poly arrangement; rather she saw having a local and isolated relationship as something that would allow her to make it through a year of my absence. 

So that's the back story- I'm going to see her in a month and am planning on spending a few months living with her to figure things out.  During this time she has chosen to cut off all contact with her other boyfriend.  So my question is if things do seem to be going well between us and we decide that we do want to stay together should I just leave well enough alone and go back to monogamous relationship with her, or should I suggest restructuring our relationship into a more open and sharing poly-relationship?  Her current plan is to spend two months with me and then choose one of us.  I guess the heart of my question is since we got into this in such a backwards and broken way does it make sense to try again?  I really do love the idea of a functional poly relationship but to me that means a whole lot of sharing...  she's never really even considered the idea...

Anyway that was really long, but any thoughts or comments on any of it would be wonderful!
- EvErEwhErE

Wow. She ‘forgot’ to tell you about her new flame, is still reluctant to share information about him, and is going to cut off all contact with him in order to interview you for two months and then decide who gets the boyfriend job? I wonder how he feels about all this. I wonder how relaxed you’re going to be during that period where she’s weighing your every move, comparing you to the other dude so she can make her decision at the end of the trial period. Um. I’ll get back to that in a sec.

So, on the face of it, the question you actually asked is pretty straightforward. Should we try poly, even though we messed up our communication around it on the first go? Totally depends on the two of you. Now that you have the experience to know how many assumptions you were both making (she, apparently, from a more conventional monogamy perspective, you from a poly-culture perspective), you have the chance to try again with a more explicit contract, exploring what kind of buy-in each of you really has. Just because you missed the mark once doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again; you both have more information now about how you communicate.

The fact that your communication has opened up as a result, and that it has been, as you say, a growth experience for you both, tells me that the channels are open and there’s no reason not to give poly a shot again IF you both want that. You say she hadn’t truly considering poly before—well, is she considering it now? If not, then: nope, no poly for you! If yes, you’re enrolling each other in a homemade Poly School.

If she’s not into the notion of sharing details about other partners, and you really need that, this will be your first piece of homework; what agreement can you come to around disclosure that will make you both feel safe, happy and satisfied? There’s not one right answer to this question, but I recommend diving into the emotional landscape behind a) why she doesn’t want to talk about it and b) why you really do. Is she afraid of hurting you, or experiencing jealousy? Are you afraid the passion between her & him will get intense without you knowing it, leaving you out of the loop and feeling out of touch with the things that are important to her?

Once you figure out the fears and needs behind each of your desires, you can brainstorm new ways to satisfy and reassure those. Me, I’m a disclosure freak—I want EVERY DETAIL!—but I don’t know that there’s anything inherently wrong with keeping the flow of information down to health-relevant details (i.e. condom use, extended partner tree and STD status. Those are NEVER things to be withheld or skirted around.) What is necessary is that you both feel respected and taken care of, and that you find a contract you both feel good about. This might take time and missteps, which are absolutely parts of the process; both of you, however, should diligently strive to adhere to the spirit of the contract you are making, as you understand it, and try to make each other feel good, or trust will crumble. If it’s not working for you—hit pause and rewrite the contract together, instead of just breaking it when it doesn’t feel right. And if she continues to “forget” more important clauses that you think you’ve agreed upon, then it’s time to reconsider the relationship.

Right, so that’s time & sweat & talking & straightforwardness. The two egregious things you didn’t ask are 1) How do you process the pain you’re feeling now at her previous misunderstanding of your agreement? and 2) What the hell?! She’s alternating boyfriends to see which one she likes better?!

   1)   You made an agreement and she broke it. It sounds like said agreement came from a misunderstanding, like a basic-to-the-core misunderstanding of what you meant by wanting ‘to know what was going on.’ I’m just guessing here, but that probably feels a lot like betrayal, a lot like being lied to, a lot like being disregarded. Can you trust her? Did she really ‘forget’ or did she just willfully misunderstand in order to avoid an uncomfortable conversation? Will she do that again? Does she respect your emotional needs? Is she being honest?

If you’re anything like me (no guarantee that you are, but if you are) this might take a while to recover from. I predict said recovery will go better if you are A) open without being accusatory about your hurt (i.e. “I’m still sad about what happened when I was away, though I’m working on healing. I might have kneejerk reactions to your relationship with this guy for a while; I hope that’s ok and that you understand I’m still processing.”) and B) able to ask for mutual attention on that (i.e. “I could use some reassurance that you still want to be with me and that  you’re really telling me everything.”) If she accepts the fact of your pain and wants to work with you to help it heal, healing is absolutely possible. If she thinks you’re out of line for being hurt, this may not work. Start there.

   2)   Soooo…call me crazy, or reactionary or too conservative, but I am VERY VERY DUBIOUS about this ‘compare-the-boyfriends-in-isolation-and-then-decide’ plan. I mean, lucky her, I guess; she has two men anxious enough for her heart that they will submit to her explicit judgment scheme; and it sounds like you’re both going to go along with this. But if I were you in that situation, I would spend those two months being stressed out and trying to impress her into making her decision (which is not a way that I am at my best, nor would it be a good indication of what a real relationship would be like.) She’ll spend the two months comparing the two of you, debating your relative merits internally or with her other friends, and whomever she ultimately chooses will represent the loss of something else she cares about and will thus be a heartbreaking choice.

What are the chances that you could shift the thinking toward evaluating each relationship on its own merits, rather than comparatively? i.e. what if you spend two months in her vicinity and pursue your relationship, but without her cutting things off with the other boy? (Living with her will raise the stakes in an uncomfortable way, though I realize economically that may be your only option if you’re travelling; if you can afford to stay elsewhere but nearby, I’d campaign for that.)

It will depend very much on the willingness of all three of you to do this, but I can’t help but think that letting each relationship develop in its own rhythm, with whatever natural excitement exists, and good and continuous communication, would be better than carrying it on in the atmosphere of a trial period. Then you all have an equal autonomy for deciding yea or nay about the relationships involved, without making them dependent on each other. You can decide if you want to be together without the complicating factor of her pining for the other boy.

If polyamory is the direction in which you’d like to drive, this’ll be a double-diamond crash-course in honesty, communication and acceptance.

On the other hand, if this woman isn’t that excited about one or the other of you, her original plan has the advantage of giving her a graceful and pre-negotiated out. My plan won’t help her say goodbye to anyone without actually breaking up with them directly, on their own recognizance, without the excuse of another relationship.

If poly is NOT what she’s looking for, or what the other fellow wants, then this is not a solution at all. If that’s the case, well then—good luck with your interview. It sounds like a sticky spot and like you’re doing the best you can. If things don’t work out, you will have at least learned an enormous amount for next time. I wish you the best.


P.S. Got a question? Write to! Have opinions about the advice I just gave? Leave ‘em in the comments so EvErEwhErE can read them & benefit! Love y’all.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Coming out Polyamorous

ACPPP: I was just curious about coming out as poly. I’ve been a practicing poly person for a few years now and with my past partners and every time I have the conversation it seems to degrade into my partners not feeling appreciated, or that I’m insatiable. I make it a rule to talk about being poly with my partners before we fool around, but perhaps I should be doing this on the first date instead? It seems really soon in a relationship to put that on the line. Another issue I’m having is that I’m getting to that age (26) where I can no longer just keep not explaining the ‘friends’ that my parents keep meeting. So my big question is this; What’s the easiest way of coming out of the poly closet?
Wanting to be on honest person with all my loved ones,
A Closeted Practicing Poly Person

(Note: this column was originally composed for a site where I was billed as "ask a poly girl," so it takes all kinds of stuff about poly for granted. For more basic info about polyamory, wikipedia says this and Google will be fruitful.)

RPM: There are lots of ways to come out as poly. Lots of them are good. Your question has two very distinct parts: how to tell new partners, and how to tell your parents. I’ll answer them separately.

New partners:
Without further details about your situation, and assuming that you are someone who is firmly poly and not contemplating entering a monogamous relationship, I’d say in general that earlier is easier. I told my husband I was poly on our first date, and…well, now he’s my husband. So that went well.

I advocate first-date revelation for two reasons.
1)   If you put it off, your dishonesty quotient grows with each date your status goes undisclosed.
2)   On a first date with so little at stake, it doesn’t come off as a huge big deal. The longer you wait, the bigger a shock your poly activities will be and the bigger a disruption to the perceived status quo.

That said, it’s a thing that can freak people out and turn them off, especially before they have any experience of you or reason to trust you, and especially if they’ve never heard of poly before. There are ways and ways to do it positively. Try variations on this theme: “I really like you and I’m having fun being out with you! Just so you know, I’m seeing some other people now too. I wanted to let you know right away so it doesn’t seem like I’m hiding anything.”

Then wait and listen. Reactions could range from “oh cool, good to know. Want another drink?” to “but if we ever got serious you’d stop seeing those other people, right?” to “Ah. Not interested. Could you drop me back off at home?” Whether or not you launch into the full philosophical discussion depends a lot on the response you get.

If it’s the last one—if you just scared someone off who is totally not cool with even contemplating the possibility of poly—then you just did you both a favor and saved some time. You did not fail, you just figured out that this relationship’s not going anywhere—and that conversation would have gone a LOT worse if you were six weeks in.

If what you get is more like the middle reaction—a request for clarification—then it’s appropriate to divulge the details of your personal situation, answer questions, provide reassurance that you are brimming with respect for the person you are currently out with, and evangelize your lifestyle a little (if you can do it gently and without pressure.) This can be one of those really fun and precious moments where you get to introduce an open-minded person to the concept of polyamory. You probably have your own list of reasons why it’s a good idea for you, since it’s unlikely you simply defaulted to poly—yay, a chance to talk about them!

In my experience, at least in the liberal laid-back bubble of the Seattle dating scene, the most common first-date reaction is the first one. No big deal. Even monogamous-identified people often casually date more than one person in the early stages of relationships, so this is within the range of many peoples’ experience. So if your bombshell is received with equanimity, go on and enjoy your date. You’ve just laid the groundwork for continuing to be honest with this new flame. On your second date, when they ask how your week was or whatever, you can mention that nice time you had on Wednesday with Paul or Lisa or whoever you were out with most recently, and it won’t be a huge revelation. The more consistently forthcoming you are about who you are, what you are doing, and what your expectations are, the easier it will be for the person getting to know you to digest it in gradual depth, just like they assimilate most of the information you give them about yourself.

Bottom line: if you’re cool with poly yourself, and present it as part of yourself as naturally as the fact that you prefer chunky peanut butter to smooth, you have the best chance of them being cool with it too. Proactive honesty is your best strategy.

Coming out to your parents as polyamorous is a highly individual decision.  For some people, it is very important to do so; for others, it is impossible. I’m guessing that since you bring it up, you’re feeling the desire to come clean with your folks. Hurrah for open communication!

I’m out to my parents, and I’m fortunate in that while they don’t particularly approve, they accept that I will make my own choices about my love life. We argue about it occasionally, in a loving way.  Our agreement to disagree is a key part of our continuing good relationship. Keep in mind as you prepare to do this that very few parents in this day and age will jump for joy to find out that you’ve chosen an unconventional and difficult romantic path (my mom likes to say, “We tried that in the 60’s and it didn’t work”). Keep in mind, too, that most parents in any day & age want you to be happy more than anything else.

What’s your relationship with your parents like? Do you tell them about dates you go on? Do you want to? When do you start thinking of your ‘friends’ as partners? Realize that any of these answers will change the way you disclose.

Here’s a guideline that might work for you: once you’re calling someone boyfriend or girlfriend, that might be a good time to mention them to your parents, as an emotionally significant person in your life that you want them to acknowledge specially. As with folks you’re dating, if you can continue to be upfront about what’s going on in your life, fielding questions and surprises becomes easier as you go along. For example, for first disclosure let’s prefer “Hey mom, you know that girl I invited to dinner last week? Isn’t she neat? She’s my girlfriend now! Mmhmm…oh, and I had a nice date with Olivia on Saturday too.” over “Hey mom, guess what, Martin and I are getting married! We want our other boyfriend, Jens, to be our best man. Sorry I didn’t tell you we were dating before; it seemed awkward.”

No matter who you’re telling, be aware of the fact that your lifestyle is a minority lifestyle that isn’t generally well understood. Expect dismay and shock and persistent misunderstanding from some; that is what you are signing up for by choosing to conduct your relationships in this way. Continue to be as clear as you can without being defensive. Be patient. Understanding can seem an eternity away, and then come after years.  Realize that some of the people you are telling have been raised to believe that polyamorous behavior is wrong, mean, perverted. These cultural beliefs cannot always change in one conversation, or ten. Stay motivated by a desire to stay full of integrity to those you love, and you are on unimpeachable ground. Avoid trying to convert people who disagree; your way is not better than theirs, any more than theirs is better than yours. The only way to achieve acceptance is to offer it.

Dealing with the aftermath might be fodder for a whole ‘nother question or ten. Let us know how it goes, and good luck.

Yours in love,

back in business

Hey dudes! There's been a long pause. I migrated my column over to another site, which seemed pretty cool, and it took a while to get underway and they were posting my old columns weekly, finally, and I was gonna tell y'all about it as soon as they got around to posting something new of mine...but said site stopped updating, two columns before they were gonna get to the new stuff, and my contact hasn't been responding to my emails, so after several months of inactivity there I figgered I'd just start things back up here, I am again.

And I'm SO STOKED to answer your questions! So, bring 'em on! I'll get the party started by posting my latest answer.

Happy hugs of reunion,

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Does not being into makeup sex make me a jerk?

Unnamed querent: My partner and I sometimes have long, uncomfortable, late-night talks about whether or not I'm still sexually attracted to her. (I am.) 

And while SHE can articulately talk out her frustration and feel listened to, and while I can (successfully) explain that while I absolutely AM attracted to her, my sex drive isn't realistically going to be the same as it was when everything was fresh and new and we were just learning each others' bodies, etc... and while we BOTH do get to a stable point where everything feels (calmly, lovingly, comfortably) resolved, there is one short-term problem. She usually wants to have sex directly afterward as a form of physical catharsis. 

And while I am absolutely still attracted to HER, I am in no way turned on by any aspect of this particular conversation, particularly the subtle (perhaps imagined?) insinuation that if it isn't immediately punctuated by "proof" on my part that it calls into question all the progress made by the talk itself. Also, given that they often take place between midnight and 3am, I'm often both mentally and physically exhausted.

Can you think of any other ways I could help her to physically relax so she can literally just calm down and go to sleep, and/or for me to tactfully ask for a little time to separate the (uncomfortable) talk from our (otherwise enjoyable) sex so that her fears (that I'm sometimes doing it out of a feeling of obligation rather than true desire) aren't ironically realized? Or some other solution I haven't thought of yet?

[Note: Re-reading this email, it sounds like I'm asking to treat the symptom and not the cause, but I really do feel that our communication is strong, and that this issue, while it DOES come up with an infrequent but unfortunately predictable regularity, often related to outside stress and other factors, IS under control in the medium and long-term, but if you'd like to comment on the larger issue itself, I'd welcome your thoughts.]

RPM: First rule of sex, of course, is to say ‘no’ when you don’t want it. This is harder for men in this culture, because men are supposed to always want sex, and harder for women to accept that it really is just a low-libido moment and not disinterest. You’re not alone here. You probably already know, but just in case, I’m going to lead with the most important thing, the title of your email to me and of this post: not wanting sex at any particular moment doesn’t make you a jerk, and you have no obligation to engage in any sexual act that you don’t wish to. Duh. That’s true for everyone in every situation, just bears repeating occasionally.

You asked for alternate ways to help her relax after an intense conversation, so here’s a brainstorm list, some of which might be incompatible with you being exhausted: give her a massage. Ask to snuggle her while she masturbates, and murmur how hot she is into her ear while she does. Capitulate to the late wakeful night, open a bottle of wine and play some quiet music. Lie on top of her and relax your own body, slowly and consciously, muscle by muscle. Ask her to do that for you. Take a very warm shower with her. Read her a story out loud. Ask her to read you a story out loud. Make tea. Time her while she runs as fast as she can around the block six times and welcome her home with a big hug, a glass of water and a fuzzy robe. Find a good guided meditation/relaxation recording to put on. I bet you could make a list six times this long with a pen, some paper and fifteen minutes. Go.

Tact, shmact. You could try this: “I’m tired, and I love you and you’re super hot, and I can’t wait to have sex with you when I’m done feeling slightly insecure about not having more sex with you. Will you cuddle me tonight?”

A couple thoughts about the ‘larger issue,’ as you put it. You may already be addressing these.

A. Be sure you’re giving her lots of data points, at non-crisis moments, about how attractive and alluring you think she is. There are absolutely moments when you look at her and realize how attractive she is. I bet sometimes you don’t think to communicate that to her. Even if you don’t intend to initiate sex, don’t stifle an impulse to brush your hand across her thigh or kiss the back of her neck in that soft way or make bedroom eyes at her when it’s totally not appropriate or whatever it is that you do to flirt with her. I think this is important: don’t let a disinclination to engage in sex discourage you from the small sexy affections that you might otherwise deliver. We can all be sexy and communicate attraction without committing to delivering orgasms. Flirting shouldn’t go out the door when commitment comes in—it makes us feel special and wanted and, heck, doing it raises our libidos anyway.

B. Investigate your own feelings of sexual obligation. Your partner is reacting to her own insecurity, but she may also be legitimately reacting to a sexual inhibition that you are actually exhibiting. Obligation around sex is not sexy, and getting trapped into the mindset of owing someone physical favors is a downward spiral of not wanting sex, feeling bad about that, wanting it less as a consequence, feeling worse about that, and so on until you conclude that you’re just not a very sexual being when you’re in a long-term relationship.

This is a cycle I’ve been prone to in the past myself, so here are some of my own stumbled-upon tricks for breaking it and nurturing my sexuality back to health. I’d be delighted if anyone else found them useful.

1.     Be more selfish in bed for a while. If you feel like it’s your job in bed to always be giving pleasure, and you feel guilty relaxing and receiving, sex can become a burden to both partners. Relax and lie back in bed, and when you feel like you should be doing something, don’t. Try saying no to your urge to work hard three times, before you say yes once. Remind yourself that exhibiting sheer pleasure in response to someone else’s ministrations is also a huge gift, often a better one than your tongue on her clit, and it takes practice to be able to give that freely.
2.     Ask your partner for support in breaking the cycle. Ask her for reassurance that not wanting sex is okay. Ask her for reassurance that she enjoys giving you pleasure and that it’s ok for you to simply receive. Ask her for periods of time (a week? several weeks? a month?) when you both agree that you won’t have sex, so you can express yourself sexually and affectionately in a safe space that won’t be followed by a feeling that you need to ‘follow through.’ Asking for her support can have the bonus side effect of communicating to her in another way that your disinclination to have sex isn’t all about her and how attractive (or not) she is.
3.     Pay attention to the fantasies you have when you masturbate. Have any new ones cropped up lately? Any old ones faded? My own internal fantasy world will substantially shift and redefine itself several times a year. Sometimes I get into habits in bed based on what used to turn me on, and I am surprised to find they no longer work. Make new habits based on what turns you on now, whether that means you take different actions or say different things out loud or ask your partner to push different buttons. Anything that re-invigorates that feeling of sex as an exploration, and not a thing you go through the motions of. We do not plumb the depths and be done, here. It's a bottomless well.

That’s what I got. The way you wrote your question makes it pretty clear that nothing is really wrong, everything is fine and dealt with, totally handled and positive, only this minor awkward moment keeps coming up. I talk about my life that way a lot too. So, you know, you probably don’t need most of this advice and it probably doesn’t really apply to you.  But thank you for giving me the chance to chew on sexual obligation for a little bit. It’s a pet puzzle of mine.

Anyone have other thoughts or suggestions for this questioner? Put ‘em in the comments! And write in your own questions too, to

Love to you all!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

He's so great...but so is he...

D writes: Hello What If.

Here's my problem. I have been in a relationship with a really nice guy for 4 years now. We are good friends, we have lots in common and get along really well. He is super sweet, the ice to my fire. He's just fine, nothing at all wrong with him. I'd describe our relationship as vanilla pudding.


Recently I came into contact with someone I've known since 4th grade. We were friends, but then he had to go do his bad boy thing and we fell out of contact.

Now I'd just like to take this opportunity to say that I had a kiddie crush on him in elementary, and then a huge crush on him when I got older, but as things never worked out I just kind of gave up hope. Also, I'd like to say that I have never ever stopped thinking about him the whole time we were out of touch (7 years). In fact, I have had dreams about him over the years, and from talking to him recently, found out they were true dreams!

Anyway, I was ok with my relationship with my boyfriend until I came into contact with my old friend. Now I have the opportunity to see if we could work out. But should I?

I've spent so much time with my current boyfriend. We have so many threads of our lives entangled. All my family and all my friends just love him. We have cats together. And we do get along pretty darn well, and in case you're thinking I'm not attracted to him, that's not true, I am.

But I know that I don't love him as much as he loves me. I actually told him that once, and he's such a sweet man he just thought it was nonsense. But even though I feel affection for him, I know that I'd be just fine and dandy without him around.

This other guy, my long lost friend...I just adore him. I know a lot of the mistakes he's made in his life (and he's made some big ones) but I love love love him. I don't love him for who he may be someday, I love him as he is now. I don't care about his past, it's what makes him who he is. The problem is, we're not really as compatible as me and my boyfriend are!

I would describe my relationship with my boyfriend as the most excellent arranged relationship in the world. If for some reason I was being forced to be with him it would be ok. If we got married, we'd be fine. Moderately happy. I'd resent him sometimes because I'd feel like I sold out for convenience, but overall we'd have a happy enough life.

On the other hand, I can try with my long lost friend, see how it goes, and possibly get my heart broken or have it all lead nowhere and lose my good, safe relationship in the meantime.

What do you think?? Stay with my sure shot, who I do care for? Or go out on a limb, see what could happen in the scenario I know already will be rocky?
~D for Dichotomy

Hello, D.

This is a question with more than one right answer. In no particular order, here are some scattered thoughts about it; see if anything strikes a chord. No matter what you choose to do, you will learn something.

Something to consider: the potential relationship you have with your old friend is pure fantasy. And the most compelling thing about fantasy is that it is perfect, perfect, perfect. Chances are, if you dump your boyfriend and pursue the old crush, even if it turns out the crush reciprocates, you’ll find yourself in another relationship with fading excitement. 4 years of anyone is enough time to settle into a routine. Keep that in mind when you’re evaluating potential futures.

One thing to do at this point is take this opportunity to check in with your current relationship for its own sake.  You sound bored. Try talking to your partner about it. If you let him know you’re feeling restless and mundane in your relationship, the two of you might be able to stoke the fire you’re craving.  If you’re feeling brave, let him know about your crush. While it might hurt him, it might also provoke the kinds of conversations that unearth whatever is subtly dissatisfying about your relationship. The way a relationship handles stress can either strengthen it or bust it apart—and it sounds like you need one or the other right now, and it doesn’t really matter which.

If you leave your boyfriend, you may or may not end up with the new guy. It’ll be hard and complicated and painful and difficult to explain, and then everyone will eventually heal. Something you will certainly gain is some freedom. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for.

Consider being with your current boyfriend for the rest of your life. Does that make you feel peaceful and happy, or filled with slight dread?

An option to consider, if you’re willing to be a little unconventional: some couples choose to maintain a committed relationship with each other while permitting other romantic relationships on the outside. It’s called polyamory, and it works very well for some people and absolutely horribly for others. If you and your boyfriend are open to it, it’s definitely something to enter into slowly, with much conversation and communication and patience, and a commitment to taking care of all parties involved and stopping if it gets too painful. It’s not an easy road, but if navigated successfully, then you get to have both your perfect relationship at home, and the thrill of satisfying your curiosity about the man you know isn’t right for you but you’ve dreamed about for years. If you choose to try, google it and spend some time together learning about ways to do it and common mistakes.

So…there are three right answers:
A) Stay and work on putting raisins and cinnamon into your current vanilla pudding relationship. (Yum!)
B) Leave, chase the delicious-looking molten chocolate cake that might give you food poisoning, fling yourself on the winds of fate, brace yourself for tears and see what happens.
C) Try to have your pudding and eat cake too, in an open, honest, consensual way.

There are two wrong answers, which I didn’t cover but may as well mention:
D) Pine silently and grow bitter.
F) Cheat.

As long as you stick with one of the first three, you’ll be fine. Really. Let us know how it goes.

As always, leave me comments! And write your questions to!


Friday, November 19, 2010

Whose job is that?

Tangled writes: Let's say, hypothetically, that I was in a relationship with someone who was also in a relationship with someone else.  Let's call my partner Brook and Brook's partner Chris.  And let's say that I knew Chris but we weren't close.  I think it would likely be in my best interest to support Brook and Chris' relationship and accommodate it as much as possible while still maintaining my happiness with my relationship.  

This question is about morality though.  What level of responsibility do I have to Chris and their relationship?  Is it immoral if I don't actively engage with Chris so I know what Chris wants and needs?  Is it immoral to ask for things from Brook that I want but know will hurt the other relationship?  What if I don't need them but they would be nice?  Most importantly, is it wrong to consider my feelings more important than Chris' feelings?  


As a pragmatist, this is what I’ve observed: when people start taking unbidden responsibility for other peoples’ relationships, good things rarely happen. I’m inclined to believe that the impulse to do so is misplaced and shows a lack of respect for the people whose relationship it actually is, while breeding resentment in the heart of the responsibility-taker who probably has enough to deal with in his or her own relationships.
However, you do have a relationship with Brook, and Brook does have a relationship with Chris, and there is a certain kind of emotional transitive property operating there that puts you on the hook for taking care of Chris. But it has to come through Brook.
Since polyamorous relationships aren’t as common as monogamous ones, there isn’t a standard cultural contract that can be assumed to be in place. In a monogamous relationship, certain things are taken for granted (no sleeping with other people) that don’t even need to be explicitly addressed; they are the default and everyone in this culture more or less understands that, whether or not they uphold them. A poly relationship has fewer default settings in that regard, so the burden is on the participants to carefully delineate what, exactly, they expect from each other with regard to other partners.
How much moral responsibility you have for Brook and Chris’s relationship depends very much on two things: the contract that exists between Brook and Chris, and the contract that exists between you and Brook. You are only responsible for upholding the latter, but Brook needs to insist on drawing up your contract such that it honors the former. (Or, if that isn’t possible, Brook needs to alter the former such that it honors the latter. This isn’t a simple process; it involves time and back-and-forths; it is worth everybody’s patience to find agreement, or one of the relationships will give.)
So: What level of responsibility do you have to C&B’s relationship? You have exactly as much responsibility to Chris as your contract with Brook states. There is no absolute, objective moral requirement for what goes into that contract except that you and Brook agree on it; and I would say the moral burden is on Brook for ensuring that the two contracts are not mutually exclusive. Of course, you can and should help with that, and engaging with Chris directly is a great idea that will probably make everyone's lives easier, but it isn’t your job (unless your contract with Brook asks for that.)
Is it immoral to ask for what you want, knowing it may hurt the other party? No. It is never, never immoral to ask for what you want. It is Brook’s responsibility to behave in a manner consistent with both contracts (which may involve saying ‘no’ to you), or, if that is impossible, to attempt to change the contracts. It’s your job to be patient and understanding with that process, which may be full of missteps and take a while to figure out; this shit is complicated and emotional and there’s no handy cultural blueprint for how to do it.
This is important: the worst thing you can do, ever, is say that you approve of some aspect of your contract that you are not okay with. If it feels unbalanced or bad or is something that doesn’t feel right to you, you have not just the right, but the obligation to say no. It’s very tempting to say okay when it isn’t, for a variety of reasons; to seem strong & cool, or because of feeling bad for having caused pain, or having pushed too far on another point, or… I’m here to say that signing up for things that don’t feel good is cruelty to both yourself & your partner, and it’ll getcha in the end if you do.
This is also important: If you break the previous rule, which is sometimes hard to keep, you need to forgive yourself and try again. Not everyone knows what they want right away, and being in a poly relationship can involve occasionally finding out what you don’t want in somewhat painful ways. That’s ok. Take a deep breath, shed some tears, try to figure out what you learned and communicate it. If you can do this together in a positive way, you’ll be stronger for the mistakes.
Your last question: is it wrong to consider your feelings more important than Chris’s? That’s one that I would try to rephrase. Objectively, your feelings are not any more important than Chris’s, and Chris’s feelings are not any more important than yours. But because you are stuck inside your brain, with your heart and your perceptions and your knowledge of your relationship, you are only ABLE to deal with yours. Trying to take Chris’s feelings on is a disastrous idea, because you have NO IDEA what’s going on in there. It would be rude of you to try. It’s like being the general manager of QFC and making decisions for the neighboring Safeway. What are you doing in there? You don’t know shit about Safeway. Take your pricing gun and your spreadsheets back home and talk to your own damn employees.
Right? Good luck, Tangled.


How’d I do? Leave your additions, complaints, and/or expletives in the comments. And please, for the love of God, write me a question! So far I have answered 100% of the questions I have received!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Besotted Instructor

Unnamed Querent: Ok, so my yoga teacher here is awesome. He's kicked my ass three days a week for the last two years, is inspiring and full of all sorts of sound life advice, and I generally adore him and love taking his class. His wife teaches in the studio next door, they've been married for 25 years or so, and they are both high up on the list of Oklahoma's redeeming qualities. 

Recently a gorgeous exchange student and some of her friends started taking our class. I think everyone of any gender in a ten mile radius is magnetically attracted to her, myself definitely included. Unfortunately my teacher wasn't spared, has totally succumbed to her hotness, and now spends most of class giving her various assists as an excuse to touch her - which she seems way less into than he is. I'm sure this is one of the perks and hazards of any yoga instructor's life, and I don't really begrudge him the occasional crush on a student, but it's getting a little out of hand - he forgets cues, ignores everyone else in class, and generally makes the normally very restful and centering yoga experience kind of awkward and uncomfortable. A bunch of other people in class have complained about it, including this student's friends, but I don't think anyone has mentioned it to our instructor. 

I feel very loyal to my teacher, and it would take a lot more than this to make me stop going to his class. It's also a temporary situation, since she is, like I said, an exchange student, and won't be here for that long. So... do I sit tight and ignore it, try to breathe through my irritation, and wait for her to go away? Do I lovingly tell my teacher "hey! You're making me uncomfortable, and your teaching is suffering." ? He hasn't done this with anyone else since I started class, so I don't think it's a habit for him, but I'd hate for it to become one, and I really would like to be able to pay attention in class again. What would you do?

Good question! This really depends on your comfort level with intervening and your relationship with your teacher. Given that the situation is inherently temporary, it is not at all a bad idea to use this as an excuse to practice deepening your focus in the face of irritation. The stakes are low, and things will go back to normal eventually, and it is neither your responsibility nor your business, really. Breathe deep and wait.

But if you, like me, relish awkward, head-on, over-honest communication and the growth that it inspires, you should totally clue your teacher in. Here’re my thoughts about that.

Chances are good that he’s unaware of the obvious and distracting nature of his crush. By alerting him to the effects on his class, you’re doing him a favor, and, if he’s as good a teacher as you say he is, you’re doing your whole class a favor, because any teacher who cares will course-correct when confronted with a mistake. And if you can alert him in a compassionate and understanding way, you might just have a chance at alleviating a serious emotional pressure on him.

/Wild speculation interlude: The fact that this is interfering with class to the extent you describe may indicate that his feelings are intense and perhaps a little out of his control. Since most adults, particularly those who have made it into marriage, have experienced intense crushes before, there may be something else at play that’s causing him to react so overtly. What if he’s feeling guilty for his reaction to this woman? The forbidden nature of his feelings and his refusal to accept them may be the reason that he’s spiraling into uncomfortable levels of attentiveness to her—nothing seduces us into losing control like the idea that something’s off limits. If that’s true, a casual, normalizing approach (“hey, dude, everybody’s got a crush on this woman, yours is impinging on class time, no big deal, totally understandable, just thought I’d mention that it’s noticeable”) could help him recognize that his feelings are acceptable and normal, if humility-inspiring, and that his reactions to them are controllable. /speculation

Regardless of whether he’s guiltily burning with desire or just being clueless around the pretty girl, it will be useful for him to receive the message. If you have the opportunity to wait after class and speak with him alone, you can address him about it then—if there are too many people lingering after class, send him an email.

Let him know that you think he’s awesome and you’ve loved his class for two years. Let him know that you need to communicate with him because you have the perception that he’s spending an abnormal amount of time working with this woman since she joined the class. Tell him that the imbalance in time spent, and the fact that other people have noticed it and mentioned it too, makes you uncomfortable during class. Ask him to redistribute his attention to the rest of the students. Tell him, as you wrote me, that this isn’t something that would make you stop coming, just something you have noticed often enough in class that it is prompting this feedback. Thank him for listening, let him know it’s not that big a deal, react to any defensiveness with understanding.

Beware: by doing this, you will risk making classtime doubly uncomfortable for you for a little while. He’ll be more self-conscious around you next class, and maybe for the rest of the classes that contain the exchange student. However, you stand to gain a much stronger friendship with him via straightforward communication, and you have a very good chance of having a more balanced class.  Your classmates will be grateful for the change.

If he continues this behavior even after such a direct confrontation, then he’s not as good a teacher as you say he is. If he’s simply the dirty-old-man type who’s completely unrepentant of his preference for the supermodels, you may just be out of luck, but at least you will have made yourself heard.

Confronting him won’t be socially easy or risk-free, but it’s one of those juicy encounters that carry the potential energy for real change for both participants. It’s not the only way to handle the situation, but it would be a brave, cool move and I’d salute you for it.

Good luck! If you do it, leave a comment and let us know how it went!
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