For advice on dealing with the humans in your life

For advice on dealing with the humans in your life. What if you sent in a question to

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.