Sunday, November 24, 2013

For the New Poly Couple: Establishing Boundaries

Dear Viny,

I recently started dating a former boyfriend again. We dated in high school and then broke up in college, but kept in touch for a few years while we were living in different cities. Now we live in the same city, and when we first met up he told me that he only wanted an open relationship, and that this was something he'd been considering for a year or so. I had never considered it, but I decided to take an interest and see if this was something I would enjoy because we have a history and are able to communicate.

When we started, a couple of months ago, he didn't have very strict boundaries and he has slept with significantly more people than I have. He also recently found someone else he'd like to date and I realized I was having trouble overcoming jealousy so I asked if we could come to some agreement as to boundaries. I asked him if he would be alright keeping this new metamour as the only other person he has sexual contact with and he said he would do that.

Last night a female friend of his came into town who he has a sexual history with. He told me that at the end of the night they kissed, and I was very upset. He said he didn't realize kissing wasn't allowed. I felt as if it was a big betrayal because I thought we had a clear agreement. We got into an argument and he's "emotionally drained" and suggested spending some time apart. I went home and decided that what I needed was important and he needed to do at least one of the things we agreed upon if he wants this to continue. I feel like he didn't respect what I needed and I'm concerned that this won't work if talking is draining for him. I shouldn't feel bad for communicating what I want.

Do you have any advice? I'm currently reading "The Ethical Slut" and trying to get input from more experienced polys because I want to enjoy this type of relationship as much as everyone says I can!



Dear M,

It sounds like you and your boyfriend could both use a break – not from each other, necessarily, but from aspects of your relationship that are becoming problematic. You seem genuinely interested in exploring polyamory, but you need a break from your boyfriend's parade of new sexual partners. And your boyfriend seems genuinely interested in connecting with you, but he needs a break from conversations that focus primarily on your hurt feelings.

Of course you have a right to your emotions, and it is important for you to be able to communicate how you feel. However, your boyfriend has the right to set a boundary if he starts to feel overwhelmed by the amount of emotional processing you want to do right now. Try to respect his request for some time apart as a legitimate attempt to take care of your relationship, rather than worrying that he doesn't care about you enough to engage.

For his part, your boyfriend has a right to his own body, and it is important for him to be able to express himself sexually with consenting partners of his choosing. However, you have the right to set a boundary if you start to feel concerned that his choices are taking a toll on your physical or mental health. In my opinion, he needs to honor your request that he slow down and stop introducing new sexual partners into the mix, at least until you have time to sort out your feelings and come to clearer agreements.

My advice is for the two of you to pack your metaphorical knapsacks and retreat into the wilderness of your separate souls for, say, three or four days. Go ahead and text each other “good morning” and “good night” if you can't bear to be completely out of contact, but give each other some serious space. With the gift of space comes the gift of time: time in which you are not hashing and re-hashing who did what to whom; not stewing about the most recent insensitive or controlling or hypocritical thing the other person did or said; not crying into your cocktails while you argue and fret and try to problem-solve; and yes, unfortunately, not having passionate make-up sex – at least not yet.

I suggest you use all this freed-up time to think about what you want out of your relationship together. He can think about what he wants with you, and you can think about what you want with him. You've each had a few months to explore what it's like having an open relationship, so now is also a good time to think about what you hope to get out of this type of arrangement in the future. What gifts and challenges have you encountered so far? Where do you hope to be in six months from now? How about a year? Five years? I recommend actually writing these things down, so that you aren't tempted to change your story when the time comes to reconvene and compare notes. It takes real courage to share who you really are and what you really want, so agree beforehand that you will receive each other's revelations in a spirit of compassion, without judging them. Also, be prepared for discrepancies: the two of you probably don't want exactly the same thing, and that's okay. The goal of this exercise is simply for each of you to develop a clearer picture of what you want, so that you can better identify the areas of overlap.

Once you understand how your separate pictures match up, you can focus on the goals you have in common. Relationships always function better when you are working as a team to achieve something you both want. Of course, there is the scary possibility that you will find out there isn't much overlap in your separate visions of the future. But if that's the case, wouldn't it be better to find that out sooner rather than later?

Finally, I want to leave you with a few thoughts on the difference between boundaries and rules.

A boundary is something you set for yourself. A rule is something you agree to follow for someone else's sake.

When you are in a relationship, it is important to understand each other's boundaries so that you can try to honor them whenever possible – but you have to realize that the only boundaries you can actually control are your own. When there is a mismatch – that is, when your partner's boundaries lie outside your own comfort zone, or vice versa – you might want to agree on some rules that will enable both of you to feel more comfortable. But beware: every rule invites interpretation and every interpretation invites misinterpretation and every misinterpretation invites conflict.

That sounds ominous, doesn't it? Let me explain: whenever you make a rule, you are in effect drawing a line in the sand. Then life happens, in all its complexity: a breeze picks up, the tide comes in, and pretty soon, all that's left of that line is your memory vs. your partner's, adorned with broken seashells and rotting bits of kelp. You thought “no sexual contact between you and anyone but me and one other person” meant one thing; he thought it meant another. VoilĂ : you feel betrayed – and he probably feels betrayed, too!

So, don't make rules lightly. In particular, be very careful about making rules that change other people's already-existing relationships. In this specific instance, your partner's friend, the visitor with whom he has a sexual history, was affected by a rule you and your partner agreed upon – but that she had no say in. That's a set-up for a conflict of interests. Your boyfriend was in an awkward position: on one side, the Scylla of his friend's expectation of affection; and on the other, the Charybdis of your prohibition against it. Kissing his friend at the end of the evening probably seemed like the safest route to take!

That's my two cents. Don't spend it all in once place. ;-)

Heliotropes and Isotopes,

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