Thursday, December 4, 2014

Casual Honesty: Can I Chat with My Hair Stylist about Polyamory?

Dear Viny,

I'm balls deep in poly and have been in a stable situation for over eight years now. There's always the question of whether or not to disclose this to new friends, dentists or hair stylists. Do I feel compelled to out myself? No.

But, I have made some significant life changes in the last year that make my personal life a non-issue in my professional life (working entirely online). It has been very freeing and frankly, a relief.

That being said, I get tired of dancing around the issue or being intentionally vague. When I climb onto the massage table and my therapist says "How was your weekend?", I want to be honest.

Can I? Should I? Do I shut the fuck up and say as little as possible? What say you on the topic of being casually honest?

Red State Romeo


Dear Romeo,

Casual Honesty sounds like a winning pony to me! Saddle her up and take her for a run! After all, what have you got to lose?

I can just picture you, reclining in a powder-blue chair with a goofy bib clipped under your chin, while the dentist squints at your chart, distractedly snapping her latex gloves. She asks you about your weekend, not because she gives a crap, but because customer satisfaction surveys have indicated that people really want to be asked asinine questions about themselves, even when their mouths are stuffed so full of cotton gauze they can't utter a single intelligible syllable in reply. Luckily, there's nothing in your mouth yet. “Oh, wow, I had the most fantastic weekend,” you enthuse, “Me 'n' Snuggles 'n' Sara, along with some of the other sweeties in our little love-tribe, won the Lube Lick-off at Polypalooza!” The dentist looks at you with furrowed brows. “Did you know that lubricants can be very damaging to your enamel?” Then she pulls out the biggest syringe she can find, and commands, “Open wide!”

Yeah, as long as you can deal with a wee bit of discomfort, I see no reason why you shouldn't answer a casual question with casual honesty. If it's socially acceptable for a monogamous person to say, “I had a great weekend! I introduced my boyfriend to the whole fam damily, and my parents just loved him!”, then it should be acceptable for a polyamorous person to say the same thing: “I introduced my new boyfriend...and my [wife/husband/wife and husband/other partners/tribe/whatever labels work for your situation] just loved him!” Of course, it isn't acceptable yet, but it should be, and you can do your part to make it more acceptable by behaving as though it is. When you respond to a polite question with a polite-but-scandalous reply, you effectively shift the parameters of what you are allowed to mention in polite conversation.

This kind of honesty has a light touch, and most likely won't be perceived as a threat. Your matter-of-fact, “this is what my life is like” disclosures may get met with some looks of blank incomprehension, or perhaps raised eyebrows and requests for clarification, which would then result in either A) communication shut-down, or B) lots and lots of questions, but my guess is that, particularly when dealing with people in the service or caring professions, you won't see a lot of overt hostility. Think about it this way: whether or not your hair stylist or massage therapist approves of your lifestyle, you have just given him or her a really great story to tell the next client or the folks back home. If bad comes to worse, and things get super awkward, or they refuse to let you book another appointment, so what? There are plenty of savvier businesspeople out there who will gladly accept your money. With any luck, they'll have personal views more in line with your own.

So yes, Romeo, I think you can be casually honest. Moreover, I think you should be. Why? Because you have so little to lose by saying what you want to say, when you want to say it. There are still so many people out there who can't be honest about who they are and how they've chosen to live their lives. They have a lot more to lose – their kids, their job, their social standing, their legal rights – and they have decided they can't risk it. People like you can make the world a safer place for people like them.

Casual honesty is a luxury. If you can afford it, I say enjoy the hell out of it. You'll be doing us all a big favor.

Teparies and peccaries,

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Advice for Polyamorous Parents: When and How to Tell the Kids

Dear Viny,

My husband and I are new to polyamory, and we have two girls, ages two and six. Much of the reading we've done has not mentioned the subject of children or families. We are wondering when to tell our children about our decision to open our marriage, and how to tell them in a culture in which we fear they may be ostracized or worse. Do you have thoughts/advice about how to manage this issue?

A Poly Mama


Dear Poly Mama,

A few weeks ago, I was at a reading of Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert's More Than Two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory (which is an absolutely stellar book, btw, and if you're new to poly, you simply must get your hands on a copy a.s.a.p. – you can buy one here or on Amazon). During the Q & A session after the reading, someone in the audience piped up with the same question you just asked me. Eve and Franklin responded that unfortunately they didn't feel qualified to weigh in on the subject of poly and parenting, because neither or them had any children. And I thought to myself, “Ah, so that's how you managed to write 400+ pages, bundle them into a beautiful book, publish the damn thing, and tool around the country for two months promoting it!”

Okay, I'm a little jealous. I mean envious. Whatever. In all seriousness, though: I do think there is a comparative lack of information on polyamory and parenting, and I suspect that the reason for this is that poly parents are not the ones writing the books. And why not? Why are we, as a group, so deplorably under-represented among the glitterati? I'm sure I don't need to explain it to you, since you have young children – but for those readers who don't have kids, allow me to point out that in the course of writing this paragraph, I have been interrupted no fewer than four times by my six-year-old. She and her little friend now have tortilla chips, salsa, a glass of milk, and a glass of water in front of them – which may keep them busy for a few... nope, I was wrong. Make that five times. (“Mom? Where'd those vampire teeth go? I wanna show Al!”) But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that writing a book takes time and concentration, both of which are in short supply in households like mine. (And...we're up to eight times now, just for the record.) Yes, it's true that plenty of writers have managed to publish books despite being beset by minor technical difficulties like the ones currently running around my living room. In fact, I know several such miracle-workers personally. However, when it comes to publishing on the specific topic of polyamory and parenting, there's a far bigger obstacle in our way: fear of public scrutiny. As poly parents, we're hesitant to call attention to ourselves, lest the Eye of Sauron alight on our little ones.

Public perceptions of polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy are changing for the better, but the threat of social censure is still very real. Many people assume that children do best in a “Leave It to Beaver” type of family; in their minds, parents who choose an alternative relationship structure are putting their own selfish desires ahead of their children's wellbeing. Thus, in some social circles, coming out as poly means running the risk of being judged an unfit parent. And that, my lascivious lovely, is why I write under a pseudonym – not because I'm worried about my name, but because I'm worried about my children. I mean, what if some yo-yo out there decides my kids would be better off in foster care?

All this to say: I understand your concern, Poly Mama. I really do. That being said, I feel strongly that parenting decisions should be guided by love rather than fear.

And now, without further preamble, here are my thoughts about when – and how – to tell your kids you're polyamorous.

1) Let your children's questions set the pace. Given that your girls are six and two, there is no need to make any kind of “announcement” for their benefit. This is great, because parental announcements are awkward, and best avoided. If your kids are anything like mine, they will ask enough questions over the years that you'll never have to trot out some cringe-worthy opening salvo like, “Kids? There's something your father and I need to tell you....”

2) When your children ask you questions, give them honest answers. Your two-year-old probably won't have any questions yet. But I can pretty much guarantee that your six-year-old will want to know all kinds of things: where you're going, what you're doing, whom you're doing it with, etc. Be candid in your replies – but don't offer more information than she can process.

By way of illustration, here's an exchange I had with my daughter just the other day, as I was preparing for a night out:

Sienna: Why are you getting dressed up? Where are you going?
Me: I'm going out with Cam tonight.
Sienna: Why do you need to wear a pretty bra? Cam's not gonna see it, is he?
Me: He might.
Sienna: Has he seen you naked??!
Me: Sure.
Sienna [shrieks in mock horror, then moves on, apparently unfazed]: Can I play Minecraft?

3) Pay attention to non-verbal cues, because some questions won't be asked out loud. There may be times when your children would benefit from a more in-depth discussion, or when they are looking for some reassurance, but they don't know how to ask you for what they need. If one of your children seems to be “fishing” for information, expresses confusion or anxiety around a particular topic, or simply seems upset, try to figure out what's bothering her, so that you can help her articulate her concerns.

Here's an example of another conversation I had with my daughter, a few months ago:

Sienna: Who do you love more, Daddy or Cam?
Me: I love them both the same amount.
Sienna: Then how come you kiss Cam more?
Me [surprised]: Do I? I don't think that's true.
Sienna: Yes, you do. And that's not fair. 'Cuz if you love them the same amount, then you should kiss them the same amount.
Me: But I love you and your brother the same amount, and I kiss you more than I kiss him, right?
Sienna: That's because Denali hates being kissed.
Me: Excellent point! Well, hmm. You seem really concerned about this. Are you worried that I love Cam more than Daddy? Are you worried that I'm hurting Daddy's feelings?
Sienna: Yes.
Me: I see. I don't think you need to worry about that, sweetheart. Daddy knows I love him tons and tons.

In a similar vein, if your child is normally talkative, an uncharacteristic lack of questions may be your cue to initiate a conversation, even if there is no overt evidence of distress. You may need to probe a little bit, and not simply assume that your child will broach a difficult topic on her own. When my son was nine years old, he and I had the following conversation, after I noticed that he had virtually nothing to say the day after my husband and his new girlfriend had spent the night together at our house:

Me: You're awfully quiet today. Was it weird that Lilianna had a sleepover with your dad?
Denali: A little, yeah. [Pause.] Was it okay with you that she slept over?
Me: Sure.
Denali: Even though she and Parker slept in the same bed?
Me: Of course.
Denali: You knew they were going to sleep in the same bed?
Me: I figured they would, yeah.
Denali: And... that was okay with you?
Me: Yeah.
Denali: Even if they didn't have clothes on?
Me: What makes you think they didn't have clothes on?
Denali: It sounded like they were getting dressed. In the morning.
Me: Oh. Well, I told Parker beforehand that whatever he and Lilianna wanted to do during their sleepover was fine with me. Were you worried that I would be upset if I found out they were naked? Did you think maybe I didn't know that might happen?
Denali: I wasn't sure.
Me: Parker and I talked about everything, sweetie, and I'm fine. Are you still worried?
Denali: No, if you're fine, I'm fine. I was just checking.
Me: I'm glad you checked. So let me ask you something – remember how I used to have sleepovers all the time with Scott? And that didn't seem to bother you. You never seemed to worry about it, or whether your dad was okay with it. So, I guess I'm wondering why you would be worried about me not being okay with Parker having a sleepover.
Denali: Wait...let me get this straight... Scott was your boyfriend?
Me: Yeah, what did you think he was?
Denali: I don't know. I didn't think about it. I was a little kid. He was just... Scott.
Me: All those years? The time he came to visit us in Denmark, and your dad was gone for a week on that architecture trip? Kissing each other goodbye, and not just on the cheek? You seriously didn't know?
Denali [shrugging]: I'm telling you – I didn't think anything of it. Huh. Wow. Scott was your boyfriend. A lot of things are suddenly making sense to me now!

{Note: Because I'm a mother giving advice to another mother, I feel the need to point out that I haven't shared these conversations because I think they showcase my parenting skills at their absolute finest. (Actually, I can hear that panel of snooty Parenting Experts from On High tsk-tsking as I type, going “overly-directive here!” and “overly-dismissive there!” Sheesh!) No, I've shared these conversations because I wanted to provide some examples of the kinds of questions your children might ask, and because I hope my responses demonstrate that it is possible to encourage open dialogue without getting into details that may not be age-appropriate.}

4) Do not ask your children to keep secrets for you. In an ideal world, children could repeat any conversation they have with their parents to anyone else, verbatim, and the worst outcome would be mild embarrassment, or a not-so-surprising “surprise” party, or something along those lines. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and if there is a piece of information your children absolutely must not repeat, do not share it with them. If being unintentionally “outed” as poly by your children would be a disaster – that is, if it would put you and/or your children at risk of social censure, or worse – you will need to be careful about what you say, and how you say it. And, of course, you will also need to be careful about what you do, and when you do it! (In other words: Don't have sleepovers. Don't kiss your other partners in front of your kids. You get the idea.) But no matter where you fall on the spectrum from “completely in the closet, with a kid-proof lock on the doorto “totally out in the open, napping naked in the sunshine,” your children are bound to have questions at some point, and I think you should answer them as honestly as you can. Perhaps you will have to omit certain details, or evade certain lines of inquiry, but do not lie. Human beings come equipped with incredibly sophisticated lie-detecting machinery, and even very young humans can often sense when someone isn't being straight with them. Please don't give your children cause to distrust you. If you cannot think of any way to answer a question honestly, and you cannot change the subject gracefully, simply say, “I'm sorry, honey, but I can't answer that question.” And when your child presses you for a reason why not, as she no doubt will, explain to her that some information is private. It's perfectly okay to ask your children for privacy. It's not okay to lie to them, or to tell them the truth only on condition that they keep it to themselves. Secrecy is too big a burden for a small child to bear. 

5) Find opportunities to point out that relationships can take many different forms, and talk with your kids about different kinds of families. With each of your children, there will come a Right Time to have The Conversation. I don't think there's a way to predict when that will be, exactly. Raising children is one of those “mileage may vary” deals, as I'm sure you're well aware. Our son was nine when the light bulb came on, so that's when we introduced him to the term “polyamory.” I suspect we'll be talking to our daughter a little bit sooner than that, or possibly a lot sooner – who knows? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, though, we've discussed all kinds of relationship-related topics with her. She knows that families come in all shapes and sizes. She is beginning to understand that social norms vary from culture to culture, that they tend to change over time, and that she need not allow them to dictate which path she takes in life. When the time comes for us to spell out for her all the ways in which her own family does not fit the traditional mold, she'll already have the context she'll need to make sense of that information, and the confidence she'll need to deal with the social consequences of sharing it, should she choose to do so. At any rate, this is how we approached things with our son, and he turned out great! (He's officially an adult now, which means I get to make official declarations about how he turned out – but if you'd rather hear him speak for himself, you can check out this guest post he wrote four years ago, at age fourteen, about what it's been like to grow up with parents whose relationship choices have placed them well outside the monogamous mainstream.)

Well, Poly Mama, I think this is a wrap. There's only so much advice you can stuff into one bitty burrito, you know? Maybe one of these days, I'll get around to writing a book, or editing a collection of essays, or at least contributing something more substantial to the still-developing public discourse on the unique challenges and rewards of being a polyamorous parent. Or maybe I won't. Either way, I get to rest on the greenest, glossiest, most gorgeously lucky laurels out there: my two brave, bright, beautiful, curious, open, thoughtful, socially-savvy children. May you be as blessed!

Coffee spoons and harvest moons,

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"We're Poly, She's Not": The Problem with Poly-Mono Pairings (And Why Exercising Veto Power Isn't the Solution)

Dear Viny,

My husband came back from Burning Man having connected with a longtime mutual friend of ours. The problem? We're poly and she's not. Admittedly, I have my own triggers about his relationships because his last one was spectacularly one-for-the-record-books bad. This time around, we've made a serious effort to do things right and I'm feeling supported and assured. 

We met her at the same time so she's very much *our* friend. Therefore, there is none of the “you're-befriending-me-because-you-want-to-bone-my-husband” worry, and this is good. Up until recently, she was in a long term relationship and we had, in passing, conversations about our "lifestyle" (I hate this word because it sounds like we spend excessive time agonizing at the grocery store about which vegetables are appropriate for insertion. Nevertheless, it's probably the correct word for the situation).  

She is giving the situation a lot of thought because the idea of poly interferes with her long time supposed goals for herself. (I say supposed because she's at the age where you start being really honest with yourself about what you actually want vs. what you always thought you wanted... or would want.) I commend her for recognizing the gravity of the situation and not taking it lightly. 

She and DH have had many talks about it and she and I finally got together recently to discuss things. To put it bluntly, I am nervous about the prospect of her overcoming her resistance to poly just because she has feelings for my awesome spouse. In order for her to do this, she has to "get over" his having a wife. While I recognize it isn't specifically personal because she likes me and we get along, it still IS personal because my husband and I have spent most of our adult lives together and we *are* part of each other. 

Tell me, oh storied one...  Are there poly monsters under my bed?  Am I fussing over nothing? 

Yours truly,
Perturbed in P-town


Dear Perturbed,

You're not fussing over nothing. Your letter gave me a quick peek behind that oh-so-chic dust ruffle of yours, and I'm pretty sure you've got something furry and clawed hiding under your bed.

No, it's not the cat. And it's not the fabled green-eyed monster of jealousy, either, because that particular critter is curled up on top of your bed, in plain sight, along with the hard-nosed monster of cynicism and the thin-skinned monster of insecurity. As you know, a monster you've tamed isn't a monster at all. The puppy-pile of nuisances napping on your afghan isn't what's freaking you out, because those are the issues you've already identified, and you obviously already know how to deal with them when they arise.

I don't have a clever name for the monster currently keeping you up at night, but I can try to describe some of its characteristics. It has big eyes, big ears, and fuzzy boundaries. Commonly found under the beds of people whose lives are entwined with those of others, it feeds on a very specific kind of fear, which is this: someone I love is about to fuck up.

I can see why you would be worried that the romance developing between Dear Husband and your mutual friend might turn out to be a mistake. Your friend's “resistance to poly” is a huge red flag. Yes, she is in the process of re-evaluating who she is and what she wants, so it's possible that she will end up deciding she wants to be in a relationship with your husband – not in spite of you, but partly because of you! – which would be groovy as all git-out. Or, she might decide that while she herself prefers to be monogamous, she is perfectly happy sharing your husband with you. However, it seems somewhat more likely that she will end up deciding she really is monogamous by nature, and would prefer to be in a monogamous relationship. Which would be decidedly less groovy.

The reason why so many poly people have a “poly-only” dating policy is because they have experienced first-hand the many miserable ways in which a poly-mono pairing can devolve into drama and dysfunction. I was once in love with a man who took seven and a half tumultuous years to realize an important truth about himself, which was (to quote him verbatim): “I can't be healthy around you when I have romantic feelings for you and you are in a poly lifestyle.” Either I had to let go of my lifestyle, or I had to let go of him. Since my “lifestyle” at that time included a husband, a new lover, a metamour whose friendship I really valued, a set of personal convictions, an ideology, an identity, and a future in which I would be free to nourish other intimate connections and express my sexuality however I chose, with whomever I chose – well, I did the only sane thing. I let him go. And I vowed I would never again allow myself to become romantically involved with someone who could not accept me as I am.

I didn't share this story in the hopes that your husband will learn from my example and nip this new relationship in the bud, before it has a chance to get all overblown and blowsy. I shared it to explain why I am pessimistic about the chances of a poly-mono pairing working out long-term, and why I can understand your fussing. If one of my partners fell in love with someone whose response to the burgeoning romance was something along the lines of, “Too bad you're not single! Oh, well...I'll try to overlook that Viny person...for now,” I would be crawling the walls. I would be sorely tempted to put both my feet down: “So sorry, honeybee, but it's a definite ix-nay on this one. Trust me: been there, done that, and it's a disaster. I can't stand by and watch you get hurt.”

Yes, if I were in your situation, and I had veto power, I would be tempted to use it. And this is precisely why I don't have veto power in my relationships: I don't want to be tempted. In my opinion, the concept of veto power does not belong in intimate relationships between equals.

I realize this is a controversial statement. Many poly couples explicitly include veto power in their relationship agreements. Unfortunately, I don't have enough time right now to go into the well-reasoned disquisition this topic deserves, but I will say this: I believe that people should be free to make their own mistakes.

Notice I said “mistakes,” not “decisions.” Not every decision can – or should – be an individual decision. Mistakes, however, properly belong to the individual. If it is a mistake for your friend to get involved with your husband, given the goals she has for her life, then that is her mistake to make. If it is a mistake for your husband to get involved with this particular woman, given her resistance to poly, then that is his mistake to make.

This brings us back to the monster that has taken up residence under your bed. I suspect that the source of much of your current anxiety is uncertainty about the extent of your responsibility in this situation. I would like to submit that it is not your responsibility to decide whether or not your husband and your friend should continue to explore their connection. It is not your responsibility to make sure your husband doesn't get himself into another mess. It is not your responsibility to make sure your friend meets a certain “percentage of time spent soul-searching” quota before she begins experimenting with a new relationship paradigm. You can share your concerns with each of them, of course. In fact, you owe it to yourself – and to them – to communicate clearly how you are feeling, to speak up about what you want and need. But that is where your responsibility ends.

Granted, it's not easy to let our loved ones conduct their other relationships their own way. I have to remind myself to back off constantly. However, there is great peace of mind to be found in trusting others to take care of themselves – by trusting them to learn whatever they need to learn from making their own mistakes.

Pickles and Peccadilloes,

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sexual Intimacy vs. Non-sexual Intimacy

Dear Viny,

I have what may be an odd question. (Or maybe not.) I'm not really in an “alternative” relationship, so I don’t know if my concern is unusual.

My husband has what I would call a girlfriend. He plays tennis with her two times a week and they share a passion for astronomy, so they're always sending each other links to articles and so on. And they talk on the phone every day. What concerns me (maybe I’m just weird) is not the possibility that they're having sex. (He assures me it's not a sexual relationship, and I think I believe him.) It's actually the other parts of their relationship that bother me. What I want to know I guess is whether sexual intimacy or non-sexual intimacy is more threatening?



Dear C.,

If I were a chiropractor, and you walked in with a spine shaped like the question you just asked, I'd be tempted to give you an adjustment before you even sat down to give me your health history, and that would be unwise. Luckily, however, I am merely an advice columnist, not a chiropractor. Tweaking your question may cause some momentary discomfort, but there will be no lasting damage if I get it wrong. So, let's risk it.

Take a deep breath in. Count to three. Now exhale, slowly, and rephrase:

My husband has a girlfriend. (So what's wrong with ME?) She likes tennis and astronomy, and I don't. (Does that mean there's something wrong with me?) He talks to her every day, about stuff that matters to him. (Why doesn't he talk to me the way he talks to her? Is something wrong with me?) He says he's not having sex with her, but secretly, I kind of wish he were. (What the fuck is WRONG with me?!) If it were just sex, I probably wouldn't feel as threatened. (Is that normal, Viny, or is there something wrong with me?)

Put your hand on your heart, C., and take a look at those parentheticals. Have we gotten any closer to saying it straight? If so, read on. If not, feel free to click that little “x” and go make make yourself some carrot biscuits or something.

Still with me? Yes? All right, then!

As far as I can tell, you're not weird at all. I mean, for all I know, you sleep upside down in a violet velour bat costume and brush your teeth with Cracker Jacks – but there's nothing weird about what you shared in your letter. Many people in committed relationships feel threatened by the idea of their partner being intimate with another person. Many of these same people feel aroused by the idea of their partner having sex with another person. (This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't. That's because intimacy and sex are not the same thing. You can have hot sex without being intimate, just like you can have hot coffee without being intimate.) Anyway, whatever seemingly-strange, seemingly-conflicting emotions and desires have been coming up for you, C., they are most assuredly normal. 

Now, would you please stop comparing yourself to other people – especially your husband's girlfriend? Her being the person she is doesn't make you a better or worse person than you are. I understand the temptation to compare, I really do, but I promise you that nothing good comes of it. There is no security to be found in "better than" and "worse than." Trying to figure out how you measure up or where you stand in relation to someone else just feeds your jealousy. In my opinion, you need to get out of the "me vs. her" mindset entirely. 

Still speaking of comparisons, but moving on: you wanted to know which is more threatening, sexual intimacy or non-sexual intimacy. My answer to that question is that there is no difference between the two. Intimacy is intimacy. The sex is irrelevant. That sounds like an extreme position, I know, but there are mainstream marriage “experts” who would agree with me. For example, Shirley Glass, the author of Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, argues that it's not necessary to have sex in order to be unfaithful. She warns couples about the dangers of “emotional infidelity” – or, in other words, being intimate with anyone other than each other. I think Glass is right to be suspicious of non-sexual intimacy, because there is no such thing as non-sexual intimacy. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see them as a whole person. You can’t divide them into sexual bits and non-sexual bits, and then cherry pick only those bits that feel safe to you and/or your significant other. Whether they happen to be gay or straight or bi or asexual or pansexual or queer or kinky or engaged in some fluid process of exploring who they are and how they want to express themselves, human beings have sexual histories and sexual identities. They have thoughts and ideas and philosophies about sex. Whether they choose to have sex or not, they can’t be intimate without also being sexual, because they are sexual beings.

To someone like Shirley Glass, this is a reason to avoid intimacy. To someone like me, this is a reason to learn how to deal with jealousy – my own, and other people's – so that I can fearlessly embrace intimacy, wherever and however it may bloom.

Eros and Bandoleros,

Monday, September 1, 2014

I Wish My Girlfriend Had Another Boyfriend

Dear Viny,  

I am a 17 year old male, with a girlfriend about my age. We've been dating for just over a year, but in the past few months, things have been getting worse and worse. We fight more and more about little things, and she seems to always need more attention than I am capable of providing. I love her, but she turns to me to solve all of her problems, which I struggle to keep up with. I can't be too sure, but I think it has something to do with her fear of abandonment, most likely fostered by her alcoholic and emotionally unavailable parents, as well as her verbally abusive older sister. She has no emotional support other than whoever she's dating. As a last attempt to fix our relationship, I have recently been considering the idea of suggesting polyamory, something that has worked for several people (of all ages) whom I know, in the hopes that it might help us both to have other people to be intimate with. Maybe if we had some more support and new perspectives, it could help to take the pressure off. Do you think this is a good idea? And if not, what should I do instead? 

- The Rambler 


Dear Rambler,

I think you are wise to see that you and your girlfriend could both benefit from expanding your support network. One of polyamory's great contributions to popular culture is that it provides a radical validation of the not-so-radical idea that people do better when they are able to cultivate close, meaningful relationships with more than one person at a time. However, polyamory is certainly not the only way to avoid dumping all of your emotional needs on one overburdened partner – and thank the glutenous appendages of the Great Spaghetti Monster for that, because I think polyamory would be a really bad idea for you and your girlfriend right now.

There are probably polyfolk out there who would tell you that polyamory isn't on the Relationship 101 syllabus, and therefore you'd be better off sticking with monogamy until you've learned the basics. I think that's patronizing. It puts down young and inexperienced people, who are presumed to be incapable of choosing the relationship dynamic that's right for them, and it puts down people who choose to be monogamous by implying that monogamy is super simple, a piece of no-bake cheesecake right out of the box.

The reason polyamory isn't right for you right now isn't because you're still a teenager. It's because you are approaching polyamory as a means to an end. And I mean that in two ways: 1) you want to fix a problem, and are considering polyamory as a last-ditch means to accomplish that end; and 2) you seem to be hoping that polyamory will somehow provide you with a way out of your current predicament, an end to your discomfort. Maybe I'm reading too much into the phrase, “As a last attempt to fix our relationship....” And maybe you chose your pseudonym without ever having heard the lyrics to the Allman Brothers song that's currently looping through my brain: Lord, I was born a ramblin' man / Tryin' to make a living, and doin' the best I can / And when it's time for leaving, I hope you'll understand / That I was born a ramblin' man. 

Yep, call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you've got at least one foot out the door already. 

No matter what age you are, bringing other people onto a sinking ship is a bad idea. It's not fair to them, and it's not fair to you. I'm not saying you have to have a perfect relationship before you can consider opening it up and dating other people. No relationship is perfect. What I'm saying is there's a big difference between telling your girlfriend, “There are so many great things about us as a couple, and I want to work on the long-term sustainability of our relationship by making sure we each get the breathing room we need,” and telling her, “We're so fucking miserable we might as well add a couple of other people into this messed-up mix and just see what happens – 'cuz it's not like it can get any worse than it already is, right?” (Wrong. It can get worse. A lot worse.)

In other words: polyamory is not a good exit strategy.

So, what do I think you should do instead? Well, for starters, I think you should listen to your heart. Do you want to be in this relationship, or don't you? If you're unclear about the answer to that question – if you feel an ambivalent mix of “yes” and “no” – then make a list of all the reasons why you want to stay, and another list of all the reasons why you want to go, and see if you can find any patterns. As you're reading through your lists, please remember this: fear is not a good reason to stay. (It's also not a good reason to go.) Once you're clear, communicate. Share your thoughts and feelings with your girlfriend, gently and compassionately.

Secondly, from what you've said, it sounds like your girlfriend might need professional counseling and/or a support group to help her deal with the problems she is having at home as a result of her parents' alcoholism. Alcoholism is a serious disease, and it wreaks havoc on relationships. Fear of abandonment is just the tip of the iceberg! There's also low self- esteem (typically the result over-estimating one's ability to control someone else's drinking, and utterly failing), and co-dependence, and enabling behaviors – and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, Rambler, your girlfriend has grown up in a pretty dysfunctional family. She will have to work hard to unlearn the lessons her parents have unwittingly taught her about what it means to be in a relationship with another person. I strongly recommend that she check out Al-Anon/Alateen, which provides fellowship for friends and family members of alcoholics. There is probably a group that meets in your area (you can find out here). You could consider attending meetings with her, if you feel that would help. Be advised that there's a religious element to most 12-step programs, which some people might find off-putting (I know I do, anyway!) – but at least it's a starting point for building a support network of people who are dealing with similar issues and can recommend other good resources.

Finally, whether you stay or go, one of the nicest things you can do for this girl you love is to model healthy relationship habits. So be true to yourself, and be honest with her. That may mean acknowledging that the relationship is over, and moving on. It may mean taking a break for a while. Or it may mean setting some boundaries, so that you each have the space you need to become strong, independent people, and you each have the time you need to cultivate other interests and friendships.

Thanks for writing. I'm honored that you consulted me, and I wish you both the very best.

Summer Shade & Lemonade,

Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Parents Don't Accept My Poly Relationships, Part 2: An Answer from Viny

Dear Viny,

It's been three months since you wrote me with a question about how to become more comfortable being your authentic self around your parents, preferably without causing them too much discomfort in the process.

You: a past self, writing in a moment of distress. Me: a present self, writing in a moment of relative calm, finally ready to formulate an answer.

Here's my best advice: Just keep working on it. And be patient with yourself. These things take time.

You knew that was going to be the answer back when you asked the question, but you asked anyway, because you wanted the travelogue: how did we get from you-then to me-now? (Sidenote: one of the things I've learned by moonlighting as an advice columnist is that someone who can formulate a clear question probably already knows the answer to it. My job is just to build a bridge, a satisfying arc between Q and A.)

So, this post is going to be a record of a few of the things that happened while I was becoming three months wiser than I used to be.

But first, I want to thank everyone who responded to my request for help, either publicly or privately. Apparently, I am not the only person in the world who gets stressed out whenever the parentals descend for a visit. As one particularly witty person put it, “I pretty much want to dunk my head in a toilet bowl of gin when it's over.” Amen to that, sister! And special thanks goes to the dear friend who decided to see if she could “channel Viny” after reading my blog post. She wrote me a long email, identifying three separate-but-connected issues and tackling each one in turn – namely: 1) how to make peace with my parents given the fact that they don't accept my life; 2) how to deal with a parent who has dementia; and 3) how to get support from my tribe when my parents are in town without offending my parents. I appreciated her advice about trying to model the tolerance I wish my parents would show for me, and I loved her suggestion that I consider moving my relationship with my parents “to a more neutral location, like the mailbox.” I couldn't help but picture miniature versions of me and my folks sitting in lotus poses atop a cushy stack of outgoing letters, waiting for the postal carrier to let in some light.

And now, back to the travelogue. I'll begin with the three big trips I took in May. I kicked off the month with a personal retreat to Breitenbush hot springs, courtesy of my extremely thoughtful husband, whose birthday present to me was the gift of some much-needed alone time. Next, there was the strangely illuminating journey to Planet Shroom. And finally, there was my last-minute flight to Salt Lake City at the end of the month to attend a funeral. My father's younger sister, age 60, died from choking on a gum ball. It was an unexpected but merciful reprieve: she had been dealing with severe depression for decades.

I learned a lot during my (literal and figurative) travels. Too much to recount here. But I do want to share one glittery bit that I brought back from Planet Shroom. Truthfully, I'm not much of a psychonaut: I vastly prefer hanging out at home, chillaxing in my boring, beige, business-as-usual brain. I have to admit, though, that each of the five or six times in my life I've traveled to the far-out, fungus-enhanced reaches of my own consciousness, I've come back with a small treasure. This time, it was an epiphany about the importance of cultivating clearer emotional boundaries between myself and others. After spending several hours mixing myself up with my husband – seriously, when I looked at him, what I saw was not him, but us: a mishmash of facial features, mine and his, like some bizarre photoshop experiment – I realized that this is what I tend to do with people I love. Connect. Combine. Confuse. In other words, being a natural empath has been both a blessing and a curse. It's often been a curse when it comes to interacting with my needy, mercurial father, who has always seen me as an extension of himself. I am supposed to read his moods and respond appropriately, since he is completely incapable of reading my moods and responding appropriately. It's like he's missing a limb, and that limb is empathy, and somehow it becomes my job to be his prosthesis. But the next time I get sucked into this crippling dynamic, I intend to remind myself: "We're mixing us up again...."

Enough of that. On to June and July, which have been a blur of activity. Summer is always the busiest season for my husband's business, which means that it necessarily becomes more of a family business: I pitch in, and our 17-year-old son babysits his 6-year-old sister. And this time of year, there's also the garden – or rather, the GARDENS – to tend to: we live in an ecovillage, and I am currently serving a stint as the harvest coordinator for all the berry bushes and fruit trees. (Apples, pears, and figs – oh, my!) Oh, and of course there was my performance with the Mystery Box Show, which was hugely rewarding, but took up a lot of time and mental energy. Add to all of that the task of keeping up with family, friends, and lovers, and you'll understand why Dear Viny has been uncharacteristically quiet of late. However, in the interstices between this'n'that, I have managed to do some “big picture” plotting, and I'm happy to unveil the newest sub-scheme in my grand scheme to be more myself around my parents.

Next week is our annual family reunion, which I was in charge of planning this year. I found a large cabin in the mountains above Salt Lake City that will accommodate my parents, my two siblings and their respective families, and me and my family. Part of my family, that is. But after the official reunion is over, my husband and kids and I will move to my mother-in-law's house, where a certain Extraneous Person will be joining us. After a couple of days, my husband and son will be returning home, while I and my daughter and the Extraneous Person stay on for the entire first week of August. My husband's mom is cool with that. My husband's sister, who lives just up the street with her husband and three kids, is also cool with that. My brother and his wife, who live across town, have graciously invited me and my daughter and the Extraneous Person over to their house for dinner on August 2, so apparently they're cool with that, too. In other words: some of the members of my extended family seem to think that a man I have been dating for two years deserves to be treated like a legitimate part of the family. Pretty amazing, huh? (No, really: it is amazing. It's taken fifteen years to get here, and I'm feeling celebratory.)

My parents don't know about any of these arrangements yet. But they are going to find out. And I bet it's going to get interesting. Wish me luck.

Well, it's time to wrap this up and get to work on the latest round of manuscripts I need to edit before I can go on vacation. (I swear, every time I free up a couple of days to focus on my writing, a bunch of my editing clients suddenly swoop down, like vultures to the call of carrion.) One last thing before I go, though: Remember how, on the morning when you wrote your question, you had just come back from a run? Back then, five laps around the track was pretty much the limit of what you could do. This morning, I ran eight laps, and I probably could have kept on going if I'd wanted to. You see? We're making progress, one step at a time. Just keep putting your best foot forward, sweetie. I'll be cheering you on.

Patience & Impatiens,

[UPDATE, post-vacay: It went exceedingly, shockingly well! I actually have a photograph of my father sitting right next to my darling E.P., who has now officially met both of my parents and both of my siblings. Yes, the unconventional nature of our relationship was a big pink elephant on the picnic table, but everyone was polite, and no shots were fired. I call that an unqualified success!]

Monday, July 7, 2014

Balancing the Budget: Financial Fairness in Open Relationships

Dear Viny,

I am the sole breadwinner for my family of four. My job supports me, my wife, and our two daughters, both of whom are in college. Between debts, mortgages, car payments, school tuition, mobile phone contracts, and all our other household and life expenses, most months we just manage to break even financially. My wife is a homemaker, and doesn't bring in any income, but does the general household maintenance for us.

We are in a plural/poly relationship, and I have another partner who I am committed to, and see quite often. Recently, my wife has begun exploring the world of online dating -- and she's been getting quite a bit of attention. She spends a lot of time texting and talking on the phone with new acquaintances, and is actively dating some of them. She has even taken a few flights to meet people she has met online, but who are not local.

Here's what is bugging me: even though I have always seen the money I make as "our" money, I now am conscious of the fact that so much of her time -- and MY money (Ha! Do you smell a ratty double standard?) -- are being invested in her outside relationships. I haven't addressed this with her because, after all, I can't pretend that my other relationship has been without its time and financial costs as well. Nevertheless, I'm feeling a bit used! Please advise.

-Bill Foot


Dear Bill,

Anecdotal evidence, which has since been confirmed by painstaking research (um... okay, a 5-minute perusal of Google results for “what do couples fight about most often?”), suggests that SEX and MONEY are waaay up there when it comes to the topics most likely to cause conflict in a marriage. Combine the two, throw in some jealousy, mix unevenly, and you've got yourself a recipe for one seriously craptastic casserole.

Let's start with the blandly obvious, shall we? I assume it's already occurred to you that you'd be feeling less financially pinched, and less put-upon, if your wife were to get a paying job. Running the household may have been a full-time job when your kids were younger, but now that your daughters are in college, your wife might consider turning some of her newly freed-up time into money. I suspect, however, that this simple solution is unworkable for some reason, or you wouldn't be asking me for advice.

So, here are three experiments you can try – and please note that not one of them requires you or your wife to make any more money than you currently do!

Experiment #1. How about a trial separation of (some of) your joint finances? My husband and I came up with this experiment about ten years ago, and it was such a success that we've managed our money this way ever since. Here's how it works. Regardless of who makes what, you and your wife have a certain amount of money coming in each month. Figure out how much money remains after you've met all your fixed expenses (e.g., house payment, car payment, utility bills, the monthly amount you have to set aside for your annual property taxes, etc.). Then itemize every other type of expense that you both agree is a necessity (e.g., groceries), budget a reasonable amount for those items/activities, and subtract that. Any remaining money gets divided up evenly between the two of you. That way, you each have an agreed-upon amount to spend on purely personal choices: dates with other people, luxurious morning lattes, that new set of matching towels your spouse thinks is an extravagance as long as the old threadbare ones can still absorb water, etc. If you and your wife can both keep track of your personal spending on paper, great. If not, an envelope full of cash disbursed at the beginning of the month will also work. It may seem like you're making a completely semantic distinction by dividing your total household income into “ours together” and “ours, separately, split equally among individuals” but I highly recommend this method of balancing the marital budget for open couples (and triads, quads, etc.) who choose to pool their financial resources. It circumvents a lot of potential squabbles and resentments.

Experiment #2. This one is trickier, but basically, you're going to do the same thing with time that you did with money in the first experiment. Together, you and your wife have 48 hours in a day, 336 hours in a week, and about 1460 hours in a typical month. Figure out how many hours each of you spends sleeping, on average, and subtract that. Then subtract the time you spend at your job, and the time your wife spends on general household maintenance. Then itemize every other task that you both agree must be done in order for the household to run smoothly, figure out how much time each of these tasks takes, and subtract that. At the end of all this accounting, the number you'll be left with is the number of hours you have for discretionary activities. Divide those hours equally between you. Then, for an entire month, keep track of how you ACTUALLY spend your time by jotting down everything you did, and how long it took, at the end of every day. (Yes, the accounting is a pain, but you're gathering important information.) Over the course of the month, the challenge will be for each of you to spend as much of your personal “free” time as you can without going over budget. At the end of the month, share your tallies, reflect on what got done and what didn't, and see what you can learn. If it turns out that there are serious inequities, it will be easier to address them once you have concrete data.

Experiment #3. Guesstimate the amount of time and money your wife currently spends on her dating life, and answer the following question for yourself: If your wife were investing the same amount of time and money on some other purely personal pursuit – plein air painting, say, or running marathons – would you still be feeling used? If your answer is “no,” or even “not as much,” then I think you need to take a good look at why not.

I have a hunch that when you say you are feeling “used,” what you really mean is that you are feeling afraid. Back when there were no other applicants for your job as breadwinner, you may have occasionally wondered whether your wife values you principally for the financial support you've been able to provide her, but it was probably just a niggling, gnawing little fear. Now that she's begun dating, this fear is gnashing at you, roaring, red in tooth and claw. After all, if she only cares about your money, she will probably leave you if she ever finds a better deal. And if she does end up exchanging you for a guy (or gal) with a fatter wallet, you are going to feel like the biggest chump in the world for actively bankrolling your wife's search for the chump she finds to replace you.

Insecurities that are common enough in monogamous relationships tend to get magnified in openly non-monogamous relationships. According to some, that's a pretty compelling argument in favor of monogamy. I disagree. I think the magnifying lens of sexual jealousy gives us an opportunity to recognize our insecurities for what they really are, and deal with them accordingly. And I think it also shows us what's been hiding under the toasted breadcrumbs and melted cheese of popular discourse, feeding our fears.

The other day, one of my less-enlightened Facebook friends posted the following quote: “A successful man is one who earns more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man.” This particular gem can be traced back to Lana Turner, a Hollywood star from the 50's who was married eight times, to seven different men. Bracketing everything I find deeply irritating about it [sexism! gender stereotyping! heteronormativity! OMFG, can we just stop already?!], I think Turner's witticism points to a cultural norm that's still operative in many traditional male-female marriages: men are encouraged to gauge their self-worth according to how much money they make; women are encouraged to gauge their self-worth according to how much money someone else is willing to spend on them.

The point I'm trying to make here is that you and your wife, along with just about everyone else wandering around on this tiny white'n'blue marble we call home, want desperately to be valued. The problem is, we have all kinds of crazy ideas about what makes us valuable: sketchy, way-past-the-expiration-date notions about sex, money, and the putative differences between men and women. (Fucked-up shit, in other words. The main ingredient in every nasty casserole.) No wonder we treat each other like commodities! No wonder we act as though there's a price on our heads! No wonder so many of us waste obscene amounts of time and money trying to find out exactly what that price tag says – looking in every mirror, scrutinizing every selfie, asking everyone we meet the same monotonous question, over and over: “How much am I worth to you?”

Unfortunately, I don't have a magic pepper grinder (one twist of my wrist makes your mess taste great!), but I do have this refreshing truth to offer you: Everyone – male, female, intersex, genderqueer, and gender-neutral – is intrinsically, immeasurably valuable. You don't need to prove your worth, Bill. You're priceless.

Shillings and Sunshine,

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why Polygamy Is Not Ethical Non-Monogamy

Dear Viny,

I was wondering what your take on polygamy is, given that you believe in what I think you call "ethical non-monogamy." Are you okay with polygamy? Do you think it should be outlawed? I recently watched a video about a polygamous "sister wife" and she said she was very jealous at first of another sister-wife having sex with their shared husband, but that she eventually realized that she could "want for you what I desire for me." She equated it to the "pure love of Christ." Is that what you're talking about?

Is there a difference?


Dear Wondering,

Since I'm a word-nerd, I need to point out that polygamy comes from the late Greek πολυγαμία, which means marriage to many. In its stripped-of-connotation, purely definitional form, the term covers any type of non-monogamy in which more than two partners consider themselves to be married to one another. (I say “consider themselves to be married” because most countries, including the U.S., do not currently recognize polygamous marriages.) I have no problem with group marriage, either in theory or in practice, as long as each person in the group is a consenting adult. However, the video you watched was about a family that practices a culturally specific, religious form of polygamy that could more accurately be described by the word polygyny (poly = many; gyne = woman/wife). I do have a problem with this particular version of polygamy, for two reasons: 1) in my opinion, religious fundamentalism is simply crawling with dangerous memes; and 2) the way in which group marriage is practiced among fundamentalist sects is frequently unethical.

In order to explain why I don't think religious polygamy is properly covered by the “ethical non-monogamy” umbrella, even as broad as that is, I'd like to share the Ethical Sex Manifesto I'm currently working on as part of the book I'm writing. {NOTE: this manifesto is a WORK IN PROGRESS. Please feel free to chime in with comments/feedback/questions/suggestions! Thanks!}



  • My sexuality is mine, and mine alone. I have the right to think whatever I think and feel whatever I feel. I also have the right to express (or repress) my own sexuality in any way I choose, as long as doing so harms no one else in any way I could have foreseen and prevented.
  • Your sexuality is yours, and yours alone. It is my moral responsibility to respect your autonomy: I will never impose myself upon you. I will engage with you sexually only with your informed consent and express permission. If I know that you are unable to give informed consent and express permission, I will refrain from engaging with you sexually, and I will protect you from harm by doing what I can to ensure that others respect your autonomy.
  • We are all connected. Sex between truly autonomous individuals is one manifestation of this deeper truth.


  • Every human being has the same inviolable right to autonomous sexual expression, regardless of ability to exercise it. Someone who is temporarily impaired (e.g., not sober, not awake) has not given up that right. Someone who is permanently impaired (e.g., physically or mentally disabled) has not given up that right.
  • Some people (e.g., children, elders, developmentally delayed individuals) may need guidance or assistance so that they do not express their sexuality in ways that harm themselves or cause distress to others, but I will not assume that these people have no sexual needs.
  • I will do my part to work against systems of oppression that marginalize individuals on the basis of gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, body type, relationship status, or any other aspect of sexuality.

  • I will give you any information you need in order to give your consent to any sexual activity we engage in together. I will ask you for any information I need in order to give my consent. And I will do everything I can to ensure that everyone whose sexual health could be affected by my choices has access to any information they need in order to make their own choices.
  • I will be clear about my yes and no.
  • I will not play sexual games unless all players have agreed to the rules.

  • No sexual “contract” is binding. People can always change their minds, which means that consent is necessarily a continuing dialogue. I will never hold you to a promise you made on behalf of your future self: I understand that if you ever rescind your permission, you are now saying no, regardless of what you might have said earlier.


  • I don't know everything there is to know about sex, ethics, or any other topic. I assume that you know more about your sexuality than I do, and I will behave accordingly.
  • In general, I will avoid interfering in other people's sex lives. Consenting adults do not need my approval to engage in sexual activities of their choosing. If intervention becomes necessary because someone's sexual autonomy is being violated, I will defer to group consensus on the best course of action to take. 
  • My definition of ethical sex is my definition. I understand that your definition may be different.

As you can see, polygamy – at least as it is usually practiced among fundamentalist Mormons and other fringe religious groups in the U.S. – completely bombs my “Is it ethical?” litmus test. In these groups, wives and children are too often treated like property, teenage girls can be married off to old men against their will, and religious leaders work to create a climate of paranoid secrecy. In short, this kind of polygamy is a set-up not just for unethical sex as *I* have defined it, but also for widely-recognized violations of individual rights ranging from marital rape to the systematic sexual abuse of children.

So, to answer your question: Yes, Wondering, there is a difference. A HUGE difference.

No, I'm not saying religious polygamy is all bad, or that everyone practicing it is necessarily either a perpetrator or a victim of sexual abuse. Nor am I trying to claim that there are no similarities between religious polygamy and what I consider to be more ethical forms of non-monogamy. For example, I have no doubt that the polygamous woman in the documentary you watched has experienced the joys of compersion, a neologism coined by the polyamorous crowd that means something like, “the feeling that comes from taking pleasure in a loved one's pleasure.” I can see why a sister-wife might have equated this wonderful feeling with the "pure love of Christ" – but I would argue that the spiritual benefit of compersion comes at great cost whenever it occurs in a larger context of coercion.

Finally, I found it interesting that you asked me whether I think polygamy ought to be outlawed. As I've already noted, polygamous marriages aren't legally recognized, and some of the practices common among fundamentalist groups (e.g., arranged “marriages” in which girls as young as 13 or 14 are paired with much older men) are actually punishable violations in the U.S., and many other countries, too. For all intents and purposes, then, religious polygamy has already been outlawed. Did you mean to ask whether I thought polygamy ought to be somehow stopped? Well, that's a tricky one. Let me preface my answer by noting that modern-day religious fundamentalists refer to their doctrine of plural marriage as “The Principle.” I'm always going to put people above principles – my own included.

Beets and Beatitudes,

Thursday, May 15, 2014

When Mum's the Word: Respecting Different Approaches to Ethical Non-Monogamy

Dear Viny,

I'm wondering if you have any insights about how to deal with generational differences in poly relationships.

Currently, I am involved with someone much older than I am. He grew up during the 60's, when the free love movement was just beginning. He has told me stories about sitting in the back seat of cars, making out with chicks, and no one would mention birth control or even discuss whether or not to have sex, just so that if anything were to happen, it would be the result of a spontaneous accident. As a child of the 80's who grew up during the AIDS epidemic, I remember sitting in the back seat of cars, making out with boys, and asking, “Baby, did you bring a condom?” without missing a beat.

Skipping ahead a few decades, we now have a situation in which my lover and I have different approaches to being in an open relationship. Before entering into a space of physical intimacy, we both spoke with our spouses. My husband and I opened our marriage eight years ago, and are very comfortable with these kinds of conversations, but this was a new topic for my lover and his wife. During their conversation, which I was not present for, they agreed to a variation of the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” approach, which I don't clearly understand. She has since made several friendly overtures toward me and my family, and this has been reassuring. However, she and I have never had a meaningful conversation, much less talked about boundaries, scheduling, sexual hygiene, or any of the other conversations we poly folks are accustomed to having.

My lover's wife is not interested in having a sexual relationship with anyone at this point in her life (not even her husband – they haven't had sex in several years). Still, I'm feeling anxious about their arrangement. It's not that I think he is being unethical. I am pretty sure he is following the “rules” of his marriage. My problem is that I don't understand those rules. I feel like the American poly Eliza Doolittle at the hush-hush Euro-style party, and I'm worried I'm going to make a faux pas and not even understand the nature of the mistake.

I want to let my lover and his wife handle their marriage their own way. At the same time, I want to feel more at peace. Are there constructive changes I could propose, while still being respectful of generational differences in our approaches?

Rio, dancing on quicksand


Dear Rio,

Based on my own intimacies (sexual and platonic) with people 15+ years older than myself, people my own age, and people 15+ years younger, I might be able to make a few generalizations about possible generational differences – for example, “Older people are more likely to think of sex as a private matter, and less likely to enjoy electronic dance music,” or, “Younger people are more likely to feel comfortable sharing graphic pics/videos of themselves, and less likely to use apostrophes when texting.” However, I don't think these kinds of generalizations are particularly helpful when it comes to developing and maintaining authentic relationships. We fall in love with individuals, not with broad cultural patterns or statistical likelihoods. One of my long-term partners was born before 1960, and he's one of the most sexually open people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. When I first met his family, I was surprised – and delighted! – by the ease with which he and his siblings talked and joked about sex-related topics with their 80-year-old parents. Clearly, they didn't get that “Leave It to Beaver” memo about keeping bedroom talk in the bedroom, under the covers, with the lights off.

I'm not sure it matters why your lover and his wife are choosing to handle things differently than you and your husband do. It might be due to the fact that they're older, or it might be due to some other factor or combination of factors. In any case, the real problem here is not the age difference. The real problem is the lack of communication. And this one is a particularly sticky wicket, because you can't exactly solve it by communicating about it! Unfortunately, when one person wants to talk and another does not, the person who says “no” always wins.

You're in a really frustrating position, Rio. Your lover's wife has not agreed to have a direct relationship with you, and she has no incentive to go along with any changes you might propose, no matter how constructive they might be. If you tell your lover, “I need your wife to communicate with me,” or even, “I need you and your wife to communicate with each other about me,” you would be putting him in a frustrating position: he would have to choose whose stated needs to honor, yours or hers. And no one wants to be cast as the “middle man” in that kind of power play. (Ah, yes, the circular argument: if only you could speak to his wife directly....)

I suggest you step back from this whole convoluted mess for a moment to focus on the person you have the greatest chance of changing: yourself. Who are you, and what do you need from others in order to show up as your authentic self in your relationships? Where are you willing to stretch, and where are you in danger of snapping?

Take a good look at whether you are honoring your own boundaries in this relationship. Your lover and his wife have set their boundaries. You need to set yours, and then determine whether there is enough space in between for a relationship to flourish. Do you have any relationship deal-breakers? For me, dishonesty and unwillingness to disclose information I need in order to protect my sexual health are definite deal-breakers. You don't seem to be worried that your lover hasn't given you the straight story, and (assuming he's been truthful with you about being in a sexless marriage, and truthful with his wife about being in a sexual relationship with you) it isn't strictly necessary for you and his wife to communicate about sexual hygiene. But are there any other consequences of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” that you are not okay with? If so, you need to discuss these deal-breakers with your lover.

It may be that you don't yet know what all of your boundaries are, and that's fine. Give it some time. Drawing clear boundaries takes years of practice and a super steady hand. Your lover and his wife are new to this – and so, in some respects, are you. They are new to ethical non-monogamy, and you are new to their way of being ethically non-monogamous. Given sufficient time and increased levels of trust, people's boundaries often shift. Perhaps your lover's wife will eventually feel more comfortable talking openly about your sexual relationship with her husband. Or perhaps you won't mind catering to her wishes after you get to know her well enough to understand why she might prefer privacy to disclosure.

Meanwhile, don't be afraid to fuck up. Do your best to honor the agreement your lover has made with his wife, but only to the extent that you feel comfortable doing so. In my opinion, you ought to err on the side of saying too much rather than too little, since your preference is to communicate more openly. If something you do turns out to've been a faux pas, be grateful: you can learn a lot from a few mis-steps! If you find that you keep tripping over the same sharp rock in the green pasture of love – and no one else is on board with painting it day-glo orange so that you can see it better, and there's no way you're gonna get the go-ahead to dig it up and drag it somewhere safer – you will know you need to move the fence until that particular rock lies outside your stated boundaries.

So, my fair lady, please repeat after me: the rhine in spine falls minely on the pline....

Dipthongs and derring-do,