Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why Poly Agreements Need a Sunset Clause (Three Men and a Question, Part Two)

Dear Viny,

Thank you for your response. I think you really "got" how I was feeling when I wrote my question. It's so nice to have someone who might understand where I'm coming from.

Since I first wrote - I'm happy to say that my LTR is a bit more receptive to hanging out as a trio. He seems more willing to hang out when the mood strikes, rather than timing it after some arbitrary number of days.

We talked a bit further and he's alright if I meet with the new guy without him (if he's not feeling it, or if he's busy, or for any reason really) though he asked that we do not have any physical contact outside of greeting each other. I'm willing to agree to this in hopes of illustrating my loyalty to him and trustworthiness, though I do hope this might change over time.

I've also communicated to my LTR that I would be fine if the two of them hung out without me. And I gave express consent for them to be physical (anything that we've already done so far as a trio for now) provided they're both safe and honest with me. His response was maybe a bit surprised. I'm not sure how likely he is to take me up on that, though I encouraged him and explained that I would enjoy hearing about the experience after the fact.

Anyways. We're all doing our best I think. I'm reading a lot – Nonviolent Communication, Opening Up, and The Ethical Slut (my least favorite so far) to help me explore this. At the very least, I'm learning a lot about myself and my relationship with everyone around me.

The unknown is very confusing and exciting.

– Wants More


Dear Wants,

It's lovely to hear from you again. I am glad your conversations with your LTR partner have been productive, and that you feel like you're learning a lot. Yes, you are absolutely right: striking out into unknown territory can be simultaneously scary and exhilarating.

As someone who has been wandering around in uncharted regions of Alternative Relationship Land for quite some time now, I want to warn you about a particularly treacherous cliff located in Concessions Canyon, because I'm worried you may be headed straight for it.

I understand why you've agreed to your partner's request that you and the new guy not have any physical contact outside of greeting each other. However, I am here to tell you that when you have a major crush on a guy, and he has a major crush on you, and you're hanging out alone together on a regular basis, but you're not supposed to get physical with each other, because one of you has promised your jealous partner that you won't, one of two things is going to happen: 1) you are going to start resenting the hell out of the person who has hobbled your hot-to-trot hooves, and/or 2) someone's resolve is going to slip.

Situation #1 has happened to me. I actually spent an entire sleepless night lying chastely next to someone I desperately wanted to be squished by, or glommed onto, or tangled up with – and why? Because I had promised my boyfriend I'd keep it platonic with this other person. I did manage to keep my promise, but I ended up losing the relationship I thought I was protecting by making that promise. Take-home lesson: resentment is highly toxic to romance and mutual regard.

Situation #2 has happened to more than one friend of mine. Here's an example. Person A and person B were in a long-term and somewhat troubled marriage. Person C, who was good friends with A, began talking to both A and B, in an attempt to help them resolve their marital issues with each other. A, B, and C had long telephone conversations together – which had an unintended consequence: C and B became more and more emotionally intimate with each other. Soon, C and B were talking on the phone together, just the two of them. Then they began falling in love, long-distance. Person A quite naturally became jealous, and put the kibosh on “duo” phone time for C and B, making them both promise not to talk to each other unless it was an ABC trio conversation. They promised. Then A promptly lost interest in having group conversations. After two weeks, C and B, miserable and jonesing, couldn't stand being out of contact any longer. They snuck in a private phone call, late at night – which A found out about. And that was the end of A and B. It was also the end of A and C. Take-home lesson: Concession + Betrayal = Alimony.

It is a well-known fact that prohibiting an activity increases its allure. It is also a well-known fact that people in the thrall of NRE (new relationship energy) want nothing more than to jam their dirty little fingers into that electrifying socket, if you catch my drift. And finally, it is a well-known fact that someone who is on the lookout for reasons to distrust you is gonna find them, every time. For these reasons, I am concerned that your present agreement is a set-up for failure.

I recommend that you establish a time frame for revisiting the agreement about limiting the physical contact between you and the new guy outside of the trio context. Unfortunately, your LTR partner probably doesn't have a lot of incentive to have that conversation, so it may be a bit tricky to set it up – which is why, for future reference, I suggest you include an expiration date, or “sunset clause,” any time you make an agreement you are hoping will be temporary. In other words, you make sure, up front, that the agreement is understood to expire after a certain length of time, unless and until you agree to renew it for another specified length of time. I strongly believe that a sunset clause should be part of any agreement that feels like a concession to jealousy.

Let's say your partner says, “I'm okay with you eating apple slices, as long as you promise never to put any peanut butter on them.” And you are super excited about apple slices. In fact, you are so excited about them, you are willing to forgo peanut butter, even though you suspect that apple slices with peanut butter would be really, really amazing, given what you know about celery sticks with peanut butter. So you say, “Okay, I can promise not to put any peanut butter on my apple slices for the next three weeks. After that, though, I am going to assume I am free to do as I like, unless you specifically tell me you need more time to get used to the idea of me slathering my apple slices in gooey deliciousness.”

Without a sunset clause, you see, the jealous partner has no incentive to revisit the agreement, and the partner who hopes to get permission, eventually, for a dab of peanut butter will wait and hope, and wait and hope – probably in vain. Setting up an agreement that automatically expires on a given date changes the incentive structure: now, it's the jealous partner who must initiate the difficult conversation, if s/he wants the agreement extended. 

If you've already stepped off of the cliff in Concessions Canyon, and you're hanging onto an itty bitty twig, going, "Now she tells me," I'm really sorry. Here's a virtual hand up.

Mandates & Mandrills,

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Three Men and a Question: How to Negotiate a Polyamorous Triangle? (Part One)

Dear Viny,

I've been in a monogamous relationship (M/M) with my partner for ten years now. In the past year or so he has hinted at adding a third but also sort of brushed it under the rug and teased me for being a prude (I'm not, though I wasn't really bothered by this). I eventually called him on his bluff and said we should go for it.

We talked about it at length -- what type of guy we wanted, what we would do with this person, what was off limits, where we would find him, etc. My partner is in a somewhat public field so I did the search online myself, though we both chatted with the responses until we found someone respectful that we both dug.

We met this third and everything went really well. I felt thrilled during and after and was glowing all week. My LTR partner was also very into it and we checked in with each other about this. I was really surprised how into it I was – to be honest, I have sort of looked down on open/poly relationships in the past. We made plans to meet again and in the past month or so have hung out and slept with this guy several times together.

The problem that I'm having now, though, is that I want to see him even more often. I've checked in with him to see how he feels with things and he has told me he's very happy and also wants to see us both more. I recognize that I have developed "crushy" feelings towards this guy and that they will dissipate with time, but regardless they make me want more of him both physically and socially. I am not worried at all about losing interest in my LTR and have explained this to my LTR partner and believe he understands. Even still – the more interested I get in this third, the more my LTR partner seems to pull away from him. I don't feel comfortable bringing his name up at this point even though I feel it has brought a newfound passion into my LTR and has benefited us both. I'm crushing on this new guy a bit, but I'm also crushing on my LTR in ways I haven't felt in a long time.

I'm very communicative and my LTR partner tends to be reserved and frustrated when I push to tackle issues like this. I have a hard time reserving my emotions and that can make me seem over-eager. I'm having trouble understanding how best to communicate what I want without sounding like I'm beating a dead horse. I've tried to turn all my excitement back on my LTR partner and that is working well at helping me deal with all this energy, but it isn't really advancing the new relationship in a way that I would like it to.

I don't have any friends I feel comfortable enough opening up to about this just yet. I have no problem being open if I know all three of us are on board, but right now my LTR partner is waffling a bit and I'm really worried. A door has opened for me and I don't want it closed just yet. How can I better communicate this without frustrating my LTR partner?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Wants More (and more)


[NOTE: the following reply is an edited version of a personal email sent to "Wants" on 8/7. His response, along with my subsequent reply, will be posted in Part Two.] 

Dear Wants,

Since you are obviously chomping at the bit, and since I don't have time to write a full-length reply until after I return from an upcoming backpacking/camping adventure, my "what you can do right now" advice is to go to your LTR partner and say something like, "Hey, how would you feel about me seeing X [the new guy] on my own this week? It seems like you may be pulling back, or becoming less interested, and I don't want you to feel pressured to get together with him if you'd rather not – but it's definitely something I'd like to do."

I know you said you don't want to seem too eager, but the truth is, you ARE eager – and this approach is at least less likely to annoy your partner than, "When can we do another threesome? How 'bout now? No? Okay, how 'bout now?" Asking your partner how he feels about you seeing the new guy on your own also has the advantage of giving him an opening to talk about how he's feeling about other things, if he wants to, without demanding that he "process" everything with you. (I have been in your shoes before, and I know how frustrating it can be when an LTR partner – who is not feeling particularly motivated to help move things along, or even to discuss why he seems to be balking – seemingly has control over the pacing of a new relationship. And while we're at it, why is it that taciturn reluctance so often has more say-so than loquacious exuberance? Why does the person who doesn't want to talk always get the last word? Argh! End of rant.)

This all presupposes that you would be okay with seeing your crush on your own, so long as your partner is okay with it. If seeing the new guy on your own isn't something you're willing to do, or if your partner really doesn't like the idea, then you've got more thinking (and more waiting around impatiently!) to do. If your partner does give the go-ahead on a duo date, then your next step is to ask the new guy if he would be okay getting together with just you.
It's rarely the case that two people are equally interested in the exact same type of relationship with a third person, which is why it's my opinion that the individual is the fundamental building block in every relationship, whether or not that individual happens to be coupled. I wonder if this is a conclusion more likely to be reached by heterosexual couples in open relationships, who are much more likely to form V's than triangles.... Stay tuned for more on this topic later. Meanwhile, thanks for writing, and good luck!
Cookies & Cacophony,

Friday, August 7, 2015

My Contributor's Copy of Stories from the Polycule Is Here!

Look what I found in my mailbox!

Contributors' copies of Stories from the Polycule, an anthology edited by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, have arrived. My son and I both have stories included, so I was really pleased to see how well the anthology turned out. Books don't ship to the public until October, but you can pre-order a copy through Powell's, Amazon, or iTunes.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How Do I Get My Relatives to Accept My OSO as Part of the Family?

Dear Viny,

I'm poly, married, and struggling to integrate my boyfriend of four years ("Ben") with my blood relatives. We don't really talk about things in my family. My parents and siblings were pretty accepting when I came out about three years ago, but they've been resistant to treating Ben as a partner on similar footing with my husband ("Harry"). They mostly pretend Ben doesn't exist.

We do a big family trip with spouses/SO's every other year. During last year's trip, I mentioned to my dad that I'd like to bring Ben to a family gathering, possibly but not necessarily Christmas. He said they'd have to think on it, because it would change the dynamic, and that I should remember he and my mom get a say in who comes to their house. I thought maybe they'd talk offline and get back to me, but it's been radio silence since and I'm too chicken to bring it up. When my parents visit me they hang out with Ben, and Harry's girlfriend too, and it's not even that awkward. But when we talk on the phone and I mention something that Ben and I did together, they don't respond.

Now we're planning next year's trip and I want Ben to come but I'm not sure how to bring it up or how much to fight for it. I know he'd like to be included, but that he's not going to push me one way or the other. And that it'd be completely awkward. I get pissed off just thinking about it because his family has always been nice to me, and even included Harry in their Thanksgiving last year like it was no big thing. I think if I was gay, or fostering a troubled teen, or had a baby, or broke up with Harry and was seeing someone new, I wouldn't be getting nonsense about the "family dynamic" and it makes me angry.

Help! Am I being horrible to my boyfriend by not including him in my family stuff like the life partner that he is? If so, how do I get my parents to be comfortable with him? What do I say to my brother and SIL who are concerned about their grade school age kids' reaction?

Vacillating Vacationer


Dear Vacillating,

No, you're not being horrible. You're being sandwiched: between the crustiness of conventional morality – which allows you to have ONE partner, and ONE partner only – and the moldy misery of raining on the family picnic with your poly weirdness.

Like you, I have a sincere desire to do right by ALL of my family members, and like you, I have some family members who would be offended if I had the audacity to insist that they treat ALL of my family members with equal respect and consideration. We have every right to be angry, you and I: we know that introducing a new family member ought to be cause for celebration. And we also know that your dad's mealy-mouthed excuse about not wanting to change the family “dynamic” is garbage – after all, the very word “dynamic” implies change, rather than stasis, and healthy families end up weathering all kinds of dynamic changes, good and bad, without coming unglued.

Unfortunately, our righteous indignation isn't going to get us anywhere. Most families have very static ideas about what kinds of changes are a normal part of family life, and any overt attempt to change those parameters will be met with resistance and resentment. As far as our folks are concerned, showing up to the family reunion with two partners is like showing up with two heads: super freaky. Don't try to tell them it's normal. It offends their sensibilities.

In order for your parents to invite Ben to the next family gathering, one of two things would have to happen: either you would have to force their hand (e.g., by refusing to attend unless both of your partners are invited), or you would have to somehow convince your entire family that basic decency demands they treat Ben the same way they treat Harry.

The first approach has some advantages: it's quick and dirty, and it immediately puts the ball in someone else's court. It also has some potentially serious disadvantages. Best-case scenario, your parents give in and invite Ben as well as Harry, and all three of you have to endure the awkwardness of feeling like unwelcome guests. Worst-case scenario, you and your family end up permanently estranged from each other.

The second approach – getting your family to re-define “normal” – is impossible, for reasons I've already outlined above.

My advice, then, is to give up on the project of getting your parents to invite Ben on next year's family trip, and to focus instead on the real prize: making it possible for your family to recognize Ben as someone who belongs. And to win that prize, you're probably going to have to sneak him in through the back door – verrrry, verrrry slooooowly.

I am currently in the process of sneaking Cam, my boyfriend of several years, in through the family back door. I expect it will be many more years before he's officially recognized as a family “insider”, but we are definitely making progress. Just two days ago, Cam showed up at a family reunion of all the relatives on my mother's side of the family – uninvited, I might add – and he was treated with courtesy and kindness for the entire thirty minutes he was there.

The keys to our (admittedly modest) success? Patience, peer pressure, and plausible deniability.

Let me explain. I came out as poly to my parents nine years ago, and it was a pretty traumatic experience. They made it clear that they had no interest in even meeting any of my “extraneous people.” So when I arranged for my parents to meet Cam, two years ago, I made sure it was in a context that felt as normal to them as possible. And I did not inform them of my plans beforehand. We were at a public park. My parents had joined me, my husband Parker, and our daughter on a little excursion; I texted Cam to let him know where we were; he and his wife showed up at the park with their dog; everyone said hello. It was all very spontaneous, and we did not discuss the meeting afterward. A few months later, Cam and I took my daughter with us on a trip to meet his parents (who are extremely sweet and accepting of me), and I made sure to mention to my parents where we were, and whom we were visiting. A few months after that, Cam stayed with me, Parker, and our two kids at my mother-in-law's house, and I made sure my parents knew about that visit. Since my parents and Parker's mother live in the same city, this visit afforded me the opportunity of inviting my parents to join me, my daughter, my mother-in-law, and Cam on a picnic one day. My parents wanted to see their granddaughter, so they accepted. The picnic was a success: everyone behaved, the conversation was pleasant, and no one pointed out how strange it was that we were all hanging out together. Then, my brother and his wife invited me and Cam to their house for tea, and my brother told me afterward how “surprised” he was to realize that Cam and I have a relationship that's “of the same caliber” as my relationship with Parker.

When Cam showed up at my Auntie Ell's ranch two days ago, he was on his way home from a backpacking trip. It was all very convenient. Yes, we had planned his trip knowing that it might give him a good excuse to drop in on my big family gathering – and this bit of maneuvering had the desired effect. He got to meet many of my relatives, but no one felt threatened by his presence. I did not “make a scene” by introducing him as my partner, but several of my cousins know who he is and how he's related to me, and they all made a point of welcoming him. My mother was downright friendly. As long as I don't embarrass her by making her admit he's part of the family, she's free to enjoy his presence among us. One low-key visit at a time, Cam is becoming become more and more familiar to my blood relatives. At some point, he'll be so familiar that it will start seeming weird not to invite him to our family gatherings. That's the hope, anyway.

It's okay to take it slowly. Just remember what your real goal is, and keep moving in the right direction.

Rice and Roses,