I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thrilled at all the good press that polyamory has been getting lately. I’m seeing articles about what polyamory is, some of the myriad ways that people practice it, and, more recently, how to not be an asshole to your polyamorous friends. That’s nice! I like it when people are not an asshole to me and mine.
The trouble is that I’m also seeing a lot of monogamous people express that they have a rightfully-earned bad impression of polyamory. It’s not that they’re threatened or insecure about it, the way a homophobe acts when confronted with the upsetting fact that gay people exist. This is more of a garden-variety irritation, inspired by an association of polyamory with smug, more-evolved-than-thou grandstanding.
It’s a well-earned reputation. I am no stranger to That Poly Person, having myself been poly for over a decade and no longer able to think of it as some kind of big deal. I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning people fall into the trap of making polyamory a topic that mono folks would rather gloss over.
So how do you avoid being That Poly Person? I’m glad you asked.
1. 'Ethical' is not Optional
You’d think that this would be obvious, but relationship models are a funny thing.
Part of this is tied to the fact that when human beings discover a new and exciting concept, two things happen.
- They get really excited and want to tell everyone about how great the new thing is.
- They fuck up trying to do the new thing flagrantly and baldly.
The result of this is that you wind up with a lot of people being really excited about polyamory and doing a supremely bad job at representing what they’re talking about.
”But wait,” you say. “It sounds like you’re policing what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poly. That’s wrong!”
Look, platonic strawkid. There are a lot of different ways to do polyamory, and a lot of them are just fine. Even if they make me feel widgy, I barely ever refer to a poly model as not poly. If there’s a common definition for polyamory, however, it is “ethical love-based nonmonogamy.” I dunno about you, but when I perceive someone’s behavior to be unethical, I am surprisingly comfortable criticizing it!
If all parties haven’t consented to the relationships being carried out, it’s not polyamory. If someone has found a neat new name for cheating, it’s not polyamory. If information is being withheld from someone who should have it, it’s not polyamory.
If you are practicing nonmonogamy but it’s not ethical, it’s probably in your best interests to keep your mouth shut anyway.
2. Don’t Evangelize
If there’s one thing everybody loves, it’s a salesman. If there’s anything that people love even more than a salesman, it’s a salesman who tells you that he’s better than you, and will continue to be until you buy his product. Also the salesman probably wants to bone you, and that’s extra fun.
I’m neither a soothsayer nor a sociologist, but probably neither are you and even if you are, societal trends are a slippery thing at the best of times. The point is that maybe polyamory is the next stage in human social development, and everybody has a little polyamory in them. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows.
Because you don’t know, it’s important to acknowledge that you are not automatically more evolved for having come out as poly. This isn’t a magical relationship structure discovered by the authors of The Ethical Slut and we are not approaching the polylarity to become a glorious single global-spanning relationship structure governed by a monolithic Google Calendar.
The practical thing to take away from this is that polyamory is not the natural state of humanity and it is not for everyone. Don’t be an evangelist. No one is keeping score, there is no free toaster, you do not get discounts at local businesses.
I’m not saying that you can never suggest polyamory to anyone. If you think someone you know would really benefit from polyamory, feel free to talk to them about it if you are already having a conversation about relationships. People tend to be more comfortable with polyamory when they feel that they arrived at the idea organically, and often they get there via information they received from friends. The critical distinction is that of approach. Did they invite you to speak about your relationship model? Or did you bring it to their door and try to spray it in their face?
Also, trying to convert a monogamous person to polyamory so you can fuck them takes a special kind of shitbag, but we’ll address that further down in item #4.
3. There is such a thing as Too Much Information
Do you know what TKOP stands for? Great! Does your coworker? Yes? Is it because you told them? Yeah? They didn’t ask you first, did they. Nope. YOU HAVE MADE A MISTAKE.
It sure is great talking about sex and relationships with someone that you’re close to. They’re really fun topics, especially the taboo stuff that society has taught us is tee-hee not to be talked about. It feels good to release ourselves from the inhibitions that society has placed on us, especially if those inhibitions have caused us pain or discomfort in the past.
But the thing about sex and love is that it’s a complex topic that interacts with the human psyche in ways that nothing else does. What might be a fun and comfortable topic for you could be intensely uncomfortable for someone else, and downright traumatic for a few. A survivor of sexual assault, harassment, or stalking probably doesn’t want to hear about your sex life.
Not sure? Check in! If you begin a sentence with “This is probably TMI…” and then don’t follow it up with “So would you prefer that I stop talking?” You are probably about to make a mistake. You need to make sure that what you have to say is going to be received well before you say it, and verbal confirmation is the only really safe way to do it.
Even more dangerous is the habit of oversharing with someone as a flirtation technique. Let’s call this method the ‘Carlos Danger’.
To make this easy, let’s make a list of all the times that it’s appropriate to send someone sexually explicit materials or share your sexual fantasies with them.
- When they have asked you to do so.
… that’s it.
This topic dovetails nicely into:
4. Don’t Make Assumptions, a.k.a. Not Everyone Wants Your Dick
How in the world it is that people who practice a minority relationship model feel comfortable making these assumptions is beyond me, but it is a shockingly common thing for poly people to decide that they know what other people like and want.
I received a suggestion that I should make this one genitalia-equal, but let’s be honest: not all demographics are equal when it comes to assuming that everyone else is just like you. This one is particularly pointed at you, white cishet poly men. White cishet poly men with CS degrees who got linked here from reddit and just want to play devil’s advocate for a minute.
The most common and obnoxious assumption that poly people make is that every other poly person is available to date them and wants to. What follows is usually them pretending to be super interested in the other person’s job or hobby or whatever because they’re going to get sex out of it. This is not cool.
Another common assumption is that all polyamory models are like yours. This is an astonishing one because no two polyamorous partnerships are exactly the same, even those that use similar models as each other. Everyone has boundaries that they keep for themselves and for their partners, and it behooves you to find out what they are if you want to pretend that you know anything about their relationships.
Here are some other ‘fun’ assumptions that get a lot of coverage:
- All poly people are kinky!
- All kinky people are poly.
- All poly women are submissive.
- Asexual people just haven’t found the right
- Mono-poly relationships are impossible!
- All trans* people are bi.
- Swingers are shallow people.
- My contribution to this conversation is extremely important.
- Everyone loves bacon.
Sorry I’ve veered off track. I could do this all day though.
5. Talk About Anything Else Ever
So does anybody actually know what happens at poly meetups? I’ve been to like four and they were boring as hell.
The point here is that polyamory may not be as interesting for people to hear about as it is for you to talk about.
Let me draw an analogy for you, poly people who really like to talk about polyamory. Have you ever sat through somebody’s really detailed description of their dream? Now imagine that they have recurring dream characters and similar themes to their dreams every night, and they want to tell you about them literally every time you sit down with them for coffee. You are going to get dead tired of Manuel the Giant Talking Mantis and his stupid casino real fast.
The fact is that these people don’t get to have the sex that you are having or feel the super awesome brain chemicals that you are feeling about the people you’re hooking up with, and that makes your exploits way less interesting to them than they are to you.
Let’s add to this the fact that your relationships are not more queer, more radical, more interesting just because you have more than one. Your polyamory is not relevant to every discussion about sex, relationships, or stuff outside of the mainstream. You are not a relationship guru just because you have a non-mainstream relationship, nor are you an oppressed minority.
The ability to have a conversation that will engage the people with whom you are talking is a valuable life skill. In this case, this often means gauging when to stop telling stories about how delightfully confused your wife’s boyfriend’s coworker was when he saw the two of them together. You should have seen his face! Aren’t monogamous people so funny arg shut up
6. Chill the Fuck Out
I know. It is seriously so exciting. You are dating multiple people and they’re all okay with it! It’s enough to make you want to sprint to the top of the highest hill, tear off your clothes, and let your anthropomorphic genitals sing the happiest song in the world.
Conversely, when you are experiencing inter-partner tensions, or your household dynamic is falling apart, or have just gone through multiple breakups and aren’t getting the support you need, it is pretty much the worst thing ever and honest to goodness I feel for you.
Poly bragging and poly drama seem to just be … bigger coming from some people. When poly people feel whatever pressure they feel to trumpet about how great polyamory is, they also feel the need to be really angry at themselves when relationships don’t work out. Sometimes I wonder if the root of this behavior originates with feeling the need to be a poly ‘rep’ and to do everything right all of the time. This rarely turns out well.
It behooves us to remember that most relationships are exciting, most relationships end, and most breakups are sad. This is not unique to polyamory. Monogamous people will understand your feelings about these things without you having to tell them repeatedly. While there will always be some people who believe that a failed poly relationship means that polyamory itself is at fault, you will find that as loud as they are, they are not representative. Your monogamous friends will understand.
In the end, I think a lot of Not Chilling the Fuck Out lies in insecurity. Being afraid of failure or faltering can mean that everything needs to be a Big Fucking Deal, which rarely helps anyone. Keep an eye out, keep communicating, and get better as you go. Treat yourself the way you treat your partners. Love yourself, forgive yourself, and don’t make a huge damn deal out of every little thing.
Because for fuck’s sake, it’s just polyamory.