For the first time in my life, my paradigms about monogamy vs non-monogamy have been broken. They have been eroded because I seem to meet MANY non-monogamous women which have chipped at my wall of monogamy. I also read the book “Sex At Dawn”.
I have three questions I would really appreciate your help on.
Bringing Up The Subject Of Non-Monogamy
I am in a long-distance (12–15 hour away) relationship. So far I have visited her (A) for ten days and she has visited me for ten days. We have a great relationship with incredible commonality. During her last trip to visit me, I brought up the topic of what are our boundaries and expectations for our relationship. I was pushing more for monogamy, but she wanted to keep things open. We talked about health risks and ways to mitigate that. As well as the fact that I want her to tell me about others. I accepted this non-monogamy deal.
In talking with her more over the oncoming weeks, I am getting the impression that she wants to be more monogamous with me (though never said explicitly). We talk almost everyday. She wants me to meet her dad. She talks about long future with me and even moving in together.
Alas, another woman (B)(who lives much closer) has entered my life who has expressed serious interest in becoming intimate with me. While I would like to pursue that with her, I don’t want to hurt my existing partner or break some unspoken boundary.
I am planning on bringing up the boundaries and expectations conversation when I see her (A) again in two weeks. Should I bring up the fact that another woman (B) has entered my life as the reason why I am interested in non-monogamy? Or should I just bring it up generally and not include the fact that I have another in the wings? “B” wants me to bring up this conversation sooner than later via phone call with “A”, but I think this sensitive topic is better in person. What do you think?
Equality vs Primary/Secondary
My other problem I have is both women want to be my primary. I say the best I can do is hold them at equal value; but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for them. “B” had a bad experience in her last monogamous relationship where the guy completely ignored her in the presence of his primary. What is the resolution to this?
When you have multiple partners, how do you decide which one to spend holidays with? Likewise, when spending the day with one partner (B) and the other partner (A) expects a usual phone call from you; How do you excuse yourself from “B” to talk with “A”? What do you say to “A”? “I can’t talk long, I’m with another person”?
I just don’t want to cause jealousy or hurt feelings yet I strive to be transparent about everything. This is a balance point I am trying to resolve.
One of my biggest concerns about non-monogamy is the exponential increase for potential STI/STD risk. Sex is messy even with condoms. Foreplay and oral sex usually don’t include condoms thereby being a potential avenue for exposure. I trust my partners but I don’t necessarily trust theirs. I have non-mongamous friends who caught herpes as a result of a tertiary person. What can be done to mitigate risk? Is a condom contract enough? Testing is good, but what about accounting for incubation periods?
There are a couple of points here to address:
- Sex and Dawn and polyamory
- Introducing non-monogamy and boundaries
- Being realistic about time and emotions
- STIs and polyamory
Sex At Dawn and polyamory
Sex At Dawn is one of the big books people are recommended in the polyamory communities and, having read it myself, it is a pretty intriguing book. However, I urge you and other polyamorous people to also consider valid criticisms of the book which are covered in Sex At Dusk.
I would really also heavily caution anyone seeking to ‘explain’ away human behaviour by finding examples of it happening ‘naturally’ in animals to just… not use that approach. Animals do all sorts of things that we consider morally abhorrent and they just… aren’t the same as we are in some aspects. If we let things go ‘naturally’, I would be dead. I require the help of modern medicine to live. Many of us require glasses to see. We don’t live ‘natural’ lives.
The inclination to try and validate promiscuity and sexuality through the lens of nature, especially since that is the lens that is applied in the reverse, is something I totally get. People have been saying that it is unnatural for women to be promiscuous for a while but… actually, if you look further back into history, one of the reasons why women were considered inappropriate for leadership positions is because they were too naturally promiscuous. Computer programming used to be seen as naturally apter for women because it required concentration and attention to detail.
My goal would be for people to stop arbitrarily attributing natural qualities, states, or experiences to people just because of their genitalia. All of these discussions about ‘natural promiscuity’ are very white-centric, asexual-erasing and cis-normative and they ignore the very real experiences people have across varying cultures.
I’m glad you’ve broken through one paradigm, but I encourage you to not assume polyamory or non-monogamy is without its problems or, as I address in my ‘Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy’. A lot of the old is still mixed in with the new.
Introducing non-monogamy and boundaries
Many of the issues you’re struggling with here are primarily due to unclear communication. Boundaries don’t have to be unspoken and so long as they remain unspoken, you are going to have issues where you’re worried about how to proceed with things.
The first thing you really need to do is ask yourself what you want out of polyamory. You know you’re interested in it, but have you thought of why that is? Have you considered what you want your relationships to look like? Do you want a primary/domestic type of relationship? What does it even mean for someone to be your ‘primary’ to you? Are you looking to live independently and date others in a solo polyamory type of way? It’s okay if you don’t know all of this, but you need to be prepared to communicate that to any potential partner and be real about the fact that you may try things and it might not work — and that can and will hurt people and yourself in the process, but that’s part of life.
Try to do some soul-searching. Think about your past relationships. Do you enjoy living with others? Are you drawn to polyamory merely because it sounds like a more liberated way to live your life (it really isn’t) or are you actually interested in devoting your heart to more than one person and can you handle the responsibility of providing emotional support to more than one person? Or are you just looking to have more sex? None of these choices are inherently invalid.
I do believe that problems arise not because one type of non-monogamy is ‘bad’ but because people are either unaware of their own wants and needs or they don’t communicate them. Case in point, your “B” partner had a situation where it’s likely that her partner didn’t know how to ‘handle’ being around his ‘primary’ and his ‘secondary’ and opted for the awkward ignore instead of trying to talk it out with all of them and figure out how to best handle the situation.
Being realistic about time and emotions
I may be a salty curmudgeon but one of the things I absolutely dislike about newly converted polyamorists is the phrase ‘Love is infinite’ because I believe it’s nothing but rose-tinted snake oil that ends up screwing over so many people. Unfortunately, in so many areas of life, the Venn diagram what you want and what you have time and capacity for is not a circle.
You’re going to have to balance and compromise your own wants and needs with other people’s wants and needs if you want things to work out, which… the more people there are, the more complicated it is. Maybe holidays are very important for one partner but not important for others. Maybe one of your partners has a strong family network they can return to where the other doesn’t. What you decide to prioritise is entirely up to you and the partners you have, but you will absolutely have to make decisions and communicate what you want.
Probably the most frustrating and irritating thing I can see from men who are in polyamory is an unwillingness to manage the emotional labour of their relationships. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I get way too many letters from women asking me how to manage their difficult relationships with their partner’s partner when it’s their partner who should be stepping in and managing the difficulties there.
*You* decide how you spend your time, not your partners. And you must be willing to make that choice and stand by it.
The only rules, as I’ve said before, that matter are these: what you can do and what you can’t do. Within the process of trying polyamory, you may find out that you can negotiate about when to take calls from one partner when you’re on a date with another but you do not enjoy spending time with in-laws and don’t want to have to do that with partners you’re not living with. What you decide is up to you. As long as you’re willing to make that decision and stick by it, you will be as transparent as possible.
But you also need to be more realistic about emotions and realistic about your own limits. The fact is that you cannot control emotions and feelings. Do not begin by putting the impetus on yourself or any partner to ‘prevent’ jealousy or hurt feelings. People’s feelings get hurt in relationships all of the time. That’s the way it goes. What you can do is, rather than prevent it, assume it will happen and decide how you’re going to cope and deal with it.
Also unless you are living with both of these people and keeping time with a stopwatch, you are not going to spend equal amounts of time with every single one of your partners. It’s just not realistic to expect that. So you need to assess what your partners need in terms of having a relationship with you, what you can and are willing to give and discuss that explicitly with them. In this process, you might find that you’re incompatible with one or both of them.
Or they may have to re-assess their own feelings and expectations around the relationship. But I believe it’s better to have this discussion and try to figure it out beforehand then just go with it and hope it will work out.
STI risk and polyamory
STIs are not a risk inherent to polyamory or non-monogamy alone. Non-monogamy was not the reason your friends contracted herpes, nor is it necessarily because of a third person. Obviously, the more people you sleep with, the more your risk factors will rise, but all sex is risky. And even within monogamy, you could only sleep with your partner and your partner could be having an affair.
Herpes is one of the most common STIs out there and one in four people have it — and honestly, it and most STIs are really not that big of a deal. Now, I have an immune system which doesn’t function as well as other people’s a load of other health concerns. I’m very concerned with STIs mostly because of my own health, but I have to accept that, unless I decide to have sex with no one but myself, I am going to be at risk of contracting an STI and I have to accept that risk.
STIs do not care if you trust anyone. They’re just infections. What you have to decide is what protocol you’re going to employ yourself and what protocol you expect your partners to follow. Are you going to be fluid bonded to anyone? I have an agreement with my fluid bonded partner about what barriers we use with other people for what sex acts.
Condoms will only prevent against certain STIs and incubation periods vary. A good rule of thumb is to get tested every three months if you have a lot of new partners, every six months if you have a few new partners, and at least once a year as a precaution. Keep an eye out for any basic infection symptoms such as abnormal discharge, difficulty peeing, fever, itchiness, rash, etc.
Condoms will protect against fluid contact, but not skin to skin contact. You can use gloves and dental dams (or a condom cut up the side) for rimming/oral/fingering and if you want to avoid any skin to skin contact, you can use toys that can be sterilised (glass, plastic, surgical silicone) and put a condom on those for extra protection. There’s more here on specific types of sex acts, what risks they pose, and how to mitigate those risks.
I’d advise you ask your partners how they mitigate risk and if necessary consider agreeing with your partners a unified approach to mitigating sexual health risk. For example, myself and my fluid bonded domestic partner, ask several questions to any new sexual partner about when they’ve been most recently tested, we make it clear that there is fluid bonding between us, and if a person seems shifty or hasn’t been tested in the past 3–6 months, we don’t have sex with that person or we only have sex with toys/fingers and other acts which are extremely low risk.
But again, most STIs are really not a big deal. It’s the stigma and the assumption of ‘failure’ that we give ourselves for having them that creates more of a problem. Do not assume that if you or any of your partners contract an STI that you have ‘failed’ in any way. Just like getting into a fender bender doesn’t make you a terrible driver, getting an STI doesn’t make you an immoral person.
Overall, I think that you could do with some self-exploration and some clarity on why it is that you want polyamory and what you want out of it. You need to step away from the assumption that you can prevent hurt feelings or jealousy and be honest with both of your partners about what it is that you want. I realise you’re in a situation where you’re not even sure if Person A is going to agree to non-monogamy, but I would encourage you to think a bit more about what you want first before introducing the concept.
It will be a lot easier for both of your potential partners to understand what a relationship with you will mean and whether or not they want it if you have a better idea of that yourself.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Note: I wrote this column in 2018, so it’s possible my perspective on this may have shifted or expanded. Please feel free to resubmit a similar question.
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