I’m single and have been divorced for five years. (I was in a traditional monogamous marriage for 28 years.) I’ve dated many men in the five years I’ve been divorced and have enjoyed being open about enjoying sex and trying lots of new sexual experiences. In the last few months I’ve decided to date men in “open relationships.” This has been a fascinating experience, but also an experience where I feel particularly isolated. Very few of my friends can relate to this and I also feel as though “the rules” established by these men and their wives don’t allow me to voice my needs. I can accept what the men offer or I can reject them. Typically this revolves around the time these men are available to see me.

Any advice for being in this position? I’m not even sure how to identify myself. I’m not a secondary partner as these men typically see other women. I would be happy to be in a more long term relationship, but that hasn’t happened and I want to enjoy sex while finding that — so I’m not really solo poly[am]… Am I a play partner?

I think it’s important to have an identity in this type of relationship. We marginalize mistresses and lovers who are not primary partners and don’t consider their needs. As open and poly[am] relationships become more accepted I think it’s important for the person who is “playing” has an identity and therefore a voice.

First off, I’m sorry to hear you’re having this experience. You’re absolutely right that it’s not fair for you to be left on the sidelines, even if you aren’t living with these people or have a domestic agreement with them. There are a couple of things here that I think might help you that I want to talk about:

  • Clarifying your expectations
  • Setting boundaries

Clarifying your expectations

From what it sounds like, you’ve spent some time finding your feet in non-monogamy and this is a situation where I think sometimes people may have to experiment before they can get a good grip on what they want for sure. I wouldn’t necessarily say that solo polyamory isn’t what you want here. It doesn’t seem like you necessarily need someone to be living with you or to have any type of setup where you rely on someone as a primary source of emotional support and they rely on you.

However, the thing about solo polyamory is that just because you may not wish to rely on someone as a primary source of emotional support necessarily doesn’t mean that you don’t need emotional support. Solo polyamory is not necessarily about short term relationships. You can be in multiple long term relationships and still be practicing solo polyamory. I think the difference is just the lifestyle you want to have and not really wanting to be domestically tied to anyone and not having someone you consider a primary source of support.

I think you will struggle if you date people who are set in primary relationships because, to their credit, they are responsible for one other person in a very big way that does require their focus — but this doesn’t mean you do not get a word in edgewise. What you need to really think about is what kind of emotional support and when you need it. It’s also worth considering that romantic and sexual connections are not the only people who can provide you with emotional support. For varying reasons, you might only feel comfortable getting some levels of support from an intimate partner, and that’s totally valid, but I do feel like it’s always worth thinking about as well.

Think about the relationships that you’ve had in the past and consider what types of emotional support you want and, just as you’ve met people who set their rules with you, you also set your rules and expectations. it’s a lot easier for you to negotiate them if you lead with them in relationships. In terms of your expectations, try and think of concretes. Even as silly and as prescriptive as it may sound, maybe you need to establish these things clearer, especially when you’re starting a new relationship and you’re feeling unstable. Even if it’s saying that you need at least X nights per week or X nights per month, or you need to hear from them at least three times a week. It does sound a bit persnickety, but I do think if you make it clear what type of support you need, it can be easier for someone to imagine and therefore negotiate. Which leads me to the next point.

Setting boundaries

There are way too many people who think that having a domestic partner or a set hierarchy is an excuse to treat ‘secondaries’ or people outside of their domestic relationships like disposable rubbish. Even though I operate on more or less a hierarchy due to how I want my life to be set up and my own capacity for social interaction, that absolutely does not mean that the other people my domestic partner dates don’t have any input or don’t have any say.

And really, if you think about this, even within monogamy, just having a romantic relationship should not mean that any other relationship in your life gets thrown to the side. And to be honest, that shouldn’t be happening to friendships either. I think it’s good that these people are being blunt with you about their availability in their life and where their priorities lie, but I really do think you need to be more firm in stating your claim.

Even if you are a play partner, that also doesn’t mean you don’t have any right to any time or emotional support. People still deserve respect and the friendships and relationships we build with people, whether or not they have official labels on them doesn’t take away from the fact that we should help each other and not be these individualised, independent, cut off, bootstrapped people that this society pushes and some polyamory advice reinforces.

Put your needs out there to people and make them known. Don’t just take the offer put in front of you, but make it clear what you need. I think the reason that these men are putting this point in front of you is probably for two reasons. First, it makes people who feel insecure feel better if they know something is set in stone with something like a rule. I understand that from the perspective of the wives of these guys. But the thing is that you can only enforce so many rules before it starts to impact other relationships negatively which leads to the second reason: these men don’t want to provide emotional support to anyone and just want people they don’t have to provide that support for.

Whether that’s because they’re being lazy or if it’s because their current partnership is such that their partner gets anxious about them providing emotional support to other people so they respond by restricting the emotional support they can provide… either way, it’s not your problem. You absolutely have the right to expect and want a certain amount of time. You may still end up in situations where it’s the men that now have to you accept what you want or reject you, but at least if it’s on your terms you can feel less disempowered by this and you can not waste your time with people who won’t provide you what you need.

What you decide to call yourself isn’t that important. It’s more important that you understand what you want, ask for it, and then ensure that you’re prepared to respond if someone promises you they can meet your needs but actually can’t.

Lastly, I think you should consider joining a community of solo polyamory people and talk about these struggles you’re having. These people can provide a level of support that your friends can’t and there are lots of options to find this sort of thing online. Overall, I think that it just comes down to you thinking about the concrete things you need, asking for them, and you finding people who will accept your offer, rather than the reverse.

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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