Mastering Polyamorous Alert Notifications

So here’s something at polyamory that I flat-out suck at: transitioning into my partners’ new partners.

When I arrive on the scene, I know what’s going on: Okay, she has a husband, and a boyfriend who might as well be a second husband. But she’s affectionate to me, and clearly I am beloved despite my newness, and so I accustom myself to this stable landscape.

Then she starts dating someone new, and my neuroses eat me alive.

Why is she dating someone else when she has me? I ask, even though I date other people when I have her, but that’s different, she’s awesome and kissable and who wouldn’t love that, whereas I’m this leaking bag of DNA cluttering up the house.

I get nervous, which depending on my mood can express itself as cool distance, or irrational anger, or smothering clinginess.

I’m not unusual. The whole “Add new person, everyone loses their shit” is a reasonably common denominator in polyamorous relationships.

But you know what makes it way tougher?

Nobody agrees WHEN a new person has been added to the equation.

Most polyamorous relationships have an agreement in there somewhere that goes, “When a relationship with someone else hits critical mass, you’ll tell me about it.” (Except in don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationships and in some forms of relationship anarchy, but even the anarchists usually have a gentleman’s agreement to say, “By the way, I’ve decided to move in with Adam.”)

The problem is, “critical mass” varies *very heavily* from person to person. It’s untenable except in the paperworkiest of relationships to email someone daily, outlining every flirtation you had that might go somewhere – particularly if you’re heavily active in the kink community – meaning that it’s kind of up to you to decide when a relationship has hit the Okay, Probably Should Ping My Lovers’ Radar phase.

But when?

  • When they start flirting with you?
  • When you start flirting back?
  • When you start flirting back and decide that you really like the attention? (Which *is* a distinction, yes, for those of us cursed with unconscious flirting capabilities.)
  • When you scene at a club?
  • When you scene in private?
  • When a scene’s aftercare turns unexpectedly steamy?
  • When you kiss? (I mean, I kiss a lot of people. It’s like a moist handshake.)
  • When you plan a date?
  • When the date goes well and you decide a second one is on tap?
  • When you’ve decided to have sex with them?
  • When you have sex, and the sex goes so well you plan a date? (Don’t laugh, this happens to swingers.)
  • When you first feel that emotional pang of “Crap, this person matters to me?”
  • When you first feel that physical pang of “Crap, this person turns me on?”

The list goes on and on, and it’s filled with edge cases and weird turns because kink and polyamory and attraction gets routinely weird.

Yet the problem is, most folks agree “When this relationships hits critical mass, it’s time to tell the other partner.” Yet when one person thinks “critical mass” is “flirting” and the other thinks is “The kiss went well enough I want to pursue this,” well…

…shitstorms of insecurity arise. Because now you’ve got the scarybump of What Does Potential New Partner mean, and also your partner has just demonstrated that they don’t know when you think something is significant.

That makes everything harder.

And again, it gets more complicated when you’re dating someone, and last month you didn’t care all that much who they were sleeping with as long as they got tested, and now you’re emotionally closer to them so you want to be more inclued to their other romances.

Like a lot of miscommunications, nobody’s exactly at fault here – it was just two different definitions that you didn’t quite jine up – but things can go south really fast if you don’t believe in honest mistakes.

So I feel one of the better skills to prioritize mastering in a polyamory model that includes active dating is synchronizing notification expectations. Having discussions on when to properly ping your lover to go, “Hey, heads up, this is becoming significant” – however you define significant – can sidestep a lot of problems, even if that partner has no say over who you’re dating.

And the trick is to sit down and go, “Okay, how much do you want to know?” Like for me, “making out” is something I do with friends. Friends I trust and love, yes, but I have a lot of sexual relationships without a romantic component. Fondness, yes, but not necessarily romance…

…so my wife wants to know once I either a) have decided I actively want to sleep with someone, or b) am falling romantically for someone I’m sleeping with. (And yes, those are two separate things in my mind.)

Whereas for me, I don’t want to hear the fine details of my wife’s sex life – “good” or “bad” will do – but since she’s engaging with fewer people, if she starts flirting with someone with intent, I’d like to know. I’m okay with her smooching whoever she wants, but I want to have an idea of who she’s with.

Yet I have a sweetie who I don’t even need to know. She’s a swinger. She has a lot of sex. As long as she gets tested, I’m happy to hear great stories when we get together.

And my other partners have their own definitions of when they want to know, and what they want to know. And part of being a good partner is telling them what they want to know, when they want to know it – not out of any sense of rules, but because I love them and I recognize it can be stressful for new relationships to rewrite the established Thing we have going on here, and so I want to make them as comfortable as possible.

And looking back at a lot of my failed poly relationships, those critical existence collapses have often been directly attributable to the two of us having different ideas of when it was time to go “Okay, New Person is here!”

We freaked out about What New Person Meant, and then we freaked out over How Could You Not Know To Tell Me Before All Of This. And while less neurotic couples may do better on What New Person Meant – remember, I told you I was shit at that part of things – I still see good communication habits evolving to stop the How Could You Not Know.

So maybe have a discussion now, before New Person shows up. Ask your partners when they’d like to be informed. Because if your partner thinks “flirtation” is when the alert gets triggered, and you think it’s “after the sex turned romantic,” well, you’re gonna have a situation that can look a lot like concealment or cheating even if that’s not at all what you intended to do.

So, you know, talk now. Before you surprise anyone. In a bad way.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah
    Oct 15, 2015

    I find this interesting because it shows that you have a lot of relationships that are entirely different from mine. I have some in which we see/ message each other with enough frequency that we know ‘most everything going on in our lives. I have others which are meaningful to me but are limited enough in time or interest that we only share highlights, and that’s fine because those limitations keep us both well aware that if we want “more” we need to negotiate to remove those barriers, and until then we aren’t going to be surprised or upset if we don’t hear about something. Different people like different sorts of boundaries; I wouldn’t want a marriage in which I didn’t hear about flirtations… not because I care about the flirtations, but because I like to know pretty much everything of interest going on in my loved ones’ lives. Having people in a space where I “owe” some responsibility to them other than generally being a decent person, but they’re not all that connected to what’s happening to me day-to-day, is uncomfortable and unrewarding for me. Basically this issue would never come up for me because I don’t enjoy having relationships in this in-between space.

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