Failure Patterns In Poly: The Ping-Pong Partner

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Talk it out.  Talk it out.  Talk it out.
That’s what’s often presented as the miracle cure for polyamory.  Got a conflict?  Discuss.  Got a partner who wants to fuck a llama?  Negotiate.  Got a lover who’s  just embezzled your paycheck and used your minimum wage to fund terrorist bioweapons?  Hablar, mi amigo!
Problem is, that talking is not the ultimate cure for what ails ya.
It’s the decision.
Now, the talking is the way of coming to a good decision.  So that’s worthwhile.  But one of the core polyamory skills is listening to all sides, concluding what you think is fair, and then sticking to that decision.
‘Cause otherwise?  You become Ping-Pong Poly.
Wishy-washy people don’t do well in polyamory, because if you’re dating then your partners will come into conflict.  This conflict isn’t always the “battle to death in a ring of fire” style of dispute, but you’re inevitably balancing time and intimacy: Partner A wants a twice-a-week date with you, Partner B feels that you’re ignoring her as it is.  Partner B wants to start moving towards a Master/Slave relationship, Partner A is not comfortable with that dynamic.
It is your job to listen to both partner’s needs, figure out what you’re comfortable with, and finalize a decision.
But if you’re Ping-Pong Poly, then you’re swayed by whoever you’ve just talked to.  Mr. Ping-Pong goes to Partner A, who says that two dates a week isn’t all that much when Mr. Ping-Pong spends the remaining 160 hours with Partner B, and Partner A is lonely and has no other lovers.  So he leaves her house convinced of Partner A’s truth…
…until he gets home and Partner B points out that Partner A gets all the fun evening times after work, and Mr. Ping-Pong’s sex life with Partner B has gone down because he’s coming in at 2 in the morning after a big whoopty-whoop date with A, and is too tired for sex.
So what does Ping-Pong Poly do?  Punts.  He makes firm agreements with Partner B that he will only have once-a-week dates, which lasts until Partner A wants to see a movie.  And he goes, “Okay!”
That movie date lasts with Partner A until Partner B finds out and hits the roof, and then he cancels with Partner A, and…
…and it’s not good for anyone, because this nebbish can’t make up his goddamned mind.  And he (or she) usually winds up sneaking around both partners, quietly breaking agreements until the other finds out.  And that throws up these great clouds of psychodrama as he remains *utterly convinced* by one side… as long as he’s in their presence.
Here’s the fundamental truth of polyamory: you have to make a decision, because there’s no right answer.  Does Partner A need more time?  Is Partner B actually neglected?  People will doubtlessly debate which side is “correct” in this example, but the truth is that there’s no objective truth to be found here.  Maybe Partner A is too needy, or maybe Partner B is trying to strangle Mr. Ping-Pong with household chores.
Is two dates a week too much?  It depends on the people involved, man.  And I’ve not told you enough about either side to say for sure.  The point I’m making is that it could go either way – and since you’re the one who’s in the middle, you’ve got to make a decision or it’s not fair to either of your partners.
It’s about what you think.  You’re not a weathervane.  And it may be uncomfortable to look your partner in the eye and say, “I know you want this, but I am unwilling to give it to you” – but hey!  You decided to date two people!  Those people will have conflicting needs!
You owe it to them to settle the matter definitively.
Because let’s be honest: it’s absolutely shitty to tell your partner that they’re absolutely right, and then about-face when you talk to someone else.  It makes you unreliable, and if there’s a greater sin in a relationship than “I can’t trust them” then I don’t know what is.
And I know why you don’t want to make a decision: because one of your partners might leave!  If you tell Partner A “No, once a week is all I can do,” or tell Partner B, “I think twice a week is perfectly fair,” then A or B might pack their shit and go.  And that’s rough.
But you’re not avoiding them leaving by continually passing the buck: you’re just dragging it out with a lot of pain and angst.  Eventually, one of them will figure out what it is you *really* want to do because you’ll have broken your word to take up with Partner A more often than not, and they’ll go *anyway*.  Usually with a lot more anger and psychodrama than they would if you’d just bitten the bullet and told them what you were actually willing to do.
Being a good partner involves being honest about your limitations.  Even if those limitations are “won’t” instead of “can’t.”
I’ve lost people I loved because I told them I thought they were being unreasonable in their needs.  And even though we’re exes now, I think that made me a good partner for them: I didn’t lie to them about what I was willing to do.  I told them flat-out what they could expect from me, and gave them the information they needed to decide whether they should stay.
Many of them were disgruntled, but stuck around.  Because I was good to them in other ways, and they decided that hey, maybe the once-a-week date wasn’t a dealbreaker.  And that argument healed over and things got better.
Others chose to leave.  And those fractures were painful, I won’t deny.  But it was also quick, and respectful, and left me with strong remaining relationships.  I’m friends with a lot of my ex-girlfriends.
The alternative was spending years making two or more partners very unhappy and disrespected as I dithered between them, never making either feel truly loved, making both feel as though my sympathy was something that could be yanked away from them at any moment.
No.  Better to make the call, and stick with it. Don’t Ping-Pong Poly it.


  1. Scott Van Essen
    Dec 16, 2013

    Excellent advice for monogamous people as well. Respect yourself, respect your partner.

  2. Trevi8
    Dec 16, 2013

    This could have come, nearly verbatim, from some issues we’ve been experiencing lately. It never ceases to amaze me that although people do poly differently, the issues are often nearly identical. You have great insight into breaking these issues down and I feel privileged to have stumbled across your writing and to enjoy the benefit of your insights.

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