When You Give Permission To Experiment, You Give Permission For Honest Mistakes

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Let’s say you don’t trust your partner to do the grocery shopping for your house.  They’re not good with money; they buy all sorts of impulse items you don’t need and can’t afford, and they never remember to use the coupons.  Letting them go do it, knowing they’re going to come home with a cart full of cookies, just fills you with stress.
One day, after weeks of debate where you fear they’re going to fuck it up and they keep insisting they’re responsible enough to handle it, you let them go grocery shopping.
Miracle of miracles, they bought exactly what was on the list!  They avoided all the sample trays, didn’t buy those new Pop-Tarts.  And they used the coupons you gave them!  And –
“What’s this?” you ask.
“It’s milk,” they say.
“That’s whole milk,” you say, hands trembling.  “I needed skim.”
“It just says ‘milk’ on the list.”
“How could you not know what kind of milk I needed?”
“I’m lactose-intolerant, remember?  I don’t drink milk.  And I thought you drank whole…”
“I’m on my diet!” you cry.  “The one I started two months ago!  And now whole milk tastes disgusting to me!  I can’t drink this!”
Now, look, it’s reasonable to be a little pissy about it, especially if you had your stomach set for a delicious glass of milk.  (Mmm, milk.  My favorite drink.)  And clarifying what you mean when you say “milk” is certainly an action item to be discussed on the endless list of Shit We Need To Get Straight.
But if it’s two weeks later, and you’re still sulking and snapping about the time your trusted your partner, and they came home with whole milk, then you guys have got some work to do.
But that’s often how it is when people are starting with beginning polyamory.
The grocery store is not a grocery store, but some new partner they’re unsure of.  And the worry is not that your lover is going to buy an extra box of cookies, but that they’re going to do That Sexual Thing That You’re Totally Not Okay With.
And the milk?  That’s the miscommunication.  That’s where they thought that “kissing” meant “making out” was okay, and stopped when it got too hot and heavy, yet what you meant was “a kiss goodnight.”  That’s where they thought “going out on a date” meant “they could hold hands in public.”  That’s where they thought “cuddling” involved sexual tension, and you distinctly did not.
That’s super-common behavior for a partner who’s not sure they’re poly yet: straightjacketing their partner’s every new interaction with a thousand rules.  And some relationships feel they need training wheels at first, so the other partner can be sure that their partner is trustworthy.  (Some small segment of of them even do need them.)
But here’s the thing: If you give your partner permission to experiment, you have to give them permission to make honest mistakes.
Fuckups?  They’re going to happen in polyamory – and in relationships in general.  If you’re presenting them with a snarled tangle full of restrictions and then will punish them for weeks over the most well-intended slight, you have not given them an opportunity – you’ve given them the Temple of Doom, a maze of traps where the slightest misstep means doom, blame, and eternal shame.
You’re not wrong to be upset over what happened, mind you.  If it was necessary to your well-being that they buy skim milk, and she got whole, then it is perfectly reasonable to be grumpy, and perhaps hurt that she wasn’t paying attention to your needs better.
But can you take a moment to note all the successes on that initial outing?  The fact that they did not, as you feared, go hog-wild in an all-you-can-eat frenzy?  The fact that they took the time to use coupons that they’re not particularly trained in using?
Can you also accept that while they should have known which milk to purchase, you should have also been clearer in your communications, and acknowledge that there’s room for error among reasonable people here?
Can you accept that they didn’t try to conceal this milk from you, but instead laid all the groceries right out on the counter where you could see them?
Because if you’re expecting a perfect polyamory, one where nobody will ever step outside these boundaries you have oh-so-carefully marked for them, well… you’re not going to get that.  In fact, learning to deal with these sorts of miscommunications over perceived intimacies is one of the most critical skills in poly.
The thing is, these rules are often put in place by people who aren’t polyamorous at all – and I support you in not being poly, man!  Not everyone’s cut out for that.  I’m really glad you’re pushing your limits.  And if you eventually decide you’re not okay with your partner seeing other people, well, that’s not an unreasonable thing to want in a relationship.  (Though it may be a dealbreaker for your partner specifically, but that’s always the danger in pushing the boundaries of any relationship.)
But here’s the thing: mistakes happen.  And if you’re going to wail and rend your garments and gnash your teeth for weeks afterwards over a misunderstood bucket of cow juice, then the ugly truth is that you should never have agreed to let them go to the grocery store in the first place.

1 Comment

  1. Steven Saus
    Dec 30, 2014

    Thanks for writing this. I think I’ve often screwed up by not paying attention to the “You’re not wrong to be upset over what happened, mind you.” part (as I am often the fucker-up of things in most portions of my relationship), and I think you did a good job balancing both the “but I thought I did it right” and the “but you didn’t” aspects.
    At least, it helps me.


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