Why Should You Pay Attention To Your Partner’s Other Lovers?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I try to keep up with who my lovers are dating, and how things are going with them and their metamours.

That effort can be exhausting.

Because let’s be honest: I can be an insecure cuss sometimes, and watching my partners float off on a cloud of happy New Relationship Energy with their new lover can trigger anxiety spasms. And when they have relationships that are slowly crashing and burning, being there to talk over their issues with them – doing the inevitable “Am I the asshole?” checks – can take up valuable us-time. Plus, to be honest, it’s kinda weird overseeing breakups that aren’t even mine.

And at times like those, I think about that old saying: “As long as they come back home safe, what they do when they’re out is none of my business!”

That saying is a school of thought in polyamory, a thought which says you shouldn’t have to pay attention to your partner’s other partners – that there’s a firewall in between “What you do when you’re with your lover” and “What your lover does when they’re out with their lovers.” All that matters is the interactions between the two of you, and you can safely ignore the rest.

Problem is, I don’t think that “safely” part is entirely true. Not in long-term relationships, anyway.

Because in the short-term, sure, you and your partner are unlikely to fall out of step. Maybe you’ll pick up a new kink or two over the next three months, but you’ll mostly be the same people.

Over years, though?

I claim that I’ve been married to the same woman for two decades, but that is blatantly not true. The wife I married was monogamous; we evolved into polyamory. The wife I married was secretive; she’s blossomed into being more open. The wife I married was pagan; she’s since drifted back to the Church.

Heck, the wife I married thought The Simpsons was a little too edgy at times; thanks to my influence, she now regularly quotes The League of Gentlemen, the blackest Cthulhu-meets-soap-opera comedy ever.

I’m not the same person, either. Hardly anyone is, over that amount of time. (Heck, the man she married chewed his nails ragged, wore no hat, and only wore black jeans and a black T-shirt because he didn’t care about his wardrobe; now I am emblazoned in Hawaiian shirts and pretty pretty princess nails.) We pick up new preferences, discard old ones, learn new lessons, discard old habits.

And one of the most frequent causes of breakups in the long term is people drifting apart.

One of the reasons I think my marriage has lasted all this time is that my wife and I are constantly checking in with each other, seeing who we are right now and adjusting to be in love with that person.

And the most valuable portions of that work come from poking our noses into things we’re not all that interested in. My wife listens to me blather about videogame design, I listen to her squee about quilting. We sit down and pay attention when the other one is griping – or cheering – about their job, even though we’re both in highly technical fields and only understand about half of what the other is talking about.

With that easy flow of communications, it’s easy to pick up on the smaller changes coming around. I knew my wife was unhappy about her old job long before she finally moved on – but more importantly, I understood why the job she’d trained for had become a career that didn’t suit her, I understood what sorts of ambitions fulfilled her and which ones just made her feel deflated, I understood how she valued income vs the emotional expenditure of work.

She got a new job, sure. But when we both came down with heart problems and needed to get more exercise, I’d learned that my wife was big on personal outside affirmations – she didn’t get that warm glow of accomplishment until a stranger (not me) told her “Attaboy!”

So I hired a personal trainer, because I knew that person would give her the encouragement to keep her going. And that, in turn, led to my wife and I bonding over our physical health journey; now we’re gym rats. (Pudgy gym rats, admittedly, but our cores are strong.)

Listening to the little things helped me clue me into the big things.

And I think, over the long run, walling off your partner’s experiences with their other partners can lead to situations where you get sideswiped – because particularly in polyamory, other relationships bring out different aspects of you. You learn new lessons – oh, I really like it when people talk to me that way, I want that style of intimacy.

Walling off that experience means you potentially miss out on the ways your partner is evolving. And evolution? Can happen rapidly in the world of polyamory, particularly when you’re just starting out. Which leads to a danger where one day you’ve said, “Sure, go out and do whatever” and a year later the person they’ve become while you’ve been averting your eyes is someone who doesn’t have much in common with you any more.

(Particularly if they’re not super-proactive at bringing the lessons they learned home to you – but that’s an essay for another day.)

Now, I’m not saying y’all need a blow-by-blow recap of every moment on a date – that could drive the insecure crazy. Nor am I saying that if your partner dates fifteen different people a week that you need to get personally involved with someone who’ll be gone from your life in two months, tops. Nor am I saying that you should get dragged into playing peacemaker when you don’t want to. This certainly isn’t one of those prescriptive essays where I boom out, “IF YOU DO THIS, YOU ARE WRONG AND MUST BE BANISHED TO POLY FAKER HELL FOREVER.”

But I am saying that sometimes – perhaps often – people in poly relationships are so terrified of feeling insecure (or are so disinterested in others) that they inadvertently put themselves into a situation where they distance themselves from their partners. And that short-term fix can have long-term consequences.

Because the person you’re dating today will probably not be the exact same person a year from now. They’ll almost certainly be a significantly different person five years from now. And if you want to be with that person, knowing what they’re evolving into is a significant advantage.

And a lot of that work gets done in the small moments. Just asking, “So how are things going with Jamie?” can open up lines of communication that benefit you in ways that are both subtle and profoundly nourishing.

Even if, you know, sometimes it takes a bit of effort.

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