I’m a newbie to the poly world. I’ve only been living in conscious non-monogamy for the last six years, more or less consciously depending on the year and day. The surprising part is that I couldn’t tell you why it started. I heard a lecture on polyamory, had big triggers and mental blocks, thought I would never consider it, and then a month later I wasn’t interested in monogamy anymore.
Not only has my approach to dating and partnership been flipped on its head since then, but my whole life has changed paradigms. It continues to do so regularly. I have been influenced by all of the partners, lovers and configurations of polycules (see below if you’re unfamiliar with this term) I’ve been in over the last six years. And through much trial and error, yes I have made a lot of mistakes, and the support of many lovers and partners, I’ve come up with my ideal way I want polyamory to look in my life.
Just to clarify, this article is not about how to overcome jealousy, find compersion or deal with the stuff that comes up in poly relationships. And it is not to help you decide if you want to be in a non-monogamous relationship, although it might help people considering non-traditional relationship structures.
The intention of this article is simply to offer a few ideas of how to uncover the non-monogamous relationship structure you want, clarify the conscious non-monogamy and open yourself to playing within these structures as they change with each new arrangement of people. And, finally, I hope it helps you to find your own boundaries, desires and the non-negotiable things in your intimate relationships.
Where did you come from?
So, let’s start by looking at what intimate relationship has looked like throughout your adult years.
Have you always been interested in poly? Do you have any models you do or don’t want to try? Most of us haven’t witnessed a lot of healthy, positive relationship structures.
I certainly did not grow up in a circle of non-traditional relationships, except for my neighbors who were a middle-aged unmarried couple who we all knew slept with people when they traveled, which was most of the time. But my family looked down on that practice as very strange and even unethical. I definitely didn’t think it was a good model to copy. Looking back, though, they were much happier than most traditional couples I knew. Huh.
First on the list of important steps on the journey to defining your non-traditional relationship goals/ style is to research and reach out. Is there a community of non-traditional relationship seekers in your town? We have several in my progressive city of Seattle like Relationship Anarchy (RA), Authentic Relating, some Tantra, Cuddle, and sex-positive community centers and groups, and a handful of weekly or bi-monthly Meetup groups.
You might be surprised when you start looking at what is in your own backyard, or maybe in the next town over. Try Meetup.com and Facebook to start.
Define the words
Definitions are important – not to categorize, but to speak the same language. When we start down the path of conscious non-monogamy, one thing we get to loosen is the definition of what an intimate relationship has to be. With this lack of traditional definition might come a feeling of vastness and unknowing that can be really scary. It’s like you’ve been standing on hardwood floor all your life and now you’re being asked to stand on a waterbed… or even a cloud.
To start moving to solid ground, explore the words partner, lover, date, friend-with-benefits, etc.
Things to think about: what is your desired level of commitment? How often do you want to talk to or see each other? Do any of these words signify a sense of exclusivity? Do you want them to? For example, some people choose to have one partner that they make life plans with and multiple more casual or satellite lovers. Or some people prefer to stay single and have partners or lovers of varying significance. Other models include multiple life-partners.
When my new partner and I started talking about how we used the word partner last summer, we realized it meant vastly different things to us. And now that we consider ourselves in a partnership, we had to first figure out what that meant in our specific relationship and in relation to our other relationships. Last week I got to have that conversation with my partner’s other partner and investigate what it meant for her. And we’re not done exploring! It’s an ongoing conversation that is met by our daily needs for both security and freedom.
To help your investigation, I’ll offer how I define my most important relationship words. For me, partnership means a commitment to build a relationship together and maybe to build a life together. A lovership is any other intimate relationship (the level of sexuality depends on the specific relationship) where we come together in love but don’t have binding commitments to one another. Except our agreements and boundaries. The people I am intimate with tend to exist in one of those categories. The levels of friendship varies in each connection, as does how often we see each other, talk, or message.
Talk about these words with anyone you are engaged with, no matter how casual or committed. The more you get others’ input on how they define these words, the more options you’ll have to decide for yourself how significant or insignificant these words are to you and your partners.
Do you want hierarchy?
This is a big question. I’ve made my share of mistakes by denying the importance of a request for hierarchy in past partnerships.
By hierarchy, I mean are all your relationships equal or are some more significant? Hint: There is no right answer to this question! Something to consider is whether you want one or more significant partners. One significant partner might be called your primary partnership, or another term that places an appropriate value on the relationship.
I have often had lovers who already had primary partners when we met. It was clear from the beginning that they were committed to creating a life with their primary partner and that I was a lover who was significant but more casual in their life. I have also been guilty of not establishing an honest hierarchy in my own partnership. Looking back, it was clear to us that my primary partner and I were the most significant relationship. We still wanted everyone to feel equally valued, but our life decisions said something else. Actions really do speak louder than words and eventually showed us there was a lack of integrity between what we said and what we did.
Remember that relationships change and so these definitions can be up for renegotiation. Recently, one of my lovers and her primary partner ended their relationship. As we found ourselves each falling into assumption of whether this would or wouldn’t change the nature our relationship, we checked those assumptions and communicated what our values were and that we are still happy with a lovership, not a committed partnership. We are still in creation of what we want our lovership and friendship to look and feel like, and the long-distance nature of that relationship is yet another element to negotiate.
I consider a polycule to be any configuration of poly people in relationship together. This doesn’t mean you are all in sexual relationship. But you are all connected. The more awareness you bring to this interconnection, the more potential for honesty, communication, growth and stability in relationship.
One of my favorite things about living a polyamorous lifestyle is that I get to be in relationship in so many different ways. Some of my lover’s lovers have become my intimate partners. Some have become good friends. With others there may be some distrust and fear, and my role is to learn to accept these things when I can’t change them.
I truly love the interconnectedness of non-monogamy.
It does take some getting used to, especially realizing that the decisions we make in one relationship can and will affect the others. That the relationships we choose to have with our lovers’ lovers is, just that, a choice. Ask for what you want. And be okay with not getting it.
Some models of polyamorous relationships allow each person a say in everyone else’s partners or lovers. While in some models it’s not a group decision. Think about if this is important to you. Again, there is no right or wrong. It takes honest inner investigation and trial and error to see where your edges are and where you need to make requests.
One big happy family, maybe
As I was chatting with some of my friends and lovers about writing this article, I had a few opposite reactions to the word “family” used in the creation of non-monogamous relationships. As I was describing my ideal poly model, one friend said, “Like a family!” with a very endearing smile. She felt this term was inclusive of loving one another universally and openly. Another lover shared that the word “family” felt to him like an exclusive term where we only let in those in the innermost circle and are closed to others.
A family to me is a group of people who choose to be in communication, growth, and love. Not necessarily erotic love – just love. This may sound sweet and ideal to you when you think of your larger relationship structure. Or it may sound scary and overwhelming. It may or may not be an environment where you will thrive.
What is important is that you talk with your partners about how you want to acknowledge others in your larger circle of relationship and how you want them to acknowledge you.
Earlier this year I made a big mistake of posting some photos of a lover on facebook with the description “my baby.” That caused quite the backlash with her primary partner and other lover because they felt it was too possessive and not acknowledging the greater relationship. So, we made an agreement to not use possessive pronouns and to use the phrase “I love your love,” to show our support and appreciation for one another.
While facebook may seem like a silly example, the way you publicly display your love can be the cause of either compersion (finding joy in your partner’s sexual act with another lover) or emotional turmoil and upset. Talk about how you post on social media and publicly share your relationship before you post. It will allow everyone to have a say and hopefully to come to an agreement where each person feels heard and loved.
Find your edges
Exploration can be a messy process. It’s easy to want to stay safe and not try new ways of being in relationship. To explore your edges, you have to be willing to feel things that are not comfortable. And willing to make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. That doesn’t mean making the same mistake over and over. It means debriefing after something doesn’t go the way everyone wanted and finding new solutions. And it definitely means listening to other ideas and possibilities.
Just this week I exchanged some very messy and even hurtful communication with a lover. We both sat on it for a few days and came back together with understanding, apologies and forgiveness. We resolved to be okay, yet again, with the messiness of exploration and let go of our relationship needing to look like anything in particular.
An important note
Edges create discomfort, not pain.
Just like when you’re holding a yoga pose, you find your edge and then back off a little bit so you can stay in the place of growth, not pushing into physical danger. Learn to know when you can stay in the discomfort of growth and when you need to rest and feel comfort, like taking a walk, a bath, asking for a cuddle or just being alone.
I’ve been in those relationships where there is constant exhaustion from pushing into growth again and again. And while I know I learned a lot, I also know I grow more when I have a chance to reflect, digest the experience, and integrate what I’ve learned.
Some questions to ask as you’re finding your edges:
- Where do I feel discomfort in my relationship(s)?
- When I think about making changes in my relationship(s), which of those changes make me feel uncomfortable?
- Where does this discomfort come from?
- Am I willing to try something different and then see where my edge is?
- Where is the line between growth and pain? Can I navigate that and stay emotionally safe?
- How can I safely ask for support in my relationship(s)?
Question your boundaries
While we explore our edges, we can start to create boundaries. Boundaries are what keep us safe. And safety is important.
Some people might want to plunge into the abyss of polyamory right away, throw out all the molds, and be happy in the total unknown of constantly unfolding relationships. But you don’t have to do that. Start slowly investigating where a boundary to conscious non-monogamy comes from and if it’s there to keep you safe or if it’s based on an old relationship that you’re no longer in.
Each person is unique and comes from their own history of relationships.Some past models may continue to work while others are habits that may need to be re-evaluated.
With a former partner, we did a lot of this questioning. We would often say things like, “with my last partner, this is how we did it.” And then we got to investigate if it worked in the past and if we wanted to keep it in our relationship. Some boundaries exist because of specific agreements, or lack of agreements, between particular people. Those same boundaries may or may not be necessary between a new configuration of people.
Remember that you have the right to set your own boundaries. You may even want to set “non-negotiables,” the things that you don’t come back and haggle over. For me, I have a non-negotiable over safe sex. When I choose to be fluid-bonded with a partner, we have an agreement that they will not become fluid-bonded with anyone else unless we first discuss it. For me this is a non-negotiable matter of safety.
When someone challenges how you do poly, find some self-compassion and remember that you are made up of your experiences and that changing and unlearning patterns can take time.
Offer that compassion to your lovers and partners, too!
Ask for some accountability in making the changes you want and don’t assume your partner wants to change just because you don’t like something they do.
A few models of polyamory:
It is not my intention to limit how you do poly with these models, but to provide a framework to explore for yourself. When I talk about my relationships, some people are very confused at how it all works and what the rules are. While it’s true that the rules of traditional monogamous relationships don’t limit the structures of my relationships, it doesn’t mean that poly is a free-for-all. At least not for me and most of the people in my communities.
Take a look at this very generalized list of models and start to explore conscious non-monogamy. And please, let this be a constant exploration. What works today may very well change in the future. My relationships are way different now than they used to be and I can see how they are constantly evolving.
I can honestly tell you that I’ve experienced all the relationships models below in some form.
Some of the following definitions come from a great online resource, Poly 101 that includes poly terms and relationship models.
Poly Single Model
This model is based around remaining single. Romantic relationships are more like loverships or friendships that don’t entail committing to another person. There could be as many or as few lovers as desired which could come and go or be stable over time.
The primary partnership with satellite partners – hierarchical
In the primary-satellite model, there is one primary partner with whom you make larger decisions, possibly like housing, family or life structure. Other lovers are more like satellites, orbiting around the established primary relationship. This structure usually has agreements as to if other primary partners are possible or if there will be only one primary relationship. There is also an established hierarchy that the partnership has more priority over other satellite relationships.
The open-concept relationship – non-hierarchical or less hierarchical
In this model, the option exists to have multiple partnerships as well as loverships. This can work whether there is an established primary partner or not. If so, then an agreement has been made that new partnerships can be just as important as the established relationship. If not, then there is no hierarchy set up for new partnerships or re-establishing past relationships. This would also include an equal trio or quad (or any number) of people in mutual relationship.
Expanded or intentional family
“A relationship in which three or more partners consciously chose each other as family, partners may or may not live together, there is the potential for all family members to be sexual with each other if they mutually chose to do so but this is not a requirement for family membership.”- Poly 101.
This structure tends to entail a web of relationships that are interconnected, whether sexually or not. While all polyamorous relationships are interconnected, this model creates the most intentional connection between each member. In other models, satellite partners or lovers may or may not be connected to each partner.
Experience more love with conscious non-monogamy
What I’ve found from asking all these questions is that I can be much more honest and communicative with myself and my partners. We can talk about models of relationship we’ve been in, what we’re currently using and what feels good to us this week, this month or this year. And we can be open to investigating new possibilities of conscious non-monogamy.
I want to clarify one thing: polyamory means multiple love. Not sex. Some people throw off the shackles of monogamy because they want more sex. And while that might be true in the beginning, I implore you to look deeper and investigate how a polyamorous lifestyle can bring more love into your life and that of your friends, lovers and partners. Not a conditional “I-love-you-because..” love but unconditional love.
This may seem like a stretch, but give it a shot. There’s nothing like boundless love to change the way you see the world.