Dear Polyamorous Newbies,
It’s wonderful that you have decided to try something new and scary, something that has the opportunity to expand your horizons and stretch your comfort zone. Welcome to this complex and challenging world, where you are sure to learn something about yourself and/or your relationship(s) whether polyamory becomes a lasting piece of your identity or not.
That being said, there are a number of errors that those new to polyamorous communities often make. One of the biggest and most often talked about is unicorn hunting. This is a situation where a couple decides to look for a third person to form a triad in an unequal balance of power. This is often a heterosexual couple looking for an attractive bisexual female. Since this has already been written about many times, I recommend doing some of your own reading on that subject if you aren’t already familiar about it, but I will not be focusing on that here.
What I am here to talk to you about are the things beyond unicorn hunting that don’t get as much air time, but can be just as detrimental to a smooth transition into a polyamorous lifestyle. Below are a few pieces of advice that will help you navigate the new environment you find yourself in, and understand why some of the things you might think are perfectly reasonable seem to be off-putting to other polyamorous folk.
1) Aggressive partner seeking
One thing I frequently see in people trying on a polyamorous identity for the first time is that they are incredibly enthusiastic to meet their next partner. While the freedom to partner up with someone other than your current relationship (or anyone at all if you are single) is very exciting, it is usually best to reign in that enthusiasm and instead point it in the direction of developing your polyamorous identity and figuring out what you want.
People in established poly communities will most often respond eagerly and openly to someone who is engaged in learning everything they can about polyamory, asking questions about what has worked for them in the past and what hasn’t, and actively challenging assumptions about their own ideas and relationships. They tend not to respond quite as readily to new people who are obviously just trying to get them on a date. Treat the people you meet early on in your explorations as friends and community members instead of potential partners.
This isn’t because they don’t like you. They don’t know you. Alternative communities are often tight-knit, and have a great many people in them who have learned from experience that people new to poly are prone to a lot of very predictable mistakes. It gets old being someone else’s training wheels. My advice is to take time learning from people around you as community members first, and only start approaching for dates once you’ve had a few months to develop non-sexual and non-romantic friendships within the community.
This isn’t just for the benefit of the experienced folk. Often the more experienced folk who are willing to jump right into relationships with people new to the community are predatory in nature. They might be taking advantage of someone who doesn’t know problem behaviors to watch out for and who isn’t involved in any of the drama they’ve built up for themselves. Taking some time before dating lets you observe community dynamics and maybe keep you from stepping in a land mine. Exercising patience makes it more likely that when you do make a romantic connection, it will be a better fit for you.
2) You already know exactly what you want
While it is a good idea to know what you want, rigidity about those desires is generally a bad idea, especially if you haven’t done a lot of reading about polyamory or talking to people who have actually done it. Many people who are new to poly have a significant number of preconceived notions about what will work and why, and while it isn’t always the case, they are often wrong.
While unicorn hunting is a good example, so is the idea that a particular format and particular types of rules are going to lead to a fulfilling experience or keep your current relationship safe.
One thing you are almost guaranteed to learn is that human beings are unpredictable, including you! There are probably some things you haven’t thought of that you may want, but you won’t realize it until it happens. Same goes for your partner. Same goes for the people you connect with. What happens if that new desire bumps up against an established rule? Are you and/or your partner(s) equipped to renegotiate your agreements or do the agreements have any flexibility built in for these inevitable surprises? If not, then requests to change the terms of the agreements can lead to many feelings of frustration, fear, and betrayal.
This isn’t to say you can’t have very specific things you are looking for, but also be prepared to be frustrated in your attempts to find the perfect person for the perfect relationship. The more specificity that you are searching for, the more difficult it will be to find it. People are messy. Generally, the harder you try to stuff them into a box, the more stubbornly they resist it. If you plan for this to begin with, and allow more flexibility and openness in the ways you think you can relate to others, you will likely be making things far easier for yourself and everyone else involved, even if it is a little bit scarier or seems more insecure to begin with.
3) You try to make it on your own without a community
Okay, maybe all these poly communities are just too pretentious and don’t understand you. You can stick to OKCupid and find people to date on your own.
I am sure this approach works for some people, but it is likely to be much more difficult to navigate this uncharted territory without the support, understanding, and experience that a community can offer. (Note: I am not talking to people who actually don’t have any local communities near them to interact with or for those who have found their local community to be unhealthy or toxic for them. For individuals in that type of situation I highly recommend trying to plan to attend one of the many conferences around the country to at least participate in some classes and get a little bit of immersion in a poly world if only for a few days at a time.)
In any given community, when someone goes through a difficult experience, there is almost guaranteed to be someone who has gone through a similar experience. Having people around who have already been there once (or more than once) is an invaluable resource. These people can offer the kind of support and guidance that you may not be able to get from your monogamous social world. They also may be able to point you to professional resources that are poly-friendly in your area, like therapists and medical professionals, or even attorneys.
The note about predators above applies here too. Without community support, new people are unlikely to pick up on all the warning signs that a person might be toxic or manipulative. One way that some more toxic polyamorous people operate is by searching for freelance polyamorous folk, where they can be one of the only other poly people a person or couple knows. This is a good way to make sure the people they get involved with don’t get warned off of them before they get a chance to form an emotional attachment. If you are seeking partners outside a community setting, be careful and move slowly.
4) Getting bitter and discouraged on receiving a “No” response
Remember what I said about communities being tight-knit above? Many times, in polyamorous communities that are trying to build a healthy environment, consent culture is heavily educated and practiced. If you don’t know about this, please see this article and do plenty of your own reading up about it. This is one of the single most important pieces of information you can have when entering a poly world. Many of the things that consent culture require are not intuitive, do not come naturally to us, and go beyond just stopping when you are told “No.”
If you want to be successful in finding well-adjusted and ethical partners, you will need to learn to fully accept, respect, and even appreciate the boundaries others set with you (as well as learning to practice setting and enforcing your own). Try not to just walk away when someone tells you “No.” If you can, thank them for being truthful with you and having the courage to set boundaries for themselves. This shows that you are willing to accept and appreciate them for who they are, even if they don’t give you what you want. It also means that if this person ever does tell you “Yes” that they probably mean it, and aren’t just doing it because they feel guilty or out of a sense of obligation.
Many people over the course of their lives have been abused, or had their consent violated repeatedly by others, likely people they cared about and loved. Maybe they are still going through that now. When you act frustrated or hurt when someone declines a request you make, you are ratcheting up the price they have to pay to tell you “No.” Please don’t do this. If you experience frustration and hurt, that is a very valid response to rejection, and there is a time and a place to express these feelings. The time is not right when you receive the answer, and the place is not in front of the person you were asking. Vent to a completely uninvolved party and do it where the person who denied your request does not have to engage with it. Your emotional response to their rejection is not their problem, and you shouldn’t make it so. By taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions, you will start demonstrating to others that you are a safe person to be honest with, and it will make it more likely that people will warm up to you more quickly.
If you practice saying “Thank you” when people tell you “No,” you might be surprised at how very many “Yes” responses you start getting over time. Those who have been trained in consent culture appreciate people who ask questions or make requests and can be equally sure of themselves and content with either answer. If “Yes” is the only answer that won’t cause an issue, whether you are aware of it or not, you are engaging in manipulative behavior. Make it just as pleasant to tell you “No” as you do to tell you “Yes” and see how it works for you for a while. I think you will be pleased with the results if you do your best to make this your authentic approach.
5) Trying to make everything “equal”
Equality is a very lofty ideal, and while in some respects it is a good idea to keep in mind as you explore polyamorous relationships, in other ways it can create much more difficulty than it solves.
The things that should be equal in a polyamorous context are the amounts of respect, autonomy, and consideration as human beings that you grant to yourself and to any and all of your partners.
However, things like how much you love someone, how much time you spend with someone, and the types of activities you participate in with someone are incredibly difficult to measure and guarantee that everyone is getting an equal share.
And not everyone will want an equal share!
Perhaps you, like me, enjoy taking long walks at night for hours during the summer. I’ve had partners that have no interest in walking any more than a half mile. I don’t try to give them an equal share of long night walks with me because they don’t want it. Even if they did want it, maybe they’re slower than other people I take walks with and I don’t want to walk with them as often as I do with faster walkers. While it might be disappointing for them if I don’t want to go walking with them as much as I want to go walking with someone else, what I want to do is also important in the equation. For any activity to be truly mutually consensual, both people have to want to be doing it. This includes you!
It is good to set boundaries around how we divvy up our time, so that we make sure we are bringing our fresh and full selves to the time we spend with others. While sometimes we do things that aren’t first on our priority list in order to connect with our partners, we need to make sure that when we do this we understand that we are giving that time as a gift and not expecting our partners to do the same in return as a tit for tat. If we really don’t want to do it, or are spending time or participating in an activity with someone that we don’t really want to do on a long term and consistent basis, then we are doing damage to ourselves and our relationships. Trying for straight equality in all fields is a good way to fall into this trap.
6) Trying to convert monogamous people
Okay, so if the experienced poly people won’t date you, maybe you can just try to get involved with other people who are new to poly, or maybe you can even introduce someone to the idea.
This is also a practice that is likely to lead to drama and heartache. While you might be very excited about the brand new poly identity that you’ve discovered, and you might think it is superior to all other relationship styles, and that you are bringing gifts and knowledge to those poor uneducated monogamous folk, I would encourage you to put the brakes on.
Polyamory works best when it is approached by people who want to be there, not people who are dragged kicking and screaming, or people who just indulge someone in the hopes that this “poly phase” will pass.
Not to mention the fact that if you and/or your partner are very new to poly yourselves, then you are piling the education of a completely new person on top of your own education (and I promise you, you have plenty of your own education to do).
Again, this isn’t something that is utterly impossible, but some strategies are more successful than others, and new poly folk are generally some of the worst people to educate other new poly folk, especially if they still have a bunch of emotional things to work through with themselves and/or their partner. Which brings me back to
7) Aggressive partner seeking
This one is so important it bears repeating. Many of the mistakes above can be boiled down to this. I encourage you to view your polyamorous adventure as one of being open. Being open does not necessarily mean out looking for something. Being open means being open. Open your mind, open your heart, open your social life. Work on yourself and your already existing relationships. Make friends and carve yourself out a niche in your local community, whether it is the poly community, or a poly-friendly community that you enjoy spending time in.
It may seem like it takes an excruciatingly long time, months or even years before you have more than one partner. I implore to you take full advantage of every bit of that time you spend either single or with your existing partner. The stronger and sturdier you can make yourself, and the stronger and sturdier you can make your existing relationship, the more attractive you will become to others.
Someone who has observed (and made) many of these mistakes