Everyone knows that romantic relationships can be challenging whether you are gay or straight, monogamous or polyamorous, and anything in between. If you were raised in a culture with very traditional views on relationships, it can be even more difficult to open yourself up to anything that falls outside of the paradigm in which you were raised.
Most people in poly relationships made a lot of mistakes when they first started. Gaining experience and getting “good” at open relationships generally comes with a long history of trial and error, making lots of mistakes, and consciously keeping in mind sometimes painful lessons.
However, it’s not necessarily a requirement to stumble on every pothole in the road in order to learn what it takes to have relationships that are healthy and successful. After several years of experience in my own poly relationships, witnessing others’ relationships, and making an embarrassing amount of mistakes, I’ve found these personal habits to be prevalent in those relationships that were the happiest.
1. You want to have safe sex and talk about it.
Adding more sex partners means increasing your potential exposure to STIs. Although science is discovering some beneficial STIs, there are plenty of nasty ones that no one wants to catch.
This doesn’t mean that you have to approach every sexual encounter in a HAZMAT suit, or that you should be so afraid of exposure that you avoid sexual contact altogether. But it does mean that you need to define what “safe sex” means to you and discuss it with your partners.
Different people are willing to take different risks in different circumstances. Some people will choose to only engage in “dry” sex that has no fluid contact or transmission whatsoever. Others will engage in fluid transmission, but maintain complete coverage of any areas exposed--that means dental dams, condoms for penetrative and oral sex, rubber gloves, etc. Others still will choose to have fully unprotected sex with one or multiple partners, commonly known as “fluid bonding”, provided that all partners are comfortable with this.
It isn’t my place to tell you how to have safe sex. Educate yourself on possible risk factors and always stay up-to-date on what the status of your sexual health is. Get tested frequently.
Now, the second part of this: Talking about it. Chances are you were raised in a culture where clear, straightforward, forthright discussions about sexual activity were not exactly everyday conversations. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that everyone who is poly can talk about sexual desires or sexual history and feel 100% comfortable the whole time. The people that I admire most are able to talk about these things even when they are blushing and squirming on the inside.
It can be rough, but having a few awkward-feeling conversations early on can potentially prevent the even more awkward situation that would arise if you or someone you love catches an STI that could have been avoided.
If you haven’t had these conversations with your partner(s) yet, go give it a try! If you’re nervous, say so, and take the opportunity to laugh at yourself. Let your partner feel special for being someone that you can be vulnerable with. Then start talkin’ sexy.
Speaking of vulnerability...
2. You can embrace the emotional equivalent of being buck naked at school in the middle of puberty.
Sorry if that caused any involuntary shudders.
If there is anything that being polyamorous has taught me, it’s that this lifestyle will find every single insecurity you have and drag it out into the spotlight. That probably sounds pretty terrifying. And no surprise, it is damn terrifying.
One of my partners starts dating someone new, and I find myself awkward and tense around her, even though she is kind and gregarious to me. Upon closer examination, I realize that this new partner is thin, extremely knowledgeable about physics, and has a successful career.
Immediately the inner peanut gallery starts up:
Ugh, I’m 2.7 pounds heavier than I want to be. Why the hell did I get a stupid theatre degree? I’m going to end up back on food stamps. Why would my partner want to be with someone as lame as me? He’s probably going to leave me for her. The script writer in your head tends to have a flair for melodrama.
When your inner voice of insecurity is going zero to sixty, it changes everything to make the choice to be vulnerable and share it with your partner. Don’t internalize it. Don’t pout. Don’t passively take it out on your partner or on your partner’s new paramour. Share it.
And keep in mind, you aren’t sharing these things with your partner hoping that the end result will be him or her ending the new relationship. When you share the icky, self-conscious bits of your being with someone you love, it gives both of you the opportunity to collaborate on ways to help you both feel secure and supported.
This could be as simple as verbal reassurance from your partner that you are loved, that you should be proud of your accomplishments, or that he or she finds you incredible sexy, especially when you smile. It could be making the decision to connect more with your partner’s new partner (your metamour) to help quell some of those fears surrounding this new person. Or it might lay the groundwork for your partner to share some similar fears and insecurities with you!
Vulnerability is uncomfortable for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be feared. If anything, it should be embraced as an opportunity to get closer to your partners and to begin shaping new thought patterns around your insecurities.
Still unconvinced that vulnerability is powerful? Check out this amazing TED talk from social researcher Brené Brown. Her discoveries surrounding vulnerability inspired me through many scary talks, including being the first to say “I love you” in a few relationships. (My heart races a little just remembering it!)
3. You are committed to your partners and to yourself.
Committed? Doesn’t that mean marriage? Sexual exclusivity? Sticking to just one partner?
The traditional definition of “commitment” tends to include all of those things above, but when you start breaking out of the traditional mold, it takes on a different meaning.
Your sense of commitment to your partners involves a dedication to being the best possible version of yourself that you can be, and maintaining responsibility to care for your partners within the context of great relationships. When things get tough or feel uncomfortable, your first move isn’t to turn tail and head for the hills. Feeling committed and communicating it to your partners is absolutely necessary to engender trust and a sense of stability. That allows you and your partners to live in a realm where communicating vulnerably (see #2) is welcomed. It may sound strange, but it’s maintaining a sense of faithfulness to your relationships, even though there isn’t sexual exclusivity. You can read more in depth about commitment in open relationships in my earlier blog post, The Covenant of Polyamory.
You also need to stay committed to yourself. This means knowing how to set personal boundaries and learning how to best take care of yourself emotionally and mentally (physically too, I hope). Of course you want to collaborate with your partners and make sure everyone is getting what they need, but a commitment to yourself means not letting someone else bully you into doing something you don’t want to do, or having a relationship structure that makes you unhappy.
One of my personal commitments is a commitment to be continually seeking self-improvement, especially when it comes to communication and emotional health. My commitment to my own self-improvement comes in handy when I find myself slipping into unhealthy behavior such as lashing out in anger or communicating passively.
Take some time to mindfully set some commitments or intentions. Imagine the best possible version of yourself, and examine what steps or what kind of personal growth will need to be accomplished in order to get there. This visualization can really help shape the kind of commitments you want to make to yourself.
4. You are a wizard with Google Calendar, but you also know when to be flexible.
Multiple relationships means a lot of scheduling. The more people involved, the more schedules that need to be taken into consideration. While you may not be able to keep tabs on everything your partners are doing at all times, it is your responsibility to be at least somewhat familiar with work schedules or ongoing time commitments. In case you’re wondering, yes, this can take up your brain’s RAM very quickly.
Successful poly people tend to pride themselves on being champion schedulers. The easiest hack I’ve found is having a shared Google Calendar. You can quickly see your partner’s schedule without a lot of back-and-forth about when you are both free. Some people choose to have all of their partners on one shared calendar. I chose to do it with my live-in partner, but still did my best to maintain communication about scheduling with my other partners.
On the flip side, no one likes being caught in the matrix of an unbendable schedule. You may have finally gotten your weekend perfectly planned out, then word comes in from the front lines that your girlfriend’s work schedule has changed and now instead of Tuesday evening for your date, it can only be Friday evening, which you were planning on spending with your boyfriend. These situations happen all the freaking time.
Flexibility is key. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be happening last minute, and you, your girlfriend, and your boyfriend will have the flexibility to understand rearranging date nights without any feelings getting hurt. But regardless of flexibility and timing, sometimes someone ends up at the crappy end of the scheduling stick. If Friday evening is your boyfriend’s birthday and you’ve had surprise plans for him for months, you may have to make the choice to maintain that time commitment instead of moving it around. You may have to wait until next week to see your girlfriend.
These scheduling conflict situations are par for the course in managing multiple relationships. Depending on the circumstances, they can either be like water off a duck’s back, or a potential source for anger and frustration for everyone involved. It’s hard to give advice that would cover all situations and every factor that could potentially be involved. At the end of the day, choosing flexibility is much more likely to bring happiness and peace to you and your partners. If you are on the receiving end of a scheduling SNAFU, maintain trust in your partner’s love even if your date has to be moved to another day. If you have a partner who is feeling put out by a scheduling mishap, put in effort towards reassurance and instilling them with confidence in your care.
And wear that scheduling wizard hat with pride.
Continue to 7 Habits of Highly Effective Poly Relationships Pt. 2. In the meantime, feel free to check out our weekly podcast.