Less messing up in multi-partner arrangements

I keep messing up on poly stuff. Messing up big. Does it take some kind of organizational genius/therapist/guru to make this work?

This is an extended response to polyamory questions from my "Ask the Pervert" section.

No, you don't have to be any kind of hotshot to make open relationships work for everyone involved. As with any relationships, though, poly connections will be more mutually satisfying if everybody's being good to each other. Simple, right?
Though I was raised Christian, I'm not a believer in any religious system. I am very much a believer in ethical behavior and very interested in the ethical theories grounding religions. The Rabbi Hillel Judaic version of what later became Christianity's Golden Rule can be paraphrased as "Don't do unto others what you would not have them do to you". I've listed many of these items below in that form of "don't do it". Framing instructions in the negative makes sense to me when the stakes are high. My goal is to provide a short(ish) list of some simple ways to cause less hurt, not the infinite and ever-expanding list of all the things that can feel good. My apologies in advance if that positions these very subjective suggestions as if I meant them to be a new generation of Mosaic commandments. Moses had the grace to deliver a concise list in simple language. I'm not as qualified for prophet-hood.
Apologies also to terminology purists. I gleefully mix and match "polyamory", "non-monogamy", "multi-partner arrangements", "open relationships" and other terms here. It's not (just) to make you cringe. I'm also interested in reminding folks that relationships are made and unmade much more by our actions and attitudes than by the labels we assign to them.

- The basics of respect (be actively truthful, don't assume, don't coerce, don't trespass) are even more important as you add more people to a relationship or web of relationships. To spell out some of the really-should-be-damned-obvious applications for any intimate connection: Don't do anything with your lover(s) that they or you can't talk about. Ask for what you want and ask for the information you need to make informed decisions. Don't postpone telling your partners when you mess up, and don't neglect to apologize when you hurt them. Don't wait for someone else to start the hard conversations. Don't take silence as consent and don't take silence to mean that there aren't issues you should know about. Don't take previous consent as a contract for future consent. Don't be silent if you don't like what's happening. Use your words, use your brain and use your feet to walk out of what's not feeling safe or sustainable.

- The basics of respect extended to situations involving more than two people: Don't use one lover as bait to lure others. Don't presume that what works as three or more is workable or welcome one-on-one. Don't imagine that because someone wants your lover they want you too. Don't invite yourself along on a lover's date without checking well in advance that it's OK with everybody (and even if it seems to be OK once don't take that as license to repeat the invasion.) Don't try to get with one person by hooking up with their lover. Don't try to initiate a group scene or group relationship by hinting vaguely, adding intoxicants or setting up "spontaneous opportunities" that aren't spontaneous and may feel more like traps than opportunities. If someone's offended by a direct invitation, they're probably not ready.

- Don't expect people in a group connection (of any type or any time-span) to all be perfectly equally interested in each other or to develop/maintain interest at the same pace. No realistic arrangement requires this to happen, and nothing is less appealing than trying to force an intimacy that's not ready or not mutually felt. Some group dynamics have enough charm and charge to temporarily smooth out inequalities of attraction and compatibility. Enjoy that when or if you experience it but don't lean on it past its stale-date.

- Go slow, listen a lot, talk through even the most basic assumptions. You may need to go over even the definitions of the words you use, eg is "commitment" code for monogamy to one person while to another person it means "honouring one's word"? Does using the word "love" come freighted for some of your lovers with an expectation of diminished interest in other people than the person loved, or is it a word that to some friends feels out of place in friendships? What words frighten your lover when applied to other lovers? What words or relationship labels do you or your sweethearts feel territorial about? (In this document I'm using "lover", "sweetheart", "date", "partner", "playmate" and similar terms interchangeably, in part to underscore how utterly subjective the usages are.)

- Ask for the important parts of what you really want from the very beginning of a relationship, even if it needs to come with a far-future delivery date. There is no good time to hear that the person you want to be with wants things you can't handle, but for the things you can potentially handle more prep time is usually better. It's infinitely easier to negotiate timelines for activity within an open-from-the-beginning relationship than to open a closed relationship. If you scare somebody away fast, be grateful for the time and pain avoided and be glad it happened before you'd merged your book collections.  Don't soft-pedal, candy-coat or compromise on your core values around relationship structures and emotional needs. If you're absolutely certain you can't handle anything that looks like sharing your lover, you're probably right. Don't go there until/unless you're ready. Don't settle for a half-hearted pseudo-monogamy to try maintaining a relationship with someone who is committed to very different relationship approaches. If you're absolutely certain you want multiple relationships, don't settle for less, and start strong rather than introducing your poly preference after other relationship elements are in place. Really. Our social surroundings are not on side with regard to non-traditional relationship structures and external pressures will weaken shaky compromises even further. (More clearly-articulated thoughts on this and related issues.)

- Be honest, always, especially when it isn't easy. Give too much information. Don't diminish the expression of your feelings or attractions to other people in order to please a lover. Get used to (and demand) similar honesty. Don't presume you know everything about your lovers' other relationships, or that you need to know everything. Do establish a shared understanding about what you want to know and how you want to know it; what you can tell without breaching other lovers' confidentiality.

- Be consistent and consistently scrupulous around safer sex practice with everybody you play with. Everybody. Always. In the long run it's just way easier that way. “Fluid-bonding” (agreeing to restrict the wetter kinds of skin-on-skin sexual contact to particular relationships) generally requires an exact match of understandings within those relationships about what constitutes allowable safer sex practice in every other relationship. That hasn't for me often proved a very practical route, in part because I'm not interested in having my overall sexual behaviors dictated from within any one relationship, and in part because I'm often perceived as the more slutty/active partner. Your mileage may vary.

Barebacking is massive fun. Conflict and worry are less fun. I recommend using a simple minimum safer-sex standard of barrier protection (ie condoms, insertable condoms or gloves, depending on your parts, your partners and your activities) that you stick to without exception. My own minimum standard, for example, is to use condoms for all fucking that involves a dick, but not neccessarily to use barriers for all oral contact. Increase as required to meet other people's more stringent standards where you choose, but never drop below your set threshold of protection. This, combined with regular full-spectrum testing and care not to share uncovered toys or uncleaned needles, is more likely to protect you and your lovers than an elaborate list of excessive precautions in which you make exceptions for special people or special circumstances. Consistency allows your partners to make an educated decision about play with you and it allows you to develop sustainable habits that come easily even under pressure.

If you're deeply in love with barrierless sexual contact (or if your work requires it) this won't be the strategy for you. The parallel parts of this package: test often, don't get too wasted to stand by your previous decisions, pick partners who respect these and your other boundaries, know your own sexual health issues and always be the one to initiate sexual health discussions with all your new and existing lovers, even (especially) when it's awkward.

Try not to internalize other peoples' sexual shame masquerading as health concerns, and try not to disguise your own issues around shame, control or jealousy as health concerns. Don't expect flawless logic of yourself or anyone else around safer sex and sexual health. The norm is superstition dressed as science, wrapped in blame, shame and wishful thinking. You can do better than that, but you won't be perfect. Addendum: the vast majority of bugs people can transmit to each other are not those we think of as sexually transmitted infections, but they're icky too. Be just as cautious about those, please.

- Build strong, supportive community links with people who do poly in ways you respect. Avoid building sexual/romantic relationships with people who haven't done (or aren't trying to do) the same for themselves. Lean on your poly friends for advice and watch what they do. Where possible, extend this to choosing poly-positive doctors, therapists, etc. The longevity and comfort of a relationship is as dependent on whom all parties ask for support as it is on the people within the relationship. You can't usually rely on people who haven't done multiple parallel open relationships to give useful support about a paradigm they don't know.

- Multiple relationships seem to work best when they're functionally multiple for everybody involved. Everybody in any open relationship being intimately involved with more than one person still seems like a required minimum balance for sustainability in my experience. I'd suggest that non-monogamous people hold out for lovers who are actually, actively in or striving to be in more than one relationship at once and who welcome/expect this of their lovers. Theoretical poly alone doesn't sustain balanced connections for long. (Try for balance, not symmetry. You don't all have to be doing the same kind or the same numbers of relationships at the same time, and you probably won't.)

- Don't mistake what somebody does with another being for something they're doing to you. Presuming basic sexual and emotional health issues are being addressed, it has no concrete impact on your life whether your significant other(s) spent their time away from you on a sex date with three friends, getting strangers off for money, masturbating to pictures of their ex (or yours) or sleeping alone. Jealousy doesn't have root in rational thinking or a productive place in your relationships, regardless of how you structure your connections. Listen to your own jealous feelings and don't give yourself a hard time for having them, but don't feed them any more than you would actively nurture other hurtful thoughts. Jealousy happens, and it's as big as you let it get. Nobody can "make" you jealous. Be aware that it should diminish with time and is usually much more about personal or internal relationship issues than about the other relationship(s) it attaches to. Are there ways you can feel more certain of the respect and care your partners have for you? Ways that have nothing to do with other people? Focus on those things. Beware zero-sum math that is based in the idea of partner shortage, love shortage, attention shortage, etc.. This isn't a real or useful view of the world. Check in with poly friends if you find yourself thinking of acting on jealousy or aiming expressions of it at a lover, and seek professional help if you're unable to stop obsessing about your jealousy.

- Beware a 15-page contract or an overabundance of rules. Communication, trust and actively erring on the side of respectful caution are the primary content of the long-standing agreements I've seen work. If rules and guidelines don't shift toward the more relaxed over time, they're probably masking a larger problem of trust, without which no agreement is adequate. Lovers build or rebuild trust by approaching known issues gradually, building and adjusting shared guidelines one at a time, and allowing each other a relaxed space in which to address the unexpected things that pop up.

- Beware an unwillingness to state clear boundaries or an unwillingness to respect your stated limits. If your partners' unconditional acceptance of absolutely everything you do seems too good to be true, that's because it is. Doormats are deadly when they belatedly discover their boundaries. If they won't tell you what they need, escape while you still can. Similarly, if a partner regularly disregards your stated needs around "small" issues or won't agree to setting any boundaries at all together, run.

- Beware the blameless victim beset by endless evil exes. You'll be one of those horror stories too, in time.

- Be aware as you plan and structure relationships that they will evolve beyond your plans. Guidelines imposing different behaviors for different strata of primary, tertiary, secondary, temporary and great-uncle-of-tertiary relationships seem to work for some people. For me that seems a doomed nightmare of trying to regulate degrees of intimacy. To me, it also smacks of trying to maintain shortage-based thinking and protect traditional heirarchical structures that don't need our protection or suppport. (Read more on this by a smarter person.)

Occasional humpbuddies will sometimes fall madly in love, romantic relationships will sometimes become platonic friendships, and the world will keep changing regardless of the categories we impose on it. Overcategorization seems to me a mostly symbolic approach designed to offset a lack of comfort within relationships about what constitutes genuine specialness and security. Closeness will wax and wane, availability and geography will change, trust will develop and some people will want more of each others' time. Increased closeness in one relationship doesn't equal decreased closeness in another relationship. There is enough closeness to go around. There is not always enough time to go around, but that's what calendars and sleepless nights are for.

Rather than worrying about being somebody's "primary partner", maybe it's more realistic to take the concrete step of negotiating for the specific, positive things you both want of each other in ways that aren't first relative to other relationships. Maybe you want to live together? Maybe you want priority access to each other's planning calendar? Maybe that's already assumed? Assumption isn't helping here, and asking for things is a risk. Take the risks. Concrete elements like these don't entirely replace symbolic ones, but they can often help to keep the symbolic elements in perspective; help to remind us that genuine attachment is organic, ever-evolving, and ever-demanding of effort.

- Try to make relationships feel intrinsically unique and special without too much reliance on their definition, their hierarchy or what they mean relative to other relationships. Find comfort in sharing positive actions that you want and enjoy with each lover, not in excluding other people from finding joy. If what makes your relationship with a partner feel good is that their other partners don't get to do the same things with them, you're leaning on a negative. That's not by itself a strong, secure reason to stay together, and it's not going to prepare you emotionally for when a partner and their other partner(s) find a shared pleasure in something you're not into or not able to do. Compersion and the concepts it points to are worth understanding.

- People are utterly unique. Nobody else can offer your lover(s) exactly the same good time you can. People are also by and large replaceable. If you are a miserable companion for long enough, your lover(s) will move on. This is not a function of open relationships, but of people wanting to be treated well. Multiple partners could slow or could hasten the process. They aren't the cause of your relationship(s) ending if you were already making your partner(s) unhappy.

- Don't set yourself up (or allow yourself to be set up) as a conduit for information, attitudes, direct quotes, etc., between your lovers, or as their referee. Let them tell each other whatever they need to say. You can't solve problems or make agreements between other people half as well as they can for themselves, and broken telephone breaks faster when the data being exchanged is about sensitive, personal matters. (This won't work if you've been lying to your lovers about each other. So, um... don't.)

- Having don't-touch rules about many specific people is not at all a good sign. Some people allow a partner to veto (have final word on allowing/not allowing) other potential partners. This is something one negotiates for, not something to assume the option of. Arriving at an agreement to allow a mutual option to veto works for some people some of the time. Actually using the option is best reserved for really drastic situations or avoided altogeter. If someone hasn't abused you (or abused someone you know well), isn't clearly an agent of immediate, horrible, life-wrecking chaos or clearly disrespectful of you or your lover(s), I'd advise not standing in the way of your lover(s)' desire to be with them. The correlate of that is everyone being very, very careful not to date people whose dysfunctions are obviously going to impact on other relationships, whose motives seem suspect or whose behavior toward/words about your other lovers is less than respectful. (A mutual option to veto isn't meaningful when everybody isn't involved with more than one person. This is another place where balance helps.)

- Fight fair. You'll have difficulties, disagreements, breakups, re-connections and periods of uncertainty when you don't know what's happening within a relationship. It happens to everybody. None of these situations is an excuse to be an abusive asshat to anybody, including yourself, your lover, your lover's lovers, etc.. Finding relative calm and maintaining the same respectful boundaries during conflict that you'd maintain during good times is one of the differences between being somebody who finds a lot of love in their life and somebody who finds a lot of grief. Fighting fair is not a skill we're born with. Sometimes an external listener or an external mediator helps a lot to build the skills and provide a place in which to practice them. Disagreeing without hurting the people you disagree with is a whole lot easier within a situation that feels essentially safe, respectful and caring. The more you work to build those feelings into your relationships the easier it will be to handle conflict.

- Avoid doing things to punish your lovers. If you need to quit being with them, quit. If you need to negotiate for an improvement to your relationship circumstances, do it sooner rather than later. Punishment (in the non-fun sense) has no place in an adult relationship of any kind, but it's especially a destructive paradigm to introduce within multiple relationships. Imposing relationship limits in order to punish your lover for having fun with someone else is about as self-fulfilling as any strategy can be. It won't end well. Using the fun you have with one lover to punish another lover is similarly a fast route to heartbreak. Nobody trustworthy wants to be the instrument you use to (non-consensually) hurt another person.

- Love is infinite. Time is genuinely finite. Hoard your time, schedule ruthlessly, allow some months of recovery time between ending and starting major relationships when you can, allow yourself plenty of alone time and always try to schedule a minimum of 2 hours' padding between dates with different people, additional to travel time.

- How many relationships can you sustain? One way of deciding that is asking "How many relationships can you sustain when everybody's happy and horny and wants a piece of you?" That's a fun dilemma to consider, but it's no more the totality of the situation than considering how many relationships you can sustain when everybody's sad, achy, lonely, not into sex, needs career advice, needs hand-holding, needs help moving, needs a loan 'til payday- and wants to go out of town with you. Leave room for growth, change and the unexpected, because everything will happen all at once. Cycles will move into sync with each other. You will have times of feast and times of famine in every way. (Whatever you do, consider staggering your anniversaries.)

- Avoid jargon, conflict-avoidant social-work-speak and other non-specific language where possible, in the same way you'd avoid crude, abrupt, deliberately hurtful language. It does matter how we talk about stuff. Specify times, activities and amounts where you realistically can, remembering that if people are fearful they'll replace non-specific scenarios and quantities in what you say with their worst-case scenarios. For example, "I'd like to get my butt caned by a professional Domme while you watch once every six months or so" represents a very different commitment of time, money and emotional energy than what someone might picture when you say "Let's hire a sex worker together regularly."

- Aim to maintain a bed of your own in a room of your own, possibly in a space of your own, even if you don't often use it. Sharing sleeping/playing space because of mutual choice rather than by default seems to me one of the single most important pieces of maintaining respectful autonomy in relationships with lovers, inclusive of lovers we live with. (It's also unavoidably an economic issue, but everything has a cost. Extra bedrooms are often cheaper than breakups in the same way that condoms are cheaper than medication ...or kids).

- One core idea of poly (that there's enough intimacy to go around and sharing doesn't diminish the available pool) also translates as "there's enough to go around that one doesn't have to climb aboard every passing train." Be aware that in a world of plenty not every connection has to offer you everything, but hold out for nearly everything. Save yourself for the phenomenally hot, smart, open people who suit you, have histories of treating people well AND are currently in the right mindset to offer you the kind of connection you want. You might be able to handle needless drama, tantrums, chronic disregard for your schedule, chronic inattention to contagious health risks, etc.. That doesn't mean you want to weather the ripple effect of these issues on your other relationships. Because the potential for both best-case and worst-case scenarios multiplies with multiple relationships, apply similarly high standards to every connection. Bedbugs, broken prophylactics, a chance meeting with someone else important while you're together, finding something very valuable together or getting trapped together by a freak storm could happen with a one-time drunken fling nearly as easily as with a long-term live-in partner. In any case you want the person you're with to reflect well on your judgment and to be able to engage usefully, openly and respectfully with the needs of the moment, inclusive of the needs you both may have involving your other lovers.

- Potential new lovers who can't interact in a friendly, adult way with all your other lovers will be liabilities in the long run. Where it's possible, introduce lovers or potential lovers to each other (or at least to knowledge of each other) as soon as that can happen in a relaxed, considerate way, and negotiate well in advance how that should happen. Pay attention to how they deal with the situation. There'll come a time when your sweetie leaves their keys at the new lover's place and you have to pick them up, when you and your other beau get into a fender-bender halfway across the country and need an insurance message relayed by their other lover(s) to your other lover(s), etc. At those times one really notices the clear functional differences between styles of poly: "Don't-ask-don't-tell" near-secrecy doesn't build the same kind of useful bonds as a network of people who know and care about each other. In those times things can either go more smoothly for you than they would without additional supporters or a minor issue can mushroom into multiple relationship implosions. This does NOT have to mean any kind of instant faux-family, and does not mean burying your discomfort or disinterest if some of your lovers' lovers don't provoke warm, fuzzy feelings in you. It's unreasonable to expect anybody to get along with everybody. It's very reasonable to put some extra effort into being kind, respectful and open with your sweeties' sweeties.

- Know that our surrounding society isn't rooted in poly paradigms, and will sometimes be hostile, indifferent or unsupportive when you and your lovers most need support. Build those supports in advance where possible by being as public about your relationships as you safely can, but be aware of the potential consequences of outing your lovers (consciously, by proxy or by accident) in ways that could impact their work, family, general privacy, etc.

- Everybody will have different understandings and different needs with regard to how they want to experience relationships. There is no one true way. Good luck.

Ask The Pervert Now

get this right, please. Double-checking would be wise. (I won't share your address with anyone.)
(eg "MG in Southern Alberta" or "Your Curious Neighbor". If you use something more clearly identifying, like "Ms. Struthers in the Alzheimers Ward, 21C ChillyWithers Crescent, Edmonton, AB", I'm probably going to email you to confirm it's alright to share that information.)
Keep it short & sweet if you can. You can ask absolutely anything, but please do not do so in a way that makes you obviously party to very illegal or heinously unjust acts. This IS the internet.