Beyond the basic idea of having a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, people’s idea of “kitchen table polyamory” can vary widely. When “how do you do polyamory?” is the question and “I prefer kitchen table style” is the answer, it almost never means 20 people in a commune like we discussed last time. It does often mean individualized extras, the kinds of things that can be great, or can be fine if they’re hashed out ahead of time, but as surprises on a kitchen table relationship basis, they’re a bad kind of shock.
The essential difference between a healthy and unhealthy additional rule or guideline in a kitchen table relationship and an unhealthy one, is openness, clarity, and communication.
Emotionally intelligent people with good communication skills can state their boundaries up front, or at least as soon as they know they have a boundary, rule or intention that they need partners, current or prospective, to acommodate. People can come to any agreement they want- so long as they’re actually coming to an agreement and not discovering in the middle of something that there are to quote Aladdin’s genie, “um, a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos” that they didn’t expect.
The things that leave people with a bad taste in their mouth about kitchen table polyamory come from this category - the “Unicorn Hunters” are an example of this done badly, with a ton of “extras” that usually aren’t explained until the new (or newest) partner has a need that bumps up against one of them.
It’s story time, gentle readers, gather around. All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike.
Once upon a time, I was a young woman in my very early 20s who knew she’d had some fun sexual experiences with women, and wanted to try to explore that attraction in more detail. I had been in open relationships before and was also continuing to explore that. It was the early days of OKCupid as a dating platform, and I answered all my questions and filled in a detailed profile - saying I was seeking men and women, and that I was open to non-monogamy “so long as everyone is on board” (this was before I knew polyamory Was A Thing). Even early in online dating, being A Woman On The Internet meant there was a lot of chaff to sift through before you found people worth talking to, but after only a little bit of searching I met Sara. She was lovely, bright, into similar books and periods of history, and we had a sparkling email exchange before we decided to meet up. I knew she had a boyfriend; he was in one of her pictures and looked cute, and everything she said about him sounded good, in both a sweet, “look how much she loves him” way, and in a “oh, we might be friends!” way.
Then Marc, her boyfriend, came along to our first date, without warning. I was really excited about the date, and I happily accepted her offered “Oh, did I not tell you that I bring him along so that if someone is a catfish or dangerous, I’ve got backup?” as not just legitimate, but sensible - maybe something I should set up instead of the safe call an hour into the date. He wound up staying the whole evening with us, as we had a couple too many drinks in a dark-wood-and-green-leather pub and talked our way around favorite books, and got into an argument about who “the most badass POTUS in history is.” I got two goodnight kisses before I got on the subway to my apartment, and my head was spinning with NRE and excitement.
We rode that new relationship energy smoothly and excitedly for three months - until I mentioned that on one of the nights I wasn’t seeing them, I had a date. A slew of rules I hadn’t heard of suddenly appeared before me - “no more than kissing on the first date;” “only casual things that last a couple weeks with girls if they don’t want to be with us;” and what today would be a Stop. Do not pass go. moment, when Marc said “oh, you can’t see other guys” when I said that my date was with a man. I cancelled that date. I tried to have a conversation, and then a series of conversations, with Sara and Marc about it. It became heartbreakingly clear that I couldn’t stay in a relationship with them, just as I got close enough to them to have started using the word love. I’d never heard the term “unicorn hunter,” but in hindsight, I clearly had been sought by some and burned.
And that, in short, is both why stating your rules up front is essential, and why couples seeking to date together as their “extras” on kitchen table have to work to avoid the unicorn hunting stereotype.
It’s important to give an honest impression of where you’re at at the outset. “Oh it’s generally friendly with everyone, we can all do potlucks or parties together” is a very different impression and reality than “oh it’s generally friendly and I really can’t be with people who can’t do that, and my nesting partner Josh, they need to be really close friends and hang out alone with you or it’s a problem.” The latter is a hoop you may be willing to try and jump through, but knowing it’s there before you start to invest your heart, schedule twice-weekly dates, and give of your own secrets with this new partner.
Sometimes, people don’t mean badly at all by not sharing these details. They’re so used to their rules and their details that they forget they aren’t standard. Or! They think that because you don’t mind the thing that they’ve mentioned that’s more obvious to them, of course you’re fine with this.
An illustration of someone who didn’t think to share something:
The same person who had that partner Josh, above, let’s call him Dave, had let me know early on in our interactions that he and Josh share a bed and there would be no overnights at their house as a result, unless Josh was out of town. I didn’t have a nesting partner at that time, so if Dave and I wanted an overnight stay, it happened at my house. Since I love cuddles, most dates ended at my house, and we’d only had sex at their house once in several months.
One day, I was having coffee with Josh at their place and he mentioned “hey, I noticed you two haven’t had sex here - are you uncomfortable with the fact that I want to be invited into join in if sex happens in my bed?”
I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say. I managed to stammer out something about thinking the rule was about not wanting to have to sleep on a couch in his house. He said, “should we switch to tea? You seem upset.” Dave arrived from work a few minutes after the kettle boiled, and I was in a better place to talk by then.
We sorted out, in the end, between the three of us, that Dave had thought the not sleeping over regardless of what sex there was or wasn’t was the bigger deal, and because I was on board with that, the other rule just didn’t matter or wasn’t worth mentioning. Josh and I agreed it definitely was, but that it seemed like he really thought it didn’t apply, and we kept seeing each other for over a year; but it added questions I would never have thought to ask to my mental list for a long while.
All of these complicated stories with failures to communicate may make it seem like it’s impossible to manage kitchen table polyamory with additional rules without major errors like these. Sometimes, these “additions” or “extras” are engaged in without anyone being unhappy or unhealthy; the extra details just need to be ones you all agree on. Happy polyfidelitious relationships definitely exist, and they’re a level of entwined up from basic kitchen table. I’ve met folks who have been together that way since the 70s. Small tiffs happen, obviously, but just like my parents, except with three or four people, they’re in it for forever and are nearing 50 years of success at that goal.
My personal stories are mostly mixed, but I have one case in my personal experience where a partner laid out all his additional details right out front, and it went amazingly well.
I’m lucky enough that even though I have some pre-existing health conditions that complicate my life, they don’t compromise my immune system. I get to make my decisions about sexual health and risk like a healthy person. Not everyone is so lucky. I had a partner, Rick, who had a person in his polycule who was immune compromised.
So, on our first date, Rick said to me, “Hey, this is an awkward first date conversation, but we need to discuss whether you have, or have had exposure to, and STIs including HSV. My meta has immune issues and I’ve got to come back and check with the polycule about whether this is a risk we can take at the moment if you do.” As you may recall from this post, I bloodtest postive for HSV-1, so we didn’t kiss on our first date. His meta said blood test positive was fine so long as I don’t have outbreaks (and I don’t, in my memory), so we started seeing each other.
Then we had the conversation about what really serious barrier use looks like. Not just condoms for every kind of insertion, but dental dams, and gloves (and a LOT of lube as a result of all of this). I learned many techniques for making this all as sexy as possible.
We didn’t last that long, because once the NRE faded we realized we had only mutual attraction in common, and it’s hard for me to run a relationship on “damn, you’re hot.” But I appreciate his honesty from the outset, and care for his metamour, in taking precautions and presenting them immediately, so if I wasn’t on board, I could leave right away.
In short, Kitchen Table Polyamory with some extras, additions, provisos… is totally possible, in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and the key difference is communication and consent. Go out and be communicative and healthy, and I’ll see you next week for Part 4 of this series.