Navigating Boundaries and Agreements When You're Both Polyamorous
Updated: May 30, 2020
Last time we were discussing the formation of relationship agreements, we were talking about people who were coming to polyamory together, newly. What about when polyamory-experienced people start to see each other?
I wish there were a one-size-fits-all answer for this question. But beyond being honest about what you currently do, or have already tried and found won’t work for you in the future, as early as possible in the process so as to avoid building expectations that you can’t follow through on, there isn’t much concrete advice I can give.
In my experience, this involves the “how do you poly?” conversation at about the same time as figuring out whether there’s chemistry. Later in the week I’m going to share a specific ‘Questions to ask while dating while polyamorous’ post; but here are some examples I’ve seen in the last decade.
Some people, having been burned one time too many by being in a secondary position on a hierarchical scale, don’t want to be more than friends with someone who is strictly hierarchical and has a primary partner.
Others, trying to work around limited bandwidth and schedule, want to set careful expectations and boundaries with someone who doesn’t have other partners at the moment.
Someone who practices solo-poly may want to make sure you aren’t looking for a nesting partner, or at least aren’t stretching yourself too thin between relationships by adding them to find that one you’re seeking without casting them aside callously when you do.
Still more want to hear the story of how you came to be completely single and identifying as polyamorous - are you new to this and have read some books and dated one married person it didn’t work out with? Did you have the awful experience one of my best friends calls poly-dominoes, where a relationship at the center of a polycule ends and the relationship havoc stretches out two or three layers of breakups and so your telemour breaking up with their well-connected partner ended up with your relationships at a breaking point?
All of these questions and stories create an outline or sense of what agreements you might be able to make when you sit down to make them - you know going in what the broad limits of your new partners’ availability are, and they know yours. If you have kids that you consider your primary partner and you’re only free one evening a week or after their bedtime until a relationship is ‘serious’ by your definition, the agreement negotiation will be about whether that meets your new partner’s needs and if it’s a chance they’re willing to take. If you’re hierarchical and your primary partner has veto power, your new connection may need to negotiate a time limit on that veto if they’re going to try seeing you long term.
All of this comes down to personal boundaries. I’m sure I’ve thrown that term around in previous entries, or you’ve heard it said - but just to be on the same page, a personal boundary is something about what you will or won’t tolerate out of a given situation. It’s about what you’ll do in case of this thing, not what someone else must do. However, to honor your boundaries, someone may make relationship agreements with you, and violating those agreements may trigger actions on your part. Not all boundaries are full “deal breakers” that require leaving a relationship or not entering into one in the first place - and whether you’re polyamorous or not, most people have some idea what those are, even if you aren’t particularly introspective. Some boundaries being overstepped require changes in behavior: for example, you may have a boundary that you’ll only have oral/vaginal/anal contact with another’s genitals without barriers if that person doesn’t do that with anyone else. So, if at first you and a partner have that kind of contact, and then they decide they’d like to do that with someone else, respecting your boundary means they need to inform you before you have that contact again, so that YOU can respect your own boundary by changing your behavior to using barriers with this partner. You aren’t controlling their behavior; but to respect your boundary they’re giving you information so you can change yours. This approach is most common when the two partners have different concerns on related topic, or different risk assessments in the case of a boundary like this example regarding STI concerns.
Some people turn these personal boundaries of long term partners into relationship agreements: ‘My partner Amy will only have sex without barriers with me if I use barriers for oral, anal, and vaginal sex; so we have agreed to not have those kinds of sex without barriers with others.’ These agreements can become built into one’s partners boundaries; it’s now in Amy’s partner Bill’s communication of what he won’t do in their new relationship that it’s non-negotiable to use barriers. If Bill changes his mind later, or doesn’t think of it as ‘his’ boundary but rather only as respecting Amy’s, that opens up parts of their agreement to a need for later renegotiation that may surprise Amy. These kinds of potential changes are why regular check-ins on whether agreements are working, and for whom they’re meeting what concern, are important; a check-in would make it clear before it’s a fight that Amy sees this as meeting a concern about STIs and Bill sees part or all of this agreement as making Amy happy, rather than a particular concern of his own. It won’t be so dramatic if Bill meets someone who doesn’t have the same risk assessment and wants to discuss changing his agreement with Amy if she knows in advance that his boundary was different to start with.That’s not to say it might not be an emotional discussion, or even a fight - but it makes it less likely, and the fight shorter.
The “how” at all steps here gets to vary as you need it to. The Multiamory podcast* advocates a regular check-in with the process they call RADAR - Review actions, agree on an order to talk about them in, discuss those, action point (decide what you’ll do about it), and reassure (reminding your partner that you still care about them, especially if action points in this period since your last check in are mostly for one partner). This system is great because it can be expanded to discussions involving a whole polycule or be for a specific dyad, in the same format. Early in relationships, where there are more likely to be ‘bumps’ because there’s no such thing as perfect realization or recall of your boundaries and interests, and because I find writing my feelings easier, I make myself notes and ask my partners if they’d rather I read from them or hand them to them to open with. But, in all honesty, any format at all that works for you is a good format. Communicate. And then communicate some more. And then take a break so no one is too hungry or angry or tired, and then check in that you both understood the result you reached the same way. Use whatever format of flogging the dead communication horse works for you, and by doing so, minimize the pain involved in that communication by doing it ahead of most misunderstandings.
I wish that people weren't so individual, and polyamory such a variety of structures, that I can’t give you more concrete advice on how to handle negotiating new relationships when you’ve both been in polyamorous relationships before… but I’d be lying if I said I had a perfect answer. Twelve years of non-monogamy have taught me that frequently checking in and developing comfort with sharing information and concerns within a short period of when they come up, but not in the instant of emotional heat of them, is the best way to maximize trust and minimize conflict… with me. Some of my friends need the turnaround of immediate sharing and information, or they lose trust in those partners. Some people I know minimize conflict by minimizing information sharing, a situation that makes me really uncomfortable. So it all comes down to choosing your own adventure, but always knowing enough to consent to the situation you’re in.
If you're going to be in Rhode Island for Tethered Together 2020, I'll be teaching two classes on polyamory, and I'd love to see you for either one. Polyamory and Power Exchange runs at 3:45 pm on Friday in the Barrington Room, and Beyond the Kitchen Table: Parallel Polyamory runs at 9:30 am on Sunday in the Greenwich Room.
*Multiamory podcast, episode 147, outlines the RADAR system.