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Polyamorous Time: Needs and Expectations

Over on TikTok in March, we had a conversation about "Polyamorous Time" - about the deviation from monogamous norms about enmeshing all of your lives and every moment that you are awake with a partner. Partly, this is just because to give each individual relationship you have (even if you're in a triad, there are three dyads within it as well as the triad to be nurtured) its own time, there are fewer hours in the week for each. So where a monogamous partnership might default to "we have one hobby/friends night out and then we do one activity out together in a group and one date night and everything else is passive time together" (time that might contribute to a feeling of closeness for one or both partners, depending), a polyam partnership is likely to lose that passive time together to active time with other partners, or if you need passive time (because, say, you nest together still), you lose the night out with shared friends, or your solo hobby night becomes date night. Someone might have feelings about that lack of personal time if they become overbooked; a partner you don't nest with might feel like they don't understand balance in your focused time between partners. Most people have some amount of intentional time they feel as if they need in a partnership to feel satisfied and not as if they are groping in corners for crumbs of attention.

So, what then is quality time or focused time or intentional time? How do you ask for it? How do you measure how much of it you're getting and whether that feels like enough in a given relationship? I feel as though the answers to all those questions may vary a bit person to person but have themes we can examine, and have patterns across styles of relationships - nesting relationships vs local non-nesting romantic relationships vs long distance romantic relationships vs comets and casual local (which for me operate similarly in vibe but which may not for you).

First, what is intentional time?

This is the part that can vary most between individuals. What one person considers quality, intentional or focused might seem very casual to another. The idea is spending time together that is relatively less distracted - a planned date OR time where you put phones away and don't interact with other partners OR a night where you get a sitter for the kids and time to yourselves OR an afternoon where you go see a show. For some people, time with friends together absolutely feeds this need and feels this way- going together to a friend's party is quality time. For others, only solo-time with their partner is what fills that cup. Regardless, talking with your partner about what fills this need for you or what "feels" quality vs what doesn't (for me, events with friends do - unless I'm on primary parenting duty - then it feels like passive family time, not partner quality time, different needs) gets you on the same page to try to meet this for one another. In different relationships, the same need will get met differently - and sometimes as a hinge there will be a lot to balance.

How to Look At Quality Time if You're a Nesting Partner:

When you're nesting with one or more of your partners, it's important to carve out what feels like "quality time" for the relationship versus for your larger family or household. Passive time in doing chores or family time with relatives or with children may not feel like relationship-nurturing time to one or more partners. Knowing that, so that you don't eat up all the hours of the week you're together with "well we're in the same building but we aren't together" feelings and then the rest of your time is apart for work, errands, and other partners, is important.

Once you determine what works for you to give you that together feeling, schedule it. It's a running joke that polyamorists are actually folks with a scheduling kink, or that we're responsible for popularizing Google Calendar, but it's actually pretty important to figure out how much time you have vs what you need to feel fulfilled. I know for me personally, I need 4-6 hours of focused time a week with a partner to feel invested and cared for in a romantic relationship. That's part of what determines my polysaturation level. I can include going out with friends together like once a month, it just can't be our only quality time. When I'm a nesting partner, quality time can include nights in - but since I'm a parent it's the part after kid bedtime, when we put phones down, that counts, and I can see how for some people with different schedules factoring in that later timing rules out a lot of their time if they don't arrange a sitter. For me it means when I had a nesting partner, if we were leaning on that time, it needed to be 2 or 3 evenings a week in that 9-11pm window where we focused on each other. If we had coverage for the kids to go out, it could be one solid afternoon or evening out instead.

That doesn't mean nesting partners ignore each other the rest of the time - you obviously still interact with each other for everyday things, and spend time in the same place when applicable - but assigning weight to what's intentional and agreeing to not sweat the small stuff about attention levels the rest of the time frees each other up to balance work, friendships, hobbies, and other partnerships without worrying about not being present enough the rest of the time. If Monday night 9 to sleep and a Saturday afternoon outing is your intentional time, you and your partner can warn additional partners you won't be responding timely then, and carry on focusing on each other. But likewise you then need to accept that your partner may do similar with other partners - texts you send Wednesday from 6-11 might not get a reply because it's their focused time with your meta. If your meta doesn't want or need that, then no big deal, but you don't get to demand total perfect availability (for anything short of emergencies) of your partner, but demand private quality time of your own. Additionally, if you both live in a home, trying to dictate what your partner can do in the home (take phone calls with partners, etc) because passive time feels like something you have a claim to, for example, can cause resentment - so negotiate clearly and carefully what counts as intentional and quality time. If making household chore charts and schedules helps folks simplify, gamify, or lift the mental load off of one partner who usually carries it, make them. Remember, you're a team.

For local non-nesting partners:

Remember that you need to keep in mind both your own schedule and bandwidth and your partner's when deciding what is realistic in terms of quality time, but the same principle of discussing what counts as quality time applies when you don't nest as when you do. For example, I really enjoy some errands with partners - book stores & grocery shopping come to mind - and coworking in the same space is about half the quality time I spend with my current nesting partner. But some people would consider all of those 'passive time' - things that only sort of count as quality time. They'll do in a pinch, but don't make those people feel like they are the focus of their partner's attention as they need for intentional or quality time. The same applies to sharing activities. For some folks taking a class together is amazing quality time and for others, that's time that you're doing a hobby, not time in your relationship - so make sure you agree on what you need because that mismatch can cause resentment when one of you thinks you're spending tons of time and the other thinks very little of it is quality/intentional.

Once you're on the same page about how much and what shape of time you want, get it on the calendar. If your schedules aren't great for doing identical timing every week (freelancers, gig workers, and retail schedules know what I mean), still try to get dates in the calendar as far out as your schedules do allow (or tentative times!) because the extra layer of commitment inherent in that planning can be very comforting. If it's just not possible and you're planning last minute and spontaneous events, owning them and making clear when you're having intentional time and are less available to other partners can be a really meaningful form of commitment in these non-exclusive relationships.

Being mutually respectful with other partners of each others' intentional time - including things like agreeing to mute chats (and not be offended by such muting) during intentional time if one of you likes processing by talking things out as well as by just not communicating at certain times - can free everyone up to be direct and deliberate. It seems straightforward or obvious but in our deeply interconnected world, sometimes we take constant accessibility of our partners for granted. As the flip side of nesting partners needing to recognize that sometimes their passive time at home is just that - not intentional or sacred to be held as an idyll -non-nesting partners need to realize that sometimes people won't be able to answer us or be available and that if it isn't an emergency that's OK.

For long-distance partners:

It can be especially hard, if we're long-distance, to feel like our partner's availability for us is meaningful. Especially if we have long periods between in-person encounters (3 months or more, for example, the last time I was long distance) scheduling phone calls or video calls and treating them as dates can make a real difference. Even if it's more often, being explicit and saying "Hey, we can see each other every 6 weeks, and if we were in the same place I'd want 4 awake hours of quality time every week, so can we make sure that if you're coming for the weekend or I'm going there for the weekend, we time the travel so that we really get 24 awake hours together - or cushion it a little to build in extra time so we can do things like check in phone calls with our partners or kids since we have to do this as several days in a row so turning off our phones for 3 days isn't really happening" is very reasonable. What you need out of a given connection will obviously vary - and people better at long distance than I am can give better long distance advice - but basic principles of communicating needs, and being very realistic about what can and can't happen - "we can have a daily 'date chunk' during the time we're together like the weekly 'date night' I have with my nesting partner, but I can't keep my phone off or down the whole trip between check ins that I arrived safe, parental stuff, and partner stuff. Is that something you can live with?" - instead of "Of course we'll have quality time while I'm there but people need to be able to reach me."

Figuring out what you need for quality time between visits, if anything, and how you and your partner can meet that for each other becomes important. If it's something where as we mentioned, video calls or phone calls at scheduled times can hold that space to help you feel that you and your partner are mutually showing respect for your relationships, great - if writing love letters or emails makes you feel Victorian and tragic-romantic in the right kind of moody way that turns your crank (it did for me midpandemic) do it - if just "Hey, when you can call me for ten min in the car, do, it makes me feel remembered" helps, do that - BUT TALK ABOUT IT. If one partner's high quality showing love is calling when they think of you and have five minutes and yours is needing that hour at once, it's the same kind of mismatch as if you were local and took a class together and one of you thought that meant you had two dates a week and the other thought it didn't count. As with everything else in polyamory, communication is everything.

So, for everyone and all situations:

  • Define what you think are and aren't quality time activities

  • If you aren't sure, or something doesn't feel like you thought it would, talk about it

  • Get time into your schedules as far ahead as real life allows

  • Focus on one another and put down phones and the attention of other partners (unless it's a group activity they're at!) for intentional time

  • If you live together or are spending days at a time together, block off chunks of intentional time and release your feelings of claim to the rest of your partners' time as best you can, to free you to balance your hobbies and schedules better.

  • Work on accepting that 'polyamorous time' really is a little different than being in a nesting monog relationship - there is simply more expectation of autonomy and independence

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