Buttinski Sign. It is my Achilles heel. The thing that I find hardest about polyamory. And it’s never what I’m asked about when people first learn I’m polyamorous. Usually, the most frequently asked question is something like “But don’t you get jealous?” (The answer to that question incidentally is yes occasionally, but not all the time, and it’s not the end of the world when/if that it happens.)
No, the thing that I struggle with the most as a poly person is butting in inappropriately. Into joyful situations, stressful ones, the works. I have to actively check myself to consider if I’m about to be a Buttinski. And I experience incredible frustration when others do it, cross boundaries inappropriately.
What’s interesting about polyamory is that you will often find yourself stuck in the middle of things. Conflicts of interest crop up easily when different partners and metamours want different things from each other and from you (and you, from them). This is natural and nearly unavoidable. And at these times, all parties must endeavor to work as rationally, compassionately, and patiently as they can muster. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t? Holy hornbeam.
Given the difficulty and quasi inevitability of these occasional conflicts, it is vital to keep yourself out of elective hot water.
You have to understand what is and isn’t your business. (Which can toooootally change depending on the nature of your agreements and the personalities of those involved. These are custom relationships, after all.)
That Fine Line Between Incredible Metamour and Buttinski
I will be the first to admit that I struggle with this. A big reason that I’m polyamorous is that I am very interested in other people.
The nice way of saying it: I’ve been fascinated by other people for as long as I can remember, what goes on inside their heads, why they do the things they do.
The other, less nice way: I’m nosy af.
I feel a shit-ton of compersion. Love having metamours when they’re good to my partners. Do what I can to make it easier for my partner to date others. And it’s really hard to TMI me when talking about your other relationships.
But the last thing I want to do? Is end up chaperoning for my partner’s other relationships. Looming over them at the school dance. On red alert for grinding or deep kissing in the shadowy reaches of the gym.
While an overall atmosphere of transparency is a wonderful thing in polyamory (as it can promote understanding and build trust), there is such a thing as taking it too far. Some privacy can be very important for building intimacy in romantic relationships.
After all, some plants can’t handle full sun.
The last time I did a robust OkCupid sweep, I corresponded with a young man who apologized after one period of silence for taking so long, explaining that his girlfriend had to review and approve all outgoing messages to other partners, and she had been quite busy with professional obligations and hadn’t gotten around to it.
Granted, there weren’t any sparks to speak of (I just ended up giving the guy poly advice he asked for), and that probably would have died on its own, but I can’t imagine opening up with authentic vulnerability with such a chaperone structure in the picture. Still, he seemed a bit upset when I declined to pursue a relationship, so I imagine I’m not the only one not keen to forge connections under such a microscope.
Good Boundaries: It Isn’t Your Relationship Even When It Affects You
And there’s another way I see Buttinski Sign damaging polyamorous relationship systems: The poor boundaries that often accompany the behavior.
As I mentioned in my overview of boundary-setting in polyamorous relationship systems, poor boundaries aren’t just about letting people walk all over you. They can also involve succumbing to your Inner Buttinski. From that previous post:
It’s important to differentiate between things you can control, things you can kind of control, and things you can’t control at all.
Let’s think of this as 3 buckets.
In the first bucket are the decisions you consciously make. Simple stuff like what you choose to wear in the morning. And more complicated stuff like how you talk to your partners. Maybe you can’t always control your initial emotional reaction to something, but you can control the actions that you take based on that emotion.
The second bucket is the influence bucket. Let’s say a friend or loved one asks for your advice about something. You can tell them what you think, but they still make the decision what they’re going to do with your input.
The third bucket is stuff you can’t control. Weather. Traffic. The actions of strangers or of people who don’t care at all what you think.
The boundaries you set with those you’re dating is in the first bucket. You choose to tell the other person what you want or need to happen. And you control the way that you deliver that message.
When it comes to whether or not people abide by the boundaries that you set, that’s the second bucket. You’ve influenced them by sharing your viewpoint, but they control how they respond to that.
However, if they violate that boundary or do not accept it as legitimate, you are back in the first bucket. You control what you say or do next. What consequences or possible solutions you offer.
But what about when it’s your metamour and your partner? Let’s say your meta cancels dates with your love without notice. It’s hurtful and inconvenient for them. Can you set a personal boundary with your metamour? “I will no longer allow you to see my partner if you keep canceling on them last minute.”
Well, you can say this to them. But you really shouldn’t. Buttinski Sign! That’s not your relationship.
Now, if the frequent cancellations are impacting your plans and you find that you’re inconvenienced by multiple reschedules that your partner has to make with the flaky metamour, then it’s entirely appropriate to set a personal boundary with your partner surrounding the rescheduling. It’s entirely inappropriate to expect you to accommodate for someone else who is not keeping their commitments. If you want to, fine. But you may find you want or need to set a boundary around it. But with your partner. Not your metamour.
I’m Still a Compervert, No Worries
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or even parallel poly. To each their own, but I’m still kitchen table poly (y’know, ideal comfort level = Pop-Tarts). And I’m still a huge compervert. It makes me really happy when people I care about are happy.
But Buttinski Sign is a good thing to watch out for.
Because a lot of people get into poly because they easily connect with others. And sometimes we risk latching on in a way that’s not helpful. To anyone.