Not Permission, Not Chaos: Toward a Buy-In Model of Polyamory

a stick figure person drawn on a sheet of typing paper with 4 connector cables attached to its head
Image by Omran Jamal / CC BY

It can be a difficult balance to strike in polyamory: How to add new partners to an existing relationship system without upsetting the relationships that are already in place.

A number of common strategies exist. Some relationship systems have extensive permission structures in place. Existing partners are consulted and each is called upon to approve or veto potential new relationships.

In other relationship systems, everyone operates as a free agent. People add new partners as desired. No permission is needed or sought.

When I was new to polyamory, I worked within a permission-based model. Not only when it came to new relationships but also when it came to which sexual acts were permitted, how much time was spent with new partners, and a great number of other factors. Knowing that nothing new would happen without consultation did make me feel a great deal more secure opening up, but as I got used to polyamory and to trust my partners within this new paradigm, I began to find it cumbersome.

I never was one of those people who found it comfortable to text my other partner (or partners) from bed while in a state of undress, seeking the go-ahead. (Truth be told, in those circumstances, I was more likely to table sex altogether until I had a chance to check in with my other partners.)

And when my other partners came to seek permission from me, I felt like I was acting as their parent. And I hated that feeling.

So as time wore on, I came to advocate for a less restrictive set of standard operating procedures. Makeouts and all manner of low-risk kinky fun could be done spontaneously. And thus, the secret makeout was born.

Oral, anal, and vaginal acts were special cases and were classified as “hard play.” Some call this “penetrative sex” but we didn’t use this term, not wanting vibrator play and hand jobs to fall under this umbrella.  Hard play had to be discussed with new partners. At the bare minimum, an existing partner had to be notified of hard play with new partners (as well as the circumstances surrounding protection or lack thereof) prior to engaging in hard play again with an existing partner (i.e., the existing partner must consent to any potential exposure).

This system worked fairly well in the old web. The problem, however, was that some partners found the shift chaotic and difficult to manage. They wanted more emotional consideration of how new partners could affect their existing time availability. They were concerned that their needs weren’t being considered at all in new decisions. And they worried about being blindsided: Either by third parties knowing about low-risk sexual contact well before they did (making them feel foolish, “the last one to know”) or by a notification that serious sexual contact had occurred with someone when they hadn’t even known that interest existed until that point.

“I get that permission is awkward, but this feels like chaos,” one frustrated partner said.

Change Management and Polyamory

Adding new partners harmoniously to an existing relationship system draws upon change management skills. Sometimes in polyamory it can feel overwhelming since we’re treading off the beaten path. Most of us didn’t grow up watching polyamorous parents. And there certainly weren’t healthy models on television. So we lack mental models that would help navigate the situations we find ourselves in. But this is one circumstance in which we already have a good model — it just isn’t romantic.

It happens all the time in business: Companies undergo large changes in structure or policy, and the way they involve their employees in that process (or don’t) can drastically affect how those changes are received.

Introduce change badly: Employees quit, lovers break up with you.

Introduce it well: Employees or lovers can view those changes in neutral or positive terms.

And a large part of many successful change management approaches (for example Kotter’s model) is obtaining buy-in from those who will be affected.

Obtaining Buy-In

Buy-in differs from permission in that you’re not really asking someone for their go-ahead before you make the changes.  Instead, you’re letting them know how things will change and giving them an opportunity to adjust and absorb those changes prior to implementing them.

Instead of acting and notifying after the fact, you’re giving the other person an opportunity to voice their concerns and to offer their own input ahead of time. If the person you’re notifying presents compelling reasons that the change is ill advised and impacts things that you weren’t aware of, you might very well modify your plans in light of this.

However, most commonly in a buy-in model, in the absence of the introduction of new information, you’re likely to proceed (unless the consequences of doing so are too undesirable).

I tend to phrase this conversation as a check-in. For example:

“I’ve been considering doing XYZ. How would you feel about that? What would you think of it?” And then giving them ample opportunity to process about the idea and to share their honest take.

I’ve found great success with this method. And I appreciate it when my buy-in is sought from others. Because while I don’t relish the gatekeeping role of being the permission giver (or denier), it feels good to be heard out.

It’s a nice balance: Obtaining buy-in demonstrates that you care about other people’s input, allowing for honest consultation. But it also preserves everyone’s autonomy. Buy-in acknowledges that each of us is the ultimate arbiter of whether a personal change occurs. (It’s realistically this way in a permission model, too, since people can and do sometimes break the rules and ignore their partner’s wishes, whether they really should or not.)

Can’t a Manipulative Person Twist a Buy-In Check-In Into a Permission Conversation?

“But Page,” you might be wondering, “Can’t a manipulative person just twist a buy-in check-in into a permission conversation?”

The answer is yes. An emotionally manipulative partner can twist a buy-in check-in into a permission situation. Basically any interpersonal tool can be turned around to control other people.

But these days I tend to be pretty sensitive to manipulation and have a low tolerance for it.

It’s fairly easy to tell when this is happening in a buy-in check-in. Mostly by a shift in tone of conversation. And I’m always glad to know when someone has manipulative tendencies, so I can make a more informed decision on whether to stay in the relationship.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Controlling behavior can be outrageously annoying. It can signal a lack of consideration for others and have destructive consequences. But there are also very understandable reasons that an otherwise caring person can be controlling on occasion. Controlling others isn’t just the province of toxic personalities. It’s also a way that people cope with their anxiety. And what can be integral in deciding how much of a dealbreaker controlling behavior poses is considering how severe the behaviors are, how often they manifest, and how important those affected domains are to you personally.

But yes, if buy-in check-ins are a way that I discover a partner is too manipulative or controlling to be compatible with me, then I consider that a good thing. I’d rather know.

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My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome post. We’ve felt out that check-in line too. Currently we have it set at chatting on apps, snaps, is fine. When we meet people in real life, the we tell the others. I think that’s mostly so we don’t get axe murdered, though. 🙂

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