I didn’t open up my marriage over a decade ago with an eye toward exploring kink. But that’s nonetheless what happened. After about a year of dating polyamorously, I eventually ended up with a girlfriend who knew some folks in the kink scene and had a strong kinky streak herself.
It was a surprising turn of events at the time. Friends who had been rather accepting of polyamory expressed confusion when I embraced BDSM. Some even openly mocked my decision. And I wasn’t even doing anything that strange back then, as far as kinks went. No mind fucks or electrosex. Nothing like that. It was all rather tame. But they still couldn’t understand why a sane person would enjoy getting spanked or wearing a collar.
Of course, these same friends would go on to experiment themselves after Fifty Shades came out. But that would come later.
Their initial shock and horror mystified me — because in many ways the decision to explore polyamory was a much greater leap of faith for me than checking out the kink scene.
And while polyamory and kink are very different things, at the end of the day, I learned many of the same lessons from kink as I did from polyamory. Here are a few:
1. Fear won’t kill you.
We’re very afraid of the unknown. And fear is a very intense emotion. But fear won’t kill you.
I was terrified when I took my first steps into having polyamorous relationships.
And I’ve had kink scenes that in the moment scared me to death.
But both ended up being so fulfilling in the end: Both because of the gratification I directly felt from the experiences and also from the knowledge I gained that I could face my fears and survive. Come out stronger on the other side.
It was a hell of a feeling.
2. Pain doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has done something wrong.
Just because something hurts for a moment doesn’t mean that it’ll hurt forever. And in the long run, pain can lead to better things. In fact, a lot of positive outcomes involve enduring pain or stress on the way to your goal. People understand this when they’re talking about going to the gym, but they forget about it when we’re talking about personal challenge and emotional growth.
Often kink scenes entail enduring pain momentarily and being rewarded with a delayed endorphin rush. Or in other cases, simply the pride one can feel by toughly enduring an ordeal as part of a scene can be its own reward.
In polyamory, there’s an interesting cognitive reframe that I found very helpful to internalize: Just because I’m hurt doesn’t mean that anyone’s done something wrong.
It could mean that. But not necessarily.
Emotions are intense, binary, and often very lacking in nuance. They’re rough judgement calls our body makes in response to a very complicated external social world.
It’s absolutely important to acknowledge and note emotional pain, especially since emotions are signals that can give us valuable information. But it’s all too common that we rush to blame someone else when we’re hurt. When maybe it’s our interpretation of events that’s really doing us the biggest disservice.
3. You can ethically consent to things that make no sense to other people and that they themselves would personally never do.
After being on the kink scene a while, it really doesn’t phase me anymore when people say, “You’re polyamorous? That’s not something I’d ever want to do”
Because I can relate. Not with polyamory exactly (although I was definitely leery of polyamory before I tried it) — but definitely when it comes to certain kink things that I am just not down for.
There are things I really don’t want to do kink-wise. But I know other people who are super into them. Just because I’m not into those things doesn’t mean it’s wrong for someone to do them, and it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the people who enjoy them.
And so I’ve learned that people weren’t kidding when they say different strokes for folks. Or as the kinksters like to put it, YKINMKBYKIOK — your kink is not my kink, but your kink is okay.
It’s not an empty platitude. It’s how things are.
4. No one can shame you if you are not ashamed.
It was one of the most freeing realizations I had as I explored the kink scene: No one can shame you if you are not ashamed.
People can try to shame you, sure. But it’s not a very effective tactic if you don’t have a corresponding vulnerability to it in your heart.
If you build up your sense of personal security, the petty things people say about kink or polyamory become a lot more like noise. Especially if the criticism is coming from a source you don’t respect very much. (And I find that if people criticize things that they haven’t personally experienced and really don’t understand that it tends to affect my opinion of them.)
As I built friendships with people who were into a variety of alternative interests, I became progressively less and less defensive about my own choices. Sure, not everyone was going to be accepting that I was polyamorous or kinky. But that said less about me than it did about them.
As time went on, I not only shed my own shame but also became someone who was part of the welcoming committee. I helped others shed theirs as well.
And a lot of my work writing widely about polyamory has followed a similar process: I’ve become much more secure and have written things that have helped other people get there (or at least a little closer) themselves.
5. There is an incredible diversity to the kind of connections available to us if we can step outside of what is societally expected of us.
I’m currently dating three people (one of whom I’m also married to). But that number doesn’t even come close to capturing the level of deep, unorthodox connections in my life.
It’s actually one of the things that people who don’t know I’m polyamorous note about me fairly early on: I have a LOT of friends. I know a person who does this, one who does that. And not only do I have a lot of friends, but I’m much closer with them than most adults are with their friends. I see them regularly. We do favors for one another. Trade clothes. I know a lot about what goes on in my friends’ lives. And I’m very invested in them and their well-being.
I’m dating three people, but if I look around at my life and deeply consider the number of people that I could probably say anything to, that would be about 20 people.
Which is a little humbling. And really great.
Even when Justin and I took a break from dating new people after a huge cascade of breakups some years back (ugh, the pain), we often behaved in ways that many monogamous vanilla people would find unacceptable, despite being functionally monogamous. He frequently cuddled with people of the opposite sex. I shamelessly flirted with everyone.
And yeah, we continued to do things that would get a lot of people outside of our kinky and/or polyamorous bubble in deep trouble.
The result of this has mostly been that we both have a bunch of quirky close friendships with people we know very well.
6. Reconnecting after a difficult experience is really important.
In BDSM terms, this usually involves some kind of aftercare after a scene. Now, not everyone does aftercare, but I’ve always been a fan of it, both as a top and as a bottom (since I switch). What aftercare looks like exactly can vary from person to person, but I’ve always enjoyed cuddling while wrapped up in a blanket and drinking a soda. And if we’re feeling like talking, then chatting about the scene and how it emotionally felt. What worked. What didn’t.
Other people find they like to eat a snack, too, since the endorphins you release during BDSM play can mess with blood sugar.
In polyamory, reconnection can look a little different. Maybe you carve out time to see your partner after a while apart. Go on a special date. Do something together.
Or maybe it’s about processing about something that happened that bothered one or both of you. Justin and I had our regular wine check-ins when we newly opened up. We would sit down with a bottle of wine and talk about whatever occurred to us. No matter what happened, we had to do this four times a month. This could be once a week, or if we got busy, it could happen multiple times in one week. But if we couldn’t sit down four times a month and split a bottle of wine and talk, it would be a clue to us that we weren’t spending enough time together.
Plus, the wine helped us get away from our tendency to tip-toe around issues, for fear of hurting one another. It turned us into Stage 5 blurters. Which was a nice bonus.
7. Routine and ritual can be comforting.
While it’s fun to mix it up and have adventures, consistency and balance can also be very important. Many kinksters have various routines that they follow as they play with others. A certain way that they lay out or prepare toys. I’ve known many tops who have a standard progression of movements that they use to work their way up from softer play to harder scenes, giving their bottom a chance to adjust.
Many full-time D/s couples have protocols they follow. Ways that they generally act. What exactly this is varies from one relationship to another, but I’ve known many who had particular routines for how they welcome their partner home after their day at work. Often a submissive will have particular orders in which they do chores, specific ways that they turn down and prepare the bed before sleeping at night.
Rather than being perceived as repetitive or dull actions, these routine acts of service can serve to cement a bond and to provide comfort to all partners: Both to the person who is being served and also to the person who is serving.
In polyamory, I find a similar comfort in having standing traditions with a partner. We might have a regular night of the week that is our normal “date night.” Or restaurants that we particularly like going to with one another. Or activities that we tend to do a lot together.
And while it could seem boring from the outside looking in that we’re often doing the same thing on our dates, in another way, it can be deeply comforting to us that we have our own routines. Our own rituals. Our own bond.
While new shiny things tend to get most of the positive press, sometimes predictable connections are also very comforting in a world where everything can change at such a dizzying pace.
8. Boundaries are essential and should be communicated clearly and respected.
In BDSM, practitioners often discuss boundaries explicitly. Often these are framed in terms of hard limits or soft limits. Hard limits, generally speaking, are things that you do not want done under any circumstances.
A soft limit is something that a person may be hesitant to do or only willing to do within certain, predefined circumstances but that they will sometimes consent to. Maybe only with certain partners or at certain times.
Limits, in another sense, are boundaries that are set with kinky play partners. Clearly communicating your own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others is crucial in BDSM. Really, that’s true for all instances when you’re interacting with other people, but it’s especially important any time you are operating outside of societal “norms” with regards to what is right and wrong. Permissible versus forbidden.
Boundaries are also extremely important in polyamorous relationship systems. And truly one of the trickiest parts of polyamory is determining whether or not something you’re doing affects someone else.
In a more simple relationship system, like monogamy, this is a great deal more straightforward. You have one person’s concerns to consider. When you start considering how decisions could impact metamours (your partner’s other partner) and telemours (your meta’s meta), and how all of their decisions potentially affect you? Well, things get a great deal more complicated.
Here’s a post I wrote on polyamory and boundaries –it talks about some of the basics of boundaries and how to set them as well as the more difficult matter of how to begin to sort out the interactions of second and third-degree boundaries that happen within a complex system of relationships.
But in any event, developing a mutual understanding of one another’s boundaries and abiding by them are essential in both kink and polyamory.