Whenever possible, I try to offer advice that applies to all sorts of relationships, whether that’s polyamorous, monogamous, or somewhere in between. And when I’m advising polyamorous folks in particular, I do my best to offer advice that will apply to people in a range of different relationship configurations. Not just help for secondaries, relationship anarchists, primaries, solo polyamorists, or the polyfidelitous.
I’ve been polyamorous an awfully long time. And during that time, I’ve been in a variety of roles:
- A busy multi-committed hinge in a complicated poly web who had to quickly shift gears as I moved from the emotional reality of one relationship to another
- Unhappily dating as a secondary partner, in situations where I knew that my partner’s primary partner held the power to unilaterally end the relationship with someone I cared deeply about on a whim
- Happily dating others in situations where we considered our relationship with another mutually secondary to other connections and wanted it to stay that way
- Dating couples on my own as a unicorn (a mix of good, bad, and ugly)
- Triads where I was half of a preexisting couple (whether PDAing or connecting invisible islands of desire)
- Heck, I’ve even been part of a couple that’s been hunted by a unicorn. Twice.
I’ve seen a lot! Done a lot. Learned a lot. I draw inspiration from all of it. And there are many things I’ve found to be true, regardless of where I’m standing. Here are a few.
How Someone Treats Their Preexisting Partners Is a Valuable Source of Information
Personally, at this point in my poly life, I wouldn’t want to date someone new if it meant that in doing so, I would take on a metamour who seemed likely to pull rank and directly dictate how my relationship with our shared partner would unfold. In essence, controlling metamours are my Kryptonite. It’s where I tap out.
But I do expect a shared partner to take their other partners’ needs and wants under consideration. And when I’m the new partner, I really do gain a lot of valuable information from how someone I’m dating treats their existing partners. Because after the New Relationship Energy wears off, I know it could be me in their shoes.
So this means that I’m not much of a fan of dating people who don’t care how their other partners feel about things and who never seek their other partners’ input, even about important things. So I totally get when a shared partner wants to make sure my metamour is comfortable, even if it inconveniences me. This is true whether that person is a newer partner than me or a preexisting one.
I used an analogy of kittens vs. cats for ORE and NRE in an earlier piece to explain: I’ve learned to pay special attention to how anyone I date treats their preexisting partners. Because I may be a kitten today, but tomorrow I’ll be a cat. Better to know someone is “kittens only” now than down the road, after I get invested.
Bottom line: It’s good when a shared partner shows courtesy to existing relationships but bad when a metamour bosses them around.
And yes, this is something I believe whether I’m the new partner, the preexisting partner, or the person who is caught in between. At this point, I’ve been all three.
It’s Important to Communicate, But There Are No Magic Words
In my line of work, I get asked a lot of questions that begin a little something like this: “How do I get my partner to…?” Feel X way. Do Z.
And advice seekers are inevitably disappointed to learn that there are no magic words. That the most important communication often involves risk. The risk that we’ll embarrass ourselves. Reveal too much. And not get what we want.
There’s no way around it, really. You get to want what you want and so does any person you’re talking to.
As I wrote in an earlier piece:
“Communicate, communicate, communicate.” It’s practically the unofficial motto of polyamory.
But the truth is that communication isn’t the most important part of polyamory. Vulnerability, courage, and integrity are.
Communication matters of course, but the reason that communication matters is so we can create a shared understanding of what integrity looks like. And to do that properly, we need the courage to be vulnerable.
This means we need to be open to other people having feelings, wants, and needs that are incompatible with our own. If you can’t honestly say that you are, then you’ve missed the most important step. You’ve failed at communication before you say a single word.
Jealousy Is a Strong Emotional Signal, But Not a Very Specific One. And It Certainly Isn’t a Crime.
As I’ve written many times before, jealousy is often a strong emotional signal but not a very specific one. It certainly doesn’t help that jealousy is often something else in disguise: envy, a sense that you or your needs are being neglected, feeling left out, or a fear that you’ll lose someone or something that’s important to you.
It’s easy to panic when you experience jealousy. But it’s very much like a check engine light or a crying baby: Jealousy tells you that something is amiss but not what, exactly. And certainly not how serious the issue is.
One of the hardest tasks in building up our emotional security is also one of the most important: Learning what those strong emotional cues are. What they mean. The best way to address them. Sorting the nonspecific distress signal into more helpful information.
When people get jealous, they often become ashamed of the jealousy, which is a secondary trauma loop, where you’re beating yourself up over and over again, punishing yourself for feeling (pretty normal) negative feelings.
Shame is the real killer. Not the fear, the anxiety, the jealousy. But shame. In basic survival terms, if the tribe rejects you, you die. Exile was death to our ancestors. Shame is a sense that you are unacceptable, that you don’t belong. And your brain feels like it’s life or death.
But jealousy isn’t some kind of crime, any more than becoming sad, angry, or afraid is. The goal is not to never ever get jealous, just like our goal should probably not be to never get sad or afraid.
Instead, a better goal is to learn how to deal with jealous feelings in a productive way.
It’s Helpful to Remember It’s Not All About Me
As I wrote in an earlier piece, you can feel a sense of personal pride and happiness about what you give to others and not just what you get from them.
This was a huge shift in my thinking after I’d been polyamorous for a while. I realized when it came to my happiness, it didn’t have to be all about me. I genuinely stopped viewing things as zero sum, like there was only so much happiness out there and that when other people had it, it meant that I was naturally going to miss out.
At that point, I was also able to take a lot of mental and emotional energy that I used to expend on comparing myself to others and wondering how I measured up and spend it in different ways. In friendships, this led to supporting friends more actively in their endeavors and not being bitter or envious of their successes. In polyamory, this often translated into trying to be the best metamour I could be to my partners’ other partners.
Now, this doesn’t mean that every relationship I have works out. I have hits and misses just like anyone else. But I do find that when my relationships end, it’s due to problems with mutual compatibility and not due to a kind of nocebo effect that I’ve seen plague polyamorous people who fall prey to zero-sum thinking:
Just about everyone has heard of the placebo effect.
Nocebo effect, on the other hand, is far less widely known.
Nocebo effect is the opposite of placebo effect. It’s the belief that we’re being exposed to harmful substances when in fact we are not, making medical outcomes worse. Patients who anticipate side effects from a substance will experience them even when given an inert substance. In one notable case study, a 26-year-old man went into hypotensive shock, a potentially life-threatening state, after taking 29 harmless placebos in a suicide attempt, believing it to be a lethal overdose.
Zero-sum thinking has so much in common with the nocebo effect. When we expect good things to be taken from us, when we interpret the fortune of others as being our own personal misfortune in contrast, we begin to see it happening. We react to phantoms, to threats that seem real to us, and before we know it, we’ve created actual demons through our frenetic fear, through our misbehaviors.
Or, to put it another way, spooked by noises in the night, we grab our gun, fire at imagined intruders, and shoot ourselves in the foot.
Just say no to nocebos.
I will say that having been in a bunch of different roles helps me to take other people’s perspective, but I think it’s possible to train yourself out of nocebo effect by training yourself to instinctively celebrate the successes of others. Please see this article on cultivating compersion for a few methods to help retrain yourself.