PQ 23.4 — How do I communicate my expectations of metamours?

a photograph of a fire
Image by Dheeraj Dwivedi / CC BY

PQ 23.4 — How do I communicate my expectations of metamours?

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Last week, I wrote what could essentially serve as an open letter to any new metamour that I may have: A Letter to My Future Metamour.

Although ideally I like to meet metamours (since knowing them well enough that we feel comfortable communicating tends to make scheduling easier, and frankly I’m curious about who my partners spend time with), my expectations for new metamours are pretty flexible. Some people might even say they’re pretty low. In general, I default to positivity when dealing with metamours. I get excited about the premise of having cool new people in the lives of people I love. From that letter:

First of all, let me say that you have wonderful taste. You are dating one of the best people I’ve ever met. I’m thrilled about this new development and will do everything in my power to ensure that you two have the time and space to pursue that new relationship together.

I know that we all grew up watching love triangles in movies. That there haven’t been healthy vees portrayed in media much at all. And because of that, I know you may have to fight hard against the fear that I’m your enemy and not your friend. A romantic rival and not a co-conspirator.

But I want you to know that I view you as a collaborator and not a competitor. I want my partner to be happy, and I’m thankful that they have another person in their life who can make them happy.

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I give metamours the benefit of the doubt. I presume a person is acting in good faith until I have clear evidence to the contrary.

And even if I see a person acting in bad faith, it usually doesn’t change my behavior all that much — since these days my current partners have superb judgement and tend to pick up on that sort of thing on their own.

Maybe it’s not the sexiest thing to talk about — but I deeply appreciate how much I trust my current partners’ skill for partner selection as well as their ability to assess whether their relationships are actually healthy for them once they’re ongoing.

I’ll admit things were a bit rockier in this regard when I was newly polyamorous many years ago. Like a lot of people, I entered polyamory via opening up an existing monogamous relationship to new partners. The way my partner selected partners was suddenly of crucial importance and a complete unknown.  As I wrote previously:

The most difficult part of opening up a relationship is that you’re changing its terms. However, it isn’t just the adjustment stress that can accompany all change (although that can be tough). It’s also that most of the time you didn’t go into the relationship expecting it to be open. And suddenly things that never mattered, do.

Like a lot of people, I selected a partner with the expectation that we would always be monogamous. I never gave a thought when I was considering whether I should date Seth as to how responsibly he would select other partners because for my purposes, he had to select exactly one romantic partner: Me.

And I did find that Seth had some issues. Not just with partner selection but with assessing whether any given dynamic were healthy and detecting abuse and/or proto-abusive behaviors.

That was certainly a more difficult position to be in. But I managed. And I learned a lot.

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I’ve written extensively about communication in general, so rather than rehash the broad strokes, I’d like to focus on one very specific detail I haven’t really talked about before. It’s less of a communication technique than it is a miscommunication detection mechanism.

A lot of communication how-to is that it focuses on sender skills. How to say things rather than how to listen.

But even once you’ve tackled proper receiver techniques and the art of being a good listener, I’m coming to realize that there’s another step beyond this: Paying attention to how well the other person listens. Being able to detect whether or not your message was actually received by the person you’re communicating with. There are some techniques that can help with this (for example, active listening and restating of a message).

But it’s worth noting that it can be tricky to determine whether something was really understood even after their implementation.

Paying Attention to How Well the Other Person Seems to Listen

Looking back, I can actually remember when I first realized something was a little off with one of my metamours and our ability to communicate (or lack thereof).

The first real tell was when the metamour in question commented on one of my articles where it had been x-posted on social media in a way that was completely bizarre. It wasn’t a mean comment or anything. It just hit me the wrong way, because what they were saying frankly didn’t make any sense. The comment lacked internal logical coherence and seemed wildly off topic. Almost like something a bot would generate.

It was the kind of comment that I might expect to find from the occasional Internet rando. But not anyone I’m friendly with.

By and large, the people close to me are typically very good, strong writers who comment when they have something interesting to add and usually write really thought-provoking comments. On whatever. Whether it’s a blog post from me or someone we know. Or a news article on someone’s Facebook.

This was something else altogether. It was the quality of comment I’d more expect from someone who didn’t read beyond the title and crammed their life story into the piece with a crow bar. Kind of like that person who in a giant college lecture takes their sweet time asking a question of the professor that’s really a thinly veiled attempt to tell the class their life story. You know, one of the big reasons that most people advise each other “don’t read the comments” (the other being the flame wars and hate speech that tend to litter comment sections).

I wasn’t expecting this. I’d met this metamour in person and liked them very much. My initial impression of them was that they seemed to communicate well. They were funny and engaging. Seemed intelligent.

And then this weird comment happened.

It was odd. It bothered me. And to be honest, it bothered me that it bothered me. Because it seemed like such a trivial thing for me to notice and fuss over. But I couldn’t shake the suspicion that this one non sequitur was the smoke coming from a bigger fire. That maybe they were misunderstanding me in person as well.

At the time I talked about it with a few close friends to get their take. They were divided. One agreed with my concerns and found it odd and troubling. The other said it was likely just my metamour being neurotic because they were newer to polyamory and had me up on a pedestal because I was an educator in the field. They’d forced themselves to comment on something to show off for teacher. Notice me, senpai. That kind of thing. And to do so, they had to take great liberties with context.

So I averaged the two takes, called the whole thing a draw, and downplayed its importance.

That Smoke Did Indeed Belong to a Bigger Fire

But as the months went on, it became more and more apparent that this metamour was in fact a terrible listener. When it came to miscommunication, that smoke I’d smelled did indeed belong to a bigger fire.  It didn’t matter how many times I expressed my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. How much care I took to be clear. How many times I asked for clarification from them to make sure I got where they were coming from. Or how much I tried to make myself a safe person to open up to, someone they could honestly exchange ideas with.

No matter what I did, really, they’d project their own feelings onto me instead of listening to what I was actually saying. They wouldn’t be responding to what I actually said or what I actually told them I felt. But instead they’d respond to a projection of their own feelings. A copy of a copy of a copy at best of what I’d maybe once felt (but really more born from their imagination). Their idea of me rather than me. Or anything close to what I’d actually communicated to them.

If it had just been with me, then perhaps their relationship would have lasted (I really do try to stay out of negativity that isn’t directly affecting me, especially if a metamour is bringing someone I love joy). I likely would have found a way to work around it, to peacefully co-exist even amongst our strange miscommunications.

But it wasn’t just me. The same pattern of miscommunication plagued our shared partner’s relationship with that metamour. The same smoke I saw so early on belonged to a fire that raged between them.

I did my best as everything burned to the ground. To minimize casualties. To take inventory of what I had lost in the fire.

I survived. And I learned.

Sure, it wasn’t fun. But it hasn’t hardened me as a person. I still have a very open heart and a very open mind when it comes to metamours.

And I’ve gotten good at smelling that particular type of smoke. Not to jump to the worst conclusion — that everything will go down in flames. But to be better prepared and more calm if it does.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.

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