Ask Page: Whatever Gloats Your Boat

a boat next to a dock
Image by Tani DeBoucher / CC BY

Hi Page,

I’m newer to polyamory, at least in practice. In theory, I’ve wanted to be in an open relationship for quite some time, but I only recently got into a relationship with a polyamorous woman. Things are going great so far. I can’t believe how cool she is about some things. My ex-girlfriends would get upset at me for even looking at another woman, and here I am with someone who is encouraging me to date other people. Wow. I’m still seeking on that front, but so far I’m happy with just being able to acknowledge my attractions to other women. That in and of itself is huge.

She has another relationship, which I fully support, and I’ve met her partner. He seems really cool. There’s a but here, however, which you probably guessed since I’m writing to you for advice.

She shares a lot with me about their time together. And I’m talking A LOT. I get gory details, the works. Which could be fine, I guess, and I like being kept in the loop in one sense… but the level of detail she’s giving is a bit much to me. And frankly, it almost comes off like bragging. Like she’s gloating about how successful she is. It especially feels this way as I’m having difficulty finding another partner of my own.

Before you ask (since it’s typically the first thing you recommend), it was nervewracking, but I DID talk to her about it. Just how the detailed sharing made me feel and all that. And she got really defensive, and she said that maybe she was wrong about me. Maybe I wasn’t really cut out for polyamory.

I thought that was pretty unfair. I brought up the fact that there are some folks who don’t share any details and keep things completely separate (since I’d read about both on your blog in the parallel polyamory and “truth drip” articles). And she basically said that her ex-boyfriend (her last primary) actually enjoyed hearing all the details and even got off on them sexually.

So I have a couple of questions for you:

  • Are there people out there like that? Who not only are okay with hearing details from other relationships but get off on them sexually?
  • Do you need to have that quality to be polyamorous and still be happy?
  • What would you advise in this situation? Should I try to stop feeling like my girlfriend is gloating? Should she be a little more sensitive? Something else?

Thank you for everything that you do! My entire polycule loves your writing.

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So to answer your first question, yes, there are people out there who enjoy hearing the details about their partner’s other relationships. This is not necessarily a sexual interest, although, yes, there are some people who do get off sexually on hearing about their partners encounters with other people (in fact, one of my exes was like that). Some people have a cuckolding fetish (i.e., a tendency to become sexually aroused at the sight or thought of their partner being sexual with others), and while not all people with this particular proclivity are male, it does seem to be much more common in men. So it’s very possible that your girlfriend’s ex was this way.

Additionally, there are a number of people who experience non-erotic joy in response to their partners experiencing joy in their other relationships (sexual and otherwise). In fact, this phenomenon is common enough that polyamorous folks have a special word for it: Compersion. Sometimes compersion is referred to as “the opposite of jealousy,” but it’s basically a form of positive empathy or sympathetic joy– compersion is when you’re happy that someone else is happy, even if that happiness doesn’t directly benefit you personally.

Not every polyamorous person feels compersion, and those who do don’t necessarily experience it in every situation. I find that personally the more that I know about my partners’ other relationships, the more compersion I tend to feel (most of the time anyway).

But other people have reported totally different tendencies — and find that too much detail actually provokes more of a jealousy response. And this is in people who are totally cut out for polyamory and have been happily so for some time, so I disagree with your girlfriend’s knee-jerk worry that you’re not. Now, to be fair to your girlfriend, there very well may be other issues in play that aren’t in your letter, and your girlfriend could be commenting on a larger pattern (and not just this one event). But just going by what you talked about in your letter, I feel that it would be premature to conclude that comfort with polyamory isn’t now or won’t ever be in the cards.

Sure, you might interface differently emotionally with your metamours than her ex-boyfriend did. But that makes sense to me because you and her ex are different people. You’re going to react differently to things (metamour related or not).

In working with polyamorous folks, I’ve found that people do tend to have a preferred level of detail, and there’s a wide range in which any one person can fall. Honestly, there’s really no right way or wrong way to feel here.

That said, I do think that the best course of action would be for you and your girlfriend to try to meet in the middle. Yes, I think it would be good for your girlfriend to appreciate that people can vary on this aspect and try to find a more optimal level of sharing where she isn’t going to overwhelm you.

In my own life, when I’ve been in her shoes and have a lot to share and have a partner who really doesn’t want that much detail (and trust me, I have been in that exact position), I’ve found it helpful to have third party confidants I can gush to who I’m not dating. Other friends to talk to about my love life. That helps immensely. Failing that, I’ve also found writing privately about it to be a good outlet.

In the meantime, she can experiment with different kinds of disclosures and different timing when she talks to you about her other relationship. For your part, if you can figure out what seems to be most difficult for you and help guide her in finding a good way to find that “just right” place between oversharing and undersharing (because being told too little can also be a problem for some folks), that would be helpful.

Furthermore, I think it would be helpful for you to challenge your perception of her sharing details with you as gloating. While I suppose it’s possible that she is being competitive and gloating about how successful she is, I can’t think of a single case that I’ve worked on in which a person felt that their partner was gloating and this was actually what was going on.

More often than not, a happy partner is just gushing, doesn’t view dating as a competition, and very much wants their partner to be just as successful as they are.

I’m sure it happens — but it’s exceedingly rare.

I think your suspicion that your difficulty finding another partner of your own for the time being is coloring your interpretation of her behavior is much more likely. I would assume positive intent here, continue your search for partners, and see if the two of you can strike a better balance on how much she shares with you.

Best of luck to you. Thanks for writing.

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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