Whatever You Do, Don’t Mix Up Your Partners

two drawings of anime heroes. The one on the left has blond hair and is sitting on a green dragon. The one on the left has brown hair and is standing atop a red toad.
Image by Taro Urata / CC BY

I wrote an essay a few weeks ago called  I’m Sorry, I Had You Mixed Up with Someone Else. That piece is primarily about how difficult it is to recover from experiencing abuse and not let it affect your future relationships. Here’s an excerpt:

Ninety-five percent of me, ninety-five percent of the time knows that the past is the past and that I’m in a better place now. I’m not going to get yelled at for nothing — and especially not before they’ve talked to me about a problem in a nice way first.

But sometimes the abused inner child comes out and starts driving my emotions, even though no one said it’s okay and she’s too young to have a license. And she drives the car right into the wall.

And all I can do at those moments is stop and shake my head. Throw my hands up in the air and say, “I’m sorry. I had you mixed up with someone else.”

And most of the time, I’m not mixing you up with an ex, but with me and my own negative self-talk.

That piece resonated with a lot of folks. However, I did receive a letter from one reader who confessed that the title had led them to think that the article was going to be about mixing up your partners when you’re polyamorous, and while they stated they liked the piece I wrote, they admitted they’d hoped I’d be addressing that different topic. Here’s part of that letter:

I started seeing a man awhile back who had recently had his relationship end. He was poly, but for reasons (partner’s insecurity) he didn’t pursue others when in this relationship. So when it ended, he went a bit nuts… I have no idea how many women he was interacting with at any point in time, but I can recall him going on four dates in one week.

Unfortunately, he lacked the ability to keep his stories and information shared assigned to the correct person. The result was that after a few dates, I ended things because I felt insignificant. I couldn’t tell if it was the fact that he couldn’t remember what he shared with people because of the numbers he was engaging at that time, or if he’s just completely clueless. Regardless, it didn’t matter.

We were a great match in so many ways and it pained me to end it, but I don’t want to be with someone who didn’t see this as being important when getting to know people. I also questioned other things about him for the fact that he couldn’t temper the speed at which he engaged new people.

I selfishly hoped this was what you were writing about.

Feeling Interchangeable Hurts 

I cringed when I received this letter. Because I knew precisely what the letter writer was talking about.  I’ve been there. I’ve had a partner totally mix me up with another one of their partners, confusing our respective shared stories. And you’re right, this kind of mistake can be incredibly emotionally damaging.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think the issue stems from feeling interchangeable.

We live in a world that tells us that monogamy is the only indicator that a relationship is special. A world that frames polyamorists as selfish people collectors who don’t really care about their lovers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered some person saying, “If it’s the right person, if it’s true love, they’ll be more than enough. You’ll never even have eyes for anyone else.”

This is a statement which at best may be true for that individual, but certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. In every situation. Everywhere.

However, like a lot of other universal “truisms” that aren’t in fact true (at least not universally), it’s said quite a lot. And therefore, a lot of people believe it  and continue to perpetuate it.

And it’s not just the polyamorists who suffer from believing such a thing. Monogamous people who happen to get a crush on someone else can also suffer under these sorts of unhelpful beliefs. Even if they have no plans to act on said crush, it’s easy to interpret an occasional attraction to someone other than their partner as a sign that something is wrong with their current relationship. Or evidence that they’re a scoundrel and don’t actually care about their partner. Or both. Beliefs that are all profoundly unhelpful and can damage perfectly good relationships.

Anyway, given this cultural environment, one that constantly insists only exclusive attractions are valuable, it can be incredibly easy for polyamorous people to feel interchangeable, unless partners make an effort to remind us that we aren’t. And if your partner actually goofs and mixes you up with another one of their partners, ooooh boy.

Yowch. Heckin’ Owie Maui. (Technical terms.)

Does it matter if it was intentional? Not on the receiving end of it, no. (Not to mention it’s difficult to ever completely determine another person’s intent.)

It still hurts.

Frankly, you should avoid doing this to your partners if at all possible, mixing them up with one another. Getting your wires crossed. Especially if (as it sounds like happened in your case) those connections are new and you don’t have a history or a stable base to fall back on in case of an epic mix-up.

There are a couple of ways to do this.

Know and Respect Your Own Limits

If you are bad at keeping these kinds of details straight, one sensible solution is to accept this limitation and act accordingly.

I have known several folks who underdate relative to what they could theoretically manage time-wise for precisely this reason.

In an earlier article, I interviewed a person who considers themselves ambiamorous for this reason. They are definitely emotionally a polyamorous person but tend to be functionally monogamous because of difficulties with organization:

“I kept mixing things up. Confusing my agreements. Couldn’t keep track of everyone’s favorites. And don’t get me started on the scheduling.”

For them, polyamory revealed problems in their personal organization, shortcomings that went unnoticed in other areas of their life. “Never really gave it much thought before polyamory. It didn’t matter if I did dishes on Tuesday and vacuumed on Wednesday. But mix up Partner A with Partner B… well, I was screwed.”

They are currently monogamous with one of their previous partners. Somewhat amusingly, this partner was their most disorganized one. “This partner was also mixing things up and ticking their partners off,” they said. “So now it’s just the two of us. A couple of hot messes. Off by ourselves.”

When I asked them if they thought they’d go back dating multiple people at once, they said, “Who knows? Haven’t ruled it out. I could see us opening up if one of us met someone perfect who was understanding about the chaos.”

In addition to this situation, where the person in question opted to be monogamous, I’ve also seen people opt to still have multiple ongoing relationships and be polyamorous in practice but to simply have fewer of them.

They mentally manage two (or three) relationships well, so in spite of the fact that they could possibly fit more partners into their life, they opt not to.

If You Don’t Know Your Limits, Find Them Responsibly, Preferably in a Stepwise Fashion

Unfortunately, some people don’t really know their limits until they’ve exceeded them. And in fact, it’s a common pitfall (especially for newer polyamorists), confusing polysaturation wtih oversaturation.

In one sense, I actually understand the letter writer’s partner’s position. I haven’t emotionally been there myself, but I can see how suddenly having restrictions lifted could present a situation where he would be eager to get out there and make the most of his newfound freedom. But while it can be tempting to run around like the proverbial kid in the candy store, or to gorge oneself at the love buffet, it often ends pretty terribly.

It’s usually a better bet to pace yourself and figure out what your capacity is instead of only discovering it because you’re disappointing or hurting a bunch of people who care about you.

Otherwise, you risk making yourself and everyone else quite sick with your overconsumption.

It’s yet another argument for moving slowly in new relationships, especially when you’re polyamorous.

Develop Systems and Use Them Wisely

That said, I do know a few folks who date quite a lot but have an average or a below average memory.

And yet, they keep all of their entanglements well sorted.

How do they manage this? By developing organizational systems to keep details straight. They take detailed notes and learn to access them when in doubt.

Usually this involves judicious use of scheduling software. There are a number of programs available, but I personally find Google Calendar to be more than suitable; it’s both easy to use and capable of some pretty powerful sharing and sorting functions.

In addition, I’ve known many folks who keep databases of everything important they’d like to know about partners (which can easily be stored on cloud-based services, such as Google Sheets/Google Drive). What this info is depends on the precise nature of relationship, but here are some common things I’ve known people to track:

  • birthdays and anniversaries (also should be placed on calendars)
  • gift ideas (things they’ve mentioned that they’d like)
  • food preferences and allergies
  • relationship agreements (these are often shared among partners whom they affect)

This doesn’t need to be tedious or feel like drudgery. With one partner, I actually had a collaborative list of things that we wanted to do together that we could both add to and modify. This covered a variety of things — it included date night ideas or vacations we’d like to take but also included sexual and kink items. In any event, this was doubly useful. It helped us to have a list to look to in the event where we needed ideas and/or felt like we were in a rut. And it helped us not get our wires crossed (we both were seeing other people).

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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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1 Comment

  1. I do the same thing about keeping notes on partners. In a story I had read, it referenced something called the Farley File, and they talked about the use of using a notation storage to keep details of people. There was brief mention about whether it could be considered “cheating/immoral” to remember details about people this way vs relying on natural memory. There was commentary about why it was positive too, not just for making the other person feel important. I don’t recall what it was from and the only thing I could find via google was Heinlein’s Double Star, which I know I’ve read. It may have been Stasheff or Harry Harrison.

    At some point I was convinced that it was better to retain the information simply because I felt that these people were important to me, and that I should use any way I could to reflect that.

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