Managing Phone Etiquette With Multiple Partners Can Be Challenging

a phone with a toy rider on a horse atop it
Image by Fabio Sola Penna / CC BY

It was kind of a running joke between all of us, back in the day. “Pete’s in three relationships, actually. He’s dating two women and he’s also obsessed with his phone.”

Because he was. It was pretty annoying when we were holding poker nights since he’d often become fixated on whatever texts he had coming in and would completely miss what was going on in the game.

“Your turn, Pete.” “Your turn, Pete.”

We said it so many times that we probably could have saved some time by building a machine that would say it at the press of a button.

But at that time, back in 2009, it was pretty much just Pete who was glued to his phone. In my friends’ circle anyway. Only a few of us even had smartphones (I didn’t have one until 2013). And the ones who did were markedly more judicious about using them, especially in active social situations like poker night.

Ten years later, I’m finding things are very different. Nearly everyone I know has a smartphone. And we spend a lot more time glued to them. It’s also become a lot more socially acceptable to mess around on your phone during a social gathering.

Well, so long as you don’t miss your turn like Pete did. That’s still frowned upon.

Theoretical 24/7 Access…Theoretical

It’s been an interesting change for me to navigate as a polyamorous person. Because people now pretty much all theoretically have 24/7 access to each other. To me. To my partners.

Theoretically.

Because everyone knows it’s possible to ignore your phone. To let a call go to voicemail. To turn off the sound or to not read or respond to certain messages until it’s convenient.

I do this a lot, especially if I’m hanging out with someone else. Friends have watched as I ignore an incoming call because we’re having a conversation.

“Aren’t you gonna get that?” they ask.

“This is our time,” I say. “If it’s important, they can leave a voicemail or text.” (Normally I’m not a fan of voicemails, but they’re not so bad when you have a service that transcribes them to text so you can glance over them and get the gist.)

People Can Have Idiosyncratic Ways of Managing Their Communication

It’s in sharp contrast to someone I dated for a while who would literally get up in the middle of making out to answer the phone even if the caller ID said it was unknown or a suspected spam caller.

People seem to find their own balance. There’s a wide variety of possible ways of managing simultaneous bids for communication. It can be rather idiosyncratic.

While my way makes the most sense to me, it comes with its own drawbacks. For starters, I’m not the best person to call in an emergency. One time my husband literally had to throw a snowball at my window to get my attention when he locked himself out because I had the sound off on my phone while I was writing. Completely focused on that, I missed his calls and texts.

I Always Worry About Interrupting

I tend to go to great lengths to never text partners if I know they’re out on a date with someone else. Because I don’t want to encroach on their time together.

And if I’m hanging out with my nesting partner at home, and he appears to be chatting with someone else on his phone or online, I’m inclined not to talk to him. Because it feels rude.

I don’t want to interrupt. He’s in the middle of another conversation. A silent one. But a conversation nonetheless.

He doesn’t seem to think this is necessary. Since it’s asynchronous communication, he can do both.

But I can’t do it without feeling weird about it.

It’s a Conversation That We’re Only Just Beginning to Have

I think everyone’s dealing with these kinds of phone etiquette issues — regardless of their relationship style, whether they’re mono, poly, or ambi. I do think dating multiple people can make things even more loaded. Being consensually non-monogamous can make phubbing (a portmanteau coined in the past few years of “phone” and “snubbing”) seem a lot more personal.

Irritation at the way that someone else manages those simultaneous bids for communication can inadvertently become much more of an issue in that environment. It can take on a life of its own.

This isn’t a solutions post. Sorry about that. But it was all I could do to even introduce the topic on this first go. (I promise I will write more later.)

I feel like it’s a conversation that we’re only just beginning to have as a culture. But one that really needs to happen.

And not just when it’s convenient for us.

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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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