A friend of mine who is in a ploy marriage recently posted on a social networking site to tell people how he handles his relationship, because so many people had asked.
Meanwhile, I am currently working on negotiating a play relationship with another married person who is also poly, and they have very different rules than my husband and I do.
This made me think that a discussion of common rules in poly relationships was called for.
First, here are some common rules:
1. No spending the night with anyone but the emotional primary.
2. No interaction between the secondary partner and any children.
3. All information on relationships outside the primary should be shared upon request.
4. STD tests must be traded with any potential partners before any sexual activity.
5. Emotional primary must meet and approve secondary partners.
Now as I said, these are common rules. It just so happens that my husband and I don’t follow most of these, since we’re not terribly concerned about things like spending nights away from each other now and then.
We do strictly follow the STD testing rule, but that is because we are both STD-free and trying to keep it that way as long as we live.
We don’t have children together, and I know that for me personally, I am more comfortable not interacting with a secondary’s children. My play partner in Oregon had three children that I never met, because I requested not to. The person I am currently in negotiations with also has a child, and I have been uncomfortable when he has brought his child along to meet-ups. I have nothing against children, and I love my son (though he is grown up and on his own now.) However, it feels unfair (to me!) to interact with someone else’s children in case they get attached (as children often do.) My secondary relationships are contingent on where we live, and as my husband is military, we move a lot. I don’t want to form a bond with a child that I won’t know for very long.
However, I leave it up to my husband if he wants to interact with potential play-partner’s children or not. I feel it is a personal choice and I don’t have much of a right to tell him what to do.
For us, we have a strict rule that we come first to each other, and that is the only rule besides the STD testing that I feel matters to me. Some poly couples are upset by the idea of their emotional primary developing feelings of love for another person, but I have never found that to be a concern for me. Loving another person is fine. However, because trust is so important to us, and because we are a team and are supposed to have each other’s backs, I would be hurt if my husband put someone before me when I needed him.
Again, these rules are different for everyone. And for my husband and I, it has depended on if we were in the same place or not. I might ignore a message from him when we live apart if I am on a date, which would seem to the casual observer to be putting someone else before him. But to us, when we live apart, it’s important to be where you are. And so, I would chat with him after my date instead, telling him as many or as few details as he wanted.
If you are not sure what you are comfortable with and what you want in a relationship, there are a lot of books that can help. My favorite is Opening Up, because it has worksheets and detailed explanations of common emotions people experience in various situations.
I think the most important part is to be honest with yourself. Emotions are tricky things that can sneak up and bite you when you aren’t looking. Take some time to really get to know yourself, because it will help you decide in what ways you are comfortable interacting with another person.
Then, remember to be honest with your partner. If you want to change a point that you have already negotiated, let them know how and why you want to change it, and have a discussion about comfort zones.
Remember to always be respectful of your partner’s feelings and your own. If they want to spend the night with someone and you are not okay with that, don’t sit at home and stew about how angry you are! Be honest with them, and talk about why this limit is important to you.
(For me, I am fine with him spending the night places, but not with girls spending the night at our house unless the three of us intend to play together.)
Take each other’s feelings into account in each step of the dating process, and try to always make sure that your partner isn’t just saying that they are okay when they really aren’t.
Of course you will have situations where you get really angry. Your emotional primary will not always see things the same way as you. You might even get angry enough to yell! But this is normal, and sometimes it can’t be helped. There are not standardized rules for these types of relationships, and there is no traditional script. A normal monogamous relationship is full of reinforced cultural bias that seems to lurk in every sitcom, book, or story of any kind. And these cultural stereotypes create a model for a relationship, so that you are rarely stepping outside of a paradigm that feels safe.
In a poly relationship, you are often stepping out of your comfort zone and into all kinds of territory that is strange and uncharted. So take it one day at a time and figure out what works for you. Be patient with yourself and with your partner. As long as you can always do that, you should be fine.