Polyamory Etiquette: Let’s Talk Invitations

Invitations can range from, “hey, wanna come over and catch Jessica Jones?” to engraved vellum cardstock begging the “pleasure of your company” at a wedding or other major event.

That’s formality. There’s another range for invitations: who’s invited. Usually, there is a set standard. You can invite one person. You can invite one person and a guest. You can invite a couple. Or you can invite a family (kids included).

Scaling this to poly can get…interesting. Who is included in a family invite? If a friend invites me to a casual movie night and mentions the evening is kid friendly, does that invite include just me and the kids? My nesting partner? All my partners? Not exactly clear. (Yes, if you are reading this, I AM talking about you :P)

So for the next few weeks, we are going to be taking a look at invitations, formal and informal. Please join me, and friends and family welcome.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Set Clear Boundaries and Expectations”

I’ve written a fair bit about boundaries in the past. There is a fair bit of theoretical discussion in polyamory about the benefits of using boundaries or agreements in relationships. Theory aside, no matter which you use for relationships, we all have personal boundaries. For instance, many people have a boundary about respect in relationships. They will not be in a relationship with someone who does not respect them.

According to the Big Book of Poly, it’s important to have clear boundaries. Unclear boundaries lead to miscommunication and people accidentally infringing our boundaries. Which is why clearly stating our boundaries is important.

However, the idea that we need to set clear boundaries assumes that are needs and desires are generally stable. Or at least predictable. “I need to be left alone right after work so I can recharge, but after I come out f my room I love to have you cuddle with me.”

Okay, I’m not phrasing it as a boundary, but it is a clearly set expectation, right?

So, for me, most of my triggery issues involve sex. I love to have my breasts played with–except when my anxiety or PTSD are acting up, in which case you can send me into a panic attack just brushing my nipple. Worse, sometimes I don’t know what’s going on in my head. I can think I’m fine for some sexy time, until you touch me and my brain blows a circuit.

How do I set a clear boundary or expectation about that?

“I love it when you play with my boobs, except when hate it. And I can’t always tell you ahead of time if it’s okay or not. So…we’ll play it by ear, okay?

Well, that’s clearly stated, at least. But not exactly a clear boundary.

When our partner’s ask us about our boundaries, or needs, or what works for us, there’s a pressure to find a way to smush all our illness-related unpredictably into a neat box that we can explain and understand. We owe it to our partners, right?

We don’t owe our partners clear boundaries. We owe are partners the truth.

Own Your Randomness

I don’t know anyone with mental illness who doesn’t wish that the random firings of our brains would go the fuck away. It would be nice to be able to predict for ourselves how we’re doing and what we need from one day to the next, never mind our partners.

Since we can’t, the best we do for our partners is the same thing we do for ourselves: own the randomness and try to plan for it.

“I can’t give you a clear idea of my needs and boundaries. I’m sorry about that but what I need changes a lot with how my mental illness it doing. I can promise to tell you in each moment what I need or want to the best of my ability. And I’ll try to explain how my illness affects me and my needs, so you have some idea of what to expect depending on how I’m doing.”

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s honest, it’s respectful, and it’s the best we’ve got.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Polyamory Etiquette: Bumping Into Your Metamour

I missed a few posts in April, so look for these bonus posts throughout May as I get caught up.

If you and your various poly partners and their various poly parters live in the same area, sooner or later you’re going to bump into each other at a local fair, browsing the grocery store, or at the movie theater. At base, bumping into your metamour is no different from bumping into your brother’s friends. Someone you know, to one extent or another, who is in a relationship with someone you have a relationship with. The big difference is that your brother and his friends probably aren’t hiding their friendship. Your poly partners and/or their metamours may be in the closet about being poly.

You will almost certainly know if your poly partners are in the closet or not. (If you don’t, ask them. Now.) However you may not know anything about your metamours other than the name they use in poly circles. Which may not be the name you use publicly.

On the other hand, and especially if you practice kitchen table polyamory, your metamour may be your friend as well. You may not only know whether or not they are in the closet, but exactly how much hell their mother gave them for not yet bringing home a date to meet the family.

If Your and Your Metamour Know Each other Well

Follow the same guidelines as you would for running into a poly partner in public.

If You and Your Metamour Don’t Know Each other Well

It’s probably safest to politely ignore each other. Even if you think you have a safe explanation for how you know each other (“I’m dating someone in their apartment building.”) you never know when that might just cause more trouble. (Nosy neighbor who was in the next aisle, “Oh? I’m surprised I haven’t seen you. Are you Mark’s new SO, then? I hear he’s back in the dating game.”)

Never Be Offended By Being Ignored

In most spaces, ignoring someone you know is disrespectful. However, when someone might be in the closet, ignoring them is actually respectful. Specifically, it’s respecting their right to decide who knows about a private part of their life. If someone you know through your poly network or community ignores you in public, assume they are either protecting themselves or trying to protect you. If you are comfortable with being seen in public together, wait until you see each other somewhere poly-friendly to ask them if they’d be okay with you coming up and saying hi in public.

Polyamory Etiquette: Running into a Poly Partner in Public

Life was even crazier than usual last month, and in the craziness I completely forgot that I’d been going to get in depth on how to handle unexpected encounters with poly partners, metamours, friends and family. With that in mind, this today we’ll be looking at how to handle it when you run into one of your poly partners in public.

But first, a quick review:

Running into a poly partner when you don’t expect to can be amazing or awkward depending on the circumstance and whether or not you are both (all) out of the closet. With that in mind, be prepared–

Know if your partner(s) are out or not (about being poly AND about any other parts of the identity that may cause them problems at work/school/home)

Know how they want to be addressed in public–this includes both their public name and their public gender

And if you don’t know these things, play it safe. Assume PDAs are off the table, avoid gendered pronouns until your partner has a chance to clue you in. (Luckily, English doesn’t have gender for second person pronouns “you” can be any gender.) Generally assume that outting them can ruin their lives–because depending on person, place and circumstance, it might.

Hopefully, you and your partners all know how you prefer to be addressed in public and if you are out or not. So we are going to look at three different scenarios: if you are both (all) out, if one of you is out and one of you isn’t, and if neither (none) of you are out.

Everybody’s Out!

You and your partner are both loud and proud about being poly. You may need to avoid mentioning that kinky play party you went to last weekend, but you don’t need to worry about hiding your relationship.

Wandering down the grocery aisle, you see Partner
You: Hey, Partner!
Partner: (You)! I didn’t know you shopped here.
Hugs, kisses, handshakes, whathave you

Continue as you would meeting any friend.

Some Are Out, Some Are In

You are out about your relationship style, but your partner is keeping things on the low down. Maybe a few trusted friends know, but no one else. Let the person who is the closet set the level of interaction.

In that grocery aisle again
You: (See partner, say nothing. wave or not politely if that’s normal for you.)
Partner: (waves back)

Or maybe
You: (See partner, say nothing. wave or nod politely if that’s normal for you.)
Partner: Hi, (You). Nice seeing you again.
You: You too. I didn’t expect to run into you here.
(Continue as if acquaintances who know each other to talk too)

Or:
You: (See partner, say nothing. wave or nod politely if that’s normal for you.)
Partner: (Grabs you for a quick hug) Olee, olee in-free! I never shop here, so it’s safe if we’re careful. God I’ve missed you!

In the US, medical professionals need to follow the HIPAA law. According to HIPAA if a doctor sees a patient in public, in order to protect their privacy the doctor needs to act like they don’t know the patient. If, and only if, the patient approaches the doctor (thus “outting” themself) can the doctor interact with them. When you run into a closeted poly partner out and about, this is a good rule to follow.

Possible exception: if you have a non-poly related connection

Back in that grocery store
You: (See partner who is also a classmate) Hi (Partner), we missed you in class last week. How was your trip?
Partner: It was good. I’m really feeling that missed workout, though. Was it the usual routine or did the instructor start something new?

It’s A Crowded Closet

You and your partner are both in the closet. It’s probably best to be discreet. It may be a safe spot for you, but you can’t be sure that your partner’s co-worker isn’t in the next aisle over.

You: (See partner, say nothing. wave or nod politely if that’s normal for you.)
Partner: (Same)

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Book Review: When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous by Dr. Elizabeth Sheff

book review when someone you love is polyamorousA few years ago, I said that with Dr. Sheff’s The Polyamorist’s Next Door we finaly had a book to share with friends and family trying to understand polyamory. Dr. Sheff has done herself one better.

When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous is a clearly laid out book that introduces the basic concepts of polyamory in simple, easy to understand language. Topics include advantages and challenges of polyamory, why are people polyamorous, and children in polyamory.

Dr. Sheff doesn’t sugarcoat the problems in polyamory, including the lack of diversity among people willing and able to be openly polyamorous. She does lay out clearly what polyamory is, why it works for some people, and why it isn’t cheating or religious-style polygyny. I especially appreciate Dr. Sheff’s taking the time to explain why many poly folk want to “come out” to friends and family, and how friends and family can be supportive.

There are two things I would have liked to see in this book. The first is an explicit acknowledgement of the variety in polyamory. Dr. Sheff does describe several different ways people structure polyamorous relationships. Still I would have liked to see something like “Every polyamorous relationship is different. What you see in TV or the media may not be anything like the relationships your loved ones form.”

The other I would have liked to see addressed is abuse. You’d think “non-abusive” would be covered under “ethical” “honest” and “consensual.” But I’ve known a number of people who believed a poly relationship had to be abusive or coercive. Best to grasp that bull by the horns. “People who don’t understand polyamory may fear their loved one is being abused. The vast majority of polyamorous relationships are non-abusive and abuse seems to occur in polyamory (about as often/slightly more often/slightly less often) than in monogamy. If you have specific concerns about the way your loved one is being treated in their relationships, don’t focus on polyamory. Instead talk with your lloved ones about the specific issues that concern you.”

Those two points aside, When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous is a well written and useful book. I recommend it for anyone considering coming out to their friends and family, or anyone who has come out but is having trouble getting their loved ones to understand and accept their relationships.

Introducing Your Polyamory Partners and Metamours

Introductions are fairly universal. You bring person A over to Person B and you say “Person B, I’d like to introduce Person A” or some variation on that theme. In a social situation, it can be good to add something about the person. “Person A is a big Star Trek fan.” Try to make this something that will give the two something to talk about.

Names

When introducing someone it is “proper” to give both their full name and their title or relationship with you. So a “proper” introduction between your mother and your poly partner might be:

Mom, this is my poly partner, Francene Brook. Fran, this is my mother, Wanda Stiles.

Keep in mind, however, that poly etiquette is based not on propriety, but on honesty and respect. Not everyone likes their given name, not everyone wants their family name to be known, and many people have chosen names they prefer to use. Part of respect is introducing people by the names they want to be known by. So a poly introduction between your mother and your poly partner might be:

Mom, this is my poly partner, Fran. Fran, this is my mother, Mrs. S.

In formal situations, for instance at a work event, you are better off giving everyone’s full name. Having your boss think you are being disrespectful generally goes under the category of a Bad Thing. However, you can still respect people’s name preference by saying something like:

Mr. Jones, this is my partner Francene Brook. She goes by Fran.

Describing Relationships

It’s usually a good idea to include relationships in you introductions so people know what kind of social situation you are in. Your mother’s interactions with your boss are going to be very different from your mother’s interactions with your poly partners. For one thing, your mother probably won’t be tempted to show your baby pictures to someone from work. (Or you can hope anyway.)

Not giving people an idea of the relationships involved can lead to awkward social situations. It is slightly more respectful to include those relationships to help people avoid that awkwardness. However, you should not feel like you need to give a relationship with everyone you introduce. There is nothing wrong with saying:

Mom, this is Fran. Fran, this is Mrs. S.

If you do describe your relationships, try to use terms that the people you are introducing identify as. Your mother is probably comfortable being introduced as your mother. But Fran may prefer to identify as your girlfriend, you SO, you fiance, or your friend.

Similarly, Steve, who is dating Fran, may prefer to be introduced as your metamour, Fran’s OSO, Fran’s boyfriend, a friend, or something else.

Order of Introductions

If you are introducing several people from your polycule the formal approach would be to introduce them in order of entwinement:

Mom, this is my girlfriend Fran. She’s another stitch witch. And this is Fran’s boyfriend Steve. He’s the one to talk to if you want to know about film production. Fran, Steve, this is my mother Mrs. S.

If everyone is equally entwined or in informal situations, just go from left to right (or right to left, depending on which direction your language reads in.)

Mom, this is my girlfriend Fran. Next to Fran is her boyfriend, Steve. And on the other side of Steve is my partner Nick.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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The First Rule of Polyamory Etiquette: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

Next week we’ll start on tips and guidelines for dealing with specific situations. For now, I want to address an important point that is more important than anything else I will say about etiquette.

When it comes to social situations involving your poly partners, or their poly partners, don’t be afraid to ask.

  • “How would you like me to introduce you to people?”
  • “How do you feel about PDAs?”
  • “I know you’re partly in the closet. If I run into you around town is it okay for me to say hi?”

If you know there are situations you are likely to run into, ask ahead of time. You won’t be able to prepare for everything, but be prepared for what you can. It will make life easier and seriously reduce your social stress quotient.

Fluid Bonding and Safe Sex

Fluid bonding is a common term in polyamory safe sex discussions. Fluid bonding commonly means having sex without a condom or other barrier method. The idea being that your fluids are mingling and joining together.

In hierarchical poly relationships, fluid bonding it usually reserved for the primary couple or group. In egalitarian or solo poly fluid bonding is a sign of a highly entwined relationship and a great deal of trust. It is also a potential minefield.

Fluid Bonding and STIs

One of the more popular discussed reasons for fluid bonding is it reduces the risk of getting infected with an STI. By only having barrier-free sex with people you trust, you get some of the benefits of a closed relationship (barrier free sex, lack of worries about infection with the people you have sex with most often) while still being open. So far so good, right?

Here’s where the trouble comes in: barriers are not 100% effective in preventing STIs. For instance, the last time I checked the research, male condoms were believed to be 80% effective in reducing transmission of HIV. 80% risk reduction is damned good—but it is not risk-free. And barriers still only protect against some STIs. It is still possible for people in fluid bonded relationships to pick up an infection and spread it to their fluid bonded partners.

Whether or not you are fluid bonded, you still need to get tested, regularly.

Fluid Bonding and Pregnancy

Whether or not you prefer to practice fluid bonding, pregnancy throws a wrench in the works. Some people rely on fluid bonding to prevent pregnancy outside the “main” relationship. Some people prefer not to fluid bond, but want to have a baby. In both cases, it is vitally important to remember that there is no such thing as 100% effective birth control.

I’ve harped on this point until I’m blue in the face. The vast majority of people who think they are protected from unexpected pregnancy, aren’t.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use fluid bonding as part of your birth control plan. It does mean you need to be honest with yourself about the risks of whatever approach to birth control you choose.

Fluid Bonding and Assumptions

Fluid bonding requires using barrier methods with everyone other than your fluid bonded partners. Simple, right?

Well, if your partner agreed to fluid bonding because they were worried about pregnancy, they may not see a need to use dental dams. You, in the meantime, are trying to reduce your STI exposure and assume barrier methods are being used with all genital contact. Can you say “Recipe for drama?”

Whatever your reason for fluid bonding, check your assumptions at the door. Make sure you and your partner(s) are on the same page about what you expect. Whether your relationship is built on agreements or boundaries, don’t let assumptions bite you on the ass.

When Polyamory Triggers Abuse

I have said before—and I stand by it—that polyamory is not abusive. Unfortunately, starting a polyamorous relationship, or opening up an existing relationship, can be a trigger for abuse. And if you’ve read about the roots of abuse, you know why.

One of the causes of abuse is insecurity. Some people are insecure in their relationship, or in themselves, or just in life in general, and they respond by trying to control everything around them. If just looking at someone attractive triggers jealousy, triggers abuse, the abuser in question is probably reacting out of insecurity.

And for people who have grown up in a monogamous culture, with a monogamous mindset (and let’s face it, that’s most of us), polyamory exposes a shit-ton of insecurities. All kinds of fears that can be silenced in a monogamous relationship–
what is they like their new So more than me?
What is someone is better in bed than me?
Why do they want to date someone else? It must be because I’m not good enough!
…and a whole host of others suddenly become very in-your-face when polyamory is on the table. And some people react to fears by trying to control the thing that makes them afraid.

It’s important to realize that polyamory didn’t create these fears. Going back to monogamy won’t get rid of them. They’ve always been there. But just like you don’t think about being afraid of heights when you are on the ground, you don’t think about your partner liking someone else better when there isn’t anyone else.

To be clear—there is no pattern fo who in a relationship will need to confront these kinds of insecurities. You might expect it to be most common among people who did not themselves want to try polyamory. However I have seen it just as often among people who convinced their partners to try polyamory—and then found the reality a lot different than they expected.

If your partner never tried to control your choices or behavior before. Never held your relationship over your head or used emotional blackmail, and now they are, you might be in a situation where their insecurities about polyamory triggered abuse.

For pretty damn obvious reasons, this can destroy a relationship. However, the destruction is often agonizingly drawn out.

What do you do when you realize that your relationship has become abusive, and if you think the abuse has been triggered by polyamory?

The first thing to do is make sure you are (physically) safe. This can include safe from physical abuse, safe from being pushed into suicidal thoughts by mental/emotional abuse, and having safe access to food, shelter, financial resources, etc.

Touch base with your support system—friends, the rest of your polycule, family, crisis networks, etc.

Next, check your boundaries. Mental and emotional abuse are most effective when you have weak boundaries. One thing the poly community does have great resources on is establishing and enforcing boundaries. Read up.

Finally, talk with your abusive partner. In this situation, your partner isn’t trying to be abusive. They are acting out of fear and uncertainty. So I suggest avoiding the word abuse entirely at this stage. Instead, use phrases such as “trying to control.” “Abuse” is a very loaded word and may shut the conversation down before it starts.

“I love you, and I know you are scared. I know you don’t want to hurt me. But you have been trying to control me. And that does hurt me, and it hurts our relationship.”

Where you go from there is up to you. Do you want to try to salvage the relationship? Do you need a break from the relationship while you heal? Do you need to tone things down a bit, see each other less often? Or do you need out entirely? There are lots of options.

If your partner is unable to understand or accept why their behavior has been hurting you, then your options get limited. If they can understand why their behavior was hurting you, or if they are willing to try and understand, you have a lot more options moving forward.

If you are going to try to rebuild the relationship, I strongly suggest seeking out a poly-friendly relationship counselor. Also, lots of discussion of boundaries. They will still need your help and support in overcoming their insecurities, and both (all) of you will be walking a tightrope while you find ways to discuss and address those insecurities without giving up your boundaries and self-determination.

Many people assume that when there is abuse the relationship has to end. That isn’t necessarily true. An abusive relationship can be salvaged if everyone, and particularly the abuser, is willing to do the work. A person driven to abuse by insecurity may or may not be willing to do that work. It’s up to you if you want to give them the chance.

This post is part of the Abuse in Polyamory blog series.

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When Our Kids Face Discrimination for Our Relationships

In an ideal world, no one would hurt our kids because of our choices. As we’ve noted before, the world is far from ideal. If we are open about our relationships (and sometimes even if we aren’t) people’s ignorant reactions to polyamory can cause problems for our children. We need to be ready to help them cope with this discrimination, and to respond ourselves when appropriate.

Discrimination from Peers

Being different is hard for kids. That’s true at any age. I remember in 2nd grade a teacher taught my class about adoption. I ended up singled out as the only adopted kid in my class. For about a week, I fielded rude, ignorant questions and curiosity.

In 5th grade, a girl from India joined our (all white) class. I don’t know how much her being alone on the playground was just being the new girl, and how much was being different. But I distinctly remember when she and I became friends, my mother warning me it wasn’t good to become close to her. It would just separate me further from the rest of my class, she said.

And being different as a teenager is just plain hell, any way you slice it.

Our children may face rude or nasty questions about their family. They may be ostracized. They may have people pretend to be their friends only to turn around and make fun of them later.

There isn’t much we can do to protect our children from their peers. In some cases, opening your home can help. Letting their peers come visit and become familiar with their family will make our children stand out less. In these situations “contempt” for the familiar has its advantages.

Depending on what kind of discrimination they face, we can give our children tools to deal with it. Ways to respond to rude questions, taking the time to help them connect with peer groups that don’t ostracize them. They have no friends at school? Get them involved in community service groups, after school activities, 4-H, or whatever.

If at all possible, one of the best things we can do is help them connect with other children in polyamorous families. Let them see that they are not alone, that there are other kids like them, and let them share coping strategies with each other. It goes a long way!

Discrimination from Adults

The most immediately hurtful discrimination our kids face will likely be from peers. But while other children tend to be down on anyone who is different, adults are more likely to be driven by active prejudice and bigotry. (Note: I say more likely—some adults will still just be idiots, and some kids will be bigots).

Adults in a kid’s world tend to be authority figures. This means minor interactions and decisions they make can have a much larger impact on our kids lives. What kind of impact depends on the adult’s relationship with our kids.

Relatives: Discrimination from relatives is most likely to come in the form of nasty comments and gossip, refusal to acknowledge your significant others, and refusal to allow your significant others in their home. We have more leverage over relatives than most adults– “Your talk about my SO has been hurting Dave. I really don’t care what you think about my relationships, but if you can’t stop the nasty comments and gossip, I will not allow Dave to visit anymore.”

While most relatives are decent enough not to use it, in many places your relatives also have a very scary bit of leverage to use on you. Custody battles. If you think your relatives might try taking your children b/c of your relationships, check local laws in your area before putting your foot down.

Family therapy can also be a helpful option in getting relatives to back off if you can find a poly-friendly therapist. In hindsight, my mother’s refusal to try family therapy was a clue that we would never have a healthy relationship. I eventually got a court order for family therapy, but the reality is it wasn’t going to help any when she wasn’t willing to be there.

Authority Figures: Teachers, coaches, religious figures and other adults often have authority over our kids. When these authority figures are bigots, or just ignorant and ill-informed, they can cause problems. Some problems can be bureaucratic—Jean wants Mama Dawn to pick her up after school, but the school requires pick up by legal guardians only. Some problems are social—teachers whose approach to teaching about family is normative and excludes non-nuclear families. This will not only hurt our children in the classroom, but set them up for more problems with their classmates. One solution: approach the teach (or go over their head to the school) about a diverse family day. Chances are that at least one (and possibly several) kids in your child’s classroom have divorced parents, blended families, are being raised by another relative, or have two moms or two dads. You might arrange with the school for non-nuclear families to discuss how their family works.

Religious figures are potentially the most damaging, but also the easiest to avoid. If the local pastor, rabbi, or whatever doesn’t approve and makes their disapproval known in a way that harms your kids, you can switch to a different religious community. Depending on where you live, this choice may lead to social challenges with relatives or neighbors. You’ll need to decide if the disapproval of your relatives for switching churches is worth getting your kids away from a discriminatory pastor. Whether or not it is worth it will largely depend on just how discriminatory the pastor is.