These days, I don’t think that you can have a conversation about conscious relationship without talking about polyamory. For me, it usually comes up in a couple different contexts – first, it can simply be when I’m talking with someone who is already actively exploring polyamory and wondering how to do it better, or is single and pondering whether polyamory might be right for them. And then there are couples who are currently monogamous who are thinking about the possibility of opening up their relationship to other partners – for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes that can work, and other times…not so much. There’s also the experience of jealousy – that almost always comes up in conversations about polyamory – although it’s relevant for everyone no matter what your relationship status.
How do you know if polyamory is right for you? How do you know if your currently monogamous relationship could benefit from opening things up, or if it’s a bad idea? And how do you handle jealousy in your life – no matter what your circumstances?
On today’s episode, we’re talking with Janet W. Hardy, co-author with Dossie Easton of the Book “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures”. Janet is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic of how to have a healthy experience with polyamory, and she’s on the show to tackle the questions we just raised – and more. It’s going to be quite a wide-ranging conversation that, I hope, will offer something useful for you no matter how you’re thinking about polyamory, or the effects of jealousy, in your own life.
Polyamory is self-defined. Polyamory is everything and anything from a long-term multi-year relationship with more than one person to a circle of sexual friends, to a committed couple who brings another into their bedroom from time to time. The terminology is not nearly as important as if it is working or not.
What makes for a successful poly relationship? What makes poly work, is really similar to what makes any relationship work. This includes being respectful of each other’s boundaries but willing to try things that are a little challenging, sharing responsibility and taking care of life’s commitments, and making sure that that everyone’s needs are being met. Polyamory does however, often require more time and the ability to manage complex schedules! Not to mention, incredibly honed self-awareness and communication skills. Many people go in and out of monogamy as life circumstances change. Getting your PhD and raising 2 children? Might not be the time to start exploring multiple partners!
Worthwhile discussions: Whether or not you consider yourself monogamous or poly, there are some very important conversations that help set expectations and create mutual understanding. Get curious and vulnerable in your questions- what is within the agreement and what is not? Porn. Masturbation. Flirting. Sexting. All of these things must be discussed together with your partner(s) and clear agreements must be made.
Remember that knowing your boundaries is YOUR responsibility- not anyone else’s. This is where self-awareness is critical! We cannot negotiate for agreements if we do not know what our needs are!
Is becoming poly ever the answer to relationship problems? Rarely. Becoming poly is a choice, not a prescription or a solution. Only in the case that there is a healthy, happy and sustained couple in which one person wants a different kind of sex (more kink, rougher, gender switch, etc)- then maybe. Unless a couple has very developed communication skills and a willingness to try things that may feel challenging, than this is not the time.
Jealousy has nothing to do with the other- it has to do with ME. People in poly situations have learned this over and over. They have chosen to make a commitment (and to recommit) to learning how to survive jealousy. There are skills and perspectives that help deal with the hurt without it growing out of proportion or becoming a limiting factor in connection. We have a cultural tendency and belief that jealousy is the most terrible of emotions- and further, that it entitles us to act out in horrible ways. But what if we can learn to see jealousy as a gift? It is like a neon blinking arrow that brightly highlights the things that we do not like about ourselves. And when we can see this we can take care of it! Because, in essence, jealousy is simply a sense of feeling bad that is projected onto another.
When you have survived a jealousy storm – you learn that it gets easier! When we have surges of intense emotion we have the tendency to create stories. Challenge yourself to get curious. What if this is just energy that I am experiencing? What if this isn’t what I think it is? Over time you will develop a set of skills and muscles that will help you take care of yourself as you navigate through jealousy. When we let go of the idea that it is anybody’s job but our own to get through jealousy then we gain a clearer idea of what we can do to soothe ourselves.
Requests to restore safety and connection: Self-care during jealousy storms do not necessarily have to be a solo experience. Advocate for your needs by asking your partner to show care and safety through actions- calling, cuddling, special dates, gifts, etc. These requests, when they come from a self-aware partner and not too overly dependent place, are critical in restoring safety for the person who is feeling angry/sad/scared. Furthermore, take a close look at the jealousy. Often times there is underlying grief for the loss of imagined partnership and future.
Me, and the things I don’t like about myself. Sometimes jealousy manifests in racing looping thoughts. At this point, get out a sketchpad or a journal and write or express all of your thoughts on the issue. When we bring underlying fears, worries, and concerns to consciousness we are more able to see them for what they are- we see that most of our pain is not what others are doing to us, but rather our insecurities manifesting. Remember humor, and remember self-compassion.
We all make compromises to be in relationship. The surest way you can tell that you don’t have an agreement is when one partner does not agree to it anymore! If one partner is consistently violating an agreement, then it needs to be reevaluated. If an agreement cannot be reached than the partner who feels that their agreement was violated has to learn to either 1) live with the reality that the agreement is going to get breached, or 2) decide that they cannot live with it and move towards a respectful end to the relationship.
Embracing conflict: Arguments do not necessarily have to be places of disconnection. And they do not have to be inflamed. In fact, arguments are incredibly powerful conversations that help clarify various perspectives. Learning to argue without inflammation is a skill and an art worth practicing with your partner(s). Get creative! Schedule your ‘fights’. Set aside 20 minutes that are dedicated to a specific conflict. Doing so can allow for the reactive emotions to settle before diving in, and allows for safer and more patient fighting that increases the spaciousness necessary to evolve how you think as a couple. Do not, however, forget to use a timer! Give person A 3 minutes to make their point, then give 1 minute for silent reflection, and then 3 minutes for person B. Have an agreed upon ending- we all know that the desire to have the last word in arguments makes them more raw, dangerous, and divisive.
TIP: Together create a place in the house for open dialogue! Or a specific piece of clothing that you don for times you want to communicate to your partner “Hey babe! I’d love to talk now- can you join me for this conversation?” A specific couch, a a candle you light, or an old t-shirt.
SAFE word: As is common in the BDSM community- it is incredibly helpful to have a shared key word that either partner can use when they sense there needs to be a time out, or a redirection. Together you need to have a way to communicate that you are too triggered, upset, or reactive, and that you want to come back together when you are both feeling a little safer and saner. Make it fun- find something that has shared humor!
Monogamy does not mean that you do not get horny for other people! Monogamous or not, we all will be attracted to other people and have desires throughout our lives. That said, it can be challenging at times to know when to accept desires as passing inevitabilities, and when to try opening your relationship. It is key that the interest in opening a relationship comes only from a solid and stable place- the relationship should be working on almost all levels.
Tolerable discomfort: One way you can tell if a poly relationship is working is that the one partner who is wanting poly a little less feels slightly out of their comfort zone and the other one who is more interested in poly is feeling a little bit confined. If everyone is just a little tolerably uncomfortable then it is working! Remember, this all requires incredible levels of curiosity and compassion, and communication! Fierce intimacy is possible when everyone is communicating well!
Bring your questions into conversation with your partner in a way that is thoughtful. It is critical to always have a lot of love and care for your partner when discussing sexual and romantic needs, but never as critical as it is the first few times you bring it up. Do not surprise your partner, or come heavy handed. Be gentle, yet clear, and start by simply saying “Hey babe, I want to share that I am thinking about this…” . Perhaps you can start by sharing erotica, looking at personal ads, or spinning fantasies together. You might try free associating some thoughts about what your life would or could look like with new agreements. Some couples then try sharing their bed with a third- this might be all you end up doing, or just a stepping stone to further explorations.
Easy things to get you to hard places: This is a great exercise to do together to help explore your edges: Get a pack of index cards and have both of you separately write down everything you could imagine your partner doing with another person. Be very specific. Order these cards into a hierarchy of things that seem tolerable to things that seem impossibly difficult. You will learn a lot about your partner- but also about yourself! The things that you thought were going to be very difficult may very well become possible, and vice-versa! Most people surprise themselves. If poly is new to you and you are having a difficult time warming into the concept- think about what is in it for you. This might be anything from having a happier partner, to more time for yourself, or more time to explore stuff that YOU are excited about. Remember poly is a spectrum that can be defined in many ways- there are a lot of possibilities. That said, if you are a definite NO, clearly articulate this to your partner is a non-shaming way.
Do versus Don’t Agreements: For those of you just beginning to explore polyamory, you will be highly focused on your agreements about what is and is not allowed. These often come in the form of ‘Don’ts’, but over time invite in a shift towards what you do do. For example, “I don’t want you to have intercourse with her” might become “after you have intercourse with her, I really need you back in bed for some reassurance and a sense of your physical presence”. Things you agree to DO are much easier to administer and bring in a sense of motivation, energy and vibrancy to the relationship. Learn ways you can reconnect- baths, massages, dinners, gifts, hot springs, etc. and incorporate these into your agreements!
Lastly: Find a poly community!!! The lack of role models can be really difficult. Plus, once immersed in a poly community you will learn from others how to navigate boundaries, jealousy, negotiations, compromises, and even gain valuable insight into what is possible in the bedroom and out!
Learn more about Janet’s work and read her recent writing on her website
For more on this topic check out Erotic Mind- Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfilment
Polyamory and Jealousy: A More Than Two essentials guide is a workbook for couples in open relationships dealing with jealousy and can be found on the More Than Two website
http://www.neilsattin.com/poly Visit to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide to this episode and qualify to win a signed copy of Janet Hardy’s book.
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