Poly people seem to have a lot more to say about what we let our partners do than what we let our partners tell us. Aside from a mention of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” open relationship model and the obvious exhortation to be honest, the how of communicating about one partner to another isn’t really emphasized. I know my ex-triad spent plenty of time considering and talking about what was allowed–ultimately, anything, since we ended up with “no-rules” poly–but we didn’t consider the fact that being allowed to do, feel, and have anything does not necessarily mean your partners should hear about everything. The norms that developed permitted, if not demanded, full disclosure of every detail and development in a partner’s other relationships. By the time Nic and I broke up, compulsive honesty had become a way to abdicate responsibility. She was being excruciatingly honest about her growing flirtation with the new girl, but because everything was allowed, I was supposed to be able to hear everything without any emotional fallout. Both of us were incredibly disappointed and sometimes angry at my inability to do so, but in retrospect, our disclosure norms had set us up to fail.

I want to advocate for disclosure norms that are compassionate and intentional. Our norms at the time weren’t; they developed accidentally, a seemingly natural corollary to no-rules poly, and they made compassion very difficult. In one fight we had about the new girl, I remember pleading for Nic to “take care of me,” but under these norms, neither of us could see a way for her to do that without artificially restricting her new relationship or lying about it. Clearly the latter wasn’t an option, and while the former is an option in some forms of polyamory, it wasn’t in ours. I found myself asking for it, but as an INFJ, it broke my heart to want something I didn’t believe was right. Nic was my man and my butch and becoming my daddy; not having any tenable way to take care of me was equally heartbreaking for her.

In relationships, I like to feel that anything can be shared and anything is fair game for a question, that honesty is expected and safe. This is a solid foundation, but for it to be meaningful, partners need to build structures that encourage other dimensions of safety. Today, I suggest that it is our responsibility to think before we speak. We can and should process our own desires and feelings for one partner before telling another partner about them. We should do this in a timely manner, but we should also take our own time. Knowing and loving our partners well, we should consider what they need to know about others and why, rather than routinely sharing every detail. Knowing and loving our partners well, we should consider when and how they will be most equipped to be their best selves, by their own definitions, as they hear us.

It is also our responsibility to consider what we ourselves need to know and why. We can and should communicate with our partners about what makes us feel strong and sweet and ready to support developments in their other relationships. We should be clear about our limits, and be unafraid to help our partners care for us by reminding them of those limits when their excitement or their stress overwhelms them. In these ways, we can be compassionate and intentional.

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6 Responses to The Need to Know

  1. E says:

    It always feels fortuitous when I visit your blog. Somehow, your writing almost always exactly illuminates one problem area in my life.

    I was just thinking last night about how to tell (whether to tell) one of my lovers (lover x) about a re-sparking of a relationship between myself and a past lover. It’s X’s first time being poly, and so I often worry I’m not checking in enough, giving enough information, or giving enough support. Figuring out how to disclose developments with her is constantly nagging at my mind. I guess the answer is, as always, ask her what she wants and be flexible enough to make it safe for her change her mind. *sigh* poly is hard.

    • H says:

      Thank you for commenting! It’s so nice to hear that what I’m putting out there is insightful for someone.

      Poly is hard, man, especially for the first little (not so little) while you’re doing it. There are no guidelines! You don’t have 930802092 models of different types from family to friends to teachers to TV to books! You didn’t grow up absorbing the how-to! Be sweet to yourselves.

      • E says:

        My least favorite and most favorite thing about poly is that there is no single how-to. It seems to me that the lack of model means that all of us are always figuring out how to do it, largely by trial and error, mostly by error. Casting preemptive apologies, “forgive me when this hurts,” and the like still don’t seem fair. I guess that’s what makes “be sweet to yourselves” a lovely mantra to make.

        (As an update, my no-longer-past lover demanded I tell X, but when I asked X how much she wanted to know about the other people I see, she said she didn’t know, but nothing for now. Yayyy conflicting needs.)

  2. olive says:

    I am brand new to being in a poly relationship and this is the EXACT thing my partner and I have been specifically stressing about for weeks now. It is so difficult to find a middleground of sharing that works – thanks for posting this, because this is completely the kind of thing I need to be reading right now. You are wonderful.

  3. S L says:

    From me, too, a huge thankyou H for posting your thoughts about this!
    My only try at being poly ended in a breakup quite soon, and the troubles about what to tell and how to make least harm were a factor in the breakup. I think about it a lot, because I do want to try again.
    What I struggle even more with is, as you mentioned, that we have to work it all out for ourselves without many rolemodels. So your advice “Be sweet to yourselves” is something I will def take to my heart. Never stop trying what feels right for you<3

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