Tips for Good Communication in Poly Relationships

by: Cassandra Warren

“Communication, communication, communication: it’s all about communication,” my dad and I conclude in unison. This is the single most important thing that has helped me maintain all the relationships in my life. Also, I’ve found it especially important in poly relationships because, for me, these relationships have been like re-inventing the wheel.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term polyamory, I’ll briefly say this: its basis is in reconstructing a non-traditional way of viewing intimate relationships with multiple people. It can take on different forms, meanings and experiences for each relationship, set of relationships, or an individual. For these reasons, I feel uncomfortable giving any more than this brief introduction to the term. I find it best to think of it as reconstructing a new way of understanding relationships. If you want a more specific definition, I encourage you to do your own research, participation and come to your own interpretation.

Without further ado, here are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way for creating and maintaining good communication in poly relationships.

You’re creating your own terms and new boundaries (expanding or retracting) for relationships, so explore!

As I mentioned, try to think of reconstructing your understanding of relationships. Forget what you know about what is expected out of a relationship. Now you have a blank slate, tabula rasa. It’s time to discover what you want your relationships to be. Since it’s not just you in a relationship, share these discoveries with your partners; either separately or together if you all know each other or want to know each other. Things you can ask yourself or your partners are: What do I/you desire? What kind of relationship do I/you see my/yourself building? What do I/you want to share with people? What do I/you want to experience with me/people?

This will likely change with various people you want to have a relationship with. Thus, talking about these things with each other is an important part of understanding what you each want.  Discussing these things together will also help determine if you are on the same page with what you each want, and if you can respect each others’ wishes, boundaries and desires.

Whichever boundaries you set in place, realize that they should never be set in stone.

Since you are creating your own relationship you are likely to establish boundaries, for some this is safe sex practices, for others it is levels of emotional intimacy or amount of time devoted. And, since (a) this is an exploratory process, (b) we change over time and (c) every relationship is different and also changes over time, it is logical to assume that what you (or your partners) want will evolve or change. Setting things in stone makes it difficult to bring topics or discussions back up, it assumes that you or your partners will not change your mind about a boundary, and it assumes that you can’t change things when different desires or explorations surface.

I recommend chatting with your partners every couple of months (or whenever you feel like it’s been a while) to touch base. Just ask: How are things going for you? Are you satisfied with our relationship as it is now? Is there something you have really enjoyed? Is there an aspect that makes you feel uncomfortable? Touching base often helps keep little issues from turning into big issues, and allows us to explore our feelings instead of keeping them in, which can often lead to shame or guilt. I also think that just recognizing that your desires are fluid and open to change facilitates open discussion and communication.

Your boundaries don’t have to be the same as your partners.

For example, I have a friend who is in a relationship with a long-term partner: he is monogamous but she is in different types of relationships with other people. I have an asexual friend who doesn’t have a desire to have physical intimacy be apart of their relationships, but her partner(s) are not asexual and desire to have physical intimacy with their other partner(s). This is why it is important to have a discussion of boundaries, and then you can decide if you and your partners can respect each other’s wishes and desires.

When a partner does something that upsets you, talk about it but frame it around how the action made you feel.

For example, use phrases like: “When you did/said X, Y and Z, I experienced feelings of X, Y and Z.” This keeps partners from feeling attacked and getting defensive, thus allowing you to tackle the issue without getting wrapped up in who unintentionally hurt who.

Don’t feel guilty if you experience feelings of jealousy.

Shaming yourself or your partners for feelings you/they experience is a big no-no in my book. I always say, “You can’t help how you feel, only how you react to those feelings.” Talking about jealousy can be very difficult because it can arouse shame in yourself or guilt in your partners or both.  I find it best to not instantly reject jealousy when I feel it — but also not run wild with it. I say, “Okay, I accept that I am experiencing the feeling of jealousy, and I can’t reject something in myself.”

So, I ask: where does this feeling come from? Why do I feel like this? Has what I wanted changed or am I just letting traditional expectations of relationships get in the way of how I really feel? If the feeling continues then I talk to my partner(s) about it and bring to the table suggestions for what I would like to happen.

For example, I may say, “When X, Y or Z happened, I experienced feelings of jealousy. Those feelings haven’t gone away, but I don’t want to change our situation, I just want you to be aware of the fact that I am working through this feeling because I don’t want to feel like this.” The thing I have realized is that it’s very easy for me to talk about my politics and beliefs/theory around poly relationships, but quite another to live it “spiritually,” so to speak. Re-interpreting learned notions of love, respect, romance and intimate relationships takes conscious thought and communication with yourself and with others.

You might have to have several conversations on one particular boundary.

It sometimes takes time to fully understand what a boundary means for a partner or even to yourself. Miscommunication happens because we all have different perspectives and assumptions around language that we use when we discuss aspects of our relationships. And let’s be honest: not all of us are the best communicators and it takes time to learn how we communicate with each other. So, prepare yourself to have multiple conversations about a particular boundary. Having those touching-base conversations usually accomplishes covering this topic.

As a concluding thought, I want to add that I would really appreciate hearing your comments or communication tips, as these are based in my personal experiences and this process is on-going. My experience has also taught me that implementing these suggested tips for communication are not without their difficulties, trial and error, or a personalized touch. However, it has gotten easier when I try my best to stick to these tips. Thus far, for me, being exploring my feelings and desires, recognizing my relationships as fluid, and encouraging communication has been the most important practice in building and maintaining respectful relationships.

Cassandra Warren is an activist, writer and community organizer. Hir research and writing explores sexual politics, intimacy and communication, and the relationship between stigma, sexual health, and rights. Warren has organized for Queeristan and Starry Nights KY and is currently organizing with the collective of sex workers and allies organizing for the International Aids Conference 2012. Warren recently received her MSc, with concentrations in gender and sexuality from the University of Amsterdam. Warren enjoys Kentucky bourbon, road trips, surrealist games and a nicely organized planner.

2 responses to “Tips for Good Communication in Poly Relationships

  1. Good stuff, Cassandra. Thanks for posting.

    Re. yr section on jealousy .. i’m thinking it would be nice to add the perspective of the other partner, ie. how to respond when your partner is feeling jealous of you. Validating their feelings can be important, as can regularly checking in about how they’re going emotionally, asking them what they’d find helpful, reassuring them of the strength of your feelings for them, etc. Coming home when you said you would also works pretty well, too! 😉

    best wishes

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