Is Polyamory Enough To Make Me Dateable?
This piece is Katie’s Klabusich’s third dispatch from the front lines of her romantic life for the #ItsTotallyMe dating series, which follows Establishment writers Klabusich and Wagatwe Wanjuki as they utilize professional matchmakers and the insights of various experts to get to the bottom of their perpetual singledom. You can read the series’ introductory post here, Klabusich’s first solo dispatch here, and second solo dispatch here.
I yearned for years to have what I saw other people having, often with seemingly little effort. Friends, family, and co-workers fell in and out of relationships and spent time pondering who to date and whether to stay with a partner as though there would always be options and opportunities.
My frustration — now that I have a little distance from it — was more with myself than it was with having an intense desire for the typical committed relationships around me. Why didn’t anyone want me? Why was the only person I attracted for almost 20 years an abusive trash fire of a human?
This ongoing attempt — manifested in this #ItsTotallyMe series — to figure out if my inability to attract someone is totally about me or just epic bad luck led me to a glimmer of hope: What if I simply hadn’t been looking for the right kind of person?
A few months ago, I began to consider that “dating my species” — as sex educator Reid Mihalko would say — could save me from being undateable. After all, I hadn’t longed for a boyfriend or someone to build a life with because I desperately wanted to fit in or be like everyone else. (I’d been too much of an outcast most of my life to care much about that.)
Rather, I was lonely and felt unloved because the last and only time someone had said they loved me, wanted only me, and saw me in their life forever, I’d been 16 — a kid. I never had the opportunity I saw come and go — even for people who seem to me to be unequivocally unpleasant. If all of the people around me were able to at least occasionally find partnership and someone who desired them, what the fuck was wrong with me?
The longer I was alone, the lonelier I got. If anything, the four-ish-year stretch when I was mostly with my ex did little to quell the fear that there was something inherently wrong with me. It wasn’t just the abusive dynamic; it was his habit of only saying nice things coercively — the rare, but regularly panic-induced, “but I love you!” if I looked like I was really done this time.
By the time my thirties were flying by, it had been almost 10 years since anyone had told me they loved me — almost 20 since someone understood what those words meant. It’s easy to understand why I’d begun to assume I was unloveable. That intensified as months dragged on with such little success — despite having a professional looking on both coasts on my behalf. Not wanting to give up, I enlisted the help of another expert — one who was more versed in my particular species.
Tristan Taormino’s resume is extensive. The author, sex educator, feminist pornographer (seriously, check it out), and activist is also the host of Sex Out Loud — the show I credit with introducing me to both Reid Mihalko and the concept of polyamory. She teaches classes and writes about everything from negotiating relationships to female orgasms to the joys of anal sex. “Well-rounded” doesn’t even begin to describe her. I may have geeked out when she agreed to chat with me about my predicament.
When Tristan and I spoke a few months back, I had just randomly heard from someone I’d dated at the beginning of last year. The relationship had faded more than ended, so initially I didn’t think much about the text asking me to grab a drink.
We had genuinely liked each other as friends during our time together and I didn’t have that big of a network in my new-ish city, which made saying yes a no-brainer. I also didn’t have any poly people in my life. We’d originally met shortly after he and his fiancee (now wife) had decided to open their relationship; neither of us had really done polyamory before. He’d been in the same relationship for all of his twenties and I had majored in non-ethical non-monogamy since college. It would be good to reconnect, even just on a friend level.
Turns out, we got along even better than we had the first time around. And I’d struck out so spectacularly with a bicoastal professional matchmaker — and on my own — for so many years that I was excited about the chance to get Tristan’s feedback on my new (renewed?) love interest, as well as my history. Before I could get excited, though, I wanted to know: Was I kidding myself that dating a poly person would be all that different?
Tristan laughed when I asked if poly people are different than other people.
I didn’t just mean how we relate to each other on an intimate level or whether there would be jealousy to deal with. I was looking for confirmation that the people themselves — not just our degrees of commitment — would be different on a fundamental level.
“Obviously the answer is yes and no, right?” she answered.“The answer is yes and no for so many reasons. First, no matter how long you have been practicing polyamory, no matter how invested you are in it, no matter how practiced you are — we’re living in a monogamous world where all of these rules and structures and timelines and scripts are operating all around us in all media in our families at all times. So . . . to think that that’s not going to affect you because you’re polyamorous is absolutely not true, right?”
Of course. Even if we’re built differently — and there’s some contention about whether poly is an orientation or sexuality or relationship style or lifestyle — we live within the structure (the boxes, if you will) of our culture. That’s one of the reasons I was in my early thirties before I even considered I might want something different than those relationships I saw everywhere around me.
“This is not happening in a vacuum — you’re still consciously or unconsciously internalizing these monogamous notions and ideas and that’s going to affect your behavior,” she continued.
I began to feel even more different — but in a good way. If I’d been pummeled by monogamous tropes and expectations my whole life and had still managed to look for who and what I am and want, it certainly said something about my tenacious streak.
“So, we’re not all that different, but then on the other hand, there are people who really feel strongly wired to be nonmonogamous,” Tristan explained. “They feel like, ‘I could be flexible on a number of things — maybe I’m bi curious, maybe I could investigate this, maybe I might be kinky, maybe I’m flexible on some things,’ but they don’t feel flexible on this. They feel strongly that this is a kind of relationship orientation. And it’s at the top of the list.”
I’m not sure this describes me. My poly wiring has more to do with my not wanting a primary/live-in partner while still wanting connection. If I am not fulfilling all of my partners’ needs, I can’t expect any one of them to fulfill all of mine or be available any time I reach out for emotional or physical support.
But then Tristan hit on an aspect of non-monogamously wired folks that I resonate with completely.
“There are plenty of people for whom [non-monogamy] is very important and, therefore, they operate in a specific way that’s different than someone who is actively seeking the kind of ‘better half,’ ‘soulmate,’ ‘love of their life.’ Their ‘other half’ — you know, that kind of mystical creature.”
While I hadn’t ruled out the possibility that I might fall in love, I don’t ascribe to the myth of The One. You can fall in love and make a decision to commit to that person and only that person. You can build a life with them and devote the majority of your resources (emotional, financial, and time) to them. But the idea that this is fated — that there’s only one right person for everyone — disregards how impartial life is to us as individuals. It also disconnects you with now and demands that until you find this One, you must focus on the hunt; if I had done that, I would have missed at least the first 36 years of my life.
Is there anything else different about poly people? I asked a hopeful question: Do we have higher relationship and interpersonal IQs, or is that something we tell ourselves? Or maybe we’re just forced to develop better communication skills because of the lives we’ve chosen.
“I really don’t like to set up people to fail, so as a general rule, I say, if you don’t have above-average communication skills, you need to be committed to getting them. And if you don’t have more self-awareness than usual, you need to work on that, because those are two things which are kind of mandatory,” Tristan explained.
“I say this all the time: If you don’t like talking about people’s feelings, your own feelings, [and] other people’s feelings who may not even be involved with you, you have no business being in an open relationship. You just don’t, because there’s a lot of talking and if you don’t like processing, this is probably not for you.”
The look on my face must have been a bizarre combination of relief and excitement. I don’t really care how or why poly folks do more processing and analyzing and feelings discussion — whether it’s innate or learned — as I was looking for my people and I have been a processor since I was a very young kid. I longed to be around people (other than my cousin and my best friend) who thought about the feelings they have about their feelings. An Inception of feelings — that’s what I wanted!
“But I would say a monogamous person could set the same standard,” Tristan continued.
OMG. Right. Anyone could decide to be good at communication and spend time learning how to build the relationships that they’re in. So, why don’t more people do that? Why don’t all people talk to each other early on in a dating situation about what they want and what they like? These seem like fundamental questions not just designed to find compatibility, but to get to know the other person.
Why doesn’t it occur to people (or to me) to ask those questions and see how much of what we want is what the person next to us on a date wants? Tristan had the answer.
“We just . . . we have all these defaults. We have all these expectations — we fall into them, we don’t question them. And then many of us find ourselves dissatisfied with what we’ve ended up with.”
Without being aware of options, it necessarily wouldn’t occur to us to consider them — those options we don’t know about. It’s like asking someone who’s only ever eaten pizza what they think about soup. How are you supposed to know if you might like soup without knowing first that it exists?
We’d gone a little existential (inside my head, at least), but the “question everything” mentality makes sense when you’re trying to figure out who and why you are.
“There are other models happening, but we can’t see them,” Tristan explained. “Usually they’re closeted or they are veiled or they are secret. I think it just doesn’t occur to people to say: ‘What do I want my relationship to look like?’ It doesn’t even occur to people that they can make it from scratch. Like, they can start from the very baseline of: I don’t like to talk on the phone, so I never want to talk on the phone.’”
Tristan explained other possible dislikes to disclose: bars, baseball, spending holidays together — whatever it is that you don’t want. And also what you do want! Commonly and flippantly known as “deal breakers,” I prefer to think of these things as getting to know someone and courteously making sure you aren’t wasting their time, waiting to ambush them with a non-negotiable activity, habit, or trait.
I like knowing those things about another person because I find people fascinating. I was perplexed that people on dates don’t ask those questions. Maybe we’d hit on another reason I was bad at dating: I don’t know the rules of politeness on inquiring about the other person and/or I don’t particularly like shoving the most interesting things about me under the bed to prevent scaring the other person off. If something there is going to make you run, I would rather find out early on and go spend my time in some other way.
Is that how other people feel? Should I not be letting people know what I want now and that I know what I want? I will admit I’ve found some struggle and speed bumps in explaining to people what I’m looking for and how I describe myself. And I get trolled often enough on dating sites by bros who think “NSA?” is a clever opening line because they think poly equals “no strings attached.” I’m not shaming string-less sex; it has its appeal and its upsides. But my profile doesn’t remotely give the impression that I’m looking for that. In fact, I explicitly say to skip me “if you’re passing through/in town for a day/week.” I just don’t have time in my schedule to continually do new. New requires a lot of work; I prefer ongoing, even if it’s not that often or we aren’t super close on an emotional level.
Why do the men on the dating sites and the hetero/mono-normative women in my life not believe me when I say what I want?
“I think it’s because our culture is so steeped in monogamy that even when we say these things to people straightforwardly and directly, they still make a bunch of assumptions, and the people around them make assumptions,” said Tristan. “And they get caught up in these scripts that we have.”
I get that. Someone who didn’t realize until almost middle age that they didn’t want to get married or have kids, but instead had a choice about those things, can’t exactly shame other people who don’t realize they’re reading from a script.
As I signed off of Skype after thanking Tristan profusely for her wisdom and her advice (which I took, and you’ll see more of in the next installment), I felt the same and different. It was like being handed my first pair of glasses in elementary school. I could see the leaves on the trees, not just a big green blob on top of a tall brown blob. My surroundings were the same, but I could see everything without squinting. I already have a pretty well-developed ability to read people, but I’d finally been given the tools to evaluate what I thought and felt about what I was seeing.
Now, maybe it’s my expectations that have changed; it might be totally me. At least in part. In seeking out poly people, I am seeking out a very specific kind of person — the kind of person I envision when I picture poly people as a group.
My conversation with Tristan definitely challenged me to consider what, exactly, that picture looks like. She affirmed a lot of what I thought I knew, particularly that open people are, well, open — often about the same kinds of things that I am. Even setting aside the non-monogamy/multiple partners aspect that normative people tend to fixate on, poly people are more likely to feel like home for me.
Over the ensuing months I would find out just how much truth there is in what I learned from Tristan. Conversations with experts can only do so much; I was going to have to see what happened with my renewed love interest and see what other relationship opportunities and friendships might develop. How at home could I feel? — in my own skin, in a relationship, in pursuing community with other poly people I’m not dating, and with my metamours (my partners’ other partners)?
How is that going? You’ll have to check back for installment #4 . . .
Lead image: flickr/Konstantin Tilberg