First, I want to acknowledge that these questions were heavy, and challenging. I feel somewhat anxious about sharing them. Not only because of the past relationships that they recalled to mind, but also because of some current poly situations I’m in. So, for any of my poly pod – my paramours, metamours, maybe-mores – if you see yourself here and you find it uncomfortable, I’m open to talking about it. It’s really hard to talk about these issues without also talking about the people who are impacted by them. Obviously I left identifying characteristics and names out, but I recognize that my poly feelings and views and histories are not only my own. They also belong to the people with whom I have shared heartspace, headspace, bedspace.
What are my needs in relationships? Are they attached to specific people? That is, do I need these things generally, or do I need them just from certain people?
“What are my needs in relationships?” is a massive question. I actually run a whole writing workshop on developing a personal user’s manual to help people answer that question in ways that they can share with their partners (the next one will be a private session for a group of assault survivors – I love my work). So, the short version of my needs:
- I need to be seen. I need the people I am in relationships with to be willing to acknowledge my whole self – my anxious self, my depressed self, my awkward self, my self-hating self, my enthusiastic self, my invisibly disabled self, all of it. I do not need every person I’m in relationship to engage with every part of me (one of my best friends just stops answering my calls or texts when I’m going through a depression – they can’t deal with it, and that’s okay), but I do need my people to see me and acknowledge me. And in my deeper relationships, I need them to be willing to at least sit in the dark with me some of the time. I need to feel like I am not making their lives worse by being who I am.
- I am also realizing, after a difficult stretch of time with a couple people in my life, that I need to feel like I am able to see the people I’m in relationships with. This is much harder to admit, because I have this gut-level sense that it is unfair to demand someone else’s visibility. And I don’t feel this way about everyone. I respect anyone’s right to keep their stories to themselves. But those people that I want to share a deeper connection with, I need to feel like I’m seeing them. I’m afraid of the dark, I guess. So I don’t need this with all of my friends, and I don’t know if I need it with all of my lovers, and I know that I don’t need it with all of my metamours, but the sense that I am able to see my people (that I am trusted with their darkness, especially), is way more important to me than I had realized. I’m still working through this, though.
- I need to be touched. Hugs, cuddles, sex, massage, kissing… I don’t need this from everyone, but it is hugely important to my well-being, and I need it from multiple people in multiple ways.
- I need regular contact. “Regular” varies depending on the relationship, but I like a lot of contact. More than most people, I think. And I need a variety of contact. Hand-written letters feed my heart in a really specific way, and so do stories written for me, texting, sexting (which I fucking LOVE and haven’t had much opportunity for because it is not a universally loved form of contact), FaceTime if I’m distant from my people, sitting and chatting, spending time together writing, even watching tv together. Lots of contact, and lots of types of contact. I don’t like phone calls, though.
- I need honesty, and I need my own really intense desire to be honest to be valued, even though it’s means I’m hella awkward and share more than is strictly recommended. I need that in all of my relationships – lacking this, everything else becomes secondary.
- I need my pod to be acknowledged. I don’t need all my poly people to be out, and I know that the fact that I am out about poly is a huge privilege, but I do need to know that if my people meet my other people, they will see each other as being valued in my life. I wouldn’t be okay with a partner ignoring or dismissing another partner (though I don’t expect everyone to be friends).
Phew, this list could go on a long time. Moving on.
What configurations am I open to? Am I looking for a particular configuration because I’m afraid that other might be more scary or more threatening?
I am much more comfortable in a networked poly configuration – one where everyone knows everyone and where we spend time together both as pairs and in our various pods. I really love pod time. This is partly because I just have awesome people and I really love smooshing awesome people together with other awesome people, but there is also an element of fear to it. I like networked poly because I feel less threatened by people I am friends with. So I like networked poly for myself because it makes me feel surrounded by love, but I like my partners to also practice networked poly because it makes me feel more secure. Not all of my partners are comfortable with networked poly, though, so I have had to learn how to sit with the discomfort of “spoke and wheel” poly (where my partner is a hub, and myself and their other partners are spokes that don’t necessarily interact). It’s not comfortable for me, but it’s a totally valid way to do poly and I try to respect it.
Am I flexible in what I’m looking for?
I think so. Especially if I feel like I have a solid foundation to fall back on if everything goes kaboom.
If my relationship changes, is that okay? Can I accommodate change, even unexpected change or change I don’t like?
I fucking hate change. It’s terrifying!
But it’s necessary. And it’s good. And relationships need to be able to change as the people within them and the contexts around them change. You bend or you break, right? This knowledge moved from intellectual to experiential when my relationship with one of my core partners transitioned from cohabiting to living apart. It wasn’t a change either of us ever anticipated, and it was fucking brutal emotionally, but in the end the relationship we have now is stronger and more supportive than what we had before. The change was terrifying and it was not part of “the plan” but it was absolutely necessary and for the best. I think after that experience, I am much more open to relationships changing even if I haven’t anticipated it and don’t like the change. (Though still not comfortable. I like to know where I stand, and I like to know that I’ll have a place there in the future! But that’s not how life works. The best we can ever offer is “I hope that you will be in my life for a very long time,” which is something I can honestly say about a lot of people.)
When I visualize the kind of relationship I want, how much space does it leave for new partners to shape the relationship to their needs?
I try to make space for new partners to voice their needs, be seen as whole people with valid needs, and for their needs to be met. It’s hard, though. Some people need things that are incompatible with my needs, and that always hurts and feels like a rejection. I try to remember that it isn’t a rejection, though, and it isn’t a judgment. It’s just an incompatible need! And the beauty of poly is that (some) incompatible needs do not have to be dealbreakers, because those needs can often be met in other ways and with different people. (Though sometimes incompatible needs are dealbreakers. My need to feel like I can “see” my partners is incompatible with some folks need to keep things private until they’ve processed it all. That doesn’t make a relationship impossible, but it does put a built-in limit on the depth of intimacy that I can feel with that person.)
Am I focusing on an idealized fantasy more than on making organic connections with real people?
I hope not. But I don’t know. Especially in a few instances, I feel like I have attached a lot of weight to the fantasy I want to make a reality, and I worry that I am not leaving space for the relationship to develop organically in whatever direction it wants to. I am trying to be conscious of this, and intentionally leave multiple paths open for the relationship. It’s hard, though, when you want a specific thing so badly and when you think about it so often.
What happens if I connect with someone in a way that differs from how I want my poly relationship to look? What message does that send to someone who doesn’t fit neatly into my dreams?
I think/hope that I am flexible enough to allow relationships to develop however they develop but there are some limits that are non-negotiable. I can’t imagine myself transitioning to monogamy with any partner, no matter how deep our connection might be. I also can’t imagine engaging in non-consensual non-monogamy (where one or more non-involved partners are unaware of the interaction) because of the potential harm that it could cause. I struggle with this last one because I do think there are multiple valid reasons for cheating and that sometimes cheating is the choice of least harm*, but because of my commitment to being honest with everyone in my life and my ideal of networked poly, a cheating relationship would be unbelievably difficult for me to maintain, and would seriously fuck with my sense of self.
Phew! Those were difficult questions to answer.
* Because cheating is so vilified in our culture, I want to expand on this. I think that sometimes people have needs that are not being met within relationships, particularly around certain kinds of emotional or sexual intimacy. And sometimes those relationships are not open to a transition to poly, and are fully functional in every way other than the missing element. In those cases, cheating can be a way to maintain a relationship while still meeting needs. I also think that sometimes cheating is the only thing that gives a person the strength to get out of a relationship (this was my situation). So I am uncomfortable with contributing to the universal vilification of cheating and cheaters, even though it is not a relationship choice that I can see myself being comfortable making again.