Dear Daemonum X,
I have had two separate situations where I started dating someone and felt like it was going great and then was broken up with because my date’s other partner was freaking out or having a crisis of some sort about our connection. I understand that feelings are hard and dealing with jealousy is scary, but this sucks big time for me. I know that my dates weren’t happy to end our relationships, either. The second time it happened I had already fallen in love and was really crushed. I felt so used and discarded.
I make it a point to only date people who are legit polyam (not just test driving) in hopes that they already have this messy stuff sorted out. I understand that there are many different ways to practice polyamory but my opinion is that this isn’t polyamory. Do you have any advice for how I can try to avoid the people who would cut me out because someone else is uncomfortable? Is there anything I can do differently? Signs? Anything helps.
In polyamory speak, what you’re describing is called a veto. You’ve been vetoed, several times in fact. That truly sucks! For everyone following along at home a veto is where each person in a relationship has the power to end the other person’s relationships. Essentially, “I vote against you dating this person. Break up with them now because I said so and I’m the most important, thanks!!” I personally haven’t been in your position, but I will let you in on an extremely embarrassing secret. In my first polyamorous relationship I definitely attempted to veto (and failed) my partner’s partner — Yikes!! Context notwithstanding, thank goddess we all live and learn.
Now, I am going to do my best to help you scrape your broken little heart out of the veto bin and prepare you with my infinite wisdom to avoid this situation again. While I agree with what you said wholeheartedly — the power of veto doesn’t feel polyamorous — it is not uncommon for polyamorous people to have this eject button in their relationships. In my experience this is usually a characteristic of primary-partner based polyamory that relies on a hierarchy to structure all relationships. (Before everyone gets upset with me, I want to be clear that not all people who have hierarchical relationships allow vetoing.) The primary partnership is centered and uplifted and a veto helps them self-preserve by eliminating potential threats. You, Discarded, were somehow a threat!
Another note on veto power is that it’s used to eliminate a source of insecurity that is usually correlated with conflict in the relationship. For most of us working to unlearn the trappings of monogamy, watching your partner fall in love with someone else can be terrifying. Ramp it up a few notches to Horror Show if you have abandonment issues. Various types of trauma can cause us to react to perceived threats in destructive ways (like control) instead of developing healthy coping mechanisms. Polyamory is a gift in that it lays bare all of the shit that needs work and pokes at you pretty consistently until you explore it. It’s difficult and there will be growing pains but if you’re committed to this lifestyle it’s absolutely necessary work. The veto stops this growth and says “I don’t want to feel bad anymore so let’s eliminate the reason I feel bad.” Well, when that reason is a living, breathing human being with actual feelings who did nothing wrong and didn’t sign up to have a relationship with the vetoer, that’s really not cool. I like to call this collateral damage.
So, let’s break this down further. There are so many very different ideologies around being non-monogamous. Someone could be into don’t ask don’t tell while you want a fucking commune of free love. I think it’s crucial in dating in any capacity to figure out what your personal ideology is so that you can make sure that you’re matched up better in the future. It sounds like you really don’t get down with veto power, so that’s a good starting point. Think more about your ethics and desires and craft the ideal situation for you. Do you want to date people invested in unlearning monogamy? Are you committed to doing the hard work to feel secure in your relationships? Do you want a fucking commune of free love? Journal it out!
I’m going to share some of my own relationship ideologies to give you an example. Some of this may be obvious if you’ve been following my advice columns thus far. Unlike when I was younger, the idea of telling my partner they’re not allowed to date someone would never cross my mind because my relationship ideology centers personal choice and freedom. My relationship ideology is interdependent, not codependent. I don’t feel that anyone is a threat to me because I don’t believe that anyone can “steal” my partners away. I know that my partners are free to leave me whenever they want and that’s not scary, it’s actually comforting. If they do leave me, it won’t be for someone else because they are also committed to a life of abundance where we get to love many people at once. When I have hard feelings or jealousy come up, I know that trying to control my partners will not make me feel better. I am responsible for my own feelings. I do not date people that I do not trust.
I’ve found that it’s a weirdly polarizing stance among queers as to whether or not you should get right down to direct questions of compatibility on the first date (I’m pro) but think of it like any other questions you ask to get to know someone. When you’re looking for something specific it’s best to just go for it! In your case, it would have been better to know from the jump if your date’s partner was lurking in the shadows weilding an invisible relationship labrys and ready to cut you out at any moment. Right?! One of the questions I get most often from clients I work with on polyamory coaching is “What am I allowed to ask someone about their other relationships?” The answer is whatever will help you make more informed decisions about whether or not you want to date them. For me this is everything from gauging if our political views align, if we are sexually compatible, and what kind of polyamory they practice. Also, if you ask a very basic question like “Tell me about your partners” and someone responds with “It’s not your business” then that alone should tell you everything you need to know! In other words, don’t be afraid to ask questions!
The questions you ask new dates to hopefully shield you from similar and avoidable brands of heartbreak in the future should get at your foundational values aligning, finding out their dating landscape, and overall compatibility. For starters: Do any of your partners have veto power over who you date? Do you break up with people when one of your partners feels uncomfortable? How do you deal with jealousy and hard feelings in your relationships?
My last piece of advice to you, dear Discarded, is to make sure that when you’re getting into relationships with people who are already in relationships that you’re not just going with the flow. A lot of people feel less confident in taking up space or asking for what they need when someone they’re dating already has other established relationships. I think this is why people are very hesitant to ask the probing questions because maybe they feel like the other person has the upper hand. Remind yourself to check in with you, don’t shrink yourself. Rather than folding yourself into what someone is already doing because it seems fine, focus on what makes you most happy. Is this the relationship you’d design if you had no restrictions? Are you just going with the pre-established flow? Sometimes the hardest questions we ask are the ones we ask ourselves.