Welcome to the first introduction to Poly Pocket, a new series about polyamory! Poly Pocket is opening with more than one post because I love getting meta; after today, look for this series twice a month.
I can’t remember a time when I knew polyamory existed and did not think it was for me, even if it took longer to practice it. But I’ve never really found a model that rang true for how I wanted to move through the world. The obvious ones, in books like The Ethical Slut (the one to beat when I was figuring things out), didn’t fit the tone of how I wanted to approach my life; the less obvious ones, through literature and across the internet, were also unsatisfactory in tone or approach or detail or in that they mostly seemed to be about straight people.
When there aren’t any models for how you want to move through the world, it’s harder to move through the world. There’s no one right way to do ethical non-monogamy, just as there’s no one right way to do ethical monogamy, and no way is better or worse than any other, just better or worse for those involved. Poly Pocket will look at all the ways queer people do polyamory: what it looks like, how we think about it, how it functions (or doesn’t), how it feels, because when you don’t have models you have to create your own. I don’t expect every conversation will feel true for everyone, but they will all feel true in their own way.
To help start, here’s one with me.
Carolyn Yates is a 28-year-old polyamorous queer white femme cis woman, married, slutty and living in Los Angeles. She is a freelance editor and the NSFW editor of Autostraddle.com.
Shannon is a 31-year-old polyamorous gay white butch cis woman, married, dating and living in Los Angeles. She makes comics and isn’t using her last name because of the Google even though you can easily find out what it is.
Carolyn: What does our current relationship configuration look like?
Shannon: We’re married, live together, make decisions together, exchange power and have a v. cool dog. We’ve been open since before our first smooch, but lately the dynamics have been evolving. For a long time, I slept around but hadn’t met anyone I wanted to date. I wasn’t sure if I was poly or non-monogamous. But for the last few months I’ve been dating someone, and we’ve had very intense discussions and evaluation of what our relationship is and means and could look like.
Carolyn: Those discussions, which we’ve been calling Fight Club, are giving us insights into us as individuals as well as together. I like that you’re discovering more about the way you want to do relationships and live your life (since I’ve thought about those questions in this arena more before this, I think), and I like that we’re working from a place of good intent, even when it’s hard, and I like that we’re getting better. What have they been like for you?
Shannon: They’ve been interesting, and scary, because although we talked about dating in hypothetical terms I think we expected it to look different in practice. I thought you would seriously date someone else first, and I dismissed the possibility of me dating at all, which set you up for frustration. And I’ve also had to reevaluate my perceptions of myself.
Carolyn: Tell me more about that! Is it because she’s vanilla?
Shannon: Hahaha. Well: People I’ve dated have liked me, but I haven’t had the desire or the bandwidth to attempt to give back in kind. According to my ~*~astrological natal chart~*~ I can get bored easily, which doesn’t jive with my experience in my truly intimate relationships — I keep and delight in friends forever — but was true for hook-ups, even if they were sometimes ongoing with nice people. I didn’t engage. I kept a distance. So the idea that I wouldn’t keep that distance someday, that I would want to engage, was foreign.
Also, our kinky power dynamic is an important part of our partnership and my sexuality, and I value my role in it, and there’s nothing like that between this girl and I. Which has been a huge relief? Maybe I just couldn’t see having another serious submissive. I’m too devoted to that dynamic between you and I. When I’ve played with it with others it has felt showy and fun, but certainly not deep. That type of exchange isn’t in the equation at all with this girl, which I know is also difficult for you to understand. The absence energizes me in some ways but drains in others.
Carolyn: It’s been super difficult for me to understand! I love our power exchange but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to play with similar things with other people. When you told me about your first date with her and it wasn’t kinky, I had this vision of coming home to you and all the paddles and canes were gone and you didn’t want to call me your [redacted] and there was lots of soft lighting. The inverse of what I imagine vanilla people worry about when their partners start to explore kink.
But it was okay, because it sounded like you were having a nice time and I like her as a person, and you had gotten bored so quickly in the past so that was going to happen here too, right? Except then you were very suddenly dating her, and not being especially forthcoming with your feelings or what you wanted and also not being especially good at managing time or expectations, so everything felt scary and not in a hot way.
It would be nice to say “and then we worked through it and everything is daisies and our power dynamic is totally fine” but we haven’t and it isn’t and I want to be honest. I think we’re going to ultimately be stronger than ever, and in some areas we now are — we’re both more honest with ourselves about what we want and more confident in expressing it, to each other and elsewhere — but we’re not there yet.
I want to emphasize that I don’t think kink is better than vanilla; I had just thought of you as one way, i.e., only interested in sex in certain terms, and it turns out you are a multifaceted human being. Until we started this conversation I hadn’t heard you articulate what was draining to you about playing alone with other submissives.
Shannon: Honestly, I hadn’t articulated it to myself. I consider kink such an important part of my sexuality, but I don’t think I realized how much energy I expended and frankly did not like expending when I directed it at people who weren’t you! Because the kind of top I am is the caretaker.
Carolyn: Is “caretaker” the right word?
Shannon: It was really hard for me to do that with other people in addition to you and I think I burned out quickly on even the idea.
Carolyn: I think the word you mean is a different word that starts with —
Shannon: You’re being a brat in our very professional interview.
Carolyn: I’m being super professional I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Shannon: I’m a caretaker, so the fact that it scared you scared me, and frustrated me, because I enjoyed the freedom and release of sex outside of a power dynamic and I was afraid you would think less of me or wouldn’t take me as seriously, even though it wasn’t taking anything from us. I worried our insecurities would turn self-fulfilling.
Carolyn: Is it fair to say that, for a heartbeat, they did?
Shannon: Yes, I think that’s fair. It shook me. It surprised us both.
Carolyn: Which, I would like to interject, feels so stupid! We put poly in our wedding vows, we’ve never been monogamous, we’ve slept with and casually dated other people all along. You were involved with someone before who drained you of energy like no friend or sexual or romantic partner I’d ever seen, and the person you’re dating now is not like that. And this is the moment we felt shaken? Really?
Shannon: Would it be fair to say that maybe this one moment was so scary because I’ve been incredibly depressed all of 2016?
Carolyn: I think that would be fair yes. Would it be fair to say that as I finally deal with multiple decades-old mental health issues and traumas I’ve been vulnerable and raw in a way I don’t have coping mechanisms for yet?
Shannon: I think that would be fair as well. Which is an intense place to begin to explore a new relationship, however casual or serious. Especially when my depression left me not caretaking but requiring a lot of care from you, which was draining for you.
Carolyn: But since you’ve been exploring your sexual self outside of our dynamic — which also coincides with you getting deeper into therapy — you’ve been more sexually present and energized and things are getting better.
Especially because I go through periods of not having a lot of energy available for intense play, you getting energy elsewhere feels like a transfusion.
Shannon: It’s been really fascinating to feel that! Before, it always felt like more energy left than came in. But this feels revitalizing instead of weirdly draining.
Carolyn: But because you’ve only interacted with others in that draining way in the past, it’s taken reassurance to remind me that is not what’s happening here.
Shannon: It’s been encouraging that you are seeking that reassurance instead of pulling back. I know it’s hard for you to be vulnerable in that way.
Carolyn: I hate asking for things and love being emotionally withdrawn.
Shannon: I know. I think that combined with my grinning easy-going nature has been a huge source of Fight Club. We’re rewiring to accommodate each other’s needs, which we haven’t really had to do before.
“The scary part of being poly is trusting that you’re worthy of love and worth sticking around for not because you’re the only person around but because you have inherent value just by being you.”
Carolyn: Turns out we have some different needs and priorities, and even though I think all of them will be solved by managing time and expectations, that’s harder to do than it sounds.
Shannon: It is! I have been an asshole sometimes. I’ve done things that cause you anxiety because for me, they aren’t a big deal. But they’re a big deal to you, and I brushed over that. I’m aggressively working on it.
I also think the scary part of being poly is trusting that you’re worthy of love and worth sticking around for not because you’re the only person around but because you have inherent value just by being you.
When I’m an asshole and disregard your anxieties, it makes you feel like I’m gearing up to leave. And when you don’t give me the benefit of the doubt in response, I feel like you’re gearing up to leave. That’s actually the hardest part. Not the puppy, who is the subject of many logistical negotiations. I love you and I love our life together and I want to get better at this so that neither of us is scared anymore.
Carolyn: I love you and I love our life together and it is maybe silly that something that feels so good can also be so scary, but I’m glad we’re working on it.
Moving forward: How has being married affected being poly?
Shannon: I’m much more protective of us as a unit, and aware of how dating other people might affect that. I think it’s weird that some people take their ring off with other people; I aggressively keep mine on. We are individuals but we are also a unit and a team, and it’s really important to me that the people we date as individuals understand that.
Carolyn: We are a team! As I told Riese when we started talking about this series, getting married was so interesting for me because it confirmed I am actually poly and not just unhappy in my relationship or missing something. Because with you it doesn’t feel like anything is missing, except maybe novelty or more elaborate kinky play. I don’t know how to exist in a healthy closed relationship and still work and make friends and exist socially and exist privately, like whatever narrative of monogamy I internalized is the full-on total enmeshed version and I don’t know how to exist like that and also like playing with different people so I just get sad. But with you I don’t feel sad that way! We talk about each other as anchors, we make decisions around each other, but we don’t have explicit rules about how we can engage with others (aside from safer sex) and we’re both free to make connections in whatever way feels best and I fucking love it and also you.
What do you want your future to look like?
Shannon: With you.
That’s the most important thing.
There will be other people in and out of that picture, I think. But my priority is keeping you in it.