Poly Pocket: Making Relationships Up As We Go

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.


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Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Editor and Literary Editor for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 772 articles for us.

56 Comments

  1. This is an amazing column that I am so excited for. You articulated the need for it so well, Carolyn; thank you.

    I love the dynamic, love and honesty between the two of you, and so appreciate being able to witness this conversation. Your honesty with us, your readers, astounds and awes me. Thank you, Shannon and Carolyn.

  2. wow! this is really wonderful and fascinating to read, i relate to so so so so so so much of this, including what carolyn said about not being able to exist in a healthy way within her own internalized definition of monogamy. thanks for being so vulnerable with the whole damn world, i’m excited for this series.

  3. Mother trucker. Poly aside (I know, it’s a poly article, and an integral part of your relationship), you guys are more transparent and emotionally articulate in this one single article than I have experienced from myself OR others in any relationship I’ve had. You name the scary stuff and you name the good stuff and you allow yourself to be there. You can back up enough to see context.

    I’m sitting over here thinking, how in the world do any two people get anywhere close to that point? How do they even start to try?

    TLDR ALL of the relationship goals, even if I’m monogamous my whole life.

  4. I LOVE this column! I think this is such an interesting way to give insight into what a poly relationship actually looks like in practice without sitting down and being like “Here’s what a triad is, here’s what an open relationship is, etc” because those are abstractions and you two are real live humans. I am so invested in seeing more reality with poly relationships like this.

    Anyway I love you both.

  5. I am soooooo excited to see the start of this beautiful new column!!! And just in time for me to start exploring polyamory in practice, rather than as an abstract idea that has been in my brain for a while.

    Thank you for starting this off so nicely, I appreciate your honesty with each other and for sharing it with all of us. Can’t wait for more <3

  6. WAIT. wait. WAIT. wait.
    I am so happy this exists. It would be really cool to read dialogues like this between more poly couples because I didn’t realize that this was what I needed to feel more accepted in this community and to feel like poly/queer is a legit thing (even when it is confusing or it is hard) until right now.

    Thank you for this. I kind of want to cry.

  7. It’s so cool to see this kind of conversations and get to know that even the people who openly identifies as poly is having difficulties with it and also that they are dealing with the issues in a polite mature lovely manner. Me and my partner had tried to open our marriage before but we always end up in a mess of emotions and sadness. Reading this makes me think that maybe non-monogamy isn’t easy and that’s okay, marriage isn’t easy either anyways.

  8. There is so much love flowing through this interview. 🙂 I really resonated with, “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.” I’ll keep my blathering to myself. I’m looking forward to reading more!

    Also, I would love to read about polyamory for people who have kids. Having kids would definitely introduce different dynamics into the relationship(s) and I’m interested in hearing how people navigate that.

  9. I love this and I’m impressed there isn’t a single comment yet about how reading it made someone ~sad~ because everything should be happy rainbows and also monogamous and gosh they could never do this and aren’t you lying to yourselves, etc. etc. Excited for more of the series!

  10. I read this and was utterly struck by 3 things:

    1) You guys come across like you communicate really well and I found it personally very helpful to see some tools/phrases that you used just in this convo.

    2) You are so brave and honest to put yourselves out there like this. I really respect it.

    3) The title is everything.

  11. This. Is. Awesome! So so powerful and helpful and just what I needed to hear. You two kinda come across as super perfect and I’m so glad that a) you’re human after all and b) y’all are super strong in a flexible agile way and support each other and I feel like you could work through any issues life may throw. Y’all are even more perfect when you show your flaws #IShipIt

  12. This is really great! I am not poly at all but loved reading about you two moving through your relationship, and found your communication style really helpful because you articulated some things I have been feeling in my monogamous relationship. Looking forward to this series!

  13. This post is exactly what I needed right now. My primary partner of three years and I have been poly for about a year and a half, but parts of the dynamic and logistics have shifted lately, and it’s been so hard. I loved your ‘Fight Club’ thing, and I so appreciate you both sharing something so vulnerable; I really identify with that though! It’s just been months of (hurt)feelings-talks.

    Being poly is part of who I am (ever since I was 15 and heard of it for the first time). It’s felt so hard lately, because if I talk to friends (mostly all monogs) about it, many of them can be a bit dismissive, like “Well it sounds like you should try not being polyamorous anymore.” It’s left me feeling really isolated, like I can’t talk about my relationship to most of my friends.

    This has been so healing to read; honestly it made me tear up. I can’t wait to share it with my primary partner. Thank you again!

  14. I’m so so so excited for this series and this was an incredible start. You’re both such beautiful people. Thanks for being so honest and vulnerable and real by sharing this interview with us. I related to a lot of what you wrote about negotiating and re-negotiating how you each are getting your needs met in a long term relationship. <3 <3 <3 <3

  15. Thank you for this series – this article was a brilliant introduction and a great resource in itself, and I am so excited to read everything else. I totally agree that there are poly polies and perhaps a practical and productive pedagogical practice is to peer into peers’ poly practices. Also you and your partner sound like really great humans.

  16. i’m going to call any ongoing discussion in all my future relationships Fight Club from now on

    (Also, this was great!! Thank you for letting us see a bit of the inner workings between the two of you – it’s clear you put a lot of work and love into your relationship and that’s so so nice to see.)

  17. OMG I’M BASICALLY SCREAMING ‘CAUSE I’M SO HAPPY AUTOSTRADDLE HAS A POLY COLUMN AND I’M SO HAPPY WITH HOW IT’S BEGUN!!!! This is fucking awesome. I love the conversation style. I love you both and your ways of expressing yourselves. I can’t wait to read more. Thank you thank you!

    Sidenote: I’ve been poly for 2 years now, but I still feel brand-new at it, partly because as you guys are exploring in this convo, new feelings and experiences can come up at any time! And then you’re feeling your way in the dark again, with as much humility and self-analyzation and communication as you can muster!

    Poly is the hardest I’ve ever worked at relationships and the most vulnerable I’ve ever gotten; I’m also the happiest and strongest I’ve ever been, the most secure in my relationship… can’t wait to keep feeling my way in the dark with this column as a tiny flashlight. 🙂

  18. What a wonderful article to co-begin the series with. Thank you for being so vulnerable and allowing us into a small part of your intimacy here. It is so important and so rare to read something about how things are hard and still are difficult, but aren’t falling apart. I feel like I don’t get much of that in my life right now despite the tiny poly community that is growing in my city. Most of what I hear or read is about how things were hard but they got through it, etc. So to have this out here, modelling the thorny and painful and scary as right up in there with a series on polyamorous queers, is amazing.
    Curious to know: did you ever find things that were closer to your own idea of polyamory? I read morethantwo and lend out my copy of The Ethical Slut to several people, and have found PolyWeekly to be a decent podcast, but am thirsting for more writing/stuff to work through my own ideas and feelings about poly relationships.

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    s a fantastic idea, then to purchase backwards-compatible repeater devices to protect all bases (almost all ones are, but you can find always exceptions).

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  20. I LOVE this. WOW I feel like I just learned so many things about how to honestly, effectively, and vulnerably negotiate changes and adjustments in any romantic relationship. I have never (yet) been involved in a poly relationship, but I honestly prefer talking to my close poly friends because they just approach things from this place where everything isn’t black or white — there’s room for so much nuance, and growth. So excited for more!

  21. “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.”

    I appreciate the particular applications of this sentiment in a poly relationship, but I really really love this quote because I think it is true of all healthy relationships, “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.”

  22. Thank you for this! I am thrilled to read about the poly community here and love seeing people sharing their experiences and thoughts. My current relationships experience ups and downs like any relationships do and we communicate every day about our needs/wants/lack of. It is a lot of work but work worth doing when you have amazing consenting partners.

    One of the areas we explore quite a bit is social stigmas around the choice to be poly. It’s really interesting to see people, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, react with such intense fear and resistance to this. We don’t advertise but we certainly don’t hide our other partners away either! All of our friends (wonderful group of diverse humans!) know and we have great support from them. But still…there are days that the pushback affects us. Insecurities within ourselves are picked at. Am I greedy? Am I loved? Is this right for me?

    There are no “right” and “wrong” ways to be in poly relationships. It’s constantly evolving and changing as every relationship does. These interviews are lovely in their honesty and I truly appreciate every person that has chosen to share their story.

    Please keep it coming.

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