Poly Pocket: It’s Not The Structure, It’s The 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 looks 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.

Mina is a 32-year-old multiracial cis queer kinky lady living and dating in a big blue city in the deep red American South. She is a sexual assault survivor with a handful of mental health diagnoses, an invisible disability, a weakness for terrible puns, and a goddamn master’s degree, thank you very much. She is in a committed relationship with a cis dude and also dating casually, and works in public sector administration. “Mina” is a pseudonym.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Carolyn: When did you start to explore polyamory?

Mina: Well, I had a pretty terrible introduction to the idea. In November of 2010 I had just moved across the country to go to grad school and move in with my long-distance boyfriend, and the day I found out I got accepted to the program he was like, “Oh, btw, I think we should also fuck other people.” It was a complete surprise, and I spent a lot of time in the next couple of weeks being hurt and crying.

We revisited the conversation occasionally, and eventually I got to a place where I would be OK with noticing myself being attracted to other people — both men and, increasingly — women, which was also a surprise to me at the time. And from a feminist/critical perspective, it made sense to me that since I had a non-traditional initiation into sexual activity (i.e., sexual assault at 14 and again at 15) I might need to do some other non-traditional things as a consenting adult to reclaim my agency.

So first I had to interrogate my own assumptions about monogamy. And then I had to decide what I was going to be OK with in theory versus in practice. I don’t know if that specific task ever really ends: I have decided that ethical non-monogamy is possible, and now I am working on what it is going to look like for me specifically. Because like for everything else, there isn’t one right way to do this. And that’s taken me a long time to realize and embrace, and it still isn’t anywhere near ideally implemented! So now I’m asking myself, what do I want, and that’s a hard question to answer even within a committed monogamous relationship. Let alone when you add in additional partners and lovers.

“I have decided that ethical non-monogamy is possible, and now I am working on what it is going to look like for me specifically.”

I broke up with the guy who I moved here for, in large part because he couldn’t demonstrate the kind of commitment I needed to see in order to feel comfortable with opening the relationship. That isn’t what I tell most people, of course, but it was the process of thinking about ethical non-monogamy that led me to decide to DTMFA. That was two years ago, and I’ve never been happier.

Also, the idea that “loving more than one person is possible” finally started to make sense to me when I realized that I describe more than one person as “my best friend.” For me, “best friend” is more like a level than an exclusive, one-person-only category — I love each of these people deeply, and differently, and I wouldn’t try to prioritize which one of them I love “more” because that isn’t the point of how we care for each other. Happiness is not a competition. And so the idea that I could also, in theory, be in love with more than one person at once… that idea started to make more sense.

Carolyn: So what is your relationship situation right now? And how does the way you’re asking yourself what you want fit into it?

Mina: I’m in a committed, serious relationship with a white cis dude. We met last August (2015) and we live together now — I knew it was getting serious when he proposed that we introduce our cats to each other. He’s on my insurance through work, and we had to do some courthouse legal stuff to make that happen, and I wrote basically a pre-nup that we both signed. (I don’t want to let my love life ruin my finances again.) So, he’s my “primary.” We started dating when I wasn’t really interested in monogamy, and he has basically always done polyamory, so I had the experience of being able to define up front what I want from him.

I have a pattern in my relationships in which I take it upon myself to be their #1 support. Which is great, in some ways, but can also easily slide into me being their only emotional support, and that gets codependent AF, fast, and isn’t good for me. “Doing the open relationship thing” means that by default, I am acknowledging that I cannot and will not be all things for this person, which is pretty liberating.

And, well, I wouldn’t have had the space to figure out I also like dating ladies if I had continued to prefer a monogamous setup. This has been a relatively recent thing (maybe the last 18 months?) and since then it’s been a series of “Ways We Should Have Known Earlier.” Without having the chance to date outside this very loving and nourishing relationship I have at home (although damn it’s got its issues), I wouldn’t have given that whole aspect of my life another thought.

Carolyn: Where here does poly intersect with other elements of your identity? How does it function within your understanding of yourself?

Mina: I exist in the between spaces of a lot of social identities. Dad is white and mom is Chicana and her Ancestry DNA profile says she’s 25% Native — to white folks I read as white, and to brown folks I read as “something that isn’t white.” This is the first time I’ve ever lived and worked somewhere that people look like me.

I try to acknowledge that I get the benefit of white privilege even while feeling frustrated that I feel like an outsider to a lot of the Latin@ community. So, navigating the racial identity thing while dating can be a little tricky. I have a super-sensitive radar for gendered racialized bullshit, and I’ve dated white folks (men and women), and other folks, who are insufficiently critical in their race-gender lens — is that just called “woke” now? — and dumped them fast even though the sex was good. If I can’t trust you in the voting booth, why tf would I trust you in bed? But at the same time, I’ve definitely been the one to fuck up and #whitefeminist all over someone, too.

I “read” as a pretty average white girl, but I’ve got all this hidden complexity to how I think about myself and how I move in the world. Now that polyamory is part of that, I feel like I’m additionally subversive: a big fuck you to the white capitalist hetero-cis-patriarchy, all around.

Part of why I’ve been reluctant to identify as “poly” is actually related to the race/gender stuff. I don’t know if this is specific to my metro area, but the online “poly” groups I’ve seen are a LOT of white dudes and their wives or girlfriends. All of which is fine: you do you, y’all. But don’t simultaneously bleat on about how poly folks are persecuted and ignore the facts about who benefits from like every single policy in American law. If you can’t see that these struggles are all bound up together, I do not have the time for you.

I’ve actually gotten a lot more picky about who I date since starting to do non-monogamy. One of my best friends since college — we have a similar cultural background, and who is also realizing she’s bi, and we’ve fooled around a bit, I love her so hard — told me years ago, “girl, you need to stop dating white boys with momma issues.” And I think a similar injunction would apply: “girl, you need to stop dating whitefeminists who don’t get intersectional.”

And to the “what do you want” issue, poly has been a real life-saver for my relationship with my primary, as well: we both have real struggles with mental health, and he’s just coming out of a long depressive episode during which sex was just not an option, and it relieved a lot of the pressure on us both to know that I could get my physical needs met elsewhere with a partner at home who would cheer me on.

I’ve dated people with depression before — hell, I’ve been that partner before — and lord, this was such a better way to handle that whole side-effect.

Carolyn: I bet!

Mina: If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting to interrogate my own assumptions about monogamy, it’s that whether it “works” is not about the STRUCTURE; it’s about the PEOPLE, and what they each bring to the table. I’m really grateful to have some terrific people around me at the moment.

“Whether it ‘works’ is not about the STRUCTURE; it’s about the PEOPLE, and what they each bring to the table.”

Carolyn: You mentioned ADHD earlier: What other ways do mental health things fit into poly for you? Does it affect your relationships, make you more inclined to approach or function within/around them in certain ways?

Mina: I think it makes me less interested in tolerating bullshit from people. I know I have issues with certain things that are important to successful, mutually nourishing relationships. I work hard at addressing those weaknesses despite the fact that my disability means they don’t come naturally to me (and I do refer to my ADHD as a disability, the comments section can fight about this later if they want). I can list them: Emotion regulation. Conversation that takes turns. I get bored fast, and this includes with boring people or boring conversation. So I have a pretty clear-cut strategy for first dates.

I also, because I am a data nerd, built myself a spreadsheet with a rubric, to keep track of my first date outcomes… because I know I will not remember them if I do not write them down. I have two or three places I like equally for first dates, and I almost always pick the location since I almost always do the asking. I will give the person until I’ve finished one cocktail and one fancy fizzy soda water (I order them at the same time), and if I haven’t been convinced that this person is someone I want to keep talking to for another drink’s worth of time, I say goodnight and I’m done. I do not have time for bad second dates. Which is why I have a lot of first dates — and fuck on a lot of them — but not a lot of second dates. The people I keep around, the ones who I love and I date and I fuck, are folks who find my mind charming and amusing.

I like arranging first dates quickly, far better than endless messaging, for this reason: if you can’t handle me in person, why TF would we date?

Carolyn: Yes! and how much of a sense of who a person is can anyone really get from a few back and forth messages with no context?

Mina: Exactly.

“Sometimes love means that you hurt, but the hurt doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.”

Carolyn: When you and your primary date other people, what does that look like?

Mina: Logistically we both can see each other’s google calendars. We have at least two date nights a week that we reserve for each other — always Saturday, work allowing, and then at least one other evening. We will almost certainly have sex on both date nights. (Unless the world ends, like it did on election Tuesday, in which case we end up watching Community and eating takeout.) Other than that: (1) Verbally communicate when you set a date with someone else, and also put it on the calendar, (2) Text when you leave the bar to go fuck, and (3) Text a status update when you’re on your way home, which also includes something sweet and usually sexy.

Other logistics involve clean sheets — this was more of an issue when we were in separate apartments — and always always always use protection. The norm for “who fucks in this apartment” has been “don’t fuck anybody else in our bed unless I’m out of town, in which case, do the laundry before I get home.”

Carolyn: Laundry is definitely a secret to poly and cohabitation.

Mina: YES. We have a washing machine in the apartment and it’s worth every penny.

For me, I’m grateful to have a primary partner who is more experienced with non-monogamy than I am because it means we aren’t both learning at the same time. It also means he can reflect what I may not see myself. A few months ago I went to a lesbian wedding out of town, as the guest of a friend (the one who told me to stop dating white boys with momma issues), and I shared with him beforehand that I was worried that if she and I fucked again, that it would lead to me Catching Feels, and that I didn’t want to get hurt because of how far away she lives, neither of us are out to our families, etc. He said very gently, sweetie, I think you already do have feelings for her, and that’s OK too.

And I spent some time with that statement, and you know what? He was right. And sometimes love means that you hurt, but the hurt doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.

I think I am less kind about his dates — he seems to date the flakiest damn women — but I do think it comes from a place of wanting the best for him. “Why are you trying to see her again? She’s cancelled on you twice.” He tends to go for quantity over quality, though, haha, so that is perhaps just a difference of priorities for what we each want from dating. I don’t have to remember the names of his dates until he decides they’ll be around for more than two. That’s a useful ADHD-related dating thing: it’s permission I gave myself, and then set the expectation by communicating it to him. Far less emotional labor for me — if i don’t have to learn their names, and he’s happy, then literally I do not care. Or at least, I try hard not to.

Carolyn: Do you experience jealousy? If so, how do you handle it? If no, how do you prevent it?

Mina: Part of how i handle the threat of jealousy is by learning only what I want to know (as in, the names thing), and part is by requesting frequent verbal reassurance about how I am superior to his other dates. I actually believe that he means things like, “you have the best ass in the entire state.” That’s a willing suspension of disbelief in some ways, but also because I’ve chosen to trust that he means it when he says I come first.

“I think jealousy — at least as I’ve seen it among my poly friends — often stems from an unwillingness to interrogate one’s own assumptions about oneself and one’s partner(s). I do NOT think that everything can be resolved by communication, but sometimes it sure does help clear the air.”

I’ve only asked him once to cancel a date because of Issues We Were Having, and that was two days after we moved into a new apartment and the house was still in chaos.

Right now, his depressive episode is finally resolving, and I have six months of backlog of really rough sex that I want to catch up on, and so when he told me a couple weeks ago that he had four first dates scheduled for the week, I got really mad! because it felt like he was choosing sex with randos who would likely fall through rather than fuck me, RIGHT HERE and ready and frustrated. I was jealous of his time and attention, more than the sex itself. We talked about it, and I realized he was seeking something specific that I could not offer (the heady experience of a new partner), in order to build up his sexual confidence again in no small part so as to feel like he could give me what I wanted. I said that I desperately needed emotional intimacy, for a lot of reasons, and so we agreed on more cuddling and more non-sexual physical touch, and set a specific day for a very sensual, loving sex session, but all that only happened because I was willing to interrogate my own reaction.

I think jealousy — at least as I’ve seen it among my poly friends — often stems from an unwillingness to interrogate one’s own assumptions about oneself and one’s partner(s). I do NOT think that everything can be resolved by communication, but sometimes it sure does help clear the air.

Carolyn: What do you want your future to look like? What vision are you working towards or hoping for?

Mina: I want to dedicate myself to work that matters, to issues that matter, and I have the professional skills to do that. I think I want “my future” to look like something that is … my own. And not anybody else’s template.

I realized as I was writing the bio paragraph that I’ve got a lot of boxes marked on my Intersectionality Bingo card. And that means good things and also realistic things. Like, I am not living a conventional life. I still need to interrogate whether my professed desire to be a mother comes from a place of conventional upbringing, or from a more authentic place that I can do in my own way.

I want to have a life partner. I think I’ve found one.

I want to have meaningful relationships, sexual and otherwise, with people who are conducive to my flourishing.

If I decide that going through pregnancy and parenting is something I want to do for my own, legitimate reasons, then I need to decide what that means for my home and professional life.

Right now, “the future” means I keep my head down politically enough to stay off the radar of people who are in a position to dole out consequences in my field, while making enough mischief to be considered part of the resistance. And I need the people in my life — and in my bed — to be part of supporting me when I need emotional nourishment or physical release.

It’s a pretty self-centered vision, TBH. I swear to you it fits into a larger picture of community and democracy. But some days I can only address what’s within my immediate reach, and I think I need to give myself permission for that to be Enough.


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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 742 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. 0

    Great. I didn’t realize this, but it’s reassuring to ‘meet’ someone who is as analytical and practical as I am in some ways. I loved that when it came time to describe “what does it look like when you date other people”, the first thing mentioned was the oh so practical shared Calendar.

    Good series; some good wisdom in this interview, like the ‘if i don’t trust you to vote, I don’t trust you in bed.” Yessssss.

  2. 0

    I think the intersection of being bisexual and poly is a /really/ difficult thing to talk about in the queer community right now, especially if you are dating a white, cis, her dude as your ‘primary’. I really appreciate the openness of this series and seeing other people working through their shit.

    • 0

      I’m also very conflicted about being in a (nonhierarchical) poly relationship and confirming everyone’s stereotypes of bisexual people! It’s a thing. I don’t have a lot of queer friends or coworkers where I live now, and I’m very worried that I’m just giving my wider community one visible bisexual person who is with a woman and going on dates with men. Do you have any tips about navigating it?

  3. 0

    just wanted to say I love all the Poly Pocket interviews! even when some of the approaches are not Useful to Me Specifically it’s always good to read how other people are figuring things out, and what works and doesn’t for them. it also makes me consider my own beliefs about emotions/relationships/etc more rigorously and remember what i do and don’t know about myself and needs.

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