You Need Help: Seeking Poly People and (Relationship) Anarchy in Small Town, U.S.A.

Q:

Do you have any advice on how to meet poly people, when there are none in your own queer community and online dating is pretty much only showing you unicorn hunters? I long to dive headfirst into relationship anarchy but I’m living with poly-unsupportive parents in a very conservative town, and I don’t know what I’m doing or how to connect.

A:

Without knowing where you’re located, it’s hard for me to give any logistical advice – and, to be honest, even if I did know where in the world you are, I don’t know if, on a practical front, I’d be much help to you. You know your town better than I do, after all; you’ve been living there your whole life (or at least for a fair portion of it), and I don’t even know if I’ve visited.

That being said – I do want to note that people have been doing poly dating probably for as long as people have been dating, and certainly long before this relationship style was being spotlighted in thinkpieces online. If you read Franklin Veaux, one of the leading writers on non-monogamy (he co-authored More Than Two, a book I highly recommend for anyone doing relationships of any style; and wrote his own memoir of his journey toward a more relationship anarchy style poly in The Game Changer), he traces how the early Internet was a huge boon for people exploring poly openly for the first time.

We’ve come a long way from the Internet of the 90s, but the same holds true. My first instinct was to point you in the direction of Tumblr, but unfortunately with the NSFW bans, Tumblr may not be the safest place for dating and sexuality questions anymore. But people take to Twitter to discuss in the ins and outs of RA, and Relationship Anarchy the website lists many resources that keep track of who’s who in the RA world, as well as books, podcasts, and other sources of support you could reach out to. Don’t be afraid to leave a comment, or write an email. The relationship anarchy community, or the poly community more generally, grew up with the Internet, and most people are happy to lend their support if and when they have the time.

So while my IRL advice to you isn’t going to be about which cute secretly gay coffee shops you should visit, or how long to lurk around the queer part of town until your perfect relationship anarchist meet cute finally takes place, I do want to acknowledge what not too many people remember to talk about when we talk about privilege and intersectionality: that geographical privilege, especially for queer folks, is a very real thing. It can still be really hard for people in rural or more conservative areas to live their truest, most brilliant queer selves depending on where they’re located. I wish it wasn’t still like that – still! In 2019! – but sadly, it is.

I will say, though, that after a decade of dating in New York City (the queer capital of the world, or at least one of them) and doing the ENM thing (ethical non-monogamy, consensual non-monogamy, or polyamory, use whichever term suits you best), it’s likely that you’d be finding unicorn hunters no matter where you go. I know you may feel like your geographic isolation is what’s contributing to the failure to launch of your relationship anarchy dreams, but that’s not necessarily the case. The difficulty with relationship anarchy, in my experience, is that it is hard. It takes work. And it takes no small amount of self-awareness – something that many people don’t even know they lack (see what I did there?) and something that most are even more averse to cultivating.

Many people jumped on the OKCupid polyamory train as soon as the option was available to list their preferences that way, but in my experience, not quite as many of them did the work necessary to become ethical partners. Being a non-monogamous partner is easy. Being an ethically non-monogamous partner (or an ethically monogamous partner, for that matter) is a lot more work. It’s a practice. It takes time, effort, a willingness to come authentically understand yourself and your values, and diligent work on setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.

I encountered many, many unicorn hunters during my online dating travails. Some were open about it, and we shared some fun, low-stakes naked times – in fact, at one point, I was even a unicorn hunter myself, though I made the somewhat unique choice of hunting for a boy-unicorn so my bi-curious dude friend could figure out where he was on the scale from curious to totally gleefully bisexual. It was a great experience, though it doesn’t sound what you’re looking for. In your letter I sense some of the wariness of the other reality of online poly dating: that some unethically non-monogamous folks, whether through carelessness or outright selfishness, are unicorn hunters in sheep’s clothing. Having been on the receiving end of non-monogamous dating that often called itself relationship anarchy, but in practice was strictly hierarchical pseudo-poly, I want you to be able to avoid that if it’s definitely not what you want, because it’s painful, and your wariness is actually a sign of good judgment.

In that case, the best thing that you can do for yourself, dating-wise, is to focus on you. I know, I know. Frustrating and perhaps unhelpful advice. But what I mean is this: You can’t control the town you live in, you can’t control your poly-unsupportive parents, and you can’t control the presence of unicorn hunters sliding perpetually and annoyingly into your DMs. What you can control is how you respond to all this series of unfortunate events. I’m going to push back a little when you say that you that you “don’t know what you’re doing” or that you “don’t know how to connect.” I think you do – you’re just coming up against some pretty real roadblocks right now. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t know what you want and need, or that you don’t know how to connect with others.

Sit down and really think about what you want out of relationship anarchy (which, for readers who don’t understand, is beautifully defined here). The beauty – and, sometimes, the pressure – of relationship anarchy is that it allows for the possibility of relationships to look any way you want them do. Without the script of monogamy, or even polynormativity (where in people are polyamorous, but the needs and desires of the central couple are prioritized, the version of non-monogamy I found myself falling into most often as a secondary partner) which both lay out a certain, specific way of doing things, with relationship anarchy, the person who gets to design what relationships look like is you. (And, eventually, the shape of the relationship becomes a collaboration, between you and your partners.) This is exciting! It gives you a lot of freedom to imagine what you want for yourself. So start imagining, and get specific.

I don’t know if you’re a law of attraction type of person, but I do believe that when you get clear, when you get really specific, about what you want – out of life, out of relationships – it becomes easier to turn those desires into reality. The first statement of the Relationship Anarchy Manifesto is that “Love is abundant,” so why don’t we start there? Love is abundant. What kind of love do you want to create in your life? Get clear on what you want. You don’t want to be a unicorn. Do you want a primary partnership? Do you want a relationship in which all people participating it are solo poly? Do you want a relationship that is local, or would you be willing (and able) to travel to see your partners? Are there more liberal cities nearby that you could get to easily enough in order to try your luck dating there? If you got really clear on your dating profile about exactly what your expectations and desires are for a relationship, who would respond? Are there “unicorn hunters” out there who you could maybe meet as friends – is there a chance that they might have connections to a more local poly community? Would you be open to meeting, if so?

I’m not going to say it’ll be easy. You’ve identified your location as a hurdle to overcome in order to find and create the relationships in your life that you would find fulfilling. But that’s only one part the issue. On the other side of that, I think it might be helpful to identify your values when it comes to relationships, to get specific about what you want and need, and then, while still sticking to your well-defined and thought out guns, to open yourself up to possibilities, both locally, and more distant, and see what the world has to offer you.

Christina Tesoro is a New York City-based writer, sex educator, and soon-to-be therapist. In her spare time she loves to write natal charts, read tarot cards, and run to Rihanna playlists. She is determined to learn how to do a split.

Christina has written 8 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I had never seen that relationship anarchy manifesto before, thank you so much for the link. It’s really lovely and it applies to so much of love and life, even if you aren’t poly or anarchist.

  2. Quick note about Franklin Veaux, especially in regards to his memoir: “Six women have come forward with stories of experiences with Franklin that do not align with his public persona, his self-described stories of his relationships, or the values stated in his writing. These women include all three of his past nesting partners, as well as the women who have featured most prominently in his personal narratives.”

    https://medium.com/@fv.survivor.pod/on-light-and-shadow-polyamorys-metoo-411e0275c2fe

    • UGH I don’t know why I’m surprised. This is the second time this week someone has reached out to me to tell me some male writer actually isn’t what he seemed. (The other was Sherman Alexie, and I had to throw his memoir in the trash in the middle of reading it.)

      Thank you for letting me know! I’ll be careful either to add that as a caveat if I reference him again or, more likely, bulk up on my non-men poly writers

    • phew that comment section is a mindfuck. On a later post, they do say that Eve Rickert (the co-author of More Than Two and Franklin’s former partner) is one of the named survivors and is comfortable going public about it. And on that note they’ve said:

      ‘Many people have stated that the information provided in our public statement changed their feelings on More Than Two. Some have stated that they will no longer recommend the book to others or consult it themselves. While we have no position on what people should do with More Than Two, we would like to remind everyone that Eve Rickert is a co-author of the book. Erasing her centers Franklin in the conversation, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid even if that conversation is complicated or uncomfortable.’

      I’m not sure that’s a definitively helpful statement, just that the book now has a huge caveat.

    • Coming here to say the same thing. Some of his articles were great reading for me when I finally realised I prefer open relationships, and of course none of us are perfect. But the gap between presentation and what appears to be reality is far too great in this instance.

  3. When I first came out as bi, married to a straight man for maybe six years at that point and living in a rural area – not even a “village” in our local parlance, an extremely wise friend suggested I consider non-monogamy. I was like, pffft, that’s IMPOSSIBLE where I live. Turns out, to my incredible surprise and happiness, it was not impossible! There was some traveling involved, as I suspect any kind of dating would entail when your neighbors are Mennonites and a very impressive goat farm. But there were a number of people who were delightful to meet and one who has become a partner for the long haul.

  4. Finding any social circle in a small town is so hard. Even when you do come across people in your target group, you don’t necessarily click, and it can start to feel pointless. Thank gaydess for the Internet.

    Christina, I’m wondering if you would share what your personal definition of relationship anarchy is (on the understanding that everyone’s definition is probably a little different)? I’m curious because you mention a primary partnership, and my limited understanding of RA seems antithetical to that. Also because a lot of what I have read about RA has seemed… vague at best, and unattainably idealistic if not pretentious at worst. Your advice here shows a lot of nuance and thoughtfulness, so I’d love to hear your take on this.

    • Hey Chandra! Thanks for this question. I haven’t thought about it in a while, to be totally honest, because I just got out of a 2+ year relationship that was moooostly monogamous. I think when I was more in the ENM scene, what relationship anarchy meant to me was an ideal that I wanted to organize my relationships by — it was always something to strive for, with the understanding that it would be really freaking hard to put it into practice. I did so much research and went to so much therapy trying to put it into practice, but what it came down to was that I was meeting people who, while they very much claimed to be relationship anarchists, in practice still organized their relationships as hierarchical polyamory — in what was actually a very hurtful way. I still really love and am drawn to ideals of relationship anarchy, and I think I would really love to implement that in my life, but after a lot of heartbreak and, frankly, emotional abuse, I don’t really know that I have it in me to try again (though I totally support and admire folks who do make it work in their own lives.)

      I think the other way I understand relationship anarchy is pretty beautifully summed up by this Nayyirah Waheen poem:

      “when you meet that person. a person.
      one of your soulmates. let the
      connection. relationship. be what it
      is. it may be five mins. five hours. five
      days. five months. five years. a
      lifetime. five lifetimes. let it manifest
      itself the way it is meant to. it has an
      organic destiny. this way if it stays
      or if it leaves. you will be softer. from
      having been loved this authentically.
      souls come into. return. open. and
      sweep through your life for a myriad
      of reasons. let them be who. and what.
      they are meant.”

      • I really appreciate this comment. I’ve heard others describe experiences similar to yours – I’m sorry to hear they’ve been painful.

        I think some of the concepts/higher ideals around equalizing relationships are noble, but in practice, with limited stores of time and emotional energy, different vibes between different people, etc it seems inevitable to me that hierarchies will form. In my opinion it’s kinder to everyone, and more realistic, to be aware and upfront about such things from the get-go. I’ve felt a little irked that hierarchical non-monogamy is sometimes implied to be less evolved than RA (ironically much in the same way that monogamy is sometimes viewed in poly circles).

        I absolutely love the poem that you’ve shared though, and do try to embody those ideals of a no-expectations approach in my connections with people. I can get behind the idea of “anarchy” in the sense of not starting out with a structure in mind, but for me personally there has to be room for structure/hierarchy to take shape if that’s where it naturally leads. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to flesh out all these thoughts! Lol

        • thank you for this discussion! I relate to “both sides” so much. I’m in a long term 2 person relationship that is technically poly, but where both of us just had regular unrequited crushes for other people. (it’s still “really” poly! That’s another rant.)Then we had a kid. Then we were forced to move in together, which wasn’t the plan *at all*. It turned out ok in terms of facilitating living with a baby/ toddler (there’s a lot of running around half naked, shared bathroom visits and dirty diapers involved that doesn’t really fit easily into the usual “roommate” arrangement. (You basically need RA roommates to begin with.) It did however remove us even further from the way we actually would like to live, relating to others. It just feels harder and harder to escape that dynamic! The sheer logistics of it make it SO EASY to discuss everything with the person you’re living with before talking about it with others, so that even when you don’t casually forget telling others the important stuff, they mostly get the pre processed result. Basically to prioritize the live in relationship through sheer exposure. OTOH not every partner *wants* to live together, not everyone wants shared daily troubles – not every relationship is supposed to work that way. Coming back to the “primary partner” issue: “Primary partnership: When two or more people in an intimate relationship have made — or are making plans for — significant commitments to merge the everyday infrastructure of their lives in a spouse-like fashion.” https://solopoly.net/2012/09/20/whats-a-primary-partner-on-my-terms/ So a PP doesn’t technically contradict RA at all. It’s just the way this often plays out that leads to the contradiction. In my case, we would need significantly more money to just simply have our own private spaces, and less parental commitments to have enough time for significant relationships with other people. There’s workaround for everything, but there’s a lot of privilege involved in removing some basic hurdles.

          • Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I can relate to a lot of this! My wife and I started out long-distance and intending to keep things casual, but when we quickly realized we wanted to be together the only way to do that was to get married (though luckily that felt right for us anyway). We also have to live together, despite preferring to have separate but nearby living spaces, in order for our immigration sponsorship application to be considered valid. So on a purely practical level, there’s already a necessary investment of time in household matters, budget, taxes, groceries, etc. and that’s even without having any kids.

            When you add to that the quality time and attention that is needed for me to have the kind of connection I want with my partner, and the time I need to set aside for myself as an introvert, there’s simply not a lot left over for another committed relationship. I’m open to exploring low-stakes fun times with other people if that opportunity comes along again, but I would be very clear upfront that that’s all I was looking for.

            I also hear you on the “real” poly thing! This is my first non-monog relationship and I’ve really only scratched the surface of acting on it, so I sometimes feel like an impostor. But I’m not an impostor and neither are you! This relationship operates in a way that is utterly different from any that I’ve had before, even regardless of who else my wife or I get involved with, because our whole approach is different – the openness, the way we talk about attraction to other people, the way we take ownership of our own feelings around that, the way we don’t assume we have rights to all of each other’s time and attention, etc. THAT is what makes it poly, as much as anything.

    • Jumping in here, I find some of the stuff around “relationship anarchy” a little wanky at times, but it best describes the kind of paradigm I’m looking for.

      I think one of the things that people can get bogged down in is that they think you’re expected to treat people *equally*. Well, I do think you are supposed to treat everyone with equal care and courtesy – often not the case, alas – but we don’t *feel* about everyone equally, and our attention and time will reflect that. Not to mention the logistics of time and energy!

      So I think that’s why I don’t actually use the label, even though I agree with the aims. In political anarchy, the idea is that people will form associations according to their needs – but there’s no prescribed way of doing it. But again, there seems to be an assumption that it has to be exactly equal *treatment*. I’d rather avoid any such confusion.

      I just tend to say I’m not so much into the primary/secondary dynamic in my relationships. As it is, I’ve had one main partner for the last 7 years and a couple of other lovers for multiple years both. I haven’t lived with any of them, and I don’t share finances or anything with my “main” (“most consistent”?) partner.

      I think the main thing that distinguishes primary/secondary to me – and I know that there are all kinds of permutations – is that with a primary relationship, you will make life decisions based on that partner’s wants and needs, whereas with secondaries, you might consider them, but they won’t be the major influence.

      I’m now going to contradict myself by saying I moved to the country I live now to be near my current “main” partner, but that was to be close to someone I’ve had the best connection with, ever, and who I share a relationship model with (and other good things, ahem), not that I wanted us to merge. She lives with her actual primary partner, and that’s just great. If we spent more than a couple of days a week together, we’d drive each other bonkers. Also, I’m much more interested in casual sex than she is.

      Sorry for the long-winded thing. But I suppose my main point is that we can construct the kind of relationships we want. I also avoid calling myself “polyamorous” because that means “multiple relationships”… but they may not necessarily be “open”. For me, the open paradigm – the ability to have sex and fall in love with whomever I choose (if it’s respectful and not likely to harm anyone else I’m involved with) is the most important aspect.

      For other people, it’s being in a central committed relationship, but with room for others in agreed-upon conditions (well, if it’s about *relationships*, there are always conditions, if it’s healthy) that’s the most important part.

  5. To the main question here, I’m going to be blunt and say that sometimes, you need to get away from the parents and the small town, and find a larger pond to swim in, with more diverse people and more diverse kinds of relationships to explore.

    Yes, sometimes you’re lucky and find someone who feels the same way you do in your little pond. Often, though, you try and “make do” with someone who might check a few of your boxes, but not even the majority. That can become pretty disheartening, isolating, and make you feel like you’re somehow f*cked up.

    At least these days, online communities mean that you’re much more likely to know you’re not the only one. And also, they’re a great way to meet people. But I also think it can get pretty disheartening to have drawn-out online-only relationships, which can also be tempting when you’re isolated. It’s really much better to be able to meet appealing people as soon as you can.

    Actually being around people who don’t bat an eye at your preferred relationship style is really good for your self-esteem, whether or not they’re into it themselves. Being in a place where you can actually physically meet people who ARE into your relationship style is even better.

    Having moved cities four times and countries three times, I know how tough it is. But if you know ONE person you like and can sometimes hang out with in a cool city with a diverse population, and if it is at all possible, I genuinely suggest thinking about moving somewhere bigger one day.

    There’s nothing to say you can’t move “home” again one day, remember. But swimming in a bigger pond is almost always a good experience even when it’s hard at the time. It’s a great way to establish what you really want to prioritise in your life without feeling like you’re screwed up because you’re not like everyone else around you (you can figure out you’re screwed up in ways like lots of other people! haha)

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