Guest Columnist Dr. Sheila Addison helps a reader discern between "real" polyamorous people and abusers!
I'm a polyamorous woman in my late thirties living in a major metropolitan area. I myself am currently taking a break from dating, but a few of my polyamorous female friends have been actively using dating apps to meet new partners - and they're coming back with horror stories. Through their testimonials (as well as my own observations and experiences) it feels as though there's a new trend of men co-opting non-monogamous language to intentionally manipulate sex from multiple women at the same time without any intention of actually engaging in ethical non-monogamy. How can we tell 'real' polyamorous people from abusers who seek to exploit our sexual autonomy and use our open principles for their personal gain?
Good news letter writer: With this one simple trick, you can tell the “real” polyamorous guys from the abusers:
Just ask him “If I were to ask your brother whether you always tell the truth, what would he say?”
No. Ask him “Do you weigh more than a duck?”
Sorry. What you do is you put him in a bowl of cold water, and if he stands on one end…
Yeah, that’s no good either.
Unlike a riddle, or a Monty Python sketch, or a carton of eggs, there’s no way to tell from the first date whether someone is “one of the good ones” – honest, forthright, self-aware, and so on. If I could crack that code, I’d be relaxing on my private island with a tiki drink in one hand and a novel in the other, in between naps on my giant pile of money earned by putting every relationship counselor, divorce lawyer, and private investigator in the world out of business.
But I know your friends’ “horror stories” – the harem-builders, the bedpost-notch-gatherers, the ones who treat their lovers like the prize in some human version of Pokemon – “gotta date ‘em all!” – or worse yet, an all-you-can-eat sushi bar. I know, because this is actually not a new trend.
People (largely straight cis men) like this: they’ve been part of the non-monogamous world all along. (The call is coming from inside the house!) Throwing off the strictures of monogamy, without also taking a sledgehammer to the patriarchy (let’s face it: the kyriarchy!) inevitably means that some people attracted to what the brave new paradigm has to offer will immediately figure out how to exploit it to their own advantage. An Ayn-Rand-style, “I’m only responsible for me and my needs; everyone else’s needs are their own problems” mindset fits unsettlingly well with some aspects of non-monogamy, but sure isn’t what many people are looking for in a lover or a partner.
That’s actually one reason why I prefer “consensual non-monogamy” (CNM) to “ethical non-monogamy.” There’s a lot of people out there operating under their own personal code of ethics whom I would… not want someone I care about to date. (For other good reasons, read this great blog.)
But your desire to sort the good eggs from the bad ones is understandable, and although this question is probably as old as human relationships, there are some pointers specific to CNM relationships I can suggest:
1) If your risk tolerance for being lied to is very, very low, do not take any lovers in “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationships. There are many honest, trustworthy people doing DADT style CNM, but what they lack is verifiability. If you can’t speak directly to the other person/people in someone’s life and confirm “yep, he’s available to date,” you can never verify that hall pass he swears he has.
2) Don’t date poly n00bs. That rules out folks who are new to CNM – and so be it. There are a thousand essays out there on “mistakes I made when I was new to polyamory” for a reason. Dating is hard. CNM dating is, like, graduate school level dating. Most people are going to screw up, a bunch, and the good ones will learn from it. (“Well how will the n00bs learn, then?” I hear a hundred people asking on Twitter. The answer is: not from you, letter writer. Not from you and your girlfriends. N00bs can be Somebody Else’s Problem.)
3) Don’t date people without a “résume” – at least a few people in their past who can attest “yep, I dated him, he treated me well.” Some folks just have terrible luck with break-ups, and don’t speak to their exes for perfectly good reasons! It happens! But you, letter writer, want to date men who are Verified Decent Dudes, so stick with the ones you can verify. We do a reference check if we hire a house-sitter; why not on the people we invite into our beds?
4) Take your time. I promise, I am a Gen X’er with my own sex-on-the-first-date, one night stand, hookup past, and I stand by it. But did I say earlier that dating is hard? It’s hard! And new partners are fun, NRE is fun, falling for someone hard is fun. But as a therapist, I have a hunch that an important relationship skill particularly for the CNM-inclined is knowing where both the gas and the brakes are in your heart. A guy worth your time will not disappear if you say “no” to more (more dates, more intensity, more promises) when you’re just getting to know each other.
When you take your time, you can watch his ethics in action. How does he treat people over whom he has power: the waiter, the barista? How does he talk about and behave towards vulnerable people in his community: sex workers, children, unhoused people? And crucially, are women actually people in his world? Does he read books by women, have women he admires, act as an ally to women in his workplace? Does he accept influence from you, per the Gottmans’ research? Does he relate to your female friends and partners as equals? Does he have women as friends, not just sex partners? Does he treat his other lovers as his equals, or as a reserve army of care labor?
Finally, I want to point folks to this book by Pepper Mint, “Playing Fair: A Guide to Non-monogamy for Men Into Women.” I just ran across it myself, but it’s endorsed by people I admire like Kevin Patterson and Kitty Stryker. Sounds like something you and your ladies should check out, and then use as a litmus test for future lovers.
Raised by a feminist single mother in the Midwest, Dr. Sheila Addison, LMFT was taught early on that women deserve equal opportunities. In her training as a Marriage and Family Therapist, Sheila expanded her perspective on social justice to include intersections of gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, weight, and more. She earned her Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Syracuse University where she developed and co-taught one of the first academic courses covering LGBT issues in family therapy. Currently, she heads Margin to Center Consulting which encompasses her private practice and supervision; cultural competency trainings for mental health professionals; and providing diversity and inclusion resources, including the Ally Skills Workshop, to corporate, academic, and community clients. She resides in Oakland, California where her private practice, focused on couples and relationships, is also located. In 2018 she was named “Best Psychotherapist in the East Bay” by the East Bay Express.