We often hear the mantra of polyamory as being “communication, communication, communication”. Whilst that is entirely true, it doesn’t tell us what we need to communicate, and how. Particularly as we start our poly journey, there are a host of “firsts” to be navigated. While there may be poly books to help us get our heads round the concepts, and poly forums and friends we can go to for advice, essentially we must find our own way through this, decide what we want, and don’t, and decide what is important to us.
Three very important areas of polyamory to me are negotiation, agreement and responsibility. These words get bandied around a lot, but what do they actually mean? How can I get good at doing them? I actually think these three concepts are at the heart of being a good polyamorous person. The ability to negotiate with a partner, existing or prospective; the ability to form a proper agreement and the responsibility to stick to the agreement, or negotiate a change to it are all key skills I look for in partners, and to some extent, my metamours.
Negotiation is key to a poly life. Simple things like “Husband, I’m seeing my lover on Friday. Can we have our date at our house this week?” to detailed things like a pre-relationship negotiation, which should cover lots of aspects such as safer sex, expectations of time and attention, where things might progress to, disclosure and intentions. Negotiation is a process of sharing information, proposing an agreement, and deciding whether to agree, compromise or walk away from that particular thing.The foundation of being able to negotiate is firstly that you have taken the time and space to reflect on what it is you want. This is especially important at the beginning of a new relationship when you need to negotiate with a prospective partner about what your existing needs, wants and agreements with others are, and what you can offer them. It is also about honesty: negotiation is not the time to be playing those childish dating games the glossy magazines would have you do. It is important to be honest about what you can do, and what you want in return. There is no point agreeing to something you cannot deliver in real life, and the negotiation process is where you make that clear.
Negotiation leads to agreements. Like negotiation they can be simple answers to simple questions like, “Of course you can see your lover here on Friday, I’ll be at the cinema with my girlfriend”, or they can lead to a reminder of a pre-existing agreement you may have forgotten, “Actually wife, this week it’s my turn to see my play-partner at our home, could you make other arrangements to see your lover?”. In the early stages of a new relationship, negotiations should lead to explicit agreements on the things important to you and your existing structures: things like safer sex agreements, or disclosure of play or relationships with others. Sometimes as a new relationship starts you need to negotiate with the new sweetie so they will be compatible with your existing agreements with your existing partners, very common with safer sex agreements for example. On a lighter note, ongoing agreements may be things like reserving Sundays for you and your primary, or texting a partner once a day just to say “hi/I love you/how are you?”.
Sometimes agreements get broken, or breached. Sometimes it is unintentional, and minor, “honey, you said you’d text me every day, but you haven’t text me all weekend”, and can usually be resolved with a little reminder. Repeated minor breaches may however breed resentment and reduce trust. On the other end of the scale, are the major breaches, which are serious whether intentional or not. An example of such a major breach could be where a safer sex agreement has been breached, and someone has exposed themselves to a risk. In these cases, swift action by the breaching parties can make a difference between a problem and a disaster. In any breach, an apology should be made, and a restoration attempted, usually by completing the breached obligation and promising to uphold the agreement in future. In the event of a serious breach, more detailed talks and reparation may be needed. As with the example of a series of minor breaches, a serious breach can result in a loss of trust. The trust is essentially the faith in your responsibility to maintain the agreements you have negotiated, and once lost, is difficult to recover, and requires work and goodwill on all sides.
Which leads us to responsibility. Responsibility is a core quality I look for in a polyamorous partner (or metamour). You need to be responsible to take the time to carry out proper and full negotiation, responsible in making agreements that are sustainable, responsible to both the prospective partner and the existing partners, responsible to ensure you comply with all your existing agreements, and responsible enough to communicate clearly and quickly when you’ve breached an agreement with one or more persons. As a metamour, you are responsible for being a decent, fair and honest person. You are responsible for communicating your needs clearly to your prospective mate, and for being clear if there are any needs which are essential, or any things which are dealbreakers. You must be responsible in your conduct, acting with consideration to your metamours, complying with existing agreements and taking care not to breach an agreement, or communicating properly if a breach does occur. You should be responsible for communicating your own needs, wants, desires and expectations, and being responsible for what agreements you enter into, or breach.
Being good at negotiation, making agreements and being responsible does not come naturally to most, and is generally something we have to work on, and can be a lifetime’s endeavour. Being new to polyamory does give you some licence to make the mistakes we all made in our early days, but it does not permit you to give up the responsibility to deal with all this (sometimes difficult) stuff for someone else to sort out. Begin by treating others as they have asked to be treated, and you will do well. These three skills are at the core of being a good polyamorous partner and metamour, and will save you a hell of a lot of trouble in the future, both in your relationships, and in life generally. They are well worth working at, improving on and honing, and are a skill that is prized amongst your poly peers and partners.
These three areas of negotiation, agreement and responsibility form the basis of my polyamorous philosophy. I endeavour to negotiate fully, and pre-emptively, and to be honest and clear in communicating my needs, wants, rules and obligations. I strive to uphold all of my agreements in the spirit in which they were undertaken, with mutual respect and affection. I promise to communicate if I have breached an agreement, and to make reparation for it. I always try to be a responsible, fair person, working within the frameworks of my obligations, or seeking to re-negotiate those if I need to. I try to be a kind, considerate partner and metamour, and to be supportive as well as seek the support of my poly circle. These are my pledges as a polyamorous person, to myself, my partners and metamours.
You can read more poly folks’ thoughts on negotiation on Poly Means Many – Negotiation.