As the eldest child of five kids, I was well accustomed to hearing ‘learn to share’ from a young age. I shared a bedroom until I left home, I shared my toys, I shared my parents. I shared my free time balancing various aged children on my hip instead of playing in trees and kissing people. Sharing is not something that is new to me. So when I started a non-monogamous life, you’d think that meant sharing was natural to me, right? Well no, actually. As a society, we aren’t used to sharing our partners, our most beloved. We are told that exclusivity equals significance and possession equals security. It took some time to get used to letting the fingers curl from the grip of control, to step back, to invite others to share; it was a step further again to enjoying the sharing, feeling genuine joy seeing my love with another love.
One thing people often ask about how one adjusts to a non-monogamous life is: ‘how do you share’. Well, that’s a very good question. There are a bunch of things that are involved in good sharing, but ultimately they boil down to three things: boundaries, compromise and respect. Like many things in poly, all of those things are somewhat fluid, and vary from connection to connection, but they form the basis. If you can set out your boundaries, you know where there’s room for sharing. If you’ve talked with your partner and agreed where both your boundaries are, you can identify the wriggle space. I may talk with my husband and we set a boundary that we are busy with work and study, but provided we have one date night a week, we can date other people.
Which leads me to compromise: sometimes my study deadlines might mean I can’t make date night that week. Does that mean I a) re-arrange my date with my husband to when I am free, or b) if I don’t have my date night, I have to end my relationship? Clearly, I can’t see my other partner(s) if I am not making time first and foremost for my husband, because that is what we agreed, they are the boundaries of our relationship. But it doesn’t mean I have to end the other relationships if the date night doesn’t happen for some reason. I might arrange to see my husband another day, or another week, we might not make the time up at all. The important part is that there is a discussion, and we compromise. A compromise is a bargain, sometimes you can make both people happy, sometimes you can’t make a compromise without breaking someone’s boundaries.
Should you respect a person’s boundaries? Always. I believe that any boundary is valid, so long as it relates to the person themselves, and that includes them being able to choose what situations and circumstances they are happy to enter into. A boundary can be anything: a boundary that you won’t have sex without a barrier, a boundary that you don’t play with people who are marked/bruised, or even a boundary that you won’t play with anyone called Dave dressed as Captain Picard. I see people’s boundaries as hard limits; something that aren’t up for negotiation, and should be respected. You can either accept, and respect someone’s boundaries, or you don’t, and you walk away. Do not try and negotiate someone’s boundaries down, or put them under pressure to change to suit you. Boundaries are something that you should come into contact if you’re playing or dating with people; ask them for their boundaries, advise them of yours, note any potential clashes and see if they are insurmountable. If they are: do not attempt to proceed, you will only cause a train-wreck and it will entirely be your own faults. If one partner’s sharing boundary is that their girlfriend can do rope but don’t kiss, but you insist on kissing your partners (or know you want to/will kiss this person), red flags should be waving in front of you at warp speed.
The final issue I want to talk about is respect, and etiquette. It’s so interwoven into relationships between people as a whole, it seems silly to need to point it out in detail here. But a little respect goes a long, long way, especially when you’re sharing. Sometimes when you’re knee-deep in NRE, it’s hard to step back and ask yourself if you’re being respectful of others around you, just like if you have an established relationship it can be hard to assess if you’re being respectful to newer partners to your group. Respect can be shown in a lot of things: respect for a pre-existing relationship or commitment, respecting someone enough to communicate fully and honestly with them, respecting someone’s boundaries. Respect requires for you to take your focus off yourself and what you want, and to consider the feelings and thoughts of others.
Those new to sharing often fall foul of some basic sharing etiquette (and some not so new, come to think of it). Etiquette is simply grounded in respect, be respectful to others and you shouldn’t go far wrong. Everyone has their own levels of what they find rude and what they don’t, but here are some examples of things I consider bad etiquette:
- not contacting existing partners to check in before first playing
- not being physically and emotionally present during your time with partners
- over-committing to play at events and bailing or burning out
The easiest thing to do in terms of etiquette is to ask yourself how you’d want to be treated if roles were reversed, note other respectful things people have done for you, and think about adopting them. It’s always worth asking people what things they like and don’t like – often it can be something simple and small that a person can find huge in terms of goodwill and trust. In the date night situation I talked of earlier, my etiquette would have been to let other partners know I was really busy that week, and that could mean we don’t see each other as usual. Keeping people informed of things, and discussing decisions if that’s an option is good etiquette.
Sharing loved ones can be wonderful, rewarding, and easy if you are involved with people who share well. Those are people who tend to be clear and respectful of boundaries, people who know when they can compromise, but also let you know when things aren’t up for discussion. People who are mindful of etiquette and act respectfully, and expect people to do so for them.