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How I "Do" Poly
I follow a descriptive model of inclusive (family-based) open network poly. This means, basically, that I allow my relationships to develop however they want to naturally, but I prefer to limit my partners to those who enjoy independent friendships with my other partners, or at the very least do not see my other partners as competition for my time and attention. Because of that, my relationships are not easily categorized and may not fit into pre-existing model of a relationship. I'll address the safer sex rules that I prefer to follow first, since those are the easiest and most concrete to examine.
Safer Sex Rules
I broke my boundaries into 3 basic classes that specific activities can be evaluated for and decided on based on the class. The full explanation of these categories is here, but keep in mind that this chart is for the categories, not an explanation of how any individual relationship gets categorized.
Discussing the history and current STD status is mandatory in a full Disclosure Discussion. My usual criteria for accepting a sexual partner for anything more risky than HPV-boundary activities are someone with all negative test results, he prefers to have the Disclosure Discussion and trade results with all his other current and future partners, and he wants to notify me of any change in sexual status with any partner, current and future.These are not rules that I impose on my partners and expect them to obey me. These are the traits I look for in a partner and what makes me feel safe enough with a partner to engage in sexual activity that has a higher chance of STD transmission (i.e. non-HPV-boundary activities). It is the difference between regulation and consequences. What that means is I do not regulate my partners' behaviours. They can choose to do whatever they want to do. However, all actions have consequences, sometimes unintended consequences.
I believe in taking personal responsibility for the consequences of my actions. Therefore, my partners are free to choose to do whatever they want. But if I consider their actions to be unsafe or risky to my physical or emotional health, a possible consequence of their choice may be that I will re-negotiate the boundaries of our relationship until I no longer feel unsafe. This might mean we return to HPV boundaries. It might mean we breakup. It might mean everyone gets tested again before any sexual activity is shared with me. It might mean we only have sexual activity with the use of latex barriers. The actual consequence depends upon the individual relationship and the individual action that made me feel unsafe. My partners all have the same rights and responsibilities that I do, in that they do not dictate my actions but there might be consequences for my choices and I accept their right to choose activities and boundaries that make them feel safe.
Occasionally, if I judge someone to be extremely low risk (small number of past partners, long time since last partner, clean test results, no current partners, etc.), and I have no other partner or my other partners are all within HPV boundaries, I will occasionally skip the test results but will use condoms for intercourse and avoid oral sex, and I still insist on being notified when he gets a new partner before my next encounter with him. I make judgement calls and sometimes I take some minimal risks, and my partners all have the freedom to make their own choices too. I place no restrictions on what my partners do with other people, I just try to be involved with people who have similar personal boundaries as I do and who are committed to disclosing their sexual activity to me so that I can make informed decisions. Even if my other partners are within HPV boundaries (and therefore not at risk by my choice), I will still try to notify all partners of any change in sexual status with anyone before I share sexual activity with that current partner. To me, the most important part is informed consent - making sure everyone has the information they need to give informed consent to sexual activity. So even if I occasionally deem someone worthy of being flexible for on my Standard Operating Procedures or if we get a little carried away or if sometimes a slip occurs, the boundary that I don't relax for myself is telling all my other partners what I'm doing that affects them.
I am extremely thorough in my sexual history. I keep several records so I won't forget anything, including a simple text file of partners in chronological order, a bar chart, and The Sexual Health And History Form, which shows all my current test and most recent test results, and a complete list of all sexual partners and what type of activity we shared. This can provide a starting point for what kind of information you might want to gather from a potential partner. My list goes all the way back to my first kiss and includes partners I had some form of sexual activity with, but not necessarily intercourse. A reasonable history goes back at least 2 years with at least 2 test entries, 6 months apart (longer if the history goes back farther and/or there have been no partner changes in that duration). This form, and copies of my test results, are shared with all my potential partners and used to be uploaded to my online, shareable Google Health account (a service they regrettably discontinued), which I could also share with my partners.
For example. I once had a live-in partner who requested that I always "come home at night". He wanted to take priority over all my non-live in partners (of whom there were none at the time) and requested that I set aside this chunk of my time as "his" time with me. Well, since I had no other partners at the time, this seemed like a reasonable request. I did not take into account the feelings of my future partners who, even if they happen to be secondary partners, might have some emotional attachment to spending the night with me. Anyway, no sooner did I promise to come home every night, then I went back to college. And almost immediately I got swamped with projects and assignments and I had to pull an all-nighter in the lab completing a massive construction project. I had to break our agreement for an unexpected situation that required higher temporary priority.
Generally speaking, I find that discussing each event as it comes up, particularly when those in the relationship are secure about their relationships, takes care of any emotional needs regarding time, attention and "priority". Occasionally it doesn't. Just like in any relationship. And when it doesn't, that gets addressed at the time.
I don't generally "do" hierarchical, primary/secondary relationships. I don't use those terms and I don't assign blanket priority to people. All of my relationships have equal potential to develop into whatever relationship it wants to be. That means that I could have several relationships that develop into spouse-like or boyfriend-like relationships. But that also means that I could end up with relationships of varying degrees of intimacy or life entanglement. To describe those different relationships, I prefer the terms "core" and "satellite" to primary/secondary. My core relationships are those that I place high priority in my life, close to the priority of, say, my job or my pets (I take my responsibility as a pet mom very seriously). These are the relationships I would be willing to take time off work for to go on vacation, or to turn down other social plans in favor of. These are the partners I might consider serious life-altering changes for such as moving across the country with (although not necessarily moving in with - that's a whole other complication!) or making major purchases with. These are the partners I might call "life partners" or that I have very strong emotional connections to.
My satellite relationships are those that have less priority in my life - they are not ranked as "less" than my core partners, but when it comes to my time management, for example, I might have less time available for them. These are the people I probably wouldn't consider uprooting my life for or I might be willing to cancel plans with if work calls. It's a very fuzzy line, though, because I have been known to make major decisions with a satellite partner and to pass on a work call in favor of plans. I might have less of an emotional connection to them, or I might have a strong connection to them but it's different somehow, more like a good friend than a "life partner", even though a friend or a satellite partner might be there long-term, and even though that elusive "romantic" element separates it from "just a friend". I suppose the real difference between the two might be what my long-term intentions are. A core relationship is one that I intend to maintain long-term and I make future plans for, whereas a satellite relationship is one that I don't have long-term intentions, although I may wish to enjoy the relationship indefinitely, or that we may put forth less effort to maintain the relationship or work through difficulties. I may be more flexible on the idea of a satellite relationship fading, ending, or transitioning to platonic friends than I would be about a core relationship doing the same. The key element in both categories, however, is that they are descriptive - they describe the relationship as it has played out at that time, and they do not presribe or predetermine what the relationship will be or ought to be in the future.
But there are certain things about relationships that, in my observation, people have a tendency to make assumptions about. And identifying these, often tacit, assumptions, for the purpose of discussing them with each other, is a very important part about negotiating relationships. People often talk about how many hours each person is allowed to spend on dates, or whether anyone will or will not have access to the family checking account. And I think that misses the point, which is the underlying assumptions about what a relationship is and how people see any particular relationship.
Here are some things that each couple, regardless of primary/secondary or any category status, and each group, should discuss with each other. It is particularly important for people who are being labled "secondary" (labled as such because they are dating married people) to discuss, not just with their partner, but with the spouse as well. Also, you should be VERY careful to have this discussion in the present tense, and do not construct a contract that will lock the participants into a role or a set of limitations that do not allow for changing circumstances. This should be a DESCRIPTION of how the participants see the relationship right now, not a PRESCRIPTION for how the relationships "should be".
Remember, I am not advocating that this outline be used to create a literal contract to be reviewed and signed. Use it as a tool to foster discussion about the various points regarding assumptions in treatment and expectations within a relationship. Also take care to discuss the points in this outline in the present tense and avoid setting up the discussion as an agreement governing specific activities that one person may or may not do with other people without those people's input.
I want someone...
This was once described as "prose meets laundry list", and I like that. I have an essay elaborating more about what I want in a relationship in my Writings category of the Projects section. My sweetie has also written some very good articles on what he looks for in relationship partners and how he does relationships that pretty closely resembles my wants and methods, only he says it better than I do:
The bottom line is that I treat each of my partners with respect and consideration. I make choices about my life based upon how they will affect my other partners and whether the consequences (or results, if you prefer) of my choices are ones I am prepared to live with. I discuss with each of my partners the needs and desires of each individually and work out problems as they arise. I choose to not date anyone who self-identifies as monogamous and I prefer not to date people who are willing to date anyone who self-identifies as monogamous. I maintain scrupulous health records and try to keep up to date with the latest sexual health information. I take slightly more risks to my own health when I have only myself to affect. I prefer to have direct communication with my partners' other partners' and lacking that tends to cause me extreme distress, but the amount of talking we have to do depends on what is most natural for each person. Choosing to live with someone or not, share finances, be "casual", the amount of time shared, how many nights we sleep over, what kind of activities we share, all is decided on an individual basis according to what each partner wants and what each relationship wants. Unfortunately, the answer to most questions about my specific relationships tends to be "depends upon the relationship".
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