Playing at Poly

Ferns brings up (as she so often does) a good question, about how it comes across when someone identifies as poly “until they find the right person.”

What this says to me is, “I want to be with you, and I want to have all the trappings of a relationship that make me feel fulfilled and secure, but I want to be able to sever those ties at a moment’s notice when I find The One. But no, I absolutely care about you, how could you say otherwise?”

To me that doesn’t look like polyamory. It looks like play-acting relationships for practice until picking a real one. It looks like fear of being alone meeting fear of commitment. It looks like scatter-planting seeds, waiting to see which seedling sprouts tallest, straightest, most resilient before thinning the rest away like weeds.

It’s the lie that gets to me. Even if it’s not quite a lie, even when they say “I am only doing this until I find The One,” that promise is being dangled. That nurturing is being offered, and that intimacy, and it carries with it a terrible blame. After all, they told you they were only poly for now. That you might be what they were looking for, and really, whose fault is it if you’re not the one they keep, in the end? They did nurture you, after all. Gave you a chance. You’re the one who failed to be perfect.

This creates something sinister, even toxic. A relationship in constant threat of pruning breeds a fear of imperfection, of humanity, even of creative growth. You’re not one partner of several, building something either cooperative or independent: you’re in competition for a limited resource. It’s stifling. You’re reduced, finally, to trying only to be enough, and there’s nothing about that state that doesn’t breed resentment.

It also sets up an untenable situation. Poly-until-The-One people typically expect their ultimate partner-in-monogamy to also be monogamous once their soulmate-status is established. This means rejecting the possibility of compatibility with people who would not choose monogamy (like me).

Oddly enough, I take far less issue with people whose behavior is nearly identical to this but who don’t call it poly. I’ve had fuck-buddies and friends-with-benefits with the understanding that once these partners were not-single, sexual contact would end. Aside from a little sadness over knowing the sexual component of a relationship with me is, for these partners, disposable in a way that it would not be with someone they were dating, it’s fine. And I don’t resent the sexual component being disposable when it isn’t connected to intimacy.

“I’m poly until I find the right person” seems to forget that one’s partners in polyamorous relationships are people. They aren’t to be used and thrown away. They aren’t to be manipulated. And that’s what I see happening. Maybe I misinterpret, and maybe it means I’m missing out, but I wouldn’t date a person who said this at all.

38 thoughts on “Playing at Poly”

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m not poly, but it bothers me in the same way that it bothers you.

    I sometimes wonder if some people who call themselves poly (but who have no intention of forming long term relationships with multiple people) see ‘poly’ as the ONLY term that describes any sort of non-monogamy. So whether it’s open or FWB or ‘fucking around’ or any other scenario that includes more than one partner, they call it poly. To me the ‘amorous’ ending of the word seems significant.

    I really appreciate your thoughts.


    1. That may be right, that some people just don’t use the same level of differentiation to discuss types of nonmonogomy, but that miscommunication would still be very hurtful to someone who took the -amorous part of the word to be significant.

      Yet another reason to discuss expectations extra-carefully when engaging in relationship styles that go off script. I still think there’s a lot of this that comes from monogamous baggage hanging onto nonmonogamous folks, though, in often problematic ways, and it’s important for people who want polyamory to know that they don’t have to settle for temporary or rootless relationships if they’re looking for something more stable.

    2. “I sometimes wonder if some people who call themselves poly (but who have no intention of forming long term relationships with multiple people) see ‘poly’ as the ONLY term that describes any sort of non-monogamy. ”

      That was my thought, too. Or at least, they think that everyone KNOWING about each other means poly. As opposed to “dating around” which is often a bit more “cloak and dagger” – being evasive about whether one is seeing other people, letting each person think they’re probably the only one, etc.

      Whereas I think that what’s described in Nic’s post is more rightfully called “dating around, only they’re being really transparent about it with all parties.”

      1. I love how y’all are all saying “well, maybe folks that do this mean well…” while I’m over here going “Neauxp, I bet they’re inconsiderate assholes with bad breath to boot; get rid of ’em.” Jaded Nic is jaded.

        1. Nah, that was just ONE of my thoughts. The other was “…or maybe they’re just assholes.”

          A lot of ostensibly poly people, for all their talk about love being free-flowing and generous, are shockingly self-centred and willing to use people like pawns. Or I guess probably a lot of PEOPLE are like that, in general, but you can’t tell so much when they’re monogamous.

          I’m thinking of some of the horrible ads I’ve seen seeking unicorns. And of poly ads where the person says fifty times that their primary relationship is THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE AND NOBODY WILL EVER CHANGE THAT GRRRRR.

          I know that sometimes, as a poly person, I will sometimes date someone who likes someone else more. That’s fine. But if they PUT me in the “second-best” box consciously, and continually reinforce my “second-best” status via a bunch of rules of conduct (and you KNOW that’s what the “MY PRIMARY RELATIONSHIP IS THE MOST IMPORTANT GRRR” people are really saying)…fuck that shit.

  2. As someone who is still in the early stages of exploring poly, I sometimes fear that *because I don’t know*, I may be leading potential partners into a relationship model which may not actually work for me in the long term. While I’m doing the solo poly thing right now, I’m not so confident in my ability to predict my wants and needs in the future and may end up in something that looks quite different than I am currently advertising.

    So on one hand I fear exploring possibilities on my current wavelength, even holding potentials at arms length, but I also fear diving in and finding out it doesn’t actually work for me and having to deal with the emotional fallout I helped create afterwards.

    I know I can’t avoid heartbreak and hurt feelings, but do you have any suggestions on how to explore ethically, knowing that I *don’t* actually know what I’m doing?


    1. I think, JT, that you explained yourself so well. Especially being new to any new experience, it may not work and people may get hurt.

      And thank you, SwitchStudies, for your thoughtful post. It angers me as well to claim something that is just untrue, that is temporary, that is opportunistic.

      1. It just looks like setting up a situation that prevents them getting hurt and gives them permission to hurt others. It’s selfish and shows no consideration or care for the people they’re in relationships with, and what kind of relationship is that?

    2. You’re so carefully honest, I think you already are/would do the most ethical thing in your situation…which is to tell partners that hey, this is new and different and you’re not sure whether or where you fit in it yet. You haven’t decided that polyamory is an immature phase that’s incommensurate with real relationships, you just don’t know if it’s for you. Likewise you don’t know whether any specific relationship is for you…but (I assume) you wouldn’t have a partner who you felt was good enough for now but who you would ditch the moment your Dream Person came along. The problem I’m talking about here is people doing that, and using poly as an excuse.

      Basically don’t use people. If your decisions about relating to someone are predicated on the assumptions that your actions affect them and you understand that their well-being matters, you’ll do the best anyone could expect of you, right?

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