I’m in my early 30s and have been polyamorous for a couple of years. Not long ago my wife of 13 years and I split. Now I’m kind of going through a dating/poly crisis. I strongly identify as poly despite not really having a primary relationship.
Here’s the rub: I don’t really have trouble meeting/sleeping with women. And I’m always very upfront and honest about being essentially unable to see myself in a monogamous or serious relationship again — maybe ever. Yet I’m really not into hookups or one night stands. But when I think about moving in with a girl or joint bank accounts it fills me with terror.
That being said, I really crave emotional connection and intimacy beyond 20 minutes of humping and an awkward hug. And although I’m always really honest, I still feel like I run the potential likelihood of hurting people if they grow emotionally invested.
How do I date in a way that is both ethical and casual? Am I doomed to too casual if I don’t want to hurt people?
— Heartfelt Humper
A common misconception of polyamory — aka, having relationships with more than one person simultaneously — is that it can only be done once you’ve hit the emotional killswitch. Though many believe that being non-monogamous is all about rolling around in a sea of naked hotties, being both an ethical and polyamorous person actually requires lots of emotional empathy and processing.
Clearly, some ladyloves have been hurt in the wake of your polyamorous preferences or you wouldn’t be writing in. The solution to preventing this kind of pain isn’t to hit that mythical emotional killswitch or to go monogo; it is to take responsibility for what you can control and accept what you cannot.
To be an ethical polyamorous dater you should take responsibility for your own emotions and actions. Continue to state your relationship preferences upfront: “I’m not monogamous,” “I like to be emotionally connected to those I sleep with, but I’m not looking for an emotionally intense relationship.” You own yourself, HH, meaning that you can and should draw boundaries around your own body, heart, and mind, including how much emotional energy and time you want to put into another person. This is allowed! So stop beating yourself up.
Here’s what you can’t control: You can’t make someone want to be polyamorous or be good at polyamory. You can’t control how emotionally invested someone becomes. This is especially true when sex is involved. When our brain’s pleasure centers are activated, all kinds of attachment chemicals fly around, such as good ol’ oxytocin which is released during orgasm, creating an innate bond with those we bang.
Sex can be one of the most physically and emotionally rewarding experiences to share with another human, whether its shelf life is one night or 1,000. Keeping it casual doesn’t need to conflict with emotional connection, as our dirty bits surely don’t exist in an emotionless vacuum, operating without any regard to our brains and hearts. Some bonding science and attachment theories would even argue that a sense of emotional connection is actually a requirement of the kind of good, pleasurable, sex that — Ahem! — lasts more than 20 minutes.
Lastly, you can’t prevent hurt feelings. When dating, your eventual options are to break up or commit for life — and, as divorcees, we know that’s not always a guarantee. The — worth it! — risk that comes with forging a sexual or emotional bond with someone is the eventual loss and hurt feelings that come with it. The only real way to 100 percent prevent hurt feelings here is via abstinence, and that doesn’t seem up your poly-alley.
None of this is a get-out-of-asshole-jail free card, HH, but is rather an invitation to clearly communicate your boundaries in a way that promotes your partners’ agency in determining for themselves if they’d like to take that risk with you, because ultimately that’s not up to you.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex advice, workshops, and resources at yanatallonhicks.com.