On a crowded train, you don't get to choose who you sit across from. In my case, my neighbor across the aisle was a soldier on his way to make a court appearance regarding an affray in a nightclub. He was nursing (I am not making this up) a bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine and was very interested in telling me his life story. He wasn't rude, though; he wanted to know about me too. As we got ready to leave, he indicated my girlfriend. And then he asked one of those questions you never want to hear when you're poly – because you never know how to answer them.
“Are youse married?” he said. He had probably noticed the rings.
I have this unfortunate compulsion to tell the truth. It has never done me a bit of good.
“Well … yes,” I said. “But not to each other.”
He was as thrilled to discover this as you might imagine, and I scurried off the train with his cheerfully prurient farewell ringing in my ears. My girlfriend was humiliated and furious.
Why, oh why did I say it? At the time I thought the alternative would be worse; by treating my girlfriend as just-a-friend, I'd be denying how important our relationship was. But there really wasn't any good answer – I could either let a total stranger leer into my bedroom or snub my girlfriend in public.
It's the sort of thing you never have to think about when you're in one of the two “normal” relationship states – single or in a monogamous relationship. We have an etiquette for those things. Hell, we even have an etiquette for affairs. But because poly relationships are still pretty rare, we don't have a universal etiquette for them – not outside the poly community, anyway, and not universally within it either. So there's no “automatic” answer, even an inadequate one. Everything you do is a choice, and every choice gets judged.
And, of course, being poly gives you whole new sets of people to embarrass and be embarrassed by. I know someone who was just relaxing in a partner's house the day after a date, wearing a dressing gown and enjoying a smoke, when the partner's partner's mum turned up. She had a key. How do you introduce yourself in that situation?
Mind you, I've had it relatively easy. I've never really had to dismiss an admirer since I became known as poly – I'm not that good-looking – but I have been lucky enough to be involved with several gorgeous women, and I have seen them, almost without exception, get swarmed by potential partners, flatterers, lovestruck fools and scumbags in roughly equal measure.
When you're in one of the two well-understood relationship states, this is awkward, but at least there's a relatively well-understood strategy. You tell the admirer either that you have a boyfriend/husband/whatever or that you're not looking for a relationship right now. This latter choice is a lie, but it's an understood, accepted social lie. But what do you tell him when you're poly? “The existence of my boyfriend doesn't mean I don't want to fuck other people; I do. I just don't want to fuck you, specifically.”
You have to have a pretty thick skin not to feel cruel delivering that one, no matter how nicely you phrase it. And that's assuming the poor devil slinks off to lick his wounds instead of turning ugly. A blow to the ego can reveal someone's inner swine.
So that's awkward. And again, that's not even the worst of it. Laden with weird conversational pitfalls as it is, my type of poly relationship – a happy straight, cis marriage with mutual-friend partners on the side – is about the easiest to explain and/or conceal. That's a relationship society in general approves of plus a little unconventional extra. But when you really break the mould, you let yourself in for even more potential awkwardness.
I have no idea what a couple with an extra sub in the house does when they're lining up outside the only shower and 9.00 is inching closer. Do you just tell them to get to the back of the queue? I think you'd have to be pretty dedicated to your kink to put up with that.
Similarly, I have no idea how my poly friends with kids avoid having the same damn conversation over and over and over. Maybe they don't avoid it and they're just very good at it.
And I imagine people with partners of multiple genders get hassled about it from either direction. It was funny when my relationships got me into awkward social embarrassment. It's much less funny when people just trying to live their lives get crap for it.
So get cracking, society; develop a generally-understood culture of manners for dealing with poly relationships. And if you're in one and you have a tale of awkwardness or embarrassment to share, do so!
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