I recently finished reading The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, & Other Adventures*. While polyamory (sometimes referred to as consensual or ethical non-monogamy) is not for everyone, I kept finding that authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy were full of juicy pieces of insight that could truly benefit any type of relationship- or any person, really, as their guidance also applies to those not in relationships.
Before I launch into what those insights are, you might be wondering what I mean by polyamory. Franklin Veaux has a helpful FAQ about polyamory on his blog, More Than Two. If you find yourself a little confused on what the average poly configuration looks like, that’s because there is no norm- folks who practice polyamory decide with their partners what works best for them. Therefore, The Ethical Slut is not so much a rule book on how to do polyamory the “right” way- rather, it promotes insight that is instrumental in setting one’s own rules, commonly referred to by relationship therapists as boundaries.
To be successful in polyamory, one must embark on a journey of self-examination, putting conscious effort into recognizing and expressing one’s own emotions, practicing sharing and listening with partners, and collaborating with partners on boundaries that will suit everyone’s needs. Basically, you have to become really good at relationships in order to navigate multiples of them! Here are some tidbits of relationship wisdom from Easton and Hardy:
1. Practice Emotional Honesty
Both with your partner and yourself. It’s essential in relationships to be aware of how you are feeling so that you can ask for the support you need from your partner. If you are unaware of or denying an intense emotion, common strategies to avoid feeling pain, you are missing an important opportunity to communicate a need to your partner, and you may act out unexpectedly when your partner- surprise!- doesn’t act accordingly. If examining your emotions is a challenge, journaling, meditating, and counseling can be extremely useful tools.
2. Communication is Key!
During conflict, sharing how you are feeling with your partner so that you can feel heard is the next essential step. Easton and Hardy note that is important to own your feelings, rather than blaming others for causing them. After all, feelings arise within ourselves- no one can make you feel a certain way, and owning your feelings allows your partner to comfort you, even if you don’t agree on how to solve the conflict. Easton and Hardy recommend practicing sharing how you are feeling without using the word “you” in order to avoid blaming. Sharing such vulnerable emotions can be scary, which is why it’s important as the listening partner to validate how your partner is feeling. Pause before responding and reflect back what you heard your partner say, to show them that you were really listening. If your partner is hurt, approach them with empathy and caring, regardless of if you agree with them or not. Then it is your turn to do the sharing. According to Easton and Hardy, a fight is not successful if one person loses; in a good fight, it’s a win-win outcome because everyone feels heard.
3. Get Your Needs Met
This one goes for single folks as well as people in relationships: Pay attention to how you get your sexual, emotional and social needs met. You may get each of things met from a variety of sources (lovers, friends, family, coworkers, etc), but Easton and Hardy argue that it’s important to be aware of these needs and how you meet them. If you deny that you have these needs, you will end up subconsciously trying to fulfill them in ways that ultimately won’t work for you or are possibly destructive.
4. Negotiate Agreements
Relationships are based on many unspoken agreements between partners, such as the roles each partner takes, which behaviors are acceptable, etc. Sometimes, though, your relationship will benefit from more explicit agreements- the process of negotiating acceptable boundaries and behaviors so that everyone’s needs are met. According to Easton and Hardy, you will know when it’s time to sit down and form an agreement by paying attention to your emotions, such as when you feel hurt. Rather than criticizing your partner for breaking an unspoken agreement that they didn’t know existed, use it as an opportunity to work together in order to avoid future conflict. Easton and Hardy note that it’s important that agreements need to be consensual, and that everyone involved should collaborate. Knowing one’s own feelings and being able to communicate them is vital to taking an active role in the collaboration.
*Note: I read the 2nd edition, but the 3rd edition came out this month!