A Talk Between Friends on Love

I’m Alexander Cheves, a writer, author, and sex educator. My nickname is Beastly. I give advice on this blog — no question is off-limits. To ask me something, email AskBeastly@gmail.com or send a message via the Ask Beastly contact form.

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I have a stringent rule in place of not posting conversations like this, because when you take away the anonymity of the “anonymous question” bit, the bias of familiarity seeps in. But I’ve chosen to post this one because a) it opens a good discussion on unethical non-monogamy and b) I was encouraged to do so.

Anyone — even open-minded, sex-positive people — can be guilty of unethical non-monogamy. In the below conversation, my friend reveals that his partner has been having two concurrent “primary” relationships for two years without communicating this clearly to him. He knew there was another guy, but he believed this other guy was a spoke in the spoke-and-wheel model of polyamory — an offshoot branching off a primary relationship, theirs. He recently learned that this does not appear to be the case.

My friend’s partner has not honestly conveyed what he wants his relationships to be. He may not even know himself what he wants his relationships to be. He probably believes that ambiguity, lying by omission, or “telling us what we want to hear” is sparing the men he loves hurt. Even when well-intentioned, deceit is deceit. People can be deceitful by simply being unwilling or unable to communicate. It’s not quite “cheating,” but it’s close. There are many ways to practice bad relationship habits under the guise of polyamory, but that’s not polyamory and that’s now how ethical sluts do things. We act with the full awareness and consent of our partners, discuss and respect limits and boundaries, tell the truth, and most importantly, we say when we want something, and when we don’t. We give our people the whole picture so they can decide what they do and don’t want, too.

People can be deceitful by simply being unwilling or unable to communicate.

To borrow a phrase from Sartre, we are all freedoms unto ourselves. Part of being non-monogamous and/or polyamorous is owning one’s freedom and taking full responsibility for it (existentialism in a nutshell) and respecting and even defending the freedoms of our friends, lovers, and partners, even and especially when doing so might dissolve a relationship.

My friend reached out to me via Facebook and we talked about love. Here’s the chat.

Hey

So I have been coming back to you article “Why Polyamory Succeeds

And I agree with the points you made and have attempted to implement them into my own relationship

The roadblock is that my partner can’t designate me as a “primary”

He’s in a long distance relationship with someone else and sees us as equals. I reached out to that guy to gain his perspective and he sees his love and their relationship as equally as valid and real and meaningful as mine. Despite me spending all the time with my partner and building a life with him in the same city etc.

I am very much not poly by nature. We are open sexually. And that’s fine. I just am oriented in such a way that I reserve love, connection, cuddles, kissing, intimacy in general for the man I’m in love with. Sharing that with others makes me feel uncomfortable

He’s the opposite. Free love. Openly exploring connections with others. In addition to the other guy he designates as “partner”

I’m just not sure what to do. I am honestly trying really hard to make it work. The framework you described in that post I thought might save the relationship, but if he can’t designate me as his primary, then I don’t think I can do this. I can’t just be another one of his relationships. We have been together the longest of anyone (and his longest relationship) at over 2.5 years. Even if I’m free to peruse other relationships, it doesn’t matter since I have no desire or interest in doing so.

* pursue other relationships

Hmm. This sounds like it needs to be a very honest sit-down, in-person convo between you and him. It sounds like being a primary is one of your POAs — price of admission — something he must do in order to date you. If he can’t bear that designation, you might be in trouble.

It sounds like he practices what we call “relationship anarchy” and you sound like you’re non-monogamous and open to outside flings and connections but need them to branch off a primary or “central” relationship.

Yes

I accepted his need for poly as a normal manifestation of sexuality. I don’t want to keep him from exploring that

I just need validation and security that I come first

The discussion with the other guy was actually very enlightening. We share similar struggles with Ben*. Is deception and dishonesty. Rather than facing these challenges and obstacles head-on he tells us what we want to hear tries to protect us from his choices and actions by being deceitful

Well babe…that’s…a pretty big red flag. There’s ethical non-monogamy, which requires honesty and trust. Deceit is unethical non-monogamy.

I asked him if he was in love with the other guy. And he couldn’t tell me in an honest way. Said he “feels love” for him. When I told that to the other guy he was devastated. Like what do you mean Ben can’t tell you he loves me after 2 years together?

Speaking with him really changed my perspective. I was able to empathize with him and really understand his point of view. He is the “other guy”

Ben was pursuing both relationships as equals and the guy feels my equal. That he deserves it and more. More time with Ben, more interaction. And frankly he is right. He made peace with me. Accepting Ben’s need as being poly and that I would spend most time with him. He has done more work than either of us to make this work

I was just kind of shocked. Because Ben had not communicated this to me. He always said it was more of a “daddy/boy” thing than a true second relationship

So after hearing that. I don’t think my desire to be designated as a primary is even reasonable or fair. Jake** (other guy) has his own needs and expectations that are valid. And I could not take that away from him

So I’m lost. I really don’t think I can be with someone that has been dishonest about his feelings and other relationships, who can’t designate me as primary. I don’t resent him. I know that he has those needs. But it just isn’t how I’m wired. I don’t know how to make it work, I have such hangups about it. Feel inadequate. (Some background is my last, and first, relationship the guy fell in love with someone else and was secretly dating them for a year while gaslighting me about the nature of their relationship all while insisting we all hang out frequently)

I feel your struggle. Here’s the truth: You can’t just “become ok” with something. You feel the way you feel. Trying to fit your needs and feelings into a box for someone else doesn’t work, no matter how loving or well-intentioned the effort to do so is.

There’s no rule saying you won’t become ok with this kind of setup someday, but you’re not ok with it now, and that needs to be communicated.

Relationships only work when both/all parties agree to partake in the same kind of relationship. It doesn’t sound like you’re participating in the same kind of relationship and worse, it sounds like he’s been a bit dishonest about what he wants his relationships to be, enough to make you not trust him. I don’t mean to be harsh or blunt, but…there’s nowhere for the relationship to go from here, no way it can grow without that trust.

Yeah. You are right.

Thank you for the feedback. You are welcome to use this in a post if you’d like

No, you’re a friend, and that’d be a wee unethical. If I wanted to use it I should’ve asked at the beginning

Always here to talk

Ha. I disagree, you have my consent.

I value your perspective which is why I reached out

Remember at the party, you introduced yourself

I’m like “I know who you are. I read your blog”

Your relationship with Brent somewhat mirrors me and Ben. We also have more of a companionship relationship. Both bottoms. Fuck outside the relationship more than each other

It’s a good setup. Though you’re not a total bttm 😉. But I know that if I ever told Brent he’s no longer my primary or vice versa, we’d probably split. That’s a requirement for both of us.

And thanks for reading my blog

Sure. And thanks. Do you have any other books or sources you can recommend (bedsides Ethical Slut)?

Polysecure” is a good one

Thanks

I copied our talk and, after re-reading it, realized my answers were a bit curt and uncommitted, like I was too busy and answering on-the-go. I probably was. So I’ll add here that, if someone won’t communicate what they want and you can’t trust them to be honest about their wants, there’s not much left to do but break up. I’d encourage my friend to have one last serious talk with his partner and lay all this out on the table. He needs to share with his partner what he learned from talking to “the other guy,” and he needs to express that he loves his partner and wants this to work, and he also respects the other guy’s needs and feelings — which is, to me, a great display of generosity and understanding. But he’s also self-aware enough to know that this isn’t the kind of relationship he wants, at least not right now. Relationship anarchy is beyond his current comfort level, and that’s okay.

If this conversation goes nowhere, I don’t know if this relationship can last. I know it can — if everyone is honest and agrees, mutually, to be something that makes everyone involved feel safe and comfortable — and I hope it does. Hurdles and hiccups happen in non-monogamy and polyamory, and talking about them is how we work through them. But honesty is required, and it sounds like my friend’s partner hasn’t been honest in the past.

Relationship anarchy is a version of polyamory in which there are no hierarchies, no “primaries” or “secondaries,” no rank. My friend is not a relationship anarchist — he’s non-monogamous but willing to take baby steps into polyamory. This isn’t a baby step. This is being misled about what role the other guy has been playing in his partner’s life.

Any relationship can work, and any combination of relationships can work, when everyone agrees to tell the truth.

For the sake of transparency, I’ll say that I am, at my core, a relationship anarchist, by the book. I have a fundamental issue with ranking partners and romantic connections. If I want to get my insides rearranged by a fist top, Brent is not my #1 — a good fisting playmate is. But when I need the security and stability of a long-term relationship, Brent is #1. Sometimes I want neither of these — I want to play with my friend uptown, who I enjoy because I enjoy who he is. People can’t be compared to each other. They all offer something different — each a compete and rich experience on their own, irreplaceable — so ranking them, even on a spoke-and-wheel model, feels wrong to me.

But Brent wants a primary partner and wants to be a primary partner. That’s been communicated to me — that’s his price of admission. And so, because I love him, I’ve risen to the challenge, designated him as my primary and committed to him above all others, and that will be the case until we sit down and decide to do things differently, if ever. (I still do not rank my special people outside Brent under categories like “secondary” or “tertiary” — absolutely not.) My friend’s partner could do the same thing I have done with Brent — and indeed that seems to be what he has do to keep his relationship with my friend going.

Brent and I work because we regularly sit down and talk about what we are, what we want, and what we need, knowing that any honest discussion could reveal a need to step away, end things, change our dynamic. People evolve, and sometimes they evolve out of the loves they’re in. What better way to do so than with honesty and love? I find that bitter, final-feeling breakups don’t really happen between queer men who simply agree to drift, who accept when it’s time to take a journey out. We keep everything in the open. Any relationship can work, and any combination of relationships can work, when everyone agrees to tell the truth.

People evolve, and sometimes they evolve out of the loves they’re in.

My friend’s partner has not been telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He may be afraid of doing so for fear of what the truth might do. But that’s not love, that’s possession. As any slut will tell you, love sometimes means letting go, and there are few greater acts of love than mutually separating when things aren’t working.

Love, Beastly

*name has been changed

**name has been changed

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