Monday, October 22, 2012

Unicorn Hunters, Part 3

(Here is the next installment in our epic tale of the stalwart Unicorn Hunters in search of their prey... er... treasure! Yeah, that's it, treasure! Part 2 was here, or you could start at the beginning here.)

We've found a keeper!

This is important, right? If you find the wrong person, then all you're doing is risking conflict and problems in the relationship you already have, and you won't get your Unicorn. You'll end up with a Zebra or a Musk Ox. Who wants a Musk Ox? Well, how do you do this? First, you need a specific picture of who you want (remember this idea of specificity, yep, coming back to it). Questions need to be asked, then asked again. Is this person really who they seem to be? Can we trust them? 

This is good. Clarity of intent and communication around that is very, very important. However, you can't approach this mechanistically (well, maybe you can, some people might go for this). I know so many people who get frustrated with Unicorn Hunters, and the sort of exchanges that have more in common with a job interview than a date. That is decidedly NOT appealing, unless that's your kink, hey, whatever floats your boat. For most people that feels artificial or distant. Now, pause for a moment, and put yourself in the other person's shoes. Imagine that you are the prospective Unicorn, and this couple who you are meeting for the first time (probably an intimidating position to be in) is talking to you, asking questions, and occasionally looking back and forth at each other, giving questioning glances and the occasional nod.

The first thing that occurs to me is that there are a host of conversations going on that I am NOT privy to. This definitely FEELS like a job interview, only that's not what I signed up for. They are keeping secrets (hint: that's a red flag), but even worse than some job interviews, you are being judged by criteria that you don't have access to. My initial reaction when put into a situation like I'm describing here, unless I'm ACTUALLY in a job interview, is to leave. I stand up and leave, on the spot. If you're lucky I will openly point out this elephant in the living room, chidingly, and if you don't start disclosing everything pronto, I switch to open mocking. If you aren't going to have an open and honest conversation with me, I'm not interested in participating. 

This one is simple. If you are going to have a genuine, open, authentic relationship, you need to be genuine, open, and authentic. I'm not really saying anything greater than an identity statement in math, genuine/open/authentic = genuine/open/authentic. That simple. This means that you can NOT artificially manage or direct the course of events, and you can NOT hide criteria from your prospective partner. Hiding includes failing to disclose. One of the things that I bring up any chance I get, I'm particularly fond of, is my definition for lying. “Communication or lack thereof with intent to deceive.” Share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The key part is “the whole truth”.

Okay, real quick, one last thing here. One way that people “make sure that they've found the right one” is to go the opposite direction. Instead of forcing these artificial interrogation scenarios into the early part of the relationship, they work it into the back end. Er, let me explain what I mean. If you aren't going to force these conversations, force the pace of disclosure, then you may feel that it's perfectly reasonable to control the pace that the relationships are proceeding at. How do you do that? 

Well, it is entirely problematic to try to externally control the pace that feelings progress. First, we don't have an objective measurement, and second, it's very difficult to imagine a mechanism that would accomplish such a goal. One thing that you can do is make commitments about internal controls, meaning that you make a commitment not to “fall in love” or not to feel “something” until you both agree that you are at that stage. These aren't simple things, our feelings, and they tend to be mildly unpredictable under the best of circumstances. Now consider that our Unicorn Hunters are new to this, feel dreadfully out of their element, feel like they are taking risks, and you have a situation that can go from tenuous to volatile with a quickness. So, you do what you can, you control behaviors, which leads us to our next topic.


Wait, I was talking about making sure that our Unicorn Hunters pick the right person, why am I skipping ahead? I'm moving forward because these parts overlap. Let me show you. If you are worried about being jealous then there are a limited number of things you can do. This article isn't intended to give you skills for managing jealousy (hint: they exist), but I probably should define what I mean by jealousy, because there are different views and opinions on the subject. Also, by giving you this definition, some of the solutions will suggest themselves. For our purposes I'm going to focus on the following definition:

Jealousy (n.): A feeling of anger or possessiveness that is caused by a fear-based reaction to the idea of losing someone's attention/time/affection which you value greatly. The primary source of all jealousy is insecurity, regardless of whether the insecurity is justified or not. Jealousy is greatly exaggerated by a lack of knowledge.

So, how does this tie into picking the right Unicorn? One of the few ways that people try to mitigate jealousy is the same as what we left off talking about in the previous section, controlling or limiting behaviors. The most common example is for the preexisting couple to attempt to impose limits on each other regarding access to U or sexual behaviors with U. Remember the part earlier about the “box”. This is another agreement made before U was even a real person that directly impacts U, that U had no input in and likely could NOT negotiate for change about, because, well, that's the entire point of the rule. Until U is “the one”, U shouldn't have grounds to negotiate about things... and we're limiting U's ability to build relationship through sharing physical intimacy, which leads (for most people) to emotional intimacy, which would make us feel close enough to trust U to make a change. See what that is? It has a name in the field of Logic, but for our purposes we'll call it a "Cluster Fuck of Disempowerment" which U finds themselves stuck in. 

Another rule that Unicorn Hunters regularly explore to help contain jealousy is the idea that while each of you are developing feelings for U, it is very important that U reciprocate feelings for each of you equally and want the same things with both of you. If U loves each of us equally (how do you even measure that?!), then we won't be jealous. If U is limited to exploring physical intimacy with each of us at the same pace (not second base with you, but third base with P, that would be SCARY!), then we are not as likely to get triggered by the great green-eyed monster that is jealousy. I have yet to hear of an actual example of this sort of triple convergence of simultaneous emergence of affection working. Not once.

One of the most common ways that a preexisting couple will try to mitigate jealousy in opening up their relationship is to make rules around acceptable sexual behavior. I don't mean which position they are allowed to have sex in (although, sadly, yes, that is a rule that some couples have tried), what I'm talking about is the idea that none of the people are able to have sex independently, they have to all be together. That strikes me as drastically limiting the possibilities of what CAN happen, given everyone's disparate schedules, and also, more than a little creepy. None the less, this is common. But wait, there's more.

Not only do the three of you need to be together, but U is frequently expected to have no other romantic/sexual relationships. None. There is a type of Poly, on that Poly-style continuum I mentioned earlier, that is on nearly the opposite end of the spectrum from “Open Relationships”, it's called “Poly Fi”, short for “Poly Fidelity”. There is a sub-group, they don't really have a name, but you could call them Interconnected Poly Fi, who are Poly Fi, but they all date everyone in their “pod”. It's the idea that we aren't Open, we aren't even what most people would call “Poly”. We are really just like Monogamous people, only they got the number wrong. There is an ideal number of people for a relationship, but it's not 2, it's X, where X equals what they think works best for them. Cool, you can do that, but man, do you think that our Unicorn Hunters know all about this? Remember that our example Unicorn Hunters are new to all of this, how could they have such a nuanced, carefully crafted position with NO experience? I know Poly Fi Unicorn Hunters who understand the challenges and pitfalls of that particular style of relationship, but they also advertise QUITE clearly for exactly that. They are specific and demanding. I'll mention this again later.

The problem here, the one that is so inflammatory to many Poly forum dwellers, is that the typical Unicorn Hunter doesn't know what the term Poly Fi means, doesn't have a clue to ask for specifically this, up front, and ends up angering people by fostering situations which, in hindsight, appear to be a bait and switch. They ask for people who are Open or Poly, yet are aghast when it comes up that their nascent Unicorn wants to date other people! How dare they, aren't we enough for them? Wait a second, that sounds familiar. This idea that the U will be with “nobody but us” is one that is a huge trigger, and is very, very common. 

I could go on and on within the topic of Jealousy management and triggers around Unicorn Hunters, there is a nearly infinite number of possible iterations, I've probably seen hundreds, because every person can potentially be triggered by different things. Your old boyfriend left you for a redhead, so dating a redhead would make you more likely to feel jealous? Okay, no redheads. The box just got smaller. You don't trust introverts to speak up for themselves because your introverted ex wouldn't ask for his needs to be met, so he ended up cheating on you (apparently he could ask for it from the woman at the office)? Okay, no introverts. The box just got smaller. Instead of doing that, I want to double back to the comment about limiting behavior. 

It's not just sexual behavior that people limit. We can't go on a date unless it's all 3 of us. We can't watch “our show” unless it's all 3 of us. We can't e-mail or text unless everyone is included. Note, this last one rarely extends to U. The preexisting couple can (and in their eyes, should) e-mail/text/whatever often, but no communication with U is permitted without it being shared. This piece gets to the heart of an underlying assumption that is a common thread through most everything that I've written so far, so it's time to do another of my awkward transitions.

Protecting the preexisting relationship

This is really the most important piece of it all. The point. We are considering opening up this relationship, but before we can consider that, before we are willing to make any changes, we need to make completely sure that we aren't going to blow it up. It doesn't make any sense to go out and try to find someone to increase and grow our current relationship if we lose what we already have.

Okay, there are some ways to do this. One frequent concept is the idea of “ordinal language” when describing relationships. Many Poly people, not exclusively Unicorn Hunters, use ordinal language. They would state that someone is their “Primary”, or perhaps they have multiple people in a “Primary” role, but then they also have one or more “Secondaries”. Some people go further and refer to a friend with benefits or other more casual connections as “Tertiaries”. This is broadly described as “Hierarchical Poly”. The idea is that people who are Primary “come first” in some way. The exact manner or degree can vary widely. Some people mean it in a feeling sense, that they care more about their Primary than their Secondary. Others disdain the idea of measuring feelings in such a hierarchical way, and distinguish between Primaries and Secondaries by other means such as domestic partnerships, co-parenting, co-mingling of finances, and other shared responsibilities. 

Our Unicorn Hunter couple might set up a rule that they will be Primaries, and U will be a Secondary to each of them. This is one way that they can try to protect what they have. Well, this is tougher. You are setting U up with the expectation that they will be “less than”, that they will remain “less than”, and that feels pretty icky to most people. A “Free Agent”-style Poly person might be fine with it, but many people would chafe at this sort of a priori limitation. Remember, all of this is agreed to between the preexisting couple when U is still a concept. Oh yeah, that box is getting even tighter and more restrictive.

There is one other tool that deserves mentioning here. Veto. You probably have heard of this concept, in our government, if not in Poly... but it works much the same here. The idea is that one person has the authority to unilaterally say, “No”. In this situation the most common example would be where the preexisting couple would have “Veto power”, but U wouldn't. Veto is a rather drastic concept in a relationship. The idea that we aren't going to talk it over any longer, one person is going to be able to end the discussion and simply say “No”, feels one-sided and quite unfair to most. Some Poly people see it as a necessary tool for certain situations, hopefully never to use, but to hold in reserve like some sort of nuclear deterrent.

There are means to mitigate the justifiable uneasiness that U will feel about this Damocles Sword hanging over their head. You might argue that it won't be used lightly, over trivial issues. You might argue that it won't be used unless you have explored every other possible solution. You might argue that it will help protect U if another person is added later, because then U would have a “Veto” of their own with regards to the new person. No matter how you negotiate the idea of Veto, there is one inescapable problem. 

The problem is you can't count on it.

You can't guarantee any of it. You can't trust that your partner won't veto something you consider trivial, and you can't guarantee that when you use your “veto” that your partner will respect it. You can't guarantee that you will remain a Primary and that U will remain Secondary. None of this is certain. You are left with all of the downside, persistent insecurity and institutionalized inequality, with none of the perceived benefit. The perceived benefit, the idea of protecting the preexisting relationship (which is a part of a topic called “Couple Privilege”) is a lie you tell yourself to bury your insecurity, rather than facing it and dealing with it.

The reason that people sometimes HATE Unicorn Hunters, the reason that you got the feedback that you did when you posted your ad on that forum, is because people who say things like what you said, who post what you did, are almost ALWAYS constructing a very small box for someone, telling them to be happy to crawl inside of it, sit still, be obedient, and it's ALL FOR NOTHING. 

My point is that you are never safe. Your current relationship is not safe whether you open it up or not. There is nothing certain in life and that includes love. There is only one way to be certain that your current relationship remains strong, solid, and will continue for a long time and that is to strengthen your current relationship by doing things that are beneficial to that specific relationship. If you do, barring any untimely deaths, it will most likely last a long time. You are not likely to strengthen your current relationship by paying attention ANYWHERE else but your current relationship, which includes each member as an individual (yourself included) and each connection. “Relationship broken, add more people” is one the most famous blunders in Poly, it's our version of “Start a land war in Asia during winter.” If you get this one wrong you are going to end up creating relationships that fail simply because of this issue, even if everything else would work. You're very likely to end up hurting people without realizing it. 

Okay, is that it? Is that the worst of it? Is there anything else I need to know about being a Unicorn Hunter that can possibly make it seem more hopeless? I'm so glad you asked!


Unknown said...

I appreciate your extensive commentary on beginning polyamory. Although the sometimes harsh criticism of unicorn hunting can seem defeating, it is helpful to know how the deep the waters might get before you jump in.
The Youtube pictures on the sidebar do not seem to link to anything on my windows/chrome setup.
Looking forward to your next installment.

sin said...

I'm really enjoying this series on unicorn hunting. Thanks.


Missy said...

Oh please please don't keep us waiting for Part 4! :) I'm in a longstanding poly fi (closed) triad, and I can't TELL you how many of these same issues we've encountered. The company Christmas party, the family visit, the moving in (or not), watching "our show(s)", veto power, and of course jealousy. We have a blog too, and amusingly, our "Unicorn" devoted a whole post to how much she hates the word "Unicorn". I'll let her share that if she likes...

Thanks for posting, and keep it up.


Dave said...

Thanks for the replies all!

@dave94015: I agree. Telling a stranger on the internet "you're doing it wrong" does nothing. I've tried to state things as objectively as possible. I bet if you asked a dozen different people you would get at least 6 different interpretations of how "objective" I've been. None the less, my first and third re-writes were dedicated almost exclusively to that purpose.

@sin: You're welcome! I'm happy that you're finding something you like here.

@Missy: I thought about just posting the whole thing in one day, but the point of breaking it up (instead of posting it whole, like it appears on my personal blog) was to avoid "flooding" people with all those words. I am verbose.

I'm really glad you commented, both because I tried to mention PolyFi in a fair way, and because of your partner's disdain of the "U" label. I'm curious if she prefers a different label, or objects to the diminishing/reductionistic nature of labels in general.

Best wishes all!

Natja's Natterings said...

Excellent post, I am really enjoying it. I have posted about Unicorn Hunting quite a few times but this post just says it all really.

Datamancer said...

It's like going poly is the new version of buying a puppy. My love and I are interested in a triad, but we've done a lot of work on ourselves; I certainly wouldn't expect an additional person to fix things or ease tensions between us. That's between us, and if that relationship were broken it would be time to part ways, not to add additional failure points.

The thing that I'm taking away from what I've read is that finding a unicorn isn't so much difficult as it is the people who could be called unicorn hunters have unreasonable expectations and they aren't willing to give nearly as much as they want to take. That's called an abusive relationship, and no one who's sane goes for that. Even in a monogamous context I've always taken the view that if you don't want to work on yourself you don't belong in a relationship. It seems that mindset is going to serve me well going forward.

Alba said...

Super interesting. My bf and I are considering opening up our relationship. I had came across the terms polyamoury and unicorn hunters before but reading through this post, I can see we are looking more for a poly fi triad, if anything.

It's good to get an idea of all the different issues we could come across before we jump in. At first, I would have tried to avoid coming out as bisexual to my family but now, I realise, it's the only way to make the relationship work with the third person.