Thursday, April 11, 2013

Poly 101: Fluid Bonding

Lately, I've been writing some 101 articles for the blog; you can find them using the poly101 label on the site. In this article, I'm addressing a key idea behind polyamorous relationships.

I cannot think of a more difficult 101 topic to write about than fluid bonding. It's also one of the more emotionally-charged concepts in polyamory because it speaks to a very vulnerable aspect of intimacy.

If there were a standard definition to fluid bonding in Polyamory, I'd try to frame it as the ongoing practice of having unprotected sex with an established partner. A couple of points on this:

1. You'll notice that I've placed emphasis on an established partner. Fluid bonding in most Polyamorous circles is a term used to describe an intimate, long-term interest in someone.

2. You'll also notice that I've avoided saying "intercourse" or PIV (Penis In Vagina). Fluids, such as they are, can be exchanged in many ways. My wife, for instance, is a heavy squirter: unless you're wearing goggles, sporting a snorkel, and are donning a latex body suit, you're pretty much exchanging fluids with the girl, even if you're not penetrating her. Unprotected sex could mean many things to many people. It's an assumption to think we're just talking about intercourse here.

3. Unprotected sex is precisely that: no barriers. Still, that doesn't mean barriers may not be used for extra precautions during, say, heightened concerns over risk factors, HSV2 outbreaks, specific forms of contraceptives, or elevated pregnancy risks. It's not an absolute designation to people that dismisses all barriers at all times.

In Polyamorous circles, the "fluid bonding" connotation carries a lot of weight.

For starters, it recognizes someone as a serious, long-term, intimate partner. It's a big fat flag that says this person is super-special in your life.

Next, it places a lot of trust in someone. They're being trusted to follow mutually agreed-upon controls around their sexual activities. Those rules in place to protect the dyad directly impacted by the breach of those agreements, and, everyone interconnected to the dyad. Polyamory being what it is, a single breach of conduct by one person could expose a network of six, eight, or ten other individuals. That's a lot of trust. That's why fluid bonding discussions will quickly expand beyond the dyad to everyone in an extended Polyamorous network.

It represents a degree of risk. There's always an exposure risk to Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI's)  that requires monitoring and control.  If anyone in the bonded network has a change in status - they're seeing new people, are trying new activities, have a condom failure, what have you - this could potentially introduce elevated risk factors.

Further, fluid bonding has an emotional component. When my wife and I started discussing the possibility of my fluid bonding with my girlfriend, Camille, Gina had a difficult emotional response. Why? Well, it's special. Fluid bonding is a privilege of committed intimacy. If I were to fluid bond with my girlfriend, that would detract from the perception of special my wife has over our relationship. It's an extra level of vulnerability experienced by my wife and a perceived risk to her.  In a way,  I think she'd say that I'm taking something away from her and sharing it with my girlfriend. That's a tough emotional road to negotiate. It took around three months of discussion among the three of us, and, with Camille's other partner, to work out the kinks.

Fluid bonding is hopefully a time-tested, reasoned decision - a conclusion reached after a reasonable amount of time. NRE can cloud the mind. People can jump irrationally into fluid bonding without considering the ramifications.

Finally - and on this point I may catch a lot of flack - fluid bonding represents an agreement ... not just between the dyad ... but with everyone in the network. Fluid bonding affects everyone.  In Polyamory, it takes a unilateral decision usually made by just two people and turns it into an exercise in group consensus. This can be a significant point of contention. I've been in very difficult conversations where a metamour was pleading for fluid bonding status with someone that others in the network didn't trust; I've also been in conversations where a metamour had an STI scare within our network. None of these things were fun and pleasant.

It's my opinion that fluid bonding is a symbol of privilege in Polyamory. For better or worse, it reflects your level of intimacy and your "voting rights" in a Polyamorous network. Within my circles, fluid bonding status isn't conveyed all-willy-nilly-like. Instead, it's a negotiation involving all of my network. This may be practiced quite differently elsewhere - other Polyamorous types may even bristle at the idea of others within a network having such control over their personal sexual decisions. That's a distinction in my network but it's not altogether unheard of. Polyfidelity, for example, reflects a closed group of Polyamorous people who've sealed off their network to create a STI firewall. I'd suggest we're not Polyfidelitious but tend to work through fluid bonding decisions over a course of months. I suspect this is slower than most.

Fluid bonding conversations would (hopefully) look a lot like pre-negotiated sex conversations:

  • Who else are you fluid bonded with?
  • What is your current STI status?
  • Method of contraception?
  • When were you last tested? How often do you get tested? Can I see the results?
  • What were the results of your last physical exam? Anything abnormal?
  • What are your risk factors and how do you control them?
  • All of the above ... as it applies to your fluid-bonded partners?
  • Do you agree with what my ideas are about sex?
  • Do you agree with what my ideas are about safe sex?
  • What types of sex constitutes the use of barriers?
  • How will we talk to each other about STI's and other issues? And how frequently?
  • When will you disclose problems with barrier usage? Or having sex with somebody new?
  • What about your partners? How frequently and readily do they disclose this stuff with you?
  • Are you willing to have conversations about this with my other partners? Their partners?
  • How could we back out of being fluid bonded? What would the circumstances look like if that was no longer viable?
  • Can I answer any questions your partners may have about me?

Tricky, huh? Yet absolutely necessary.

You know, it's funny.

When I announced that I was Polyamorous to my parents, their most immediate concern was how I controlled for STI's. Because, as you know, the Heathen world I live in is crawling with them.

Well, my first response was that I pick good people: people I can trust and who're going to be open, honest, and straight-forward with me on everything having to do with sex.

I'd venture to say that's eighty percent of the solution to managing risks associated with fluid bonding in Polyamory. Tune your picker. The other 20-percent may be processes, expectations, and commitment. If you can't have open, honest conversations about sex - with people you love and supposedly love you - and trust somebody to be your selfless advocate in difficult times, then maybe you shouldn't be considering fluid bonding with that person in the first place?



Polyfulcrum said...

This is good stuff, Russell. Fluid bonding is a negotiation we've done a few times on each side, and every time there is a unique set of circumstances, and slightly different approach.

One of the points you made is that, in our network, fluid bonding is both an emotional and practical matter. That is an approach that doesn't work for everyone, and something to discuss during the partner selection process. Without active cooperation and collaboration, it's a negotiation that is dead in the water.

Anonymous said...

I love this. I, too, had a hard time when my husband wished to be fluid bonded to his partner.

It took quite a bit of discussion and as you said, consent not just from me, but from her other partners as well as mine, before an agreement was reached. And even now, no barriers is not something that is done without it being intimate and special.

I am now fluid bonded with my partner and the experience is such that anytime we do go barrier-less, it brings us close in a way that is indescribable.

Anonymous said...

I love this. I, too, had a hard time when my husband wished to be fluid bonded to his partner.

It took quite a bit of discussion and as you said, consent not just from me, but from her other partners as well as mine, before an agreement was reached. And even now, no barriers is not something that is done without it being intimate and special.

I am now fluid bonded with my partner and the experience is such that anytime we do go barrier-less, it brings us close in a way that is indescribable.

Fox said...

This is a useful and thought-provoking read. I'm fluid-bonding with a second partner for the first time, after more than a decade of being poly. This is new territory for me, and most of the resources I've found either maintain ditching the barrier protection should be reserved for closed poly-fi networks, or make doomsaying statements about how it shouldn't be done at all.

When I'm trying to work out what I/we haven't yet considered in this unexpected situation, "OMG it's dangerous to go there" doesn't help. So it's nice to see someone actually talking about the factors to consider and the questions to ask.


Unknown said...

This was a great article for me to read tonight just for the way to go about asking these questions because my qife and I are already super picky and try to pick people that are married or in a stable relationship but aa we know that domt always mean it still safe.But or will help is with picking our future parrners.Thank you for the article because we are new kind of ro the lifestyle.

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PanPolyProud said...

This was a hard but very useful read for me, even though I'm technically past the '101'-stage of polyamory.

After two years in our polyamorous relationship me and one of my partners started having fluid bonded sex. Before we did, at various times we asked our other partners' point of view and took those into consideration for our decision.

We were fluid bonded for three years. But now that's gone.

In the last six weeks, my partner of five years and I were still a dyad but we temporarily minimized our contact, because my mental health (I suffer from Complex PTSD) was affected by a new relationship in his life. The reasons came from both our behaviours: both he and his new love have ADHD which intensifies their NRE even further than normal NRE; I have metamour-trust issues (because both she and I inadvertantly engage in a competetive cycle and because I am trigged by her ADHD-related impulsivenes); my separation anxiety was triggered to an such an extreme that I started having dissociative episodes which were very hard on my partner; and finally there was an incident (leading directly to the decision to minimize contact between us) where the two of them knowingly broke an agreement between the three of us.

In those six weeks of minimized contact my partner - without any kind of consultation or discussion with me - started having fluid bonded sex with this new partner of - at the time - four months. For various reasons, this means fluid bonded sex between him and me is now off the table, we have to go back to using full protection. I was simply presented with that fact at the talk we had to discuss how to further work on our relationship.

Because of my Complex PTSD it can be hard for me to believe that my feelings are valid. This blogpost helped me understand that I am not a controling idiot for wanting that decision (which in itself represents a valid want or need) to have been discussed with me, for wanting to haven been consulted, for my point of view to have been taken into account.

And it shone a light on why this hurts so much. That this is not just because I was not considered an equal partner that should have been consulted about this. But - like a painful cherry on top of that - because, indeed, for me fluid bonded sex felt like an absolute privilige, like something special and precious between us. He and his new love engage in BDSM-sex, where we do not. So for me being fluid bonded was something that equalled that special thing of theirs with a special thing of ours. Losing that feels like an amputation almost, like something significant was cut from our bond and our connection (and - insult to injury - subsequently added to theirs).

Thank you for helping me find some clarification and for putting into words the jumble of confused and hurt feelings I am having right now. It means a whole hell of a lot!

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