The Dating Nerd is a shadowy figure whose whereabouts and identifying details remain unknown. What we do know is that he is really, really good at dating. He’s been on more dates than you can shake a lengthy bar tab at, and he’s here to help the average guy step his dating game up a notch — or several.
Hi Dating Nerd,
I’ve been on two dates with a cool girl that I met on an online dating site. After the second date, she let me in on a secret: She's not actually single, but married and "poly," a term I had never heard before. Apparently, she and her husband have a rule where they can each hook up with whoever they want (well, there are more rules, but that's not the main point here.) Basically, she'd be free to see me, go on dates, get drinks, make out, have sex and so forth, but she wouldn't sleep over at my place, I couldn't sleep over at her place, and so forth. As she described it to me, I was like, "Is there a catch? That sounds kind of awesome." But maybe I'm jumping into this too fast. Dating a poly woman is something I've never done before, and for all I know it's actually hell or at least more complicated than dating monogamously. Do you have any experience here? How does one "play" this type of situation?
– Poly Confusion
Hi Poly Confusion,
For many straight guys, dating a polyamorous person seems like a miracle, for good reason. A lot of the sources of typical dude relationship trouble just don’t exist in polyamory. For example. You’re never going to get in trouble for staring at eye-catching cleavage. In fact, it’s encouraged. Your lack of commitment is never going to be questioned, ever. It seems pretty sweet, right? It seems like a normal relationship, without all of the irritating trappings that make you feel caged and unwelcome.
But that’s not entirely true. Because it’s not a normal relationship. And you have to do the mental adjustments that this entails.
Primary among them: you’ve got to remember that this woman is not your wife. She’s not your girlfriend. She’s probably not going to suddenly decide that monogamy is, like, way better, and that you own the only dick she’s ever going to want to see again. This sounds so simple, I know. But it’s actually really difficult to wrap your head around polyamory if you haven’t done it yourself. We generally all assume — because the human brain is lazy — that relationships form the trajectories we’re used to. That people behave, in romantic situations, as we would. You need to ignore that tendency.
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So try not to fall in love. But if you do fall in love, realize that the throbbing of your heart doesn’t actually mean much in this context. Your puny feelings don’t change a thing. To polyamorous people, falling in love doesn’t entail exclusivity. It’s just another fun feeling floating around in the collage of feelings. You don’t get to have this girl. You’re not in it so that eventually the two of you can buy a cute little house somewhere and go the nuclear family route. Or you shouldn’t be. While I’m sure you’d make a fantastic main squeeze type boyfriend, she probably doesn’t care.
I can't stress this enough. Don’t imagine that this polyamorous thing is a weird temporary phenomenon that’s going to evaporate. The biggest misconception people have about polyamorous relationships is that they’re sort of a larval state for monogamy. Sometimes primary partners break off and pursue exclusivity. But this isn’t the norm, and there’s no guarantee that it’s going to happen.
This is a manifestation of a kind of psychology that plagues a lot of relationships: the tendency to regard other people’s behavior as abnormal. This is a totally understandable mode of thinking, and it causes an endless amount of human misery. If you want a functioning relationship, you have to realize that, by anyone else’s standards, you’re the strange one. Your behavior is unusual. Which you don’t realize in day-to-day life, because you go around obeying your own preferences and desires. You don’t even necessarily realize what your expectations are, because you always live up to them. But when you’re in a new relationship — especially if it’s a kind of relationship you’re not used to, like a polyamorous one — you can’t take for granted that your partner will obey your unexpressed desires, and behave in a relationship like you expect they would.
Next thing: remember that polyamory isn’t anarchy. Just because the usual romantic rules don’t apply, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules. In fact, a good polyamorous relationship is usually more complicated. It’s simple math. The more people are involved — the more sets of genitalia you’re going to be indirectly or directly touching — the more variables there are. So, shortly, this woman is probably going to tell you a lot of fun details about exactly what you can and can’t do sexually, and, moreover, about what your role in the relationship will be. Listen. And follow these rules religiously. Otherwise you’ll be kicked out of Beautiful Free Love Land, and rightfully so.
The last thing I need to point out is that you’ve got to be OK with being unimportant. In a polyamorous relationship where you’re not the primary partner, you’re a diversion. You’re a fun little outlet for excess affection and sex drive. In the vernacular of our times, you’re the side piece.
While you might say, “Sure, yeah, no problem,” you might be less cool with this than you’d imagine at first. You might miss the standard emotional ties. Because being important is the most fun thing about a new exclusive relationship — and it’s what you’re used to, as a monogamist. Suddenly, there’s a person in your life who’s just fascinated by you. By the muscles in your torso, by your weird little figures of speech, by your past, by your sexual fantasies. You become a main character in someone else’s life, who actually regards you as a complex person, unlike your idiot co-workers and your casual acquaintances. And they get really, really unhappy when they think about the prospect of your disappearance. This is way better than getting laid, I think. It’s affirming, it’s enriching, it makes you realize that you’re a real person.
This is why I can’t handle polyamory. Ava was basically a cartoon of the ideal polyamorous girl. A wildly hot hippie girl from California whose sheer quantity of love (and friskiness) was too much to be absorbed by any one man. So I got some of the overflow. It was great. No commitment, no being tied down, no nothing: just fun dates followed by raucous, no-strings sex so loud that my neighbors called the cops.
But something happened that I really wasn’t expecting: At some point, I realized that all of that wonderful casual warmth wasn’t enough for me. Ava would have been perfectly fine without me, and I didn’t enjoy that. I wanted her to need me, at least a little bit. Don’t get me wrong — she liked me fine. She enjoyed it when I was around, and she was interested in me. But if I wasn’t around? Whatever, that’s cool, I wasn’t her primary partner, and there were plenty of other men.
This promptly made me into a whiny little jerk. Without even realizing what I was doing, I’d start making snide little jokes about her husband, or I’d launch into weird little speeches about the kind of relationship I ultimately wanted. Unintentionally, I became messy and needy — exactly the sort of person who shouldn’t be in a polyamorous relationship. In the end, it’s hard to say whether I quit or I was fired. But suffice it to say, I’m not hooking up with Ava anymore.
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A lot of men are similar, I think. Not a lot of dudes are comfortable with being a side character in a relationship. We want to be the hero, the earth-shakingly impactful man, the guy who comes along and changes a woman’s life. This is a situation where you’re roughly the opposite. If you can put your ego aside and accept your role, you’re going to have a lot of fun here. But that’s a big if.