Unicorn Hunters, Part 2
(Hey there! Here is part 2 of an article that I'm breaking up into 4-parts to make it more digestible. Part 1 can be found here. Enjoy!)
Common assumptions and errors that lead to trouble
I'm going to start with a very simple one, the idea of discretion. Our Unicorn Hunters are good, thoughtful, compassionate people. They don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, and neither do they want to have to answer questions or justify their decisions in the work place, so they have decided to remain “in the closet” about this whole experiment, at least for the time being, to see if it's even going to stick. That seems respectful, both for them and for the person they are going to be dating.
I am not going to argue that anyone and everyone who is going to try Poly MUST be out as being Poly, I would lose that argument. Really, people need to exercise discretion about a great many things in their life, this is no different from any somewhat controversial choice that a person might make, based on the morals and values of their community. However, as you might guess, I'm going to point out that there are some problems.
One of the first problems is when you don't talk about your preexisting expectations up front. It is critical to have a conversation with prospective partners, before there is a relationship, where you discuss how "out" you are wiling to be. Set expectations early, so that everyone knows what things will look like and can consider the ramifications. This can be said for all of the items that we're going to discuss (which is why I chose this one first), so we're going to return to this point frequently.
Another problem has to do with confusion around issues of entitlement. Let me explain what I mean. A person has a right to state a boundary about how they will be treated, meaning, this is something that you may or may not do to me, on me, near me, around me, or even aimed in my general direction. Many people who are in this situation treat the issue of how open to be as a boundary issue, since they see clear consequences for themselves if a new partner let's something slip, for instance, by posting something on Facebook.
The problem with this is even though there are consequences, and they are often big, this is not setting a boundary, this is something quite different. An important skill in any form of relationship is to be able to ask for what you want or need, and this is much more like that. This is a request for another person to limit their own behavior (in sometimes unexpected and dramatic ways) that is a much bigger deal than most new-to-Poly people can even grasp. If you have never been a part of a community that is “closeted”, please do not underestimate the amount of discomfort that this can cause. It is pervasive.
If your expectation is to have a new person enter your preexisting relationship, but remain hidden, unseen, there are going to be substantial logistics undertaken sooner or later that will have serious consequences. Multiply that if you actually have the person move in with you. Let me give you an example. (For the rest of this article, I will be using “P” to indicate your preexisting partner and “U” to indicate the new person. It will make things much easier to simply assume that these are their names. Thanks for playing along, I appreciate it!)
Christmas time rolls around and your office is throwing a party for all of the employees. You are allowed to bring your spouse/partner. Who comes with you? Well, obviously P, right? Okay, well, what about U? How will U feel? How would you feel if you were excluded? How would you feel if you weren't even considered? How would you feel if it wasn't even an option to be seen, heard, validated as being a part of your life?
Okay, you're pretty open-minded. Further, you really care about U's feelings, you want her to feel included. The truth remains, you're not ready to be out at work. Upon further reflection, you consider this option, “Hey, I'll just make an excuse. P hates these things anyway, I'll bring U and we'll make up a cover story that we can use if anyone asks.” This is not going to work well. Best case scenario has you inviting them to a social event where you're asking them to engage in a massive charade, where they have to repeatedly lie, and potentially elaborate on the lie, improvising by the seat of their pants. Yep, nothing can go wrong with that. Please read the previous sentence with your “sarcasm voice”.
In order to avoid a Shakespearean-sized comedy of errors, you all agree (or maybe you don't, contention could remain) that U can't attend the party at your job. While U was mildly upset, it's really okay. The larger problem was brought up the following week when U finds out that your family is coming to town to visit, and they need to stay (or will spend considerable time) at your house. This is a much bigger deal. You are really happy about your family visiting (okay, let's be honest, you're not really happy, you're really stressed) but now U is starting to give you some flack about this. You are puzzled because U understood that you couldn't be out with your family, you were clear about all of this from the beginning.
Well, what actually needs to happen? U needs to get scarce. Oh, wait, U moved in? Where is U going to go? U lives here! Are you going to get U a hotel room for the duration of your family's stay? Aside from the fact that you can't make U leave (tenancy rights), you are basically kicking U out of their own home for a week. Alternatives? Put on some sort of Kabuki-style production as described above in the work-related holiday party. What if U doesn't live there? It can still be bad. Presumably U spends time in your home and will feel isolated for the duration of the visit. What if U wants to meet your family? In all of these cases you are faced with the same situation, U is a “dirty secret”, and while NONE of you intended to set things up to make them feel that way, each of you WILL feel the pressure that is generated by that truth.
You need to either be completely out (challenging under the best of circumstances), willing to risk dramatic disclosures in meaningful situations, or U will necessarily be excluded. There is some good news. For starters, some people are actually okay with this. They tend to be down towards one end of the Poly-style spectrum. They prefer what is called “Free Agent” relationships or even further down that line are “Open Relationships”. These are more “No Strings Attached” styles of relationships where less connection is wanted. People who are looking for that sort of connection might not give a flip about your stupid Christmas party or meeting your family. Alternately, you could “rip the band-aid off” and just be out. Do some research first, there can be serious consequences to this approach. There is no right answer here. This is something that all Poly people need to find a solution for in their own way, not just Unicorn Hunters.
Okay, so why do Unicorn Hunters get grief about this? If this isn't about being a Unicorn Hunter, and nothing here is specifically separable from any Poly relationship then why is this coming up here? Well, there are three major reasons why this gets lumped into the conversation about Unicorn Hunters. First, most people who are given the title “Unicorn Hunter” are less experienced and they haven't thought/planned for all of this.
Second, things go really badly when it isn't communicated to the new person up front. When Unicorn Hunters are searching for their new person, they eventually start worrying that they will not find their Unicorn. This is a process that usually takes considerable time and requires patience. One of the first things to get analyzed and promptly thrown out the window are many of these important “early disclosures”. Maybe the two of you are sharing too much too early with these prospective Unicorns. Maybe you are scaring people off with all of these “rules” and “expectations” (hint: you are, more on this later). So, you decide not to mention this until the person is already interested, and then you only mention things when they come up, not out of malice or a desire to obfuscate, but simply because things are going well, you are excited with the new relationship and it doesn't come to mind.
Third, there is an underlying assumption (there's that phrase again) that you and P are allowed to set ground rules like this, without input from U. This may not have occurred to you, as you are each thoughtful, caring people, and you DO want U's input, but this IS the case here. You see the issue as a NEED. You are saying that maintaining employment is a need, and you are right, it is. Both you and P should figure out what your bottom line is on an array of topics, like this one, before entering into a Poly relationship. Okay, so what's the problem?
The two of you have a preexisting relationship, and you have talked about all of this, and you have set a boundary (hint: as stated above this isn't a “boundary”, it's a “rule”), and you are “notifying” the new person of how things will be. You aren't pressuring them into anything, they are free to take or leave it. However if U sees the two of you presenting a united front, it will be extra difficult for her to argue for a different situation. Also, this begins a pattern that is often the greatest source of problems that Unicorn Hunters face. You are negotiating the terms of your relationship with U before U is even a person. You are building a box that they will have to live in, and they have to negotiate/push/fight to change your expectations about that box from the get go. There will be much more about this as we continue.
This is almost entirely good. Kudos to you for thinking about this and major props for actually doing something about it, because people who are new to Poly frequently under-emphasize this. This is a part of the flack that you are catching, because all too often Unicorn Hunters talk about how to be honest with each other as they open their relationship, and they spend a LOT of time talking about how to share U (who isn't even a real person yet, remember?) so that they are being “fair” to each other, but they spend precious little time considering what U will want. And how could they? I mean, U isn't a person, U is an idea. When they find U and get to know her, the plan is to find out what U wants then.
Further, you are putting the work into this, the time, the planning... shouldn't U do some planning too? Shouldn't she show up with some ideas about what she wants to have or ask for? Why do we have to do all of this work and then let her just start doing her part after she shows up? That doesn't seem fair.
Yes, that's true, but there is a power differential at play here, and at no time is your work and planning really for U's benefit, it's for yours. You have an obligation to make certain that you will behave with integrity and a duty to yourself to make sure that you know what you want and your current course of action has some likelihood of producing the desired result. You certainly should put a lot of work into considering ideas and having opinions about what you would like, but all of this begins to fall apart when you started making agreements with P beforehand. When you decide how it's going to be, or set up rules about what this is going to look like and feel like when U wasn't there to participate in those conversations, she will have to fight an uphill battle to get even a fraction of her desires a hearing. It's one thing to explore ideas, share feelings, and discuss what you want, it's another to make commitments and agreements about how it has to be. This is that “box” from the end of the previous section. A recurring theme to all of this is that Unicorn Hunters almost universally build a “box” that the Unicorn will either need to be completely happy living inside of, or need to fight to escape.
Another thing on this topic is the fallacy of fairness. Relationships need to be fair, but much of the time people use that word meaning something else. Unfortunately what is often meant is equal. This is most commonly an issue that is coming from the other direction. The Unicorn, left feeling boxed in and treated unfairly will begin asking for “equal” something. This isn't usually their need, but since they haven't been treated fairly, they start making requests, at first, then later demands for equality in the relationship. If only the box wasn't there, or at least was minimally constrictive, they would see fairness, and never go down this path. Any time any partner starts bringing up fairness, have a direct conversation to isolate if this is a fairness issue or an equality issue, and see if it won't be more productive to reframe the issue with a question like, “Regardless of what is 'fair', what is it that you want or need? Ask for that specifically, and we can try to make that happen.” Being treated fairly is necessary, having equal anything is irrelevant. If you're getting everything you want and need, you will be happy. It's really that simple.
Even if we have more seasoned Unicorn Hunters, each and every relationship is different. I have seen a couple say, “Well, this worked with our last partner, so we're going to do it this way again, whether you like it or not”. It is incredibly unlikely that any two people you might find are so similar that you will be able to cut and paste relationship structure directly over to the new connection. Relationships don't work that way. Is it reasonable to say, “Hey, here are things that have worked before, let's use these as a starting point to talk about what will work this time?” Yes! This is using your practical experience to your advantage. This is great. Share it as a possibility, or even a preference, but don't make it a rule.
Also, remember, what you enjoy about P is going to be different than what you will want with U, guaranteed. Likewise what P enjoys about U will be different than what P gets from you. If you doubt what I'm saying, I can prove it to you. Remember why this couple is looking to open up their relationship? They love each other, but they need something slightly different. They want to add something to the relationship that is currently missing. It's not simply a matter of “more of the same”, if that's the case, our Unicorn Hunters would be well-served to skip Poly entirely, they actually need to look at their own priorities and find a way to make time for each other. Remember this part, I'm going to come back to it later. It's critically important, but I need to lay some more groundwork before I get into it.