One of the trickiest things I've discovered yet about polyamory is negotiating the beginning parts of a relationship. How do you let someone know you're interested? How do you let them know you aren't if they express that they are? How do you let someone know you're looking to take things in the present moment, one step at a time, but open to wherever they lead? How do you let someone know you've thought through future possibilities and are open, but not hung up on how it all turns out?
It's probably sensible at this point to say that I sucked at this part of relationships when I was single and dating the first time around, so it should come as no surprise that I'm not particularly smooth at it now. I do, however, have a crapton more confidence and self-esteem, and experience with navigating relationships (platonic and romantic) than I did back then. And one of the things I've learned in 10+ years of partnership is that honesty and truth-telling, even when it's awkward or nerve-wracking, is the most beautiful gift someone can share with you.
What a lovely honor, to have someone trust you enough to reveal that they could potentially care for you in a unique and special way. And what an obligation, to think of the loving way to respond, yes or no or maybe, with heart and kindness and compassion and respect.
I recently saw a discussion among local poly folk about the merits of honesty or a "white lie" if someone is interested in you, but to whom you feel no attraction. Someone pointed out that he felt a "white lie" is often the kindest way out, for self-preservation as well as to protect the other person's feelings.
While I can respect that this person (and others who tell "white lies") has good intentions, I have to disagree with the idea that dishonesty is ever okay. It seems that some people see a dichotomy that puts a truthful (yet possibly undesired) answer as harsh, and a lie as more gentle. I think somehow, we are missing the third option-- a gentle, compassionate, thoughtful response that is honest, yet kind.
I have firsthand experience with this.
Sometime last year, I came to the realization that I was attracted to, already loved, and could easily be in relationship with my closest friend. I let her know I was interested, and open to see where it would go. What happened next was as beautiful as it was unexpected.
She wrote me back-- not that day, but took a couple of days to let the dust settle and reflect on a thoughtful response. A few days later, I got an email that warmed my heart, even as it was essentially a rejection. Lovely feeling #1: Someone cared about me enough to give me a thoughtful response. The response affirmed that there were, in fact, amazingly powerful loving feelings, even feelings of attraction, but that for a variety of practical reasons a relationship would not be likely to meet her needs. Lovely feeling #2: It isn't always about me, after all. It's about compatibility and mutual needs.
Instead of being hurt or disappointed by this email, I was overwhelmed with joy that in spite of the awkwardness, our friendship was strong enough to sustain honesty even under challenging circumstances. I was elated, and walked around for days with my head in the clouds, feeling so blessed to have her respond in a way that was both honest and kind. We still hang out much like we did before, confide in each other, and are like family.
I suppose it might have been different had this not be a close friend, but rather someone I was just meeting. But then, that's one of the things about my particular approach to polyamory-- I'm not all that interested in dating someone without establishing a friendship first. And maybe this experience is a part of the reason why I do feel safer exploring romantic relationships with friends. With a friend, there is already a shared history that allows each to trust the other in some way, with insights into how the other thinks and feels and processes. I feel safer approaching a friend about a relationship. I would feel safer responding to a friend who approached me about a relationship, whether it was to move into closer intimacy, or let them know I wasn't interested.
I used to have a bumper sticker that said, "I'm bisexual and I'm not interested in you." The idea is, once someone knows you're bi, sometimes you have to deal with all of your friends, male and female, constantly wondering if you're hitting on them. The end result of this was often one of two things: either people were constantly coming onto me as if bisexual is simply code for "sex-crazed," or people avoiding me in situations that would otherwise be acceptable with a same-sex friend.
While a lot of this has settled down in the years since I've married, I've found a little resurgence of this weirdness since becoming poly. I'm a very loving person. I run with a very huggy and touchy-feely crowd. I have almost a dozen friends with whom phone calls or visits are ended with some variant of "I love you," and it is meant whole-heartedly, but not romantically. This is what is natural for me, and has been since before coming out to the closest in my circle as poly. And, all in all, I feel like I've been accepted by the handful of people I've talked to about poly as exactly who I am, not judged, and not treated differently. But every now and then, I get a weird vibe off of someone, like my husband or I can't be around them, hug them, talk openly and hang out, without thinking they are being hit on. It's a little unsettling for me, and frustrating, because I'd never in a million years want to lose or sacrifice a friendship due to a flirtatious approach (real or perceived).
A few things to keep in mind with me and my husband, or possibly any poly folk you may know:
1) If we ask you to clarify your intent if it seemed you were coming on to one of us, that isn't necessarily an invitation. It is what it is, at face value: a request for clarification of intention. Don't get weirded out. Just clarify the intention, and the discussion can go from there, either way.
2) If one (or both) of us expresses an interest in you, and it turns out you aren't interested, just say so. Unlike a lot of suitors I remember from my past, I do take no for an answer, and that will probably be the last you'll hear about it unless you bring it up again.
And for the love of all that's holy, just be honest. Speak your truth. As long as there is compassionate honesty, there'll be no expectations, and no hard feelings.