My partners and I often jokingly reference our large poly group’s “gravitational pull,” a name we throw around describing the tendency of new partners to enter our poly network by dating multiple people in it at the same time: “Anyone who wanders too close to the poly group gets sucked in and inexplicably finds themselves dating us!”
Being part of a relatively large web of people who are all dating and sleeping with each other in various combinations can be an awesome experience! Most of my polyamorous relationships have developed this way, and I have far more experience dating people who are dating each other than I do dating people who aren’t otherwise involved with my other partners. That said, for every potential dirty joke about celestial bodies in orbit (trust me, there are a lot), there’s a host of unique challenges that surface when dating within a poly network. From my own repeated experiences with the complicated dynamics that can arise from dating people who are dating each other I’ve noticed three overarching themes.
1. Group dynamics change, and sometimes they don’t organically develop at all--and that’s A-OK.
At my most polysaturated I was in four relationships with people who were also dating each other, for a total of three overlapping triads represented by the five of us with me as the central hinge of the three triads. If one were to diagram this poly group (which we often did because it was the easiest way to explain our relationships to others) then it would look like a square with each of the four corners, representing the four people I was dating, connected to a fifth point in the center (me). At first we hung out fairly often as a group because it was an easy way for each of us to see everyone they were dating at the same time, and so the primary dynamic that organically evolved was that of the five of us interacting together.
As great as being part of a strongly-bonded group of interlaced people and relationships can be (which is pretty great), it’s easy to revert to a weird, incestuous type of groupthink where conversations and activities become more about The Group than about the people that comprise the group. I often found myself falling into a pattern of viewing my partners and me as an “us” rather than as a collective of individuals, and that can get messy when the “us” is a fluctuating tangle of romantic and sexual involvements between people who are very different from each other, as we were.
After a few months of weekend-long sleepovers and daily inter-group chatting, the strong cohesiveness that my four partners and I had together as a group began to taper off. At first this worried me because I feared losing the connectedness in which I considered myself unspeakably lucky to be embedded, but in hindsight this was an important step in the growth of each of the individual relationships. It was wonderful being together all the time but having to constantly divide in-person energy between multiple blossoming relationships was exhausting and not conducive to developing each relationship as its own entity.
A natural consequence of this shift was that each of us began spending more time together as dyads rather than as a group. While this was a positive development, it led to a decrease in unified communication between the five of us and a corresponding increase in communication amongst the individual triads and dyads. I didn’t realize it at the time but this made it easier for misunderstandings to occur, even though the net volume of talking and texting and hanging out that happened between everyone didn’t change that much. Keep that thought in mind for the second poly group theme:
2. Be mindful with what you share about one partner to another, particularly when it’s relevant to their relationship.
Visualizing the effect that a relationship within a poly group has on each of the people in its orbit can be challenging. At first glance the simplest group formation, a triad, appears to simply be the three relationships between each of the three people--but there’s also collective triad relationship itself, and additionally I find it useful to think of the effects that each of the dyads has on the other person in the triad as yet additional relationships, leading to a grand total of seven relationship structures operating within a single triad. The more tangled the poly web, the more relationships present and the more complicated those interrelationships can become.
As is natural amongst people who are emotionally close with each other, I often found myself privy to conversations that involved relaying details about one partner with another partner. Most of the time the issues that are brought up didn’t involve me whatsoever, so playing the part of an unbiased listener and supporter was relatively easy, but when the issue at hand involved something that I know about it can be difficult to determine the depth to which I should get involved in trying to help my partners’ relationship.
I think there can (emphasis on can) be value in relaying concerns from one partner to another in certain circumstances, particularly when the issues at hand affect your relationships with either of them. I found that if two of my partners were going through a difficult time in their own relationship it often affected both of their relationships with me, either because they didn’t have the same level of emotional energy that they normally did or because I often became unintentionally involved just by virtue of hearing about the difficulties from them.
This is hardly a bad thing; in fact I see such confidences as a beautiful sign of trust, because I sure as heck know that it’s scary to be open about relationship challenges, and even more so with someone who may have insider info. Navigating these nuances has just required me to remain conscientious so that I can act in the best interests of my loved ones’ relationships, as is summed up by my third and final poly group inter-dating concept.
3. Taking into account the different communication and dating styles operating within a poly group is paramount.
This in particular became blatantly obvious with the maturation of the individual relationships within my poly group. As weekend congregations gave way to weeknights that were sliced up and divided amongst the individual dyads, seeing each other as triads or a group became very difficult and spontaneity became almost impossible. One of my partners preferred the security of immutable weekly date nights, while I found a strict date schedule to be stifling and inflexible. One partner cherished alone time with her partners, while I was happy to aggregate togetherness in order to see everyone as much as possible.
In spite of how proactively I try to pursue open communication, without regular group interaction it was startlingly easy to slip into the cracks of hearsay and misunderstandings. Due to a difficult group conversation that we had via text message one partner mistakenly believed that I was angry at her, which I only learned about from another partner a week later. One partner expressed frustration at how difficult it was to spend time with another partner who’d started seeing someone new, which led to me giving that partner unnecessary NRE space because I believed that she had far less free time than she actually did. In hindsight such cases could have easily been addressed by direct communication, but at the time it didn’t occur to me to question the subconscious intel that I was receiving because I was relying on the dynamics that had existed when the five of us regularly spent time together.
In the end these differences and shifts within our poly group were addressed by consciously reframing our communication and relationship dynamics as needed. It involved some growing pains, but the lessons learned on all fronts will continue to impact each of us in our growth as polyamorous humans. Communication and self-awareness wins again!
Ultimately, dating people who are dating your other partners has its own oft-overlooked nuances, challenges, and benefits, just like every other flavor of ethical non-monogamy out there. The relationship dynamics can get messy and complicated, but to be perfectly honest I eagerly await the next opportunity that finds me fortunate enough to experience such a deeply interconnected sense of chosen family again. I certainly won’t complain the next time my own little universe’s gravitational pull draws another heavenly body into its orbit.
Max loves talking and writing about sex, consent, and relationships. She can usually be found drinking really good beer and keeping even better company.