Polyamory and the Friendship Litmus Test

Lately I’ve been trying to work out my feelings about nonmonogamy and metamours–specifically, how to articulate to partners what I’d like my relationships with their other partners to be like.

People who practice nonmonogamy can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum when it comes to relationships with metamours [1]. On one extreme, there are the “don’t ask don’t tell” folks–they don’t want to know anything, or hear anything, about a partner’s other partners, let alone meet those people. On the other extreme, there are people whose relationship “rules” include a stipulation that all their partners be friends with each other–or even be sexually/romantically involved with each other. This is, in my opinion, obviously unhealthy and coercive even if people technically “agree.” The other extreme is a little less obviously screwy, but still leads to a lot of misunderstandings and hurt in my experience.

Most people don’t take things quite that far in either direction, but many nonmonogamous people end up clustered on two ends of that spectrum, whether by “rule” or by happenstance. In some nonmonogamous relationships, metamours never really meet or interact, and partners tell each other the bare minimum about those other partners/relationships based on what they’ve agreed to. In others, metamours tend to be acquaintances or friends, leading to large “polycules” in which folks often hang out together, have game nights, and may even end up involved too.

I’ve often struggled with articulating my own preferences to my partners. On the one hand, I struggle with insecurity and negative automatic thoughts, which my partners tend to be well aware of. That makes them shy away from talking to me about their other partners more than they have to, even though I’ve expressed that polyamory is my choice for a reason and that I like the opportunity to work through that panic by approaching it directly.

On the other hand, I’ve also had a really hard time expressing things like, “I’d like to meet your new partner” or “It’d be cool if all three of us hung out sometime” because I worry that it makes me sound controlling. Of course, it isn’t–the reason I want to meet them isn’t because I need to “make sure that they aren’t a threat” or similar sentiments that I often hear from monogamous people wanting to meet their partners’ friends. I want to meet them because there’s a good chance that anyone my partner likes a lot is someone I’d probably enjoy hanging out with, and because knowing my metamours and having friendly interactions with them helps me reassure myself that I’m not getting abandoned.

The idea that you’ll probably like someone that someone you like also likes gets a bad rap in my communities sometimes; “friendship is transitive” is one of the Five Geek Social Fallacies that we all love to reference. [2] But while taking it to that extreme is indeed a fallacy, it’s also demonstratively true that I tend to like my friends’ friends, and my partners’ friends, and–when I get to meet them–my partners’ partners.

But then the little voice in my head says, “But why should your partner let you meet their other partners? You’re not entitled to that.” True. I’m not entitled to that, We Don’t Owe Each Other Anything, etc. However, I’m learning that expressing a preference or a desire to a partner isn’t the same thing as believing that I’m entitled to it. Otherwise, we’d all be horribly entitled every time we ask someone if we can have sex with them.

So crunching all of this over and over in my mind (I’ve been on medical leave for almost six weeks, so I’ve had plenty of time), I realized that there’s a much simpler way to make sense of this, and it helps me conceptualize other common issues in nonmonogamy, too. I call it the friendship litmus test.

The friendship litmus test is simply this: if this person were my partner’s friend instead of their partner, how would my partner communicate with me about this person?

Most of the time in committed relationships, we’d think it’s a little weird if a partner has a really cool new friend that they’re really excited about, but they just…never mention that friend. Like at all. Many people, no matter how secure they are in their relationship, might wonder if something boundary-crossing is going on.

Likewise, most people would find it odd if a partner has a new friend that they’re spending a lot of time with, but all they say about them is their name and that they’re meeting up with them on a given night. When I have a new friend I really like, I usually want to gush about that person to everyone I know.

It would be unusual if my partner had a close friend who’s important to them and I literally never met that person–not because the opportunity hadn’t come up, but because my partner intentionally socializes with them only when I’m not there, and never invites them along when we hang out together or with their other friends.

Sometimes these things happen incidentally, because my partner just hadn’t had much to say about their newer partner yet, or because that person’s schedule prevented them from hanging out, or whatever. But over time, it starts to feel weird. It starts to feel artificial. Like my partner is intentionally choosing to keep these parts of their life completely separate.

That approach may work for many people. But it doesn’t work for me, and the friendship litmus test is a helpful way for me to articulate that.

For me, having a partner insist on keeping their partners “separate” so that they never meet or hang out is a red flag. I instinctively distrust that kind of compartmentalization because it suggests that the partner distrusts me, distrusts their other partner(s), and/or isn’t actually very comfortable with nonmonogamy (and isn’t working on that). In a healthy relationship, it’d be normal for a partner to say, “I’m going to hang out with my sportsball buds and I’m guessing you won’t be interested in that.” It’s also normal for someone to say, “I’d like some time alone with [other partner/my friends/etc], so I’ll see you later tonight.” It’s utterly weird, though, for them to say, “I don’t want you to ever meet [partner/friend] or socialize with them.”

The friendship litmus test also helps me make sense of a lot of other poly situations. For instance, a lot of folks in the poly community debate whether or not it’s fair to ask/want/expect your partner to share intimate details about their other partners with you. Some people even have “rules” that they must disclose everything that goes on in their other sexual encounters.

Others–for instance, me–think that’s pretty fucked up, because that other partner didn’t consent to have details about their sex life–because it is also their sex life–shared with someone they have no intimate connection with, and may not even know. People who practice hierarchical polyamory [3] often discount the boundaries and feelings of “secondary” partners, and this is one common way that that happens.

Would it be appropriate for someone to tell their partner private sexual details that a friend disclosed to them without that friend’s permission? Most would say it’s not. So why is it okay when that friend is (also) a partner?

Admittedly, the friendship litmus test is probably only useful to a small subset of nonmonogamous people because it’s pretty much based on the idea that platonic relationships are not categorically different from romantic or sexual relationships. It’s an approach best suited to relationship anarchy [4]. But if it works for me, it probably works for others.


[1] A metamour is one of your partner’s other partners. I hate to get jargony, but there’s no non-awkward way to say that.

[2] http://www.plausiblydeniable.com/opinion/gsf.html

[3] https://www.bustle.com/articles/161962-7-poly-terms-everyone-should-know-whether-youre-new-to-polyamory-or-monogamous

[4] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/andie-nordgren-the-short-instructional-manifesto-for-relationship-anarchy


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One thought on “Polyamory and the Friendship Litmus Test

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    […] Polyamory And The Friendship Litmus Test by Brute Reason – The author is poly and wonder how her partners should talk to her about their other partners: “The friendship litmus test is simply this: if this person were my partner’s friend instead of their partner, how would my partner communicate with me about this person?” […]

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