Dear Story Nurse,
I’d love to see a follow up post to the last polyam one, one that was more in depth about the craft of writing individuals and meet cutes with non-monogamy in a way that doesn’t put the reader off or have them assuming there is cheating involved, aimed more towards people who didn’t need the poly101 as well.
What a lovely request! I’m happy to oblige. You’re right that my last post was very 101, and there’s much more to writing polyamorous relationships and people than merely avoiding clichés.
It sounds to me like you’re putting polyam folks and relationships at the center of your story—perhaps writing a romance—so let’s start there, with the note that polyam relationships can also serve as background to a story about something else. (Yes, that’s back to the 101-ing, sorry.)
For the purposes of these examples, Lee is married to Avery and Jordan is dating Chris, and the central romance is between Lee and Jordan. They/them pronouns all around.
1. The meet-cute
Lee’s wallet scattered coins all over the sidewalk and Jordan helped them pick the coins up. Now they’re realizing their intense mutual attraction and are figuring out how to express interest in each other. Here are some ways they can make it clear to each other and to the reader that there’s no cheating involved:
- Both Lee and Jordan should generally be hopeful and happy about flirting with each other, the way single people would be. No one should be smugly anticipating getting away with something illicit, or worried about getting caught—those are the hallmarks of a cheater.
- If Lee is the viewpoint character and we can hear their inner narration, they can think things like “Avery would tell me to pursue this” or “I bet Avery and Jordan would get along” that signal general positivity and optimism about one partner meeting another. Lee should not be afraid of Avery, unduly anxious about getting Avery’s approval, or wary of Avery and Jordan interacting. Same for Jordan and Chris.
- Both Lee and Jordan should volunteer the information that they’re already in relationships. How smoothly or awkwardly they do this is up to you, but most polyam folks with even a small amount of experience usually have pre-scripted ways to come out with that information.
- Neither of them should assume the other one is polyam. If they see wedding rings or other visible signs of partnership, or when one of them mentions a partner, they should step back and make room for the other to say “I’m polyam/in an open relationship.” Again, polyam folks are generally pretty comfortable with saying this in so many words.
- Generally, Lee and Jordan should show explicit respect for and deference to each other’s existing relationships. Even if you don’t do hierarchical polyamory, a relationship that’s well established takes precedence over one that doesn’t even exist (yet).
- One or both of them can drop a phrase like “when I was hanging out with my partner’s (ex-)girlfriend” into the conversation to make it clear that both members of each couple have the freedom to date and are generally friendly with each other’s partners. (This isn’t the case with all polyam relationships, and the absence of it is not necessarily a red flag, but the presence of it is a positive sign.)
- It’s reasonable for both of them to be cautious even after mutual revelation of polyam status; most polyam folks have been burned by cheaters who claim to be in open relationships but actually aren’t.
- The surest way to address that concern is for Lee and Jordan to suggest meeting each other’s partners, and for the partners to be supportive of this idea.
You can get around the question of “are they really polyam?” by having them meet at a polyam event, or having a mutual friend set them up, or even having one of their spouses set them up. Imagine the same meet-cute scenario except with Lee saying, “Oh my gosh, I have to introduce you to my spouse, Avery, the two of you are going to hit it off so well!” Many polyam folks “recruit” for their partners, especially if one of them is more outgoing and the other is more shy.
More practiced polyam folks will have the coming-out conversation down to a science and be able to drop in multiple references to being queer, trans, polyam, kinky, etc. in a very small space:
“Sorry if I’m staring, it’s just that you look so much like my ex.”
“Oh yeah? Is that good or bad?”
“That depends: are you also the kind of person who’d try to do suspension bondage from a hotel room sprinkler head? Because my spouse says I’m no longer allowed to date anyone who thinks that’s a good idea.”
“Wait, your ex broke Disclave?”
“Oh, you’ve heard of them!”
You may prefer a more physical initial interaction: perhaps they’re at a bar, Lee spills a beer on Jordan, and they both end up in a tiny bathroom rubbing at Jordan’s clothes with paper towels. That leads to kissing and Jordan asks Lee to come home with them. In that case, a simple way to clarify the difference between polyam and cheating is for Lee to say “I’d love to—let me just tell my spouse not to wait up” or “I can’t—I promised my spouse I’d be home by 10” or “I can’t—I don’t hook up with people my spouse hasn’t met” or “Let’s step outside and talk about that further—I want to make sure we’re on the same page” or something else that makes it clear they’re following the rules of their established relationship, whatever those rules are.
2. The follow-up
After numbers or kisses have been exchanged and everyone’s gone home, it’s time for Jordan and Lee to tell their partners about this cool person they just met. This is a great opportunity to show how those established relationships work, as well as to showcase the personalities in them.
Again, to earn the reader’s trust, your characters need to be honest, and their spouses need to be at least moderately supportive. Jordan might still be shy or nervous about mentioning a new connection, but they shouldn’t dissemble or be fearful. Chris might be cautious about the potential disruption that a new person can bring, or get a twinge of insecurity, but they shouldn’t be angry or dismissive, or undermine the general idea of Jordan dating someone else.
If they’re all part of a community of some kind, either local or online, expect them to do a bit of research on one another. There’s probably a chain of connections; maybe Avery’s partner Jean dated Riley who lives with Toby who helped Chris organize the annual polyam families picnic.
3. Meeting the partners
This can take any form you like: group email or chat, long-distance Skype, dinner for four, going out to an event together.
There’s no guarantee that everyone will get along, though of course it’s nice when they do. How much interpersonal tension you put in is totally up to you. If Chris and Lee don’t really like each other but Jordan still wants to date or hook up with Lee, you can learn a lot about Chris and Jordan’s relationship by how they sort that out.
4. Building a relationship
If you’re writing a romance, you know that relationships can hit all sorts of stumbling blocks that come from inside or outside the people involved. In general, I’d recommend sticking with the type of obstacle that can happen in any romance, and avoiding scenarios where Chris or Avery disrupts the budding relationship between Lee and Jordan. That type of disruption does happen in real life, but this is one of those cases where it’s better to write the world as it should be than to feel constrained by “realism.” If all polyamory stories involve a partner getting jealous or causing trouble, readers without personal experience of polyamory are going to assume it’s always like that, and readers who are polyam will wish that fiction reflected all their realities instead of harping on this one possibility.
On the flip side, once Lee and Jordan connect, you may be tempted to have Chris and Avery also hook up. While that does happen sometimes and does work sometimes, it’s far from guaranteed. Keep it in mind as a possible authorial choice, but not a requirement. It’s just as possible that Jordan will end up dating both Lee and Avery while Chris sees them as friends (or finds them boring and wanders off to play video games).
If multiple emotional or physical connections happen, it’s entirely up to you whether you include scenes of group sex. Some polyam folks are into that and some really really aren’t. (Remember that polyam people can be low-libido and/or asexual, too.) Default to safer sex and expect some pretty intense conversations if there’s interest in fluid-bonding, especially if there’s any possibility of pregnancy.
A thing I’d personally love to see more of in polyamory stories is the central dyad’s partners and extended network actively supporting them and assisting them past their obstacles—everyone putting their shoulders to the wheel together. Polyam families and networks, at their best, are tiny little communities that collaborate on everyone’s happiness.
5. Happily ever after
What does the HEA look like in a polyamorous romance? That entirely depends on the people involved and what their own personal definitions of happiness are. Craft your HEA to fit your characters. They don’t all have to live together, have sex with one another, be in love with one another, or share the same priorities. Make as few assumptions as possible and let them surprise you with the innovative solution they all come up with. That’s about as true to the real-world polyamory experience as you can get.