This is not a touchy-feely, happy-go-lucky, or pithy endeavor. This is substantive. I have taken pains to avoid personal attacks or insults, but I have not held back from being critical about fundamental problems with such approaches. This is not an attack on anyone, this is a blunt explanation of what it is and why it has the stereotype it does.
This is not thorough. There are large areas that I don't touch. I wouldn't be able to write this here if I were to try to be exhaustive on the topic. For instance, I only hint at people who are trying Polyamory to save their relationship. I don't mention the concept of Poly Triads within D/s relationships. There is a lot more meat on these bones.
What I've discussed here is pretty much a best case scenario, avoiding any pretext of a Straw Man argument. I assume the highest and best goals and intentions of an inexperienced Poly couple, and go from there, showing that this endeavor is still entirely problematic. If you are still up for it, feel free to click on the link.
So, you just posted on this really cool Poly forum that your friend told you about. You posted that you and your partner are ready to open up your relationship and find a special person to add to it. For some reason, a ton of people seemed upset at your post and started replying with a bunch of hostile, snarky comments that didn't describe you at all. They told you that you were doing it wrong, that you are bad for wanting to find someone, and that you should go read a book. Wait, I thought these people were Poly?! Aren't they supposed to be open and accepting? What's the deal?
One thing that many of them said was that you are a “Unicorn Hunter”. Not knowing what they meant, you asked your good friend Google what a “Unicorn Hunter” was, and you figured that out. A “Unicorn” is that rare, mythical figure that many couples look for, a polyamorous, bisexual woman (Yay! That sounds great!), someone who might want to date both you and your partner. That sounds good. That means that “Unicorn Hunters” are a couple who are looking for that person to join their Dyad, to make a Triad.
What's a “Triad”? Well a Triad is a Poly relationship where three people are all in relationship with each other, as opposed to a “V”, where three people are involved, but two of the people aren't connected with each other directly, merely connected as “Metamours”. Metamours are your partner's partner, someone you are not dating directly. In these situations, the person in the middle of the V would be considered the “Fulcrum”. Sorry for the lingo, but this is old hat to some and useful to know for all.
Back to the idea of adding someone to your relationship, making a Triad, isn't that what Poly is? Isn't that the point? What the hell is wrong with that? Why did all of these people have such a major stick up their butt?
Well, it's not that simple. There are a lot of underlying assumptions made, even in the text above. If you have a conversation with a new-to-Poly couple about what they are looking for and start asking some probing questions, many answers come out that are pretty consistent from one experience to the next. Again, people who are in this position, a couple talking about opening up their relationship, have very predictable challenges and concerns. These challenges and concerns are so common that people who have seen this play out before will often jump to conclusions about what YOU are looking for, and perhaps more importantly, HOW you are going to want to structure the relationship, and even HOW it will be negotiated, that they have a strong, negative reaction to your initial introduction before you have shared any details.
Is that fair? Heck no. Are they right? Well, only you can answer that. The fact that you are here, reading this, implies that you care. You are willing to listen/read/learn and figure this out to get it right. Congratulations! There are some challenges between where you are now and where you want to go (likely, I'm making assumptions too!), but anything in life that is worth a damn has challenges before it. My goal with this article is to lay out why these people had the reaction they did, why it was so strong (!), and what you can do to get what you want without creating dysfunctional relationships and hurting people.
Common issues when opening a relationship
If you understand some of these underlying issues and assumptions, you will see how people can actually be perpetuating unhealthy, dysfunctional standards and practices while being completely unaware that they are part of the problem. If anyone has ever described the idea of societal privilege to you, it's kinda like that. If not, I'll leave that alone for now, it's a can of worms that would just derail our current conversation if I went into it with any significance. The core of it is, you can be a good person, doing things that seem reasonable from your perspective, and still be part of a problem. It really does take some education, some communication, and a lot of forethought to get this one right.
First, many but not all situations where people are given the title of “Unicorn Hunter” follow one very specific model. It is not necessary that the people look like this, or feel like this, but the overwhelming majority share many of the traits I describe below. The examples that I'm going to write in this article will not likely be an exact match to you or your situation (how could it be?), but please don't think that just because this doesn't describe you precisely that this article can't offer any benefit or insight that you can use. Got it? Good! Here are the archetypal “Unicorn Hunters”.
The Unicorn Hunters that I'm going to use in this article are a male/female couple, the female partner is bisexual while the male partner is heterosexual (mostly), and they are looking to have a woman start dating them together. They have been together for over a year and are open-minded, tolerant, ethical, progressive people. Their relationship has some very good points, they genuinely care for each other, are committed, and tend to be open to new experiences.
Things haven't been perfect. It's not that something is drastically wrong, it's just that things aren't hitting on all cylinders. In previous relationships one or both people have felt that their partner wasn't everything that they needed in a “soul mate” and they moved on, practicing what many call “Serial Monogamy”, where monogamous people go from relationship to relationship “shopping” for the right partner that they will finally settle down with.
This time, though, things are different. This time, their current partner feels like “the One”, or they could be, but there is still something missing. One of our intrepid Unicorn Hunters ran into the idea of swinging/open relationships/polyamory in some form, and they took the risk to talk about it with their partner. Much to their mutual surprise, neither party completely dismissed the idea (maybe someone did the first time, but they came back to it later, and finally the idea stuck). After much foot-dragging and many late night talks, the decision was made to go for it.
But before they actually did anything precipitous, like posting in a Poly forum, they had discussed these issues:
- Discretion about the relationship model to friends/family/co-workers/other communities.
- How to be honest/fair with the new person.
- How to make sure that they were picking the right person.
- Ways to prevent jealousy.
- Protecting their relationship.
Not all Unicorn Hunters discuss all of those things, but many do. Some have other specific issues that are important to them, but this list is what I'm going to focus on, and trust me, it is plenty. There are so many pitfalls and traps here, that we can more than adequately explain the outrage that was observed from our zealous forum denizens. What do you mean, pitfalls, aren't these good things to talk about? Yes, they are. These are issues that need to be discussed when opening up a preexisting relationship, certainly, but perhaps not for the reasons or in the way that you might think.
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.
We've found a keeper!
This is important, right? If you find the wrong person, then all you're doing is risking conflict and problems in the relationship you already have, and you won't get your Unicorn. You'll end up with a Zebra or a Musk Ox. Who wants a Musk Ox? Well, how do you do this? First, you need a specific picture of who you want (remember this idea of specificity, yep, coming back to it). Questions need to be asked, then asked again. Is this person really who they seem to be? Can we trust them?
This is good. Clarity of intent and communication around that is very, very important. However, you can't approach this mechanistically (well, maybe you can, some people might go for this). I know so many people who get frustrated with Unicorn Hunters, and the sort of exchanges that have more in common with a job interview than a date. That is decidedly NOT appealing, unless that's your kink, hey, whatever floats your boat. For most people that feels artificial or distant. Now, pause for a moment, and put yourself in the other person's shoes. Imagine that you are the prospective Unicorn, and this couple who you are meeting for the first time (probably an intimidating position to be in) is talking to you, asking questions, and occasionally looking back and forth at each other, giving questioning glances and the occasional nod.
The first thing that occurs to me is that there are a host of conversations going on that I am NOT privy to. This definitely FEELS like a job interview, only that's not what I signed up for. They are keeping secrets (hint: that's a red flag), but even worse than some job interviews, you are being judged by criteria that you don't have access to. My initial reaction when put into a situation like I'm describing here, unless I'm ACTUALLY in a job interview, is to leave. I stand up and leave, on the spot. If you're lucky I will openly point out this elephant in the living room, chidingly, and if you don't start disclosing everything pronto, I switch to open mocking. If you aren't going to have an open and honest conversation with me, I'm not interested in participating.
This one is simple. If you are going to have a genuine, open, authentic relationship, you need to be genuine, open, and authentic. I'm not really saying anything greater than an identity statement in math, genuine/open/authentic = genuine/open/authentic. That simple. This means that you can NOT artificially manage or direct the course of events, and you can NOT hide criteria from your prospective partner. Hiding includes failing to disclose. One of the things that I bring up any chance I get, I'm particularly fond of, is my definition for lying. “Communication or lack thereof with intent to deceive.” Share the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The key part is “the whole truth”.
Okay, real quick, one last thing here. One way that people “make sure that they've found the right one” is to go the opposite direction. Instead of forcing these artificial interrogation scenarios into the early part of the relationship, they work it into the back end. Er, let me explain what I mean. If you aren't going to force these conversations, force the pace of disclosure, then you may feel that it's perfectly reasonable to control the pace that the relationships are proceeding at. How do you do that?
Well, it is entirely problematic to try to externally control the pace that feelings progress. First, we don't have an objective measurement, and second, it's very difficult to imagine a mechanism that would accomplish such a goal. One thing that you can do is make commitments about internal controls, meaning that you make a commitment not to “fall in love” or not to feel “something” until you both agree that you are at that stage. These aren't simple things, our feelings, and they tend to be mildly unpredictable under the best of circumstances. Now consider that our Unicorn Hunters are new to this, feel dreadfully out of their element, feel like they are taking risks, and you have a situation that can go from tenuous to volatile with a quickness. So, you do what you can, you control behaviors, which leads us to our next topic.
Wait, I was talking about making sure that our Unicorn Hunters pick the right person, why am I skipping ahead? I'm moving forward because these parts overlap. Let me show you. If you are worried about being jealous then there are a limited number of things you can do. This article isn't intended to give you skills for managing jealousy (hint: they exist), but I probably should define what I mean by jealousy, because there are different views and opinions on the subject. Also, by giving you this definition, some of the solutions will suggest themselves. For our purposes I'm going to focus on the following definition:
Jealousy (n.): A feeling of anger or possessiveness that is caused by a fear-based reaction to the idea of losing someone's attention/time/affection which you value greatly. The primary source of all jealousy is insecurity, regardless of whether the insecurity is justified or not. Jealousy is greatly exaggerated by a lack of knowledge.
So, how does this tie into picking the right Unicorn? One of the few ways that people try to mitigate jealousy is the same as what we left off talking about in the previous section, controlling or limiting behaviors. The most common example is for the preexisting couple to attempt to impose limits on each other regarding access to U or sexual behaviors with U. Remember the part earlier about the “box”. This is another agreement made before U was even a real person that directly impacts U, that U had no input in and likely could NOT negotiate for change about, because, well, that's the entire point of the rule. Until U is “the one”, U shouldn't have grounds to negotiate about things... and we're limiting U's ability to build relationship through sharing physical intimacy, which leads (for most people) to emotional intimacy, which would make us feel close enough to trust U to make a change. See what that is? It has a name in the field of Logic, but for our purposes we'll call it a "Cluster Fuck of Disempowerment" which U finds themselves stuck in.
Another rule that Unicorn Hunters regularly explore to help contain jealousy is the idea that while each of you are developing feelings for U, it is very important that U reciprocate feelings for each of you equally and want the same things with both of you. If U loves each of us equally (how do you even measure that?!), then we won't be jealous. If U is limited to exploring physical intimacy with each of us at the same pace (not second base with you, but third base with P, that would be SCARY!), then we are not as likely to get triggered by the great green-eyed monster that is jealousy. I have yet to hear of an actual example of this sort of triple convergence of simultaneous emergence of affection working. Not once.
One of the most common ways that a preexisting couple will try to mitigate jealousy in opening up their relationship is to make rules around acceptable sexual behavior. I don't mean which position they are allowed to have sex in (although, sadly, yes, that is a rule that some couples have tried), what I'm talking about is the idea that none of the people are able to have sex independently, they have to all be together. That strikes me as drastically limiting the possibilities of what CAN happen, given everyone's disparate schedules, and also, more than a little creepy. None the less, this is common. But wait, there's more.
Not only do the three of you need to be together, but U is frequently expected to have no other romantic/sexual relationships. None. There is a type of Poly, on that Poly-style continuum I mentioned earlier, that is on nearly the opposite end of the spectrum from “Open Relationships”, it's called “Poly Fi”, short for “Poly Fidelity”. There is a sub-group, they don't really have a name, but you could call them Interconnected Poly Fi, who are Poly Fi, but they all date everyone in their “pod”. It's the idea that we aren't Open, we aren't even what most people would call “Poly”. We are really just like Monogamous people, only they got the number wrong. There is an ideal number of people for a relationship, but it's not 2, it's X, where X equals what they think works best for them. Cool, you can do that, but man, do you think that our Unicorn Hunters know all about this? Remember that our example Unicorn Hunters are new to all of this, how could they have such a nuanced, carefully crafted position with NO experience? I know Poly Fi Unicorn Hunters who understand the challenges and pitfalls of that particular style of relationship, but they also advertise QUITE clearly for exactly that. They are specific and demanding. I'll mention this again later.
The problem here, the one that is so inflammatory to many Poly forum dwellers, is that the typical Unicorn Hunter doesn't know what the term Poly Fi means, doesn't have a clue to ask for specifically this, up front, and ends up angering people by fostering situations which, in hindsight, appear to be a bait and switch. They ask for people who are Open or Poly, yet are aghast when it comes up that their nascent Unicorn wants to date other people! How dare they, aren't we enough for them? Wait a second, that sounds familiar. This idea that the U will be with “nobody but us” is one that is a huge trigger, and is very, very common.
I could go on and on within the topic of Jealousy management and triggers around Unicorn Hunters, there is a nearly infinite number of possible iterations, I've probably seen hundreds, because every person can potentially be triggered by different things. Your old boyfriend left you for a redhead, so dating a redhead would make you more likely to feel jealous? Okay, no redheads. The box just got smaller. You don't trust introverts to speak up for themselves because your introverted ex wouldn't ask for his needs to be met, so he ended up cheating on you (apparently he could ask for it from the woman at the office)? Okay, no introverts. The box just got smaller. Instead of doing that, I want to double back to the comment about limiting behavior.
It's not just sexual behavior that people limit. We can't go on a date unless it's all 3 of us. We can't watch “our show” unless it's all 3 of us. We can't e-mail or text unless everyone is included. Note, this last one rarely extends to U. The preexisting couple can (and in their eyes, should) e-mail/text/whatever often, but no communication with U is permitted without it being shared. This piece gets to the heart of an underlying assumption that is a common thread through most everything that I've written so far, so it's time to do another of my awkward transitions.
Protecting the preexisting relationship
This is really the most important piece of it all. The point. We are considering opening up this relationship, but before we can consider that, before we are willing to make any changes, we need to make completely sure that we aren't going to blow it up. It doesn't make any sense to go out and try to find someone to increase and grow our current relationship if we lose what we already have.
Okay, there are some ways to do this. One frequent concept is the idea of “ordinal language” when describing relationships. Many Poly people, not exclusively Unicorn Hunters, use ordinal language. They would state that someone is their “Primary”, or perhaps they have multiple people in a “Primary” role, but then they also have one or more “Secondaries”. Some people go further and refer to a friend with benefits or other more casual connections as “Tertiaries”. This is broadly described as “Hierarchical Poly”. The idea is that people who are Primary “come first” in some way. The exact manner or degree can vary widely. Some people mean it in a feeling sense, that they care more about their Primary than their Secondary. Others disdain the idea of measuring feelings in such a hierarchical way, and distinguish between Primaries and Secondaries by other means such as domestic partnerships, co-parenting, co-mingling of finances, and other shared responsibilities.
Our Unicorn Hunter couple might set up a rule that they will be Primaries, and U will be a Secondary to each of them. This is one way that they can try to protect what they have. Well, this is tougher. You are setting U up with the expectation that they will be “less than”, that they will remain “less than”, and that feels pretty icky to most people. A “Free Agent”-style Poly person might be fine with it, but many people would chafe at this sort of a priori limitation. Remember, all of this is agreed to between the preexisting couple when U is still a concept. Oh yeah, that box is getting even tighter and more restrictive.
There is one other tool that deserves mentioning here. Veto. You probably have heard of this concept, in our government, if not in Poly... but it works much the same here. The idea is that one person has the authority to unilaterally say, “No”. In this situation the most common example would be where the preexisting couple would have “Veto power”, but U wouldn't. Veto is a rather drastic concept in a relationship. The idea that we aren't going to talk it over any longer, one person is going to be able to end the discussion and simply say “No”, feels one-sided and quite unfair to most. Some Poly people see it as a necessary tool for certain situations, hopefully never to use, but to hold in reserve like some sort of nuclear deterrent.
There are means to mitigate the justifiable uneasiness that U will feel about this Damocles Sword hanging over their head. You might argue that it won't be used lightly, over trivial issues. You might argue that it won't be used unless you have explored every other possible solution. You might argue that it will help protect U if another person is added later, because then U would have a “Veto” of their own with regards to the new person. No matter how you negotiate the idea of Veto, there is one inescapable problem.
The problem is you can't count on it.
You can't guarantee any of it. You can't trust that your partner won't veto something you consider trivial, and you can't guarantee that when you use your “veto” that your partner will respect it. You can't guarantee that you will remain a Primary and that U will remain Secondary. None of this is certain. You are left with all of the downside, persistent insecurity and institutionalized inequality, with none of the perceived benefit. The perceived benefit, the idea of protecting the preexisting relationship (which is a part of a topic called “Couple Privilege”) is a lie you tell yourself to bury your insecurity, rather than facing it and dealing with it.
The reason that people sometimes HATE Unicorn Hunters, the reason that you got the feedback that you did when you posted your ad on that forum, is because people who say things like what you said, who post what you did, are almost ALWAYS constructing a very small box for someone, telling them to be happy to crawl inside of it, sit still, be obedient, and it's ALL FOR NOTHING.
My point is that you are never safe. Your current relationship is not safe whether you open it up or not. There is nothing certain in life and that includes love. There is only one way to be certain that your current relationship remains strong, solid, and will continue for a long time and that is to strengthen your current relationship by doing things that are beneficial to that specific relationship. If you do, barring any untimely deaths, it will most likely last a long time. You are not likely to strengthen your current relationship by paying attention ANYWHERE else but your current relationship, which includes each member as an individual (yourself included) and each connection. “Relationship broken, add more people” is one the most famous blunders in Poly, it's our version of “Start a land war in Asia during winter.” If you get this one wrong you are going to end up creating relationships that fail simply because of this issue, even if everything else would work. You're very likely to end up hurting people without realizing it.
Okay, is that it? Is that the worst of it? Is there anything else I need to know about being a Unicorn Hunter that can possibly make it seem more hopeless? I'm so glad you asked!
The Primary Fallacy underlying Unicorn Hunting
Do you remember that part at the end of “Honesty/Fairness” where I left that awkwardly worded teaser at the end? You don't? Okay, no worries. This is where I'm going to lay it out for you. The primary fallacy of Unicorn Hunting is the illusion that it has a plausible chance of success. The central concept of the narrative that I've laid out here is statistically nearly impossible. Here's why. Remember that you love P very much and you just want to find something that P is missing. For the sake of this example I'm going to revert to something that looks sort of mathy, but it's really not (don't run away, it's super easy, trust me!).
You are looking for someone with a few traits that P doesn't have that might look like this:
U = (A, B, D, E, H)
U is our Unicorn, and B, D, and H are arbitrary letters which are symbolic for a few traits. These are things that you would like to have more of in your life (rock climber, emotionally available, likes kinky sex, whatever) that P doesn't have. Well, here is what P is looking for:
U = (A, E, F, G, I)
What? How do I know this? Remember, you and P are each looking for things that the other doesn't have, so I chose different letters, again, arbitrarily. A & E are similar because presumably you each have common traits that you simply need in people to find them attractive. You found each other, right? Well, let's look at you and P:
You = (A, B, C, D, E)
P = (A, C, E, F, G)
Do you see yet? Think about it a moment before reading on. You are constructing a VERY specific picture of a VERY specific person (I told you we were coming back to that concept of specificity, remember?), who has more to offer than either of you. You and P each have things that you share, that you really enjoy, and you have other interests that you want to share with someone, AND you want a new person to bring something unique to the relationship. Well, I hope you do. If you don't want that (hint: they will) then you're going to be in for a bit of a disappointment. Here is a profile of the Unicorn that the two of you are looking for:
U = (A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I)
Wow, this person is not only better than either of you, with a richer, fuller, more varied life, but they are also really, really specific. Remember our Interconnected Poly Fi people who were looking for a very specific person? This is their challenge. If you are new to Poly, posting a casually written ad on a Poly forum, how are you going to find THIS EXACT person? Is that a likely outcome? No, it isn't. You have constructed, like some Frankenstein's monster, this super-person and built a small, rigid, confining box for them to live in. What makes you think that someone with all of that going on in their life is likely to say, “Hmm, your highly restrictive model of relationship wherein I am inherently and persistently disadvantaged sounds good, sign me up”? They most likely won't. So, who DO you end up finding? You end up finding someone who looks a lot like this:
U = (A, B, G, I, J)
That is very realistic. You find someone who has the #1 non-shared trait that you are looking for (B), but they don't have the #1 trait that P is looking for... they do have the #2 and #3 non-shared traits from P's list (G & I)... and that might seem okay at first. Note that they are missing (E), that could be a problem down the road. There may be uneasy feelings about these issues, but you are SO RELIEVED to finally find someone who is in the ballpark, who responded to your e-mail, who is local, who is available, who is interested... that each of you build up enthusiasm to make this work. This can remain an ongoing point of tension. You may resent that U gives P more of what P wants, and P may resent that you got the most important piece while P didn't. Also, notice that this, realistic U has J, which wasn't on either of your lists. This item can have significant consequences. What if J is a child from a previous marriage (or U is currently married! Hey, I thought she was just for us?!)? What if J is a drug habit? Unless you specifically want one of those things, this could be a deal-breaker.
It's hopeless? You're saying we just give up?
Some people have happy, fulfilling Poly relationships. Some people are in a rewarding, successful Triad. It does happen. Thing is, there is a right way to go about getting it and a wrong way. I have written this including lots of examples showing how to do it wrong.
How do you do it right? Well, here is a starter, read this article and don't make any of these mistakes. If you avoid every mistake in this article, you've got a real shot at it. But wait, no guarantees? Nope. But that means risk! Yep. My current partner won't be my Primary? Well, maybe. If they are your Primary, they are your Primary. You can do hierarchical Poly if you want, that's fine. Just be aware of the consequences, talk about them, and be open to the fact that it will work well for some and will disqualify others.
If things change, then you need to be willing to allow and even embrace that change. There are situations that people refer to as “Game-Changers” in Poly, just like in the rest of life. Sometimes an individual comes along and shakes up the status quo in your relationships. Don't fear it, be excited by it. My definition of love includes the concept that I have a desire for and a commitment to allow or even facilitate their individual growth, their continued health, and their pursuit of happiness. I love each of my partners very much, I don't want them to go away. I don't want them to tire of me. I don't want to lose them. But ultimately, I do not want to cling to them in a way that stifles their opportunities for growth, finding happiness, and achieving their fullest potential. If someone else is an amazing match for them, and I lose a percentage of the time/attention/energy they had been giving me, certainly I will feel a loss, but if I actually love them, I will feel a lot of happiness as I get to see them receiving wonderful benefits.
What is a true loss is when someone says that I will get less of their time/attention/energy because I'm not really “doing it” for them any longer. This is an unpleasant thing that you should try to protect against, but you don't protect a relationship against this by creating external rules, you protect it by being attentive and focusing on the relationship that you have with each of your partners, and keeping an updated understanding of who they really are. When this happens it is often due to neglect. Either you're not investing in them, or you're not paying attention to the shifts and changes that are happening over time as they grow as people. You're still interacting with them as somebody they used to be, rather than who they've become.
I invest my love and energy and time into my partners, I ask them what they want and need, regularly, and then I try to accommodate as many of those wants and needs as feels comfortable and appealing. In some situations, I will leave my personal comfort bubble and take some risks. These can be great opportunities for personal growth. In critical situations it doesn't need to be appealing or comfortable. These are the “All hands on deck” moments in life where you set aside your personal desires and help the ones you love.
An exception, one that is nearly universal, is worth mentioning here. I don't attend to my current relationships by making rules about things external to them, with the sole exception being the topic of fluid bonding and safer sexual practices. That is due to the medical risk of infection from STI's, which is not emotional security, it's biological safety.
Okay, how do you do this right?
Here is a list of things that if you can do right, you should have a good shot at this. Focus on these points, and you will be set up to avoid the most common pitfalls. Certainly, no matter how well you do your stuff, you are only a part of the equation. The other people involved are uncontrollable variables that are complex and unpredictable. I could likely find examples of exceptions to everything I've written about in this article, somewhere or somehow. Very little in life is truly simple or absolute.
- No Rules. State desires and needs. Make requests. Don't dictate, discuss.
- Security through Investment. You don't remain secure or "Protect the Preexisting Relationship" by limiting what happens with others, you do it by continually investing in your preexisting relationship.
- Minimize “The Box”. Don't put restrictions on people who don't exist, much less ones who do. Allow each relationship to grow into it's own, natural expression.
- Specificity. Use specific criteria to search for what you want, but remain open to what you might find.
- Share “Deal-Breakers” early. When something truly is non-negotiable, it needs to be first date material. Don't over-dramatize this, a simple, clear statement should suffice.
- Communicate expectations repeatedly. When you find expectations cropping up, say them out loud. Often people assume that everyone is on the same page and are shocked when later they find that it is not the case. Allow expectations to shift as situations change.
- Be out! Do this as much as possible. Your entire life will reap benefits as you are able to be more and more open, honest, and congruent. The biggest benefits you will experience will be internal. It is truly transformative.
- Fairness does not mean Equality. Treat people with kindness and understanding. Try to avoid quid pro quo negotiation, these situations are frequently indicative of underlying problems.
- Every person involved is equally important as a human being, even if they don't have equal significance in your life. Don't act as if you are entitled to a privileged position, or one relationship is entitled to privilege over another.
- Complete disclosure. With every interaction bring your entire person. Be congruent, open, and honest with each person you are in relationship with. If you ever feel you can't do this, you have gone of the tracks badly. The relationship is broken and needs to be repaired or discarded.
- Don't start out by dating together. Yes, I'm saying, “Don't be Unicorn Hunters”. Each of you will have an astronomically higher chance of finding what you are looking for if you stop trying to have 1 magical person fulfill 2 distinct and ofttimes contradictory roles. You just might find someone who likes your partner and you will have found your natural fit while effectively sidestepping many of the pitfalls and traps listed herein.
You can't build strong relationships by skirting around or avoiding issues like insecurity and jealousy, which is exactly what “Rules” attempt to do, you have to go directly through these issues. Address them head on, find effective skills to manage the underlying causes and root them out at their source.
Risk with calculation.
Be open to new experiences.
Be strong in the face of your insecurity.
Dare to grab for the life you want.
Meet exciting people.
BE an exciting person.
Build valuable relationships.
Ask people what they see in you, why they love you, and then trust that. Expend consistent effort to remind them why they love you. Don't fall into complacency. Seek a partner that delights you and don't worry about whether they are a fit for your other partners. If they are, wonderful! If they aren't, that's fine, your partner is out there looking for other possibilities (or they aren't, as they wish). Understand that there are no certainties and rather than withdrawing, use that as your motivation to be the best you that you can be.
I hope that this article was helpful to you. I wish you the best as you explore the relationship model that is best for you.