Cold-Open Polyamory without Emotional Scarring for Either of You

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[A commenter asks about bringing up polyamory out in the world, when this random, attractive person in front of you hasn’t like read your OkCupid profile, and it goes without saying that we all think it would be super lame to give them a link or something. (Haha, actually I think I’ve done this before; It can be fine.) How do you bring up polyamory if you’re polyamorous? What if you’re not Polyamorous (TM), but it’s just like important to you to mutually, communicatively, up-front-ed-ly leave the option open for some sort of nonmonogamy, maybe, as part of a mutually fulfilling relationship?]

So, I’ve had a lot of experience negotiating unique, idiosyncratic mutuality in short-term and long-term relating. But, I haven’t had thaaaaaat much experience with negotiating unique, idiosyncratic, situated, mutually fulfilling nonmonogamy. (Certainly some, to be sure. And I’ve done it on a first date! It can be rough.) So there might be much, much better advice out there. (Also, I cycle over months and years in my relationship needs and aspirations: currently I’m pursuing a monogamous or monogamish life-partnership, just fyi.)


These are just my opinions:

If you’re already in a polyamorous relationship, or if you’re single but some kind of nonmonogamy is a requirement, this should probably be disclosed, after signs of interest, before a second encounter:

“Hey, so, I’m interested in you—and I want to invite you to coffee. But, there’s a big huge possible ‘but.’ Uhh, can I run this ‘but’ by you? It’s not THAT bad; it’s not bad at all. But it’s important to me to mention this up front.”

[Audio mp3 for prosody and intonation: ]

[Go to “Elaboration”]

If you’re single, and nonmonogamy is just sort of in the air for you, you’re feeling it out; it might be what you want; it depends on the person (people) and the relationship(s), and you kinda sorta want to leave that option kinda sorta open—then it can wait until the second date. After hand-holding would be getting iffy, and it should definitely, in my opinion, be disclosed before kissing:

“Hey, so we’ve been talking about relationship stuff in general? I wanted to mention… This is a little bit intense, but, have you heard of, like, polyamory or nonmonogamy, in general?

[Could go to “Elaboration”]

“I’m most definitely single right now. I’m interested in you, just you. But, I am curious in that direction. It sort of depends on the relationship and lots of different factors…”


“Yeah, like on that reality show.”

[If they haven’t heard of the concept, brace yourself. And be gentle.]

“Ok, so monogamy, right? Love and sex. So, like, one version of nonmonogamy is that two people are still one-hundred percent committed and emotionally intimate, right? Like, they can one-hundred percent depend on each other. And, as a team, they’ve relaxed some relationship assumptions around maybe sex or love, in a personal, mutual way. In careful, patient bits and pieces, because they’ve talked about it, because something in there works for both of them. Like… [Yup, you gotta eventually just say it after all the qualifying: it’s unique and personal between any two people, and, for some people it’s penis-in-vagina sex and/or passionate romance with other people. Sometimes they’ll be horrified, sometimes they’ll think it’s hot. Or both. Or an infinite number of something else’s.] ”

Pulling it off:

By “pulling it off,” I don’t mean manipulation or somehow changing their mind. That seems really unlikely. What I do mean is minimizing the chance for emotional trauma and scarring, for you and them. That’s a huge topic.

Film Crit Hulk says, “DISPLAY YOUR SANITY,” when trying to break into the film industry.

In this context, I might adapt that to, “Via every possible medium and channel, attempt to communicate that you’re aware they are a unique human being, with unique, situated, idiosyncratic values, preferences, and desires that are completely independent from whatever you hope or predict they might be. And further, they, as a unique other person, are evolving and dynamic on a millisecond timescale and you are trying to be maximally sensitive and respectful when interacting with them as an actual, real, human being, responsive to their cares, concerns, understanding, communication, and behavior, rather than any template or preconceived notion that you have in your head, that keeps trying to insert itself in front of what’s actually happening right then and there.”

More of my mindset is something like, “This is an amazing person who I’m attracted to, who I maybe want to participate in something with, and she seems interested in me, so I’m going to respect her enough as a fellow adult to put all my cards on the table and tell her exactly what I want, after we’ve definitely enjoyed each other’s company and I’ve established that I’m a gentle, patient, nonthreatening (extremely awesome and attractive) human being. And I understand that she might experience a range of aversive emotions, because she’s surprised, or disappointed, or her values are threatened, or she’s embarrassed, or she’s angry, or still scared of my response, or any number of other things. But, I can reduce the chance or at least degree of that by working to be sensitive, succinct, preemptively non-misleading, clear, respectful, friendly, kind, funny, and attractive.”

There’s a good chance you’ve read this Scott Alexander post, but, for those that haven’t, it’s about risk minimization in interpersonal signaling:

[To be extra-confusing, someone pasted it into a comment on Scott Aaronson’s blog, because the original was apparently taken down.]

I also strongly recommend Venkatesh Rao’s meditation on “daemon/mask integration,” that is, channeling raw, untamed, authentic impulses in socially functional ways, without killing those impulses (my paraphrase).

Knowing what you want

I sort of go through these phases for all sorts of idiosyncratic stuff:

1. I don’t know what I want.

2. I know what I want but I don’t know how to say it.

3. I know how to say it to myself. But I don’t know how to find other other people who I want it with or how to say it to them.

4. I wish I could say exactly this to them but I can’t.

5a. How can I proactively and preemptively arrange self and world in such a way, and be opportunistically prepared in such a way, so that I can say this to them?

5b. How can I say this to them so I can say this to them so I can say this to them? [sic]


Knowing what you want is attractive, and people respond favorably to clear and direct specificity (or they respond favorably to your friendly, kind, unapologetic patience, after they initially laugh at you for being so clear, direct, and specific). Being clear and direct makes it more likely you’ll get what you want.

But what if you’re freaking not sure what you want? Because you haven’t had enough experience with the real thing in all its nuance and complexity and contingency?

You can be clear and direct about that:

“This is something I’ve been thinking about. I don’t know if it’s right for me. I don’t know if I want this. But I want to leave the option open, and I want there to be space for me to explore this. (And I want you to feel safe and secure, and for you to get absolutely everything you want…)”

Via every possible medium and channel (nonverbal):

There’s this really important thing that I’ll call “nonverbal responsiveness.” There are two components:

1. I don’t know what to call this first component: nonverbal allowing? The opposite of this is “white-knuckling” or “teeth-gritting.”

2. The second component is paying attention to the other person, both their nonverbal communication (eyes, face, body) and verbal communication (highly specific content and implicature).

When you put these two things together, you start generating so-called honest signals at them which are highly relevant to the other person. Those signals get integrated mostly unconsciously and they allow the other person to be decisive about you.

(And you want the other person to be decisive.)

Modulating honest signals:

“Modulating honest signals” sounds like an oxymoron, but I can unpack it. You can do “offline modulation” via meditation and (vivid, fragmentary) inner simulation when you’re not actually in front of someone. Repeated simulations, and experimenting and practicing during those simulations, will shape your in-the-moment behavior. And you can do additional work with what you learn from those simulations, e.g. with Coherence Therapy.

And, you can do “in-the-moment modulation,” by gently doing things to honest signals as they’re happening, without destroying the honest component. Meditation (and in-the-moment practice) helps you to acquire the skill of gently modulating, augmenting, or layering honest (and deliberate) signals without destroying or reflexively (and always incompletely/creepily) clamping down on the honest component.

This is where you start getting into interesting and powerful meta-signaling territory, like turning awkwardness and vulnerability into disarming, charismatic attractiveness, like remaining funny, present, and unapologetic through your awkwardness, without futilely trying to crush or hide your awkwardness.

Or, say, being very visibly being freaked out, yet at the same time being visibly calm and patient about being very visibly freaked out, and gently taking their hand, and waiting for eye contact, and deliberately leaning in for a kiss.


In the distant past I’ve gotten, “You’re like an actor.” (But she made out with me anyway.)

More recently: “You’re so deliberate.” ( 😀 )

I suppose that’s progress.


By the way, I acknowledge that if you’re not rich or attractive (etc., depending on local arbitrage opportunities, if you don’t have something going for you), you don’t get as high a frequency of opportunities to practice being progressively more wonderful with progressively more wonderful people (for each other). And that’s not fair.

How can you know ahead of time?!:

How can you guess whether someone’s open to nonmonogamy? Or at least that bringing it up will be less likely to be traumatic for you or them?

I myself only have experience with women in this sort of situation:

extroversion, confidence, open body language, and conversational fluency seem to correlate, in my limited experience, with being more receptive to nonmonogamy, if not enthusiastic. Some connection to math or science correlates, too. Short hair, shades of genderqueer, or less female-presenting correlates, too.

It’s a spectrum with plenty of idiosyncratic exceptions, e.g. long hair, internally solidly female, and very “female-presenting.”

High confidence and apparent extroversion (or at least strong interpersonal intelligence and skill) does seem to to be a very important piece.

Again, this is based on my limited, biased experience. If they’re interpersonally savvy, they’ll be working hooks and opportunities into the conversation (to get a sense of you for what’s important to them, which will likely include relationships past, near-past, present, and future) just as quickly as you.

So this is very important, though: If you have already clearly communicated romantic or sexual interest/curiosity/possibility and then you communicate interest/curiosity/possibility about nonmonogamy with her, and she immediately says, “Oh, I could never do that,” but her body language stays open and friendly, and she keeps talking to you, then she’s doing online processing while continuing to talk to you, and she’s going to be doing some offline processing, in the meantime, if she talks to you again.

(Again, her openness and friendliness just means she’s friendly and/or that she enjoys talking with you, about crazy stuff like polyamory, unless you’ve clearly, unambiguously communicated romantic or sexual interest. Then her continued openness and friendliness means she continues to be potentially romantically or sexually interested, as you iteratively disclose, all sorts of insane relationship requirements to her.) Also, if given all of the above, she starts asking a long series of hairsplitting questions, that’s of course a good sign, too.

It’s important to keep all the above in mind, because, consciously or unconsciously, she’ll be watching your body language very closely, retrospectively and prospectively, and factoring that into her desire and decision-making. So if you ride out a seeming cursory rejection with grace, friendliness, respect, and sensitivity, that communicates a lot of useful, unambiguous information to her.

More than once I’ve been propositioned for sex days later, and, in one case, an explicitly casual relationship, which she initially declined and then accepted weeks later, eventually evolved into a long-term, pivotal relationship in my life. We did have some continued sticking points around monogamy versus nonmonogamy, but I don’t think either of us regret the relationship.


I just want to say, I’m sitting on a mountain of privilege, so take this however—but, I just want to mention that I go on a lot of dates when I’m single, like, runs of once per week for weeks at a time without a break. Dating is colossally easier and less fraught when monogamous, but I strongly recommend exploring nonmonogamy if it calls out to you.

I was initially attracted to nonmonogamy, besides all the sex stuff, because I figured that explicitly nonmonogamous people were more likely to be interesting, more likely to have superlative interpersonal intelligence, and that I would have a better chance of fulfilling more of my relationship needs.

In my limited experience, I’ve found monogamous and nonmonogamous people to be distributed pretty statistically similarly, aside from the whole relationship-style thing. And, some of my highest values, on average, seem to be a bit better realized in the context of a monogamous relationship.

So I tend to click with people who are basically amused and value-neutral on the topic of monogamy versus nonmonogamy and tend to have a low-key, nonjudgmental preference towards the monogamy side, for personal, logistical-emotional reasons.

If you can get some dates with nonmonogamous people, you learn so much about yourself so fast, with very little risk (because everyone all around is being super honest and super awesome). I have good memories of interacting with patient, intelligent, articulate, kind, crazy-sexy people (and memories of lots of stress!), and I have a dramatically clarified experience and understanding of my senses of attraction and romantic attachment.


The more dating and relationshipping you do, the higher and higher your standards get, and you might even feel lonelier and lonelier, even amidst all the fun and generally gratifying dating that you do—because you’re just never going to meet this one-in-a-billion incredible person where you complement each other, in the ways that really matter, to you, and to them, because your standards are so high and precise, and you just can’t help it.

But you just might.

So, I hope this is a little bit helpful in creating mutually amazing, wonderful interactions with amazing, wonderful people.

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