“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m a trans woman dating another woman in a polyamorous relationship, and I feel like we just don’t get to spend enough time together (we see each other twice a week, at most). She’s currently dating two other people in addition to me, while I’m only seeing her. When it comes to us spending time together I always feel like I’m her last priority.
I’m always the one who reaches out first. When something is wrong, she talks to someone else, rather than me. If she happens to have free time, she always spends it with another partner without asking me if I want to do something. I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but I haven’t seen any changes in her behaviour yet, even though she said she’d try. I don’t want to just break up with her, because I love her, and I would also be completely alone if I did. I’m autistic and it’s incredibly hard to find partners. Am I better off being single and alone, rather than always trying to get the attention of someone who’s often unavailable?
Dear Lonely Girl,
There’s nothing quite like the unique pain of feeling like the odd one out in a polyamorous love triangle (or square, or pentagon, or dodecahedron), is there? Alas, I think that yours is a situation that many others in LGBTQ2 communities are all too familiar with. Unrequited feelings and unmet relationship needs can be hurtful enough in a monogamous context, but with polyamory comes extra dimensions of longing and jealousy: in a polyamorous relationship, we can at times find ourselves caught in the peculiar trap of being someone’s romantic partner — all the while watching them shower the care and attention we so deeply desire on somebody else.
Monogamy, for all of its many, many pitfalls, has an established language and cultural script to address situations like this. In monogamy, we know (more or less) what it means to cheat on someone, or to neglect one’s role as a romantic partner. But in polyamory, the “rules” of engagement are far less established. If we are allowed to have as many romantic/sexual relationships as we like, then how much care and attention do we owe any given partner? Is it ethically okay to categorize our relationships in hierarchies of intimacy and importance, as in the “primary/secondary/tertiary partner” model used by many polyamorous folks? And if it is, then how are we to respond when someone (or someone we’d like to be) at the top of our list puts us at the bottom of theirs?
When I was entering the queer community for the first time in my early 20s, polyamory was held up as the epitome of sexual revolution. There was an unspoken assumption that if you weren’t polyamorous, you were definitely not cool and probably a prude. It’s a weird reversal of the mainstream norm that holds up monogamy as the ethical standard — which is equally untrue. Since all the cool kids were doing it, I decided that I too would be polyamorous, though not because I really felt any particular desire to have multiple partners. (That would come later in life.)
No, Lonely Girl, I became polyamorous because it seemed to me that if I didn’t accept the conditions of polyamory, then I wouldn’t have any partners at all. As an East Asian, neurodiverse, transfeminine person, I had been told most of my life that I was undesirable and unloveable. Indeed, I accepted many other conditions unrelated to polyamory as well — like alcoholism, disrespect and deprioritization. I suppose I hoped that if made my needs smaller, then my partners would finally be able to meet them.
So when you talk about feeling like last priority in your relationship, Lonely Girl, I hear the echo of my own story, and of many stories I’ve heard from friends and community members over the years. This isn’t to say that polyamory itself is bad (it isn’t), or that you don’t really want to be polyamorous (I don’t presume to know). What I’m saying is that the structure of your relationship doesn’t seem to be serving you because you don’t feel able to set your own terms.
In any relationship, polyamorous or otherwise, we have the right — and the responsibility — to set our own terms: our expectations, desires and boundaries. Examples of individual terms of relationship include (but are not limited to): how much time we want to spend with our partners, how we handle conflict, and the frequency and type of intimacy we engage in, like sex, cuddling or going out on dates.
Couple’s therapists sometimes call this the “relationship contract,” and it exists between all romantic/sexual partners, regardless of whether they discuss it (and many couples don’t, or only do so cursorily). When our terms don’t match up with those of our partners, or when we claim they match up but they really don’t, disappointment and conflict occur. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t taught to actually discuss our terms, and so it’s easy to default to not sharing them and hoping that our partners will read our minds. This means that the relationship contract only gets negotiated in the context of a fight, which is, of course, not the ideal.
Lonely Girl, it might be worth revisiting your relationship contract with your partner and making the terms explicitly clear. Based on what you’ve written, it seems to me that, in your heart of hearts, your relationship terms involve a high degree of closeness and intimacy: you’d like to see her more than twice a week, you’d like to share problems and support with one another and you’d like to have spontaneous as well as planned time together. Some polyamorists might describe this type of relationship as a “primary” one. You’re totally in your right to want this, and it’s also your responsibility to make these terms clear to your partner — and perhaps you already have.
In the same vein, it’s your partner’s responsibility to be clear with you about whether her terms are the same: does she want to spend that much time with you, to have that level of intimacy with you? Or would she prefer a relationship that involves occasional, but not constant, regular intimacy? (Some might describe this as a “secondary” relationship.) It’s okay for her to want less intimacy, but if that’s the case, then she owes it to you to be honest about that.
If it turns out that your relationship terms don’t match up to your partner’s, or if she says that they do, but her behaviour still doesn’t change, then it is likely time to make some difficult decisions, Lonely Girl. Are you able to truly scale back your desires and expectations and accept a less-intimate relationship with a full heart? Or would that only leave you disappointed, resentful and wanting more?
If those questions are too abstract to answer (they are for a lot of people), it might be helpful to do an experiment: every time you feel really hurt by your partner’s behaviour, put a small stone in a jar. Every time you have a moment with your partner that feels good, put a stone in a different jar. At the end of two weeks, compare the number of stones in each jar. Keep doing the experiment for another couple of weeks and compare again. How does that visual make you feel?
That said, I would really, really, REALLY strongly advise against showing your partner the jars, bringing them up during a fight or a relationship talk or even sharing the experiment at all. This exercise is NOT meant to be done as a way of “grading” your partner or making them change their behaviour. It’s for self-exploration only.
Society teaches us that intimacy is a scarce resource, and that we must cling to any intimate relationship we manage to find. Otherwise, we are told, we will be alone and miserable forever. This harmful messaging is compounded for trans women, autistic folks and other marginalized people because we are told that we are less desirable than everyone else. As a result, we learn to shrink ourselves, to make do with relationships that feel hurtful or incomplete. We feel that setting boundaries and expectations for our partnerships is dangerous and frightening — because then we might be abandoned and never find anyone else. And so love comes to feel like a table where everyone else is feasting — while we subsist on scraps.
You’ve also mentioned that being autistic is an extra complicating factor in trying to make connections with folks. While autism isn’t an experience I share, I would imagine that there are some specific barriers to relationships that this presents, especially in terms of ableism. The dating world is structured on neurotypical folks’ needs and perspectives on intimacy, which may mean that some of your needs are going unseen and ignored. Queer autistic writer Chrysanthe Tan writes that there is a “lack of awareness and accommodation for the autistic community — even among other marginalized people like in LGBTQ+ spaces.”
I wonder if it might be important for you to have your autism acknowledged in your relationship: that it comes with certain features that result in difficulty for you, and that it may create a power imbalance between you and your partner (who doesn’t seem to have as much difficulty finding partners) that should be addressed. And your autism may also bring wonderful gifts to you and your partner that ought to be celebrated.
Lonely Girl, I won’t offer platitudes about how wonderful you are and how you’ll definitely find the right person for you someday (though I imagine that you do have many wonderful qualities, since I am biased to think of all trans women as wonderful). I don’t know your social world, or your life, and I believe you when you say that finding partners can be incredibly hard.
What I do know is that often, when we stay in relationships that are not really serving us — when we try to shrink our hearts down so that we can be satisfied with something that is not enough — that can hurt us just as much or more than being alone. And the thing about those not-enough relationships is that they take up time and space and energy in our lives that we could be using for other things, like searching for new partners, meeting new friends, learning to love ourselves better. Alone is terrifying, it’s true. But alone can also be an opportunity.
You deserve a relationship that you can be in with full heart, Lonely Girl. You deserve to be with someone (or multiple someones) who you know puts you first (even if first is tied with one or more other people — because “primary relationship” isn’t a position, it’s a tier). You deserve a relationship that feeds you.
You deserve the feast.