A Walk in the Desert: On taking things at the pace of the slowest person

There’s a saying I’ve been hearing from people in poly circles over the past couple of months, in regards to opening up a relationship: “It’s best to take it at the pace of the slowest person.”

Last night I heard it in a sightly different way, “to take it at the pace of the slowest camel.”

This sort of makes sense, when everyone’s got a similar end-game in mind, right? Like, if there are two people who want to open up their relationship, but one person is struggling with the nuts and bolts of opening up a bit more than the other, then you take it at the pace of the person who’s taking a little longer to figure it all out. They still have the end-goal of opening up, so you know they’ll get there eventually.

But what do you do when one of the people in the relationship doesn’t really want to open up?

That’s when I’ve heard of situations where taking it at the pace of the slowest person can backfire, ’cause they are in control of the pace, and without the motivation to ever reach that goal, they can slow it down to a full stop.

Metaphor Time!

Imagine you’re in a group of people heading out of the desert toward a source of cold water. There’s plenty of warm canteen water, but the promise of pools of cool water sounds so good.

Now, you don’t want to leave anybody behind, so you all agree to keep pace with the slowest walker. Some of you can run, and some of you can walk briskly and you could get to that ice cold water source within the day if left to your own devices….

…but this one person in your group has a broken ankle and every step they take is excruciatingly painful. They keep wanting to stop and take breaks. You try to carry them, but not for long before it wears you out, and they feel guilty and like a burden to you.

At one point, they sit down on the ground and ask….”can’t we just stay here and wait until nightfall when it’s cooler?”

And maybe you agree. But then that night they say, “Now that it’s cooler – do we really need to get out of the desert? It’s nice here. Look at all the stars…., and the water in the canteen has cooled down so it’s totally drinkable. Why isn’t this water good enough?”

But by mid afternoon, that heat is bearing down on you and you’re beginning to resent the “slowest person” in the group.

Now you’re in a really shitty position. You gotta drink. Like, this canteen water is great to have, and it’s absolutely meeting your basic needs, but it’s unsatisfying and no longer sufficient for you. You’re still not much closer to that cold water source than you were a day ago; and you had estimated that the pace of the slowest person wasn’t going to hold you back for THAT long.

Extrapolate this into a relationship that’s now lasted over a year.

This is why partners who are being “held back” start getting frustrated and passive aggressive and saying things that are unkind.

If you are the slowest person in the group you do, in some ways, have control over the pace: but you also have a responsibility to keep trying to make progress, so that everyone in the caravan feels like their goals are achievable.

And if you dig down and find that your goal is to sabotage the expedition; then perhaps it’s only fair to let your partner go on their own. This is not because you are a bad person, or because you aren’t deserving of them. This is simply a case where your goal and your partner’s goals are in opposition.

And a relationship formed by someone who “won” and someone who “lost” is never as strong as a relationship between two people who both got what they wanted together.

That doesn’t mean they have to want the same thing. You don’t have to want to be poly just like your partner does. All your goal needs to be focused on is achieving acceptance.

That’s why you have to WANT to be okay with your partner being polyamorous. When that is your goal, then the caravan keeps making progress.

Holding out for them to want to be monogamous is probably not going to work.

My advice to the partner of a Leeroy Jenkins-style Polyamorist

After nearly 5 years together, she tells him she’s poly.  After allowing him four weeks of “adjustment” she’s got dates lined up and tells him she’ll “probably” have sex with these guys.  He’s not ready.  She’s going all-in.

This is my advice to him:


I’m gonna share with you some of my thoughts on polyamory and how it can work in the abstract. This is by no means the one and only way shit works – this is just what I’ve found to be the healthiest way in my experience. Then, after that I’ll give you some examples on how to approach a very, very necessary conversation with your girlfriend and how to tell if she’s open to polyamory with you, or some sort of alternative in which she’s not really valuing your future participation in her life.

Polyamory in general can be, in many ways, a vehicle for personal growth. Some polyfolk like to say that it’s “more” love, but I think that’s just an imperfect translation. It’s “many” love. I’m going to use an imperfect analogy to illustrate the difference. You have a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, a box of Lucky Charms, a gallon of milk, a bowl, and a spoon.

Monoamory in its most ideal form is selecting one of the cereals, filling the bowl, adding the milk, and using the spoon to eat it.

Polyamory, in one of its most ideal forms, is pouring some of each cereal into the same bowl, adding the milk, and using the spoon to eat it.

Picture a monoamorous person sitting in front of their bowl of Lucky Charms sitting side by side with the polyamorous person sitting in front of their bowl of a mix of Cheerios and Charms.

The poly person doesn’t have “more” cereal. The poly person has more variety in their cereal. They have “many” cereal, not “more.”

(Don’t put the cereal analogy away yet, I’m going to come back to it later.)

Now, for this – I’m not gonna go into some of the more complex makeups of polyamorous relationships, meaning – no triads or quads or relationship anarchy types. Not gonna go into the ratio of charms to cheerios, either. In fact, for this – I’m going to focus on what I know best – which is how a monoperson (me) can be in a happy, harmonious relationship with a polyperson (my partner).

There is a metric fuckton of self work that has to go into successful polyamory, whether you’re on the mono side or the poly side. You have to be able to accept your feelings, analyze your feelings, dissect your feelings, explore your feelings, and communicate your feelings in ways that minimize their power over your actions. I’ll probably end up writing a whole book on this, so there’s no way I’m going to get through all of it in a comment, but…. the basic tenets of successful polyamory have a whole lot to do with personal responsibility, honesty, trust, empathy, and patience.

These are the bowl, the milk, and the spoon of your relationships.

When you think of your “needs” try to separate the difference between YOUR needs and the needs of your relationship. When someone is dating multiple people, it helps to think of each relationship as its own entity – therefore the “needs” that are attached to that relationship fall under the responsibility of both parties to be aware of.

Example: for me, sex is a relationship need. I have been in relationships that did not include sex, and it made me miserable. One of the things poly people sometimes say is “I can get my needs met with others that i don’t get with you…” and something they frequently advise when someone is complaining that they’re not getting enough sex with a partner is “Just go get sex with someone else!”

For me, sex is not the same as enjoying a fine, hand-crafted cocktail. That’s a want. That’s something I enjoy doing, and if my partner didn’t drink, I would be fine with finding someone else to enjoy cocktails with.

But, for a relationship (for me) – sex is a need. For me to feel happy and fulfilled in a relationship, I need fairly regular sex. Whether I had one relationship or twenty, they’d all need that. (There’s just the one, thanks.) That’s the spoon. Trust is the bowl. Empathy and validation of my feelings are the milk.

Without ALL of them, eating that bowl of cereal will be very problematic. Not impossible, but certainly not ideal. It doesn’t matter if I’m having Cheerios only, or a mix of Charms, Cheerios and Cap’n Crunch – I need to ensure I’ve got everything I NEED (and to make sure I’m not overfilling the bowl) in order to be in a happy and harmonious polyamorous relationship.

Now to the part where you need to set some boundaries and working that concept of personal responsibility with your girlfriend.

Relationships *should be* at will. Nobody should be coerced or forced to stick with a bad situation. I get that this happens, and that requires a level of help I’m not quite capable of giving – but in in this case, nobody is forcing you to stay with your girlfriend if you are not getting your needs met in a relationship.

If she is serious about exploring polyamory WITH you, then she is going to have to give you more than a couple weeks to adjust to the idea. That means having to listen to your fears, your insecurities, and your concerns and *validating* them. Not ignoring them or telling them you won’t know until you try or saying “eeh…i’mma do what i want, deal with it.” She’s got to LISTEN to you and understand what your issues are, even if she doesn’t feel them herself.

I remember I once worked somewhere that was folding into another company. They offered everybody who was leaving severance: One month’s pay for every year you worked at the company.

Your girlfriend basically gave you a WEEK per year you’ve been with her to adjust to a BRAND NEW RELATIONSHIP.

She thinks “But at least I’m being honest!” And yeah, she’s being honest. She’s telling you the truth – that she wants to date and sleep with other people.

But is she being honest about wanting to be sure that you’re okay with it? Is she being honest about wanting very much to keep you as a priority in her life?

Her recent actions tell me not so much.

And when people’s actions don’t match up with their words, I start to question just how “honest” they really are.

The NCSF has a listing of poly-friendly professional counselors. If she’s serious….truly serious, ask her to go with you to a counseling session. Ask her to read the books with you and discuss them. Ask her to go to local support group meetings or to join the poly groups on FB to get some feedback and learn how to poly in the most ethically responsible and healthy ways.

If she won’t…

Then just remember. Your relationship is at will. You deserve better than a handful of cereal with spoiled milk and no bowl.