Hello Poly Advice. I’m a young woman that has been practicing polyamory for over half a year now, but only recently have I been branching out to be the crazy sex animal I want to be. I’ve connected with a few of the people I have gone on dates and met with and such, and a few of them identify as monogamous, but are willing to try, or looking for something new, or wanting to explore, etc. Essentially, they are not experienced in this. 

This has been making me nervous/uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel like someone’s collage experiment. You know, that crazy weird thing they want to try that one time. I’ve had a partner that was very dear to me break things off because they were new to the dynamic and felt they couldn’t handle it emotionally. This hurt very much. I don’t want to be someone’s manic pixie dream girl leading them into adventures, and I don’t want to feel guilty for exploring other people.

At the same time, I was them once. And if I didn’t have someone willing to give me a chance I wouldn’t be the person I am now, and this is a person I’m proud to be. So I feel like I am being harsh on these people that are willing to open up to me and try something unfamiliar to them. Do you have any advice for this situation? That would be appreciated.

This is a problem that almost all poly people face eventually, and it’s especially prevalent among young poly people. I’ve heard it referred to as being someone’s “gateway poly” or “training wheels poly." I deal with this all the time - I meet someone, they like me, I like them, they want to "try things out,” I lend them my copy of The Ethical Slut, we have lots of long talks about how they’re feeling, and then either they blossom into an awesome poly person with my help, or the whole thing collapses into a messy breakup. 

Your conflicted feelings are very natural and understandable - you don't owe it to anyone to expend your time and emotional energy on someone who’s just testing the waters, and yet you’re glad that the people who helped you out took the time and energy to do so. Ultimately, your biggest responsibility is to yourself. You’ve had wonderful people in your past, and you can be the wonderful poly-fairy-godmother to other people, but you are not obligated to be that for everyone. It’s hard, especially as a younger poly person, because most people we meet and want to date/hook up with are not poly, so if we want that relationship/sex, we have to guide them into it. Usually, refusing to be someone’s training wheels means that you never get to ride that bike. But it’s always up to you to decide whether that time and effort is worth it. 

It can be very rewarding to help someone start their polyamorous adventure, to be a stable presence while they figure out their sexual identity, to teach them how to take advantage of things you love, and to get plenty of sex out of the deal. It can also be intensely frustrating and dramatic. You can try to predict this - for example, if the person sees going poly as a “sacrifice” they must make to be with you, that probably won’t end well. If they demonstrate immaturity, emotional illiteracy, selfishness, codependence, or other poly-threatening traits about other things, that probably won’t end well. If they seem to be seeing you as an adventure or an experiment, that probably won’t end well. But you can’t always predict these things, as you’ve discovered.

It’s a big risk to take with someone, with either a fantastic payoff or a very painful failure. No kind of relationship is risk free. Only you can decide whether that risk is worth taking. You can either decide on a strict personal policy - refusing to be anyone’s gateway poly, or gracefully backing out after a certain length of time if things are still not going smoothly - or you can play it case by case. Does this person seem genuinely invested in trying this out with you? Is the hope for the best-case-scenario worth risking the worst-case? Are you in a good place with your other relationships and obligations that you can take the extra time and energy with this person? Is this something you feel like doing right now?

You seem to have a really good handle on the situation - you clearly articulated all the sides of the issue, and you know where your feelings are coming from. I think if you keep your head clear going into new things, and if you stay aware of the risks, you can have a lot of good times while minimizing your heartbreak. (But there will be heartbreak. I had a boyfriend break things off after a year and a half when he suddenly realized he didn’t want to be poly anymore. I got stood up in an Irish fishing town. You’ll survive.) Be open and clear with your partners about your needs as you’re teaching them to do the same, and don’t let anyone treat you in a way that you don’t like. Being new to poly doesn’t excuse people from being selfish, demanding, or demeaning, so while you will feel the need to be a little bit more patient and gentle with newly poly folks, you should never roll over on the issue of your own feelings and needs.

Oh, and buy a few extra copies of The Ethical Slut - you’ll be lending those out a lot.