Mental Illness and Dating for Polyamorous Folk

Hadn’t meant this to be a two parter, but overdid it last week and paying for it. Other posts this week may be very short or delayed depending on long my recovery takes.

I like spending time on Quora. It’s an interesting site with a lot of good information, and I’ve wrangled myself a spot on the Polyamory Top 10 Writers list.

One question that comes up a lot on question in Dating and Relationship topics on Quora is how to find someone to date. People with mental illness and/or who are neuroatypical seem to struggle with this question a lot. My regular readers know this is a topic I usually wouldn’t touch with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole. But it is relevant to polyamory and mental illness, and I’m here to try to help folks. So here we go.

Before we get into details specific to mental illness and polyamory, I want to review the first rule of dating.

Dating is a numbers game.

It really is that simple. There is some percentage of people in this world who will find you attractive when they meet you. There is another percentage of people in this world who will find you attractive when they get to know you. The way you find one of these people is you meet a whole bunch of people, get to know the ones who interest you, and sooner or later one of the people you meet will be one of those people who find you attractive.

The rest of dating is just ways to shift the odds in your favor.

Okay, now the challenge for poly folks with mental illness is 1) being poly lowers your numbers of possible dates, 2) mental illness often lowers your numbers of possible dates, and 3) many mental illnesses make it hard for you to get out and meet people.

The ultimate secret to dating success is just go out and meet a lot of people. Unfortunately, that “secret” is well nigh useless when your depression keeps you frozen to your couch or anxiety makes you afraid to answer the door, never mind go out in public.

Next week we’ll look at how you manage to find poly partners anyway.


This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Managing Parallel Polyamory

Let’s talk parallel polyamory.

Parallel polyamory refers to poly relationships where the relationships run in parallel and don’t interact. I’m in a relationship with you, and you are in a relationship with your other partner, but the two of us aren’t friends and may never meet. Our two separate relationships progress without connecting to each other.

In theory, the etiquette of parallel polyamory is straight forward. If you don’t interact, you don’t need to worry about etiquette, right?

But parallel poly covers a lot of ground. Not wanting your relationships to impact each other doesn’t necessarily mean keeping them far apart.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Parallel poly is the default way poly relationships work. Yeah, yeah, there’s no one way to do poly, every poly relationship is different, yadda yadda. Hear me out.

No one has the right to require you to be in a relationship. You do not have the right to require anyone else to be in a relationship. This should be a no-brainer. But apply that idea to polyamory. We’ll look at three people, for simplicity. The same idea applies no matter how many people are in your network.

Angela is dating Raoul and Janna. By default, Raoul and Janna do not have a relationship. By default, Angela’s relationship with Raoul does not give him the right to invite himself over to her home for coffee. By default the two relationships and three lives run in parallel. It is up to them to make the decision to change this. Angela can say “Hey Raoul, you’re welcome anytime. You don’t need to call or schedule, just drop by and hang out.” Janna can say “Hey, Angela, I’d like to get to know Raoul, he’s a bit part of your life and that makes him important to me. Do you think the three of us could hang out sometime?” But if nothing is said, if they don’t invite each other into their lives, the relationships continue to run in parallel.

This is also true with highly entwined relationships. Let’s say Angela and Raoul live together, and Angela is dating Janna. Angel and Raoul’s lives are intertwined and run together. Janna’s life runs separately and in parallel unless she and Angela choose to entwine their lives. And the relationships also run parallel unless Raoul and Janna choose to interact with each other.

parallel polyamory

All of these lines are parallel, but some are closer together than others.

Now, entwinement can make it harder for relationships to run in parallel. The more entwined Angela and Janna’s lives get, the closer Janna and Raoul’s lives move together because they are both entwined with Angela. If they are entwined enough, Angela might want to spend holidays with both of them. Now they will need to decide: do they stop practicing parallel poly, take turns spending holidays with Angela, or otherwise come to an arrangement that works for everyone. If Angela throws big holiday parties every year, Raoul and Janna can both come to the party and keep their distance from each other. Parallel courses maintained. If Angela has intimate holiday get-togethers with a few select friends, some choices need to be made.

Discussing Your Preferences

Don’t assume parallel polyamory. Yes, it’s the default. That doesn’t mean it’s what everyone wants. You and your poly partner(s) need to talk about what you want and how you want your relationships to work.

Angela and Raoul talk. Raoul feels weird about getting to know other people Angela is dating. Angela agrees that it is up to Raoul if he wants to get to know Janna or not. When Angela and Janna talk, Janna says she’s curious about Angela’s other partners, but if Raoul doesn’t want to spend time together, that’s up to him.

How Will Your Parallel Work?

The discussion needs a bit more detail than this because there are lots of ways relationships can be parallel.

So Angela says, “I love having our time together, but I really need to keep our relationship separate from my family and work life. So I’d prefer to stick to just stick to our date nights.”

Janna’s cool with that. When Angela talks with Raoul, he says that he’s not going to push in on her life, but he’d love for Angela to meet his family. How would she feel about being invited to a summer barbeque or holiday dinner?

When Parallel’s Meet

Sometimes, no matter how much you want to keep it parallel, shit happens.

Maybe Angela and Raoul drive their own cars to meet at the restaurant because Angela isn’t comfortable with her poly partners coming to her home. What if one night her car breaks down? Raoul can drive her home, but that’s a space Angela had previously set aside as off-limits.

If Angela asks Raoul to drive her home, the best thing he can do is not push past her boundaries any more than necessary. Stop the car, let Angela get out, say good night. Don’t get out of the car unless she invites him to, don’t ask if he can come in.

What if Raoul pulls up to drop Angela off and Janna comes rushing out of the house to meet her, worried that something is wrong?

Well, Raoul wanted to be more a part of Angela’s life. He might be hurt or upset. Angela let Janna stay at her house when Angela isn’t even there but isn’t comfortable with Raoul coming by to pick her up. Raoul’s feelings are understandable and he and Angela can talk about it. Later.

For now, he waves politely to Janna. Janna doesn’t focus on Raoul or take the chance to try to get to know him. If she comes out to the car to meet Angela, she says hello to Raoul. That’s it. She certainly doesn’t invite him in without Angela’s say-so. Raoul greets her politely. He and Angela say goodbye, and he drives away.

Just two people who happened to bump into each other. Yes, it might be awkward. But you respect the boundaries everyone has laid out. Raoul respects Angela’s not being comfortable with him at her home. Janna respects that Raoul isn’t comfortable getting to know her. Angela doesn’t change the way she treats them because no one has any boundaries about PDAs. They say goodbye, and continue moving in parallel.

Etiquette for parallel polyamory is crazy simple. Respect boundaries, don’t assume you know what your partner(s) want, and if the parallel breaks down briefly, don’t make a big deal of it. Use stated boundaries as guidelines for how to handle the situation and move on.

Discuss problems or discomforts with the specific person or people you are in a relationship with at a later time.

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Two Things a Poly Group Home Needs to Save For

Every poly home will handle saving for the future differently. For my money, here are two things every poly group home needs to save for.

(excerpted from the draft of The Polyamorous Home)

Moving Cushion

One critical fact of life is that nothing is static–including relationships. Many poly households eventually face the need for someone to move out. This might be a practical move–someone got their dream job offer in another city. It might be a relationship move–living together just isn’t working, or maybe a relationship is ending entirely. These things happen. They are rarely enjoyable, and the challenges associated with moving out and starting over can make the whole situation even more painful for everyone involved.

The moving cushion is a savings fund for when members of the polycule need to move out. Depending on your polycule’s local support network, financial situation, and alternative living options, you might:

Save up enough to make a security deposit and first month’s rent on a small apartment and cover basic expenses for a couple of months while a former housemate gets their feet under them.

Or you might have $100 set aside to cover the cost of a u-Haul truck rental and pizza for all the friends that will help with the move.

It’s whatever A) you can manage to set aside without hurting your day-to-day finances and B) you feel is necessary to make the move as financially painless as possible.

Having a moving cushion doesn’t just benefit the person moving, but the people staying. Being stuck living together when you really don’t want isn’t good for anyone. And you never know who will need that cushion. Sure, you may think that since your name is on the lease you’ll be staying put, but anything from a job offer to a long distance relationship that’s ready to become local as soon as you can move might lead you to leave your group home.

The larger the moving cushion you can gather, the easier it will be for someone to move out and the less tension and drama a move can create. My suggestion is to initially set a savings goal that your polycule can reach within six months. Whether that’s enough to buy a house or rent a u-Haul, it’s a place to start. Then discuss whether you want to keep saving, or whether what you have is enough for everyone to be comfortable if they need to move out.

Emergency Funds

Shit happens. This is the first rule of life. The second rule is: being prepared reduces the shit. Part of being prepared is having a pile of money somewhere that you can use when shit gets expensive.

Being poly doesn’t reduce the amount of shit life throws at us. It does, in theory, give us more resources for dealing with the shit. Unfortunately, many polycules who choose to handle their finances separately never think ahead to the shit that can impact all of them.

Say you and your quad have an apartment together. You’ve each agreed to pay ¼ of all rent and utilities and otherwise keep personal expenses separate. As long as everything with the apartment is good, you’re good.

But one day your landlord drops by and says he is really sorry, but he is kicking you out. His house burned down and his family will be moving into your apartment[This happene to my famiy once at a time when had no savings. Scary as shit. We ended up in a room at a boarding house.]. See, there is this little-known law in some places that the landlord can kick you out with next-to-no notice and without an eviction if he intends to take up residence in your apartment. So now you need to find a new place to live by the end of the week. How are you going to cover moving expenses, security deposit and first months rent on no notice? Sure, your landlord should be refunding your security deposit and rent for your interrupted month. But in my experience landlords tend to mail you a check two weeks after you move out. That doesn’t help you right now.

If you don’t have an emergency savings fund for your polycule (or possibly a large enough moving fund), you will likely end up frantically getting in touch with friends and family for a place to crash. Anyone with individual savings is going to need to dip into that. Anyone without individual savings is either relying on the rest of the polycule (which may be against financial independence boundaries for some people) or out of luck. If things get really bad, someone may end up in a homeless shelter. The chances of all of you getting a new place together in that short a time period is not going to be good unless you are all very well off financially.

On a less extreme level: it’s the middle of summer. Your window air conditioner breaks and your home is quickly approaching triple digit temperatures. If members of your polycule are financially well off, replacing it won’t be a problem. For a lot of families, coming up with several hundred dollars on short notice isn’t easy–or even possible.

The best way to prevent problems like this is to create a household emergency fund. Like the rent and utilities, everyone in the polycule will contribute to the emergency fund each month. Set a savings goal. You probably don’t need the “three months expenses” that a lot of US economists like to recommend. And you probably wouldn’t be able to save up that much in a reasonable amount of time anyway. As with the moving cushion, set a reasonable savings goal, and a reasonable time limit to meet that goal in. What is reasonable will depend on typical expenses in your area, your polycule’s financial situation, and other factors. Once you reach your goal, you can discuss if you want to keep saving more, or stop saving until you need to spend from the fund.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Use Direct Communication

Standard Poly Advice: Use Direct Communication

“Direct communication” is the term used by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert in their book More Than Two. But the same idea, unnamed, is extremely common in the poly community. “Did you state your needs?” “You need to clearly state your boundaries.” “You can’t expect them to guess you are upset, you need to tell them.”

Let me be clear: direct communication is powerful. It is an awesome tool that can and should be used as often as possible. Because it is the only method of communication that you can be reasonably sure people will hear what you mean to say. Note, NOT 100% sure, because I can say “I need more intimacy” but because you and I and have different ideas of what intimacy means we can still have a misunderstanding. But direct communication is a lot LESS likely to have these kinds of problems than indirect and passive communication or reading tone and body language.

The problem is, not everyone is able to use direct communication. And even those of us who can use direct communication may only be able to use it part of the time. For instance:

1) A victim of emotional abuse and/or gaslighting may not be able to recognize their needs or know how to express a boundary.

2) Someone in the middle of an anxiety or panic attack may not be able to think clearly enough to tell people what they need, or even what is going on.

3) There’s over 6000 languages in this world. I can muddle through the basics with a Spanish speaker, but we’re going to need to talk around a lot of things.

4) Many people who were raised as boys have been conditioned to not recognize their own emotions and need for emotional connection.

There’s lots more reasons direct communication may not always work (or even be an option). And mental illness, which can cause situations from disorganized speech to not being able to speak at all, makes up a lot of those reasons.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Be Patient, Learn Eachother’s Cues, Use Inquiring Communication

Patience is the most important part here because misunderstandings, missed signals and general miscommunication are going to happen. Needs will not get met, boundaries will be broken. Not because anyone is doing so intentionally, but because when you can’t say shit clearly, these things happen.

So, be patient. Try not to throw around blame when an inability to communicate leads to problems. Don’t be afraid to take time working through things.

Learn about eachother’s cues. Body language is a thing and an important thing. Body language isn’t universal, though there are some things that are extreme similar from person to person. If you understand your own body language tell your partner “When I do this, it means I’m feeling this way.” If you notice something about your partner’s body language, ask them. “What does it mean when you start picking at your fingers?”

Finally, sometimes instead of direct communication you need inquiring communication.

Inquiring communication is about asking questions and inviting answers. It can be very helpful when you can’t find words for what you are feeling, are having a mental health crisis, or otherwise can’t put things into words.

You can let your partner know you need to tell them something, “I’m upset right now and I don’t know why. Help me figure it out?”

And they can ask questions to help identify what is going on.

“When di dyou notice you were upset?”

“Is it related to John coming over today?”

“Do you need something you aren’t getting?”

Alternatively, your partner may notice something in your body language or behavior and ask, “Hey, you’re really tense, are you okay?”

If your mental health is interfering with your ability to speak entirely, your partner can even use yes/no questions to help you tell them what is going on and what you need.

“Are you having a panic attack?”

You shake your head.

“Okay, maybe it’s sensory overload. Do you think leaving will help?”

You nod, and your partner helps extract you from where you are and get to a safe place.

For more on the problems with direct communication and why asking questions can be important, check out Ms Syren’s Communication Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Polyamory and Psychotic Disorders, Part 3

Continuing our review of the psychotic disorders and the way symptoms of psychotic disorders impact polyamory.

Disorganized thinking (speech): communication is the key to any healthy relationship. And when someone can’t speak their thoughts it’s hard to communicate about relationship needs, problems, or just get clear consent.

Some people find ways around this. For instance, the part of the brain that controls speech is very different from the part of the brain that controls writing. So some people whose thoughts are disorganized when they speak can be very clear when they write. (I don’t know how sign language would fit in here, would be very interested in anyone who has information on it.)

Another option is to be patient. Spend enough time with someone that you learn to understand their disorganized speech. For this, polyamory can actually be kind of helpful. Prior or current poly partners can help new poly partners learn to understand.

Grossly disorganized or abnormal motor behavior won’t have much direct impact on relationships. You will need to get used to judgmental shitwads staring and making comments when you are out with your partner. Also, I can see this symptom sometimes making sex more complicated until you are both learn to make your bodies work together. Someone with abnormal motor behavior may not be able to control a vehicle (car, bicycle or other). If that is the case, they may be reliant on their partners to pick them up for dates and such.

Negative symptoms (lack of emotional expression, lack of speech, inability to motivate or direct oneself in completing tasks, not being able to feel pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences, and lack of motivation to socialize/interact with other people). Some of this is the executive dysfunction we discussed last week. A lot of it isn’t. And this stuff can really mess with a relationship. When you can’t express your emotions, or speak, or motivate yourself to call your partner, it doesn’t do good things for a relationship. Not being about to feel pleasure can make it had to even want a relationship.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Budgeting with a House Spouse

For many families, having a “house spouse” can make keeping up with the housework (and, if you have them, children!) easier. Everyone in your home can juggle schedules do manage child care and scramble to do laundry and cleaning on your days off. Or one person can take responsibility for laundry, cleaning, cooking, childcare, and other household needs.

Having a house spouse can help a family in many ways. The one way it definitely hurts is finances. In fact, having a house spouse creates several financial challenges:

  • Reduces household income
  • Restricts options for budgeting
  • House spouse is dependent on other family members for their financial needs

The first challenge is the simplest. Either the other adults in the family are bringing in enough money for one person to stay home as a house spouse or they aren’t. There are ways around this, including have a part-time house spouse. More on that later.

Now, as for budgeting, the big issue is the house spouse doesn’t have a salary, so they can’t help pay the bills. Any budgeting plan based on everyone in the family pitching in immediately has a problem. Assuming the house spouse doesn’t have any income, as is traditional, you need a budget that doesn’t require everyone to pay part of it. This means things like “even split” don’t work, but “all-in” and “percentage split” can. Before your polycule decides to have a house spouse, make sure everyone is on board with the necessary budget and shared expense plan.

The house spouse being dependent on everyone else is the most overlooked problem. It’s also the biggest one. A house spouse takes a major hit financially, especially if they aren’t legally married to someone who works. They don’t have money to pay for their own phone, their own car, their own dates, or even their own clothes. They can’t get health insurance or a retirement plan through an employer (though the latter is becoming rare in the US anyway). Perhaps most importantly, they have no funds to move out if the relationship becomes unhealthy. I’ve spoken with more than one secondary who moved in with a primary couple, leaving their job to do so, and found themselves trapped. It’s a bad situation to be in.

Part-Time House Spouse

With modern cleaning appliances, housework no longer needs to be a full-time job. If you have things like a good vacuum cleaner and a dishwasher, you can keep many homes clean in 2-3 hours work a day. Cooking, laundry, and paperwork add to that, but for many people being a house spouse can be a part-time job. Which means it is possible for a house spouse to have another part-time job outside the house.

This allows the house spouse to have their own income for their own needs (if you’re budget isn’t “All-in”). The house spouse can also put money towards the household, increasing the total household budget and making it easier to afford a house spouse.

Being a part-time house spouse can be a good option for something who wants to start a home business. They can split their time between the home and their business, and adjust the balance as needed. If the business takes off, they may need to give up being house spouse.

If your family decides a part-time house spouse is the way to go, keep an eye on the time. A part-time job is just that—part-time. If housework ends up taking more than 25 hours a week or so, the rest of the family should pitch in.

The House Spouse Salary

If you have kids, being a house spouse can become a full-time job. Prepping for school, helping with homework, getting kids to and from afterschool activities all take time. Pre-school aged kids take more time.

For some house spouses, the extra time those modern appliances provide means more time for other household needs. In some families, a house spouse makes soap, clothes, tomato sauce, and other necessities that most of us buy at the store. These tasks may save the family money, better suit a family’s values, add to the personal feel of the home, and much more. This type of house spouse work can easily be a full-time job.

And not everyone has those modern appliances. My family doesn’t have a dishwasher. We don’t have a washer and dryer at home. I can’t pop a load in and work while it runs. Doing the weekly laundry take 3 hours out of my day. If you don’t have a car, food shopping, picking up medication at the pharmacy, or getting to the school for a parent-teacher conference all take a lot longer. Again, making housework a full-time job.

If the housework is a full-time job for your family, you might give your house spouse a salary. This gives the house spouse some financial independence and makes it possible for them to contribute to the budget. I first heard this idea from a woman I did a joint presentation with at Atlanta Poly Weekend, and I thought it was genius. (I’m embarrassed to say I no longer remember their name.) It does make having a house spouse more expensive, but it solves all the other problems.

Simply, the family agrees on what is a reasonable salary for the house spouse. Other adult family members pitch in to pay the house spouse as part of paying the other household bills. The house spouse then has money to put towards their needs and to put toward the rest of the household bills like rent, utilities, etc.

“All-in” budgeting

Finally, you can have full joint finances. Everyone puts all their money in a big pot. The pot covers household needs and individual needs. Everyone, including the house spouse, has their needs covered from the joint funds. Household bills get paid the same regardless of whether or not the house spouse has any money to put in. Having someone stay home as a house spouse is not an extra expense on the budget (as paying a house spouse salary would be). However, the budget still needs to cover all expenses with one less paycheck coming in.

Kitchen Table Polyamory, Parallel Polyamory, and Etiquette

Kitchen Table Polyamory is a new term even in poly circles. It refers to poly relationships where everyone in the polycule is comfortable sitting together at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Folks who prefer kitchen table polyamory want to know their metamours and be friends with them. They may want their kids and their metamours kids to spend time together, or their metamour’s other partners to be comfortable calling them up to plan a surprise party together.

Parallel Polyamory is a companion term to kitchen table polyamory. It refers to poly relationships where the relationships run in parallel and don’t interact. I’m in a relationship with you, and you are in a relationship with your other partner, but the two of us aren’t friends and may never meet. Our two separate relationships progress without connecting to each other.

Of course, there’s an undefined middle. You know a bit about your metamours (and maybe their other partners), might friend them on social media, send them a card on their birthday. But you and they wouldn’t be comfortable hanging out in each other’s kitchens.

Each of these approaches to polyamory raises some interesting etiquette questions. So for the next few weeks we’ll be looking at:

Polyamory Etiquette at the Kitchen Table
The Etiquette of Running in Parallel
When One Person Wants Parallel and One Person Wants Kitchen Table
Establishing a Middle Ground

This post is part of the Polyamory Etiquette blog series.

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Guest Post: How Separate Bank Accounts Helped Make Our Open Marriage Work

When my wife Jane and I got married, two years after we met, we chose to combine all of our money together. This worked for us because we were (relatively) young, we had no previous marriages or kids or significant assets, and we knew we wanted to entwine our lives in a way that would emphasize joint-decision making about the big questions in life. And almost all big questions ultimately involve financial decisions at some point.

Over time, we realized that we each wanted more financial freedom. Our one-account-fits-all plan required us to authorize every purchase with the other person. We were never quite sure when it was “OK” to spend money on ourselves – and how much money was OK to spend. Neither of us wanted to police the other’s expenditures. At the same time, we were just starting a family and had recently moved into a new house, and we were operating on a tight budget. We knew that joint decision making around money would be essential to making sure our lives worked.

Our solution was to create separate small bank accounts for each of us, into which a fixed allowance was directly deposited each month. These were our non-accountability accounts. They allowed us to spend money on whatever we wished, no matter how impetuous or frivolous, without having to answer to the other person. I used mine to buy a weekend trip with friends; Jane used hers to join a martial arts gym.

We settled on a monthly transfer that equaled about 5% of our take-home pay for each of us – enough to have a little fun, but not so much as to jeopardize our family’s finances. Our accounts provided a concrete figure about what was reasonable to spend personally. Dipping into the main account was forbidden; that was for family business. We could spend everything we had in our own accounts, but if they ran out of money, there would be no more nights out with friends or Vegas benders until we saved up.

What Happened When We Opened Our Marriage

Seven years into our marriage, we opened our relationship and began seeing other people. Our financial system hadn’t been designed with polyamory in mind, but it fit perfectly into our new adventure. I was the first to draw on my account, using it to splurge on a fancy hotel room with a new lover. Jane used hers to take a boyfriend out to dinner. All the while, our financial life together remained well protected even as we made small splurges on other partners.

Our system had another benefit: it meant that the gifts we gave to each other were more meaningful, because they were coming from us personally rather than from an abstract family bank account. When I took Jane out on a date, I was drawing from a limited supply of money I could have chosen to spend on something else.

We still use our financial system, and it’s an important part of the foundation for our open marriage. Even though we designed it while we were still monogamous, it incorporated the same values that drew us to polyamory. It provided a shared understanding with clear rules, but also gave us each freedom to create our own “space” within our shared life together. And to us, that’s what poly is all about.

About Zev Stone

Zev StoneZev Stone is a writer and researcher and the founder of His writing has been read aloud on NPR’s “This I Believe” and published in the Denver Post and other academic and popular publications. He loves hiking, running, uncomfortable travel experiences, and raising his two adorable daughters with his wife, Jane. He holds a Ph.D. in social science research methods from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This guest post is part of the Polyamory Finances blog series.

The Impact of Executive Dysfunction on Relationships

(The last part of Schizophrenia and PTSD is giving me trouble, so you’re getting next Sunday’s post a week early. Enjoy.)

Executive dysfunction is associated with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD, ADD, schizophrenia, autism, and Parkinson’s disease. It is probably found in numerous other contexts as well, but that’s a long enough list to be going on with.

But before we get into executive dysfunction, we need to talk about executive function.

Definitions for executive function sound either vague or jargony. WebMD says “Executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done.” Well, that doesn’t tell us very much. Wikipedia goes for full on jargon “Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes — including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning — that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Breaking down the jargon, executive functions are “a set of cognitive processes” aka “things the brain does.” These processes “are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals” aka “being able to decide what to do and follow through on that decision so you can meet your goals.” And we are right back at WebMD’s definition: shit the brain does so we can get things done. Okay… it sounds vague, but being able to get shit done is pretty important. Still without knowing what these “processes” or “mental skills” are, these definitions don’t help much. So let’s take a look at the rest of the jargon.

What Are the Executive Functions?

Attentional control

Aka, being able to control your attention span. This includes both being able to pay attention to things when you need to and being able to break your attention away from things when appropriate.

Inhibitory control

You ever drop a 5 pound can of beans on your toes and bite your lip to keep from yelling “Oh my fucking god that hurts!” in the middle of the grocery store? That’s inhibitory control. Inhibitory control stops us from doing the things that we know we shouldn’t do.

Working memory

just what it says. Being able to remember things.

Cognitive flexibility

Aka being able to mentally cope with and adapt to change. One test for cognitive flexibility in children is giving them a stack of cards and telling them to sort by color. Half way through the stack tell them to switch to sorting by number. Cognitive flexibility lets us deal with changing plans, realign our actions to meet new goals, or just shift from casual shoot-the-shit mode to more formal interactions when your boss walks into the break room.


What is says, the ability to think, reason and understand shit. It is kind of scary to go from being able to think through and debate Focault to not being able to string two thoughts together well enough to figure out that 2+2=4, but that’s what many people with executive dysfunction live with. At least, those of us who are well to have times when are executive functions work and times when they don’t.

Problem solving.

Again, what it says. Being able to look at a problem and figure out how to solving it.


Yup, what it says. Being able to plan the steps to do something, reach a goal, or put together a damn schedule.


Read over that list and think about how hard daily life would be if you couldn’t do those things.

Several times Michael has needed to know how to do something and I’ve researched it for him. He couldn’t figure out how to get on google, search for what he wanted, and apply what he found to the problem. The more out of his comfort zone the “something” is, the more likely he is to need help. This is executive DYSfunction. When the executive functions, don’t.

I’ve dealt with my share of executive dysfunction as well. In my case it’s worst with decision making. On a bad day ask me what I want for dinner, and I’ll freak out. I can’t hold all the options in my head so I can compare them and decide “Pizza sounds good.” This became a major problem during my last child birth. I hit a point where I couldn’t think clearly enough to make decisions. I told the nurses “I can’t make decisions right now, any decisions that need to be made, go through Michael. He knows what is best for me.”

Well, when the baby was crowning they ignored me (which was somewhat understandable as I was completely out of my head—but damn they had better options than manhandling me), ignored Michael, and ignored my birth plan. And I couldn’t process what was going on well enough to realize that they were trying to help me, never mind communicate why they were making things worse. I’m still dealing with the trauma from that.

Executive Dysfunction and Polyamory

Executive dysfunction impacts relationships in a lot of ways. For instance, on a night when I can’t make decisions—I can’t decide to have sex. (Pro-tip: if someone is not capable of deciding to have sex, you don’t have sex.) Or maybe I’m horny and both my partners are there, and I can’t decide who I want sex with. (Pro-tip: if someone is not capable of deciding who they want sex with, you don’t have sex.) If I was thinking clearly, maybe we would have sex. But I wasn’t, so we didn’t.

Michael and C have been talking about him taking a trip down to see her in September for nearly 6 months. I (foolishly, because I know Michael better than this) assumed they’d handle the planning and tell me what they decided. C doesn’t know Michael well enough to help him through the planning process. He hasn’t traveled by plane, never mind traveled alone, since he got sick. This is very far out of his comfort zone. C kept asking him open ended questions without any information, like “how long to you want to visit?” She was approaching it from “once I know how long he wants to visit, I’ll be able to set up accomodations for him and find flights and such.” But he couldn’t process his options well enough to pick how long he wanted to stay. So nothing got planned. I ended up in a three way phone call with both of them helping Michael with his end of the planning and (hopefully) showing C what kind of help he needs for next time. Most importantly: break things down into small, easy steps and yes/no question.


Executive dysfunction can make it difficult to put words to your thoughts and feelings, can make it hard to follow a conversation, and if multiple conversations are happening at once (like at a restaurant, con, or munch), it can be very difficult to follow the conversation you are trying to take part in.

Meeting people’s needs

Difficulty with problem solving can make it hard to figure out how to meet people’s needs. Often needs don’t mesh perfectly or are in conflict. You need alone time to regain your mental balance but your partner needs attention and reassurance that they are loved. Or one partner needs help making dinner while another partner needs someone to listen to their concerns. Or even just addressing concerns. “I don’t feel like you care about me,” can be hard to address when your brain won’t process “ways to show I care.”

Dealing with conflicts

Multiple relationships often require navigating conflicts. Difficulty focusing, problem solving, and other aspects of executive dysfunction can all cause problems here.

Issues of consent and consideration

You ever meet someone who doesn’t seem to have a mental filter on their mouth? Whatever they think they say, and often end up putting their foot in their mouth as a result. Well, some people with executive dysfuction have a broken mental filter on their actions. They curse when it is inappropriate, they scratch themselves in public. And yes, they may touch you when you haven’t given permission. This is something Michael and I struggled with a lot, and sometimes still do struggle with. My PTSD means there are times when I can’t deal with being touched, much less having my boobs grabbed. And there are times when he will come up from behind, reach around, grab my boobs, and when I freak out he ends up curled in a ball, trembling, “i’mm sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He knows he shouldn’t have grabbed. He knows I have reason to be angry, but somewhere in his brain between “idea” and “action” the red flag that was supposed to say “No, don’t do that.” didn’t pop up.

Personal opinion, but I believe problems with inhibitory control are closely related to difficulty with cognitive flexibility. Michael doesn’t go around grabbing random women’s boobs. He knows that grabbing a random woman’s boobs is never appropriate. But we have been in a relationship for 7 years. He has often been allowed to grab, play with, tease, bite, and otherwise touch my boobs. This means when his brain needs to take a couple extra steps. Instead of “Want to touch,” “DON’T” his brain needs to think “Want to touch.” “touching might be okay.” “Assess situation” “public? Private? Sexy times? Not sexy times? Has she said she is having a bad day?” etc, etc. And somewhere in that process, his executive dysfunction kicks in and before his brain can work through all the steps to “It’s not clear if it’s okay to touch or not, I need to ask,” his hands are on me.

Possible solution: set the rule that he needs to ask before every time he touches me. That avoids the issue of needing to process different situations. Problem with this solution: If we are having sex, I don’t want to need to give approval to every single touch. I want to be able to say “yes, please play with my breasts,” and relax and enjoy myself. So I live with the random grabbiness at other times.
Maybe you’d make a different decision.

Okay, I’m already past 1500 words, and I’ve barely touched on all the ways executive dysfunction can impact a relationship. But at least this gives you a start on understanding what executive dysfunction is and how it can cause problems. Every situation with executive dysfunction is different, and executive dysfunction varies in how bad it is.

The one useful tip I can give you: come up with a “safe word” for when executive dysfunction is a problem. I tend to say “my brain is broken” and “that breaks my brain” for “my executive dysfunction is bad right now and I can’t to what you are asking me” and “this specific thing is usually a problem because of executive dysfunction, even on a good day I might not be able to do it,” respectively. This way, people who care about me know that either this thing needs to be dealt with later or I will need help with whatever they are asking of me.



This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Metamours and “Disrespecting the Primary”

We’re taking a tangent away from etiquette this week. I got a response to last week’s post that deserves some attention.

A person on Twitter asked me if they were wrong to not want to meet their metamour. I told them they need to do what is right for them, but I think meeting their metamour is a good idea—if only because meeting them standing over their spouse’s hospital bed would be worse. This person replied their metamour would never show up at the hospital if their partner was hurt. That would be disrespectful to the primary. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said that we have very different definitions of “respect.” But again, they need to do what is right for them.

Why did I need to pick my jaw up off the floor? Because the idea that your metamour showing up at the hospital bedside is disrespectful to you is actually you being crazy disrespectful to both your metamour and your partner. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

Someone, and for the life of me I can’t remember who, said that there are two kinds of respect.
“You will respect me” can mean “You will treat me as an authority/superior/having power over you.”
“You will respect me” can mean “You will treat me like a human being (with rights, agency, and a reasonable expectation of common decency).”

Which is why “I will respect you if you respect me” can be so fucked up. For many people, it means “I will treat you like a human being if you treat me like an authority.”

If I need to explain why this a problem in relationships, you are reading the wrong blog.

So, let’s break down how showing up at a loved one’s hospital bed can be “disrespecting the primary.”

If your husband (my lover) is in the hospital and I visit them, am I denying you the common courtesy and decency I offer all human beings? No.
Am I infringing on your rights as a human being? No.
Am I taking away your agency and right to make decisions regarding you life and your body? No.
Am I denying your feelings, attacking you for reasons other than self-defense, or doing anything that will harm you? No.

So that definition of respect doesn’t apply. A metamour visiting their partner in the hospital bed is NOT disrespectful to the primary in terms of treating the primary like a fellow human being with rights, agency, and a reasonable expectation of common decency.

If I show up at your husband’s (my lover’s) bedside, am I somehow undermining your authority in some way? If you think you are the only one with a right to a “real” relationship with your husband and everyone else gets the scraps you allow them, then yes I am undermining your authority. I am flouting your “right” as his spouse to be the only one offering him solace, support, and help in his recovery.
Remember that last sentence, we will come back to it.

I think we’ve established that “disrespecting the primary” isn’t about harming the primary or treating them badly, and is about the primary enforcing their authority. Personally, if my partner ends up in the hospital (again) I’m gonna have better things to do than defend my relationship with him. Like, I don’t know, making sure he survives so we can still have a relationship? Making sure the kids are cared for and the rent is paid so he has a home and family to come back to? Oh, I know, dealing with the hospital bureaucracy and medical bullshit so he can focus on recovering and not stress about how we’re going to pay a 5 figure hospital bill? Yeah, I think those will require a bit more of my attention than defending my status as his one and only primary partner.

Now, let’s look at how barring your metamour from you partner’s hospital bed might be disrespectful to your metamour and your partner.
Your spouse (my lover) ends up in the hospital. It is understood that I am not supposed to show up because it would be disrespectful to you.
Are you denying me common courtesy and decency? Yes, you are denying me the chance to be with someone I care about when I am worried about their well being.
Are you infringing on my rights as a human being? Yes, you are restricting my freedom of movement in a public place.
Are you taking away my agency and right to make decisions regarding my life and my body? Um, yeah. Yeah, you really are. Taking away my agency is the whole point of this little “understanding.”
Are you denying my feelings, attacking me for reasons other than self-defense, or doing anything that will harm me? Yes, you are denying my grief and fear and/or demanding I suppress them in your favor. You are potentially causing me mental and emotional harm. (Speaking from experience here. I was not allowed to see my grandfather before he died because it would be “too traumatic.” Yeah, um. Not being able to see him to say goodbye was a fuck ton worse.)
So yes, saying that your metamour would be “disrespecting the primary” by visiting your mutual partner in the hospital is disrespectful to your metamour. You are not treating them like a fellow human being with rights, agency, and the reasonable expectation of common courtesy and decency.

Now let’s look at your partner. Cause this is where it really gets fucked up.
Are you denying your spouse common courtesy and decency? Yes, you are denying them access to people they care about and dictating who they can and can’t turn to for support.
Are you infringing on your spouse’s rights as a human being? Debatable—you aren’t dictating to your spouse or denying them anything directly. But you are infringing on their right to socialize with, spend time with, and ask for help from whoever they wish.
Are you taking away your spouse’s agency and right to make decisions regarding their life and their body? Um, yeah. Yeah, you really are. You are not allowing them to make decisions about their recovery and how they will manage the emotional and mental stress of their injury/illness.
Are you denying your spouse’s feelings, attacking them for reasons other than self-defense, or doing anything that will harm them? Yes. You are denying them access to resources (your metamour’s time, energy and attention) that can aid in their recovery. You are insisting that during one of the most stressful and difficult times of their life they not get help from someone they love.

In short, if you are more worried about “disrespect to the primary” then in doing everything and anything to help your spouse recover, which may mean including your metamour in their recovery, you are saying that protecting your place in their life is more important than their health and well-being. Remember that sentence we said we’d come back to? By insisting that you are the only one who can offer your spouse support in their recovery, you are denying your spouse support that will make their recovery easier. Think about that, a lot.

Now, that may be the kind of relationship that everyone in your polycule wants. In which case, do what makes you happy.

But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why. It’s not about “disrespect”. It’s about defending your primacy, no matter what the cost.

P.S. The hospital bed is an extreme example, but the same logic applies every time someone says a metamour or their partner shouldn’t do something because it would be “disrespecting the primary.”

*If you are in the hospital and do not want one of your partners to visit you, for any reason, that is your right. You saying “I don’t want you to see me in the hospital” is completely different from saying about your partner, “You can’t come see them in the hospital because it would be disrespectful to me.”