It sounds kinky, but one of the major problems in computer programming is deciding how much you need to expose.
The same is true of polyamory, but let’s start with the far less confusing topic of computer programming as an example.
Let’s say you have a program that calculates sales taxes: you hand it an order, and it tells you how much money you owe. Many programmers would argue that the ideal way to do this is a “black box” method – you hand the program an order, and it gives you a tax percentage.
How did it come to that conclusion? You don’t need to know how that program made that decision. What happens inside the program is a mystery.
But life is complex, and sometimes you need to peek inside the box – say, for example, if you need to know which tax code to apply to the order for accounting purposes. In which case, you might need your box of a program to return a little more data – say, a tax percentage and a tax code.
And in weird cases, maybe you need to get a breakdown from the box to know how it came to its conclusions – maybe you need to know which things you ordered were tax exempt so you can tell your customer, so you have to expose the box’s calculations to a much greater (and more complicated) extent.
So what’s the best way to program this tax-calculating device? Good programmers will trot out all sorts of theories to prove that you should always go with the simplest method, or the most flexible approach, or the most maintainable one.
Smart programmers, however, will answer: it depends what you need. Programming is not an absolute. There are solid, well-tested guidelines in programming, but every good programmer’s had to hold their nose because dammit, this clunky, inelegant solution is the best fix for this specific problem.
And that’s a lot like the way you process how your partners have sex with other people.
Right now, one of my partners is starting a new relationship with someone else. This is normally a time that provokes jealousy and insecurity.
For me, I need my partner’s sex to be a black box. I don’t need to know too much; I send a query going, “SEX GOOD?” and she replies with one of three answers:
And that is all I need to know to function. Any more information on what’s happening inside my sweetie’s sex-box would cause me to start comparing, and I’d start to wonder if they were way better in bed than I was, and of course if they were better in bed then my sweetie would of course have no reason to stay with me and I would freak the hell out.
So they just tell me, “I had a great time!” and that’s sufficiently abstracted that I can be appropriately happy (or concerned) for them.
Of course, that information would be too much for many poly people. For them, the black box is even more abstracted – they send a query that says, “WAS SEX PROTECTED?” and the answer is Y/N, aaaaaand that’s all they need to know. Good? Bad? Irrelevant. “Unlikely to serve as a staging ground for STIs” is the only answer they require from their sweetie’s sex-box.
Then again, some people would find that information stifling. Some poly couples have to get a good, solid look at the sex-box’s internals, walking through the sex moment-by-moment, sifting through the other sex for tips and tricks they might use on their own, getting turned on by the knowledge of their sweetie’s pleasure. That box is flexible, man.
And which box is best for your polyamory? Let’s ask the smart programmer:
It depends what you need.
Because defining that black box of your partner’s partner is a vital survival skill in polyamory – and it’s not just sex. Personally speaking, I don’t need to know the fine details of my sweetie’s sex life, but I do need to know their emotional details – are they falling in love? Are they getting along? What sorts of happy things do they geek out about?
Yet again, for other people, that box may be a little more encapsulated. For them, they have an emotional partner-of-partner box that asks, “RELATIONSHIP GOOD?” and they get the answer of:
And that is all they need to know to function. And that’s great!
(Or you can start exploring the VantaBlack box zone of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Relationships, where you literally are not even aware of who your sweetie is dating, but that risks some fatal miscommunications if you’re even slightly out of sync. Nothing wrong with DADT in the abstract – but if I were to describe it in programming terms, it’s known to be a very buggy approach.)
The point is, a lot of novices to polyamory freak out because their partners are either exposing too much or too little information about what’s happening in their other relationships. And part of learning to do polyamory comfortably lies in determining what sorts of feedback you want when you query the black box of your partner’s other relationships for information.
That answer may vary from partner to partner (I have a partner who’s a swinger, and I do love hearing about her sex parties), or topic to topic (as noted, I need way less information on sex than I do emotional realities). But framing it in terms of “What I need to know about how my partners are getting along with their partners” – even if that answer is, “I don’t” – is key to happily managing an active polyamorous network.
In the end, like programming, there’s no wrong answer. It lies in what you need…. And if it doesn’t work, you go back and refactor it! There isn’t a programmer in the world who hasn’t finished a perfect black-box tax calculator that hands back a single percentage, only to be told, “Oh, wait, we need the tax code too.” At which point they sigh, roll up their sleeves, and change the code.
Which is hard work. But like programming, things will go a lot better if you think things out in advance instead of just making everything up as you go.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.