Savage Love: Aaron The Side

Dear Dan,

I am a bi man in my late 20s in a poly relationship. My primary partner's name is Erin. One of the rules she mandated is that I cannot date anyone else named Aaron or Erin. She thinks it would be confusing and awkward. Since those are fairly common names, I have had to reject other Aarons/Erins several times over the last couple of years. Overall, it seems like a superficial reason to reject someone. Is there any sort of compromise here? We haven't been able to think of any work-arounds.

­— Not Allowed Multiple Erins

I can't count the number of gay couples I've met over the years where both men or both women had the same first name. Okay, okay, it's not a parallel circumstance, I realize. But having a hard-and-fast/deal-breaky rule about names strikes me as silly and reductive. We are not our names, and our names are not ours. (I am not the only Dan Savage out there, nor am I the only Dan Savage capable of giving decent sex advice, as my substitute Dan Savages ably demonstrated this summer.) So here's my suggested work-around, NAME: Your primary partner stops being a ridiculous control queen.

But just in case you want a second opinion ...

"This poor woman wants to make sure that when her lover cries out her name, he really means her," said Dossie Easton, coauthor of The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures. "I can understand this, but I'm wondering if there could be a work-around with nicknames — actually, that could get kind of sexy. 'Hey, Bear! Gimme a hug.' 'Ooh, Tiger, you are so fierce tonight!' In all seriousness, many lovers have very personal nicknames for each other, and perhaps that would make the 'Aaron/Erin' problem manageable."

Would you like a third opinion?

"It sounds like Erin has that most common of polyamorous fears: the fear of being lost in the crowd," said Franklin Veaux, coauthor of More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. "Some folks deal with this by passing rules against taking a date to a favorite restaurant or forbidding certain pet names. It sounds like Erin is dealing with her fear by saying, 'Don't date any more Erins.' The problem is that names don't make you unique. Erin isn't special in NAME's eyes because of her name. But sometimes putting words on a fear is the first step toward eliminating it. She says dating another Erin would be 'confusing and awkward.' What does that mean? What are Erin's concerns? If it's only feeling awkward, well, being an adult means feeling awkward sometimes!"

To recap: Your primary partner needs to get over it (Dan's advice), your primary partner might be mollified if you swore to use only pet names for other Aarons/Erins (Dossie's advice), keep talking and maybe your primary partner will get over it (Franklin's advice). All in all, our expert panel doesn't have a lot of sympathy for your primary partner's position. So in the interest of fairness, I'm going to offer a defense of Erin's position.

It's not uncommon for people in open relationships to insist on a rule that seems arbitrary, even capricious, to their partners. I call these rules "Brown M&Ms," a reference to 1980s hair rock band Van Halen. The band's touring contract stipulated that bowls of M&Ms be set out backstage with all the brown M&Ms removed. To see if their contract had been followed to the letter — a contract that included a lot of technical requirements for their elaborate and potentially dangerous stage shows — all the band had to do was glance at those bowls of M&Ms. If a local promoter couldn't be trusted to get something simple and seemingly arbitrary right, they couldn't be trusted to get the bigger stuff right. And if the promoter didn't get the big stuff right, it wasn't safe for the band to perform.

Arbitrary rules in open relationships are like Van Halen's brown M&Ms: a quick way to check if you're safe. If your partner can't be trusted to not sleep with someone else in your bed, not take someone else to a favorite restaurant, not use your favorite/special/beloved sex toys with someone else, etc., perhaps they can't be trusted to get the big things right — like ensuring your physical and emotional safety and/or primacy. So, NAME, if obeying a rule that seems silly and arbitrary makes your partner feel safe to "perform," i.e., secure enough to be in an open/poly relationship with you, then obeying their seemingly silly rule is the price of admission.

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