are you cowpoking a polyamorous person?
Cowpokes are infamous for trying to change open dynamics into monogamous ones - and poly folks have had enough
image Instagram via @kendalljenner
words Kitty Winks
Picture this. You’re openly poly, and have been for a while, it suits you. You have multiple partners who you adore and you’re out for dinner with one of them. This is one you’ve been dating for a fair amount of time, you have a great connection, and the evening is going beautifully - but not for long.
Looking at you earnestly, they ask if you’d ever consider monogamy, you know, if you liked someone enough. You laugh it off and answer that it wouldn't matter - you're kind of committed to this poly thing, duh! And just like that, their mood switches. They get angry and implore that you don't really care about them if you still want to cling onto your other partners. Then, they storm out, leaving you wondering what the hell just happened.
You have just been cowpoked, my friend.
In case poly content has passed by your FY and you're not so sure of your terms, here’s a brief overview. A cowgirl/cowboy/cowpoke is someone who has typically dated monogamously, and is now venturing into non-monogamy. But, in their heart of hearts, they're not really down for the poly lifestyle. Rather, after a short while of playing along, they will then try and "fence off’ a poly person they’re dating into something monogamous.
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Experiencing cowpoking as a polyamorous person
My knowledge of cowpoking comes from first-hand experience. When I first started my poly journey, I was still using apps such as Hinge which primarily cater to monogamous people. I had my preference for non-monogamy in my prompts, and my likes understandably took a dip. However, there was a lot of intrigue from the typically monogamous people who did match with me, who tended to have a curiosity towards non-monogamy. But despite this promising start, over time, they would always tend to fall into old habits of a monogamous routine. Getting antsy when other dates were mentioned and changing the subject, wanting to monopolise all Friday nights and weekends - these are all little red flags only too familiar to poly folks.
Exploring polyamory for the first time is more than okay (you don’t know until you try!) and it's understandable that you might struggle to make the adjustment to non-monogamy. However, that doesn't mean that being on the receiving end of cowpoking isn't confusing, frustrating and hurtful.
Non-monogamous person Matilda* learnt this the hard way. She recalls one particular occasion where it was becoming apparent her then boyfriend was turning into a cowpoke, “I was on a solo weekend city break and he was back home going out on a date with a girl that we’d been seeing together. I’d texted them both and sent them a picture of me. He responded to me suspiciously, saying, ‘Is that what you’re wearing out? Who are you planning on meeting?’"
For her, the implication was clear - he was insinuating that she was meeting up with someone else and that he wasn't okay with it, despite the fact that he himself was heading out on a date. "I think that was the most egregious example of someone’s heart not being in the right place," she says. "He was clearly very onboard for our relationship because of what he was doing on his side, with no space for that being a level playing field.”
In order for people to explore non-monogamy in a healthy way, viewing polyamory as an equally valid relationship style to monogamy is integral. Phoebe* thinks this mindset is lacking for most cowpokes and reflects that, often, they see polyamory as something to experiment with before settling back into monogamy, and not a long-term dating goal. “Cowpokes just have no respect for non-monogamy whatsoever and are not willing to do the self work that it takes in order to do it effectively.”
There can be long-term emotional consequences of cowpoking on poly people, sexologist and sex coach Lucy Rowett says, particularly if there were elements of shaming or emotional manipulation at place. “It can really hurt your self-esteem, as the cowpoke will probably have tried to make you feel like you were in the wrong or doing something wrong," she explains. Indeed, the social preference for monogamy means that cowpokes can feel as though monogamy is what is "right" or inevitable - and this may be what emboldens them to disregard a poly person’s boundaries.
This was definitely the case in Matilda’s situation. “Polyamory became something that could be leveraged when the relationship wasn’t good; like my want for something polyamorous was sabotaging things and everything would have been fine if we had just been monogamous," she recalls. "This just totally circumvents the fact that the problem in the relationship was their own behaviour, not the challenge of being non-monogamous. It conveniently does away with any responsibility.”
Cowpoking in multi-partner relationships
While I and Matilda are solo poly, or unpartnered, encountering a cowpoke can be even more complicated for people who have one or more preexisting partners. Yes, there are the same feelings of having your trust betrayed, your boundaries ignored and your identity disregarded - but there’s also the fact that the cowpoke’s behaviour can have an impact on your pre-existing dynamics, hurting the partners you love and undermining what you’ve created together so far.
One way this can manifest is if a cowpoke begins to consciously interfere with agreements already in place - pressuring someone into spending less time with their other partners, for example. Sociologist and psychosexual psychotherapist Jordan Dixon explains that there are a number of warning signs to look out for. “[Cowpoking] can look like crossing boundaries and making bids for a partner's attention in a different number of ways,” she says. “A cowpoke may request more things like swapping to different nights, texting whilst the poly person is together with their other partner, or asking for more time together.”
Asking for greater flexibility, attention or time within a relationship isn’t a crime - and shouldn’t be something you should be hesitant to broach. Most multi-person relationships require negotiation and open communication to make things work but, in some instances, someone’s pre-existing commitments might just mean that they don’t have the availability you’re looking for. This is something which you can, as a new potential partner, take or leave - but you do have to accept that these boundaries exist and that you can’t manipulate someone into abandoning responsibilities they have to other people.
That’s not to say that a poly person’s commitments won't shift - their partners may meet new people or they themselves might decide to deprioritise pre-existing relationships. But as long as you have a one-on-one dynamic with someone, and don’t have any preordained rules to this effect, you shouldn’t feel entitled to influence or control their additional connections.
In fact, one major red flag among the polyamorous community is when a new date in the dynamic disrespects other partners. For multi-partner relationships to work, there should be a basic level of understanding and no compulsion to compete against one another for attention. “A cowpoke may be unkind about a partner and get extremely jealous about their other partner’s or partners’ role or time,” Dixon adds.
In these situations, the responsibility lies with the polyamorous person to remain firm in their boundaries and to act in a way which is authentic to their wants while treating everyone else in the dynamic as fairly as possible. Ultimately, the cowboy/girl/they can’t be blamed for lines that a non-monogamous person crosses. “It takes responsibility and self-differentiation to be able to be clear about poly expectations and beliefs, and to separate these from a cowpoke’s expectations,” says Dixon.
Are you turning into a cowboy or cowgirl?
If you_ are_ navigating polyamory for the first time, you might be wondering how to respect your new partner’s boundaries and avoid monogamous patterns from creeping in. After all, there’s no road map for this stuff - we’ve all been raised on the same diet of romcoms and “you’re the one” love songs pushing the monog agenda.
Well, the major thing is to pay attention to how you are feeling. As Rowett advises, it’s about being present with your emotions and being kind to yourself. “Keep checking in with your feelings and when you feel triggered,” she says. As well as learning to identify your own triggers, she adds that it pays to be curious and delve into non-monogamous folks’ real experience. “Talk to other poly folk, join poly forums and ask lots of questions.”
It’s also important to pursue these new kind of relationships at a slower pace. If non-monogamy is new to you, it helps to take time and space to reflect when difficult feelings come up. “Slowing down from the outset is key. If you are going fast and these feelings come up, pause,” Dixon says. “Communicate to your partners that you may need to take time out to be with that feeling. When you have understood these feelings deeper, you can then communicate to your partners so they know what’s going on and hopefully you can change and adjust the relationship accordingly.”
Dating beyond labels
As non-monogamy makes strides in terms of representation and understanding, more people than ever before are trying alternative relationships. With alternative dating app Feeld (which caters to a broad user range, including those who follow non-monogamous and kink lifestyles) reporting a 250% increase in monthly active users in the UK between January 2021 and 2022, lots of us are taking more flexible approaches to our love lives and opening up the door to polyamory.
With that said, is it truly possible for typically monogamous people and typically polyamorous people to date successfully? Ben, a long-time polyamorous person, definitely thinks so. “My approach to being poly has always been very much a case by case basis,” he says. “Polyamory to me really is about meeting people where they’re at and exploring that together. Rather than a top down set of practices, values or behaviours.”
* Names have been changed.
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