I am a cis man married to a trans man, we are both about 40. He has had non-monogamous relationships before. I have not, though I am not unadventurous. In the winter last year, we fooled around with another couple. I was not turned on at all by this. For me, it was a somewhat abject experience, and i felt like I was just “servicing” someone else for the sake of this “experience.”
He was changed by the experience, and now wants us to explore non-monogamy. I have a hard time with this idea, mostly because I have “sewn my oats” a lot; in my 20s I slept with all kinds of people, though I never really liked sleeping with strangers, and was usually only turned on by people i was romantically interested in or who were good friends. Now I just actually enjoy stability and being sort of focused on our marriage and careers, etc.
Also, the other complication is that I have bipolar disorder. In the spring, when we started talking about non-monogamy, I fell into a depression, felt totally drained of energy and was hopelessly sad. Then, I cycled up and went manic and spent money I shouldn’t have, etc., which sent me way down into an even deeper, more desperate depression. I had been getting by without medications (it’s a longer story, but the basic gist is that I am highly functional and have a great job and own a house, etc. and most people don’t realize I have bipolar) but now I am back on mood stabilizers. This has been good, actually, and helpful to go back on meds in general.
But the difficulty in all of this is that I have built up this stable life for myself, we got married, I got a great job, we bought the house, we have good insurance… Bipolar people need a lot of stability in order to stay balanced. My partner and I didn’t have any of this stability before. But now he feels like he doesn’t have his own sense of identity, and he is looking to find his own job, etc. Part of building up his own identity seems to also be wrapped up in the idea or philosophy of being non-monogamous. I personally find this idea distracting, and generally seems to be a trigger for my mood disorder.
How do I proceed with this? I want to let him live how he wants to live, but I find the idea of sex with other people somewhat superfluous and maybe even a bit obnoxious.
You don’t mention whether or not you were recently diagnosed as bipolar or whether you’ve known for a long time. You’ve also not mentioned what the nature of your bipolar disorder is like and it can vary wildly.
While it is true that stability can be useful for any difficult condition, what’s also important is knowing more about the types of things that trigger mania or depression and how long these cycles last and whether a fall into depression means a follow up with mania in every situation.
Finding stability in instability
You make it pretty clear that you don’t have any interest in exploring other relationships or sexual encounters and you don’t specifically say you have a problem with that being something your partner desires. Rather, you say you want to allow your partner to be able to do these things, you’re just concerned about how the instability may impact you.
If you had more reservation about your partner seeing other people, I’d consider whether you’re incompatible. Sometimes people go through their lives, especially if they are transgender, not really being able to fully experience their life in the way they want to and may come upon something like non-monogamy even in their 40s and feel like they’ve been missing something they would like to try. It might feel like you’ve built up some stability now, but it’s important to remember that the only thing constant in life is change and that any stability we build has the ability to be toppled.
Rather than trying to avoid further instabilities, it might be worth you learning how to cope better with instability and this is something you can work with a therapist on. If you’re not seeing a therapist, I would recommend you find someone who is polyamory friendly and can help you identify the things that trigger your depression or mania and strategies to help you cope with that. Even if you were to break up with your partner and find someone else who had no interest in non-monogamy, that is no guarantee of ultimate stability in your life.
If you learn how to cope with instability better, that will be more useful for you in the end.
Building a foundation of stone
If something fundamental about your relationship changes, you’re going to feel anxious, whether you have bipolar disorder or not. I think that it is helpful for people looking to go into non-monogamy to really think about the physical realities of what that will do to their relationship. It’s possible that most of the anxiety that you’re feeling from your partner’s want to be non-monogamous may come from the uncertainty of what that means in your relationship.
I’m not necessarily keen on parables, but I’ve always appreciated the idea of building your house on a foundation of stone rather than sand — the point being that if you want a structure to last and be resilient, it has to be strong from the roots up. If you strengthen the foundation of your relationship with your partner, you can weather the changes that life brings you.
Working on building that foundation is really important. Any major new change will be a test on the structure and solidity of your relationship. If you both have good communication, understand why you’re together, and have a clear picture of what you both want, even the curve balls life will throw at you will be things you can work with easier if you have a solid foundation.
Seeking stability in your relationship is a great idea for you, especially as a bipolar person, but I wouldn’t assume that your partner being monogamous is always analogous to being more stable. Society endorses monogamy, even for LGBT people, as an ideal and reinforces our belief that a long term relationship is the best option because it is the most secure option — but that just isn’t always true. While I don’t want to encourage people to believe a relationship has to be long-term in order to be ‘successful’, what makes for a partnership that lasts for a long time isn’t just sharing the same wants in lifestyle but communicating and understanding one another.
Monogamy + polyamory
In the end, if you don’t have a problem with your partner sleeping with other people, if you work out what your sexual health agreements are and you work out how physically him being non-monogamous will impact your relationship (does he want another relationship or a friends with benefits situation? How frequently will he be gone?), then I believe you can function just fine. If you can work out that between you two, then I don’t see you not having interest in dating other people as necessarily a problem.
Overall, I think it’s worth thinking about how to cope with instability rather than avoiding it and working out with your partner what non-monogamy might mean so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s something you can work with or something you don’t want. I want to reiterate as well the idea of getting a polyamory friendly therapist who can help you work through this.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Note: I wrote this column in 2017, so it’s possible my perspective on this may have shifted or expanded. Please feel free to resubmit a similar question.
Do you have a question?
If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to email@example.com. Your question will be posted anonymously.