Thirteen Mistakes People Make When Trying Polyamory

This content is 2 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

So, you’ve decided to give polyamory or some form of non-monogamy a shot but you’re not quite sure where to start or you might even be wondering if you’re polyamorous or not. Maybe you have read a few things here and there or nothing at all. Or maybe you have started already, and you’ve done one of the things listed below.

Either way, welcome. I’ve been writing a polyamory advice column for about three years now and responding in various polyamory communities — and I see a lot of similar questions. So, I’ve tried to summarise some of the basic mistakes or pitfalls in polyamory that many people make when they’re getting started.

Ready? Let’s go.

1. Making rules to stop emotions.

An image of a carved egg shaped sculpture with a happy and neutral face on each side.
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A good deal of people figure out that monogamy isn’t for them fully when they are in a monogamous relationship. Naturally, rather than trying to lose their partner and a relationship they love, they introduce the concept of polyamory to their partner. To try to soothe some of the feelings of fear and guilt, many people will begin with one rule that’s simple: “I won’t fall in love with anyone but you” or “Other relationships will only be about sex but ours will be about love.”

There are a lot of problems with this approach. Sure, there are people out there who know themselves well enough that they can say for sure that they have one-night stands without ever having feelings beyond that. Some people know what triggers some of their desire for deeper intimacy and how to avoid it. But even then, never say never.

When you create a rule, you need to also imagine what your plan will be if that rule will be broken. You also need to think about what the rule is designed to prevent and whether it can prevent it. The problem with this rule is that it’s placed there as if it’s going to stop feelings from happening — and it won’t and can’t.

If we could all control how and when we felt love or desire… well, there’d be a lot less problems in relationships. It’s just not that simple. You can’t always control your feelings. And the moment between when you start feeling something beyond just attraction to someone to something more can be hard to nail down.

Intimacy can happen without checking in with you first to see if that’s okay. If you’re only looking to open your relationship to have new and different sexual experiences, then it’s probably best to just consider hiring a sex worker occasionally rather than trying to form partnerships that have every potential to lead to the intimacy you’re trying to avoid.

This rule is almost always created out of a fear that creates an inherent imbalance of power. People put this rule in place because they are afraid of losing their partner. But the truth of the matter is that, if the basic rule that holds monogamy together doesn’t stop someone from falling out of love, then this rule won’t either.

2. Choosing the wrong anchor.

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There are so many ways to do polyamory and non-monogamy but unilaterally, agreeing to non-monogamy means agreeing to a situation where your partner doesn’t spend 100% of their time with you. Plenty of monogamous relationships are like this too, if one or both people have a time intensive career. But recognising your partner will not spend all their time with you has to be something that you accept and are fine with, first and foremost.

If that’s good, then you need to find your anchor. Your anchor is what you’re going to hold onto when the waters of non-monogamy get extra rough. Your anchor is what polyamory brings to your life. That can be anything and ultimately no one else is going to be able to decide that for you. Individually, even if you plan on being monogamous to a polyamorous person, you must find a reason for your own benefit that this works for you.

For me, being non-monogamous allows me to have multiple romantic relationships which is what I want in my life and it gives me the freedom and autonomy I need. For some people, it might be that they get to have looser boundaries between friends and lovers. For some it means they might get a whole bed to themselves regularly and have a good amount of alone time that they might need.

It can really be anything, but it can’t and should never be that you won’t have to break up with the partner who is asking you to be polyamorous when you don’t think you want to.

Your anchor must be only about you. And while you may think not breaking up with your partner is a really big selling point to trying polyamory (and sure, it may be a good fringe benefit), the fact of the matter is that when people make this their anchor or their sole purpose in trying it, they are doing so with an understanding that what they are saving is the relationship between them and their partner as it stands. What you are trying to save is already gone.

Remember! In order to agree to non-monogamy from the start, you must agree to a setup where your partner will not spend most of their time with you. That means, once your partner asks you to try polyamory and you agree, your relationship will not be the same because it can’t physically be the same. They will be gone sometimes. They will have to balance their focus between you and someone else. You may scoot by a bit if your partner doesn’t immediately find other dates or other partners, but the reality of the situation, if this is your anchor, will come crashing down in a very un-fun way.

It’s okay to not want that. It’s okay for that to be such a major downside for you that it’s not even about jealousy or a fear of losing them. Some people just don’t want children. Some people want to live in a suburb and some people want to live in a city. Those are other physical space deal breakers for people in monogamous relationships. If you want to have a partnership where you spend most of your time with your partner, even if you don’t feel jealous of them fancying someone else, then that’s totally legit.

It’s hard to know if you’re motivated to try polyamory because you want to or because you don’t want to lose your partner. And you may not really know if it works for you unless you try. But if you can’t find a reason other than keeping your partner for an anchor, then it’s going to be a very big struggle because when change happens and you start to have to cope with it, you won’t have anything to ground you. If the entire point of trying it was to keep them and they aren’t even there with you, you’re going to wonder why you did it in the first place.

3. Not expecting to be afraid.

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You’ve probably heard polyamory can bring so much joy to your life — and it can. Just like parenting. But also, just like parenting, it is a life changing decision that is sometimes hard — one you might even sometimes regret, despite its benefits. Parents will attest that there is a definite taboo in discussing how hard parenting can be and even having feelings of regret and, even though polyamory is not mainstream, there is an internal communal taboo we enforce on ourselves about being too honest with how shitty polyamory can be.

It’s understandable. Most people know about “open relationships” and think they “don’t work”. You’ll find, amidst many posts asking for advice, the forced cult-like posts begging for positive stories — as if we have something to prove to the wider world. For people who want to assimilate into “normality” and be essentially the polyamorous version of Leave It To Beaver — very white, very picket fence, very heterosexual and very Good in that regard, are going to want to sell polyamory to the mainstream.

That’s not something I have any interest in — in more ways than one. I’m going to err on the side of truth than an attempt to convince you of the legitimacy of polyamory. Polyamory hurts, a lot. That’s because relationships can and do hurt a lot. The more you have, the more it will hurt. Monogamy, however, also hurts. Remember when I mentioned that people make rules out of fear? They make rules in fear of eventual pain and loss.

What I’ve found immensely helpful is recognising the reality of the situation, which is going to sound dour, but hear me out: every relationship you have is going to end. That’s not me being pessimistic. That’s reality. You will at some point have to say goodbye to every person (and indeed many animals) you love, or they will have to say goodbye to you. I can’t speak to the nature of what happens after we die, but one can say that it’s unlikely that, if anything, happens, it won’t be identical to the life you have now. The only thing constant is change.

After reckoning that it’s a fact that any relationship you enter will end, you must accept that, to a certain degree, this is not something you can control. Obviously, you can control your own actions. You can choose to be cruel and abusive to your partners. You can choose to cheat. You can choose to disregard their feelings or your own. But you can’t ultimately prevent someone from falling out of love with you. Ask yourself — if monogamy doesn’t prevent people from falling out of love with their partners and falling in love with new people, why would any rule you create prevent that?

It seems counterproductive but the fear that you often experience the first night your partner is seeing someone new, when your partner gets a new text, all of those things… it’s based in your survival brain trying to help you prevent pain. And it makes logical sense. It wants you not to end up in a bad situation. And in doing so it puts the responsibility for preventing losing your partner on your shoulders — and not in a nice helpful way where it tries to encourage you to be attentive and caring but in a shitty way of telling you that if you don’t do something, your partner will lose interest in you.

When you realise that, outside of being a nice person and sticking to your word, you cannot control or change if your partner falls out of love with you, you relinquish yourself from the responsibility to prevent it. You accept that you fear it, but you can’t do anything to stop it and it will help you lessen the anxiety. When you also realise that monogamy doesn’t stop this from happening either, you’ll also be able to realise that, as much as your brain is telling you that choosing polyamory is somehow riskier, it isn’t. But more on that later.

Re-framing your fears and realising what you have control over — as well as giving yourself permission to be afraid — will help you cope with the anxiety better. It’s precisely because of this rose-tinted portrayal of polyamory that too many people assume polyamory is going to make them feel happy immediately and it doesn’t always make you feel great. It will scare you. But if you realise what you can control, those fears won’t smack you so hard.

4. Assuming all polyam people are compatible.

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Outside of establishing your anchor and figuring out what you can and can’t control, so many people beginning in polyamory assume that being polyamorous is all the compatibility information you need. But there are many ways to do polyamory.

There are also many ways to do monogamy — we just assume sometimes that the way monogamy is sold to us by society is the way everyone is supposed to do it. Some of the things people attribute to polyamory such as being free to find others attractive or flirt with others could happen within a monogamous relationship. And, as I said previous, you could be in a monogamous relationship where you see your partner just as much as a polyamorous person might. Two people can be polyamorous and still incompatible in terms of how they want to do their relationships.

You may not know this when you’re starting out, but it’s important to think about the physical aspects of it and your ideals. Let’s say you could design your version of perfect polyamory. How many partners do you have? Do you live with them all? How often do you see them? Do you meet their parents? Do your partners meet up on their own? Do you have children? This might seem like a lot to think about but if we consider that because monogamy is so engrained into our culture, we’ve been able to passively think about what our monogamous ideal might look like for many years before we actually enter into any relationships. And usually there are films and cultural examples to draw directly from.

In this case, you may not have any good real examples of what your ideal relationship might look like and blazing a new trail may be fun for some, but anxiety ridden for others — or both. It’s hard to know what’s realistic and what isn’t but start from your ultimate ideal and then think about your life now and how physically you can get closer to that.

For example, my ideal would be living in a house big enough where I could have my own space, two domestic partners who are at least cordial with one another, maybe one long distance partner I visit twice a year, lots of cats… you get the picture. Some people can have eight different relationships, but some people reach what’s jokingly called as their polysaturation point at two partners. It depends.

In terms of how this ideal applies to my real life, I accept that it might be a long stretch to expect two partners to be able to live together. I may have to be okay with a co-op type of situation where my metamours (a metamour is your partner’s partner) also live with me or just have one domestic partner. I also must look at my energy levels and think about how frequent I might be able to travel to see another partner without being exhausted. Maybe I have two nights per week I can designate to spending with a partner I’m not living with — something like that. When you have your ideal you can work from there to figure out what is feasible.

Once you know that about yourself, it’s about talking this out with other partners. I may meet another awesome polyamorous person who I get on with, but if they have no desire to cohabitate with any partners, then I have to accept that but work around it to make sure I see them enough to feel connected. Likewise, if they have an ideal type of polyamory where their partners are all friends, they’re going to have to not pressure me into befriending people I have no commonalities with and accept that maybe being cordial is as far as I’m going to go with my metamours.

Things like that can help you also get to the bottom of whether you’ve got the wrong anchor. Usually people who are just trying polyamory because they want to keep a partner will really struggle to have any kind of ideal in their head, even as an exercise and the thought of their partner spending days away from them or changing how they currently do their relationship is going to really start to make them see that they’re probably less interested in polyamory and more interested in keeping something that’s already gone.

You may feel a pull to sacrifice some of your ideal if you and a partner are polyamorous but not fully compatible. It’s hard for me to tell you when you’re giving up too much of what you want for someone else but it’s something that will show itself in time if you’re not able to realise it yourself presently.

Lastly, I also find that sometimes people, rather than using polyamory to find multiple, fulfilling relationships, they instead use polyamory as a way to stay with people they aren’t compatible with. That’s not to say that you can’t find other people who meet needs that your partner doesn’t have any interest in meeting. But if your partner is, for example, a poor communicator or doesn’t value you, you’re not going to be able to solve that by adding another person to the situation.

Don’t assume that if a relationship is broke, adding more people is the answer. Polyamory will not fix a relationship that doesn’t work and if you’re in a relationship that genuinely doesn’t bring you happiness or work for you, don’t just use polyamory as a way to avoid a breakup.

5. Assuming unhappiness is a faliure.

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If you are opening or starting a new relationship, you’re re-building or building foundations. Think of opening a relationship like a major life shift such as moving or having a new child. You are re-adjusting and re-building a foundation and in the case of starting a new polyamorous relationship, you’re building a new foundation. That means that you’re logically going to have a lot of anxiety around even what seems like a small shift or change.

People can be in monogamous relationships for 10 years with a solid foundation and still experience a lot of strife when they open — just like they might if any other major life change came along. Having a solid foundation with one another can help, but you’re changing the nature of the way you do your relationships and you’re going against what you’ve been taught for a good deal of your life: that the primary way to demonstrate your love for another is through romantic, sexual; and to a certain degree, emotional exclusivity.

Even if you had a long-lasting monogamous relationship that worked well, you’re challenging its foundations because your bond of trust was built on exclusivity. So essentially, you must see it like you’re starting afresh, and you honestly should see it that way because sometimes holding onto “the couple” creates more strife, but I’ll address that later.

Likewise, when you are dating a new person, even if you’re both single but interested in polyamory and starting off new, you’re just building trust with that person. In both cases, you must build a new idea of what connection, intimacy, commitment and value mean in relationships when you can’t rely on exclusivity to do that work. In the case of two single people, you may not have what’s known as the relationship escalator to fall back on — so you may have to create your own meanings and milestones.

People often get hyped at the idea of starting polyamory and feel fine when their partner meets someone new — maybe even excited or happy for them. But then the first night away or first date comes and suddenly, the emotional wrecking ball can decide to make an appearance. Theory is one thing, but practice is another. I can’t count how many scenarios I have seen of people who were happy, eager and perfectly fine until the first night that they really had to put their trust in someone to the test.

What I find useful is to expect the worst — especially in the beginnings of a relationship or trying polyamory. Too many people try to avoid this, delay it by putting in rules or, worse, asking their partner if they’re okay fifty times in one evening to try and prevent negative feelings. Sometimes some compromises can be made. Earlier in my relationship with my domestic partner, if they were spending the night away, I asked to have a quick call to say goodnight before they went to bed. As we’ve established trust with one another, I’ve needed this less and less.

But the first couple of nights they spent even just at all night parties, I struggled to sleep. I tossed and turned and couldn’t get the idea out of my head that they’d find someone better, keener on parties who was less anxious and better than me in a thousand ways. I was worried I’d lose them or worried I’d let my anxiety out somehow and I’d overwhelm them with neediness. I did the typical thing and gave myself a “date” and tried to run a bath. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I didn’t always have friends I could spend the night with. And most of the time I just had to sit through the anxiety and cope.

Maybe that won’t be your experience, or it hasn’t been — and that’s great! But I find it more useful to expect this because it throws so many people off guard. Expect you or your partner will not feel great and know sometimes the only way out is through. Sometimes the only way to know your partner isn’t going to ditch you is to see them come back to you. Sometimes the only way to cope with anxiety is to sit with it, know you have been there before, and wait until it goes. This is when having your anchor is most valuable.

It’s also worth remembering that even if you feel fine one night, something can come along that tips the balance of your fears that triggers the emotional wrecking ball back into place. If you experience another major life upheaval like a death, being fired, being injured, etc. you may feel a lack of stability in general and feel extra vulnerable to your partner going out with others. In those specific cases, sometimes I might suggest your partner reschedule temporarily, but even then, I think there is a value to trying to refocus yourself on your anchor and re-framing your fears again, even when you feel more vulnerable.

Be prepared for the worst and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if your night is fine. I think half of what can make this experience so terrible is not knowing it’s around the corner.

6. Thinking a triad is safer.

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The amount of fear and uncertainty you face when looking out at what your future might look like in a polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship compared to what you’re used to feeling in monogamy may make you think that there is a ‘safer’ way to try polyamory out. There are safer ways to trial situations where your partner sleeps with other people, such as hiring a sex worker, but I don’t really feel like there are ‘safer’ situations or ways you can get around avoiding the anxiety you may feel when your partner can and does have feelings for someone else.

What many people do in response to this trepidation is decide to only open their relationship a smidge — just enough for one other person to join them in a closed, eternal and ethereal threesome. You know how people say that if it sounds too good to be true, it is? I’m not saying that good, solid triads can’t exist. They can and do. And I don’t necessarily believe that some relationships are “harder” than others, but I do think that people don’t realise what a triad really means when they think it’s ‘safer’.

Forming a triad isn’t forming one big loving three-way relationship. Forming a triad means forming six different relationships where two of those six relationships have a much longer history than the rest. Imagine if you had one best friend and you expected both you and your best friend to find a third best friend where you both immediately felt the same about that third best friend and you all were going to hang out together all of the time. No one would expect that from their friends and expecting it in love is… a lot.

The expectations couples have when they want to form a triad is often what spells the disaster of one. First and foremost, the expectation that is the least ethical is that the relationship between the couple is more important. And it might be that people don’t overtly think this, but you can tell in the way they verbalise how they want to open their relationship (referring to a “third”, talking about “our” partner, or using “we”). It’s also, to a certain extent, very understandable to want to choose a relationship that you’ve spent years cultivating (especially if you have shared assets together), if forced to, over a relationship you’ve spent less time cultivating. And the less you’re willing to confront and deal with the power imbalance, the more likely it is to come out.

Secondly, the couples who want to form a triad almost always expect someone to be into both people “equally” without any understanding that relationships are individually different and develop at their own pace. Putting pressure on one person to not only be interested in two people in the same ways at the same pace and demonstrate that is a lot to put on one person. When you see a triad as six individual relationships rather than a couple playing tug of war over one person, you learn to see the relationships as individual things that need to be worked on their own and given their own unique time.

Thirdly, the couples who want to form a triad usually do so in a way that is discriminatory. Quite often a heterosexual cisgender couple will choose to only have one other woman involved because there is an assumption, usually from the man in the heterosexual relationship, that a woman is less of a threat to him. A woman won’t steal his woman away. And the woman in the heterosexual couple may not be interested in picking apart the toxic masculinity, heteronormativity and heterosexism involved in that assumption — or the woman also doesn’t think a woman is a threat.

If I must go into detail about why a woman is just as much of a ‘threat’ as anyone else… well. The couple see a triad as an upgrade to their already existing partnership rather than being a completely different way to do a relationship all together. They see it as adding juggling to their circus act instead of switching from being a juggler to a trapeze artist.

Does that mean a triad is always a bad idea? No. Three people can just so happen to be into each other at the same time. Or you can be polyamorous with someone else and then both develop a crush on the same person. But the issue becomes when your choice is more motivated by protecting the “couple” over anything else. If you feel no inherent threat over the thought of dating individually or treating the relationships you form as individual, then there’s no reason to jump directly into a triad when you’re starting out.

7. Giving your partner permission.

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We all know what cheating is, right? And when you are allowed to sleep with other people or pursue romantic relationships, that’s not cheating obviously but you’ve been told constantly that exclusivity is the ultimate sign of love so it’s unsurprising that so many people feel “wrong” when they try non-monogamy for the first time.

What someone defines as ‘cheating’ is often not as simple even in monogamy, but people are so used to the script of monogamy, they often never think to really discuss how they define cheating. They go into relationships and don’t think about it until something comes up — maybe they’re a little too close to a friend or they participate in a cam feed where they can specifically request the cam model perform a sexual action.

Even in monogamy, I would encourage people to come to a mutual definition of what constitutes cheating precisely because it’s not even clear in monogamy. For me, hiding something, even if it’s just a kiss or holding hands, is cheating — with an exception made for withholding information temporarily during a crisis. Likewise, helping someone cheat knowingly is also cheating to me. Other people may feel differently and throughout my relationship I have added the addendum about withholding information after my partner quite rightly decided to wait to disclose an incident until after I had dealt with mourning a serious event.

There’s no way to get around it — disclosure is awkward and even after being in several polyamorous relationships, it’s still awkward for me. It helps when you have a shared Google Calendar so you know if your partner is spending time with someone else but it’s really hard to figure out when to disclose a relationship or sex with someone else and it does feel a bit like you’re telling a parent you did something. I think part of the awkwardness is just inevitable. Sometimes this is so awkward, and people are so afraid of hurting their partner, they hide things and end up cheating a bit on accident.

But another way people try to cope with definitions of cheating and disclosure is by creating a situation whereby they pass sexual and romantic decisions through their partner before they go ahead with everything, so they don’t feel anxiety. In fact, this is a common first timer rule. “Let me know before you do anything,” “I have to meet all partners before they become partners,” or “Tell me when a relationship escalates”. Even a situation where you aren’t explicitly giving permission can still feel like that. On the surface, it might seem sound and understandable. After all, the rule isn’t explicitly saying you get to approve your partner’s partners, so it’s all right. Right?

The problem with permission is a simple one: you aren’t going to want to say no to your partner — even if you have an incredibly valid reason to say no and you honestly shouldn’t say no. This is an impossible scenario which makes you feel like you’re not allowed to change your mind later. Sure, there exists situations where you say yes, and everything works out. But if you say yes and you don’t like the person or don’t feel great about it, it almost feels like you’ve lost your ability to object to anything. And is saying “no” a real option?

When people ask for permission, what they sometimes understandably want is absolution. They want to make sure their partner is “okay”, and they don’t want to cross a boundary. It comes from a very good place. Very rarely is a permission rule about trying to actively control who your partner dates. But the assumption there is that if your partner isn’t feeling great, you shouldn’t pursue that hook-up or that date. And the problem with that assumption is that, especially when you are just starting out, you’re only going to have negative feelings if there’s something wrong.

The assumption is that negative feelings are an anomaly rather than a norm. It often ends up causing people to damage the relationships they build with others (especially if they keep cancelling on someone or worse, actively tell other partners that it’s because of their partner they can’t date) and usually delays the inevitable. Sometimes people find it difficult to go on a date or pursue a relationship while their partner isn’t feeling great about it and it gives them an enormous amount of guilt so they want assurance their partner is “okay” before they go off.

But giving permission is a double-edged sword. It only works if nothing ever goes wrong. And when things do go wrong, it often exacerbates things or delays the inevitable. And it’s not to say that your partner shouldn’t care to check in on you or that it’s wrong for you to want to be sure your partner won’t be upset with you if you go out on a date — but there isn’t anything that this rule solves that isn’t better solved by reassurance, communication and sitting through inevitable anxiety rather than avoiding it.

8. Forcing yourself to mingle with metamours.

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My first experience of what I could technically call polyamory involved me not saying what I wanted from someone and him using me to cheat on a partner he began dating a year after we began talking to one another. He was adamant I not reach out to my metamour and, having been truly frightened into being a ‘good partner’ by the spectre of The Jealousy, I opted to be a sensible partner who respected his boundaries and didn’t contact his new partner as he requested. After I broke up with him, I later met my ex-metamour at a party and well… they had no idea who I was.

From that experience, I was determined to meet and befriend all my metamours — if purely just to be sure that I wasn’t helping someone cheat. I didn’t want to rely on my partner’s word anymore, since I’d been burned. What ended up coming of that was that I forced myself, an introvert with social anxiety and a general disinterest in small talk, to be “friends” with people I had little in common with and it made me say some of the bitchiest things to people I’ve ever said in my life. I was convinced that in order to reach an upper echelon of polyamory, I had to be besties with my metamours. The best way to advertise my emotional responsibility and ethics was to be best friends with all my metamours to prove to the world I could “handle” polyamory.

I also expected to feel “compersion”, what’s known as the “opposite” of jealousy where you are happy for your partner in dating other people. When I didn’t feel it, I assumed lacking it meant something bad about me. I wasn’t polyam enough! Something was wrong with me! There was some jealousy I had buried deep down somewhere, or some type of monogamous-centric culture hang up I had to get over in order to feel it. I often compare this to when I assumed that being on the asexual spectrum meant I had hang-ups from a sex-negative Puritanical culture instead of just feeling differently to others.

Because polyamory materials for beginners can often stress this picturesque ideal of everyone sitting down at a big Whoville table together over a meal and make you feel like your heart is two sizes too small if you don’t desire for that to happen, wherever possible I remind people that they do not have to even meet their metamours, let alone be best friends with them. People are so afraid of being seen as being in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” style of relationship and so worried about proving how polyamorous they are, they often force themselves to know more than they need or meet people they don’t need to meet.

If we were monogamous, we would not see it as a complete and utter requirement that our partner not only meet but get along great with all our friends and family members. We might expect them to be cordial and polite, but we would never demand them to form an intimate bond with these people. In fact, the relationships subreddit is quite often filled with people who demand their partner put up with toxic, even abusive family members for the sake of the relationship and a flurry of individuals who will say that no, you do not have to.

Try to avoid putting any hard lines around your expectations of the relationships you have with metamours. I don’t know if it’s always a good idea to refuse to meet any of them and equally it’s not a good idea to be forced to meet any of them. If you can’t trust that your partner has sound judgement and feel like you need to meet them to prove something, there might be some bigger issues going on. And if they annoy you or you don’t get along, you don’t have to share a space together or go to things together. It might get tricky to negotiate boundaries, but it’s possible to not be in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation and never meet your metamours.

It’s okay if your ideal is that your metamours get along. Most of our ideals for relationships include our family and friends and anyone who is important to us getting along. But if you’re looking for what’s called “kitchen table style polyamory” (which just really illustrates to me that I grew up around a very different kitchen table than most polyam people…), maybe be willing to adjust that expectation because if you date two people who just don’t get along, there’s no real way to force them to.

9. Trying to be an emotional gladiator.

A person in a knight’s armor with a sheild weilding a sword.
Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

In another attempt to avoid accidentally cheating, many people trying polyamory swing to the opposite end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” spectrum and, even when no one has explicitly asked, they decide telling everything or asking to know everything, in excruciating detail will somehow prevent something terrible from happening. While there are definitely people who enjoy details either for sexual or just plain happiness reasons (just as they might enjoy hearing a friend tell them about a crush they have or a new date), I do sometimes feel like people push themselves or their partners to hear details in an attempt to prevent what they cannot prevent.

Putting yourself through some type of emotional polyamorous bootcamp by hearing every detail will not prevent what you think it will prevent. The philosophy behind this mindset seems to be thinking that knowing what is coming is better than not knowing — that somehow through all of the details of someone else’s encounters and relationships you’ll be able to spot an impending breakup or disinterest like reading tea leaves, except reading tea leaves would probably be a lot easier on you. The other type of a philosophy is, instead of delaying the inevitable, one runs into the fire barenaked thinking that somehow being able to weather the emotional pain of the details will get you used to polyamory in some way.

Even if you were attempting to get rid of arachnophobia, the way to do that wouldn’t be to launch yourself face first into a pit of spiders. But because people are told that jealousy isn’t a rational, logical emotion that may be very called for in some situations, they think that jealousy is some type of vestige of monogamous society and the only way to rid oneself of it is by throwing yourself over the precipice. Feeling hurt by the details of your partner’s dates or even the fact that your partner is interested in dating others makes logical sense. It’s not a flaw, it’s a result of living in a society that’s taught you that someone is only really in love with you if they feel nothing for others.

Monogamous people can feel betrayed by the mere thought that their partner is interested in someone else. We’re surrounded by a society that gives us a very particular message about jealousy — when it angrily comes from white men it is righteous, it is normal, it is part of being a man and a great motivator. Whereas, we’re told that jealousy coming from women of any kind is needy, even if it is somewhat understandable. The idea that the level of jealousy you experience and display when your partner shows interest in someone else is directly proportional to the amount of love you feel for your partner is heavily prevalent.

With that in mind, we need to be a little bit gentler with ourselves. Because of the pressure we’re also facing to prove that non-monogamy “works”, it feels like we’re supposed to be emotional gladiators and prove ourselves in the stadium of relationships by hearing all the gory details. People are also worried that not telling their partner the absolute truth may cause them to be accused of cheating later. Deciding when to disclose and what to disclose can be tricky, as we’ve discussed. If you have a conversation about cheating and what that means and when and what to disclose, make sure that there is a reason behind it.

Part of the rationale for me knowing when my partner is dating someone else is for a practical reason which isn’t about preventing emotions: If I’m making a meal for them, I’d like to know if they aren’t going to be there. If they have done something which increases their sexual health risk for contracting an STI and thereby affects my sexual health risk, I’d like to know. If there is going to be a change in my expectations of the time we spend together, then I’d like to know. None of this is about preventing me from feeling emotions or about trying to max me out so I don’t feel emotions later.

I’ve specifically requested not to hear details during times when I’ve felt less confident about my body or my personality. Sometimes, I’ve not known to ask for this until my partner has given me a detail and I’ve had some feelings about it. But I try to accept I have some feelings, let them know, ask for re-assurance and then ask for a bit of space on something that might cause these feelings to come back. I know because I’ve had anxiety that forcing myself into anxious situations doesn’t rid me of my anxiety. You can’t inoculate yourself from emotions this way.

All relationships have arguments, disagreements, and low points. We expect ourselves to be always happy in polyamory in a way we never expect ourselves to be in monogamy. In fact, many comedians make careers off telling jokes about how terrible marriage is. Part of this attempt to hear all of the details, when it’s not based on legitimately enjoying hearing details, comes from a place of trying to prevent low points and bad feelings and the result is that it inevitably causes more strife than it needs to.

Conversely, there’s also something else you want to consider. I’ve read situations where partners have read message exchanges between their partners and other people and have not considered whether the other partners are okay with their metamours seeing these conversations. Telling your partner all the details of your encounters, relationships, or dates may violate the privacy of the other person and very few people tend to ask directly if they can spill all the beans to their other partner. Even if your partner loves hearing details and it isn’t a trigger for anxiety or stress… consider making sure if that’s okay with your other partner in the first place.

Lastly, it may be possible over time for you to hear details without being afraid or the details triggering anything. You could never have a problem with details and then suddenly have a problem with it after a bad experience with something. You can experiment with this and slowly ask questions but have an understanding between the two of you that you may need to nope out of the conversation if it’s bringing up a lot of anxiety. Maybe at some point you won’t care, and you can slowly wean yourself into being comfortable and not threatened. But, in the name of all things that are holy, stop exposing yourself to the worst things like you have something to prove. When you die, I doubt your tombstone will say, “Here lies [X]. An emotional gladiator who could stomach any detail you’d threw at them.”

10. Making it a competition.

Photo by Ariel Besagar on Unsplash

One of the most frequent things you read on polyamory forums and polyamory articles is the idea that one person can’t meet all your needs. Usually this is expanded to include the entirety of the billions of humans on Earth in a way that ignores the very, very many people who have remained monogamous their entire life and that’s absolutely met their needs. I get the philosophy behind it, especially if you don’t personally feel fulfilled by one relationship.

The problem this inevitably results in is the philosophy of what folks call Polymon — where you’re trying to collect a partner to meet each need. In a way, it simplifies the connections we build in romantic relationships to something that ignores their complexity. And if you’re going to introduce polyamory to a monogamous partner by saying, “So I’m basically very unfulfilled in this relationship,” that’s, in blunt terms, a shit sandwich to someone who does feel fulfilled by monogamy. There are nicer and more dynamic ways to say that you desire to have multiple romantic relationships in ways that don’t start your partner off feeling like they are less than.

It’s not surprising then that many people starting off see it as a race to the finish, sometimes not really considering themselves polyamorous unless they have at least two partners minimum. Some couples even make specific rules that don’t allow their partners to have other official partners until they do. And even people who don’t believe that one relationship is inherently unfulfilling will find themselves in this trap and put so much unnecessary pressure on themselves or their partner to find someone else right away, especially so they have somewhere to go or something to do while their partner is on a date.

Most of the time, when two people begin a polyamorous relationship, one of them will have more success finding partners than the other. That can be for a variety of reasons. I’m an introvert who dislikes small talk and prefers to be at home and my partner is someone who loves parties. It’s very understandable they will have more “success” than me. Some people find married men, even if they swear, they are polyamorous and their wife is cool with it, automatically suspect.

People read as women might get more messages on dating sites — but a good deal of them will be harassment from people who may still think they’re cheating on their partner, but don’t necessarily care. This often causes a huge amount of distress as well because one person may feel like they need to keep up or just feel understandably frustrated and even jealous that their partner has had success and they haven’t.

On the other side of the “competition” outlook, you have people who, maybe because of this idea that one person isn’t fulfilling, have an enormous amount of anxiety that their partner will find someone who is “better at” something than them. Polyamory becomes a competition they feel destined to lose. There are two things that counteract this mindset. The first is like re-framing your fears. There are billions of people on this planet and likely there is someone out there who is “better at” something than you and your partner may in fact meet someone who is “better” in some ways than you at any given thing. That’s inevitable.

But what you have to realise is that, just as we’ve grown up in a culture that tells us exclusivity is how we show love, we’ve also been told by a society that wants us to consume as much as possible, that we will only get a good partner if we are the best we can be. Buy this cream. Do this diet. Change yourself in these ways so that you can become more attractive. These feelings are tied into some of the basic reasons why we feel self-conscious or insecure about ourselves. And it’s very hard to just shrug that all off with the advice a lot of polyamory websites give you — just realise how sPeCiAl you are!

Realising that you’re motivated by a consumerist, capitalist society to believe that you are inherently incomplete or unworthy unless you do something to impress somebody else helps counteract this fear. The issue I have that ties in with this about the “no one person can fulfil all your needs” is that it constructs a reality where we are all incomplete and we require a certain amount of others to make us “fulfilled”.

Now, I’m not in any way advocating rugged Western individualism — in fact, I think that’s harmful as hell. We get told we need to compete to find lovers but also somehow pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and that it’s shameful to rely on others for help. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is torture. As much as I’m lax to admit this as a near recluse, you do need people. That’s clear in how many problems come from, not a lack of self-care, but a lack of community care.

But what community care should motivate us to do is see the inherent worth we have as individuals. It’s okay to want people in your life. It’s okay to have needs. But seeing ourselves as flawed human beings inherently if we don’t have those needs fulfilled always creates more anxiety and stress and doesn’t solve the problem. We can cope better about not having the connections we want to have if we don’t see ourselves as inherently broken without them. Releasing the expectation on yourself to date a certain amount of people or have a certain amount of skills can help lessen the feeling that it’s a competition for the most partners or the most skills.

Don’t get me wrong. It does suck if you aren’t getting any dates and your partner is getting tons, but returning back to your anchor and reminding yourself that dating is hard if you’re monogamous and the pool is smaller if you’re polyamorous might make that a little easier.

11. Closing or vetoing a relationship.

Photo by Benedikt Geyer on Unsplash

When people experience some of the rougher emotions and situations with polyamory, they may feel like the best way they can cope with the situation is to veto a partner or close their relationship all together. The thinking behind it does make some logical sense. Opening a relationship causes you stress.

Closing it temporarily can give you some relief from the full flood of emotions you experience. And it probably does relieve some of the immediate emotions and fears you have, especially if your problem is that your partner is so wrapped up in their other relationship, they aren’t focusing on you.

The problem with this is that, like a lot of the other things here, it either doesn’t prevent what it’s intending to prevent or it’s delaying the inevitable. The first big thing to remember when thinking about closing things up is to challenge the assumption that monogamy is inherently safer. Most people close a relationship because they are afraid of losing their partner.

They want their partner to refocus on them or repair some problem. But in practicing polyamory, you must be able to focus on different problems in different relationships without having to break up with other people. That might seem like a lot, but we also kind of have this expectation with friendships and other relationships in our life.

If we have more than one child, we need to be able to give each child what they need without ignoring another child. If we make new friends, even if one friend has more needs than the other, we can’t just blow off everyone else for the sake of one of our friends. And a lot of people don’t feel very happy when their friend starts dating someone new or gets married and never wants to hang out anymore. And some parents with a lot of children struggle to divide their attention equally or focus on a child with more needs without ignoring their other children.

But this is part of what we deal with when we’re navigating all relationships. Sometimes things happen in life where we have to tell people that we need space or we don’t have the time to devote to them, but we generally don’t completely cut them out of our life because one relationship is more important than anything else.

In fact, if someone is trying to force you to end relationships, like friends and family, and favour them… that’s a big red flag for an abusive relationship. I’m not saying if you’ve tried to close a relationship or enacted a veto, it’s abuse. I’m saying that, as understandable as it may be to feel like that’s the only way to get control, it’s not how we behave in other relationships when we’re having them in healthy ways. If you want your partner to be able to be a good partner in a polyamorous relationship, they should be able to manage the struggles between you while also dating others and if they can’t, forcing them to end those other relationships will not change that.

Monogamous people can and do fall in love with other people, as I’ve said before. If you feel your partner slipping away or they are not meeting your needs, closing the relationship in and of itself may jar them back into focus for a temporary time but more likely than not, it’s going to create more resentment and unhappiness than it helps. Remember, you can’t prevent your partner from leaving you. If they’ve decided to use polyamory as an excuse to replace you, forcing them to dump the other person can’t fix that. If they are not affectionate with you or aren’t treating you as well as someone else, forcing them to leave that other person won’t fix that.

Even if you are faced with a situation where your partner is being mistreated by someone else or is about to enter into a relationship with someone who you think is toxic and bad for them, forcing them to break up with that person isn’t going to fix that. One of the books I think is a must-read for anyone is “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. It breaks down the mindset and the behaviours abusive people do and, more importantly for me, it made me realise that if I saw someone in an abusive situation, me forcing them out of it could make me very similar to the other abusive forces in their life. They must make that decision themselves.

Finally, closing a relationship or vetoing another is incredibly unfair on the other person involved who has had zero say in a decision that changes their life. Especially if you are a couple opening your relationship, having someone get involved who already has a lack of power and then chucking them the moment things get rough is incredibly painful. No one wants to be chucked aside and, even as you are in the midst of fear of losing your partner, it’s very important to remember the humanity of others involved — even if you’re irritated with them or even if they are purposefully trying to intrude on the relationship you have with your partner.

Not every person who tries to close a relationship or uses a veto is a controlling monster. I tend to find people use vetoes or close their relationship out of fear of losing their partner. Rarely do they ever really intend to hurt anybody else. It’s usually a last-ditch effort in a desperate situation. You must ask yourself, if you are feeling so desperate that you want to close the relationship or veto another person, if there aren’t deeper problems in the relationship that cannot be solved this way. A veto and closing a relationship are a flimsy bandage over a gaping wound.

12. Ignoring inherent power imbalances.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

If you’ve been reading about polyamory, you may have heard the phrase “Love is infinite”. And it’s true. Time and energy, however, are not infinite. We only have 24 hours a day to devote to a variety of things. And those of us with chronic health conditions and/or mental health struggles may not have the same level of energy or spoons as it’s called as others. We then must make decisions about how we spend our time between all our relationships.

One of the biggest reasons why people don’t immediately break up when one part of a monogamous couple has an interest in polyamory that they can’t ignore is because of the time and energy that both of those people have spent building that relationship. In some cases, there may be shared assets or children to consider that make life decisions complicated. There’s something called a “sunk cost fallacy” that comes into play where we are hesitant to just scrap all of the work we’ve put into a relationship and, even if it doesn’t make much sense, will continue to devote energy to something that doesn’t work for the ironic reason that you’ve already put a lot of energy into it.

Every moment we spend putting energy into any relationship demonstrates our commitment and it also makes it much more difficult to say goodbye. And because we only have a certain number of hours in any given day, we’re going to make decisions about who we’re going to put our energy into. Sometimes those decisions are prescriptive — we put energy into a relationship because society has told us that we should even when it doesn’t return anything.

Sometimes those decisions are convenient — people who are nearer are easier to form bonds to than people who are far away or who don’t stay in touch. It’s not surprising that when young adults leave formalised schooling and graduate from high school or university, they struggle to make friends — they aren’t forced to be around the same people all day and motivated to make connections.

It can be a struggle, as much as you want to love, to fit in more than one relationship with a job and any other hobby you have or children. A lot of us are already tired. A few people have made the joke to me that they are monogamous purely because they don’t have the energy for another person. And that’s valid. But at some point, you must organise your time and organising your time means making decisions.

Initially, I railed quite hard against “relationship anarchy” or RA mostly because I felt like people used RA as an excuse for not making the decisions that they’d need to make in planning their time between partners. Some of the people I saw attempting to practice RA basically wanted the ability to schedule what they could with whomever they wanted without being honest about how they were deciding to schedule their time. And to my defence, I ran across a lot of people using RA as a cover. They pretended not to prioritise any relationship over any others while they were doing just that.

Now, I’m not so hard on it because I think, philosophically, I am a relationship anarchist. It’s one of those “why is that a thing? everyone does that” situations. But, I do recognise that, even though I am not going to, say, cancel a date with someone because my domestic partner wants to go out with me suddenly, I do, due to my disabilities, have limited energy and I can’t promise I can always balance my time equally or have the time for everything. It’s one of the reasons my ideal is having two partners who live with me — makes my divide over energy so much easier.

People divvy up their time, sometimes favouring established relationships over new ones depending on the situation. In polyamory, when people are not honest about this it causes pain and confusion. You can be a relationship anarchist in practice and theory, but that doesn’t make all the power imbalances in life disappear. I can be an anarchist and believe the state is inherently violent and that won’t stop me from going to jail.

One of the fundamental mistakes people make, usually couples opening their relationship, is not examining or questioning the inherent power imbalances around them. And many people who claim to practice relationship anarchy substitute this examination and acknowledgement by claiming to define themselves out of it. Instead, many people characterise the fear and insecurity a person may feel as a sign of immaturity. We don’t consider it ridiculous for a first-born child to be threatened or scared by having a new sibling. So, if you introduce a new relationship into your life while you live with or have another long-standing relationship that has more power, it makes sense for the newer person to be nervous.

All new relationships are building a structure of trust, even if you’re steeped in new relationship energy. If you are dating someone who lives with someone, they have been with for 10 years, you’re going to feel nervous about where you stand. Even if you’re dating someone who doesn’t do vetoes or claims not to have a “primary”, it makes sense to be nervous — because you’d be nervous regardless in establishing a relationship with someone new. The new nervousness will make areas where you feel like there might be a threat more pronounced.

Many people don’t address this or address it by just saying they don’t have primaries, they’re a relationship anarchist, they would never use a veto, etc. Instead, acknowledging that there is that power imbalance, being conscious of the way you decide to allocate your time and encouraging all your partners to come to you if they feel like they aren’t being valued or aren’t getting what they need is preferable to pretending like things will work out magically. When you decide how to spend your time, it can communicate priorities you may not have so you need to be aware of it instead of pretending it’s not an issue.

We may not consciously believe any of our relationships is more important than another. A lot of monogamous people would cancel a date with their partner to help a friend in distress. Most of the situations that would require us to choose between relationships, whether it’s between friends or children, are either traumatic or deeply troubling situations. Sometimes we might find ourselves in between two friends who don’t get along or struggling to manage our attention between multiple children but for the most part, most people can balance things.

But in polyamory, the situation is slightly different when romantic and sexual feelings are involved, and you feel torn between two or more people in terms of how you devote your time. Too many people cope with this by allowing their partners to dictate their time and refusing to make decisions, forcing metamours against one another. They don’t take responsibility because the task of picking someone for a certain time block is too daunting or they don’t want to have to justify their decisions.

Many, many times I have seen situations where a couple opens their relationship, one person finds a partner and then blames their inability to balance their time between their spouse and partner on their spouse to their partner and on their partner to their spouse when they need to step up and be able to make those decisions and own up to them.

Power imbalances can’t be wished away by hopeful thinking or radical relationship definitions. They exist. And the only way to effectively deal with them is to acknowledge them to all partners and be mindful of the decisions you make and willing to stand by them. If you are going to have a “primary” and that means that they take priority over any other relationship, then tell any other potential partners that is the case.

If you are going to operate on a “first come, first serve” basis in terms of who has access to your time, be honest about that. If you’re tired as hell like me and you can’t always promise to make it to physical dates, but you can always chat, then be honest about that.

I don’t agree that ‘couples’ privilege’ is the right vernacular to use when it comes to a couple prioritising their relationship and treating ‘secondaries’ as expendable for a lot of reasons. But it is worth couples and anyone else in a long term relationship with someone else, sharing a house, sharing childcare responsibilities, to be honest about how that affects how they choose to allocate their time with any other partners they have so that new people can make a fully informed decision about whether that works for them rather than glossing it over or ignoring it. You may very well love a new person just as much as your partner of 10 years, but you have an established life with your partner that holds power and pretending it doesn’t isn’t being honest with yourself or others.

13. Punishing yourself for feeling.

So many of the mistakes I see people making in polyamory come from a place of wanting to prevent emotions and prevent feeling crappy. It’s very understandable. No one would elect to feel like shit if they could avoid it and a great many people go to various lengths to avoid ever feeling pain — even when they really need to in order to heal or process something. You can’t avoid pain forever, however, and you especially won’t be able to avoid having negative emotions.

There could be people out there for whom polyamory is so second nature to them that they jump right into with absolutely no problems and that’s great. But a lot of people will have problems and it doesn’t have to be that having problems is… well, a problem. A lot of the advice I give is giving people permission to have feelings. So many people think that just having emotions in and of itself is the problem when it’s just an inevitable part of being in relationships, of trying something new, or coping with something different.

For many years, I’ve said that the polyamory literature that most people read over-hypes ‘jealousy’ and turns it into a character flaw or some type of remnant of living in a monogamous-centric culture you have to shed in order to be truly polyamorous. Because of that, as I’ve discussed in my Thirteen Things I Wish I’d Learned Before Choosing Non-Monogamy, so many people are under the misconception that any fear, any worry, and anything other than happiness they experience must be jealousy and must be eradicated.

People spend a lot of time fighting themselves for having feelings instead of accepting it and trying to unpack it. Many people’s questions to me boil down to: “How can I stop having feelings?”. And I can relate. Data was my favourite character in Star Trek, and I’ve longed to be a robot. If you don’t have feelings, you can’t get hurt! But unfortunately, it’s not the way it works and sometimes punishing yourself for having feelings prevents you from dealing with them in the first place.

So, when you’re going through all of this, even though you have read this article, that book, or anything else — don’t punish yourself for having feelings. Let yourself feel your feelings. Spend less time punishing yourself and more time finding effective coping mechanisms. Outside of having an anchor, I’ve always found that it was useful for me to, even while being scared a partner would leave, focus on how to strengthen that relationship. I would do things like write cards and love notes to my partner or think of things we could do together in the future. Sometimes, though, you just must sit through the anxiety, come out on the other side, and know you survived, and your partner is still there.

Other obstacles in polyamory

I wanted to add an addendum to this because there are some other common scenarios that aren’t necessarily mistakes but are obstacles that crop up frequently for beginners: cheating, opportunity and dating exes.

Starting polyamory from cheating

For most people, polyamory isn’t a life choice that has been presented to them as valid. They default into monogamy because it’s what’s expected of them. Many people feel inherently polyamorous. While some people cheat because they like the fun of doing something wrong, some people end up cheating because they develop feelings for someone else and don’t want to acknowledge it until they are forced to.

Polyamory isn’t cheating nor is it permission to cheat. Someone who evades commitment to one person or doesn’t want to respect their partner’s boundaries is not going to do better in a situation where they’re expected to commit to multiple people or respect multiple boundaries.

However, many people, due to the way our society is set up, may only find out they are polyamorous or want to try polyamory until they have cheated on someone. So many, many people will be faced with a partner who has cheated on them and now wants to try polyamory. I don’t think that it’s impossible, especially if there is an anchor, for that to lead to a healthier relationship. It’s very possible to go from cheating to polyamory. But that depends on several different things.

First and foremost, the reasons behind the cheating. People who cheat because they love the thrill won’t suddenly become faithful in a polyamorous relationship. Secondly, the method that the cheating was uncovered. A partner who comes forward and admits fault is easier to trust and has demonstrated more emotional maturity than someone who gets caught and then suddenly decides to tell you they want to try polyamory. And thirdly, the actions the individual does to bear witness to the pain they have caused. No one is flawless and everyone makes mistakes.

Someone who has cheated has to be willing and able to make amends for what they did and hold space for the partner who feels betrayed. That doesn’t mean that their indiscretion should be held against their head until they die, but it does mean they need to demonstrate an understanding that moving to polyamory doesn’t cure the betrayal and actually means you’re re-forming your broken foundation of trust. It’s starting from less than zero. Someone who expects you to just get over being cheated or doesn’t even apologise… it’s not a good sign.

It’s possible, but complicated and it depends a lot on the willingness to rebuild a foundation from the person who cheated. There are some people who have cheated who want to have ethical relationships and others who just don’t care about boundaries but satisfying themselves in the moment. It’s very possible for the latter type of person to stumble on polyamory and use it to get away with their behaviours. You can tell the difference between the two from their actual actions rather than their words and promises. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Taking advantage of an opportunity

Very, very few individuals in a monogamous relationship will decide to introduce the concept of opening the relationship at the exact same time. It’s usually introduced by one person and usually at a point where the individual has either decided monogamy is no longer suitable for them or, many times, when they are encouraged to introduce the concept because a window has opened up for them to pursue another relationship and they want to. This is very tricky ground.

My experience is that people find it difficult to be honest with themselves about their feelings, especially while they are trying to deny that they are having feelings. This is one of the reasons why cheating can be difficult to define. People don’t have to have sex or do anything physical to develop feelings or intimacy. And sometimes I think that makes it even more complicated and hard for people to recognise when they have emotionally cheated on their partner because they have another intimate relationship with someone. They want to be honest about it, but they don’t want to lose their partner. And polyamory seems like a perfect way to have the best of both worlds.

Some other times, an ex calls or someone they never actually got to hook up with — either way, there is an opportunity and they are under some type of time crunch to introduce the concept of polyamory and get it off the ground so they don’t miss it. Very rarely are people honest about this when they introduce the concept to their partner and that’s to a certain extent understandable. Saying, “Do you want to try polyamory?” sounds a little less threatening than, “Can we redefine how we do this relationship so I can sleep with this person I never got to sleep with because they moved away?”. That might explain why so many people mistake polyamory for an excuse to cheat.

I think it’s important to be honest about your motivations where possible and not hide them. The reason being that if your partners ever get to talking, the truth is going to come out anyway. It might feel bad to be motivated by an opportunity but in some ways, opportunities can encourage you to be more honest about what you want in a way that not having that opportunity didn’t.

Whether you should date an ex or co-worker

It’s always precarious when someone wants to date their ex again or date a friend or date someone they work with in their immediate social circle. Remembering what we’ve already discussed, you aren’t going to be able to control who your partner dates if they’ve already made that decision.

You can absolutely say that you’d be so uncomfortable by a situation that it would create distance between the two of you or ask that you not hear about a relationship you have a huge amount of anxiety over — but that’s pretty much it. If you put down a hard boundary that you will leave if your partner dates an ex or someone else, then you have to expect they may resent it or you may have to leave.

But if this hasn’t happened to you, you may want to consider what your boundaries are regarding exes, friends and work colleagues in terms of dating. These are things monogamous people must consider also that sometimes get lost in the new-ness of polyamory. To distinguish whether there might be a larger issue of jealousy or fear, I always try and apply a friend or family member lens to it. I’d find it weird for my cousin to start dating my best friend. I couldn’t necessarily stop them, but sometimes worlds colliding creates some awkwardness.

I may not want to hear from my best friend about any problems in the relationship they have with my cousin in a way I’d have no problem hearing if they were dating someone else. It might be odd for your mother to start dating your boss. There are lots of ways that our different types of relationships can create difficulties when they intermingle.

It’s not always a bad sign when someone wants to date an ex or gets involved with someone at work, but it’s worth thinking about how you might manage that situation if it ever comes up.

Breathe, take it easy and see a therapist

While this is an article of mistakes, I want people to remember that they very likely got a lot wrong when they first tried any type of romantic relationship. We’re all in a learning process and, as I said before, no one is flawless. Progress isn’t linear and, even after reading some of this stuff, you may forget about it or it may not be something you think about when your emotions are running high. It’s okay to fuck up. We all do.

If you have access to a polyamory friendly therapist, it’s always worth going, even if it’s just once a month. Therapy has been integral for me in many situations in my life, not just polyamory. It’s what helped me identify problems that manifested themselves in my polyamory in ways I never would have seen if I hadn’t gone. I struggled for many years to feel like I could go to therapy.

While I know not everyone will have the economic means or time to access therapy, if it’s available for you, do give it a try. It can help manage all the emotions within polyamory and outside of it. Otherwise, I hope that the exploration of the topics here helped you start out in polyamory with a good foot forward.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

Would you like to support me?

If you like my writing, there are a few ways to show me support.

You can become a Patron and get access to the columns and the podcasts 4 days before they’re released to the public. If becoming a Patron is a bit too much you can make a PayPal donation, use my sponsor code at BetterHelp if you want to give it a try, or give a rating and review of the podcast on iTunes.

Don’t you get jealous?

This content is 2 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

When I tell people that I am not monogamous or I try to explain polyamory, the first question they tend to ask is, “Don’t you get jealous?”

For some people, the thought of their partner being interested in, let alone dating someone else creates so much pain for them that they not only will express how impossible they think it is for them, but they also cast a shadow of doubt over any and all open, non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships, claiming they don’t “work”.

I’ve been in polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships for close to a decade now and the way I answer that question now is, “Yes, I get jealous. But it’s not jealousy that hurts the most.” And that is an answer that surprises people.

Polyamory is simply the act of engaging in multiple romantic relationships (with all parties knowing, of course). It doesn’t require one to pass a test, to attain a degree, to get a license or even do anything but say one is ‘polyamorous’. Contrary to the way some polyamorous people behave, it is not inherently a more egalitarian or liberating lifestyle and it does not necessarily require you to do any deep introspection, employ critical thinking or even communicate particularly well. All you have to do to be polyamorous is say you are, which is, in fairness, true for some of the other labels we put on ourselves.

But because monogamy is the social norm within the communities I operate in and is socially encouraged, participating in non-monogamy can make one more aware of the toxic behaviours that our society attributes to monogamy. Sometimes, existing on the outside can give you a better vantage point to look in. While some people make the mistake of assuming that these behaviours are inherent to monogamy, when someone asks me if I get jealous, what I see is a cultural value that has been encouraged that no more has to be part of monogamy than polyamory.

The society that I live in is capitalist and encourages consumerism. To make good consumers, you have to create, if not actual scarcity, the feeling of scarcity. Anyone with experience in sales or fundraising knows that it’s better to have a regular, reliable source of income through repeat customers or donors than it is to try and attract new customers or donors. Regular consumers keep those companies on top and the more you can make a consumer dependent upon your product, the better it is for the capitalist.

Many of the social systems and ‘norms’ which we take for granted as ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ within our society were created by or encouraged due to how it benefits capitalism as well as white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and other oppressions. The concept of ‘pink’ for girls and ‘blue’ for boys wasn’t born out of any psychological understanding of what those colours actually represented but for a desire to overturn the common practice of using the same long white dress for all children regardless of sex that was both easily washed and could be used for multiple children and instead create a system where parents needed to consume more and couldn’t re-use the same resources.

The now cultural ‘norm’ of leg hair only being acceptable for certain kinds of people was not created, contrary to popular myth, for any hygienic or logical reason but because razor companies were able to capitalise on a nylon shortage, change shaving from the masculine to the feminine.

What does this all mean for relationships? It means that no one earns a profit off people who live in an environment where they are not in competition. As the old advertising adage goes, ‘Sex sells’, but it’s not just that sex sells in and of itself but that the promise of having sex or gaining a partner is one of the predominate goals that we’re consistently told we need to attain and, in order to do so, we need to consume the right products. That creates an atmosphere where people begin to believe that relationships with a partner are ‘won’ by outmaneuvering others and that, even when you are partnered, one must always be wary of losing that partner to someone who is ‘better’ than you.

I cannot effectively sell you deodorant by saying, “This will make you smell good although some people like others’ natural scents”. I’m going to sell it by saying, “You need this deodorant to get laid”. A consumer that is contented with themselves and has confidence in themselves has no need to consume more. And a consumer that is afraid is more likely to buy into these messages and make emotional purchases, which is a key reason why so much of our media encourages jealousy.

We’re not only living in an environment that wants us to compete against one another, but we’re also living an environment that thrives due to social oppression — which can be seen as an extension of interpersonal abuse. That means that it further behooves people who benefit from oppression to create a system where you see abuse as normal. As Assata Shakur said, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”

In various forms of media we are inundated with the idea that a partner expressing jealousy over you being with someone else is a sign of love. People are encouraged to draw out passion and attention from their partner by making them jealous. With the endorsement of the idea that jealousy is not only inherent but that it is also connected to the level of passion and love that people feel, is it any wonder why, when people in relationships begin to get ‘jealous’ and possessive that we assume it is done out of love? This quite often ends up overwhelmingly benefiting abusive men who are already socially validated and encouraged to express anger and rage.

This tacit acceptance of not only the feeling of jealousy but the inclination to control someone as a response to it, leads to an environment where it is easier for abusive people to manipulate and isolate someone. And it creates with it the false expectation that you don’t actually love someone unless you get jealous. This environment isn’t good for any type of relationship style. Although jealousy as an emotion isn’t inherently a problem, what I think, by asking me about jealousy, most people are afraid of is losing their partner or being ‘beaten’ by a competitor.

People define a relationship’s ‘success’ by how long it lasts and their insistence that polyamory or open relationships don’t ‘last’ and therefore don’t ‘work’ is symptomatic of both an understandable desire to avoid pain but also the assumption that drawing out a relationship that has long since expired doesn’t come with its own ‘pain’. People ask about jealousy because it reflects not only something which they think is a measure of the depth of love that they feel for someone but also because they fear the pain of breakup and loss. Which isn’t altogether unwise. It’s simple mathematics. The more relationships you have, the more breakups you could potentially have.

When I say that jealousy is not the most painful thing to experience to them, what I mean is that any breakup I have been through in my life, whether monogamous or non-monogamous, has not been nearly as painful as the slow realisation that the relationships I started out having put me on a trajectory of accepting crumbs when I deserved a cake. I have had a lot of ‘breakups’ in my life. I have lost friends and family both, and not through death. One of the things that non-monogamy has brought to me is the challenge of the assumption that romantic relationships are the most important or even the most painful to lose.

Not only has it been painful to lose friends and family, but it’s been painful to realise what little I expected from anyone who benefited from how much I was willing to give them. Jealousy is nothing compared to trying to re-learn how to demand more for yourself and to stop tolerating mistreatment or neglect. No relationship I have ever had has been more challenging than the relationship I have with myself. And no amount of jealousy has ever been more painful than realising what I have tolerated in the name of ‘love’. Jealousy is really the least of my problems.

To be honest though, when people ask me if I get jealous, rather than having this long nuanced conversation about capitalism, consumerism, oppression, social norms and self love, I usually just get frustrated and walk away.

But hey, now I’ve got a link I can give them now.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

Would you like to support me?

If you like my writing, there are a few ways to show me support.

You can become a Patron and get access to the columns and the podcasts 4 days before they’re released to the public. If becoming a Patron is a bit too much you can make a PayPal donation, use my sponsor code at BetterHelp if you want to give it a try, or give a rating and review of the podcast on iTunes.

Useless Polyam Advice: Jealousy vs. Fear

This content is 4 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

This is the second post in a series of blogs about the most common advice offered to polyamorous people, specifically newbies, why it’s useless and what you can do instead.

“Feel bad? You must be jealous.”

I’ve written a bit about this in “Thirteen things I wish I’d learnt before choosing non-monogamy”. When you’re first starting out reading everything you can about polyamory, jealousy and how bad it is can be so reinforced in you, that I see a lot of beginner polyamorous people not only thinking that fear or worry is automatically jealousy but assuming the appropriate response to it is to “deal with it” on their own or, sometimes, ask a partner for help — but the problem is always assumed to be lying within the constraints that monogamy has put on someone’s mind.

Jealousy vs. fear vs. envy

I get into the semantic argument constantly — and it might seem merely semantic, but it’s actually very important. Pulling out the dictionary really just ends up in splitting hairs so I want to get down to why the meaning behind the words is different. The meaning is important because how you approach jealousy and how you approach fear are both very different.

Jealousy, specifically, is about wanting something someone else has. This could be accompanied with a fear that you won’t get it, but primarily it is about seeing something and wanting it for yourself. So, when I’m upset about a partner going to a party, it isn’t jealousy unless I want to go to that party as well. If I actually hate parties and wouldn’t go if given the option, then the reasons behind being upset aren’t jealousy. Whereas, before I got surgery, I used to be very jealous when I heard other trans people were getting surgery — because I wanted it for myself. Envy, I feel, is roughly the same thing and is approached in the same way.

But fear is very different. My fear around a partner going to a party isn’t about wanting to go — it’s about being afraid that I am not ‘fun enough’. Fear is something that a lot of people new to polyamory will experience because fear is part of life and trying new things. When you’re trying non-monogamy for the first time, you’re going into a new relationship structure that doesn’t have all of the cultural scripts which can provide reassurance.

The Relationship Escalator provides a good explanation for one of the cultural scripts that monogamous people often have to ensure they feel secure in their relationships. Without this, added to trying something new, you’re going to experience a lot of fear. You may experience no jealousy at all, but a lot of fear instead. And being very jealous could make you afraid.

The historical context of jealousy and fear

“Does it really matter?” a lot of people might say. When it comes to how you approach them for a solution, it’s very different.

Jealousy exists within our society where it is encouraged and tolerated in very unhealthy ways, for one. Your partner being upset, angry and territorial over you when someone else flirts with you is, in many areas, considered a sign of love. Aggressive, dangerous entitlement and jealousy is encouraged among men specifically and in many cases where men have murdered their women partners when caught cheating, jealousy is seen as not only valid but a good excuse for murdering.

Women are way more likely to spend a longer time in prison for defending themselves and killing an abusive partner than a male partner who murders someone he abuses. In fact, legally, men can use ‘loss of control’ as a legitimate legal excuse for murdering a cheating partner.

We can’t ignore those contexts of what ‘jealousy’ means within our society because, for as much as the dictionary may define the annotation of the word, the connotation within this culture is coupled with themes of violence, entitlement and controlling behaviour. And those who have experienced controlling and abusive behaviour first hand are going to be even more concerned that they could perpetuate the cycles of abuse that have happened to them.

So when we talk about ‘jealousy’ within intimate partner relationships, it is especially those who have been through abuse who will be worried about being the abuse they’ve seen, who will question their every action, who will be more likely to believe an unhappy feeling they have is inherently a problem with them and their thought process and not a legitimate feeling or even a red flag.

Fear doesn’t have these same connotations within a relationship — except in how it relates to being ‘clingy’ and specifically when that is associated with women or individuals read as women. Some fear is legitimised, even while it’s coupled with jealousy or entitlement, while others are not. Men who fear and react in aggressive ways are rewarded and sympathised with (think the ‘gay panic’ defence, Trayvon Martin’s murderer, etc.) whereas fearing the loss of something and general anxiousness are seen as ‘weak’.

Women who experience anxiousness and fear of losing something can struggle with the societal implications of being labelled as ‘clingy’ (although some types of fear by some women are validated — see Emmett Till). Overall, our capitalist society encourages a ‘bootstraps’ mentality where we’re all supposed to be ‘independent’, despite the fact that we are a species that literally begins to suffer mental health problems when we are solitarily confined. All of this compounds to encourage people to not want to accept that fear is normal and natural.

Talking about ‘jealousy’ and ‘fear’ within the polyamorous community still has with it all of the implications that come with the society we’re raised in. And we carry these implications and thought processes into our relationships.

We assume not only that bad feelings are all jealousy because fear is not considered normal or even desirable and then we assume that jealousy comes with all of the entitlement, aggression and controlling behaviour that is so often excused by the society we live in — when you can be jealous without all of that. We can’t divorce ourselves from those contexts, even as we try something new.

How to ‘get rid’ of jealousy and fear

Aside from the historical contexts, how you approach ‘treating’ jealousy and fear are not the same. But one common thing about them both? You can’t just ‘get rid’ of them.

So many polyamorous newbies believe that by reading enough literature and practising enough, they can purge themselves of jealousy and fear. And, while gaining knowledge and experience does most certainly help in a lot of cases, it’s not always guaranteed. When I began trying to treat my anxiety, one of the best things I learned wasn’t some magical technique for stopping a panic attack in its tracks — it was embracing the fact that I had panic attacks and that was just part of my life.

Rather than beating myself up every single time I experienced a shortness of breath or a quickening of my heart, I was able to love myself, sympathise with myself, and that made overcoming panic attacks much easier. I haven’t had one in a long time — but I might have one tomorrow. And that does not make me a failure.

Trying to purge yourself of either of these emotions may work in the short-term while you’re in a good mental place, can grapple with new thought processes, while you’re feeling secure in your relationship. But the second instability comes along, it is natural and healthy to feel afraid.

If you’re in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met but you’re watching that same partner meet that need with other people, jealousy is going to happen. By assuming you’re somehow above these emotions, that not experiencing them says something about your capabilities as a human to ‘do polyamory’, you’re essentially setting yourself up for failure, in the same way, I set myself up for failure when I assumed a panic attack represented my inability to manage my anxiety effectively.

The first and best way to address jealousy and fear is to understand that they aren’t always coupled with entitlement, controlling behaviour and aggression — and that they can be perfectly reasonable responses to different situations.

Overcoming jealousy

In the situation I described before where I was jealous of other trans people who got their surgeries or whose fundraisers were successful (I’ve even been jealous of anyone running a fundraiser that reached it’s goal), the reasoning for feeling jealous there was perfectly valid. It’s very understandable when you are not getting something you desperately need, to feel jealous of other people who are getting the things you need.

What matters is how you choose to act on it. If I chose to insult and deride friends who got their surgeries, claiming they didn’t need it as much as I did, that would be completely different.

In terms of relationships, you can feel jealous of a metamour who is getting something you’re not getting and that is a totally valid feeling. It’s not something you need to ‘get over’ on your own nor is it baggage from a monogamous relationship necessarily. A very common scenario with polyamorous newbies is when two people find that they receive an imbalance in the amount of interest shown to them on dating sites.

Typically those read as men do not get as much ‘attention’ on dating sites as those read as women (although obviously, your mileage may vary). This can lead to a lot of understandable jealousy which is okay to feel, but not necessarily to act on. Restricting your partner’s ability to have dates in response to this feeling isn’t the right way to go.

How you address jealousy has everything to do with what it’s about and sometimes it has no solution. If you’re jealous because your domestic partner never gives you a back massage but happily gives them to metamours, you can just ask for more back massages. But if you’re jealous that more people are flirting with your partner than you, that isn’t something that’s actually within the realms of anyone’s control.

I can be jealous all I want regarding successful fundraisers other people have, but there isn’t much I can do to control it. Often, when it’s something out of your control, you can do what you can to try and address the need that isn’t being met. I try and find new ways of pushing my fundraiser. In the flirting example, you might try and flirt more with other people and see if they reciprocate.

The best way is to ask yourself if this is really something you can control or if it’s just part and parcel of the way life is going to work. Specifically, in the case of one partner getting more ‘attention’, it might also be worth recontextualising your understanding of what ‘attention’ means. Getting more attention may not actually result in anything significant or fruitful and even if you received over 100 messages on dating sites every day, that doesn’t mean any of those are actually from anyone you’re interested in — and some of them might be quite disgusting or rude.

In the case of my surgery fundraiser, I try to remember that getting my surgery did make me happier and getting it completely funded would make me even happier, but there are also other things in my life I can be grateful for. I try and rethink all of the ways that I have been lucky and that helps me cope with those feelings.

How to deal with fear

When it comes to dealing with fear, one of the most harmful things I learned from beginner polyamory advice was the reinforcement of lessons abuse had taught me long ago: my emotions were not valid or reasonable and that I needed to cope with them on my own. While a lot of beginner polyamory advice encourages communication, it fails to really address the fear of over communicating and burdening a partner.

Many of us have been treated as if our basic needs are burdens to others and when this concept is reinforced by the misunderstanding that bad feelings are jealousy you ought to deal with on your own, this maladaptive way of thinking is compounded.

The problem specifically with mixing an understanding of jealousy and fear is that, because rules are so often used to address fear, it’s assumed that creating rules in response to fear is an example of how you’re ‘controlling’ because you’re ‘jealous’ and it brings up all of the cultural contexts of jealousy when the issue is more the fear than anything. For example, let’s say you have a long distance partner who you may or may not have lived with at a certain point. Let say this partner meets someone new and in the process of being caught up in NRE, begins to neglect you.

While they once had time to have private phone calls with you, now all of their calls are with the metamour present. This partner changes their mind about promises that they’ve made to you and all of a sudden begins to disregard the boundaries that were set in place long ago.

A lot of people in this situation would begin to experience both jealousy and fear. They may be jealous that the metamour is capable of having an in-person physical relationship with their partner while they can’t. Additionally, having a partner neglect them and break boundaries that had been in place may leave them feeling afraid.

They may not have any overt desire to control their partner and may not want them to end the relationship with their metamour — but they want to stop being neglected and ignored. So what do you do? Many people might try re-enforcing those boundaries and rules, maybe even adding more rules on to try and regain a sense of stability that has been lost.

That might not be the ‘right’ thing to do because the partner may respond with resentment, anger and frustration. The focus becomes less on how neglect and a disrespect of boundaries is happening and more on the rules and who has the right to enforce them.

When someone breaks your stability in a relationship, whether intentionally or not, you’re going to be afraid of losing that relationship. When someone begins to neglect you and show signs of disinterest, your mind may go into Defcon 5 mode, tell you to get to the lifeboats and put on your life jacket. The rules in this situation are the equivalent of strapping on a life vest and inflating it before the ship sinks rather than trying to investigate the hole in the ship and plug it up.

But easily in this situation, the partner who responded to fear by enforcing a bunch of new rules could easily be seen as being jealous and controlling — despite very real experiences of being neglected and feeling frustrated.

Fear is sometimes very inevitable. And in cases where you’re regaining stability in a relationship, you’re going to feel fear for awhile until that stability is brought back. Many people find that fear so difficult to live with that they try and force stability into existence when it just can’t happen. If we embraced the idea that we feel fear, paid attention to it, listened to it and tried to understand it instead of pushing it down and assuming it’s a sign of our monogamously programmed brains attempting to sabotage us, we might be able to identify problems at their start or address them as they’re happening rather than charging towards the lifeboats.

The overall lesson is: don’t be afraid to be afraid. Don’t assume it’s always jealousy or something bad that you have to cope with on your own. Fear is a symptom, so try and treat the disease. If I’m having a panic attack, rather than kicking myself for being so weak and berating myself to just stop feeling anxious, I try and look at what might be increasing my anxiety in life and embrace the fact that I have it. That makes coping easier.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

Would you like to support me?

If you like my writing, there are a few ways to show me support.

You can become a Patron and get access to the columns and the podcasts 4 days before they’re released to the public. If becoming a Patron is a bit too much you can make a PayPal donation, use my sponsor code at BetterHelp if you want to give it a try, or give a rating and review of the podcast on iTunes.

Useless Polyam Advice: Self-worth

This content is 4 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

This is the first post in a series of blogs I plan to do about the most common advice offered to polyamorous people, specifically newbies, why it’s useless and what you can do instead.

“Just believe in yourself”

Spongebob Squarepants is owned by Viacom, not myself.

The number one thing said to you when you’re scared your partner is going to leave you for someone else, when you’re worried that you don’t have enough to offer your partner, and when you’re scared that you’re not as good as the other people your partner dates is:

Just believe in yourself! You have something unique to offer!

And sometimes it helps. Just like when you’re having a rush of anxiety, taking a deep breath can help calm you down… but other times it can make you so hyper-aware of your breath that it starts a panic attack. More often than not, I don’t believe this bit of advice helps specifically people who struggle with mental health problems and it has some very dubious roots.

Self-esteem wasn’t built in a day

When we grow up, the standard we live in as children becomes our ‘normal’. For someone who grows up with adults that love, support and encourage them, a healthy foundation for a good self esteem and an inherent belief in your own worth grows. For someone who grows up being abused, it is easy to internalise the opposite.

If you haven’t yet heard of the Adverse Childhood Experiences score and the surrounding research, it’s worth having a look at, but one of the main takeaways from the research is that adverse childhood experiences have a huge impact on people’s behaviour as well as their physical and mental health. A high ACE score can contribute to everything from drug use to a higher risk of stroke, cancer, and heart disease. But what’s also important about the ACE score is that it’s not set in stone. The NPR website adds:

ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.

One of the most common affects of having a high ACE score is the difficulty in regulating emotions and behaviour. So if you grow up in an environment where you’re not taught how to regulate your own emotions, how to soothe yourself, how to love yourself… it has very big implications for how you will continue to manage your relationships in the future. And most importantly, it has a big implication for how you will manage the relationship you have with yourself.

The techniques for improving the regulation of emotions in childhood and adulthood are far more complex than simply telling yourself you have worth. Even if we were to assume that one compliment can outweigh one insult… for some people, there’s still an overwhelming deficit of insult they have to tackle before they can even begin to build a proper self esteem.

Societal contributions

Society has a massive impact on who we are as people, especially as we grow and learn more about ourselves. Even if you had a great family life, you still could continue to get the message that you’re essentially worthless in many ways.

A study in 2012 revealed that television boosts the self-esteem of white boys only . Anyone else, specifically white girls and Black children can actually experience a decrease in their self esteem. Over the past 20 years, several links have been drawn between the prevalence of media consumption of the “ideal body” and body dissatisfaction , especially among young girls. If you’ve not yet seen or heard about The Doll Test , it’s a great example of how anti-Blackness impacts Black children’s self worth from a very young age. And it’s not quite yet known how a younger generation growing up with social media will be impacted by that exposure.

Aside from our families and especially if we are unlike our families, we look to media to fill that gap and find out more about ourselves. If the main images of us through media are completely absent or filled with negative stereotypes, it teaches us a lesson that we internalise. Even if you grew up in a supportive household with good parents, it’s almost impossible for you to have not internalised some of these ideals. Even day to day as you tell yourself that BMI is bullshit, that there are many good qualities to you, and every other thing you can think of, you can’t always logic your way out of it because it’s so well entrenched within you.

In romantic relationships, this is something can really bubble to the surface, especially if your metamours (partner’s partners) reflect the standards society deems as more attractive and valuable and you don’t. When you’re facing systems of power that permeate your life in ways you hate, it’s hard to shove it down in relationships and simply tell yourself that you’re a unique snowflake with everything to offer. That one statement is standing against what’s likely decades of internalised degradation.

And that brings me to the poisoned root of this horrible advice:

You are not a product to consume

Relationships should not be transactions. The capitalist system we live in tells us constantly that we’re only as valuable as the labour we can offer, the product we produce. And in many cases, especially for those of us too disabled to do specific types of labour or those of us whose labour has been deemed less valuable or not valuable at all, we *still* think that the best way to prove our self-worth is by what we’re worth. If not in monetary value, than as a product we can offer a partner.

You might think, “Okay, so maybe I’m not good looking enough but I’m a great cook. Maybe I can’t go out swing dancing with my partner but I write music. Maybe I’m not all that great with managing my feelings but I write excellent love notes”. We build ourselves up by trying to find our unique selling point and market ourselves to ourselves to make us less afraid of our partners leaving us. That’s what the standard advice leads you to do.

Like deep breathing, sometimes this works. For as fucked up as this capitalist system is, sometimes the only boost of self esteem we can get in a world that constantly devalues us is knowing we can make the best guacamole the world’s ever seen. It’s not inherently bad to focus on the things we can do well, especially when we’re in a sad, wretched place in our minds. But when those things we can do become the bullets on a CV for romantic partners… then we have to step back.

Because life changes in so many different ways. And with billions of people on this planet, there actually might be someone out there that makes a better guac than you can. More importantly, that’s not even the point of what a relationship is!

Think about why you are with or have been with someone you love. Did you decide to love them the day you sat, looked over their CV and thought, “The pros outweigh the cons here!” We don’t fall in love because someone offers us the best bang for our buck (literally?). I honestly couldn’t tell you why I’ve fallen in love for some people and why not others. I have a feeling that, if media and social influence impacts whether or not we can fall in love with ourselves, it must impact whether we fall in love with other people.

Regardless of the complex reasons of why we’re attracted to and fall in love with the people we do, one thing is pretty clear: it’s not about choosing someone who is good at everything or really good at a number of things despite their flaws. Instead of seeing partners and love in this very capitalist way of a value exchange, we should accept one inevitable truth: we have inherent value as human beings that is not dependent upon what we have to offer others.

There will always be something ‘better’

You can temporarily placate yourself by telling yourself you offer something unique to your romantic partner in the products you as a person can produce. But it’s like putting a strip of gauze on a wound that needs stitches. It treats the symptom, but not the problem. Because no matter how good you can be at one thing, there will always be someone better at it than you. And no matter how much you might be great in one moment, we all have our moments of difficulty and struggle which challenge our resources.

Applying stitches to the wound means reframing your thinking. Stop reinforcing the idea that you are something for someone else to consume and use and start trying to believe that there is an inherent value in your being that isn’t about what you can offer someone. Stop trying to find your USP (unique selling point) and start demanding that people who date you treat you with the respect you should inherently have rather than feel like you need to earn. Because as we all age, change and grow, every single USP we believe we have can change.

That’s not to say this all happens overnight. Again, you’re working against years of conditioning, possibly even conditioning done by your own family. This is going to take time. Insecurity is often the result not of self-hatred, but of not feeling secure. If you’re starting a new relationship, you’re going to feel insecure. And non-monogamy is something which doesn’t come with a cultural script that tells us the signs that our relationship is serious. As explained in The Relationship Escalator, we often have to come up with our own ways of establishing security.

Sometimes the best thing you can do with anxiety is sit with it, go through it and come out the other side knowing and seeing that you’ve survived. I’ve always found that bending to anxiety and trying to bargain with it always results in it slowly taking over my life. If in the short term, thinking of the ways that you can be awesome helps you snap out of an anxiety spiral, that’s fine. But try and not rest those on products of yourself, things you can offer and focus more on the fact that you have an inherent value that can’t be measured and that your relationships shouldn’t be about the perks you can offer someone.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

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Five reasons ‘Couples privilege’ doesn’t exist

This content is 5 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

This article was written in 2017, so it is possible my perspective has shifted since then however the crux of my argument regarding the use of the term remains.

I’ve seen this concept floating around for a long time and I’ve always not really agreed with it or liked it, but it’s taken me awhile to sit down and explain my problem with this concept, why I think it’s inaccurate and what else should be used to describe some of what people usually use ‘couple privilege’ to describe.

Reason 1: Privilege is about systemic oppression

When most people reference couple’s privilege, they’re referencing a blog by Franklin Veaux which has been transferred to the More Than Two website. It gives a cursory explanation of privilege as “any advantage that one person or group has over another that hasn’t been specifically earned” which is not necessarily inaccurate.

The intentional nature of privilege

However, this is overly simplistic and doesn’t really explain who is giving this privilege and why — and this is kind of an extremely crucial part of privilege. While the vast majority of people have some privilege that they don’t know that they have, which the article does discuss, it’s usually based on systems which were created to intentionally bestow a privilege on one type of person and disenfranchise another.

In the example of Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege, ‘whiteness’ as a category isn’t merely just an ‘advantage’ someone just so happens to have over another. ‘Whiteness’ was created as a means of defining white people as better than others, dating back to Carl Linneaus and scientific racism. Race as a category was invented by white people, for white people purely for the purposes of defining white people as a superior type of people. And the history of race has meant a homogenising of people of colour’s identities into one space of skin colour in ways that have meant the destruction of cultures. It wasn’t as if white people woke up one day and were white and had all of these privileges on accident. The system was made on purpose. And it continues to be propped up on purpose. This hasn’t been set and left there to give white people privilege. The system is continuously maintained.

Likewise, if we think about gender and privilege, the categories of binary gender and what it means to be a ‘woman’ and a ‘man’ were also created and reinforced, usually by men, for the intents and purposes of keeping women in their place. If you look at the ideas of what is inherent in women, ages ago women were seen as hypersexual nymphs who couldn’t hold leadership positions for that reason — whereas now ‘men’ are the hypersexual ones — but that, not coincidentally, doesn’t stop them from being leaders. Gender identities as a thing that people experience have always existed, just as ethnic identities have. But when someone comes along, draws boundaries in order to define someone as lesser, that’s intentional.

The personal vs. the structural

And it’s important to recognise privilege as a structural thing because then we dispel the idea that just because you haven’t been personally mean to any individual of any certain marginalisation, doesn’t mean you don’t reinforce systemic oppression. But the problem with ‘couple’s privilege’ is it takes what are personal interactions and conflates them with structural oppression.

When you get personally insulted by someone, there may be an element of structural oppression behind it. Women and people read as women are largely the ones targeted by catcalling and sexual harassment. Black and Latinx people (usually men) are targeted by the police in both the US and the UK despite being statistically less likely to possess drugs or guns. Systems of systemic oppression have a huge impact in our personal lives.

However, any incidence of someone being an asshole to you isn’t an example of systemic oppression. If someone calls me a honky or mayo breath, this is not an example of systemic oppression against white people. The best analogy I’ve heard about is the difference between if you said “You’re fired!” to your boss vs. if they said it to you.

A lot of the items the article describes as “internal privileges” are about individuals behaving in a way that doesn’t prioritise a third person which… is a very jerk thing to do, but isn’t necessarily structurally backed up within wider society. I’ll go into this more when I discuss the idea that none of this is inherent to a couple structure, but fundamentally how someone treats you individually isn’t necessarily a reflection of a systemic privilege.

Intersectional awareness and the problem with ‘privilege’

Kimblerle Crenshaw was the first to introduce the idea of ‘intersectional feminism’ which meant looking at systemic oppression in a more dynamic and nuanced way. When we say that women are oppressed in society, we need to think about the way that other systemic oppressions impact it because it fundamentally changes the experiences of people under this marginalisation. While white women in first wave feminism were complaining that they had no right to work outside of their homes, POC and poor women did not experience this disparity.

And when we look at the way misogyny manifests against women, many different intersections can directly impact it. You can say that women are stereotyped as being ultra feminine and delicate and sensitive — but this is not a stereotype afforded to Black women who experience being masculinised. This goes back to Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I A Woman’. Black women experience misogyny very differently. Latinx women experience a hypersexuality and a ‘spicy’ stereotype while Asian women experience the ‘dragon lady’/schoolgirl stereotype.

Trans women face the tediousness of having to prove their femininity, but Black trans women will experience specific racialised misogyny. While women are supposed to be sexual in very specific ways, disabled, fat and older women are consistently desexualised, infantilised and face their own issues. And I don’t even know enough about what intersex women would face to speak intelligently about it.

The problem with the word ‘privilege’ and how it gets used has already been covered by Andrea Smith, but to summarise, instead of having a deeper discussion about how privileges and marginalisations intersect, often the conversation ends up in people arguing about how oppressed they are, specifically with white people using other oppression they face to pretend they don’t face white privilege. And that’s especially unhelpful because different privileges and marginalisations rely on visibility, geographical location and a myriad of other factors.

Simplifying privilege is not possible because it’s a complicated subject. And ‘couple privilege’ is definitely one case where the lens is very simplistic, not very intersectional, and is one of those examples where using ‘privilege’ is more about claiming oppression than it is about addressing structural inequity.

Reason 2: Only heterosexuals need apply

The thing that immediately struck me about so many of the ‘external privileges’ described by the Couple Privilege article was that many of them were really only applicable to heterosexual couples. This is something that’s immediately obvious to me not only because I am bisexual/queer but also because I grew up with a lesbian mother and so many of these things were not things that my mother could do. Or they were things my mother could do which polyamorous people assume they can’t do.

It’s worth noting that I grew up with a white lesbian mother in the US South. My mother’s whiteness makes a lot of things possible for her that would be very different if she weren’t. And us being in the South made things much different than when we lived in California. Things have also improved somewhat in the US with regards to a few of these things. But to demonstrate how many of these ‘privileges’ wouldn’t have been possible for my mother when she was in a couple, I’ll list them below.

  • Checking into a hotel — My mother and her partner could not rent a hotel room with a double bed without serious risk. They would likely have pretended to be friends and got a twin bed, just to be safe.
  • Greeting cards — Very few greeting cards, even today, are not heterocentric. As a non-binary person, I also notice most greeting cards are unnecessarily gendered, especially if they are romantic.
  • Workplace socialising — My mother once brought her partner to a company function and her boss called her a dyke.
  • Apartment rentals — While I’m not sure whether or not my mother told people we rented apartments to that she was a lesbian in the South or in California, I’m fairly certain many LGB people have had to hide their partner status or been forced to rent apartments with two bedrooms when they only need one to avoid being discriminated against.
  • CPS issues — My experience with the CPS really depends on the local organisation you get. I’ve seen family members allowing their children to live in rotting garbage have nothing happen to them (and they were single, not coupled) whereas I was nearly removed from my father’s house when he left us home alone for weeks on end.
  • Promiscuity — When I told people my mother was gay at school, and that’s when I finally felt safe doing that, they assumed my mother made out with women in front of me. As a bisexual person, I’m assumed to be excessively promiscuous, regardless of whether I am polyamorous or monogamous.
  • Custody disputes — My father threatened my mother repeatedly with court action to take me away on the grounds she was a lesbian. We were afraid because this had actual legal precedent.
  • Background checks — My mother was once fired from a job after someone who worked with her spotted her rainbow sticker on her car. The temp agency said she tested positive for PCP and refused to give her any other jobs. There is a long history of not only being gay being a crime, but it being a public humiliation that prevented you from getting any form of license, even a beauticians.
  • Military — My mother’s partner was in the closet while being in the military.
  • Marriage — My mother could not get married to her partner, but could get married off to her babysitter when she was 16 and married my father because a name change was $300 and a marriage was $30. ‘Domestic partnerships’ she could get later were not federal marriage and didn’t guarantee all her rights. She’s not getting any tax refund for all those years she was with her partner and had to file as single.
  • Religion — It seems this was one where they knew they had to specify heterosexuality but many, many religions didn’t tolerate my mother due to her being a lesbian, let alone host a wedding. Many churches also don’t approve of interracial or interfaith related unions.
  • Fostering — The chances of my mother being able to foster or adopt as a lesbian were laughable. But also, being poor made it an impossibility even if they did accept that and she was in a monogamous coupling.
  • Medical visitation — Same sex couples or even anyone read as a same sex couple wouldn’t be allowed visitation. And I’d say honestly a same sex monogamous couple is more likely to run into more problems with this now than a guy with two girlfriends.
  • Cultural ideas — Homosexuality has a history of being linked to psychopathy and pedophilia in a direct and measurable way. I have watched Congresspeople compare my mother to a child molester on the television when I was young. I’ve yet to remotely hear of paedophilia being linked to polyamory specifically or historically. Many of these cultural ideas are also very true for bisexuals as we’re always seen as being on the prowl, not able to commit, always being up for sex, etc.
  • Picking up children — My mother’s partner could pick me up from school. All schools ask for is a list of trusted adults, especially in poorer areas where the ‘nuclear family’ is not the norm due to economic need or cultural practice. Many people live with grandmas, aunts, and uncles who need to be able to pick children up for school. Maybe this isn’t a ‘norm’ in middle class white neighborhoods, but it’s fairly common to have people other than your parents pick you up.
  • Vacations — We didn’t go on many family events or vacations either due to my mother being seen with her partner and being attacked or just barely being able to afford food, let alone vacations.
  • Credit to monogamy — My mother being a lesbian, despite the number of partners or monogamy practice, was always used as an example of why being lesbian/gay is ‘unstable’. The idea that being bisexual in particular is ‘unstable’ is very prevalent in society, as aforementioned.

All of these examples of couple privilege are not possible for many queer/LGBTQ couples. I’m pretty sure there are things I’m missing out of here that have to do with intersections of race that aren’t thought about. But so many of these are so glaringly obvious that this seems like a list of heterosexual privileges — not couple privileges.

One of the “Fagots [sic] Stay Out” signs that instigated the Gay Liberation Front protests against Barney’s Beanery. 1969. From The Advocate.

While many of this can depend on your location, what I find a lot is that there is an anxiety that (usually white and middle class) polyamorous people experience about certain functions of their lives where they assume their polyamory will be an obstacle, without acknowledging what other intersections of their identity will make these obstacles unlikely or in fact aren’t obstacles at all (such as in the case of picking children up from school). But I’ll get more into what I call ‘Cocktail Party Crisis’ later.

One big caveat about my analysis here is that I’m also coming at this from a white perspective. There may be a lot of these ‘couple privileges’ which also don’t apply to BAME/POC couples. I’m thinking of a story as recent as in 2011 where a Kentucky church refused to even allow the presence of interracial couples in their church services (except for funerals). There may be many other problems with this list I don’t see because I’m white.

Love and marriage in history

Privilege is meant to be about social oppression and specifically about systems created with the purpose of exploiting people and giving other people power. Are heterosexual couples seen as the ‘norm’ in society today? Absolutely. But the construction of the ‘couple’ was not done for the purposes of subjugating polyamorous people — especially since the construction of the ‘couple’ has never historically stopped men specifically from having sex or relationships outside of their married partner.

If we look at love and marriage in history, marriage began as an institution that had absolutely nothing to do with romance and love. It was about the exchange of property: specifically the exchange of a woman for her ‘dowry’. Marriages were made to create political bonds and even today, people can enter into arranged marriages that aren’t necessarily about love or romance but are about security. This isn’t inherently a bad thing.

Two people agree to partner for the benefit and security of another. Different areas will have different marriage customs, but the most common purpose of marriage was for the man to secure his legitimate heir. And as Sex at Dawn (a book a lot of polyamorous people like), notes, a shift from a nomadic society to an agricultural society meant men wanting to secure their property to pass to their heir and not to anyone else and meant a hoarding of resources.

Marriage was not about love and it doesn’t have to be. Many people get married even today because of the legal benefits, but that isn’t always a ‘privilege’ for them. Being forced to enter into a legal bonding with someone in order to secure things like health insurance puts individuals in precarious places. The idea that marriage should be reflective of romance or love is a fairly new one. And if we look even further back into history, the idea that romantic love is a valid feeling worth pursuing is also new.

In fact, love was seen by ancient philosophers as a mental illness. I’ve never been a fan of evolutionary psychology because I think it’s always ignored the way our modern cultural attitudes affect how we interpret our past selves, but if you think about this from a purely survival standpoint, love is not evolutionarily wise. It makes more sense to make partnerships based off of who will give you the most chances of survival, not whether or not they make your knees wobble.

Why is this relevant? Because fundamentally marriage and the creation of the couple has been about the exchange and security of property. And because of that, men have always had the freedom to explore other sexual and romantic interests outside of that couple, especially if they were wealthy. Adultery may be a crime, but historically, adultery has been about the threat that it posed to the construction of the family, i.e. the solidification of the exchange of property, which is why the Ancient Greeks thought it was worse than rape.

If you think about the context of that threat, the woman, being seen as the guardian of the family and the bearer of the children, had much more to lose and much less ability to fight back against adultery — a practice which continues on today. If you think about the disparities in how female celebrities such as Kristen Stewart are treated when they cheat to punishments in other cultures against women who commit adultery the issue is less of the idea that a third partner is always evil and more on the idea of who owns what.

The couple wasn’t constructed in society for the purposes of subjugating people in throuples, or multiple relationships. It was a part of misogyny that ensured the exchange of property. That is why so many of these don’t apply to queer/LGBT couples and why queer/LGBT couples who are in long term monogamous partnerships are used as examples of why LGBT people should have these rights and to establish their legitimacy.

Reason 3: Not just for couples

The other issue I have with the way couple privilege is defined is that so many of the ‘internal privileges’ described are not behaviours exclusive to couples and can happen outside of those structures.

Prioritising isn’t always about value

There are lots of reasons why we might prioritise some relationships over others. We do this in everyday life. Someone that we’ve been friends with for 5 years might feel closer to us than someone who we’ve just met. If a member of our family is ill, we might cancel a date with a friend to take care of them. There’s a number of reasons we prioritise different relationships at different times. It’s not always done with the intention of valuing something less.

Sometimes this can be sinister. Anecdotally, I have heard for BAME/POC polyamorous people that they feel like racism has a direct impact in how they’re valued or prioritised by partners, regardless of couples status. Despite polyamory supposedly being welcome and able for anyone to practice, many polyamorous people end up being excluded by the community which is, to me, not much different from prioritising a couple over an individual — and actually has structural oppression behind it.

The problem with polyamory is sometimes that there’s a lack of overall studies of the community and the exclusion problem above creates an even greater issue. When I was active in the polyamory ‘community’ I could count the number of POC/BAME polyamorous people I knew on one hand. When I stepped away from the community, for reasons I outline in “Why I don’t identify as poly”, I actually have met more POC/BAME people who are polyamorous than not. The surveys and research that may get passed around only get so far as communities reach.

But I can say at least, in the time I’ve run both Non-Monogamy Help and have participated in online polyamory communities, prioritising one partner over the other has been something I’ve seen people do outside of a couple framework. Do I think people trying out polyamory start out making some of these assumptions without thinking about it? Absolutely.

However, generally speaking a lot of the people who start out making these assumptions and prioritising their relationship over other relationships outside of the couple do so out of fear and a general ignorance/rose tinted glasses over what polyamory is going to mean for them. It doesn’t mean it’s not shitty behaviour. It’s just not limited to newbie couples.

Priorities, time and disability

Much of what underlies the idea of Couple Privilege is the idea that two people choosing to prioritise their relationship over other relationships is inherently oppressive. But, as I said before, we prioritise all types of relationships in our life depending on circumstances. In fact, one of the problems monogamy can often bring is the assumption that a romantic relationship is inherently more important than friendships and there’s an ongoing cultural script about what it’s like to be the third wheel when your friend enters a romantic relationship and stops spending time with you.

Many people (hopefully) would not question the idea that, when you bring a child into the world or adopt one, that child should become your number one focus in your life. While the amount of self sacrifice expected of individuals definitely is gendered, many people would not blink to think that prioritising your child among all other relationships isn’t bad. And it doesn’t mean that “Child Privilege” exists.

We also prioritise our time in different ways, which has a lot to do with our relationships. Someone who has a time intensive career such as being a doctor or a lawyer will have to prioritise their career over their relationships in many ways. Having that priority isn’t inherently a problem — but it becomes a problem when you don’t acknowledge it and use it as an excuse to be negligent of partners or children. There is nothing wrong with setting priorities in your life of how you are going to spend your time.

As a disabled person, I have to set those priorities. You may have heard of the spoon theory and its applications for people with different types of disabilities. Being a person with a thyroid disorder and someone who experiences sensory processing problems, spoons are definitely something I relate to. I have to consider where and how I spend my time because, if I don’t, I could end up either exhausted and sleeping for 12 hours or crying in a corner from a meltdown.

So many articles about chronic illness beg people to not give up on individuals with chronic illness because they cancel plans, have to change things around. And this is often an issue for people with social anxiety, which I also struggle with from time to time. It’s a pure and simple fact for me that people I already know take up less spoons to meet and speak with than going to new events with brand new people. And dates? Ne’er was there a more spoon draining activity for me. I have had to turn down dates with people because they refused to meet me in spaces that would not be a sensory overload.

Behaviours are the problem, not hierarchies

Being disabled has a direct impact on how I decide to do relationships, especially given that I also have a disability which has the high likelihood of rendering me blind eventually. I have thought about how I want to go through life, if I want to live on my own (because solo polyamory has appealed to me) and which ways I want to live. I also have to think about my own mental health concerns, if I have the capability to provide emotional support for multiple people, if I have the physical energy to devote to travel… all of these considerations have been part and parcel of why I have chosen to have a domestic/primary partner.

But having that doesn’t mean that I do not value other relationships or other people inherently. But it does mean I will prioritise my time accordingly. Having been in the position of a secondary who’s been ejected like a defective warp core to save the mother ship, I know that it doesn’t feel good. And from my experience, the problem for me was the lack of communication. I had assumed my position was equal, when it wasn’t. If I had been told from the start where this person’s priorities lay, I may have not invested so much. Any new partnerships I make, I will ensure that the person understands what my energy levels are and where I invest them due to having so little.

Despite having a hierarchy, I do not have ‘veto’ power over my domestic partner’s relationships. Nor does it mean that any of the items outlined in ‘internal privileges’ are necessarily true about my relationships. While this may be how individuals within couples have a tendency to react, it doesn’t mean that having a hierarchical structure is the actual problem. Especially when prioritising one relationship over the other can happen outside of a couple or a structured hierarchy. Deciding to toss out all hierarchical structures or judge them as the problem is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

At the end of the day, if one communicates to potential partners that this is how you operate and that’s not something that a new partner wants to be a part of, that’s fine and that’s really the best choice of how to go about things. However you decide to structure things is up to you and your life. But it is naive to assume that not having any hierarchies won’t result in your partners prioritising another relationship over yours.

The impact of wealth

Many polyamory communities are dominated by white, wealthy/middle class polyamorous people, but there are other communities outside. I do think that, to a certain extent, practicing polyamory in terms of having the expendable time for multiple dates and relationships is easier for individuals with a certain amount of class privilege, which I briefly covered in “Why I don’t identify as poly”. However, there are communities of poor and working class polyamorous people who may experience ‘couple privilege’ differently.

Many of the cases of ‘privilege’ described in the article have to do with the impact of class privilege and wealth. Two people operating as a unit or a couple will usually have a significant advantage economically over an individual who is operating on their own. In speaking with some individuals who practice solo polyamory (where they don’t have any type of domestic/live-in partner), they experience couples who operate with a ‘unicorn hunter’ agenda as having far more wealth than any individual partner.

But as a variety of people practice polyamory, including working class and poor people, there may be many circumstances where the couple do not have much wealth and unilaterally applying ‘couple privilege’ to them, especially with regards to actions that would be more likely to be committed by a wealthy couple, doesn’t acknowledge how wealth is another huge intersection which is being ignored.

Reason 4: Visibility vs. erasure

There are many privileges that the article describes that are institutionalised. You can only get married to one other person. Legalities of contracts, house ownership, other types of issues are fraught with complications when marriage doesn’t simplify the matter. But the problem with this simplistic definition, and this is a problem you find in a lot of narratives about privilege, is the lack of understanding between the oppressive effects of visibility vs. erasure.

Privileges where there are none

There are a lot of parallels in this discussion with discussions I have had in the trans and non-binary communities about ‘Binarism’. I am a non-binary person, specifically agender, and am also trans. There is a lot of discussion in the non-binary community about ‘invisibility’ with the assumption that non-binary people are ‘invisible’. But “non-binary” covers a range of identities, some of which include gender non-conforming people who are definitely ‘visible’ and attacked.

Some non-binary people will argue that their non-binary identity blocks them from getting access to transgender healthcare and thus the concept of ‘Binarism’ or the idea that binary identified gendered people have a ‘privilege’ over non-binary people, was born.

On the whole, just looking at the concept and not thinking about intersections, it might make sense to you. But in practice and in looking at how systems of oppression actually work, it is incredibly dependent upon several factors. Yes, non-binary people are denied healthcare because non-binary identities are either not considered valid or people don’t know enough about them to consider them valid. I’ve experienced this directly when trying to get surgery. Yes, non-binary people face issues solely binary identified people don’t, such as a struggle with getting people to accept the validity of gender neutral pronouns.

But, this does not inherently mean that binary identified trans people have a ‘privilege’ over non-binary people. And when we look at it with an intersectional lens and we look at who is at the most risk in the trans community as a whole, it’s transgender women of colour. Not to mention, the common narrative of ‘non-binary invisibility’ not only erases the fact that transfeminine and gender non-conforming individuals are very visible, but also that non-binary identities were largely rendered invisible by white colonisers to create a system that even white non-binary people like me overwhelmingly benefit from. The best breakdown of this is written by b. binaohan in ‘decolonizing trans/gender 101’.

While I once used the concept of ‘binarism’, when I realised that it was inherently flawed because it ignored the intersections of power and assumed a ‘privilege’ that was extremely dependent upon gender, race, wealth and other social characteristics, I stopped using it. The base assumption many white people like me make is that visibility is acceptance and that erasure is equal to targeted discrimination. Fundamentally, the system of oppression created that impacted me in ways I used ‘binarism’ to describe were not designed with the intent to impact me specifically, and that matters.

Visibility as acceptance

White people have the privilege of being visible in whiteness without that in and of itself being a threat. Because of that we assume that visibility is part and parcel of acceptance. And yes, being able to be you to the fullest in every aspect of your life is very freeing. Not having to hide parts of yourself feels freeing when you feel like you do have to hide. But just because you are visible, doesn’t mean you are accepted. And for people in many ways, being visible puts you at risk.

It’s not a surprise to me that one of the only non-binary people to be attacked in a hate crime was Sasha Fleischman, an agender person whose skirt was lit on fire while they were asleep on a bus . And it doesn’t surprise me that people tend to be the most vicious toward me online about being trans when they assume I am a trans woman. Which is not to say they don’t mock being non-binary, but “tr*nny” is a specific word launched at specific people.

This is because of visibility. I am agender, but no one looks at me and knows that. I am read as a woman and I rarely dress ‘masculine’. I am not gender non-conforming now but I certainly was growing up and I got lots of bullying for it. It’s an experience that has put me at an odd end of the non-binary community in some ways, because I don’t have a desire to look ‘genderless’ because when I did look ‘genderless’, the visibility meant hatred and attack for me — not acceptance.

There are structural obstacles against me for being non-binary. I have been denied treatment due to it and in many cases, I have no ability to choose a gender neutral title or not include a gender in forms. Many non-binary people feel erased because they are not visible or included in functions of the state. And while their feelings are valid, to me there is a very big difference between the impact of erasure and the impact of visibility when that visibility means targeted discrimination. Sasha and I are both agender, but I doubt I would be attacked in such a way and if I was, it would be for being read as a woman, not for being seen as someone who is not conforming to gender standards and therefore must be attacked.

Being visible in society also means targeted discrimination. It means that not only are you not included in the structures of society, but you are purposefully excluded. The reason that transgender women of colour are killed and attacked and targeted in vast contrast to the rest of us is because of not only their visibility as people of colour but also because trans women have been identified in society as a population to be purposefully attacked and excluded. If you think about jokes and hatred towards trans people, media stereotypes and more, almost all of them are made about trans women. It’s not to say trans men are never attacked, but it’s to say that when society identifies you as a visible entity and targets you, it has a direct effect on your life.

In my case, a lot of people don’t know non-binary is even a thing. And while that presents its own problems, there is a huge difference to me between when you are visible and targeted to when you are erased.

Cocktail Party Crisis

For a lot of white, wealthy polyamorous people, being polyamorous is their first experience where visibility might risk them a loss of something. Things that they would normally have unfettered access to now become a source of anxiety. There isn’t much of a distinction or an understanding of how intersections will impact the discrimination they experience. In many cases, they assume that the erasure they experience as a polyamorous person is equal to being targeted when that is not always the case.

Polyamory is a relatively new word for a practice that isn’t necessarily new. But we have lived in a society which has endorsed heterosexual monogamy for a long time. It definitely challenges norms. Slowly, polyamory is working it’s way into a wider cultural contexts, now becoming something people are cognisant of. The reactions, depending on where you are, can be mixed, but polyamory is becoming known as a ‘modern’ and even forward thinking thing. Contrast this directly to ‘homosexuality’ which was once defined as a mental illness and has never been seen as ‘edgy’, except when companies have been able to use their support of homosexuality as proof of their ‘open mindedness’.

James Baldwin once said this regarding white gay people in 1984:

“I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to their sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society.”

In other words, white gay people were not angry that they were mistreated for being gay, but rather that their gay-ness prevented them from accruing the privileges that were awarded to them by virtue of being white. And in many cases, what I call the “Cocktail Party Crisis” is when white polyamorous people are feeling oppressed because their relationship style gets in the way of the privileges they expect to have because of their whiteness.

This Crisis doesn’t take into account intersectional identities and how they play into who will be on the receiving end of blame when polyamory does become a reason for why someone is discriminated against. In many of the examples I’ve been given of polyamory discrimination, the vast majority have happened against women or individuals read as women, not because there is an understanding or visibility of polyamory and a desire to target it, but instead an idea that women sleeping with more than one person are bad, a.k.a. misogyny. Sometimes these happen in areas that are more rural, which also has an impact on how women and relationships are viewed overall.

You might say, “But why does it matter? They were still attacked for being polyamorous.” Because the nature of the institution matters. Because this is the same thought process that leads people to assume that women have a privilege in family courts because they supposedly automatically get custody of the children in every divorce agreement. Aside from the fact that it is a myth that women are automatically granted custody, being awarded children purely on the assumption that being a woman makes you ‘better with kids’ is not a privilege. There are many cases where oppressive stereotypes seem like “benefits” when they aren’t.

Why targeting is important

It’s not to say that no one has ever been threatened with losing custody, or other legal consequences for being polyamorous and that these situations don’t happen. But it’s to say that, because polyamory is ‘erased’ or not known within a cultural context, it is likely that those who do experience consequences for polyamory are going to be ones who are more visible or who are experiencing any other current structural oppression.

When I say that trans women of colour experience the most violence in the trans community, it is not to say that white trans men never get any violence — it’s to say that there are people who are targeted and visible and those are the people who will structurally receive the most impact of bigotry, whether the individuals killing trans people understand the word ‘transgender’ or not. So those practicing polyamory who are most visible (women, POC/BAME, poor, queer/LGBT, etc.) are more likely to experience consequences for being polyamorous than not.

I can’t in good conscience pretend that someone like CeCe McDonald has ‘privilege’ over me because she is binary identified when I know for a fact I don’t face the same violence she faced due to my ‘invisibility’. And likewise, I can’t ignore the fact that some of these ‘privileges’ for couples are only accessible to me in situations where I can be read as being in a ‘straight’ couple than in scenarios where I’m not.

The feelings behind the Cocktail Party Crisis that many white, wealthy polyamorous people experience are valid just as the anger at mistreatment white gay people experience is valid. However, it’s important to put this within an intersectional context. My white lesbian mother did face structural oppression for being a lesbian that may have been lessened due to her whiteness, but the structure created to intentionally rob her existed. The difference in ‘couple privilege’ is that the system wasn’t designed for the intention of disenfranchising polyamorous people specifically. And that matters.

Reason 5: “Monocentrism” works better

You can’t look at the media we consume and the society we face and not see that the heterosexual couple is the ‘norm’ identified in this society and the expectation people have. Just as I can’t look at the media I consume and the society I face and not see that a binary concept of gender is an expectation people have, despite biology teachers explaining the complex nature of sex, despite scientists confirming the existence of intersex people, and despite well known scientists updating their assumptions on gender.

Instead of ‘binarism’, I’ve adopted describing this phenomena as ‘ciscentrism’. I didn’t even get into a discussion about intersex people and how the concept of ‘binarism’ assumes that intersex people who identify as only women or men have a different experience or even that a person can identify as both non-binary and a woman (if they are bigender for example), but the point is trying to identify a major source of bias in how society sees something without catagorising it in an incorrect way. I see ciscentrism as a product of misogyny as a whole.

Privilege refers to systems intentionally created in order to oppress people that we now at times unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) reinforce. Misogyny as an oppressive system was created to control women — and in order to do that the concept of ‘woman’ had to be defined. Over time this has changed. Ancient Greeks used to define a vagina as an inverted penis and believed women were a sort of off-shoot of the original ‘male’ species. Regardless of how we’ve defined ‘woman’ over time, it has always been with the intention of creating a structure where men have more power.

And in order to do that, those who fall outside of the gender spectrum must be purposefully erased from history or murdered (such as in colonial invasions). Ciscentrism is the symptom of the disease of misogyny. It’s the byproduct of what happens when you have a society that attempts to define a binary system of gender in order to reinforce a system of oppression. And in that vein, monocentrism (a term which I didn’t make up myself) is a byproduct of a society that uses the unit of the ‘couple’ to reinforce a system of oppression.

Monocentrism also has the benefit of speaking about cultural trends rather than interpersonal interactions, which are a different aspect that isn’t covered in the definition of ‘privilege’. McIntosh’s Knapsack doesn’t delve into interpersonal relationships, even though white privilege can have a direct impact on that. When it comes to how individuals treat each other, we have to look at that always within the context of overall oppression, which relies on visibility and targeted discrimination.

While I understand, given the constant cultural monotony of heterosexual monogamy being endorsed and re-endorsed, being polyamorous feels very “other”, especially in rural areas, it’s still important to re-examine things from a wider perspective. When I lived in the US South, being agnostic wasn’t something I admitted to being. At work, I was asked only, “What church do you go to?”. They didn’t even recognise the concept of me not being Christian.

Oppression against anyone who isn’t a Christian in many US Southern states is very real. But being a white person who could be assumed Christian and not, for example, a Sikh, Muslim or even a Jewish person wearing a Star of David if I so choose, gave me a lot more leeway. And now that I’m in London and I’m a pagan, I would say that being agnostic or atheist is more common and expected. While England may officially have the Church of England as the official church, what’s on paper isn’t the same as what’s in practice — and that’s important to remember.

But what about those unicorn hunters?

Much of what the Couple Privilege article contains about tendencies people have as couples exploring polyamory is accurate and the advice it gives to people on how to be aware of how they might be prioritising their relationship over newer ones is an important thing. A lot of people make these pitfalls. They assume things about their relationship, they get other people involved, they don’t communicate their assumptions, and they end up hurting people.

Unicorn hunters are very common and it’s a practice that needs to be addressed and countered, without a doubt. But just because people have a tendency to behave like a jerk or just because you may lack access to certain things doesn’t mean there is a system of oppression that has been targeted and created to oppress you. And we can address the way society prioritises monogamy while being intersectional and being real about what structural oppression means.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

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The hierarchy polyamorous people don’t talk enough about

This content is 5 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

Hierarchies are seen as an inherently negative thing within many polyamorous subcultures, but very myopically. There’s a focus on having a primary/secondary structure as always problematic but I actually find that there’s a hierarchy that’s not really spoken about — and that’s the the role and value sex has in relationships.

The role of hierarchies in polyamory

As a caveat, I will say that I don’t feel as though hierarchies are always an issue in relationships (see ‘Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy’ for more explanation) and this has a lot to do with how I structure my life around my disabilities. It’s really important for me both with my mental health and being on the autistic spectrum to have clearly defined roles for people in my life and what my expectations are of them.

Having also had a bad experience as a more or less ‘secondary’ person, I have felt like the bond I had with someone was easily discarded and I do feel like the best way for this to be avoided is clear communication about what people expect. Not that it’s going to negate sad feelings, but I personally find that the less things are laid out, the more likely I am to be dangerously optimistic because romance and new relationship energy always has the impact of making me want to hold on when I shouldn’t.

Revaluing what relationships mean

The hierarchies I’m referencing are not about primary/secondary relationships — they’re about the value sex brings to relationships and how we value sex-based relationships well over other forms of relationships.

My personal experience with non-monogamy is that it’s allowed me to really radically rethink what relationships mean and how I value them. Within a Eurocentric white heterocentrist culture, we’re taught to value romantic relationships above friendships. There’s a life plan that involves being born, growing up, finding a partner, settling down with that partner, having children, those children growing old, and then living with your partner until you die and that being a marker of ‘success’.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t cultural grey areas where there’s a question of whether you’re meant to value a significant other over your family or a child. I can certainly say as someone who’s been disowned or doesn’t speak to family, the idea that I don’t is an awkward thing for many people to cope with. However, I do think that overwhelmingly we’re taught that romantic relationships that inevitably involve sex are the relationships that our lives are defined by and are more important than friendships and other types of relationships.

Despite the fact that a ‘breakup’ with a friend can be devastating and heartbreaking, we don’t have narratives about it. Endless songs and films are written about breaking up with a significant other, about being single, about not having someone to come home to — and it’s a sharp contrast to the amount of material written about losing a close friend. And I can say personally there’s not very much written about not having family members because the assumption is that you have them.

So within polyamory, I can not only have multiple romantic relationships, but it’s taught me to reevaluate what other relationships mean and what makes a relationship in and of itself. And as someone who’s asexual, this has been really great because it means that I can have a close, intimate relationship with someone that isn’t sex-based or sex-focused.

Polyamory and sex

For as much as I think polyamorous people want to dispel the myth that polyamory is just about getting to have sex with loads of people all of the time or that it’s swinging in some way, I do honestly feel like my experiences with polyamorous people and within polyamorous culture is that there is an unwritten hierarchy which inherently gives value to those relationships that are or can be sexual over others.

From what I gather from other polyamorous people across the globe, sometimes the community surrounding you is somewhat of a lottery. Some communities are more heterocentric and transphobic than others, so it can really vary depending on where you are. All I can say is that in my experience, primarily it feels like, to put it bluntly, if someone can’t bone me at their convenience, then it’s not worth investing any energy into me.

Or the push to be so ‘sex positive’ ends up being what I call ‘sex compulsory’ (see ‘The pressure to be into it’) or at the very least you can’t be someone who wants to have an environment that’s maybe just a little sex free lest you be delegated as a prude. There are so many parties and local events which either are just play/sex parties or are basically hookup events that it just seems like if you’re polyamorous and you don’t necessarily want to leap in the bed with someone or even just leap into being physically intimate with someone, you’re not with it.

Very few people question this hierarchy in a way that actually subverts it. There’s a picture of some text I often see polyamorous people sharing on social networks that says something like, “kiss your friends more, hold hands with them, destroy the belief that intimacy must be reserved for monogamous relationships” and there is this assumption that doing romantic things with your friends breaks boundaries inherently. This doesn’t question or put into challenge the hierarchy of romantic relationships vs. friendships — it just asserts that one need do typically romantic things with your friends in order to break those boundaries, but it’s never the reverse.

Having less sex is never seen as challenging the status quo of prudishness, so then within polyamorous communities it feels like if what you want is less sex or if you don’t want sex at all, your choice of partners who understand that is very abysmal. Or at the very least, you make up such a minority within the community that, even if you do find partners who form a relationship with you that isn’t sex-centric, it’s unlikely that that relationship will be held to the same standard as one that does include sex.

What is a ‘relationship’ anyway?

Many people within the polyamorous community question the hierarchy of a ‘primary’ partner and even assume that by saying you have a primary partner that it legitimately means you love one partner more than others. Specifically people who believe in relationship anarchy, according to what I understand anyway, want to break down the barriers between relationships and feel that they value all relationships the same way.

But I find this step, like the aforementioned graphic, only works in one way. It’s about doing romantic or sexual things with people regardless of what label you give them, applying these activities to any and all of the people you want to, which is a fine approach. But my question is that why does it seem to go in only one way?

I don’t feel like, even within an ‘anarchist’ structure, relationships with a not sexual or not romantic in nature are valued in the same way sexual or romantic relationships are valued. Not wanting to have sex, not wanting even necessarily to be in a sexual environment can often lead you to having absolutely nothing to attend or go to.

Speaking for myself and not everyone on the asexual spectrum, I quite often find like events which involve a sexual aspect or are known for being places for people to meet and ‘hook-up’ feel pressured in a way that other events don’t. I quite often don’t feel like, unless I’m dating another asexual, it’s even possible to negotiate a relationship that doesn’t involve sex.

Instead of redefining a relationship in terms of just how much it means to us, relationships are redefined to mean that any and all can include sex or romantic actions. And while I’m not saying that’s inherently bad either, the fact that it doesn’t go the opposite way is worth pointing out. I’ve yet to meet an allosexual person within the polyamorous community (or outside of it, to be honest) who radically didn’t make the assumption that sex would happen between us.

What does this mean?

I know there are asexual polyamorous people out there. I’ve met quite a few of them. And I do think and know of several people within polyamorous communities that date asexual people and do challenge the inherent assumption that all relationships are sexual or romantic based quite a lot.

But what I want people to think about is reframing how they decide to challenge the status quo. I have a lot of friends who I care about deeply who I don’t want to make out with or cuddle. It doesn’t mean that they are inherently worth less than people I would make out or cuddle with. The solution to breaking down barriers between relationships isn’t only necessarily doing romantic and sexual things with friends. There’s more ways than one to think about redefining things.

I had a very close friend who I never made out with and didn’t really cuddle, but when our friendship fell apart, my sadness was on par to that of a romantic relationship. What intimacy means to us is individual. If you want to make out with and cuddle your friends, great.

But how about let’s challenge the assumption that intimacy is always physical.

Note: I wrote this article in 2017 and my perspectives may have shifted on a few things but the gist of my point remains.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

Would you like to support me?

If you like my writing, there are a few ways to show me support.

You can become a Patron and get access to the columns and the podcasts 4 days before they’re released to the public. If becoming a Patron is a bit too much you can make a PayPal donation, use my sponsor code at BetterHelp if you want to give it a try, or give a rating and review of the podcast on iTunes.

9 strategies for counteracting toxic parenting in non-monogamy

This content is 5 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

In a previous article, I talked about nine different ways that toxic parenting can impact the communication you have in non-monogamy. For Valentine’s Day, I wanted to spend this article talking about specific strategies to combat these problems both from my own personal experience and the experiences I’ve heard from others.

This is not to say all of these strategies may work for you. We’re all individuals. But I do think that some of these might give you a baseline to work with and apply to whichever situation is confronting you.

1. Establish boundaries with yourself

For many people growing up in toxic homes, they internalise the idea that their behaviour is what ‘causes’ their parents or family to behave in a certain way towards them. The end result is that a lot of people attempt to set boundaries to control others rather than themselves.

While some basic agreements about sexual health and boundaries that help individuals cope with situations are important, ultimately you can’t control what individuals do. And what one does is just as important to identify and work through as what other people do.

It’s very important to make sure you have boundaries for yourself first, before you have boundaries for other people. In the previous article, the first way toxic parenting can impact you is that it can make you spread yourself thin because you’re using the support you can provide to all of your partners as way to reaffirm your worth.

You can tell yourself that you are worthy, but this isn’t something that’s going to magically change how you feel about yourself overnight. This is going to take time. But in the meantime, you can make rules for yourself and enforce them. These are the types of boundaries you can enforce with yourself to limit spreading yourself too thin:

– I will only go to X person’s house X days a week.
– I will not answer messages during work hours.
– I will give support about a given issue 3 times.
– I will ask for help when I need it.

These might seem strange or harsh, but setting a few key goals with yourself, and letting your partners know you have these boundaries with yourself, can really help you work towards asserting boundaries with other people. And don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t come easy. It’ll take time!

2. Pay attention to discomfort

Acknowledging discomfort in toxic environments can often lead to more discomfort or a problem if you live in an environment where your feelings are not respected or acknowledged. Over a period of time, this can lead to you ignoring your feelings.

At times, people have a false dichotomy in their thinking of how to process their feelings of discomfort. Many people make the mistake of assuming that acknowledging negative feelings automatically means you do something about them or that something has to happen in order for those feelings to subside or change.

That often leads them to giving advice that encourages people to deal with their feelings on their own and not express them. And within non-monogamy, people may be afraid to express their feelings because they might be worried about what impact they may have, if they may be misinterpreted as ‘jealousy’ or if they will cause grief.

When we suppress the acknowledgement of our discomfort, we put up with situations that are toxic way longer than we need to. If you have a healthy relationship with someone, you should be able to come to them and talk to them about your discomfort without it having to mean a consequence.

But first, you have to pay attention to it yourself. Keep a diary if need be, but notice when you feel discomfort. Don’t assume that you immediately have to solve it. Just see it and recognise it. Think about it in context. Talk it over with a good friend you can trust or, if you have it, a therapist. You can also find an online supportive community to share your anxieties with.

Try not to shove anything down. Instead recognise it and take note of it. Don’t automatically assume there is a fault within yourself that is causing the discomfort. It could be, but it couldn’t be. Recognising your feelings won’t change that. Over time, as you notice what makes you uncomfortable, you can then feel more solid about expressing this to a partner. And it might lead you to recognising the signs of being a frog in a boiling kettle.

3. Embrace confrontation on smaller levels

People who can communicate well can still find confrontation uncomfortable. This is something I particularly struggle with because it feels like I have two modes: no confrontation or a complete upset. Within my romantic relationships, I’ve thankfully begun to be capable of confronting a partner about my feelings before it gets to a point where I’m completely upset.

But even with others I don’t feel safe with, it’s hard for me to confront them. I’ve spent a lot of my life not having my feelings taken seriously by others, so I’m less likely to trust that confronting someone is going to result in any resolution, so I’ll only do it when I’m at my wits end.

I believe that within romantic relationships, if you have a lot of mutual trust with each other and over time you learn that your partner isn’t going to abandon you if you have a problem, you will feel safer to talk about uncomfortable things, rather than keeping silent. But this is going to take some time.

In my own particular example, it took a few times of me keeping silent until I got very upset at my partner for me to see that my partner wasn’t just going to leave when I got upset, especially because in those instances where I was upset, my partner focused less on my emotions and how high they were running and instead zero-ed in on what I was upset about and tried to address it.

If you can set up this type of relationship with your partners, let them know how difficult you find confrontation and the situations you grew up with that taught you that confrontation would either be fruitless or explosive, you can help them help you to confront them in a way that will over time decrease the amount of anxiety you have connected with confrontation. Now, I couldn’t be silent about something that’s upsetting me if I tried because my brain is comfortable and knows it will be taken seriously, so it comes out sooner rather than later.

A word of caution, however. If you are in a toxic relationship, this might not just be your feelings. Any relationship where there is no ability for one individual to tell the other that they have been hurt without that person then reacting with anger or indignation isn’t a healthy one.

4. Plan for discomfort

I’ve written a bit about what anxiety has taught me about non-monogamy and the crucial takeaway for me is that my anxiety became far more manageable when I started embracing the truth that I may have anxiety instead of trying to prevent it from happening or force it to stop when it was happening.

When I accepted that I had anxiety and tried to instead focus on ways to cope with the anxiety, it made it so much easier. I spent less time beating myself up for having anxiety and seeing myself as a failure and more time working on the feeling anxiety caused and, predictably, I have far less anxiety now than I did when I was actively trying to stop it.

We’ve already talked about enforcing boundaries with yourself and you may find when you’re enforcing those boundaries for yourself, it definitely has an impact on your relationship with others. And it may allow you to easily transition into trying to enforce some boundaries with others.

The article I wrote on ways toxic parenting impacts non-monogamy mentions how guilt can prevent you from setting boundaries. When you’re used to your boundaries being violated, you learn not to have them anymore. When you’re putting these boundaries back up, you’re going to be uncomfortable.

In fact, if you’re new to non-monogamy or new to having romantic relationships, you’re going to be uncomfortable. I think taking the approach of accepting that there will be discomfort and deciding what to do with it, especially having that discussion with a partner, makes things a lot easier to cope with.

Otherwise, I personally find I spend so much time worrying about whether or not I will be uncomfortable, I end up uncomfortable anyway. Embracing the fact that you might be uncomfortable with something and planning for it will help. And if you can work with a good partner that prioritises your comfort, over time it will make it easier to lay down boundaries. You need to rebuild that trust with yourself and other people and see scenarios where your boundaries are respected and acknowledged.

5. Have a solid support network

To insert a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And you’re not just going to ‘get over’ lessons that you’ve learned growing up in toxic places overnight. As much as you may logically believe everything you read here, putting it into practice is a completely different thing.

And putting all of this into practice may be virtually impossible for you if you don’t have a solid support network. This isn’t just about having romantic partners who understand that you struggle with communication, it is about every single person who’s close to you and how you deal with them. And it’s also about identifying where you get support from and why.

Even the most supportive, respectful and open partner cannot be expected to be a therapist for another partner. Our support networks have to extend outside of individuals we’re dating. One of the things that all abusive individuals do when they’re trying to draw someone in is isolate them. Isolation is a tactic of control. Because most people with solid support networks are able to use those networks to realise when something is amiss.

Solid support networks can be hard to come by, especially coming from a toxic home. Social anxiety and the inability to afford therapy can further compound this. It’s hard for me to say for each individual what you can do to build a stronger support network because it will likely heavily depend on your own personal struggles, your environment, and what obstacles you face. But what I can say is that even as a fairly un-social introverted and anxious individual without much contact from family, I do have several people I can turn to for help and rely on.

If you’re not sure what you’ve got, look in your local area for free services that might be able to be part of a crucial support network for you.

6. Work on vocalising your feelings to yourself

In embracing your discomfort, you should also embrace the idea that your feelings may shift and change. One of the most common struggles I see with people in non-monogamy is that they’re okay with something in theory but their feelings don’t always pan out in practice.

For someone who has grown up in a toxic environment, this discord can seem particularly fraught. If you’re used to your boundaries shifting to accommodate someone who is unpredictable, this discord can make you feel like you are now the unpredictable one. And that turns into guilt, which then leads to people not vocalising their discomforts. Because, what if they’re ‘crazy’?

But feeling okay with something in theory but not in practice is relatively normal. And in fact, I think anyone doing non-monogamy for the first time should expect that because it’s almost guaranteed to happen to anyone in their lives regardless of how they do relationships. In fact, it’s pretty normal within any aspect of life to have feelings that change when the idea becomes the reality. Stage fright, for example, is a perfect example.

Within a lot of polyamory advice, there’s a lot of negative talk about mental illnesses or people struggling with anxiety. More than once, I’ve heard the phrase ‘Don’t stick your dick in crazy’. It’s assumed that you should be ‘self-confident’ enough to cope with any anxieties. And on top of that, there’s a pressure not to burden partners with it, lest you be seen as ‘manipulative’.

What this leads to is people being afraid to tell their partners when they are afraid. I find that sometimes this approach can work, if your feelings do eventually subside, but sometimes being silent about it and coping with it on your own just compounds the problem, especially when some reassurance from your partner can go a long way.

It’s not to say you should vocalise your feelings constantly. Definitely don’t rely on one partner or even all partners for all of your emotional reassurance. That’s what your support network is for. But becoming comfortable with talking about your feelings is a good start. Try to vocalise when you’re feeling scared, thinking about what the reasons why might be. Start with things that aren’t consequential and work up to thing that are.

7. Stop beating yourself up

Ninety percent of the questions asking for advice in polyamory or non-monogamy involves someone beating themselves up for having feelings. They describe themselves as clingy, say they’re needy, say they are being ‘jealous’ and assume the entire problem is how they are behaving, not anyone else.

While it might be that they’re contributing to their problem, 9 times out of 10, the lashing they’re giving themselves is unwarranted and incorrect. Women and non-men are usually the ones giving themselves this lashing, which is unsurprising given how often women are told that they can be too ‘clingy’ or ‘emotional’, but to be honest, I see men doing this as well.

Needs and wants are different things, and they’re both valid. Although everyone can have different wants, most people have similar needs. Most people want to feel loved and valued by someone in their life as well as companionship and not to feel alone. But we can all have varying needs on what we want in life. It has a lot to do with where we see ourselves in the future and what we as individuals personally get out of something.

Sometimes two people can be really nice and care for each other, but their needs do not match up, and so they have to break up. This is one of the reasons why I encourage people not to see a break up as an automatic failure and not see a relationship as a skill.

That’s not to say that everyone’s wants are acceptable within the contexts of equality and fairness. Someone who wants a partner who can stay home and take care of children because it’s how they want to live but accepts that not everyone wants that is far cry from someone who wants the same but projects that into believing it is the only way to have relationships, and anyone who is different is wrong. If you believe your needs and wants are law, then you have a problem. But I’d reckon most people who grew up in toxic environments are necessarily these kinds of people.

Instead, I see more of those people who grew up in these homes having different wants and needs. You can become afraid to ask for what you want because you have a history of never getting it. You can need very little because you’ve got very little in your life. Or, you can need a lot more reassurance. Sometimes, if you haven’t had a therapist or any appropriate help for your past, you can want things from partners that you should get from a professional.

But unless you’re demanding the world acknowledge your wants and needs as some sort inherent law, you’re not a monster for wanting or needing more than the next person. And, more importantly, beating yourself up about them will not change anything.

If you find relationships ending because you need more than people can give, it’s incredibly difficult and I’m not meaning to minimise that pain. What I am saying is that nothing about any of these situations changes by beating yourself up. You don’t become less jealous if you beat yourself up about it. You don’t become more self sufficient by beating yourself up.

And it may be possible that you’ve lived a life where you’re so used to other people beating you up, you step in to take over when they’re long gone. So, if you find yourself thinking that there must be something inherently wrong with you, rethink it. Avoid beating yourself up about what your wants and needs are. Even if your needs don’t match up with someone romantically, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.

8. Know you have survived worse

One of the things that can help me when I have a lot of anxiety, is trying my best to remember that I’ve been through much worse and that I’ve survived 100% of my worse days.

Obviously, this approach works for my situation, but I can see how it might be difficult for other people, especially if they’ve survived despite their best efforts to do otherwise. But I do feel like remembering that anxiety does subside is really helpful when you’re in the thick of it. The only thing constant is change and while that does freak me out when things are going well, it’s definitely helpful when things aren’t going great.

There are times when my brain is trying really hard to protect me by making me embrace the worst possible outcome, which sometimes just leads me to have more anxiety than I had in the first place. I still have that knee jerk reaction to expect the worst and prepare for it. Once, after having an argument with my partner about something I can’t even remember, I went home, got some boxes from a grocery store, and packed most of my things in 45 minutes before he even got home from work.

Luckily, over time I’ve been able to sit with the anxiety, to understand that I don’t have to jump in a lifeboat as soon as the boat rocks, to trust that I can protect myself if something terrible truly does happen, and to see myself as adaptable has really helped. But more than that, I’ve stopped trying to control every last little thing in an effort to control the uncontrollable.

One of my favourite moments in the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is when Newt Scamander says that in worrying you suffer twice. And since then, I’ve tried to repeat that to myself in times when the worry seems to creep up. Not only do I try to remember that I have survived all of my worst days but that if something terrible is to happen, worrying is not something that will change that. And I’d much rather spend my time being happy now and then miserable later than being miserable now and miserable later.

Try to apply these same approaches to non-monogamy. If you’ve got this hair trigger preparedness type of response like I have, it can lead you to think and visualise the worst when you’re worried about your partners. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve grown up in a home where you had to be hyper-vigilant to protect yourself, you grow to be hypervigilant in relationships, always on the lookout for something to go wrong to the point where you can’t enjoy something going right.

When a worry crops up, as aforementioned, don’t squash it down. Acknowledge it and look at it realistically. Will worrying about it right here and right now change anything? Don’t suffer twice. And if the worst should happen, you have been through a lot. Have faith in your own strength instead of trying to test it by being prepared.

9. Don’t worry about what is ‘normal’

People new to non-monogamy will describe their situation, regardless of what it is, and instead of asking for help, worry that what they’re doing isn’t ‘normal’. Although people say ‘there is no one right way to do polyamory’, I personally feel like there is an endemic message that the best way to do polyamory is one where everyone is happy constantly and there are no ‘problems’.

They use other people as a barometer for how their reactions should be, which is totally understandable. Obviously other people can tell us when a dynamic is unhealthy. And, in fact, sometimes that outside barometer is really needed because, like a frog sitting in a boiling pan, we don’t realise the situation around us is unhealthy when we’re in the middle of it.

But, there’s a difference between being worried about whether your dynamic is unhealthy and then being worried about whether it’s ‘normal’. In many ways, the conversations I have with my partners may not be ‘normal’ or like the conversations that everyone else has, but that’s okay. My own personal needs may be different from the vast majority of people.

I think people who grow up in toxic homes have a complicated relationship with ‘normality’, especially if they’re queer or belong to any other marginalised group. ‘Normal’ is the yardstick that you’re being compared to that you don’t measure up to and yet, finally realising that the way that you grew up was not ‘normal’ was oddly freeing and helpful. Although everyone and their mother will tell me that reality shows aren’t reality (and I’d agree), those moments in reality shows when they are in tears reuniting with their families are genuine — and they were the parts for me that were the most poignant because I couldn’t imagine feeling that way about family.

For this reason, people from toxic backgrounds may especially feel the need to reconnect with the concept of ‘normality’ because their internal barometers have been out of sync with what is healthy their entire lives. So they want to know that what they’re doing is ‘normal’ because they assume what is ‘normal’ must also be what is healthy.

But need I remind folks that to many people within this culture, men sharing their feelings is not considered ‘normal’ but there are countless campaigns now to encourage men to talk about their feelings, particularly mental health struggles, as men are suffering under the weight of the culturally prescribed toxic masculinity that prohibits them from expressing themselves in so many ways. What is ‘normal’ is not necessarily ‘healthy’.

Instead of trying to figure out if what you’re doing is ‘normal’, ask yourself if what you’re doing is helping you. Is there a resolution? Is there a sense that you have been heard and that you are respected? Do you feel like you’re back at home or far away from it? This is where your support network or therapist can help ground you. But try to focus less on what other people are doing and more on whether or not what you’re doing is helping you.

Because if you base everything you’re doing off of other people who did not grow up like you, you’re not going to be ‘normal’. But if you force yourself into behaving in a way that works for others, it’s likely just going to blow up in your face. Find what works for you. And if it’s not what everyone else is doing… so what?

And lastly, remember…

One of the most helpful things I learned about my anxiety was that I wasn’t a failure for having it. Rather than picturing myself as Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill every time I got a panic attack, I embraced the idea that I had anxiety and it was what it was. But there are still days where I feel like a failure for having anxiety.

Progress is not linear. Re-learning what normal is and what it means is going to take you awhile. It’s not going to be simple or easy. And it’s also not your fault that you are where you are. What’s important is that you’re always willing to be accountable for your actions and willing to move on and do better. We’ve all gotta start somewhere. As long as you’re willing to keep living and learning, you can only do what you can do.

Note: I wrote this article in 2017, so it’s possible my perspectives on a few things have changed but the point of this article remains the same.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

Would you like to support me?

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9 ways toxic parenting impacted your non-monogamy

This content is 5 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

When reading the opening preface of a self-help book makes you cry, that’s when you buy the book.

And that happened to me twice when I read the forward of both Stop Walking on Eggshells and Toxic Parents. Reading these and several other books were the beginnings of me understanding how toxic parenting impacted my life. And sooner or later, I began to understand how the impact of that parenting had affected everything.

The most toxic thing about abusive parenting is the fact that for a person growing up with abusive parents, love is not the norm. And when love is not your norm, you don’t know how to love yourself as a norm. You sometimes take love in whatever shape or meagre quantity it presents itself. Or you become terrified to trust it.

JR Thorpe on Bustle has written multiple articles on toxic parenting, my favourite of them being 9 Signs You Have a Toxic Parent. As I went through this, I couldn’t help recognising the impacts that some of these had or could have had on my relationships. So I wanted go through and talk about each, just in time for the holidays.

While these are specific to non-monogamy, some principles may apply to all people in relationships.

1. You use non-monogamy to prove your worth

When you live with toxic parents who turn you into the parent, there are some people who will respond to that demand with unwavering perfectionism. You grow up quickly and you learn how to manage a lot. But your first definition of what love is and means is tied to taking care of people.

Most healthy adults have (or should have) an understanding of the appropriateness of asking for emotional support from people. We understand that it’s okay to go up to a friend and tell them you’re feeling down, maybe a close friend you can tell them you’ve been having suicidal thoughts. We confide things to our romantic partners friends, and chosen family that we don’t confide in strangers for a good reason. It’s not because we don’t care about strangers, but because having a relationship with someone gives you an insight into how heavy or not heavy an emotional support request may be.

When parents turn their children into their parents, they disrupt their learning of healthy boundaries and an understanding of a healthy ratio of providing and receiving emotional support. Those children learn that their value lies in providing emotional support. And when those children grow older and become non-monogamous, they may find themselves desiring partnerships where they provide emotional support.

And they become, as Bilbo says, like butter scraped over too much bread.

2. You end up bullied by partners

Thorpe points out that in toxic parenting, one suppresses their feelings in order to take care of and soothe the parents. Many people assume that because non-monogamy challenges the status quo that society provides in heterosexual monogamy that it’s inherently egalitarian. But don’t ever underestimate an abuser’s ability to twist anything to their benefit.

If you have partners you don’t spend all of your time around, who you see for only a few weeks, that is a lot of time and ability to hide their worst behaviours from you for years and years. In fact, you may never see their worst behaviours. Or the time that passes between seeing that partner allows for second guessing of your original feelings and allows them to continue doing anything that makes you uncomfortable.

Toxic parenting teaches you to ignore your feelings. And much of modern polyamory ‘advice’ will encourage this. The pressure to be ‘successful’ at non-monogamy as well as the treatment of jealousy like bubonic plague creates an environment where any negative emotion is best kept repressed — because who wants to be the wet blanket?

So if you have partners who bully you, who make you feel uncomfortable, you’re less likely to argue and stand up to them if you have experienced toxic parenting. And if there are large gaps between the times you see them, you may end up forgiving and forgetting slights, but the continual damage to your self esteem will still linger.

3. Silence becomes more comfortable

If you grow up in an environment where you are encouraged to hide something for a parent, it completely messes up your understanding of justice and fairness. It’s one thing for a grown adult to ask another grown adult who doesn’t rely on them for anything to lie and hide things, but it’s quite another when it’s a child relying on a parent for any kind of support.

And it also makes for a confusing ride trying to understand anything when secrets do get out.

I believe that within non-monogamy communities, people don’t speak out about abusive or toxic partners they have had for fear of looking ‘jealous’. And I believe that a desire not to shake the apple cart is embedded within many people who grew up with toxic parenting. When someone does finally shake the apple cart, those who grew up knowing you can love someone who lies and hides things are twice as confused.

Silence becomes the preferred way of coping and dealing with things, not only if you have been with someone who is toxic but if you hear that someone else is toxic. And while I strongly believe that witch hunting and ousting all problematic people from communities doesn’t inherently solve any problems, it’s much harder to talk about problems if you’ve always been taught that they should be hidden.

4. Guilt prevents you from setting boundaries

Thorpe notes that parents can control with money and with guilt, and in my opinion being controlled with guilt has a specific impact on people in non-monogamous relationships.

Whenever you’re doing something new, it’s a process of understanding yourself and your boundaries. One of the reasons I tell any newbie to non-monogamy to never create any rules where anyone has to obtain ‘permission’ for a new date or anything else is because sometimes when you’re doing something new, you don’t know that you have a boundary until it’s been crossed. And having to go back on something you previously said was fine creates guilt as well as sometimes resentment.

People growing up in toxic environments have had their boundaries crossed six ways from Sunday more often than not. And when people don’t respect your boundaries as you grow up, you learn that it’s better not to have them. You may find in many cases of sexual assault that people don’t fight not because they want what’s happening to them, but because it makes logical sense to minimise the impact of something terrible happening to you by disconnecting yourself from it.

People starting off in non-monogamy get told constantly to communicate, but there is an underestimation of how difficult communicating is when you have no idea what to communicate. Things seem fine in your head but the reality of it when it happens can be difficult to manage. And ‘permission’ given to a partner feels like it can’t be taken back and even when it can, those growing up in toxic environments may be too guilty to set a boundary even when they need to.

If they have learned from their parents that their own autonomy creates a guilt trip, they will learn to guilt trip themselves when they do something that might upset someone else. They learn to hate themselves for someone else’s feelings. And if you grow up in this kind of environment, you’re going to find it incredibly difficult to say ‘no’ to anything, even if you’re scared and unhappy because saying ‘no’ has always made you ten times more scared and unhappy than you were before.

5. You struggle to ask for what you want

It’s quite an ironic thing to be forced to grow up early but never having the autonomy or independence of an adult. And that discordance has an incredible impact on how you function in relationships. I can manage a lot more than some people. I work and have worked multiple jobs as an adult, been described as ‘scarily efficient’ by employers, and can hold myself more than well in a verbal debate about any topic I feel passionate. And yet, I find it difficult to ask for directly what I want.

This isn’t about self-esteem. This is about survival. While I appreciate RuPaul’s catchphrase that you can’t love someone else without loving yourself (though I could be interpreting it wrong), I believe the reverse is true. When you don’t love yourself, it’s much easier to love others ‘selflessly’. But none of us are robots and we all do have needs in life. And eventually that means asking for what you want.

If you’ve always been given responsibility but never independence, it’s quite easy to take on the challenge of providing support to as many people as possible without ever asking for anything for yourself. Your adult decisions have been undermined, as Thorpe says, so you learn not to have any.

Asking for what you want involves having autonomy and you have learned that having autonomy is something that makes other people unhappy. You begin to fear making your partner(s) angry if you ask for what you want. And, in my experience, if you don’t ask for what you want and you can’t get it by manoeuvring the situation so you get what you want anyway, you will eventually just implode of out need.

6. Your boundaries seem to wax and wane

Again, when you’re doing something new, your boundaries may shift because you’re learning where they are. But if you’ve grown up in an environment where your boundaries were trampled on, you learn to shift them when they become inconvenient to others.

This is something that makes total sense growing up in a toxic environment. Learning to become strategic about your boundaries might be the only way to stay sane in an environment where a parent has a screaming rampage at you for forgetting your medication by an hour one day and then wearing mismatched socks the next.

But when you’re actually trying to figure out where your boundaries are, it’s like pinning a tail on bucking bull. And add to that your inclination to question your gut instincts, delegitimise your feelings, and added encouragement from newbie polyamory advice to think your bad feelings are jealous baggage… you’ve got one confusing concoction I’d like to call, ‘What the hell am I actually feeling? I can’t tell anymore.’

You don’t even have to have a toxic partner who reacts to your boundaries by claiming you’re jealous when you’re not! You can have a perfectly healthy partner who supports you and accepts that your boundaries may change over time and who respects that. But if you’ve been raised by someone who gets mad at you when you have any kind of boundary, you will still feel the anxiety and fear of anger that may never show it’s face, which will make it less likely for you to assert them in the first place.

7. You accept personal digs as jokes

Thorpe’s description of someone being told that they are the ones that are flawed for not laughing at jokes designed to dig at them is applicable in so many life situations, but especially in relationships.

Another fantastic book that made me wise up to the toxicity of a relationship I was forming was Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft and I think it’s a must read for every human being. One of the best passages includes a woman describing her husband going on a mad rampage and she blames herself for inciting him. Lundy asks her whose stuff he destroys and she has a lightbulb moment where she realises that the only stuff he destroys are her things and that he never takes part in the cleanup.

Abusive and toxic people do not start off by slapping you across the face. One in four women in the UK experience domestic violence during their life and 30% of domestic abuse doesn’t even begin until pregnancy and existing abuse can often get worse in pregnancy. That’s because the number one goal for abusive people is to isolate you. And once they have you incapacitated, their real face shows.

Small digs at your self esteem are warning signs and red flags. And if you’ve dealt with them all of your life and learned they aren’t a big deal, you will gladly ignore them in relationships. The added complexity due to non-monogamy is that I’ve found that additional partners may gaslight you even further.

You would think that if an abuser was dating three people who were friends with each other, and started becoming abusive to one of those people, the others would step in and realise what was happening. But in fact, the opposite can happen. The other two don’t experience what the abused one does and tells the abused one so. The abuser claims that they don’t have any problems in any other relationships and so the abused person becomes the ‘common denominator’ and therefore, the problem, not the abuse.

Not to mention, the two people not experiencing the abuse, even if they wanted to say something, may feel like by doing so they are somehow trying to be a ‘controlling’ partner or acting out jealousy. Or, the worst case scenario, the other two are just as abusive and toxic and the third person is well and truly on their own.

8. You don’t believe someone is okay

If you grew up with a toxic parent who hid their true emotions from you and then unleashed holy hell when you broke a plate, you stop being able to trust when anyone tells you that they are okay. Passive aggressive behaviour or having a parent who is passive until they explode out of proportion with aggression will make you constantly fear the impending storm. And the calm will make you fear it that much more.

Even if there is not a toxic or abusive partner in sight, you will still worry about the impending cataclysm, so much so that you need constant affirmation from your partner(s) that everything is okay, that they are not mad at you, that nothing bad is going to happen. And what’s even worse is you can then further self-attack yourself for needing so much validation. Especially in a non-monogamous world where everyone is encouraged to handle their own emotions independently.

I blame my ‘constant vigilance’ for my discomfort by even the suggestion of jealousy. In my own relationships, I avoid situations where I may feel jealous, not because I’ve ever really felt particularly jealous, but because the fear that I may suddenly become jealous is so anxiety provoking that these situations are just as uncomfortable as they would be if I were jealous.

And that’s because, should I become jealous and need to ask my partner to stop doing whatever they are doing, I will never be able to be truly comfortable with their affirmation that they are perfectly happy to do so and won’t be angry at me. Even avoiding these situations, I find it incredibly difficult to trust that my partner isn’t angry at me, that I haven’t done something wrong, that I’m being a good enough partner. You name it.

Once you’ve had people tell you they are okay when they are definitely not okay, you don’t trust ‘okay’ anymore.

9. You don’t think fears are worth addressing

People sometimes tell me that my parents, despite their actions, do truly love me and want the best for me. And that’s because they grew up in an environment where they may have argued with their parents because they knew that disagreeing or even disobeying them would not result in the end of their relationship with their parents. People with toxic parents can’t say the same. And sometimes toxic people like to go out with a bang.

If you are used to loving someone you are afraid of and dealing with a large amount of fear regularly, your brain copes with it better by lowing your sensitivity to it. You don’t think anything of being afraid in certain situations because your meter for appropriate fear has be recalibrated to the environment you grew up in, rather than the environment you’re in.

That’s even more compounded if anxiety and paranoia have been ways that you have coped in the past. Most of my anxiety is around redirecting my fear from something I can’t control to something my mind thinks I can control. Anxiety is a mirage that makes you feel like worrying is productive, that panicking is progress, and that you can fight and flight all at the same time. If you’ve been afraid of everything, you don’t know whether your fear is warranted or not.

Newbie non-monogamous advice will tell you to communicate your fears and worries to your partner(s), but you may feel like you don’t know if your fear is worth communication. Are you just freaking out pointlessly? Or is your fear real? When my anxiety is at it’s peak, I go around in circles. I second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh guess myself. I don’t do anything because I become so confused at which thought is anxiety and which thought is me. And I’m left with an incredible urge to act out in some way that relieves my anxiety.

That’s where a lot of ‘rules’ come from that aren’t designed to do anything but relieve anxiety, but which may become obstacles in the future. Some rules and boundaries have a good point and purpose, but sometimes they are a symptom of an underlying problem. No amount of rules will stop anxiety or jealousy. And ignoring your fears won’t necessarily make them disappear.

So what now?

Just as Thorpe says, toxicity isn’t a death sentence. Learning about the impacts of toxic parents on your development can be depressing because you can find yourself scrolling through study after study of how abuse and adverse childhood experiences permanently impact children.

But none of this was taught to you in a single day, week or year. You learned this gradually. And you will have to un-learn it gradually. It’s a difficult and long process, but reading books about toxic parenting can help.

I plan on writing a follow up article to this on specific ways you can address the nine things I’ve pointed out in non-monogamous settings, but for now, I advise anyone who believes they may have had a toxic parent to check out the following books:

and last but not least:

Related articles

9 ways to counteract toxic parenting in non-monogamy

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

Would you like to support me?

If you like my writing, there are a few ways to show me support.

You can become a Patron and get access to the columns and the podcasts 4 days before they’re released to the public. If becoming a Patron is a bit too much you can make a PayPal donation, use my sponsor code at BetterHelp if you want to give it a try, or give a rating and review of the podcast on iTunes.

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

This content is 5 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

When you first learn about polyamory or non-monogamy, what most people call ‘open relationships’, you’ll likely be directed to several publications: The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and the website More Than Two. And these were things I read when I started my journey into non-monogamy.

Quickly I found though that there were several lessons I had to learn the hard way that these sources either didn’t teach me clearly enough or actually got in my way of learning these lessons.

So here are the 13 things I wish I’d learnt earlier about non-monogamy:

1. Every negative feeling you have isn’t jealousy

Jealousy has been an anxiety for all people for a very long time.

When you first start reading about non-monogamy, the emphasis on the unhealthiness of jealousy is drilled into you to the point where, at least for me, not being one of those jealous people you hear about that implode their own relationships by trying to control their partners’ every move becomes your personal mission.

Beginner reading on non-monogamy over-hypes jealousy to the point where people go into non-monogamy assuming any negative feeling they have about a person their partner is dating is inherently jealousy and any attempt to express that feeling is automatically controlling, abusive behaviour.

In my first non-monogamous ‘relationship’, I had spoken to this guy for a year (I lived in the US, he in the UK and I was moving to the UK within a few months) when he suddenly began dating a person he’d never mentioned before. This person seemed relatively cool and similar to me so I offered to friend them on Facebook to get to know them. The guy immediately banned me from speaking to them on the grounds that he felt more comfortable with us talking in person first.

Given I was about to be in the UK in 6 months and I didn’t want to be ‘controlling’, I obliged. He said he’d told this person about me, even that they wanted to have a threesome with all of us. But unsurprisingly, he hadn’t so much as breathed a word to this person about me.

In hindsight, I never would have agreed to not speak to his new partner. That would have been a red flag. But I was so anxious to be seen as ‘jealous’, I ignored my own feelings assuming they were monogamous baggage.

But they weren’t. Negative feelings are sometimes a result of your needs not being met. If your partner refuses to take you to your favourite restaurant and then takes someone new out on a date to that same restaurant, any rational human being is going to feel not so happy about that. Negative feelings and yes, even the scary green eyed monster of jealousy, can be justified and understandable.

What beginner sources of non-monogamy fail to communicate is that it’s not so much jealousy or negative feelings that are the problem — it’s what we do with them that can make things implode.

2. Confidence can look like compassion

Ironic that the male lion is seen as a symbol of strength when it doesn’t do most of the hunting.

When I started out in polyamorous communities, I was immediately drawn to those ‘experienced’ people who seemed confident in what they were doing. Those people were not only attractive to me but seemed like the best bet. Obviously confident people communicate clearly, right? Obviously when you’re just starting out in something, someone who has. had loads of relationships and many partners is a ‘safe’ bet, right?

Wrong.

Unfortunately, I found that confident people made me feel like I was being heard and listened to but that was rarely actually the case. Confident people can make you feel special and looked after, but when it actually comes time to devote emotional energy and resources to you, these people, in my experience, are rarely up for the task. Their ability to make you feel special is part of that confidence, but it isn’t actual human compassion you’re seeing.

Not to mention, just because someone has had many relationships, doesn’t mean they’re better at them. Relationships aren’t a game where playing gives you more experience. It’s about an individual exchange and if they have always come up a little short handed, it might be what is showing.

Another thing that beginner non-monogamous sources fail to really discuss is the fact that non-monogamous setups where an individual doesn’t spend a long time with any one individual but sees them rarely can allow for people who would normally be toxic and difficult to be around to have plenty of ‘functional’ relationships. If you only see someone once every two weeks and your time with them is great, you don’t necessarily see or have to deal with some of the more dubious aspects of their personality.

So sometimes having more partners than you know what to do with isn’t inherently a sign that you’re amazing at non-monogamy and beginners shouldn’t assume so.

3. Communication is hard and terrifying

Talking should be a two way street, but is it?

Most relationship advice for anyone regardless of relationship style often boils down to this: Talk to your partner.

Like most advice, it’s much easier to give than it is to follow. And what non-monogamous beginner resources fail to really take into account is that communication is actually really really hard, but not for the reasons they assume.

As an autistic person, recognising my own emotions and understanding them can be really difficult. As a person with an anxiety disorder, my immediate response to my own fear is to not take it seriously or examine it with a fine toothed comb. And when embarking on something that you’re completely new to, sometimes you don’t really know or understand what you need until you’re not getting it and it hurts.

Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. And sometimes you have to experience emotional pain before you really understand that you have a boundary or you have a need that isn’t being met.

Asking for what you want isn’t easy

But admitting to your partner that you have a need can be an extremely emotionally vulnerable place. Most beginner non-monogamous resources are written, usually, by white people who more likely than not come from a specific socio-economic background. It’s not to say that white middle class people never have any problems, but I usually find that if you’ve been treated poorly systemically by society or have a history of being abused, it can be really difficult to feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable with anyone.

I found myself in my relationships trying to manipulate situations so that I got what I really wanted without having to ask for it because asking directly for something you need and being told by someone you care for greatly that they refuse to do it is absolutely gut-wrenchingly horrifying. And the greater my need for any one thing, the less likely I was to ask directly for it.

Imagine if you were heading to a funeral at the same time your partner wanted to go to an event that they were excited about. Imagine asking directly for your partner to be there for you at the funeral and having your partner either say no to you or seeing them huff at the idea of supporting you in a vulnerable place in your life. Even if it’s not directly a cause for breakup, having such an important need be either not met or complained about by your partner can damage the intimacy you feel with them. If you can’t be vulnerable and ask for help from them… then it begs the question of what your partnership is.

Talking to your partner is scary. Asking for something you need is scary. And especially because we live in a society that encourages us all to be independent beings that don’t need anybody, especially if you’ve been encouraged by society to see yourself as ‘clingy’ or worry about being so, and especially because non-monogamous resources reinforce the idea that you shouldn’t need anyone too much, it can be that much harder to want anything from anybody.

4. A relationship is not a skill

You don’t always get better at it with practice.

I wrote about how a relationship is not a skill in great detail, but to summarise, I often believed, like many monogamous people even do, that breaking up or not having a good relationship was a bad reflection on myself.

The reason I said above that having loads of relationships isn’t inherently a sign of someone good at relationships is because likewise having a bunch of exes isn’t necessarily a sign of being ‘bad’ at relationships either. It feels like non-monogamous communities especially encourage the idea that un-amicable breakups and ‘drama’ are a sign of people just being bad at relationships. And therefore some of the confident people I mention might have loads of relationships, but a lot of quiet exes.

The aforementioned guy who suddenly ended up dating someone new and forbade me to speak to them ended up being a jerk outside of this and when I confronted him on it, blocked me on all forms of social media. I was tempted after this to tell his other partner about him blocking me on everything when confronted because I had come out of my haze and also had the sneaking suspicion that they knew nothing about me — but avoided doing so for fear of looking like the ‘jealous and crazy ex’.

And I think many people who have poor experiences with people are so ashamed that their relationship has ‘failed’ they think it’s due to their lack of skill, or they are worried it will appear so, that they keep mum even when they think the person they dated is particularly toxic or abusive. No one wants to start ‘drama’ or be seen as ‘bad at relationships’.

But relationships are not skills. They are partnerships and co-ops. And just like getting in a car accident doesn’t mean you’re inherently a bad driver, ending a relationship or having to end it doesn’t mean that you’re bad at relationships. There are relationship skills you can certainly improve like communication and compassion.

You can be really good at knowing your own boundaries or not so good. But ultimately sometimes you can’t be good enough for two people and sometimes two people, as nice and as great at they are at communicating, just don’t fit that well together.

Maybe if people saw breaking up less as a sign that someone is ‘bad’ at something, people would be less worried about looking like a ‘bad ex’.

5. Compersion isn’t compulsory

Don’t worry, be happy? ALL THE TIME.

I’d read so much information about non-monogamy before I started that I felt like I knew exactly how to handle things. And my first experience being negative, I approached things with a sense that I’d even learned well from that. One of the things I insisted on after my first experience was trying to be friends with my partner’s partners.

You will often hear ‘there is no one right way to do polyamory’ as a beginner and yet you will hear about ‘compersion’, which is meant to be the opposite of jealousy, whereby you hear about your partner having a good date or a good time with someone and you’re filled with happiness and feel glad for them.

Although people say there is no one right way, an ideal is communicated through this and many attitudes. The ‘best’ way to do non-monogamy is clearly one where you experience ‘compersion’, no jealousy, no negative emotions, and never have any problems.

And this level of happiness is not expected within monogamy. In fact, in monogamy an unhappy marriage is almost expected. Countless male identified comedians have made entire careers over the idea that marriage and sexual monogamy is the end of their ‘fun’ and although monogamy (read: heterosexual, white monogamy) is a standard encouraged by this society, the idea that it’s not a picnic and not always fun and happy is also something that’s widely accepted.

And yet, non-monogamous people, because people so often blame a failed open relationship on opening it up in the first place and assume that it fails because non-monogamous relationships don’t work, are often so encouraged to be good PR for the non-monogamy community that they are expected to attain a level of relationship happiness monogamous people never have to match up to.

The expectation of constant happiness

And this is an expectation reinforced within communities without monogamous people present. I’ve seen countless people in polyamorous communities feel so anxious by the idea that their forum is filled with people confused and asking for help that they post positive and happy stories to almost reassure the outside world. Monogamous people are allowed to be unhappy and that not reflect badly on monogamy necessarily, but non-monogamous people, not so.

This pressure on me to be happy with my partner’s other relationships and to be friends with metamours (the people your partner dates) made me anxious and unhappy. I forced myself to socially interact with people beyond my personal means.

I forced myself to be friends with people I had nothing in common with and it made me sarcastic towards them. Instead of just accepting that maybe I don’t really need to be friends with metamours, I forced myself into it which inevitably made the situation tense and difficult anyways.

Furthermore, I felt like my indifference to my partner’s romantic exploits made me heartless and even somehow ‘jealous’. And in fact, listening to details of my partner’s exploits stood my hair on end — not because I was jealous or bothered — but because the fear that I would become jealous was so intense it made me just as uncomfortable as jealousy would — maybe even MORE uncomfortable. I would only realise later that my discomfort in being a voyeur had a lot to do with the sexual abuse I’d survived and nothing to do with feeling jealous at all.

I had to accept that compersion just might not be something I felt and hearing the details just made me anxious about being jealous — and that was okay. I didn’t have to feel compersion to be happy for my partner on a wider scale. And I didn’t have to get along with or even like my metamours for things to be okay between any partner I had. Obviously, yeah, if we were to be friendly and when I am friendly with a metamor it is nice… but forcing myself to be friends with anyone in any situation is never comfortable and that’s just fine.

Compersion isn’t compulsory.

6. Time and resources are finite

There’s 24 hours in one day.

Non-monogamous beginners hear multiple times a day that ‘love is infinite’ and it’s not necessarily wrong. While you may be able to love an infinite number of people, you only have so much energy in a day. As a person with a disability that affects my energy levels and social anxiety, I quickly realised that going out on a new date every night wasn’t something that I could physically do, and that’s okay.

I also found that a lot of people who espoused a ‘love is infinite’ philosophy had many privileges they took for granted that I didn’t have. They had careers (or the ability to live fine without one) with flexible time options, the money to spend on activities, the mental and physical energy to socially interact with people without going to a breaking point.

One time I can recall, I went to an open relationships event in a new city and the conference involved a lot of intense interpersonal social interaction. After being invited to a party, I accepted, despite being exhausted. I ended up in a very loud, strange, unfamiliar house without any proper place to sit away from the huge crowds of people and became so sensory overloaded, I ended up crying. I felt ridiculous, un-fun, ashamed of my inability to go with the flow of everyone else until I eventually realised that my resources just weren’t where others were.

You can love however many people you want, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Not all of us can afford to live within walking distance of all of our partners or afford a job that doesn’t run us ragged most of the week. It would be great if time and resources were as infinite as love, but they just aren’t. And it’s helpful to realise that.

7. It’s okay to be unhappy

But non-monogamy is supposed to make you happy ALWAYS, isn’t it?

As I mentioned before, there is an unhealthy expectation on non-monogamous people to be happy about everything going on within their relationships. You’re put under this expectation, especially due to some of the beginner material you read, to enjoy every aspect of non-monogamy, to be fine with all of the activities your partners have with others, and to be fine on your own.

But sometimes, you can be lonely — and that’s okay. Sometimes when my partner who lives with me is out visiting someone else I may in theory be very happy for them, but I am alone at present. And sure, I have found out the best way to resolve this issue is to try and make plans at the same time so I have company, but that’s not always possible.

Time isn’t infinite, as I said before, and ultimately agreeing to a non-monogamous relationship means agreeing to a relationship structure where any individual you partner with does not and cannot reasonably spend all of their time with you.

Monogamy also has this type of setup when one partner has a time consuming job like being a lawyer or doctor. But within non-monogamy it’s guarantee that part and parcel of what you’re agreeing to is for your partner to not devote all of their time and energies towards you.

And this can get lonely. Especially if you’re in the very likely scenario that one person has loads of dates and the other doesn’t. It can get sad. And I think we spend so much time trying to stay happy for our partner that we shove this loneliness down, don’t talk about it, and then it ends up blowing up in our faces. Especially given the polyamorous community crab bucket mentality of, ‘oh no, there’s to many stories about people struggling with non-monogamy, let’s talk about how awesome it is’.

Statistically, the more relationships you have the more likely it is for you to encounter heartbreak. And although that is a hazard of the trade, it doesn’t mean you have to pretend like you’re not heartbroken if and when you are or that you’re not scared of it.

Sometimes it’s not awesome. Sometimes you’re lonely. The important thing to remember in this case is the benefits you ultimately get out of non-monogamy as a choice and to take steps to try and handle that loneliness. Steps that acknowledge and recognise your feelings rather than shoving a grin on your face and trying to feel okay with it all. Because eventually, if our partners aren’t spending enough time with us for us to be happy, we won’t actually be able to realise that if we’re trying our best to not be unhappy and lying to ourselves about it.

8. Convention wheedles it’s way into un-convention

Oh look, heterocentrism. Fun.

Monogamy, specifically heterosexual monogamy, is encouraged by the society we live in. And when you’re just starting out having open relationships, you can feel a bit isolated. You will have experiences where people will judge you for it (specifically if you’re read as female) and a lot of times people can feel this combination where they are shunned by society, admired by some while simultaneously feeling that what they are doing is ‘unconventional’.

You get a lot of mixed messages as a beginner in non-monogamous communities: It’s more natural than monogamy and yet it’s scorned and hated and yet it’s seen as ‘cool’ and ‘hip’. And that in turn can make things somewhat confusing, especially when the same sorts of conventions you see in monogamy seem to be still at play within non-monogamy.

For example, in a lot of non-monogamous settings I know, I see a lot of self-identified women in polyamorous families doing the majority of the child rearing or sharing child rearing between women partners while the men go out and do what they’d like. I see a lot of women stretching themselves providing emotional support for multiple people and getting nothing for themselves. I see a lot of situations where older men are using non-monogamy as an example of their ‘feminism’, dating multiple people who are much younger than they are and no one in their actual age bracket. You’ll find a lot of convention within unconventionality.

The historical accuracy of monogamous expectation

Also, I find that people tend to have selective memories about history. Even within monogamous people, you have this concept that 50s era 2.5 kids with picket fences zeitgeist family is ‘traditional’ and has been happening for years and years — but this just isn’t true.

Romantic love and the idea that it’s not a sickness that needs to be cured is a relatively new idea in human history. Marriage being a symbol of love and not an exchange of property between families is a relatively new idea. Partnerships in life in decades past were not usually about love and sex, they were about wealth and power.

And in some cases even today people practice arranged marriage situations which aren’t necessarily problematic whereby a marriage is secured and a partnership forms out of a common need rather than what we would consider ‘typical’ now of two individuals meeting and falling in love.

And ‘affairs’ have not historically been a problem. Having multiple ‘partners’ within socially sanctioned monogamy has been possible for wealthy men for hundreds of years. Maybe someone had a ‘marriage’, but that has never always meant sexual exclusivity. Or even if it has, that sexual exclusivity has purely been imposed on the person read as a woman within that exchange — but very rarely for the men.

Not to mention, so many beginner non-monogmous guides are written from the perspective that the nuclear family was a reality for all of the individuals reading it while many poor and immigrant individuals may have never had that experience or expectation. Living jointly with family members, especially elders, is a common practice for a lot of people. So this idea that non-monogamy is defying all of the traditional conventions… well, it just isn’t.

Which is not to say feelings of loneliness aren’t valid or that there aren’t people who genuinely will dislike you for being non-monogamous. I will say though that ‘open relationships’ aren’t necessarily completely unknown to mainstream culture and although there may be many misconceptions about them, there is yet to be a slur developed specifically for non-monogamous people.

And in my experience the vast majority of individuals who experience negative consequences for dating multiple people tend to be experiencing those consequences because they are read as women. People read as men can be judged by other men for “allowing” their wives to sleep with other men, but this isn’t an anti-male consequence as the roots of this judgement stem from the idea that men need to be sexually dominant of the women they date and that women are subduing men by owning their own sexuality — which is misogyny and ultimately about putting women back in their place, not about hating men or open relationships.

So the point of this is that, even while non-monogamy may be ‘unconventional’, there are still plenty old conventional habits that pop up within it.

9. No human is an island

You don’t ACTUALLY have to be fully sufficient, you know?

Eurocentric/white societies in general reinforce the idea of the individual as more important. We are encouraged in many ways to shine on our own, pull ourselves up by our ‘bootstraps’, and not rely on others for help. Within non-monogamy, the reinforcement of the idea of being independent and allowing your partners to have independence means you often have this concept re-ingrained into you.

The advice so often given to beginners about jealousy is that they have to work it out themselves. In many cases, I find myself trying to handle everything on my own because I am worried about not only being a burden to my partners but also worried about making them feel I rely on them too much. I’ve been encouraged to be self-sufficient to the point where asking for help becomes really difficult.

Sometimes it feels like it’s so not okay to have needs of your own, especially emotional ones, that it becomes another obstacle in asking for what you need. Because you don’t want to be ‘clingy’ or be seen in a negative light within non-monogamy. Where monogamy is often characterised as unhealthy codependency, anything that seems to echo or reflect that can often be seen as just as negative. And when your relationships aren’t following an already culturally defined script of boundaries and what means what, you’re often left wondering who you can really ask for emotional support.

No one is actually an island though. We’re social creatures, even me who’s about as un-social as you can get. Sometimes we need help. And the people we feel comfortable enough to be romantic with are sometimes the people we feel safe asking for help from, moreso than others. And that’s okay. It’s not clingy to have needs. And while your partners may not be your therapists and relying on any one individual for all of your emotional support may not be fair, ultimately you can’t help the things that you need. And pretending like you can take care of yourself all alone isn’t actually going to work.

10. Take a good look around you

There might be an actual reason there are no POC in these communities.

When I first started out within non-monogamous communities, I was, like most people, nervous and hopeful I would make a good impression. I also had a bit of rose tinted glasses, hoping to be around people who understood me and the choices I wanted to make. I barely recognised until it was a little too late that the communities that I particularly entered were full of people who had completely different life experiences than me.

Some communities of non-monogamous people, and indeed many other communities you’ll find, aren’t always the most diverse places and that can often leave you comparing yourself and your life to people who just don’t share the same experiences and understanding as you.

In my experience, feeling like I was the only non-binary person for example, was harsh. My feelings about being misgendered were often dismissed and glossed over. I’ve heard within a meeting of non-monogamous people that polyamorous people just don’t have the time to concern themselves about transphobia and transmisogyny because they’re too busy with other things.

Diverse non-monogamous communities exist, but you have to sometimes go looking for them. If you find yourself feeling a bit isolated in yours, that may be for a reason. Take a look around and ask yourself if the only thing you really have in common is non-monogamy and if that’s actually going to hinder you instead of helping you.

11. Insecurity is not the same as self-hate

The cycle of talking yourself up to solve an external problem is never-ending.

If jealousy is the scarlet ‘J’ of non-monogamy, then insecurity is definitely its horrible cousin. People often will advise newcomers to work on their insecurities, to challenge them and to reassure themselves that they are worthy and worthwhile.

And this approach… might work. But what so many non-monogamy beginner guides leave out is the idea that being insecure can be a completely logical reaction to a given scenario and they very often assume insecurity is self-hate, when the two are not one in the same.

Insecurity is just that — a lack of feeling secure. And when you’re starting a new relationship with someone, you may feel very insecure about the relationship and what you mean to each other. That makes a lot of sense. Feeling insecure in that situation doesn’t mean you assume that the person you’re starting the relationship with doesn’t like you, but that you’re not feeling secure about your relationship.

Likewise, I’ve seen so many situations where people are kicking themselves for feeling insecure in a relationship (and ‘jealous’) when it’s totally rational for them to feel insecure.

For example, say one partner has repeatedly broken promises to the other and then found a new hookup and the other partner is insecure about the new hookup. And the entire reason for that is because their relationship isn’t stable. If you have a partner who is not doing anything to make you feel valued and wanted or is in fact proving that you aren’t valued through action, you can tell yourself how awesome you are all you’d like — it still won’t solve the actual problem or insecurity.

Being insecure doesn’t mean you hate yourself

Insecurity isn’t something that happens always because you hate yourself or you think you’re unworthy. An Olympic athlete could feel insecure about their performance but still understand that their athletic performance is above average. Someone can have 50 Oscars for their acting work but still feel insecure when they go to an audition. We fear the unknown. We fear bad things happening. And that fear can cause insecurity. And we often mistake fear and insecurity for jealousy when it isn’t.

Self-hate is when you tell yourself that you’re not good enough, that your partners secretly hate you, and all of the other negative things that people sometimes experience. And the solution to this is to try and talk to yourself positively and stop attacking yourself. And self-hate can and does indeed cause you to feel insecure in a lot of things, relationships included. But not all insecurity is caused by self-hate.

It’s complicated because if your partner, for example, is neglecting you, you may hate yourself for feeling like you need more time with them. You may talk yourself down and say that you’re too clingy, too needy and that you need to pull yourself together. But maybe your partner isn’t actually spending as much time as you as an individual need from them. Maybe your partner missed an important birthday.

So you may feel temporarily better by trying to remind yourself of how much you are loved and how much you matter… but if your partner is neglecting you and not meeting the needs you have, you’re just going to be stuck in a cycle of just trying to stay afloat. Assuming your problems are all insecurity that needs to be dealt with by you reassuring yourself and not an inherent problem within the relationship of an unmet need or even neglect will just cause you to stay trapped in this cycle forever.

Don’t assume that your insecurity is always about self-hate. Sometimes it’s a sign that your needs aren’t being met. And even though not all people have the same needs and maybe you do in fact need more than others in some situations, if your relationships are going to work, your partners need to be willing to meet those needs if they can.

You may have to come to the conclusion that you’re not as compatible as you’d like to be, but it’s better to come to that conclusion than to perpetuate a relationship where you, at the end of the day, aren’t getting what you want and instead are just trying to pep talk your way through it.

12. Rules and hierarchies are not inherently bad

Imagine how chess or other games would work with no structured roles or rules.

‘I don’t need no stinkin’ rules’, as you might have heard. Also hierarchies where you have a primary partner reflect non-monogamy and end up giving ‘couples privilege’ to two people, hurting the secondary. All of this is bad, bad, bad, baaaaaad.

Except not.

It’s ironic how many people who say they don’t need rules expect their partners to practice safe sexual practices as a rule, but somehow don’t seem to see using barriers and getting tested as ‘rule’, but instead ‘common sense’. And yet an individual’s idea of what is ‘risky’ sex can really vary wildly between people.

Especially given how so many people are just uninformed about sexual health risk that they are unaware that STI transmission is STILL possible, even using condoms. One of the reasons sex educators are saying ‘safer’ sex instead of ‘safe’ sex is precisely because of that misunderstanding.

What you can do and what you can’t do

I tend to take the Jack Sparrow approach to non-monogamy. The only rules that matter are these: What you can do and what you can’t do.

I can let my partners date whomever they like, but I can’t say that if they were to date someone who’s been abusive and nasty to me it wouldn’t affect my feelings towards them.

I can let my partners do whatever they’d like, but I can’t pretend like missing my birthday or something that’s important to me wouldn’t make me upset.

I can let my partners define their own boundaries, but I can’t, for example, see my partner abuse or hurt someone else and pretend like I’m fine with that.

Everyone has individual needs within their relationships, and that goes for all things. Any parent would tell you that each kid they have (or even teacher) is different, each individual needing different things. Sometimes you need different things from different people, but those needs become your boundaries and things that you want to deal with.

And part of the reason rules and hierarchies aren’t inherently bad is because they can help support those needs — so long as you aren’t trying to control the uncontrollable.

Hierarchies based on needs

So for example, I enjoy doing domestic things with partners. I prefer to have a partner who lives with me and where we establish a life together, maybe by getting a house together. The ideal type of non-monogamy that works for me is one where I have a ‘primary’ partner I can trust to ask for emotional support and where I have other partners who are more casual and who would give the same amount of emotional support I would expect a friend to give me. This is what works for me and more or less is what works for my primary partner, which is why we have that type of relationship.

My partner does have more of a drive for casual relationships whereas I’m not as bothered if I don’t go out on a date for months. This is a situation that works for us both. And we communicate that to other people so we manage expectations. And in many cases, both in my experience as a primary partner and as a secondary who’s been discarded the moment I became inconvenient, having a clear understanding of expectations is what made things a lot better. Especially as an autistic person who needs clarity.

The problem with rules and hierarchies and why so much of the beginner non-monogamy advice will rail against them is because often people use rules and hierarchies to solve other problems that rules cannot solve.

You’ll often find situations where one person has convinced their partner to do non-monogamy and they create a hierarchy and rules (e.g. you can’t sleep with someone until I say you can or we can’t have dates until both of us have one) to try and protect themselves against the fear of the unknown. And that’s understandable but the problem with rules is that the more you make, the more likely it will be that someone will forget and break one or that situations in life will create problems.

Think about your rule before you have one

What beginner non-monogamy advice should do instead of unilaterally saying all rules and hierarchies are bad is instead expand on those rules which are likely to blow up in people’s faces.

For example, creating a rule that your partner has to check with you before sleeping with someone new is something I always advise against. Anything where one person gives ‘permission’ creates a lot of pressure not only on the person giving permission to say yes to please their partner but also can create resentment if permission isn’t given.

And sometimes when casual situations arise, you may end up deciding to sleep with someone new at 1 AM in the morning, in which case telling your partner that you’re going to sleep with someone new could create more problems than it can solve, especially if your partner is having a rough day. Imagine missing your train, spilling your lunch, ruining an outfit, missing your partner, eating dinner alone and then being woken up at 1 AM by your partner calling to tell you they’re about sleep with someone else.

Yeah. Not so great.

The fear behind making this rule is an attempt to try and make sure that partners check in with each other to make sure they’re okay. And that doesn’t need to happen just before and can happen after. Instead of making a rule to enforce this kind of behaviour, what one should do is trying and create an atmosphere where your partner does check in with you, regardless of new partners or not, and makes sure your mental health is okay and where you feel comfortable telling your partner when it isn’t.

A rule enforced like this will not automatically create that type of atmosphere, so the rule isn’t going to help and may instead create more problems than it solves. I’d advise people to think about why they are making the rule and examine the reasoning behind it.

13. Maybe it’s not for you

There are multiple paths and not all of them are going to work, no matter how open minded you are.

Last but not least, the advice so often not given to newbies is plainly: maybe non-monogamy just isn’t for you.

A lot of beginner non-monogamy writing is made with rose tinted eye implants, practically. Non-monogamy has a way of defying some of the things that are inherent but not exclusive to monogamy. Sometimes it can be freeing to feel like you can flirt without ‘cheating’ or do what you’d like. And that in turn makes people feel like non-monogamy is inherently better, inherently more egalitarian, inherently more socially progressive than monogamy.

And it can get to the point where non-monogamous people refer to monogamy derisively, almost blaming it instead of structures like misogyny and heterosexism for the way monogamy has kept them in a box.

That in turn can make people feel like the only egalitarian, ethical and socially progressive choice people can make IS non-monogamy. And like capitalism, non-monogamy can seem great on paper, but not work in practice for many people — AND THAT IS OKAY.

As I said before, accepting non-monogamy means ultimately accepting that any one partner you have will not spend the entirety of their time and resources on you and visa versa. And maybe that’s not setup you want. Maybe that doesn’t work for you. Maybe having more people is just too complicated. Or maybe you’re just too damn tired to date more than one person.

All of this is okay. Choosing monogamy doesn’t mean you choose everything that society can tack on with it. Choosing monogamy doesn’t mean you’ll flip out if your partner notices someone else. It doesn’t mean you have a problem with your partner having sexual feelings or romantic feelings for someone else. Assuming that someone just being monogamous means they endorse society’s ideas about what monogamy should look like is a huge false equivalency.

That’s like me assuming as a non-binary person that any binary identified human being, trans or cis, automatically by identifying as a binary gender endorses everything that society tacks onto that gender — and it’s just not true.

You may try non-monogamy and find it isn’t what you want, and that’s cool. It doesn’t mean you’re backwards or want to live in the 50s. It may just mean it isn’t your cup of tea. And you’d think among ‘unconventional’ people, even that would be tolerated but sometimes it isn’t.

That’s all folks

So that’s it. I’m sure there will be more when I think about it some more, but for now, if I had known this before I started out, it would have saved me a lot of heartbreak and I’m hoping that for some beginners out there it helps them too.

Related articles

Thirteen Mistakes People Make When Trying Polyamory

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Non-monogamy and fear

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

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Non-monogamy and fear

This content is 6 years old which means my opinions or advice on this issue may have changed. Please, read this page keeping its age in your mind and feel free to re-ask a similar question.

When happening upon polyamory, most people are referred to the same sort of material. The book “Opening Up” is often recommended, “The Ethical Slut” and “Sex at Dawn” are becoming some of the popular things to point people toward. Most people are told that there’s no one right way to be polyamorous and that there’s multiple ways of doing it.

They’re warned about hunting for mythical bisexual women who only come into a couple to satisfy fantasies with no real actual needs. People are also often directed towards the poly section of Xeromag, written by Franklin Veaux, now at a new website called More Than Two.

I understand why people direct others towards Franklin’s writings. They make a lot of logical sense. It was this and a lot of other writings that made me consider non-monogamy seriously. I chose to be non-monogamous because I wanted more romantic experiences in my life and more support when I decided to have a family. I considered swinging, but being demisexual makes that pretty impossible for me. Not to mention, the swinging community isn’t something I feel very comfortable in as a non-binary person.

Insecurity and non-monogamy

Yet, one of of the main contentions I have with Franklin’s writing and with a lot of advice given to polyamorous people is this concept of how to deal with insecurity and jealousy. It’s one of the first questions I get or anyone gets when we introduce the concept of polyamory to someone: “What do you do when you get jealous?”

I used to be very versed in the theoretical approaches of counteracting jealousy based a lot of what I read from Franklin’s Becoming Secure article. And I used to link that article to a lot of people struggling with insecurity. I had no idea until I actually had to put these theories into practice how fantastically they fail for people struggling with any form of mental illness.

As I’ve got more experience in non-monogamy and talked to people about their real life experiences of non-monogamy, these tips don’t work for many, many people. And I want to explore why it is that this advice fails so horribly, using “Becoming Secure” as an example.

Can you trust insecurity?

The first thing the article advises: “Don’t always assume you can trust your feelings”. That’s easily done by a lot of people. I have generalised anxiety and paranoia. My feelings tell me that my throat is closing when it’s not, that I’ve got a tumour, that I’m horribly ill and I need to see a doctor immediately.

Add that to the fact that my mother has borderline personality disorder. Being raised by a borderline can make one hypervigilant. It’s like being gaslighted your whole life. Not trusting yourself is par for the course.

Also, borderlines usually split individuals down the middle and refuse to see shades of grey. A lot of children of borderlines report feeling like they didn’t know if they’re god’s gift one day or the devil the next. In my case, I can recall many instances where publicly or in front of others my mother has said how proud she is of me and my accomplishments, but privately has told me that I’m vain or made me feel like catering to any need I had was an incredible burden, specifically emotional validation.

Even though I’m non-binary I feel that image of a hysterical, clingy, illogical, irrational, overly emotional person haunts me. Especially since as a non-binary trans person, my feelings are often derided and ignored. I’ve been told that my feelings about being discriminated against or misgendered are overblown. I’ve even been told, by a leader in the “poly community” who claim to be open minded feminists, that I should “get over” being anxious about being misgendered at events.

And I’ve been through emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse which has made me doubt my ability to remember things correctly and even say what I’ve been through out loud. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s distrust my own feelings.

The problem is that not assuming you can trust yourself is something so many people do and something that abusers love people to do. And it’s because of that assumption that, in my first experience of non-monogamy, I was cheated on. I was interested in dating a guy who demanded that I not speak to another person he was dating for a month or so until I came to visit him. That worried me, legitimately.

But, hey. I can’t trust that my feelings are accurate, right? So I doubted myself. I ignored a legitimate red flag, thought it was jealousy, tried to be okay with it and talk about it with him, only to find out later that the guy was cheating on me.

My anxiety also loves for me not to trust myself. It’s something that it preys upon. My anxiety knows my mind inside and out. It knows all of my worst fears and it preys upon them. It hopes that I doubt myself and my ability to logic my way out of my anxiety. Doubt it something that it preys upon.

It’s when I feel doubt about myself, doubt about my feelings, doubt about anything that my anxiety comes out in full force and submits to me all of the possible ways in which I can be wrong and everything can be horrible. Maybe doubting the way you feel works for people who can, in the end, trust their own mind to not betray them. But unfortunately, I can’t give myself that much trust. Not practically, not emotionally.

The root of insecurity

The next thing the article suggests you do is: “Look beneath the surface” to find the root of your fear. I do not know why this made sense to me when I read it, but it did. Of course I’m jealous because I’m worried about losing my partner! That seems so simple. And I can address that by convincing myself of my self worth. It sounds simple and easy. It’s almost too good to be true.

You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true?

If someone asked me why I would get panic attacks for a good couple of months every time I ate something new, why I desperately wanted to eat the same thing for every meal, why sometimes I get depressed and hate myself, I couldn’t answer.

The nature of having mental illness is that sometimes you feel like complete and utter shit — and there IS no logical reason why. Now, it is true that finding the root of fear can sometimes help. Tuvok says that fear is a result of not knowing, of being unsure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to have the emotional control of a Vulcan, to be able to tame my fears and paranoias by focusing and using meditative techniques. But I’m not a Vulcan. I’m a human being with an anxiety disorder. And it’s taken me months of therapy to figure out why I have anxiety.

My anxiety was something that helped me survive when I was younger. When I was living in environments where I was constantly shot down, made fun of, ridiculed and abused, it made sense for me to focus on fears I could control. I started worrying about characters from television shows coming to kill me, started thinking about compulsions I could perform to prevent horrible illogical tragedies from happening because horrible things were happening to me that I knew I couldn’t stop.

My mind created an outlet for my need to control and fix my horrible situation. It gave me demons that I could fight and kill with compulsions and things to distract me from the demons that I had no hope of winning against. And now that I’m in a better place in my life. I don’t have a need for distraction. And now I’ve come as far as realising that the horrible voice that taunts and teases me constantly is really trying to help me — but that has not made it go away.

Fear and jealousy are complex and finding the root of it may not be all that simple or that easy and it can combine logical understandable objections with irrational worries. It will mix lies with the truth. When I was a child and I used to obsess over chewing my food carefully because I had been taught the Heimlich maneuver at school, it made sense for me to worry about chewing my food correctly, but it didn’t make sense for me to think I had to chew it a certain number of times in order to avoid ever choking.

The root of that fear was me being worried about choking, which makes a lot of logical sense. But trying to convince myself I’ll never choke or reassuring myself that I will always chew my food enough so that I won’t choke doesn’t exactly work if I can’t trust my feelings. I’m already doubting that my reactions are accurate. The fear of choking and the solution of chewing is a simple problem, but what happens when it becomes more complex dealing with emotions, relationships, and other people? How am I supposed to discern which feelings to doubt and which to trust?

Trusting your own feelings

Getting to the root of your fears assumes that you can trust that the root is actually the root, and not just something that your mind is telling you. In the previous example of my first experience with non-monogamy, I believed the root of my feelings about his new partner was jealousy and insecurity, took the typical advice and tried to convince myself of my own self worth.

But the root of my feelings was actually a pretty logical objection to his behaviour. It is pretty strange for a partner to demand that I not speak to another partner and I never would put up with something like that now. But at the time, I was taught to doubt my emotions and find the root of my fear, assuming I could trust myself in the first place.

The next step the article advises you to take is to “disassemble” your fear. If it’s insecurity, then clearly you need to convince yourself of your own self worth. What this doesn’t take into account is the large amount of voices that are going to disagree with you when you dare to speak to yourself about your own worth, especially if you have any mental illness.

If you can’t trust your own feelings and objections, how can you convince yourself that you’re worthy? I’ve spent most of my life trying to convince myself of my own self worth. And some days, I can’t do it. I feel worthless, hopeless, and horrible. And no amount of logic will convince my brain to stop making me feel like shit.

And overall, when I’m trying to convince myself of my own self worth, I have a large amount of cultural baggage going against me. It’s difficult to convince yourself that you’re beautiful if you’re contradicting the stereotypical white, thin, cis, able bodied image of beauty. Sometimes just having faith in yourself enough to get out bed in a day can be difficult.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve read journals, emails, and posts from who deal with trying to find confidence in themselves despite eating disorders, racism, fat hatred, you name it. I can’t speak for everyone and what they go through but I can definitely say that finding and believing in myself has been and will continue to be a lifelong journey. It’s a battle with myself, with society, with the world that my anxiety constantly wages and I’ve tried using simple logic on it before. And logic doesn’t always work, which leads me to the last piece of advice the article gives.

Anxiety and non-monogamy

The next step is to “Build better habits”. But again, if you can’t trust your emotions, your feelings, or anything, how do you know what habits are better? My compulsions were how I dealt with my anxiety for a long time. I took several steps to try and stop panic attacks and worry by avoiding things that triggered them, by using self talk to bring myself down, by carrying worry stones, by shaming myself for feeling anxious, by watching films that comforted me.

You name it, I probably tried it. I’ve had therapy and listened to advice how how to get rid of anxiety and while breaking down my anxiety and understanding it through the process of looking at my life has helped me an incredible amount, my anxiety is still there.

My anxiety is far too clever to allow me to get away with building habits that don’t include it. In fact, sometimes I don’t even realise anxiety is there until it’s too late. I find this true in my relationships.

Rather than being paranoid about my partner cheating on me or whatever stereotypical things you might think I worry about as a person with an anxiety disorder in a relationship, my greatest fear is actually that my partner(s) hate me, but they aren’t saying anything about it.

Of course, it might be broken down further into a fear of abandonment, but I think I could actually handle that. I’m more worried about being secretly hated than being hated to my own face and left. And this illustrates itself in my relationships by my anxiety cataloguing everything to find a reason why I should feel this way. And it mixes rational wants and needs with anxious and overblown fears.

In my own relationships, I can fixate on how much time I’ve spent with a partner, as if that’s an assurance that someone’s not secretly mad at me. I’m trying to find proof in my mind that partners really want to be with me and I need to create examples that I can use to dispute my panicked mind. And that’s combined with a need I legitimately have to spend time with partners.

I know the root of this fear. I know it’s illogical. I know it’s paranoia, but it rears it ugly head nonetheless. And it uses a lot of creative disguises to keep me from realising what it is until I’ve already felt horrible. In one instance, a partner and I were looking at dating the same person and that person turned out to be a huge jerk. I was far more upset and emotionally hurt by this than my partner was and my brain decided to use that against me. It told me, “He’s not that bothered by it. He doesn’t even care that this person hurt you. He doesn’t want to be with you. He hates you.”

But my partner has a different emotional reaction to the situation and that’s fine. I started worrying though why he wasn’t upset. I had a discussion with him, asked him why he wasn’t upset and told him how worried I was. I didn’t realise until I’d already been worried that it was my anxiety trying to convince me that he was mad at me or that he didn’t want to be with me.

Convincing myself of my own self worth is not entirely possible at some points, just like when my physical body decides to make me feel like my throat is closing, logic does not stop it from happening. It can stop me from spiralling into panic, passing out, or having an episode — but my body is still reacting how it’s reacting and I can’t just use logic to outsmart it. I can practice not being an anxious person all I want. Trust me when I say that my mind doesn’t care and it doesn’t listen.

Mental illness and non-monogamy

The key problem I have with this kind of advice, as logical as it is and it sounds, is that there’s an unwritten assumption that if you are insecure or you haven’t been able to do any of these things, that you’ve somehow failed. If practice makes perfect, then theoretically you should be so secure that nothing ever bothers you.

One of the most harmful beliefs I’ve ever had about my anxiety is the belief that I could conquer it if I just tried the right approach or technique. So every time I had another panic attack after months without an episode, I would guilt, blame, and shame myself. Because I should have been able to conquer it easily, right? Because I’ve had all of this practice fighting myself, I should be able to beat it without any issue. Realising that every time I had a panic attack, I wasn’t starting from square one was the first step in addressing my anxiety in a real and positive way.

The point in writing this is not to say that none of that advice is helpful. I do think it is useful for people with mental illnesses to do their best to try and break down the reasoning behind it, if there is one. But I also know that finding my reason took hours of therapy I only recently have been able to afford, only after years of battling with myself about whether I should get any therapy in the first place.

Logically, this approach may work for a lot of people, but it also doesn’t work for many, many others. And while people are told there’s no one right way to do non-monogamy, I feel like there’s an unwritten collective assumption that jealousy is the wrong way to do it and that feeling any amount of it is something that needs to be “dealt with” either on your own or with partners — and the assumption is that eventually it will go away.

But if you find that emotionally this doesn’t translate, if you’re lost between finding the root of your fears between rational objections and paranoia, if you’re wondering why it is you feel the way you do and you can’t understand it — you’re most certainly not alone.

In the past, when people have asked me what I do about jealousy, I’ve often linked to the article on security and talked about practical steps of convincing one’s self of your own self worth, steps that I should have known damn well known didn’t work for me in practice.

Now, when people say, “What do you do about jealousy?” I shrug my shoulders. What does anyone do about jealousy? Or hate? Or anger? Or frustration? The solution is up to you as an individual because what works for you may not work for me.

But, more importantly, don’t put yourself in a position where you expect to never feel fear or jealousy. You are not a failure for feeling. You’re not a failure for feeling lost. Remind yourself that fear will crop up, no matter how practiced or sure of yourself you are.

I don’t know if agree with Captain Janeway in that fear ultimately exists to be conquered but I do know that, in my experience, fear does eventually fade. Mastering it comes in accepting it as a force that can come and go in your life, not in expecting it to disappear.
This article was written in 2016 and while some of my perspectives may have changed since then, the general gist of the article remains the same.

Related articles

Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy

Thirteen mistakes people make when trying polyamory

What anxiety taught me about non-monogamy

Why I don’t identify as ‘poly’

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