I’m writing to you because I’ve come to what feels like a breaking point in one of my polyamorous relationships. I’m relatively new to non-monogamy — I began seeing another person for the first time in September 2017. So since then I have been with both my partner with whom I live, and this new person — neither of them are seeing anyone else, but they would if they wanted to. I don’t know how to explain how I feel in a short email, but in a few words: I feel torn in two., I feel like my heart can’t handle how much I feel for both these people, and that I almost feel too much. I want to give everything to both of them and still have some part of me to give all the other people in my life.
I am writing this after a horrendous night where they were both present at the same evening, andwhere I ended up getting really drunk and bawling my eyes out. I felt like I had to choose between them, and couldn’t. This morning I think I have made the decision to end my new relationship because it is too difficult. I wanted to ask you: how do you manage these intense feelings without feeling like you’re relegating people to small boxed off spaces?
Does it have to do with my own mental health at all? Is it that I just simply am not a strong enough and whole enough person to be able to do this? (this is how it feels).
Sorry for the intense email, but if you do have any thoughts on my situation, I’d be glad to hear them.
You can’t really change your feelings but this isn’t necessarily a problem with your feelings, it’s a problem with your expectations and thought processes which is allowing certain feelings to crop up.
The way you manage that is through two things I’ll talk about here:
- Changing your expectations
- Reframing your perspective
Changing your expectations
Within your letter, you don’t really explain what you mean by wanting to give “everything” to them. What does that mean? Do you mean all of your time? All of your emotional energy? The first thing I think you need to do is challenge the assumption that loving someone means giving them every aspect of your emotional energy and time, or rather that in order to love someone, you have to give them your emotional energy and time.
Because that’s an idea which monogamy encourages and especially reinforces of the cases of people who are feminine, read as women or raised as women. Specifically, it encourages these people to see their value as a person as what they have to offer others in the form of beauty, emotional labour, and pretty much anything else. I feel like there might be a lot more going on here with you expecting that you need to give “everything” to all of these people — and that you need to give things to people at all.
A relationship is an exchange and a compromise, but that goes both ways and has to go both ways. But it’s not all about you giving something to someone else. And believing a relationship involves you giving ‘everything’ to one person, I think, is one of the harmful things which monogamous-centric culture teaches you which is harmful to anyone in any type of relationship. It sounds romantic and sweet, but this is the kind of outlook which abusive people use to entrap people, so I would encourage you to rethink this and reframe your perspective on this.
To recap, the first problem that I think you’re having is your expectation of yourself and what is involved in a relationship. I think you need to look at realistically what you want in a relationship. Think about it in terms of tangibles. What time are you spending where? And what are your needs rather than your assumptions on what you’re supposed to give to whom? And what do you expect from the people you’re in relationships with? What is the lifestyle you want to have with your partner(s)? When you begin with the tangible stuff and you start from the standpoint of what you need rather than what you’re giving, it’s a lot easier to manage.
Reframing your perspective
The second thing I think you need to do is reframe your perspective and also accept your own boundaries. It worries me a bit that you assume that having these feelings means you are not “strong enough”. This is another really destructive idea that our society encourages, the idea that having or expressing emotions makes you weak or not strong. You can’t control the feelings you have. You can only control how you choose to respond to them and the framing your mind has that encourages different types of feelings.
In changing your expectations, you definitely may reframe your mind but I think you also need to furthermore reframe your feelings as fewer problems and more of signs that your body and your mind are trying to tell you something. Whenever we start a new relationship or whenever things are seemingly unstable, our feelings are going to run on high alert. You might be fighting a lot of internal conditioning of how ‘wrong’ it is for you to have more than one partner. There might be other things your brain is telling you that is keeping your emotions running on high, but the easiest way to cope with your emotions is to begin by not blaming yourself for having them. It’s a lot easier for you to cope with something if you’re not beginning the coping already injured from beating yourself up.
Regardless of what you choose in terms of your relationship style, you will not be able to avoid uncertainty and instability. For as much as we would like to be able to control all aspects of our life, we don’t. Life is ultimately outside of our control and the only thing constant is change. So you will have to be able to deal with a lot of different types of instability and change in your life. The way to deal with that is to have boundaries in place. What you want are things that ground you — but don’t restrain you or prevent you from moving where you need to move.
It might be that you just don’t like the emotions that being with both of your partners on the same evening in the same place brings. And that’s okay. One of the things I don’t like about many polyamory communities and especially the word ‘compersion’ is it puts forth this idea that the ideal for any polyamorous person is feeling no jealousy and only happiness when you see your partners with other people — but that’s sometimes not the reality for a lot of us and that’s okay. It doesn’t make us less ‘strong’ than people who do no more than anything else does. I know personally, I would rarely enjoy being with two of my partners in the same evening and in the same place — just because I’d feel nervous about my own feelings and that anxiety would defeat the entire purpose.
Does that mean I’m weak? Well, maybe some people might think so, but that doesn’t really matter. I’m not doing my relationship style as some sort of gladiator decathlon tryout. When I die, it’s not like I get a gold encrusted plaque on my burial mound that says “World’s Most Emotionally Hardcore Badass”. My loved ones won’t get some type of monetary prize if I prove my strength in some type of emotional arena. Ask yourself what you’re trying to prove? And to whom? And for what? You don’t have to be someone who is fine with them both being present at the same evening.
Listen to yourself and your feelings and instead of trying to fight an emotional battle in your own head of your own creation that has absolutely no prize for winning, give yourself permission to be yourself. And set up boundaries around that which make it easier. Hopefully, none of your partners are forcing you to do any of this, but you’re allowed to say that it just makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s okay. It doesn’t make you weak and it doesn’t make you un-whole. You are as much “whole” as any other human being who is in any other type of relationship.
Reframe your perspective and allow yourself the freedom to feel. Allow yourself permission to have feelings without assuming that is a failure. It might be a lot easier to manage your intense emotions if you’re not beating yourself up for having them or trying to suppress them. And this isn’t necessarily about mental health. People with mental health challenges can sometimes find it hard to cope with new things or changes, but it’s not impossible. I would suggest getting a polyamory friendly therapist who can help you work through your feelings, but definitely, don’t suppress them.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings and set up boundaries. Just keep in mind that when you set up boundaries, you’re doing so in order to manage feelings, not prevent them. The problem people have with boundaries and rules is that they so often create rules that are designed to prevent emotions when rules will not do that. Setting up these boundaries will not change your emotions, but in trying out polyamory, you’re in a way learning how you do these relationships. And just like you did when you were probably trying out monogamy, you had to learn over time how it worked and what you wanted out of them.
In trying something new, you’re inevitably going to feel anxious, nervous and you’re going to make mistakes. Rather than expecting ‘perfection’ from yourself, which really does not exist here, give yourself a bit of permission to learn something new. Challenge your assumptions and expectations and reframe your perspective and you might find this a lot easier in the future.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Note: I wrote this column in 2018, so it’s possible my perspective on this may have shifted or expanded. Please feel free to resubmit a similar question.
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