I have been with my wife for about 15 years, married for 5 now, and in all accounts have had a amazing life together. We love each other deeply and have had very few complication in our time together. I’ve always felt that I was truly lucky to have her.
About two years ago my wife had a stress breakdown, work related, and over the following 12 months quit her job and did some self exploration which changed her life for the better, mentally & physically. I was always there to support her and we got through it. Not only did we get through it we were even stronger and for the past year she has said many time that she feels even closer and more love for me than ever.
So very recently she confessed to me that she has come to believe she identifies as ‘ethical non-monogamy’ and the only reason she told me was because of how close she feels towards me. I was completely shocked as this was something that I have never considered. It has been an extremely trying time for me but I promised her that I would at least explore this with her to learn about it.
She believed that I have so much love to give that it would grow us as people. We are reading books together, listening to audio books (“More than two” which you have referenced) watch you tube, spoken to councillors (myself) and I’m going to meet people that run a poly group. I want to get a full understanding of what this life change would involve, if I can do it and what could happen to us if it works or if it doesn’t (or if one loves it and the other does not). She has said that she doesn’t know if she would even like it or have time for it but wants to try.
In all honesty it scares me to the core, what could happen to us and our relationship. The chance that it could ruin our love for each other or result in resentment and of course the thought of other lovers. I guess jealousy is a big one as it has been running through my head a lot — the thought of the first date, first night away from home with another. I’m not averse to change but it I need to know if this is even something I want to try.
There has been no pressure on me to make a decision right away but I know that she will want one at some point soon, I’m unsure if I can not committee to this she wont leave me — but it is possible. I know that unless I’m true to myself, and of course her too, know what I need from a relationship, my boundaries and values that this will not work regardless.
I know it would take courage to do this but I also know it will take courage to tell her ‘I cant’ knowing that it could also mean an end to our relationship. I do see a positive reality to being poly but I’m not sure if I am ready to do it now…in a year, 5, 10 or ever.
I guess what I would like to know is the honest truth in your experience as to — How often does exploring this life change work? What is the reality that attempting this, in our situation, likely to damage our relationship? Can I know if I am the type of person that could make the change?
Are poly people able to live in a mono relationship happily? How do you survive that first night when they are with another, on a date or physical? Any other insight you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
I’m going to tell you the truth here: You are absolutely right to be scared.
But I’m also going to tell you another truth: You have never had the control that a mono-centric culture has made you believe you have had.
Is it safe to try polyamory?
Trying polyamory at any stage of any relationship is always a risk, as is starting any new relationship. I wish that I could provide you with the keys to quell your fears or assure you that polyamory is the most wonderful life choice you can make, but I cannot do that because your fears are very, very valid. This has the potential to fundamentally alter your relationship. In growing and changing, you may find that your wife of 15 years and you have grown apart. But the question is… will not trying polyamory change that?
We’re raised within a monogamous-centric culture that has us believing that all we have to do is meet someone, fall in love, move in together, get married, have children and live happily ever after. The steps of our romantic lives are clearly etched out in multiple media outlets and in the stories we tell. This is what we see as ‘happiness’ and as a ‘successful’ relationship — if no one makes it out alive. And because we hear this all of the time, when we are ‘successfully’ married, we believe we are ‘safe’ and that everything will go according to plan.
But the fact is that, even if your wife never rediscovered herself, even if none of this ever happened, the false illusion you’ve had of ‘safety’ has been just that. There is always a risk, even after you have been married for 15 years, that your relationship could fundamentally change. Even if you were to say you don’t want to try polyamory and your wife was 100% happy with that, something else down the road could come along that could change your relationship. Whether that be a major illness or a huge life event, nothing is as certain as we perceive it.
I find it helpful to remember that because it helps me reframe my fear. Specifically, because I have problems with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, I seek to control things as means of coping with the fact that I can’t control anything. Trying my best to face up to this truth, that things aren’t always within my control and there isn’t anything I can do about that, helps me actually cope better with anxiety. Especially when I remember that I have survived 100% of my worst days.
You don’t have certainty for the future, but what you do have is 15 years of history together, challenges you’ve both faced, and multiple times when I’m sure your marriage and your relationship has not felt as safe as it did. Perhaps you’ve never felt quite this scared before, but you both have worked through things before. In coping with some of this fear, it’s helpful to remember that you’ve both worked through fear before. And you have worked through fear in your life before. You are still here and still going. That sometimes can help.
A life raft in a stormy sea
When a lot of couples try out polyamory for the first time, they make a lot of rules as a way to cope with the fear they have of change. And even though the rules work temporarily to make them feel better, they are treating a symptom instead of a disease. You both might feel the inclination to make some rules to ‘ease’ you into things, but there really isn’t going to be an easy way for you to control your feelings because you can’t do that.
I understand your wife may not really have any idea if this is something that’s going to work for her, but presumably, if you’ve done as much research as you’ve noted, she has an idea of different ways relationships can be structured. She might not be able to say for sure what she wants right now, but she can give you an idea of what sounds most appealing. Is she looking to casually date people or to find one other relationship?
When you said that you’re trying to get a full understanding of what this life change would involve, that’s the answer you’re really looking for. How will this fundamentally change your relationship? Does this mean she’s going to spend weekends away? Weeknights? Even if she can’t say for sure right now, she can give you more insight into her thought process and that might help the both of you feel a little more reassurance.
In terms of how you cope with things, you don’t mention if you have children or any other commitments which require some of your time, but I think what you could do is negotiate your time with your partner. Do you have dinner together each night? Do you have a date night? I have a domestic partner so we usually cook and eat dinner together. Because we plan our meals, it makes it easier for me to know ahead of time if he has a date or is going to an event. We don’t really have any hard and fast rules about which nights are ‘ours’ and which are ‘others’, but planning out our week together gives me some sense of stability.
And what you’re going to need is some stability. Things are changing and instead of grasping onto arbitrary rules as a life raft, instead grasp onto each other. Make plans with each other and communicate with your therapist what your initial commitment means to each other. This could change — but as I pointed out previously, this has always had the capacity to change and will still have the capacity to change, even if polyamory is out of the picture.
I find it useful to make plans with friends or try to keep myself busy if my partner has a date. This has become less important now as I become more used to some of his regular partners and don’t feel so anxious about change, but for the first couple of nights, even as someone who’s been practising polyamory for over 7 years, it’s still going to make me anxious. Change makes people anxious — and that’s okay. Just have a plan for how you’re going to cope with that and be kind to yourself about it.
Polyamory might not be for you
I do think that, if this is very important to your partner, it makes sense to give it a try. But imagine if your partner decided she wanted to live in a mobile home and travel across the country, assuming this was an option for you both. You would want to try that before definitely telling her no way and risk losing her. But you might find that this isn’t the life that you want.
This isn’t the ideal situation I would have people try polyamory — in a situation where they are trying it to avoid losing their partner. Especially if they aren’t sure if they want the benefits polyamory could bring to them. But there have been plenty of cases where this does work out, but it doesn’t happen overnight and I don’t think you should assume fear and even horrible feelings automatically means it ‘doesn’t work’.
It might be difficult, but try to put yourself in the mind frame of exploring polyamory without the idea that it’s something you have to do. Your partner isn’t putting pressure on you, which is good. But try to give yourself space outside of what is going on in your marriage to explore this as a real option for you. Try to think of the benefits it might bring to your life. It’s difficult for you to really see that right now with so much going on, but I do think that sometimes this is how people are introduced to polyamory and they discover that they actually do like it.
What makes the difference is them being able to discover a positive reason to try polyamory, something they get out of it particularly as an individual. That can sometimes be what you can come back to, if you have it, during difficult times. It’s actually very rare for both people within a couple to be suddenly equally interested in polyamory and both start that journey from the same point, so you’re not alone in that. Within polyamory groups, you could seek out people who have been in your position and learn what their tactics were for coping with the change.
I would give yourself a time frame inside of your head. I wouldn’t necessarily share this with your partner as it might feel too much like an ultimatum. But maybe try this for the next two years. And don’t forget to make efforts on your part to get out and date (just be aware that it’s the norm for one partner, especially if they are read as a woman, to get more interest from potential dates than the other partner, especially if they are read as a man). If after two years you decide this isn’t for you, then you also have the option to walk away.
That may not sound very nice right now, but in these cases, it’s also important to remember that you too have a choice in how you live your life.
Give yourself permission to feel
You may be having a lot of feelings of frustration and anger. These are perfectly understandable. Keep talking to your therapist about them. From my perspective, you’re actually doing excellently in terms of trying to understand your partner and work with her towards a solution. Every bit of fear and worry you have is totally valid. And it doesn’t inherently mean that you can’t do polyamory or that you distrust your partner.
The thing I worry about with introductory polyamory advice is that a lot of it focuses way too much on demonising jealousy as if it were always some inherent attempt to control your partner, when it’s a perfectly understandable response in some instances and when fear of losing your partner is so often confused with jealousy. You and your wife need to give you permission to be afraid and worried without that somehow having some deeper meaning or negative intent.
Too much of polyamory beginner advice encourages the idea that your emotions are ‘your responsibility’ to handle, which encourages people to stifle their feelings for fear that they will somehow depress or burden their partners. While your partner definitely isn’t your therapist and can’t reasonably provide you with 24/7 emotional support always, it sounds like your relationship definitely includes the ability to emotionally support one another. And it’s okay to ask for that.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Note: I wrote this column in 2017 and may have shifted my perspectives. Please feel free to re-ask a similar question.
Do you have a question?
If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to email@example.com. Your question will be posted anonymously.