Managing trauma and 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.

I’m a 33 year old man with significant relationship trauma and abandonment issues. My partner of six years has, until recently, only had two partners; I was the only partner of the two she maintained a sexual relationship with, in what used to be a Dom/sub dynamic. She doesn’t, however, share a bed with me.

Shortly after we all moved in together she expressed a desire to be with someone else, looking for a heavy top to fulfill her masochistic needs. Her job places several people under her care and that gives her little energy to see to me as her submissive. She stays over at their place out of town roughly half the time, and still never with me.

I’m dealing the best I’m able, but I have a paralyzing fear of being abandoned because of where she’s at currently, what that means for her energy for me, and also because of betrayal and trauma in every major relationship. Since seeing this partner I feel like she has lost a lot of interest in me and that’s digging up a lot of pain. She will sometimes ignore texts that pertain to a pending vasectomy for the purposes of safer fluid bonding and that makes me feel like she doesn’t want that for us anymore.

I feel like she’s running out of patience with my fears and I don’t know how to pull myself out of this tailspin I’m convinced I caused. I’ve begun counseling to deal with my anxieties but I’m afraid she’s pulling away despite my best efforts. I’ve considered asking her about me exploring non-monogamy but I think she wouldn’t go for it.

Is there anything that can be done? Is this just part of cohabitation? I still feel get butterflies when we make eye contact, but that barely happens anymore.

There are two things that immediately strike me when I read your letter.

The first thing is that I’m very confused as to why it is she is allowed to be non-monogamous, but you aren’t? Especially when it’s very clear that she doesn’t have an interest or perhaps the time or energy into meeting all of your needs, and yet she is allowed to pursue other relationships outside of yours but you aren’t? This could be part of your dynamic, but the fact that you feel like you can’t bring this up with her or that she ‘won’t go for it’ is really telling.

Far be it from me to tell people how to operate, but I think regardless of whatever type of dynamic one person has in a relationship, it’s always important for things to feel equal or, at least, if there is an inequity, that that’s discussed and addressed in a way that’s feels open and fair. Throughout your letter, you highlight a lot of inequities in your relationship that I would guess, because of the way you’ve highlighted them, do not feel fair to you.

It feels like you are powerless to actually address these situations. Which, regardless of your dynamic in the relationship, really shouldn’t be the case. I don’t feel like a relationship where you feel like your needs are not being met and asking for them to be met is going to cause more harm than good is a functionally healthy relationship.

I’m also not sure if, given your fear of abandonment, a dynamic where one person has more power over you is something that’s particularly healthy. I’ll address coping with fears later on in this, but I do think part of dealing with fear is having a firm and secure foundation and that comes from feeling reassured which builds stability in a relationship and if you’re with someone who doesn’t have the time or isn’t inclined to provide you with the stability you need… it might not be helping you.

Coping with positive situations

The second thing is — Have you considered that it’s precisely because of your past and previous traumas and fear of abandonment that you, maybe not knowingly, seek out relationships with people who are more likely to abandon you? Especially if they behave in ways that are comfortable to you in a way. You’ve had a lot of betrayal and trauma in other relationships which may mean that you require or need a little bit more reassurance than people who haven’t, but that isn’t a bad thing. I think we have a tendency when we have a lot of trauma in our past to believe that we’re ‘damaged goods’ and we have to be some sort of project for someone else to fix.

But the reality is that no one is a ‘damaged good’. Different people have different needs and, despite the message our society gives us about the supposed benefits of rugged individualism, human beings are social creatures. There is a reason why solitary confinement is a torture which has serious psychological impacts on people. It’s hard to be alone. And it’s doubly hard to try and deal and cope with trauma on your own. It is not weak or wrong to expect or want reassurance or help with other people in going through this. Now, one shouldn’t force a loved one to be one’s therapist, of course. But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking or expecting.

While I can’t say this is true of you for sure because I’m not you, I’ve found that my anxiety sometimes puts me in situations that aren’t good for me because my anxiety is all about trying to cope with an environment that isn’t great. And in some ways, my anxiety almost doesn’t know what to do with people who compliment me or treat me well. I actually feel more comfortable dealing with insults than I do with compliments.

My brain can do unhealthy explosive confrontation, but struggles to process the idea that confrontation can be healthy or productive. Maybe you’re finding yourself attracted to people who you know won’t provide you with the support you need because deep down you doubt you’re worth that support? Or you’re unsure of what you’d do with support or what it would be like to get it?

Facing your fears

The other thing I want to mention, especially because you highlight your fears, is that one of the things that has helped me the most in terms of coping with my fears is, while it may sound counterintuitive, recognising that there was little I could do to prevent my fears from becoming reality. I think anxiety can function differently from person to person, but it’s been my experience that my anxiety is trying to help me, as I said, cope with situations that I’m no longer finding myself in. And sometimes the best way of coping with a really traumatic situation is by distracting you with other things to be afraid of or giving you things you can do to address a traumatic situation.

So anxiety will tell you that you have the power to prevent these situations by doing certain things, or by just worrying the hell out of yourself. And if you think about it, that’s far more empowering as an option than to just sit back and let the trauma hit you. As much as you being afraid seems to get in the way of you living life, your fear is actually trying to help you because it’s making you think that there are things you can do to prevent someone abandoning you when the truth is that ultimately there is nothing you can do to stop that from happening.

Obviously as people we can be pleasant to be around or mistreat others or do things which will drive people away, sure. But there are plenty of people who are nice and wonderful partners who just don’t suit one another or who grow apart for various reasons and that cannot be helped. If your partner is not up to the task of helping you cope with your fears where they can and is not responsible enough to be honest with you about their limitations and maybe even break the relationship off if they feel like you would be better supported by someone else — none of this is your fault.

Abandonment and responsibility

It makes perfect sense to be afraid of abandonment. As I said, we’re social creatures. But I think part of the reason this is so difficult to cope with is because you’re putting all of the burden on preventing abandonment in your life on your shoulders when there is no possible way that you can prevent that. You assume that *you* are driving your partner away. You put all of the agency on yourself in this letter without once finding fault in your partner for their inability to help you. You can’t force someone to be interested in you and you shouldn’t blame yourself or your trauma if someone is not capable of providing you with the support you need — or even in some cases, especially with ignoring texts, even the basic level of decency and respect.

You don’t even consider that it’s perhaps *her* past which has made her incapable of fully handling a situation where someone has a need she can’t fulfil or being a responsible adult and communicating what she wants rather than leaving you up to guess at the reasons for why she’s behaving in certain ways. She absolutely is not bound by anything to be there for you if she can’t, but at the very least she should be able to tell you if that’s something she can’t do rather than pulling away slowly. And to her credit, maybe she is worried it might upset you if she’s forthright, but either way, it’s not working very well for either of you.

Summary

I think you should re-examine this with a new lens where you’re not assuming your need for re-assurance is a bad thing that you have to cope with. Really ask yourself if this type of lack of support is something you want to deal with. You said yourself you’re not excited by the relationship anymore and you don’t feel supported — why keep holding on? Why let it get to a point where someone abandons you rather than deciding for yourself to be pro-active and seek what you need in life? She’s certainly capable of doing so — and so are you.

I hope this helps and good luck.

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Episode 7: Polyagony

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.

Trapped in a love square and slipped in an undercurrent of emotion? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

You should also be able to find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers. Or, conversely, use our RSS feed. A full transcript of the podcast can be found on Patreon.

Episode 7 – Polyagony

Tired of juggling partners, living in polyagony, and ready to throw in the towel. That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Find the full audio transcription of this episode on Patreon.

 

Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Letter:

I start by saying that I’ve been dating two guys from 5 years ago. Let’s call them Joe and Christopher. I met Joe first. He is monogamous. At the beginning I didn’t know what he wanted, so I was always feeling insecure about everything. I started to hang out with different guys without any purpose. Then I stopped it because I was making myself just unhappy.

A time later, Joe and I continued seeing but more frequently but without establishing a proper relationship. Then I traveled to America and met Christopher. He told me he was polyamorous.

In the beginning, I was just curious. I liked the idea of being able to give love to more than one person and so freely. As I didn’t love him yet I came back to my monogamous relationship and things was almost the same.

Slowly he started to open his life to me, but I still was feeling insecure because I didn’t want to raise hopes and then he disappears again for months. As I was deeply in love but I didn’t want to admit it I said anything. Meanwhile, Christopher kept in contact. I went to visit America again and spent a few days with him. Was nice but short, we liked each other but that was all. At my return, Joe and I kept dating and I realized all this time he has had feelings for me but like me, he didn’t want to admit it (I guess we were too young and didn’t know how to deal with emotions).

Later on, for many personal and professional reason of my life, I decided I had to go away and ended living one year in Asia. Christopher visited me (he was the only one able to do it) and by the time he did it, Joe have had decided to finish his relationship with me for another girl that I had no idea existed. At that point I was so much in pain I didn’t want to know anything about him and tried to focus on Christopher to heal. Now I feel I was just using him to overcome a bad relationship. I think my problem was that I never established boundaries and let know my partners what I wanted. Things went worst when Joe told me the thing with the girl was something short and kinda made said me he wanted to be with me from the beginning. And I, still in love, of course, accepted him again.

So, what happens was that I started to develop feelings for both of them and having two relationships at a time. Somehow I ended in this polyamorous thing. (So I thought) I made sure both knew about each other. But now I think I did it also because I wanted to avoid to feel I was cheating on Joe. As I’ve been traveling for many years I haven’t been able to be with one or another for a long period of time.

One year ago I moved (again) to Europe. And I started to date and eventually fall in love with another person (let’s call him Poul). I told my polyamorous partner, but could not inform my monogamous partner, even though at that point he seemed to be ok with my first partner. I think that he was just trying to understand me, but actually was never feeling ok about it. Although I know he should’ve been clearer and direct, I think I knew it all the time, but because I loved him so much and was afraid to lose him I ignored his feelings. I almost thought I would leave my polyamorous partner just to be with him. Because in the end, he made me extremely happy.

Time passed and I started to realize my amorous life was a mess. I started doubting about my feelings on all my partners. Even Poul, who even though was open-minded, he wanted to explore all with an established partner. Something I knew from the begging I could not offer and I let him know many times but then we were in love and again both ignored the reality.

Then, I did another huge mistake. As I never felt the confidence to tell any of them that I was feeling insecure about everything. I never informed my polyamorous partner that I was doubting I still loved him. And I was so selfish I got anxious and sad when Poul wanted to push me away because he was afraid of falling in love. I know now I should have stopped to evaluate their feelings and my feelings. I was crying by the idea that I could not be with someone I loved just because of that.

Although I and Poul stayed together and I even try to arrange a meeting with Christopher, because Christopher wanted. It never happened. And as you can see, all that time I was forgetting about Joe. Who I talked time to time, sometimes intensively sometimes sporadically. I was extremely happy by the idea of see him again and be with him, so I bought a ticket to see him. Then, I realized all this time I never told him about Paul, and now that I had developed emotions for him I should’ve told him. So I did, but of course, it was a really bad timing. I told my monogamous partner about the existence of Paul too late and ended ruining his feelings and mines. The relationship itself, to be short.

Now I really believe all this happened because I wasn’t clear about what I wanted (kinda I never stopped to consider it) and I wasn’t sensitive about what my partners wanted. In the end, Joe and I weren’t honest with each other. I was not fully honest with Christopher about my love for him and although Paul has become relevant I know somehow that I will never be able to satisfy his needs. I wish I would know your blog from the beginning.

After a long talk, Joe did was I believe is the correct thing. Broke up with me. He said even tho we both love each other as we want different things in the romantic life, the best for us is to break up. True but it hurts like hell. I feel I can’t be with anyone and I wanna break up with my other two partners. One because I don’t feel I love him enough and the other one because at the end is gonna asks for the same thing that Joe and I can’t commit to that.

I don’t want to do the same mistakes over and over again. I don’t feel secure to continue any relationship and I think I need to be alone. At the same time, I can’t stop thinking about Joe and I’m not sure how to overcome this, I feel I just wanna go with him and try to save it all, but that is wrong. I’m kinda tired of polyamorous (If I ever was one) What is sure, is that this has become a ‘polyagony’ and I don’t know how to solve all this. I feel bad for using people because of my insecurities.

Response:

So there’s quite a lot of things going on here. Let me just established some things in case it was difficult for people to follow. So Joe was the person you met first. He’s monogamous. Christopher you met later. He’s polyamorous. And then there’s Paul who you met later on, which you don’t say whether Paul is inclined towards monogamy or polyamory.

It’s really weird to me… The first thing that strikes me is that you said that you started seeing Joe first. He’s monogamous and you didn’t know what he wanted but I kinda think that being monogamous is a pretty clear indication of what he wants. So I’m not really sure what you were… I mean you could say you know you don’t know what kind of eventual long-term partnership he wanted and that makes sense. But wanting monogamy is a pretty… or being monogamous enough for you to say that he is monogamous is a pretty clear indication of what exactly it is that he wants. So I’m confused as to why at that point you were… cause you said you started hanging out with different guys without any purpose and then you stopped as you are making yourself unhappy and you continued to go on with Joe but not establishing any kind of proper relationship.

And then Joe kind of it seems like… completely ditches you to date someone else but doesn’t tell you and then comes back later.  I think that your assessment of the situation is is right in a lot of ways like… Boundaries are good thing to have and when… This is one of the reasons why, you know, when are people like “We don’t need any rules”…  Sometimes I think boundaries get confused with rules. I think that you know rules like “We’re only going to love each other but we’re never gonna fall in love with anybody else” is just ridiculous because you can’t predict or control that kind of thing. But you can work with people to understand what type of relationship you want. What kind of relationship you have. Where your emotional commitments are… you know. You can work with each other to figure that out and you not know that from the beginning. Especially with your situation, you’re moving and you’re not stationary in any one place for a long amount of time so you’re not really going to be anyone’s like anchor partner or you’re… probably. I mean you can be if you want but you’re probably not going to be… your relationship with them isn’t one where you’re living with them and seeing them day to day but you need to talk about that and you need to establish boundaries.

And you’re right that a lot of this comes… a lot of these problems came from you not establishing boundaries. The first being not really working out with Christopher what your relationship is. You say he’s monogamous so it’s pretty clear he wants monogamy. But are you or are you not in a relationship? It seems like it was very unclear for you. And you have this consistent problem… cause you say you somehow ended up being polyamorous but.. you don’t really like… you don’t end up being polyamorous by accident like I mean… I guess you can but…  the point is that if you’re honest about things… like polyamory and monogamy are different things to want.

And you can be a polyamorous person who has a partner who is monogamous with you and that’s fine if they agree to that but if you’re polyamorous person with a monogamous partner who thinks you’re being monogamous with them… that’s not polyamory. That’s cheating. And I just think… I think you and Joe had the problem of not establishing what it was that your relationship was. And he just kind of pissing off and not talking to you for months is a really horrible thing for him to do. Like… monogamy or polyamory, regardless of whatever relationship style you do, someone who just completely ditches you and also is dishonest… I mean I say he was dishonest… he didn’t tell you about this person he was dating but if you never established a clear relationship… you know, you can’t just have boundary that are just in your head. You have to communicate those.

And hiding things… like you have a consistent problem with hiding things because you either don’t want to deal with your own feelings or you don’t want to deal with somebody else’s feelings and that is just delaying the inevitable. Like… and a lot of people do this. You’re kind of inclined to do it sometimes cause you’re like “Ooh maybe if I just don’t say anything about this, it’ll be ok”. And at one point when you’re not telling Joe about Paul and you’re not telling… you don’t have to like… you don’t have to tell someone “I don’t know if I love you that much”. You don’t have to… you know. If you make it clear what your relationship expectations are and you understand more about what you want then you don’t have to worry about leading someone on because it’s very clear what the expectations are.

And I feel like there’s so much that’s unsaid that you’re worried about..  “Oh I need to tell this person that I’m not as in love with them as I should be”. But you don’t know what they expect out of the relationship. You’re expecting that Paul wants you to be, from what it sounds like, a primary or domestic partner or anchor partner or someone who’s Paul’s primary emotional support and you can’t do that. So instead of being honest about that… you’re just delaying the inevitable. You’re making things much much worse by hiding things for the sake of either not hurting the other person or because you just don’t want to face it.

You want to have fun with Paul and you want to enjoy that romantic feeling but you know at some point Paul’s needs are that Paul wants someone who is like that. And yeah you know if you make it clear to the other person, “I can’t do this”, then it’s not necessarily your fault if they continue to expect that. But at the same time, I do think that if there are hints to you that Paul is expecting this then it is kind of your responsibility to reiterate it and your responsibility to also think “Should I continue this relationship knowing that eventually it’s going to hurt this other person?”

So yeah being not clear about stuff like… You can be unclear but at times you’re purposefully hiding stuff. Purposefully hiding Paul from your other partners is cheating. It’s not being unclear. It’s not you know… It’s cheating outright because you’re lying about something. I think you know… cheating definitions can vary from one couple to the other but I think a universal premise behind cheating is lying about dating or being with someone else. And you are. You have done that so you can’t really blame Joe for being upset or anyone for being upset if you’ve hid things from them. Not just not hiding feelings of like “Oh I don’t know find it in love enough with you” or stuff like that but literally hiding the fact that you’re dating someone else while you’re actively dating them and they think you aren’t… you know I mean… Joe wasn’t performing great when he just abandoned you.

It seems like a one-off to date somebody else without even telling you and you found out later but you would… from what it sounds like you weren’t dating at the… He wasn’t hiding this person from you while you’re in a relationship. So yeah I think those are the things you need to focus on like you really need to work on your inclination to hide things in order to avoid the consequences because what happens is you make the consequences 10 times worse. You don’t seem to be able to make the decision… like when you mention that Joe broke up with you because you want different things. He was making a very… the right decision there because you know you do want different things.

He wants monogamy and you could have avoided all of this pain and heartache if you would have just been honest with yourself from the beginning. You can’t… I don’t think you should go with Joe and try and be monogamous and try to make that work because at this point you can’t really trust your own kind of emotional instincts right now. Because your default seems way too much into… instead of thinking about things and understanding the real consequences of them down the line, you’re focus too much on getting what you want right away, even if that means  you won’t get what you I want down the line and it’ll just hurt more.

I think that… whether or not you’re polyamorous or not is really up to you. I don’t think that’s a thing that matters right now, personally. Because. it’s difficult to say that for anyone. If someone… the examples of you trying it in this case aren’t really the best examples. It’s sort of like someone just had their first monogamous relationship and they were cheated on and then you know going… or they had a terrible relationship or terrible communication, judging whether or not they can do monogamy by that relationship wouldn’t really be fair. But I just don’t think that that’s the thing you should focus on right now.

I really think that what you need to work on, with a therapist if you have access to it, is your inclination to hide or lie in order to avoid the inevitable. You delay the inevitable a lot. You’re doing that with Paul as well. Like if you… you’ve told him but… if… I think you’re not listening to like the first instincts that you have which are showing themselves to be correct. But you’re kind of going, “Well I don’t want to leave the situation because I have all these nice feelings, a nice romantic support and I have the satisfaction now”. But what you don’t understand… what you’re not really seeing is that if you don’t… if you’re not honest with yourself and honest with other people about the realities of the situation and sometimes that really sucks and I totally understand the inclination to, especially if you’re lonely, especially if you don’t have a lot of other ways of getting support, like you know… This is especially true for people who don’t have family networks, who don’t have a lot of close friends, you know, you’re gonna want to hold on to whatever emotional and romantic validation and support that you have.

But you have to kind of be able to understand the bigger picture and the bigger picture is that  Paul wants something you can’t provide and not only just for him but for yourself… it doesn’t make sense to continue that if you feel like in your heart it’s not going to end well. I think that you’re… I don’t necessarily think you need to break up with Christopher. I do think that your feeling is about Paul in terms of you’re not going to be able to give him what he wants… you know, you need to sit down and have a real discussion with him and not be suggestive.

And not be… I don’t know if you have… you know you say you’re quite honest with him about… this is… “I can’t be this person for you”. If you haven’t sat him down and been really clear about that then do that. He may be in the same position as well. He may know that and he may just want to continue because he likes the support but you might have to make the bigger decision. You might have to say, “Look, I know that I can’t give this to you and it’s probably best we end this now”. Because the longer you drag it out the more your feelings are going to get hurt at the end of the day.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to break up with Christopher. I just think that you need to see a therapist about… and maybe even a couples therapist but definitely a therapist on your own about avoidance and about avoiding uncomfortable feelings because you don’t want to deal with them. Because they… this is you know if you look back at what you wrote and the problems that you have… I mean this is just the perfect case of the fact that avoiding doesn’t solve anything and actually leads to you cheating. Leads to you hiding things and leads to you avoiding being honest with yourself and with your partners because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or you don’t want to deal with difficult things.

And I think that is going to cause you problems regardless of what kind of relationship style you want to be in. You can’t do monogamy well either if you can’t be honest with yourself and with the person that you’re with. All relationships, like functional relationships that don’t have as much drama as you would normally have with two people trying to work things or multiple people trying to work things out, you’re going to have more problems if you can’t be honest. And it’s really hard like I wanna reinforce to you that being honest with yourself and being honest with other people is really really difficult.

There so much polyamory advice that talks about, you know, “tell people what you want and be honest about what you want and you have to tell people and you have to communicate and you have to talk”. And it really downplays how scary communication can be because if you’re honest about what you want and if you invest the time to understand what you want and you can communicate that… it’s a lot easier for people to say “I can’t do that” and then where are you? You know, it’s a lot safer in some instances to avoid having that conversation because then you continue to have the good feelings of a relationship and you don’t have to deal with a difficult ones.

But as I said like… this avoiding dealing with that is not helping you. It’s making it so much worse for you. So yeah, I mean if you want to as well consult a therapist regarding Paul and what to do. If you want to see a relationship counsellor, all of these should be obviously polyamory friendly counsellors… If you want to see one with Paul and just make sure… Because it’s up to Paul. Like Paul can say “I know that you can’t provide me with this. I’ll find that with someone else. That’s fine”. You can’t responsible like… the best you can do is inform Paul as much as possible of what your boundaries on what you can offer to that relationship.

And also do some self soul-searching and think about… is this what you want? What you want your relationships to look like? You know you’ve kind of fallen into this polyamory thing but you haven’t really put any thought into whether or not it’s actually something you want and you may not know. You may be like… I honestly don’t know what I’m going to want to 20 years from now. I don’t know what I want my wife to look like. You’re moving around a lot. Do you wanna settle in one place? Are you going to settle in one place? You have to think about the kind of future that you want and that can help steer what kinds of relationships you can have with different types of people. You can consult a relationships… you know you can get relationship counselling with Paul to figure out if he understands what your boundaries and what your limitations are once you figure you’re out what they are.

But equally I do think like… to summarise, you should definitely think about therapy or think about… and make Christopher aware as well that this is an issue. You do not have to wait until you’re a perfect human being to date anyone. Like we all have problems… well, maybe some people don’t have any problems but I’ve rarely met anyone who doesn’t have any problems. We all have a lot of things that we were learned culturally, that we learned from our parents, that we learned from media, that we learned… you know we all have… none of us are perfect and we all have things to work through so it’s not like you… I understand the feeling like “I want to be alone and I want to figure this out” and that might be the best decision for you.

It really depends but I don’t think you need to set yourself up with this idea that you need to be perfect in order to date and that’s a really big thing within polyamory because people make it seem like polyamory is some type of level up and that, you know, you have to be this emotionally secure and amazing person in order to do polyamory right or whatever. And I don’t… I don’t think you have to but I do think that you need to be able to be aware of what your issues are and if you can communicate that to Christopher and just be like, “I have a problem with avoiding telling people things because I don’t want to… I’m afraid of the consequences. I’m afraid of hurting them. I’m afraid of things happening” and work out strategies with therapists on how to deal with it and how to counteract that avoidance.

And if you have partners who are aware that you avoid things then they can also kind of pay more attention to your body language. Pay more attention to what’s going on in your life and prompt you, especially if it’s way difficult for you to avoid things if someone’s asking you directly about it. I’m kind of a little bit like that when it comes to confrontation and my feelings like… I’ll feel ok about something and then I’ll start to feel less and less ok and I literally won’t know how to have that conversation because… especially if I’ve already been asked “Are you ok with this?” and I said yes and I was ok and then I start not being ok and I keep not being ok and I don’t know how to have that conversation of like “I said I was ok before but I’m not ok now”.

And it just ends up… like I think my body language changes and you know my domestic partner realises that and will check in and be like “Are you ok? Are you not ok anymore?” or… But it’s not necessarily that I’m avoid… I’m not really wanting to avoid anything it’s just sometimes I literally don’t know how to have that conversation or I don’t… or I know how to have it but I don’t know how to have it in a healthy way. I know how to confront people angrily. I can do that. But how to have healthy confrontation where I have to be vulnerable and admit that someone hurt my feelings and see what they do is not something that I am always prepared to do.

So I get it, like… the avoidance thing makes sense but it’s also making it way way harder for you and I think you do kinda see that. I think you do have some good instincts but you just need to not let the… not quiet the instincts down and sort of duck them down and ignore them because you want to enjoy the good feelings. It makes a lot of logical sense like and I’m totally not blaming you for that. It makes sense to want to enjoy a good relationship and not just throw it away because things might not work out but if it really isn’t going to work out like… Someone’s monogamous and you’re polyamorous… Unfortunately you do have to… you know, forcing yourself to go through this as you can see is way more painful in the long run.

Anyway, I think you know like, to sum up, really work on that and then afterwards I think once you’ve addressed that issue about avoidance, I think you can start to have a little bit more thoughts about what do I want my life to look like? Why do I want to be polyamorous? What does polyamory bring to my life that I don’t get from monogamy that I want to make this decision? I think it’s really helpful to actually think about your motivations and not just do it because you want to have the relationships that you have. I think it’s important to see it as a life choice that you’d make regardless of whether there was no Christopher, there was no Paul, there was no Joe.

So yeah, I really hope that helps and good luck.

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Episode 5: Tricky Triangles and BPD

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 is a good time to try and see if you are non-monogamous? And how can borderline personality disorder impact it? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Listen below or on Libsyn.

Episode 5: Tricky triangles and BPD

When is a good time to try and see if you are non-monogamous? And how can borderline personality disorder impact it? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Find the full audio transcription of this episode on Patreon.

 

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Letter:

Alright, where to start.

I have a BPD, it is untreated but I have been fine. For the time when I ever was in therapy (several shorter periods, some only for urgent needs, with different therapists in different cities) I wasn’t diagnosed as one. I had a lot of different diagnoses but only after getting my life a bit more stable last year, I was able to realise that this is what I should have been diagnosed with. I identify very strongly with all of its features. Since I have done a lot of work with myself to be able to handle this and my grounding (at the time monogamous) relationship helped me tremendously. I think I’ve been through the worst already, and I have been able to live quite balanced life for some time now.

But about the relationship situation. I had to break up with my aforementioned partner for long time as the relationship and both of us were kind of stuck in it. There has always been much love between us, even after the break-up. So we dealt with some personal issues and realized that we still love each other unconditionally and want to be together. But during our separation, my partner (at the time ex) and my best friend fell in love with each other. I wasn’t living in the same country during this time and suddenly they spent a lot of time together.

They didn’t want to start a romantic relationship because there was still a possibility for me and my ex and we had to figure out how to be together, but of course this didn’t stop my ex and friend for having those feelings for each other. And as I wasn’t around and the relationship situation between me and my partner was open, the relationship situation between them had to be open and waited for me to come back to the country and figure things out with my partner. We talked about things a lot during our separation too, and started to have conversations about non-monogamy as an option.

Meanwhile (for a few months) my ex and friend started working together and really spending a lot of their time together. Additionally, I see them as very similar types of persons, and am envious for their connection on many levels (work, sex, energy levels, and communication skills). I have been looking for that kind of connection myself and am happy and jealous for them.

Little bit of background. My friend is non-monogamous and has done the emotional work for transforming from monogamous to non-monogamous for a few years ago. Me and my partner, we have been together for four years. The relationship started out as a non-monogamous one, but we weren’t able to handle that ethically back then, we really didn’t know what it was about and only ended up hurting each other. They had two relationships back then but wasn’t able to handle the feelings and responsibilities that come with it, and their actions and sayings also ended up causing me some very painful traumas, some of which due to the non-monogamous situation and rating and comparing the different aspects of the persons in the relationship.

For example letting me know that they would like to have sex with the other person more than me because she was better at it. After some very painful periods and a break-up then, we decided to have a monogamous relationship. So, we were in this relationship for more than three years and worked a lot with the traumas in the relationship. After over three years I thought that we were through those. And to be fair, I am guilty to this equally as well. I knew that we had to break up in order for us to be free to move forward with ourselves. I had decided to break up with my partner before they really got to have a say in it (part of my BPD, maybe). I fell in love with someone else and slept with him before our break-up was talked through.

Now, after this we have talked about non-monogamy and in so many sense that is the right type of relationship for us. I think I am a non-monogamist, or at least becoming one but I am not sure yet. I know that I should be sure about this first rather than be sure about the person I want to be with. I am working with this and learning about non-monogamy now and so is my partner. We have agreed to build our relationship on that basis now and are slowly coming to terms with it. But there is the pressure from my friend’s side. They want to have a relationship with my partner as well and my partner wants to explore that possibility too.

They have deep feelings for each other and this situation seems to be pending mostly because of my emotional work and me not knowing yet how to be in this relationship situation. So I feel a terrible pressure from both of them and also because I want to do the right thing for them both and see that they could provide much happiness for each other. We have tried solving this situation together, all three of us, talking honestly about it. But then I see my former emotional instability kick in and I don’t seem to have any tools for handling it anymore. I feel ashamed that I am not able to handle my BPD better and the severity of this surprised me too. Also, the traumas from the history of our relationship kick in with force and I find it very difficult to handle those with my crazy emotions. And because of these I am thinking if this is too much for me.

So, this feels extremely complicated. I am trying to write down some of the core issues in here.

  • The trust issues between me and my partner because of our history and our ability to work through those as we apparently haven’t already. Or is this just something this new situations causes and we could be past those sooner than expected. I am pondering if we are able to work through the traumas really, or have we already damaged each other too much, is there too much emotional baggage between us.
  • There certainly would be easier situations to find out if I am a non-monogamist and I am seriously thinking if I should do this and leave the situation even though I love my partner unconditionally and know that we could build a future together.
  • The terrible pressure I get from outside to this situation. I feel that I should be able to give answers to my friend and to my partner and that it is not okay for me to keep their situation pending.
  • My apparent emotional instability and all the feelings of insecurity and unworthiness that come with it. I thought that I was fine with these already, but this situation surfaced them again. I don’t know if learning to be in a non-monogamous relationship is going to be the healing process for me or is this too much and it will shatter my mental health. The latter feels especially dangerous because I currently have no access to therapy and will have to mostly rely on my own means (and my partner’s and friend’s support) for coping. I don’t really have anyone other than those two whom I could trust.
  • Related to the previous point, I am not sure if I can see my boundaries in this situation. And if I can see them I am questioning if I should move them a bit further and learn more. And this particularly because of my partner and my friend. I feel like that I owe it to them, that I have to show them and myself that I am for sure doing everything in this situation to be able to live in a non-monogamous relationship. And I feel like that if I don’t do this I am not worthy. So in a way I feel like that I should find my boundaries but also be able to work through them to a situation that pleases my partner and my friend. Or my partner’s love for me will fade at the same time when my friend can present themselves as mature, emotionally stable, and empathetic. And even if this doesn’t happen knowingly I sense my partner’s feelings growing stronger towards my friend while I am struggling. I see this as a natural process. I find it already difficult to accept that anyone other than me should deal with my mental health issues.
  • I feel ashamed of my BPD and the emotions it brings to the equation. I am trying to work with all my personal issues constantly but because of the former point, am partly afraid of bringing them all out.
  • I see that this might teach me a lot and at its best heal me and help me to live more balanced life in a relationship that I am content with but from this point I can’t tell if this is possible in this situation.
  • I find it really difficult to give space to any other people and love now when I am in the middle of this emotional turmoil, so I also find it difficult to understand if I am really non-monogamist or if this is just something I am doing for my partner and/or my friend.
  • I feel like my friend is too much trying to solve this situation according to their needs and that I don’t really have the space I would need. But I also feel that I can’t claim that and keep them waiting. I feel there is hurry to somewhere and it is painful to see my friend and my partner being in this anticipating situation. I feel like my friend is also too much aware of the situation between me and my partner and somehow that has started to feel intrusive. I don’t want them to know about all the issues we have in a relationship between me and my partner.
  • I have noticed that I have started to have some serious trust issues in this situation, I am afraid to completely trust either of them because I can’t be anymore sure if they know what could be best for me. That their own agendas are impacting the help they give me.
  • I am also starting to doubt if my partner can really handle a relationship with a person with BPD, they seem to be afraid to cause me emotional trouble and therefore they are not always being totally honest with me.
  • Being in a hierarchical relationship is not an option for my friend or my partner. My friend needs this to be non-hierarchical. They feel like that they should be able to be with each other as they want to.

There are probably many other issues at play but I seem not to be able to access them now. I would so much appreciate any advice on this situation, I feel almost helpless and my tools for coping are running out. What would you suggest, how to approach the issues and in which order? And to end this on a high note – of course this is a big issue only because of all the wonderful things I have with my partner. One should imagine that after all this we should already be able to let each other go but our mutual love has only grown. That love is something I can really trust, and that is why I am putting myself through this emotional purgatory.

Response:

So there’s a lot of stuff going on here.

I think my first question and the first consideration in all of this is firstly what’s the rush? Does anybody have a terminal illness in this equation? Is anyone moving? Is anyone dying? Is anyone… you know what’s the rush? I feel like whether it’s you or it’s your friend and your partner or a combination of both putting pressure on you to decide this… you know it’s not that big of a deal.

It feels very melodramatic, soap opera-y. “Oh these two people just like each other so much and they just can’t…”. You know, it’s a bit dramatic and it’s a bit overhyped. I mean these people…  your ex (or I don’t know if you still consider them your ex) with your partner and your friend already have a very close relationship. They’ve already spent tons of time together. You know, they are already… I mean what is the difference….

One of the big things about non monogamy that I appreciate is, within the type of monogamy that society encourages there is a very big line between friend and partner and I’m not saying that for me that doesn’t exist but for me friendships mean a lot. They mean a lot to me and I can be very very close and very intimate with friends. Maybe not in the same way personally that I’m intimate with a romantic partner but for me the only real difference is a sexual relationship. But that’s not true of all people. But that doesn’t… they already have this intimacy so the only thing theoretically that I’m seeing that they’re not doing it as having sex.

And can they not just chill? You know? Like where is the rush? Why is there such a rush? I’m a little bothered by the fact that there is all this pressure on you and I just think that, you know, I think it’s partially… you’re doing it a bit yourself it sounds like. It doesn’t sound like they’ve given you a deadline but they need to just freaking cool it it for a bit. I don’t know how how long you’ve kind of been in this situation but they can chill. So I just feel like that’s the first issue. Like calm down.

But the other big thing here is that there is… you’ve pointed out there’s a lot of pressure and the situation and what really strikes me is… I mean, you know BPD is a thing. Mental illness, a specific mental illness, is a thing but… everyone, and this is not to downplay how serious BPD can be but, a lot of people struggle with mental health issues. And a lot of people who are non-monogamous struggle with mental health issues. And there’s things I’m seeing in you like… you kind of seem to expect that there’s going to be some point where you want have any mental illness problems and that’s certainly not true for me. And I have anxiety and I have social… I’ve got all sorts of different types of fun anxiety. I seem to have collected all all different flavours and my… part of for me dealing with having anxiety is accepting the fact that I will always have it and that seems depressing and defeatist but actually not putting myself in a position where I constantly have to fight and I’m constantly judging myself as not good enough because I’m having a panic attack or that there’s something wrong with me because I have a mental illness, it actually it makes it much much easier to cope with it.

And what worries me about this situation is you’re kind of… you’re doing what a lot of people I think coping with mental illness do which is put themselves in a position where they define success only by not exhibiting any symptoms of their mental illness. And that’s just not realistic or feasible especially if like many other people your mental illness and issues around mental health become completely out of whack when things in your life change.

I mean most people… it is not even about mental illness. For the vast majority of human beings, when something massive changes in their life, they experience emotions about it. You know, there’s that list of like the most serious maybe not traumatic, but the most difficult things to go through like moving, someone passing away, the birth of a child… even good things can cause a complete upheaval in someone’s emotional wellbeing, whether or not they have a mental illness. It’s change and it’s constant and it’s part of life.

No one, mental illness or not, BPD or not, is going to be able to escape that. There’s never going to be a perfect equilibrium of emotional stability where you or anyone else is going to be at where you can handle anything without… you know, it almost seems like… and I don’t blame you because this is the problem with I think a lot of polyamory advice and a lot of the way people talk about polyamory  because the first thing people talk to you about is, “Do you get jealous? Do you feel jealousy?” And it almost seems like people are constantly expected to perform this, “I don’t feel jealous” or “Yes I did once, but I processed and I’m fine now and everything is fine”.

It’s almost like we’re expected to be emotionless. And when we exhibit emotions about things it’s jealousy. And it’s not always jealousy. Or you know, we’re controlling our partners by having feelings about things and it’s just so shit especially for people who have mental health struggles because you have fucking feelings. You’re not a robot. You’re not going to go through difficult situations in your life and be emotionless. So I think that’s a big thing here. You are defining success and whether you can “do non monogamy” by whether or not you have feelings about things and I don’t think you’re ever going to reach a state where you don’t have feelings.

The other big thing that really concerns me here is that you don’t have any other means of emotional support except these two people. Now hierarchy is a thing I have a lot of capital O, opinions about. I feel like when people say they don’t want to hierarchy, I think they need to be clearer about what that means but I also think you need to be realistic about what your needs are to yourself and to other people.

I’m super realistic about that. I have social anxiety. I have generalized anxiety. I like a situation where I have you not a partner that I live with who I can lean on for emotional support. I do have a therapist but I do like to have emotional support from my partners. I couldn’t date someone who has no interest in providing me any emotional support and that may be to them what they want out of relationship. Maybe they don’t want to provide emotional support for the people. Maybe that’s what they like about polyamory, that they can take as many people as they like and not have any of the responsibilities that usually comes with monogamous relationships and in my opinion non-monogamous relationships which is emotional support.

I know that I probably need more emotional support than maybe other people do because I don’t have a family. I don’t have family connections. I don’t have a lot of really close friends just due to the way that I am and that’s just me. I can’t change that and I’m aware of that. And so you know I’m very conscious when I go into a relationship to say “Hey I don’t have this massive support network that everyone else probably has. Therefore I might have more emotional needs” and so that’s the really tricky thing. And one of the things that I find frustrating about the idea of no hierarchy because some people have more needs than others and that’s just how it is. Sometimes you can’t balance everything equally across the board because some people need more help.

It is really worries me that that the way that your best friend is saying “I want everything to be equal”… it’s sort of like saying this means you’re not going to be able to rely on your partner for as much emotional support as you would need because they need to be worried about balancing everything. And you do probably need more support than other people and it just kind of worries me that these, I’m assuming that the friend you mentioned is also this friend, that these two are the only people that you have to rely on and that creates a really awkward situation as well for your friend. And that might be why they’re being sort of like everything has to be equal.

Because using your metamour as an emotional support…  ideally I think…. You’re already expressing discomfort about the amount of information that your friend knows about the relationship that’s between you and your partner. That’s only going to increase if you need them for emotional support. And that is understandable for you to feel uncomfortable with that because you probably don’t and won’t know as much about their relationship because your friend doesn’t need that kind of emotional support from you.

And that’s fine and that’s no one’s fault but it’s only going to continue to be unequal and so that’s that really worries me… the fact that you would be relying so much on both of them. Because this is a very, like I said, this is a very pressurised situation. Not only are you pressurized to do non-monogamy when you’re not really sure if it is for you but you’re also very pressurized to perform for both of their happiness. And throughout this entire letter you’re not even remotely considering… you’re barely considering your own happiness here.

I mean you say a lot about… I want to prove myself to be worthy. I want this to be a learning experience. Non-monogamy is not a lesson. If you were to have that same approach to monogamy… like if you were to meet someone who’s like all “I wanna have a boyfriend because he’ll teach me a lesson” that would be appalling. I mean… I would hope it would be appalling. So why is it that that acceptable for non monogamy? Why do we look… you talk about your friend has done all this emotional work to be non monogamous… The only thing that is required to be non-monogamous is just saying “I’m not monogamous”. That’s it. There is no test. There’s no qualification. There’s no emotional battlefield that someone has to go through and they get a trophy saying “I’m non-monogamous now”. There’s no licence. There’s no test.

All you have to do to be non-monogamous is just go, “Oh, I’m non-monogamous now”. That’s it. You have this conception of non-monogamy as somehow better than monogamy. Somehow you ascend to some type of higher level by becoming non-monogamous and you’re emotionally centred and somehow better as a person for being non-monogamous. I really think you need to question that because it’s not true. People who are not monogamous are not necessarily any better or more capable and handling what life throws at them as people who are monogamous.

That’s it. Non-monogamy may require some different coping skills and some different approaches and it may require different considerations but it doesn’t mean you’re automatically better at anything. So it really worries me that this is adding to that pressure. Not only will you be expected to perform for the happiness of these two people, not only are you relying on them for emotional support but you’re also putting yourself up to this idea of non monogamy as “I want to become some type of emotional gladiator and be better and and excel and pass this test and then I am non-monogamous”. Do do do do!

And that’s just not how it works and not what it is. So I really think that if… it’s not even necessarily about having BPD and I do think that you know, I understand you’re not in a position right now you can get therapy and it really really sucks that therapy is not accessible for all people easily. That’s horrible and shit. But I do think that regardless of whatever kind of relationship you’re in, BPD is the kind of thing but you really do need to work through things with a therapist. You need to have that because what BPD does is constantly questions your own reality. It constantly makes you feel unworthy. It constantly puts you in situations where you know you are very emotionally fragile and that’s not your fault.

I’m not saying… It’s so easy when someone says “I feel ashamed of this” to say “Oh don’t be ashamed”.  “Oh, thank you that’s the… thank you so much that fixed everything”. You need to work through that shame with a therapist. You need to come to any relationship, non-monogamy or not, I think you know once you accept… “Ok I have BPD. This is what it does. This is what it is. This is what I need”. It will be much easier for you in general in life, regardless of what emotion or what relationship style you choose.

And I really think you need to do that and I’m not sure this is the healthiest environment for you to do that in because there’s so much pressure for you to perform. There’s so many options for your brain to say that if you don’t do this you will be abandoned. And that is a really terrifying thing and it’s going to be really hard to cope with. I think you’ve already talked about how you feel like you have to be this non-monogamous person and you have to go with this because your partner is slowly falling out of love with you and falling more in love with this other person.

You’ve already had like… situations where she’s out and out… I forgot what their pronoun is… where your partner’s out and out compared you to somebody else and literally said “I like having  sex with this other person because they’re better at it”. I mean that’s a horrible ass thing to say to somebody. BPD or no, that shit hurts. Like damn. We all have different likes and dislikes and you know when you have multiple partners sometimes one person is technically better at something then the other. But it doesn’t have…. first of all if I had one partner that was better at something in the other I probably go to the one that isn’t so good at whatever was and say, “Hey do you want to try this?” I wouldn’t tell them, “Can you kiss like my other partner cause they’re  much better at it”. I’d never say that to somebody because that’s horrible.

I mean if we took this out of relationships and took it out of sex and you went home to your parents, assuming you got along with them, and you said, “Mom, I love this spaghetti but it’s actually not as good as I had at this place. Can you make it that way?”. You wouldn’t say something like that even about spaghetti to a family member so why would you say to a partner? So you’ve already been in a situation where you’ve been directly compared to somebody. BPD or no, that’s going to trigger somebody’s feelings of like oh shit now I’m always going to be compared to somebody else. And that’s really hard.

I just… I don’t know if this is the best situation for you to be in, in any relationship to be honest. Because you really need to find an emotional support that isn’t just this person and I think that might be why you’re holding on to the situation. I know you say you love them and I’m not questioning that but if you only had your partner and your friend as emotional support in your life altogether… you may be holding on to that because that’s your emotional support. And you know that if you say, “No I don’t think I want to do this”. They’re gonna go off and do their own thing. I think in the in the periphery you’re kind of worried that they are just gonna forget about you and then you’ve kind of lost them both. So you’re trying to kind of get into a situation where maybe this isn’t emotionally healthy for you but you still at least have those two people to rely on.

And I don’t think that that’s a good reason to be in any relationship, not monogamous or no. Because you are relying on that person. I mean we all to a certain extent… I don’t think it’s completely unhealthy to rely on someone for a bit of emotional support. There are people who do that “Your emotions are your responsibility” and all that bull shit but you know… I think that it’s very human and very expected to want to have some emotional intimacy with with a partner and to rely on them a bit for assurance, for backup, for a listening how bad your day went.

This to me is the bread and butter of what a relationship is. If I don’t have that with someone, I don’t have a relationship with them to me. But that’s up to you to decide so all-in-all like… There’s a lot about this situation and there’s a lot of issues that you’re dealing with but ultimately I think there’s a big rush on this. And there shouldn’t be such a big rush.

Like I said that may be just as much you putting that on yourself and not necessarily them completely putting that on you but I do feel like overall… the fact that you are relying on these two people for your emotional support and then also you’re being pressured into a situation…  even if they’re not pressuring you, you’re pressuring yourself into this situation where you’re going to be expected to be ok with everything, or at least that’s your goal.

You’re setting yourself up for failure because your goal is to do this and be awesome and be ok and not have any mental health problems and I’m just the best and I’m cool with everything. And that’s just not a good goal. It’s not a realistic or reasonable goal and regardless of how non-hierarchical your friend wants to make this, there is going to be an imbalance or not a perfect equal balance of needs because you are going to need their emotional support more than they probably need yours.

So it’s just it just seems like it’s doomed for you to be in a horrible horrible shit place and especially when you don’t have access to a therapist. I just don’t think that this is a good situation to put yourself in and I think it seems worse. The alternative of saying “I don’t think I want to be in this relationship” and losing that romantic intimacy with your current partner and may be driving a bit of a wedge between you and your friend because obviously the more they get together the more maybe crappy you’re going to feel about it but actually I think that even as you might be reliant on them right now, putting yourself in a situation where you’re also in a relationship with them… it’s just making it worse. It’s ok to be reliant on people from emotional support. It’s not all bootstraps and every human for themselves.

We rely on each other. That we humans do and that’s the reason we’ve survived is because we work together but putting yourself in this kind of a pressurised situation is really, really difficult and I don’t think that it’s the best move for you right now. I really think that… like I said, don’t put yourself in a situation where you expect to come out of any therapy situation where you never have any emotional reactions to anything or you never have any feelings of worthlessness or any of that. I don’t think that’s realistic. But you want to get to a point I think where you accept that you have BPD. Where you understand your BPD enough to know what your needs. To understand your BPD well enough to know what triggers those feelings of worthlessness, what triggers fears of abandonment, what triggers splitting, what triggers you going down that difficult snowball where you’re just going and going and you can’t stop.

It’s good for you to know what triggers that. It’s good for you to know coping mechanisms. It’s good for you to be able to come to a new partner in and say “Look, this is what I’ve got. This is what I need. This is the way you can help me”. You want to know that somebody is comfortable with that and that they can deal with that and that they’re not going to, as you said, be less honest with you because of it because that isn’t going to help either.

So yeah I think overall this is probably not the best situation to put yourself in and it does sound more difficult to separate yourself from the situation but I think ultimately that is probably what’s going to be better for you.  As best you can, reach out find some resources. There might be a therapist who’s willing to see you for a low-cost or for free. You never know what kind of resources are out there. So invest your time into making yourself feel better. Invest your time in to you and not trying to please everybody around you.

Because I think that’s what you need. Rather than just trying to like, “Oh I want to be in this thing where my partner can date my friend so that they can be happy and I can be happy and we all can be happy”, I think you need to think about what makes you happy in the long run rather than just having this emotional support now. It just feels like a situation where it’s kinda going to collapse in on itself a bit if I’m honest.

I hope that helps. I really hope that helps. Really difficult situation to be in. Really confusing.  I really hope that things get better for you.

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When non-monogamy hurts

This content is 3 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.

Let me start by saying I’ve always been a monogamist. I was married for over twenty years before my wife and I divorced. Last year I met someone I’ll call Lily. Lily and her girlfriend had been together for over 10 years. They had lived together briefly before Lily’s partner moved to another city, yet they were still maintaining their status as partners. I got the feeling that Lily was not very happy in this relationship, that it was unfulfilling, the two of them were rarely if ever intimate, she was very lonely, and from what I observed, her partner took advantage of her by doing things like dumping her dogs on her to take care of for the weekend.

It didn’t take long before Lily and I acknowledged our mutual attraction, and after weeks of flirtation and some intense make-out sessions, we ended up sleeping together a few times. Lily found out during this time that her girlfriend *may* have been cheating on her (although I never knew this for sure). Lily was very upset, even though she was doing the same thing. By all observation, I thought their relationship was doomed. I went full-throttle into pursuing something with Lily. By all regards, Lily is perfect for me — physically and intellectually — and we have the best sexual chemistry ever.

As time has gone on, though, Lily and her girlfriend have stayed together. She sent me a link to an article on polyamory at one point, and I think she is truly in love with both me and her partner. She has told me she loves me, and though she tried to play it off as something she says to her friends, her actions say otherwise. As far as I know, the partner doesn’t know Lily and I have been physical, although she knows we spend a lot of time together — movies, dinner, TV, etc. I’ve met the girlfriend several times (very awkward) and had dinner with both of them a few times. I think the girlfriend is beginning to suspect there is something going on. Lily says she has made surprise visits to Lily’s apartment, and I think she’s hoping to catch Lily and me together.

Lily has not actually said she wants to be anything but a FWB with me. But as much time as we’ve spent together, I’ve fallen in love with her. I couldn’t help it. If I had known she and her partner were never going to split up I would NEVER have gotten involved with her. For now, I think Lily is comfortable with the situation. I’ve seriously thought of how I would feel about being in a polyamorous relationship (although I could never be in a triad as I am not the least bit attracted to her partner). I love Lily to the point I would almost consider such an arrangement, but only if all parties agreed to it. And I have no idea if the girlfriend would be open to it or not. But then I have to wonder what the future would be for Lily and me. I can’t see myself staying in that kind of situation long-term.

I’m wondering if I just need to break things off with Lily, painful as it would be. I don’t have any experience with polyamory, and I just don’t think I’m cut out for it. What’s your advice?

This is quite a dilemma to be faced with and you really do have my sympathies.

It looks like from the start you weren’t very honest with yourself. You’ve known yourself to be monogamous and it doesn’t sound like you have any genuine interest in polyamory and, as you said, you probably would not have got involved with her if her and her partner weren’t going through such a hard time. One thing I want to highlight in this letter though for you and anyone who reads this is that, if Lily had better boundaries in place and was actually polyamorous, she probably would have also not let this progress this far either.

Whatever is going on with her and her partner, I find it extremely odd that you would know so much without also having a clear conversation about what your relationship is meant to become. It makes me feel like Lily was using you from the start. You provided her the emotional support she could not find in her partner and also physical fun. She gained your sympathy by telling you about how difficult their relationship was going, letting you in on more information that wasn’t really your business to know, and kept you going on and on, all this time.

Then she sends you a link about polyamory and, in credit to Lily, sometimes this is how people discover polyamory. Monogamy is a cultural given and a lot of people who can’t do monogamy find this out the hard way. I’m not going to say that someone who cheats is incapable of being polyamorous because there are so many reasons people cheat, but what concerns me about what Lily’s doing is not the suggestion that she’s been dishonest with her partner but that she involved you so much in this process and really has never made it clear to you where you lie.

If her partner is making surprise visits to Lily’s apartment, it’s safe to say that Lily is cheating actively and involving you in that. And the fact that she’s comfortable with that is the biggest red flag here for me. She hasn’t bothered to ask you what you want out of this. Does she know that you came out of a 20 year marriage? I would expect a person like that to probably want monogamy and my suspicion is that Lily knows that’s what you want but, rather than being honest with you, she’s going to keep you for as long as you’re willing to entertain her.

Likewise, she’ll keep her partner stringing along for as long as she can. Ask yourself if this is a person you would want to date monogamously or polyamorously. She has proven to you on multiple occasions that she is primarily interested in getting what she wants. Whether you are dating one or more people, you need people in your life who care about your wellbeing and will not be willing to sacrifice your needs for theirs.

I don’t think this is a situation where you should try polyamory because I don’t think this is a situation where you should even try monogamy. I think you should find someone who isn’t already in another relationship. If Lily had made some type of commitment to speaking to her girlfriend about polyamory, of giving you a timeline for when she would introduce the concept, or even trying to make it clear to you what you mean to her and where she sees your relationship going… then maybe I would be more optimistic. Sometimes this is how people discover they aren’t cut out for monogamy.

But, the fact that, as you said, Lily is comfortable in a situation where her partner doesn’t trust her, where she’s potentially cheating on her partner, and she’s happy to keep you along even when you feel uncomfortable… I don’t think this is really a situation you should engage in at all. You could try giving Lily your own time limit to discuss this with her girlfriend because you do not wish to stick around but… if you are not sure you want this kind of situation long-term, even if it’s not cheating… It might be best to cut your losses and find someone else.

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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If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to nonmonogamyhelp@gmail.com. Your question will be posted anonymously.

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Getting over your partner sleeping with others

This content is 3 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.

I have a question, am looking for advice on the topic of free/ libertine sexuality and eroticism.

Me and my boyfriend of 5 years are in a polyamorous relationship. We both have another long term relationship. I am very much in love with my boyfriend and also love my long term partner a lot.

The bound with boyfriend feels very intimate, our erotic connection is tantric and very fulfilling for both of us. Yet, we seem to disagree on the topic of “freedom”. He is very curious about all aspects of the erotic spectrum and we already explored a bit together and went to some libertine clubs and play parties where we experienced a couple of things with another couple, all very loving and playful. I liked the experiences because we went through them together…

His curiosity leads him however to want to experience a couple of things alone. For example he would like to experience a gang bang without me. He would like to be free to go to libertine clubs without me as well…He says it has nothing to do with me or us or with our fantastic erotic bound. It has to do with his need for variation and his fascination by this world.

And even if I want to support him and feel thankful that he is open about his fantasies and fascinations, it still feels threatening to me. I cannot bear the thought of him experiencing intimate things there without me…I am also a bit tempted to think about these club experiences as being more “ trivial” and afraid it might “trivialize” our sexuality…I know this is a tricky way to think about it…

Any advice on how to handle/ see this?

I can see this issue from both sides. What it comes down to is an issue of compatibility, but I would encourage you to try and think outside the box on this and unpack your feelings.

Different concepts of freedom

You don’t say whether or not your relationship began polyamorously or if you moved towards polyamory from monogamy. I do feel like sometimes that can have an impact on how things go. Specifically, I ask because when you initially set out to do polyamory, it would have been good to discuss with each other what types of relationships you wanted. It would have been, at that point, when he could have made it clear that he was interested in sex with other people without you present.

Still, having that discussion now may be what you need with regards to reassurance. It’s worth you thinking about why you’ve chosen polyamory, what you get out of it, and where you see yourself with your boyfriend and your long-term partner in the long run.

You mention that both you and your partner have other long-term partners and you don’t specify that you’re present for every one of his sexual encounters with his other long-term partner, so I’m wondering if what you’re saying about yourself is true. It is possible he’s not sexually active with his other long-term partner, but if he is, then your problem isn’t so much that you must be there when he’s intimate with other people, but that the thought of him being on his own makes you nervous specifically when it comes to more explicitly sexual situations.

I don’t think you disagree with the concept of freedom here, I just think you had different things in mind when it came to where your polyamorous relationships would lead.

When we feel threatened

Though there haven’t been many studies done on polyamorous people, I would gather that there are a good number of people who feel more threatened by their partner having casual encounters than ‘stable’ partnerships. On the surface, there is a lot more to be threatened by in a casual encounter. Fundamentally, your relationship is very different to a casual encounter. A casual encounter is, presumably, simple and doesn’t involve the emotional labour of a relationship.

There is a dynamic that exists between domestic types of partnerships and casual types of partnerships that creates an ideal environment for threat on both sides. Domestic partnerships are accompanied with all of the hassle that is living with another human being and potentially even dealing with children or owning a home together — all not very ‘fun’ things. Whereas for those on the side of a casual fling may feel like they never get the sense of commitment that a domestic partnership can bring — there are reasons to be threatened on both sides.

It’s possible you are threatened by the casual encounters your partner wants to have, and not by his other long-term partner, because of either your assumptions about what his motivations for wanting them are or the fact that they have a more ‘fun’ aspect than your current relationship does — it’s hard to really say. You mention the idea of “free / libertine sexuality and eroticism” which… this might be due to a language translation, but it makes me wonder if you are threatened by the idea of him being alone because you are internally trying to prove yourself to be as ‘free’ and ‘libertine’ as you say you are.

It’s worth you unpacking what it is about the idea of him being alone that bothers you and unpack why it is and what fears might be hiding behind that.

Different strokes for different folks

The idea of your boyfriend wanting to experience things alone is understandable and doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of interest in experiences with you. Just like him wanting to masturbate on his own doesn’t mean he’s not interested in you. Just like if he wants to go do something by himself, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t value the time he spends with you. He may wish to have his own experiences and that might be something that means something to him. And that’s okay.

It’s also okay if you prefer to have these experiences with him if the value you see in some of these experiences is the increase in intimacy it builds between the two of you. That is the value you have of this experience, and that’s okay. You and your partner do not have to have the same exact feelings and motivations for you to respect and understand one another. What’s worth you remembering is that your boyfriend values things in different ways than you do. For him, these experiences have a value in and of themselves, independent of intimacy between established partners, and that doesn’t mean that he values you and your experiences together any less.

It’s really hard not to take the idea of your partner wanting experiences which don’t involve you personally. It’s hard not to feel like this doesn’t represent a personal failure on your part or worry that something will change about your own relationship, but this is where your partner needs to step in and reassure you.

Give yourself permission to feel anxious about his casual flings. I feel anxious when my domestic partner has casual flings. It worries me because I worry about not being fun enough, I worry about increased STI risk and I worry for reasons I can’t even properly verbalise. I have no idea why I’m scared, I just am. And I embrace it and accept it. And to be honest, over time, my fear has gone down. It still crops up when I’m having a bad mental health time, but overall it has gone down.

Taking things one step at a time

You and your partner are different, but I don’t think your compatibility is such that you need to consider breaking up. I do think that you can think about ways to break down your fears, decontextualise them and get the support you need from your partner that you need to sort through this. You might want to consider finding a polyamory friendly couples therapist who can help you work through these things.

To recap, I think you need to think about what you want out of polyamory. Is what you want a partner who will only do sexual things with you and not alone? If that’s a major requirement for you, then you may be incompatible with your current partner. If you’ve decided you’re not sure or you don’t think that’s as important as other things, you should try to unpack what you’re worried about when it comes to him going off on his own. Ask him to be involved in reassuring your fears. Remember that he can value different experiences differently than you do, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t mean anything to him.

Then, I think you need to maybe have him slowly experiment with going out on his own. Make sure you have company or something to do on the nights when he does. Expect you might be upset and plan for that, but try to accept that you feel fear and work on ways to cope with that. You might find you come out of the other end and it’s not as big of a deal as you thought it was and that you’re just fine. Or, conversely, you might find out that this just isn’t something you want and that you’re more of a swinger than interested in polyamorous relationships.

I definitely think in the long run, it’s worth breaking down and thinking about your fears and giving it a try before calling it quits completely.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Note: I wrote this article in 2017 which means that some of my perspectives may have changed. Feel free to submit a similar question again.

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Bipolar disorder and polyamory

This content is 3 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.

I am a cis man married to a trans man, we are both about 40. He has had non-monogamous relationships before. I have not, though I am not unadventurous. In the winter last year, we fooled around with another couple. I was not turned on at all by this. For me, it was a somewhat abject experience, and i felt like I was just “servicing” someone else for the sake of this “experience.”

He was changed by the experience, and now wants us to explore non-monogamy. I have a hard time with this idea, mostly because I have “sewn my oats” a lot; in my 20s I slept with all kinds of people, though I never really liked sleeping with strangers, and was usually only turned on by people i was romantically interested in or who were good friends. Now I just actually enjoy stability and being sort of focused on our marriage and careers, etc.

Also, the other complication is that I have bipolar disorder. In the spring, when we started talking about non-monogamy, I fell into a depression, felt totally drained of energy and was hopelessly sad. Then, I cycled up and went manic and spent money I shouldn’t have, etc., which sent me way down into an even deeper, more desperate depression. I had been getting by without medications (it’s a longer story, but the basic gist is that I am highly functional and have a great job and own a house, etc. and most people don’t realize I have bipolar) but now I am back on mood stabilizers. This has been good, actually, and helpful to go back on meds in general.

But the difficulty in all of this is that I have built up this stable life for myself, we got married, I got a great job, we bought the house, we have good insurance… Bipolar people need a lot of stability in order to stay balanced. My partner and I didn’t have any of this stability before. But now he feels like he doesn’t have his own sense of identity, and he is looking to find his own job, etc. Part of building up his own identity seems to also be wrapped up in the idea or philosophy of being non-monogamous. I personally find this idea distracting, and generally seems to be a trigger for my mood disorder.

How do I proceed with this? I want to let him live how he wants to live, but I find the idea of sex with other people somewhat superfluous and maybe even a bit obnoxious.

You don’t mention whether or not you were recently diagnosed as bipolar or whether you’ve known for a long time. You’ve also not mentioned what the nature of your bipolar disorder is like and it can vary wildly.

While it is true that stability can be useful for any difficult condition, what’s also important is knowing more about the types of things that trigger mania or depression and how long these cycles last and whether a fall into depression means a follow up with mania in every situation.

Finding stability in instability

You make it pretty clear that you don’t have any interest in exploring other relationships or sexual encounters and you don’t specifically say you have a problem with that being something your partner desires. Rather, you say you want to allow your partner to be able to do these things, you’re just concerned about how the instability may impact you.

If you had more reservation about your partner seeing other people, I’d consider whether you’re incompatible. Sometimes people go through their lives, especially if they are transgender, not really being able to fully experience their life in the way they want to and may come upon something like non-monogamy even in their 40s and feel like they’ve been missing something they would like to try. It might feel like you’ve built up some stability now, but it’s important to remember that the only thing constant in life is change and that any stability we build has the ability to be toppled.

Rather than trying to avoid further instabilities, it might be worth you learning how to cope better with instability and this is something you can work with a therapist on. If you’re not seeing a therapist, I would recommend you find someone who is polyamory friendly and can help you identify the things that trigger your depression or mania and strategies to help you cope with that. Even if you were to break up with your partner and find someone else who had no interest in non-monogamy, that is no guarantee of ultimate stability in your life.

If you learn how to cope with instability better, that will be more useful for you in the end.

Building a foundation of stone

If something fundamental about your relationship changes, you’re going to feel anxious, whether you have bipolar disorder or not. I think that it is helpful for people looking to go into non-monogamy to really think about the physical realities of what that will do to their relationship. It’s possible that most of the anxiety that you’re feeling from your partner’s want to be non-monogamous may come from the uncertainty of what that means in your relationship.

I’m not necessarily keen on parables, but I’ve always appreciated the idea of building your house on a foundation of stone rather than sand — the point being that if you want a structure to last and be resilient, it has to be strong from the roots up. If you strengthen the foundation of your relationship with your partner, you can weather the changes that life brings you.

Working on building that foundation is really important. Any major new change will be a test on the structure and solidity of your relationship. If you both have good communication, understand why you’re together, and have a clear picture of what you both want, even the curve balls life will throw at you will be things you can work with easier if you have a solid foundation.

Seeking stability in your relationship is a great idea for you, especially as a bipolar person, but I wouldn’t assume that your partner being monogamous is always analogous to being more stable. Society endorses monogamy, even for LGBT people, as an ideal and reinforces our belief that a long term relationship is the best option because it is the most secure option — but that just isn’t always true. While I don’t want to encourage people to believe a relationship has to be long-term in order to be ‘successful’, what makes for a partnership that lasts for a long time isn’t just sharing the same wants in lifestyle but communicating and understanding one another.

Monogamy + polyamory

In the end, if you don’t have a problem with your partner sleeping with other people, if you work out what your sexual health agreements are and you work out how physically him being non-monogamous will impact your relationship (does he want another relationship or a friends with benefits situation? How frequently will he be gone?), then I believe you can function just fine. If you can work out that between you two, then I don’t see you not having interest in dating other people as necessarily a problem.

Overall, I think it’s worth thinking about how to cope with instability rather than avoiding it and working out with your partner what non-monogamy might mean so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s something you can work with or something you don’t want. I want to reiterate as well the idea of getting a polyamory friendly therapist who can help you work through this.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Note: I wrote this column in 2017, so it’s possible my perspective on this may have shifted or expanded. Please feel free to resubmit a similar question.

Do you have a question?

If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to nonmonogamyhelp@gmail.com. Your question will be posted anonymously.

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Balancing imbalances in polyamory

This content is 3 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.

I am married and have been in a long term relationship with my nesting partner for a little less than a year (we dated for about 4 years off and on prior to that). We live together and are building a future together with house, kids, and all that. Recently, we got out of a very catastrophic situation with her ex-partner (with whom I lived with for a year and had a platonic, but very connected relationship), who engaged in some really toxic behavior including manipulation, gaslighting, and being really controlling of my nesting partner’s relationships and behavior.

The tone of our family dynamic was very much distrust and suspicion and taking out feelings on other people (rather than talking about them and being frank and honest about it). I witnessed a lot of really possessive and controlling behavior that was really unhealthy and went on for almost the entire past year of living together. It became kind of a culture or vacuum of unhealthy behavior because I would also engage in some of these behaviors that I had not engaged in previous relationships. There was a culture of BIG FEELINGS and allowing those feelings to take up a lot of space, all of the space sometimes.

My nesting partner and I have been slowly recovering from it all and she is doing some new dating with other people, a cishet man and a queer woman who are dating each other. She is dating them together and separately. I have a partner whom I have been dating for the last two-ish years. I came to non-monogamy in my late 20s when I dated someone who set out our relationship to be open. After we broke up I dated someone monogamously, but found the relationship dynamics were way too unhealthy for me and ended the relationship. My current partner is the longest I have dated anyone in my adult life and the first time I have been married.

I am having a lot of obsessive thoughts and hard feelings about my partner’s dating and sex stuff. I find myself split between rational thought (you see her more than anyone else does week to week, she restricts her dates to your non-date nights, she dates really infrequently, etc.) and having a lot of irrational thoughts and feelings. These are thoughts and feelings along the suspicion and big feelings spectrum that we have both suffered under in her ex’s toxic behavior.

I am scared that I am turning into another person that will attempt to control and manipulate her. I’m doing all that I can to keep it under control by doing meditation, going for walks, meeting up with friends, doing some of my own dating, etc., but I am so distracted and distraught by her dating/sex stuff that I just feel hostile and resentful. I want to snap at her when she makes sexual innuendos in my direction because it seems like our sex life has undergone some big changes since we started cohabitating.

My irrational brain is fixated on her having sex with her dating partners 100% of the time and with me about once a week. I feel like if I didn’t stay vigilant about it, that it could very easily fade away in importance. I’m caught between wanting to just give in and be flexible and let things be how they are (let the relationship become whatever it needs to be) and fighting for her attention and constantly working on our relationship. Nothing is in danger and she does go out of her way to remind me that I am loved and adored all the time. I just feel so afraid of things changing the way things changed in our previous family dynamic.

I also feel resentful of some of the culture of suspicion and big feelings that made dating on my end very scary and ended in me turning down dating I wanted to do or not pursuing anything because I was afraid of how it might impact my partner. We’ve addressed all of this and she has released her grip entirely, but I just feel resentful and exhausted by the previous family dynamic. I also feel like I am carrying it forward with my obsessing and ruminating on how she is going to trick me or fuck me over (that again, wasn’t there before this family dynamic).

There is an additional layer of myself being trans and she is a cisgender queer woman. I am having a hard time being preoccupied with the sexual dynamics in their relationship and feeling like that is “real” and “more legitimate” sex than what we have. Irrational thoughts and fears for sure and I know I offer something different and something more substantial and long term, but I fear I am going to be taken for granted as the partner who will always be there. There is also a layer of cishet privilege that is hard to swallow and sexual/erotic capital.

As a queer, trans/non-binary person my dating prospects are significantly less and my sexual/erotic capital is harder to parse. I fall prey to wanting to play oppression olympics with her a lot and I know that doesn’t go anywhere, but I am having a hard time coping with partner having sex with a cishet dude and how much more significant that is than what I have to offer. But I also know if it was another queer I would feel jealous/envious/insecure too. I find myself deeply curious about what they do together and what she does with her other dating partners.

How do you recover from toxic family non-monogamy dynamics? How do you cope with your partner dating cishet men while in a queer relationship? How do you navigate social/sexual/erotic capital imbalances in relationships (specifically queer relationships where cisgender queer femmes dating cishet men)?

There’s definitely a lot here to unpack and I’ve gone through some of the things you’re experiencing, so I’ll break it down into these points:

  • Giving yourself permission to be afraid
  • Not opening the box
  • Polyamory and being trans
  • Living with partners

Giving yourself permission to be afraid

One of your first questions is how do your recover from toxic family non-monogamy dynamics. In my experience of recovering from anything, the best answer I can give you are two things: time and talking.

When you’ve come out of a really toxic environment, your brain is going to do what it can to help you survive that environment. I wrote two articles previously on How Toxic Parenting Impacts Your Non-Monogamy and strategies on how to address that. I don’t know if I could say I’m ‘recovered’ from the situations I’ve been in, but I’m trying my best to be more aware of the ways my brain has chosen to deal with situations and to push myself to deal with situations in different ways, even if it’s uncomfortable.

I would definitely advise you find a therapist, if that’s at all a possible solution for you. The good thing about technology is that there are a lot of different therapy solutions out there. Even if you live in a suburban town where it’s not safe to be out, you can find a Skype based therapist who can help you and many therapists, understanding how poverty impacts individuals, have flexible rate options. Working through all of this alone is probably going to be very difficult and it’s really important that you have someone who is impartial, not a partner and has the ability to help you through it.

But throughout this, I think you need to give yourself permission to be scared and paranoid. One of the best things I learned to do to manage my anxiety was to give myself permission to have it in the first place. When I stopped seeing my anxiety as a sign of my weakness as a human being or a sign of failure, it was much easier to cope with. You have a legitimate fear of behaving in a negative way to your partner and you have these paranoid thoughts — and that’s okay. You can have these thoughts. Thoughts aren’t always reflective of our actions and allowing yourself the freedom to have the thoughts and not have it as a sign that you’re a bad person is a big part of this.

It’s also important for your partner to know you’re struggling with this. it sounds like she’s already doing what she can to support you, but it’s important for her to know that you might slip back into the vacuum of the previous situation because you’re still trying to recover from it. Nothing may be ‘in danger’ right now, but your brain is still in survival mode and it’ll take time for it to cool down and figure out that everything is okay.

That said, accepting you have anxieties does not mean embracing them.

Do not open the box

Anxiety and obsessiveness is one of those things which tricks you into believing it has the solution you need. I very much feel like right now your brain is finding it very hard to cope with not being in survival mode. It’s still stuck in the toxicity of what you’ve been in before and it’s basically thinking it’s doing you a favour by trying to sabotage what you have. Sometimes anxious brains do that. It’s so unsure of what to do and how to fix the situation (when sometimes it can’t) that it does everything in its power to try and control it or get you out of it.

One of the ways your brain is doing that is by trying to pull you into the details. That’s essentially what OCD is all about. Obsess about this and do this compulsion and it will solve everything. And when you give in and compulse, it does solve it… but only for a little tiny bit. Whenever I gave into my anxiety, it got better only temporarily. You give anxiety an inch and it will take a mile. Even as I thought I was ‘managing’ my anxiety by avoiding things that made me anxious, I was only just feeding the fire.

Don’t open the box of details and hypotheticals. Down that path only exists more pain and more hurt. It wants you to open that box to give you more distractions, more things to obsess over because then you can continue the cycle of obsession, but it won’t solve anything. The thing I always ask myself when I’m stuck on things is “What will this change?”.

I know that accepting the fact that I have anxiety will change my attitude towards myself. I also know that researching ways allergic reactions can manifest themselves in different people will not change what is happening inside of my body right at that time. It’s then when I can try and remind myself that worrying, as Newt Scamander has said, means I’m just suffering twice. If it doesn’t happen, I suffer. But if does happen, I suffer again. It changes nothing about what actually happens other than my own experience of it. When you are thinking about all of the things that are happening in her other relationships, ask yourself quite honestly what will change by you knowing these things?

If you feel like your sex life isn’t where you want it to be and you have concerns about whether or not it’s going well for her, talk to her about it. As someone who is asexual and in relationships with allosexual (not asexual) people, I get worried sometimes that I’m not exciting enough, that I’m not as good as these other people. But instead of trying to open the box of all of the things they can do (and I purposefully ask for no details because I know where my brain will take them), I try and focus on what’s going on between my partner and I. I may ask my partner if they are happy loads of times, and they may have to accept that I might do that just to make myself feel better — but it helps to re-frame my mind and get it back on track.

Another way that I’ve managed my anxieties and obsessive thoughts is by trying very hard, in the follow up of the question of “What will this change?”, in reminding myself that I, ultimately, do not and, more importantly, cannot control everything. This is really, really hard to embrace, because we’d like to think if we’re good enough, we can change things. And if you’ve come from a toxic family in particular, this was probably one of the only thoughts keeping you alive.

It’s much easier to navigate a horrible situation thinking you have what it takes to change it just through your behaviour — that it’s not hopeless. This is the same line of thinking you might have come across in marginalised people who blame other marginalised people for having a bad attitude and who insist the world is a meritocracy and that people are only in bad situations because they have a bad attitude. It’s a much rosier and more inspiring picture to believe you can completely control your own fate. But the reality is that, while you can control your actions, you can’t control everything.

There is nothing you can do to force anyone to love you who doesn’t want to. I have to remember that, even as I want to try and be *the best* partner, because my perfectionism is a coping mechanism, there is nothing I can do that will ultimately make anyone stay if they do not want to stay. I cannot make someone less abusive if they don’t want to be. I cannot educate those who refuse to listen. I can only do what I can do.

Embracing the idea that you can have the most amazing sex life ever — and your partner could still leave you — might seem anxiety inducing, but for me it has been anxiety relieving. Anxiety and obsessiveness puts the burden on you and accepting what you can’t control lifts it away again. It’s not always perfect and I still get anxious, but embracing what I can’t control has helped me immensely, which leads me to the next point.

Being trans and polyamorous

Growing up in a society that does not validate a core aspect of your identity can often mean that you end up feeling like you are not ‘real’ in the same way other people are real. This is why people have tried to stop saying ‘preferred pronouns’ and just say ‘pronouns’ because the reinforced message is that cisgender people have inherent genders that are ‘normal’ while trans folks’ genders are constructed and ‘preferred’.

This has impacted me in my relationships because I usually experience a lot of anxieties around my partners dating cisgender women. I have never been forced to be seen as a man by society, so the fact that I am not one doesn’t really bother me. But because I’ve had all of this baggage about proving how much of a girl/woman I am, sometimes I’ll have this idea that I’m fake all along and that there is something more ‘real’ about a cisgender woman that I don’t have. And, obviously, once my partner realises I’m an imposter, they’ll leave me for someone ‘real’.

This is a totally reasonable and understandable fear. And it has a direct impact on the types of relationships you can pursue. I’ve often spoke to my domestic partner about his luck in navigating spaces that are not only completely inaccessible to me due to my autism, but also his ability to not have to argue about grammar when asking people to respect his pronoun. It can be easy to get really, really bitter about this, especially when some spaces he can happily enter are filled with people who have treated me like shit.

What I try to do in this instance is flip the lens on myself because part of this is internalised self hatred. I am assuming that a cisgender woman has more to offer my partner than what I have to offer, but when I put myself in the driver’s seat, it becomes a very different situation. I ask myself if I would rather have someone who was more privileged than my current domestic partner? Would I rather date a heterosexual white man? In many cases, because of my domestic partner’s family, it would be technically ‘easier’ for me to date someone who didn’t share their religious preferences, so would I? And it doesn’t even have to be about privilege in some instances. If I met someone who was also asexual, would I just dump my partner and date them? No.

Try to flip the script on yourself. It’s okay to have these anxieties and fears. Don’t beat yourself up about them. But try and challenge your thinking around them. Ultimately what I realise is that if my partner does not accept me for who I am and does actually think cisgender people are ‘more legitimate’ and would dump me to date one… well, then do I really want to be with someone who thinks that anyway?

Quite often there are dynamics in polyamory where one partner has more ‘capital’ than the other and sometimes this is judged by the amount of attention that this partner gets. But I have to say, when I see men complaining about the amount of messages women get on dating sites, I have to roll my eyes. ‘Social capital’ is a fickle thing and I do quite often feel that queer cisgender women who are femmes (or anyone read as a feminine woman) are put in this situation where people assume that attention and visibility = capital. I think to assume that femmes have more ‘capital’ because they get more attention is a bit of an oversimplification of the way power dynamics work.

Without a doubt, there is proven systemic privilege for people who meet society’s expectations of ‘beauty’ in multiple ways, but what might help you in thinking about your girlfriend is to remember that, even if she might be more palatable for an ignorant majority… it doesn’t necessarily make that ignorant majority more palatable for her. And in the case of bisexual/queer women who are femme… let’s just say the dynamics of even only dating other queer women or lesbian women are fraught with a lot of issues I could write endless articles about.

Living with your partners

Another aspect that might be contributing to your feelings, especially when it comes to sex and social capital, is the fact that you’re living together. It’s ironic to me that people always seem to be under the assumption that when you live with a domestic partner and you are building a life together, that you have all of the power with that partner in that situation — when actually living with someone can mean some very sticky dynamics that just aren’t present when you don’t live together.

I’ve found that living together and being in a situation where you provide primary support for one another can mean that ‘secondaries’ or people outside of your domestic situation, get to be more ‘fun’ than you can be. I’ve struggled with this a lot, especially when my domestic partner and I go through rough patches. Sometimes it’s very hard not to feel angry about the fact that other people get to go out on dates with my partner, have small visits, do fun exciting stuff with them while we get to nag each other about doing the washing up.

Ultimately it feels like the other people are always going to be more ‘fun’ than I am because my partner, for as much as I have to provide emotional support to them, they also provide emotional support to me. They can have fun dates and ‘get away’ from problems with each other and that leaves me feeling like I’m only the problem. And then you feel bad because you don’t want to hog all of your partner’s time, but you *also* want to be the fun one too.

The thing I try to remember is that this kind of a cardinal aspect of living together — and it wouldn’t go away if I were monogamous. The only thing that might change is instead of my partner having other partners, he might have other friends who he goes out with and has fun with, and they’ll have the exact same experience.

And another thing to remember is that just because your partner doesn’t have to deal with some of the trickier aspects of their secondaries’ life… doesn’t mean those things aren’t there. Sometimes when things seem too good to be true, they are. Sure, they have fun with these other people and things seem generally peachy and unproblematic next to your relationship where someone keeps putting the toilet roll the wrong way up — but that’s due to the nature of the relationships.

Imagine for example if you had kids together and you allowed a friend to babysit your kids and your friend just loved it and said it was the best thing ever. But your friend never had to financially support the children, put them to bed every night, deal with every single tantrum or spend money on less fun purchases like highchairs and diapers. A lot of people in those situations might feel internally very frustrated if their child said that the friend was “fun” because… it’s easy to be “fun” in that situation.

But you know that if your friend were to have a child of their own, they wouldn’t find it as exciting and enjoyable as babysitting for a few hours. You might even warn your friend if they were using their experience of watching your kid as a sign that they want children, to really think hard about what it means to have one.

In the same vein, I think that part of you (and part of me as well) has to accept that all of the fun stuff that comes with building a life together inevitably comes with the complications of two adults sharing a space together. It doesn’t mean that there is anything inherently less fun about what you have — but I would say that sometimes living together and spending a lot of time together makes you assume that you are actually spending time with each other.

Being in the same room and doing the same things is not quality time. If that were the case, you’d be close and intimate with all of your work colleagues. Sometimes when you live together, you make the mistake of assuming that all time spent together is quality time (and in some cases, when you’re poor, even that’s not very much time), but it’s not actually.

What makes me feel better when I’m feeling like I’m not “fun” enough in comparison to these other relationships, is having a date with my partner. Even if it means we stay home together and watch something, we have dedicated time that we spend with one another that has value and meaning. It’s put in a calendar so it’s no different than the time spent with other people and it reminds me of the value that our relationship has.

I’d definitely try, in times where you feel like you’re not as ‘fun’ or can’t be than these other relationships, to schedule some time together that’s just the two of you. It’s great that your partner reassures you, but actions speak louder than words in some instances and I think if you spend some dedicated time with each other, it might make you feel less anxious about not being “fun”.

Working towards a solution

In summation, give yourself both time and permission to overcome some of the challenges that the toxic environment has had on you. Seek a therapist if that’s something possible for you to help you work these things out. Give yourself the space to feel scared, but don’t cave into the demands of your fear.

Embrace the things you can’t change and flip the script on the assumptions you might make about your own worth and capital within your relationship. And also question whether the ‘capital’ your girlfriend might have will actually bring her people who understand and respect her identity.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Note: I wrote this article in 2017 and it’s possible my perspective has changed or shifted. Feel free to ask a similar question again if you have it.

Do you have a question?

If you have a non-monogamous relationships question to ask, please email it to nonmonogamyhelp@gmail.com. Your question will be posted anonymously.

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Polyamory and borderline personality disorder

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.

I am 37, cis female, straight and polyamorous.

I have two current partners:

B (47, cis male, heteroflexible, polyamorous) — my wonderful boyfriend, best friend and dear lover of 1 year.

A (38, cis male, queer, polyamorous) — about whom I am writing.

A and I met 5 months ago and began a casual, BDSM and sex-based relationship. Our play is extremely emotional, intimate, passionate and creative. I have never played D/s before and he has never played D/s so intensely with anyone else before. Our sexual interests align in a way that feels to me like a kind of kinky kismet. A, B, and I have even played together in a mindblowing threesome and A and B get along well.

It was really no surprise that not-so-casual feelings eventually arose in both A and me. When I realized that my feelings for him were growing I knew that in order to feel comfortable continuing our play I would need to have a relationship in which the expression of any feelings is allowed. We connect in non-sexual ways too, and I would like the opportunity to explore that. When I brought these to him, he acknowledged that he felt the same way and wanted the same things.

The challenge is with his vanilla primary partner of 1.5 years. His primary partner is not monogamous, but does not identify as polyamorous. She has severe abandonment issues and I believe she has Borderline Personality Disorder or a similar condition (A will not disclose specifics in the interest of protecting her privacy, but he has described her moods as unsafe, her emotions as “labile”, mentioned an obsession with his whereabouts and what he is doing with whom at all times, and that there is a medical diagnosis behind all of this). He has always maintained that she is his relationship priority as long as he can keep her happy. He has said that she was not really comfortable with polyamory, but went along with it to ensure a relationship with him.

He has had relationships similar to ours in the past and they have ended disastrously because of the dynamic in his primary relationship. Maintaining those relationships and keeping his primary happy has caused him (and apparently everyone involved) significant stress — enough to have had a negative impact on careers, mental health, and other aspects of life. It is the emotional attachment that has been problematic, and, in my case, she would also find our physical proximity threatening: I live just down the street from him while she lives 60 miles away.

In order for me to decide whether this is a relationship I can continue, I have asked him to tell me what boundaries and limitations he has for our relationship and what, if any, rules he and his primary partner have. I prefer and am happiest in relationships that are not rule-limited (that is what I have with B and it is outstanding for both of us). I might be willing to agree to some rules (e.g. meeting family is not important to me, so a rule about that is one I can live with) but not others (e.g. primary partner has to be appeased at all costs). A has said that he would prefer relationships that are not rule-limited, but that is not feasible with his primary partner.

He said that this is a conversation that is a long time coming for them, and promised to speak with her to figure it out — that was two months ago. When I check in about the status, he usually apologizes and says something to the effect of “she’s been in a bad mood, It’s not safe, I need to wait for the right time” or says that he is working on making her feel secure and keeping her happy so that when they do talk, it will go better. Recently he finally admitted that he is terrified of any conversation with her going poorly because of how things have gone in the past. I don’t have any doubts about his sincerity in wanting a relationship with me. I believe that he is trying to do the best that he knows how and has the emotional bandwidth to manage.

I have asked not to see him in person until he has more information for me, but we do text and talk on the phone. We have seen each other once in person in those two months and it only reassured me of our sexual compatibility and affection for each other.

My thoughts and feelings are all over the place about the situation. I feel like I am waiting for a package that may never be delivered and that I might not like when I get it. Sometimes I feel like 2 months of no answer is answer enough, I know my boundaries and I can exercise my autonomy and leave. Other times, I feel like I should be more patient and understanding and figure out how to become comfortable with the uncertainty. Sometimes I am frustrated and think he is a cowardly idiot for getting himself in this position, sometimes I am more compassionate and think that he is likely co-dependent and experiencing emotional abuse. Mostly I think about what a great smile he has and how I love to make him laugh.

So, I know that I will need to decide for myself what I should do, but I find the thoughtful input of others to be helpful. Where is the line between being hopefully patient and being foolish? Is there any hope for a successful, stable relationship with healthy boundaries given his primary relationship dynamic? What reasonable steps can I take to make this a positive situation for everyone? At what point do I pull up stakes and say that this isn’t working for me?

There’s definitely a lot going on here.

I was going to start this column by giving you full disclosure that I am a child of a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), specifically untreated BPD, which in my mind makes all of the difference based on my friendships with people who have BPD. This informs a lot of my opinions about BPD and is a big reason why I probably couldn’t handle a romantic relationship with someone who has BPD.

How much should you know about your metamour

The fact of the matter is, the ins and outs of your partners relationship is, essentially, not your problem to deal with. And if it becomes your problem to deal with, that is less of your metamour’s fault and more of your partner’s fault.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. In terms of my relationships, the only rules that really matter are these: What you can do and what you can’t do. What happens with your partner’s other relationships is completely and utterly out of your control. And it’s not realistic or fair for anyone to expect you to manage that.

Let’s say we reframe this example in the context of day to day life. If you make a grocery order for bread and the grocery store agrees they will give you bread and then they show up one week with no bread, you would not be expected to investigate why there is no bread, what the relationship is between the grocery store and the baker, and address and repair any feelings or problems between the baker and the grocery store, would you? Now obviously there’s a difference between an exchange of a good for money and people and relationships, but basically you’re not required to be involved in the ins and outs of something that you have no reasonable expectation to control.

It is primarily your partner’s responsibility to not only be honest with you about his time capabilities and his commitment priorities, but also to not involve you in the emotional labour of his relationship. Now, he’s welcome to confide the difficulties he has with his other partner to you within reason, but it’s not up to you to fix. I feel like women in particular are socialised to take on additional emotional labour from people, often stretching beyond their own capacity while getting no emotional support themselves.

And sometimes that socialisation means women take on emotional labour almost without thinking about it, even when it’s not necessary. He may very well have a very trying relationship with this person. He may very well be stretched beyond his capacity. He may very well be struggling. But you are not his therapist or saviour. And he is ultimately the one who will have to decide whether he wants to continue in his relationship with this person or not. That’s not something you can help him with, nor should you be expected to.

Privacy, metamours and mental health

Nothing about what is happening in his other relationship is also necessarily your business, with all due respect. From a mental health perspective, people suffer challenges reconciling their mental illness with their relationships on a constant basis. I personally struggle with asking my domestic partner for the support I need. In certain situations, I am known to become passive aggressive and rude when I am not getting what I need, despite never have asked for it. I can be difficult. I’m also on the autistic spectrum which means I can have a breakdown.

I have literally had a loud, crying emotional reaction to plans changing all of a sudden on me when I could not cope. I am maybe perhaps not the ‘easiest’ person to have a relationship with. And while I would not fault anyone I date seeking for advice or help in our relationship, I most certainly would never, ever want any metamour approaching me about the ins and outs of my mental health struggles because it’s none of their business or concern. And I would likely feel somewhat of a sense of betrayal by my partner if they knew lots of details about my life and mental health I never disclosed to them.

I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing here. I just want you to be aware that, for as much as you sympathise with your partner, understand that if you know this much about all of the things going on in their relationship, that would give anyone, BPD or no, cause for feeling insecure and hesitant. Does she know as much about your mental health as you know about hers?

It can be really frightening and destabilising not only for your partner, especially if they are your only partner and you rely on them for emotional support, to get a brand new partner who, you admit, is a short distance away and likely doesn’t have the same mental health problems as you do. Put yourself a little bit in her shoes, even if you don’t necessarily understand BPD, try to understand what it might be like to be someone who struggles with mental health in a very intense way to face the reality that your partner might very well find someone who has much better mental health than you do.

Additionally, cursory research on BPD might give you a better idea of what it means to have BPD. I’ve actually found this animation most helpful in explaining it to people. The biggest sort of criteria for someone with BPD is fear of imagined or real abandonment, which polyamory as a practice is going to multiply. Of course, when you have a DSM criteria so wide and within each criteria there exists a spectrum of how this reflects in people, not all people with BPD are identical, but I’ve yet to meet a qualified therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist who believed that people with BPD can self-treat themselves or that BPD doesn’t at any time need some treatment or therapy.

As a child with a person with untreated BPD, there is a delicate balance that I have to consider in how I talk about BPD. As someone who has mental health problems, I’m also very aware of the stigma attached to people with mental health conditions. With BPD in particular, there are a lot of people with BPD, because of the way BPD affects them, who insist they are the victim in any scenario and will literally re-write history in their heads to suit that narrative. But then I have also left communities built for children of BPD parents because I felt there was a constant demonisation of people with BPD and zero attempt to humanise or understand the illness, on top of a lot of ableism about mental health in general. Point blank, no one is born with BPD. And no one asks for it.

I do sincerely believe the nature of BPD can make someone behave in ways that are abusive in a way they wouldn’t behave if they didn’t have BPD. I do believe BPD creates situations which cause challenging reactions to people with BPD and make it difficult for family, friends and significant others without BPD to know how to adequately manage it without making it worse. I do believe that all of us are capable of unhealthy behaviours and communication techniques which are abusive without us having the drive to actually abuse.

I refuse to characterise all people with BPD as abusive. And I would hesitate to automatically consider your partner to be in an abusive relationship, especially if his partner has been formally diagnosed with BPD. There is a difference to me between someone who is choosing to restrict or change their behaviour due to a partner’s reaction vs. someone who has no other choice but to do so and it’s a very difficult thing to suss out and it’s really up to your partner to ultimately decide if he is being abused and if he wants to leave. The best you can do is offer your support.

This isn’t to say of course people with BPD can’t be abusers either, but we need to avoid a demonisation of people with a single condition on an automatic basis, especially when it comes to BPD. I feel like demonisation discourages people with BPD from getting help similarly to how demonising addictive behaviours discourages addicts from seeking treatment. It’s a very rough mental illness to live with. And on top of dealing with all of this, she’s dealing with a partner who might not be actually stepping up to enforce boundaries as well as he should.

Boundaries and other relationships

Your partner holds the responsibility for managing his own relationships and also managing your expectations around that. If this other partner comes first, regardless of anyone’s beliefs about the ethics of it, that is the reality of the situation. She has a mental health condition which may logistically and theoretically require more emotional support than you would need in comparison. If he were dating someone with a physical disability who he needed to support in various situations, I don’t think you would necessarily demand he abandon those duties either.

He needs to be honest with you about how he prioritises his time. And it may be that you’re uncomfortable with being with someone who will not prioritise you in the way you want them to — and that’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to be okay with that. And not being okay with that does not mean you hate his metamour or you don’t respect people with mental health conditions. We all have wants and needs and it’s all about finding a balance.

Again, in many of the letters I get from women in partnerships with men who are struggling with their metamours, I notice a general trend of the men, who should actually be stepping up to the plate to manage the emotional labour of the relationship, not doing so and the women assuming it is their responsibility to ‘repair’ the relationship with their metamour and fix the situation. Luckily, you don’t seem to be taking it upon yourself to try and ‘help’ your boyfriend with his metamour, but you are way more involved than you need to be. It can be really frustrating to feel like you’re at the whim of another relationship, but really you are at the whim of his decision making, not your metamour.

I would honestly encourage your partner to set his boundaries and not waver them just because his partner may be feeling unhappy about something. While I’m not a therapist or an expert on treating BPD, I do know that when it comes to my own mental health, I encourage my partner to make plans and keep them, even if I feel unhappy or scared about them.

Barring an extreme emergency, I do not want him to cancel or move plans just because I am having a poor mental health day. There are compromises we make, like if I am really struggling he will take 5 minutes out of anything he’s doing and call me if I’m having a rough time, but it is completely unreasonable for him to be at my beckon call just because I have a mental health condition. Even my therapist would not be expected to be at my beckon call.

I feel like he doesn’t really have a reason, other than his own reluctance, to establish at least one evening he sees and dedicates to you, especially as the vast majority of his time is spent allocated to supporting her. I think he needs to be more insistent upon it, not cave in to her and not be afraid of some of her reactions. From your perspective, this might seem fairly obvious, but I can tell you as a child of someone with BPD, the complete guttural fear you have when you begin to set in boundaries… well, it’s hard to get rid of that fear.

Because if his metamour is affected by BPD, it’s very possible that being firm on his boundaries will cause a huge reaction, potentially even suicide threats. He needs to be prepared with the reality, which he probably already knows, that enforcing his boundaries will mean the end of the relationship. Enforcing my boundaries and demanding that my mother see a therapist to treat her BPD pretty much caused the end of our relationship. Splitting is something the video I linked talks about and it’s very possible that once he begins to assert his own independence, she will see him as a threat rather than a support, and that could collapse what they have. And it’s very possible that this is precisely why he has not done so.

Enforcing these boundaries with her though is something he needs to be managing with a relationship counsellor who specialises in BPD, not with you and preferably not alone. I can’t stress enough how BPD must be treated and that the dangers of not treating it are obvious in the high suicide rates of people with BPD. Living with BPD is without a doubt difficult, but that does not mean that he or you need shoulder the entire responsibility of managing someone else’s condition.

What you can’t do

As I said, the only rules that matter are what you can do and what you can’t do. You can ask your boyfriend to set boundaries and to give you specific amounts of time because this is what you honestly need from him in order to have a relationship which makes you happy. You are not out of line to ask for that. If he cannot meet that, then that is not your fault. I think it’s one thing to be understanding of the situation he is in, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own needs and feelings for him or anyone else.

So I would ask yourself if you honestly can accept uncertainty. Can you accept the current situation as it stands? What needs to change? What does he need to do? Can you tell him this and mentally decide and agree with yourself a set amount of time he has to do it (avoiding saying this to him up front because it sounds a bit too much like an ultamatim)? And will you enforce your own boundaries with yourself, follow through, and ultimately make the hard decision later on to go if this relationship isn’t what you want?

What you definitely have to do is avoid at all costs taking the responsibility of his relationships onto your shoulders because they are his relationships and up to him to manage. And most of all try to remember that you cannot help people who categorically refuse to help themselves.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Advice from a therapist

My only caveat is that the OP specifically uses the phrase “not safe.” Based on my work professionally, that is a red flag word that makes me think his relationship probably is emotionally abusive. In healthy relationships, it might be difficult, uncomfortable or scary to have a hard conversation — “not safe” implies a real sense of fear. However, I do think the emphasis on not taking on emotional labor for his relationship is quite on point.

Note: I wrote this column in 2017 so it’s possible my perspective has changed or shifted. 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 nonmonogamyhelp@gmail.com. Your question will be posted anonymously.

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How to get over your partner seeing other people

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.

I’ve been in a relationship with my high school sweetheart for about 10 years now. A couple of years ago we started to go abroad, on exchange and live in other countries. The distance opened the relationship. She had sex with another person for the first time ever (I was her first), and that hit me like a train. But I recovered. She fell in love with someone else, that hit me like a truck, but I recovered from that as well. I’ve also had my dalliances with other women (and men), but none as serious as her.

I tend to be more of a serial one-night stander/flinger. I’ve only fallen in love with one other woman, but that fizzled out pretty quickly. After everything, me and my girlfriend always gravitate towards each other again, with new lessons about the world, other people, and ourselves. And through that we’ve grown closer.

And yet, I still can’t shake my crippling anxiety. She’s been abroad since August now, and though she now draws the line between love and lust, I still can’t internalize our open relationship to the point where I can feel comfortable. Everyone tells me (her as well), I have the best deal in the world, I can date and have sex with other women, it’s a dream. Or at least it should be.

But it’s mostly a nightmare, every time I hear about her being with other people. As we literally talk about everything and she wants to tell me everything (and I masochistically want her to), I can see a new lover coming from a mile away. And I’m never off. And she always ends up telling me after I badger her about it. I’m paranoid, images and thoughts torment me at night.

But then, on the flip side, I do explore with other women. Frequently. I have since the beginning of our relationship (only back then it was called ‘cheating’), and continue so now. But I always have a nagging feeling before/afterward/in between. That I miss my gf, that I want to just be with her and it just be the two of us. And yet, I think that if we were physically together, I’d still be open to explore other people. But letting her do that without me is the scariest thing ever.

I think my question is: why can I be with other people and still love her and trust in that, but when she does the same, my world ends? And: how do I get rid of the nagging feeling? Breaking up with my girlfriend is not an option. It’s really annoying and I want to be ok with it, because every time she’s with other people my world stops. I have a JOB, after all, can’t have too many days where I’m depressed. 🙂

There’s a lot going on here that’s understandably causing you some anxiety so I’m going to hopefully address the main things and that will help ease things up a bit. But before I do, I just want to say that I do think you love and trust your partner. There’s an assumption here that feeling anxious or paranoid means you don’t trust your partner and it’s just not that simple.

A lack of a foundation

The thing that strikes me about your relationship with your high school sweetheart is that you don’t really have a clear foundation or an idea of what the relationship means to either of you, or at least it seems that way. You mention her sleeping and falling in love with new people and that hitting you really hard. You may have ‘recovered’ from that, but you’re treating the symptoms here, rather than the disease.

You have no real understanding of where your relationship is going. It sounds like you’re kind of just going with the flow and while that can be beneficial for some people, it also has the result of a massive load of worry and fear. Even if we’re not monogamous, many of us have grown up within a culture that produces what’s called The Relationship Escalator. When we’re in monogamous relationships, we take for granted what society has built up for us in terms of structure.

We know that, in the monogamy society encourages, there are steps towards committing which symbolise that commitment. But with non-monogamy, that’s not the same. There are things here like becoming sexually intimate or falling in love, which tend to represent ‘commitment’. My instinct is that when you realised that these individual things didn’t necessarily represent a commitment to someone else and thus a change in the relationship you have with your sweetheart, you ‘recovered’ from the shock of these things.

But unless you really work with your sweetheart to come to an understanding of what your relationship means to them and to you and what that will eventually evolve into, you’re going to continue to fear what’s on the horizon — and that’s perfectly logical. For all you know, she could meet someone new tomorrow who convinces her to go with monogamy and you could be dumped. It makes perfect sense to have this nagging feeling, even as you explore other relationships, because you don’t have that clarity with this relationship.

Sometimes this is hard to define. Maybe you both don’t know where you want this relationship to end up. Maybe you and her both need to give yourself a little bit of leeway to have this fear, deal with it as and when it comes and have her reassure you that you do mean something to her. Which brings me to the next point which may be causing you anxiety.

Clearer understandings of disclosure

Disclosure is such an awkward thing for a lot of people just starting out in non-monogamy. I think that’s why so many in monogamous relationships that shift into non-monogamy they decide to make the rule of, “I won’t pursue any relationships without your okay”. Because when do you disclose a budding relationship? Well, it comes down to when someone becomes ‘more than a friend’ and that boundary is different for so many people.

Fundamentally, what it comes down to and what people want to know is when something is going to change. Maybe you are masochistically agreeing to hear all of the details because you think somehow it will steel your resolves for when she comes to you and tells you that she doesn’t want to see you anymore. I don’t think this is going to help you. You’re always going to feel sad if and when a relationship ends. Hearing all of the nitty gritty details is not going to give you a baptism of fire against jealousy. It’s not as if you’re giving yourself cognitive behavioural therapy by exposing yourself to these details — especially because cognitive behavioural therapy is all about exposing someone to what they’re afraid of slowly and in a controlled environment.

You are lacking that controlled environment. You’re asking for all of the details but what you really want to know is if and when your partner feels your relationship might change. You tend to operate on a basis of maybe having sexual relationships with multiple people, but having an emotional bond with fewer people. What this is about is emotional responsibility and a mutual understanding of commitment. You’re too busy talking about who’s she’s doing what with to get to the detail that matters — what it means for you.

Instead of asking her for details, you both need to sit down and think about what you want out of non-monogamy. What do other relationships look like? How do you want to practice this? It doesn’t mean you both have to practice non-monogamy in the same way. Maybe you do more casual things and her ideal is to find one other emotional and sexual based romantic partner. But it might be good for you to figure out how time is going to be split between you and future partners. Once you have a better understanding of where you fit in each other’s lives and futures, you might not need or want to know details. Which brings me to my next point.

How long distance impacts polyamory

You’ve shifted from an in-person relationship to a long distance relationship and this will have a large impact on you both. Some people are capable of doing long distance but many are not. You need to understand that not having each other there physically is going to radically alter any foundation that you’ve spent the rest of the time building.

And whenever something major happens in your relationships that shifts foundations, you need to make sure you’re addressing it. The distance has opened your relationship, which is also fundamentally shifting everything. You’ve gone from, what sounds like, a monogamous relationship to not only being long distance, which adds a stressor, but changing the very nature of the relationship, which adds stress on top of stress — of course you’re anxious as a result.

You need to make sure you make time for each other. Whether it’s having a scheduled date night over Skype or definite future plans to meet physically, it’s going to take some extra effort on both of your parts to continue to keep the relationship alive. You may have a lot of feelings and while absence does make the heart grow fonder, it’s important, especially if another real relationship does happen for you or your partner, to ensure you’ve got the basics of upkeep in your relationship solid.

If you don’t, what I foresee happening is New Relationship Energy (NRE) sweeping one or both of you up. NRE can cause people to neglect their partners they live with or see every day and it can add a layer of complexity onto a relationship that is long distance. You will naturally be sad that any new person your partner dates has the benefit of being physically near them, and visa versa. It would be wise to discuss this, to make some plans for addressing these feelings.

But mostly, just make sure you’re both stepping up and keeping your relationship alive so that neither of you feel neglected, especially if you’ve opened the relationship.

Addressing anxiety within a relationship

You might find that once you have some clarity from your partner about what your relationship means, once you’ve got reassurance of that on a consistent basis and a better understanding of non-monogamy and what it means to the both of you as well as a little bit more effort to bridge the gap that the distance is causing you, you may feel a lot less anxious.

But the most important thing for the both of you is to give yourself permission to feel anxious and scared. You’re going long distance and that’s a big step. You’re making a big change to the very foundation of how your relationship operates. You’ve made a lot of big changes all at once and you’ve shifted things, so you’re naturally going to feel insecure. Don’t automatically interpret your negative feelings as you distrusting your partner or as bad faith when you both are doing your best to maintain that.

You might consider one of your bonding activities to be meeting on Skype with a relationship counsellor or therapist, if that’s an option for both of you. It might give you a space to talk about your feelings and work through them together.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Therapist comments

It sounds like this guy is pretty intuitive and good at anticipating her future connections. It’s entirely possible he’s picking up on that possibility much, much earlier than she is. Which means it looks like she’s withholding information, when it may well be that she’s just unaware.

I see potential love connections for my partners way faster than they do, and I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly. Now when they come to me and they’re all like, I’m Into This Person… inside I’m thinking, yea, I’ve known that for a month, welcome to the party. I used to think they were aware of it and afraid to tell me, now I know that they really are telling me as soon as they’re aware.

Note: I wrote this column in 2017, so it’s possible my perspective has shifted or changed. Please feel free to re-ask a similar question.

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When you should be happy, but you’re not

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.

My husband and I have been married 22 years and he has cheated on me all throughout, be good and then he’d cheat and I’d find out then we’d work it out. etc….. 2 years ago he started talking to a girl on line was dom/sub. We had played around with it ourselves but then I stopped cause he had cheated on me again and it be a strain on our marriage. So when I found out about the girl he said he wanted to do dom/sub 24/7 I agreed to it. It’s been great! But now he says he wants to be poly[am], he is again talking to another woman, she lives pretty close to us and he went to school with her. And he said eventually he will meet up with her.

But I am not allowed to be poly[am], which I don’t want to be anyways but when we were talking about it I asked him if maybe I could get a gf I have always liked girls but never pursued it. And he said no, he said he knows he is being unfair but he doesn’t want me too. we have been going through this for about a month now. He talks to her on messenger I can see he is talking to her doesn’t hide it, I get upset and he thinks I shouldn’t be upset. Well this weekend. Was his bday weekend we had a great time on Friday and then Saturday morning he asked if I was okay I said yes.

I was fine wasn’t even thinking about the woman he talks to and then he was like well let me put it this way what if I went and saw so and so? well I made a face and uggged at him and he said see your not okay with it. I have told him that he needs to just do it go see her he said he can’t cause he doesn’t want me to be feeling bad when he leaves. I told him I will not get over it that he needs to do what he has to do and then I will have to see if I’m okay or not. I even told him to leave or I can leave and he said no that he needs and wants me. Doesn’t understand why I can’t be happy for him. I told him I want him to be happy and so he needs to do what he needs to do then. He said that he can’t be happy if Im not with him.

I’m his wife, babygirl his everything. Without me he won’t be happy. How can I be happy, doesn’t he want me happy too???? I love him so much, but I don’t know if I can be okay with it and I feel like I’m in limbo right now. I want him happy, so why can’t he just go see this person he likes and then when he comes back home. I can figure out if I’m okay with it or not. Is that wrong of me? I shouldn’t have to feel all crazy and waiting and wondering when he is going to finally go see her.

My first question to you is… why are you with this person?

You not being happy about this new person isn’t about whether or not you want to do polyamory and in fact, I think that your approach to decide to see what happens when he sees this new person is incredibly sensible — but it will ultimately not solve the problem at hand which is that your partner seems to have little to no regard for you, your boundaries, and your feelings.

Throughout your 22 year marriage, he has cheated on you… how many times? Cheating once is one thing. And sometimes, depending on how these situations happened and what the context is, cheating doesn’t inherently make you a horrible human being that doesn’t care for your partner. But the fact that he has continued to do so repeatedly proves that he wants what he wants and will do it whether or not it is part of your agreement.

All his postulation right now about how you’re his baby girl and how he can’t be happy without you… If that were the case, then why on earth would he have cheated on you in the first place? His actions right now are speaking much, much louder than words.

Relationship foundations

Every relationship, whether it be romantic, non-monogamous, or whatever, has to begin on a foundation of trust and respect. And in order for you or anyone else to feel confident and comfortable in that relationship, there has to both consistency and honour. That’s why new relationships are so hard. Because you haven’t had the time to build a history together to build a consistency and build an honour in each other’s word that you will do what you say. Trust is initially given on good faith in a new relationship and the cemented and strengthened by time and people demonstrating that not only will they be consistent in their commitment but also that they will honour it.

Your partner has taken a bulldozer to the foundation of your relationship. He has not only cheated, but he’s changed the nature of your relationship as and when he sees fit, without really acknowledging how it affects you. In summarising 22 years of relationship history, it’s possible you’ve missed out on his apologies and efforts he’s made to make up for his mistakes, but ultimately actions speak louder than words. And you have to realise that the standard you put up with is the standard you will accept.

And not only on top of not providing you with consistent behaviour and a respect for your personal boundaries, he is expecting you to sign off on all of his relationships and adjust your emotions to allow himself to feel at peace about what he’s doing?

This is borderline emotional neglect and abuse. It is not acceptable for anyone to make you feel like you have no other choice but to be happy about a decision they make. In any other circumstance, would this be acceptable? If someone on the street walked up to you, slapped you in the face, apologised and then demanded you be happy that they apologised, would you consider this decent behaviour? I doubt it.

If he’s acting specifically like you are “crazy” to not be happy, that is emotional abuse and straight up gaslighting. He has done nothing but err you in this relationship and now he is demanding you be okay with what he does before it happens. That’s specifically so that if you do get upset, he can absolve himself of all emotional responsibility for anything he does on the grounds that you said it was okay.

I urge you reconsider your future with this person. He has not been good to you over the years. Whether or not you decide to be polyamorous or not is up to you in the future, but you can’t have any kind of decent relationship with a person who lacks a core level of respect for you and your emotional wellbeing.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Note: I wrote this column in 2017, so it is possible my perspective has changed or expanded. Please feel free to write a similar question.

Do you have a question?

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