Ethical vs healthy

I’m new to the world of ENM and after lots of time spent reading– I’m more confused than ever!

Before I get into all of it, I guess my concerns can be boiled down into two questions: 1) Is it possible to co-create an ethically non-monogamous relationship in which the majority of attention/ focus is placed on the primary partnership and other relationships are kept “casual”? I ask if it’s possible because a lot of sources that I’m reading about ENM seem to suggest that such structures are extremely difficult to maintain and even naive, as people often fall in love with others. 2) Is it possible to do so ethically?

To question 1– When my partner and I got together, he was very upfront about the fact that he wanted to create an ethically non-monogamous relationship. I’d say I’m a bit more oriented towards monogamy than he is, but ENM has interested me for a while and seems to align with my values. We decided to only see each other for the beginning of our relationship as we got to know each other and to then open things up down the line. I have been very clear with him and myself about what structure of ENM I think will make me happy:

Our relationship is a “home base,” we prioritize this relationship in terms of time/ making plans for the future/ emotional support, there is an intention that outside relationships are “casual” and more like hook up buddies rather than other serious, committed partnerships (I say intention instead of rule because if one us wants something more serious with someone else, we’ll have a conversation about it– it won’t be like someone did anything bad).

None of these are “rules” and I would only want to continue with that structure if we both continue to feel good about it. We don’t have the strict “outside relationships can be sexual but not romantic” limit because it doesn’t really make much sense to either of us. I know it’s impossible to control feelings, and he doesn’t feel like “romantic feelings” and “casual relationships” are mutually exclusive. At the same time, I just don’t think I’d be happy in a non-hierarchical polyam situation. I really enjoy the sense of building “a home” and future with one romantic partner.

My partner says this structure also sounds fulfilling for him. He’s a bit more open to a non- hierarchical situation in theory. But as he says, “I’m choosing to be with you and I know this is what you want, so I’m more than happy to do it.”

But is this structure just doomed to fail? Am I being naive in thinking we can maintain it?

And towards my second question– I’m super confused because so many ENM sources indicate that requesting limits on your partner’s relationships with other people is unethical and controlling. I’m not interested in having veto power or commanding that he do things, but I do want to have a sense that I can voice discomforts about his actions with other people, and that those discomforts will be taken seriously. For example, if he started seeing someone really frequently, I’d like to be able to say, “Hey, this feels like your relationship with ___ is getting more serious and might be outside of the structure we initially agreed to. If I’m correct, I feel uncomfortable about that. What do you think?” That doesn’t necessarily mean he has to end that relationship.

I mean, that could be one outcome of that conversation if he decided to do so. But it could also look like, “I know that I still highly value being your primary partner and I don’t know if a non-hierarchical situation will feel good and happy to me. What are your thoughts around that? What do you want? Is there a way we can work with this other person so that there needs/ wants are being incorporated into that structure if we both decide it’s still what we want?” I guess what I’m getting at is– Is there a way to strike an ethical balance between influence and control? Where my partner might make decisions that ends up limiting his other relationships IF AND ONLY IF it is ultimately his decision, albeit one that is influenced by my wants and desires (given that I’m an important person in his life, and we’ve both said to one another that we want each other’s feelings about situations to influence our decisions).

We have of course decided to be upfront with future partners as soon as possible about these things– that we will prioritize our relationship in the above mentioned ways and that there is a chance our relationship may influence other relationships. But is it still unethical going into this knowing full well that we may be influencing each others’ relationships.

Anyways, I know this is a lot! I thank you for reading this and would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

The issue I have with your first question is that a primary partnership and “casual” relationship necessarily mean the majority of attention and focus is placed on one “primary” person. I believe you could have a primary partner without necessarily focusing the most on them at any given time, but I think other relationships being “casual” doesn’t negate the meaning they have to the individual. It just might mean what is expected and agreed on in terms of time commitment. Basically, “primary” is really up to how individuals define it. Your assumption that building a home with one partner and not another means one means more to the person than the other isn’t necessarily true.

Not all non-hierarchical polyamorous people are solo polyam people. Some do build homes with others and sometimes multiple people. I would probably encourage you to challenge that perception. It’s possible for someone to have serious committed relationships with multiple people and actually live with only one. Some people don’t wish to live with any partners. That doesn’t mean that they don’t care as much about those partners as people who live with their partners.

The definition of “ethical” at it’s basic means that nothing is against explicit consent or hidden. Any structure where people are consenting to what’s going on and happy with what’s going on is technically ethical. Codependent relationships can be technically ethical. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, if agreed upon, can be ethical. That doesn’t always mean they’re healthy or good for the people in them or outside of them. Your structure is ethical if you agree on it. Is it fair for the people who come into contact with your partner? Probably not. But they can choose not to engage with your boyfriend based on that. I think to pretend like what you have *isn’t* a veto power is, to be blunt, lying to yourself.

You want the structure you want because, to put it simply, you want to matter more to your partner than other people. A lot of people don’t see this as an ethical choice because it’s not really what polyamory is about and you can’t matter more without others by default mattering less. You’re focused a little more on what this means for you without really thinking about what it means for the other people involved. You’re assuming that more time spent with you makes you mean or matter more, which isn’t necessarily true. And the deciding factor of this all hinges on whether or not you feel he’s spending too much time with other people, rather than his own desire to choose. He’s doing it because you want it, not because he wants it. Which means it’s ultimately your decision and based around your comfort, rather than his. Even if he agrees to go with what you want, that doesn’t mean that it’s not based on your decision.

It might be worth you considering why it is you want the structure you want. You don’t mention a specific desire to buy a house or have children (which you don’t need to do to build a home together), which would be a reason to want to make sure he shared in those goals and was willing to put forward towards them, especially given how the division of labour in households tends to be unequal, but you specifically want his other relationships to mean less than yours. You assert this isn’t a rule, but… let’s be real. It is a rule. You want hierarchy and you probably want it for an understandable reason – you’re scared of breaking up. Will this intention/rule actually prevent that from happening? If monogamy doesn’t prevent people from cheating or leaving their partner, this intention or rule is not going to be able to stop your partner from leaving you, if that’s what he wants to do.

This is ethical if you both decide you want to do it and if he is honest with others about it… but that doesn’t mean it will prevent you or anybody else from heartbreak. You can request limits on your partner’s relationship with other people and they can accept those limits, but I think it’s worth asking if that will prevent what it is that you think it will prevent. I think you’re being a bit naive in assuming that coming to him and saying, “I have a problem with the fact that you’re spending time with this person more than I’d like” isn’t going to be seen as a request for a change of action. Already you’re coming to him with a “What do you think about prioritising me above others?” and he’s going, “I don’t want to do that, but I will for you!” Already he’s sacrificing what he wants for what you want. It stands to reason that would be a pattern that would continue.

Even if you don’t outright demand he leave someone else, if you’re demanding that he spend a certain amount of time with you and not others… then you are kind of demanding that. He’s making this decision for your comfort and not the other way around. I don’t know if it’s fair to call it “control” because he is consenting to it but… it’s not really going to matter for the person that ends up being at the receiving end of this. Whether you call it influence or control, whether you call it a rule or a limitation, whether you think you’re executing a veto or not… it’s someone else who basically gets to have their relationship decided for them. If they agree to that, then that’s fine. But a lot of people wouldn’t for an understandable reason.

Relationships “fail” for all sorts of reasons. There isn’t going to be a magical structure that’s going to ensure the survival of your relationship. Even if your partner wanted monogamy and never wanted to sleep with anyone else, that wouldn’t mean your relationship is built for “success”. Monogamy won’t even necessarily ensure you have the majority of your partner’s attention or even their agreement on a shared goal in life.

I think what you need to do is consider the reasons you want other relationships to mean less. Consider exactly how much time you want from your partner. Consider whether your rules/intentions will actually solve what you think they will solve. Consider the feelings of the other people who might be interacting with your partner. Consider whether if time spent with you is the only way your partner can show to you that he is intending to build a home with you and what that means. Consider whether your assumption that building a home with a partner means hierarchy and that non-hierarchical polyamory means not building a home.

If he is happy to have flings and casual sex with others and that works for him, then it can work for you both. But I wouldn’t just hope that he doesn’t have feelings for others and that you don’t I would assume that it could happen. And what will happen if he doesn’t want to just dump that person because you’re uncomfortable. Can you commit to the idea that your partner may not spend the majority of their time with you? And is he already compromising by agreeing to a hierarchy if that’s not what he actually wants? It might be worth talking through this with a polyamory friendly therapist in the end and thinking about how you both manage conflict so you can address these situations when they come up.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

Episode 63: Visualising Your Partner

What if you can’t see your partner with someone else in your head without feeling terrible?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic: What is one thing that you didn’t get as a child that you want to now have as an adult?

Listen below or on Libsyn. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers. Or, conversely, use our RSS feed.

Episode 62 – Visualising Your Partner

What if you can’t see your partner with someone else in your head without feeling terrible? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Find the full audio transcription of this episode on our website. Discussion Topic – Was is one thing that you didn’t get as a child that you want to now have as an adult?

 

This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Use our affiliate link for 10% off your first month.

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:

My wife and I have been married for 24 years – Our only sexual experience has been with each other. We have had a good relationship over these years.  Recently she brought up the idea of moving in the direction of an open relationship. She thinks she is oriented poly[am] and is wanting romance and sex from more than just me.

I am open to the idea but I am really afraid. I have always tried to be her biggest cheerleader – encouraging her to be herself. When I think about living out a polyamorous relationship I can totally grasp it intellectually and sometimes even get excited about the idea.

But emotionally it has really shaken me. When I think about my wife dating someone else and having sex with someone I panic inside and feel anxious for days even though I seem okay intellectually with the idea. My core self really wants to set her free in her desires but emotionally I seem so far from it.  How can I bridge this emotional gap between my core self and my fears?

When I try to visualise my wife with someone it creates so much anxiety and fear in me – not fear of losing my wife – I know she loves me so much – but I fear that I won’t be able to handle the anxiety and pain. I know it won’t kill me but I am afraid the anxiety and fear would be very draining for me and would really pull the joy out of our relationship.

Response:

First thing I want to say is this is extremely normal. Okay? And I think that if you’ve tried to find help online for this, that might have been where you’ve really struggled, because a lot of people will sort of… they kind of act like that there’s a state that you should reach where you’re kind of zen like about everything and I don’t really agree with that. I don’t really feel like polyamorous people are polyamorous because they visualise their partners with other people.

You don’t have to do that. So many people sometimes when they’re opening their relationship they think… sometimes — they’ll literally go “Well I’m not gonna have sex with someone unless you’re in the room” and even though I understand why they do that and I’m not saying that that’s what you’re doing but this is like… the whole visualisation reminds me of this is. You got to have that trust and it’s just, sometimes it just hurts.

Sometimes, you can either be kind of completely not interested in seeing your partner with somebody else because you’re not a voyeur or you just… it does hurt because you’re not getting attention and you want attention from your partner. You do not have to visualise in your head your partner with other people. That is not a step that you have to take and be okay with. You can be polyamorous solid for a long time and still feel jealousy, fear, all these sorts of things when you see your partner with another person… that is not at all a yardstick by which to measure yourself.

So, don’t do that. Don’t try to visualise your partner with other people, because it just might not be something that you like. Some people really like that. Some people are really into that. Some people are really nonchalant about that. And also that feeling about whether or not you’re into it or you’re nonchalant, or it hurts or it makes you — you know— that can vary as well depending on what’s going on in your life, how you feel about yourself, all sorts of different factors.

So don’t do that, because it doesn’t help. It doesn’t necessarily… it’s not like if you could… if you were, turned on or excited by seeing your partner with someone else or are thinking about it that doesn’t even necessarily mean you’re going to be… that polyamory is going to be the thing for you. So, so yeah. First, don’t do that.

Second thing, there’s an article that I wrote, which is called “13 Mistakes That People Make Before Trying Polyamory” and I also wrote another one called the “13th Things I Wish I’d Learned Before Trying Polyamory” or trying non-monogamy which you should be able to find it on Non-Monogamy Help.com. But those are just the mistakes one will actually really help you in kind of setting things up but the two kinds of things that I recommend people think about when they’re considering whether or not polyamory is for them.

Or two things. One. Do you have any benefits to polyamory solely for yourself? So it’s not that this would make your partner happy. It has to be something that is just for you. So you might be actually interested in having other sexual experiences, because you did say that you and your partner — you’ve been the only people that you’ve had any sexual experience with. So that may be something that you have an interest in, and that is something that can help in the future when you start to experience some of that anxiety and pain.

And I wish I could tell you that you won’t go through any of that but the fact is that you might. I still have some anxiety and I’ve been polyamorous for about 10 years now. So, you will have that anxiety. It’s more about how to address and how to manage that then necessarily about you reaching some kind of master Vulcan state where you don’t experience any of it.

The second thing that you really should think about is, do you feel comfortable with your partner not spending, the vast majority of their time with you? I point out quite frequently in my columns this is something that a monogamous person would have to consider if they were dating someone with a really time intensive career or anything like that.

Some people don’t want to date for example someone who has to travel a lot, so they barely ever see them. They couldn’t deal with that kind of relationship. Some people can’t do long distance. So, you have to ask yourself because, inevitably, if this is the route she wants to go she will be spending date nights with other people. She’ll be spending time with other people. She is not going to be spending 100% of her time with you and that’s really, really important.

Because I think that sometimes people agree to polyamory especially when their partner wants it and they don’t necessarily want it, but they agree to keep the relationship but what they don’t realise is that the relationship they’re keeping is fundamentally different to a relationship that they had. And one of the big major physical obvious differences is the amount of time spent with one another. So would you feel comfortable not spending all of your time with her?

Do you have stuff that you do on your own? Are your lives so wrapped up within each other that you don’t have any separate hobbies or can you not see yourself having a separate hobby? And I mean if you are interested in polyamory for yourself, if you want to date other people, then that is time when she’s not there that you could be spending with other people. So it sometimes works out but a big thing that I also usually point out to people is that it’s very very normal and very very common for a lot of people who are in a couple, and then they open their relationship for one person in that relationship to have more quote “success” than the other person in terms of finding dates.

So you it may be that you open up and you look for dates you don’t find any and she does and then all of a sudden she’s got, Thursday, Friday, Saturday booked and you don’t. So be prepared for that inevitability and and think about it. Are you fine with her not spending 100% of her time with you? Because if you have a polyamorous relationship then that won’t happen. So I think if those two those two things are things that you’re like, “Yeah I’m fine with that and I do have a benefit to myself.”

I think that where a lot of the anxiety and fear comes from is, and it’s good that you said that you’re not afraid of losing your wife. And you know that she loves you. But a lot of the fear and anxiety that people can feel comes from the fact that whether or not they feel comfortable and established in their relationship they still have grown up in a mono-centric society. They still have grown up in a society that has told them specific things about love, and that love only means something, if it’s scarce.

10 mins. So, you know, you can’t love two people, or three people or four people or five people – you can’t love them all the same. So you know they’re out there it’s a competition and, you know, so that is something that you’re going to have to challenge. I think that if you feel like you can challenge some of these things. And if you go to the article that I wrote about (13 Mistakes), it talks about facing some of your fears and how facing some of your fears is sometimes a result of taking on too much responsibility. There’s only so much that you can do. And I think that if you’ve been married for 24 years. The biggest thing that is probably going to be really triggered by this is that even though you’re like “I love my wife. I’m not scared of losing her.”

The fact of the matter is, is that there has always been the chance that you, you will you both could break up. And that the problem was, kind of existing in a mono-centric society and being in a monogamous relationship, and especially doing that sort of relationship escalator thing where you know you get married and you have kids and la la la. And I’m not saying you have I’m saying, you know, being married as part of that escalator and that is a societal script that reinforces you and makes you feel safe. You don’t think that you’re likely going to break up because, hey, we’ve got all of these scripts things that we followed and that reinforces you.

When you start to go off script, when you start to do polyamory, you may start to fear it, because the threat that you’ve been told all your life is actually presented right in front of you. And I think the other thing that you have to kind of think about is, most people when they’re in this situation they are afraid of losing their partner and furthermore on that they put the burden on themselves to keep their partner, because they’ve been kind of conditioned by a society that wants to sell things. Consumer capitalism (wee!) wants to sell you things and it sells you things by making you feel deficient.

And it’s really really easy to make you feel deficient by saying, “Oh, you know, buy this cologne and you’ll be irresistible to women” or whatever all the sorts of bollocky nonsense but that kind of stuff does get embedded into your psyche, the idea that you have to compete for a partner, the idea that you have to find someone and earn them and keep them and all you know it’s reinforced constantly throughout our society. So what that does is that puts the burden on you and on your shoulders for keeping your partner around.

Now I’m not saying that you that by being a decent person, and by treating your partner well that those aren’t things you should do to keep your partner. I think that those are the things you should do period. But there is only so much that you can do to keep someone from falling out of love with you. There really isn’t that much control over the situation. And the problem is is that a mono-centric society convinces you that you have control over these things, that you have control over whether or not your partner loves you, or is attracted to you.

And unfortunately, that is not something you can completely control because it isn’t even something that your partner can completely control. People are married for decades and decades and decades, and fall out of love with each other. That happens. It happens sometimes even being married for 24 years isn’t necessarily going to prevent that from happening. And it’s easier when you’re monogamous and when you’re in a marriage and when you’re close to ignore that possibility because you have everything in society encouraging you to think that your relationship is stable, safe, and nothing can shake it.

When you open up and you start dating other people, that is going present a more realistic physical, tangible threat to the balance that will remind you of this uncertainty and will trigger a lot of anxiety. Even if deep down you know that your partner wouldn’t just up and leave you for somebody else because they aren’t that kind of a person, you still are going to have a lot of fear and the thing that you do to handle that is face it, which a lot of beginner polyamory advice I really really hate and I rag on it and I rag on it because the way that they decide to tell you to treat that fear is by going, “Encourage yourself to see how special you really are”.

And I do think that positive self talk has a place in helping you combat fear. But the real problem is that in my opinion that’s like a, it’s like the. Gosh can’t think of the right metaphor. It’s like your boat is sinking and instead of repairing the hole you’re just tossing water out of the side. It doesn’t address the real core issue. The real core issue is you placing the responsibility on your shoulders of keeping your partner around. And it’s tricky because to a certain extent. You are responsible for that. You can put effort into your relationship. You can put effort into noticing your partner. You can put effort into spending time with them into being loving into reciprocating.

But the thing is you could put into effort into all that and still they fall out of love with you so it’s not something that you can completely control. When you remove the burden off of your shoulders of what you can and can’t control. Before your partner even considered polyamory, there was nothing really stopping her from meeting someone at, you know, work, and falling in love at work and leaving you. That could have happened.

Nothing about opening your relationship necessarily threatens that any more. If anything, you could look at it as the fact that you kind of are willing to explore this with her as makes it more likely that she will stay with you but either way. There is nothing you can really control. And so, recognising that “Oh, okay up until now I’ve assumed safety. I’ve assumed that there was nothing that, or that there was no way my partner whatever leaves me because we’re married and duh duh duh”. But actually, you can’t ever assume that nothing is ever really safe nothing is ever really completely and totally in your control.

So once you in my experience at least once I realised that and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to put effort in. I’m going to be the best partner that I can be. Sometimes fuck up I’m not great all the time. I have mental health problems. Sometimes I have anxiety. Sometimes I have freak outs. I’m not by far from being the perfect person. But if I put effort in, that’s the best I can do”. I can’t make someone fall in love with me and I can’t stop someone falling out of love with me. If that’s what happens. And I think that that will help you.

I’m not saying that that is going to poof! Your anxiety’s gone. No. Anxiety is going to happen. You’re experiencing a massive change. Think of it this way. If you guys wanted to have a baby — I don’t know if you have children. It doesn’t say, but if you wanted to have a child — I think most people, even people with or without children, if someone said, “I want to have a kid and I don’t want to feel anxious about it at all”. You would be like.. eehhhh. No matter how prepared you are, no matter how many books you read, no matter how many parents who talk to, you’re going to feel scared and anxious because it’s a massive change to your life. This is a change to your life.

This is a change to how you do your relationships. This is going off of the course that society has told you is the safest. It’s going to come with anxiety, it’s going to come with fear. You’re trying something new. You’re trusting and changing the way that you’ve trusted your wife for a long, long time. It will come with fear and there isn’t anything you’re going to be able to do to avoid that. But what you can do is find the aspects that interest you about this relationship, just as you would if you had — you know i’m not saying that polyamory is like having a kid.

But I think, speaking to at least a lot of parents that I know, everyone has a moment where they’re just like, “Why did I do this? Why did I do this?” And so obviously there are benefits to having a child that keep them going through those difficult moments. I think, a similar outlook could be said about polyamory or any lifestyle change. You know if you went from living in a city all your life living in a country and you were really interested in it, you’d have hard moments. And the reason that you decided to move is going to be the thing that keeps you going through some of those hard moments.

So I think that that is going to help anchor you. It’s what I call an anchor. And then also, remembering the benefit you get out of it and remembering the amount that you can actually control and constantly reminding yourself of that, because in response to uncertainty and fear your brain is going to encourage you to think that you can control everything because that’s way better. If you think about looking at it like “I can totally control and prevent a terrible thing from happening to me”, versus “This terrible thing may happen to me and there’s nothing I can do about it”.

Of the two mindsets, the one that is convinced that you have the power to control things is going to be the one that your brain is going to pick, because that is going to make you feel better. So try and think of it that way. And I think the article that I wrote goes a little bit more in depth I definitely recommend that you read it and that should help you address that anxiety. It sounds overall like you’re very positive towards your your wife’s wishes, and that’s good.

You may be one of those people that is monogamous to polyamorous person. Like if there’s no benefit you see out of it, if you don’t have any desire to have any other kind of relationships or sexual experiences with other people, then it may be that you’re a monogamous person with a polyamorous person. That does sometimes happen. But I think the thing that will mean this is a situation that you are going to be fine with and that you can live with has to do with whether or not there is a benefit that you can find personally to yourself, even if it means that you get to hug the bed some nights.

And also being comfortable with the fact that your partner won’t spend 100% of the time with you and being able to challenge some of those ideas that monogamy is kind of really ingrained into your brain and finding ways to cope with that anxiety. I think that you. It’s not impossible. The anxiety will be— it’ll be worse sometimes than it is, but in my experience, it does go away. Like it’s really intense at first because it’s new.

It’s scary. It’s a change, just in a similar way that a lot of experiences like this are. Every time you make a big change in your life, every time something new happens, there is a period of fear and anxiety and uncertainty and then you start to feel better. If you can find that anchor, then you will definitely feel better. Yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

Episode 59: Feeling Disconnected

If COVID caught a relationship when it was just forming, is it worth picking back up again if you’re feeling disconnected?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic: How do you prefer to end a relationship? We always assume that in-person is better, but is it?

Listen below or on Libsyn. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers. Or, conversely, use our RSS feed.

Episode 59 – Feeling Disconnected

If COVID caught a relationship when it was just forming, is it worth picking back up again if you’re feeling disconnected? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Find the full audio transcription of this episode on our website. Discussion Topic – How do you prefer to end a relationship?

 

This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Use our affiliate link for 10% off your first month.

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:

So before COVID I started developing feelings for a close friend with benefits. I haven’t felt this intense about a companionship in years. We worked on some creative projects together and we helped each other with our careers. I started to become friendly but not intimate with his fiancée but I was open to develop something with them potentially a throuple or be a part of their constellation. But it never got there. I got very sick probably from COVID two weeks before lockdown and then lockdown happened. During this time we all kept in contact texting each other at least once a week.

I was doing a lot of self reflection, work on feelings about this and being poly[am], reading self help books, and talking with friends who were in open relationships. I was feeling pretty heartbroken from not being able to see them. It hurt so much I needed to talk about it. I had a really heartfelt conversation with the one I was closest too and it ended on a really positive note. We agreed that it is uncertain where we are going to go or how this will develop but its clear there were some strong feelings between us that we were both excited to explore.

Then the city started to open up. I expressed interest in trying to meet up somehow but it never seemed to work out, not sure if that was intentional or not. I saw them both by chance at a protest for a brief minute but we all got lost in the crowd. We started to grow apart less texting. Then I noticed they went on vacation with two of their friends possibly other companions, not sure, but I felt really left out.

A little bit before this point I was having mental health issues from all the changes in my life from COVID and this so I stopped initiating conversations through text at which point our channel of communication basically stopped. He then recently released a project I was a part of without much notice and I just have a lot of conflicting feelings about it because of all this.

I understand COVID really has been shaking things up and I don’t want to blame but I feel really neglected. It kinda feels like I broke up with folx before I even got to develop a relationship with them which really hurts. At this point though I feel so burnt out by the situation I’m not sure I want to continue to be intimate in the future without any commitment on their part, but still open to be friends.

Do you think its worth trying to salvage something from this situation? Am I being too clouded by the hard circumstances and mental health stuff I am in at the moment? Should I be doing things differently? Part of me hopes that we can one day mend this but part of me would rather move on and find folx who are going to meet my needs better. What are your thoughts?

Response:

So I think that the first thing that you should do is think about — and this might be something that is quite difficult for you. Think bout what it is that you want or expect out of the situation. And,  if you’re just starting off trying out polyam, it might be hard for you to really know what that is. And sometimes I do think that we can sometimes end up in situations where we don’t know that a need isn’t being met until we’re kind of hurting from it not being met and that really sucks to be in.

But I do think that the first thing that might be helpful in approaching them is understanding what it is that you want or expect, and you kind of have a good idea of that because you talk about commitment, but I think that you need to establish what commitment really means. What are you hoping to be in their lives? Are you really wanting this thruple situation? I’m always really really hesitant. I’m assuming that they didn’t approach you as a couple. It just so happened that you were interested in both of them.

If they approached you as a couple, I’m just really, really hesitant about people who date as couples because I’ve written a whole article or column about it. It tends to be a thing that people do because they think it’s safer than dating individually. And I’m not saying this is always the case because sometimes it’s not but it tends to be something that indicates that they aren’t really having the conversations in between them, and they’re sort of dating as a couple as a fail safe because they think it’s just easier, or they don’t trust one another.

And they need to be present while the other is dating somebody else because they’re worried about being accused of or cheating. And that just doesn’t bode well in general, but if they didn’t approach you as a couple, and you just so happened to have some interest in both of them but naturally developed into being closer to one of them just because you met that person first, that’s fine. But I do think you need to think about — what is polyam to you? What is non-monogamy to you?

What do you envision your life being like? Are you more of a solo polyamory person where you don’t really have any established primaries, or even people that you live with? Do you want to live with partners? It may be a situation where you’re kind of open to different aspects but clearly I think the fact that you’re hurting in this situation, which makes sense, means that you do want something more and I think that just saying “commitment” isn’t really clear.

Because the thing that you have to remember is that, with monogamy, you’re kind of operating with a cultural script that everyone sort of knows. If you haven’t read it before there’s a really great article called The Relationship Escalator. And I think there’s been— the same person who wrote that wrote books about it. I’m not quite sure. But the article itself I have read and I think that that really illustrates the kind of script people have.

The thing that people kind of know indicates commitment within monogamy— people kind of have a shared definition of that. But when you’re in a non-monogamous relationship or polyamorous relationship, you kind of have to come up with your own definitions of what commitment means and what it is that symbolises commitment. I think that that’s the first thing.

The second thing is is that I think that you’re not really on the same page, because when you talked about this discussion that you had, it seemed like you *were* kind of breaking up with them because you kind of both acknowledge that you did want to continue things, but COVID was restricting you from meeting in person. It may be possible that neither one of them do long distance very well, and just aren’t very good communicators, when it’s not in person.

And so maybe that in that discussion that you had, that really good discussion you had, maybe their understanding was that things were at a pause, so they don’t see the point in reaching out and trying to continue that and don’t see the point and inviting you to go on a vacation with someone who they maybe shared, like, met with or were closer with so it’s less of a COVID risk, or that they already had prior experience with. So, I think you need to have a better clarifying discussion because it could be that in that conversation you both walked away with different understandings of where exactly you were.

And I also think one thing to flag up about this is that — If you want to date them as individuals then you can’t use the person that you’re closest to as a kind of communication conduit. You do need to have separate conversations with them, instead of treating them as a unit. I think that’s one thing to note. But you have kind of continued the establishment of the communication. And I think it’s fair for you to feel like, “Okay, I stopped communicating and I basically fell off the earth to them, and they stopped initiating discussions with me”. I wouldn’t necessarily assume that that is because they don’t care about you or they’re not interested in you.

They may just think things are at a pause and that you will get in touch if and when things clear up and people can start meeting regularly in person. Maybe they are waiting for you to initiate that. Who knows? I can sit here and I can postulate on what’s going inside their minds as much as possible but you’re not going to know until you actually have that conversation with them. And the thing of it is, is I totally understand half of your brain that’s like, “Man, I just need to get away from the situation because I’m having to initiate all of the discussions. Now that I’m not initiating anything they’re not initiating anything with me. Screw this!”

I totally get that because I quite often feel that way. And I do think that this is probably how 98.9% of my online dating conversations end because I have actually found it really really important that people at least meet me halfway. And I know that sometimes people struggle with online communication. I know that sometimes people struggle to start conversations, but at the end of the day, whether it’s due to shyness or they’re just not interested in me, I want to have relationships with people who can actually start a conversation with me, or who have some interest in my life, enough to talk to me.

I am not going to be the one that initiates 80% of the conversations. I want a little bit more. 40% I’ll take from them, but I can’t like— I hate that and I’m not going to do that and I’d so I totally get where you’re coming from on that and I do think that’s not a bad position to be in. And I do think that when you talk about what you need from them, you need to bring the fact that you initiate most of the conversations up with them and be like, “Look, I can’t be the only one initiating conversations here. I don’t want it to be that way”. So, yeah, I do think that that’s fair.

But what I would say is because your last conversation with them to me sounded like a pause. It didn’t sound like “okay we’re still dating”. It sounded like “Well, COVID has happened. We can’t meet up in person so it’d be nice to explore this but let’s explore this later on when we can actually meet up more in person”. That’s what that sounded like to me.

Who knows what kind of impression? You need to have more of a clear discussion with them. Give people a chance to meet your needs before you decide that they can’t. You’ve already established this bond with this person you’ve already put some effort in. So I do think that you should at least give them the chance to not meet your needs before you decide that they can’t.

Have a sit down discussion with them over the phone, over Zoom, whatever you need. It’s okay for you to feel left out and all this stuff but I don’t think that that was necessarily deliberate. Make sure you’re clear on where you’re at. Are you still interested in dating as much as you can? Is this thing at a pause? Do they need to initiate more discussions with you? Where are things at? Because it could just be that you guys walked away or y’all walked away from that situation with two different understandings or three different understandings of where you’re at.

To sum up, I think that you need to think about what it is that you would like out of polyamory or non-monogamy. Where do you see it fitting into your life? That may be fluid. That may be something that you don’t know just yet but have a think. At least have a think about it. Because if you think about it, people will think about what they want out of monogamy— even though monogamy is— the way it’s presented is like one picture and it’s like marriage and this is kids and this is what you’re going to do.

People envision that and think about that all throughout their adolescence, so they have a million chances to think about what it is that they want out of monogamy before they actually ever even think of getting into a serious adult relationship. So, if you think about it, you need to have a couple of things yourself about what polyamory is to you, what it means to you, what your life will look like in the most ideal state, and that can give you an idea of what your wants and needs are.

And make it just a little bit more clear to them other than just saying “I need you to be more committed”, because that could mean anything to anybody. Have a sit down clarifying discussion about where things are, what it is your needs are. Tell them what your needs are. And really I don’t know if you should have like a three meeting. I’m very hesitant to suggest thrupledom, just because I tend to think that complicates things more than it needs to be.

Have a sit down discussion with each of them, or at least the person that you feel closest to right now, and figure out what it is that you need, and give them a chance, give either him or both of them the chance to actually meet your needs, before you decide that they can’t. I think that’s pretty much what I have to say about the situation. I do totally understand how you feel. The frustration is serious. The frustration is real. I am a most— 99.9% initiator, so I feel your pain. I hope it helps and good luck.

Lying by omission

My fiancé who I have been with for 15 years. Has asked if I would be in a open relationship. He says he has always thought this way but what really made him to bring it up was talking to his therapist… and he got a crush on a mutual friend who he has gotten closer to over the last year. Which is a little hurtful on multiple levels.

He said he doesn’t want to hurt our relationship or me and that this is the most vulnerable and honest he has ever been. Which I do trust him and love him dearly. I told him after weeks of thinking and learning about it.. I like to know all the facts and learn about other ways of living etc before I say yes or no. I am a open thinker or at least would like to think so. That we could try this open relationship I don’t want other relationships at this time. But who knows maybe later on. I told him there are only a few rules:

1. No relationship with the mutual friend (no being alone with her either) or any other mutual friends

2. Has to come home at night

3. I need to know if he is involved with someone

So… with that being said I think those are very fair rules not a lot and honestly I don’t ever ask much of him. He failed to mention to me the other day that he dropped off a guitar at her house while I was working at my job not from home and we are quarantined. He didn’t bring it up because he knew it would upset me. Well I found out and was upset… I now also know that she may bring him lunch sometime this week while I’m working he doesn’t know that I am aware of that… I feel like I am suppose to trust him but now I don’t feel like I can. And I don’t want to bring it up.

I looked at his phone. He told me today that he doesn’t want to replace me he loves me and our relationship he just wants more freedom to do what he feels more naturally. I thought the base for open relationship with a main partner is trust… am I being crazy? I feel like I need to stand my ground on this. I always cave and I’m done doing that. I feel like I’m missing something and it’s no to much to ask of him to do… please help… feeling confused and like I’m going crazy…

You’re absolutely right that the base for an open relationship — and for any relationship to be honest — is trust. But you began opening this relationship with distrust.

Your first rule inherently means you don’t trust him. Even in a monogamous set up, I would advise people to never agree to any kind of relationship where their partner attempted to control them physically. It’s one thing to put a sort of pin in the idea that him dating a friend you both share would make you uncomfortable and it might be worth having a discussion about that sort of thing to address your fears but it’s a completely different thing to ban him from being alone with “her” or any other mutual friends you have.

Why? If you trust your partner agrees with your first rule willingly and it’s a mutual agreement, and not a restriction you are placing to prevent him from dating or falling in love with a specific person, then you should not have any reason to believe he would break this rule. And that puts him in an extremely awkward position where if someone — as two adults who are friends are wont to do — wants to hang out or drop of a guitar or do something simple, he now has to basically disclose the status of his relationship which he may not want to do with all of your mutual friends and he has to basically say, “I’m not allowed to see you because my wife won’t let me.” Ask yourself, if the situation was reversed and your husband was banning you from being alone with any mutual friend who is a guy, would that not sound a little like the 1950s?

He has a crush on your mutual friend and understandably that makes you afraid. But if he is going to replace you with her, you cannot prevent that from locking him in a tower away from her. It’s understandable to not want to lose a friendship because things become awkward with dating, but sometimes that just can’t be avoided. Restricting him from dating her is only going to cause resentment and push him further away from you.

Rules aren’t a problem in general, but they have to do what they are designed to do and there has to be a logic behind them. For a lot of people opening up their relationship, it makes sense to want to have the security of your partner not doing overnights right away, especially if you’ve been with them for 15 years and it’s a new experience for you. It also makes sense to want to know if he is involved with someone because you might need some time to process things and get some reassurance from him when this does happen. So many rules when people first open their relationship are about avoiding the anxiety that comes with change and that doesn’t work.

If you are truly okay with opening the relationship, then you have to understand that this will fundamentally change your partnership. He will be focusing on other people and you should be free to do the same. This change is like knocking down some of the pillars of your relationship and rebuilding them. Trust has to be rebuilt. And that process is filled with anxiety that you can’t avoid.

You may want to read through the intro to polyamory article I wrote and work on talking together about your ideals, recognising what your anchor is in polyamory, and figuring out how to compromise effectively. Re-framing some of your fears might make them less intense and you may realise your rules are not really needed as time goes on. But really, if you start a relationship forbidding your partner from being alone with any specific person, that demonstrates a lack of trust. And that is definitely worth you reconsidering.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

How to define cheating

This content is 1 year 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.

Here is my situation. I’ve been with my partner for four months, we started our relationship as another one of mine was ending. I definitely jumped in full force to the relationship, partly because of my heartbreak over the previous one. It turned out to work out really well, however, as I feel so cared for and valued by my partner. At the time we started dating, they were casually dating a couple of people, and I was still dating a person casually (outside of my more serious relationship that was ending).

My partner and I discussed what would be cheating in our relationship: breaking agreements, lying, not updating relationship statuses with someone. Not long after this discussion, my partner broke an agreement by sleeping with a mutual friend while intoxicated. We had previously spoken (as in very very recently) about not having anything happen with that person more then a fun drunken party make out, as that would be really messy within the friend group and too much to navigate.

My partner assured me that they do not have romantic feelings towards this person, but that they are just friends, however I know the person has feelings for my partner. Before the hookup, I had an understanding that they were just friends but now I find myself not fully trusting that that’s been always the case (on my partners side). My partner is adamant that that is their feeling towards that person despite the person being attractive.

Anyway, my question is: how do you rebuild trust when an agreement has been broken? If there was never an agreement I still would have been uncomfortable as this is a mutual friend in our circle, however I don’t think I would have felt betrayed. Since the cheating my partner has done mostly a good job of taking ownership, setting boundaries with the person, and explaining to me what happened (which I accept and have understanding for). All this aside, how do I work through my feelings of betrayal? Are their tools for people for when cheating happens and you’re not monogamous?

Sometimes we have to ask ourselves if the rules we’ve put in place really serve us. ‘Cheating’ can be defined in all sorts of different ways. It’s not up to me to tell you how to define ‘cheating’ for you, but I can say that for me, the biggest part — and really the only part — of what makes something cheating is deception and lying or aiding someone else in their deception and lying knowingly.

You’ve chosen to define cheating among each other as ‘breaking agreements’, not just lying, as well as ‘not updating relationship statuses with someone’ (which also seems like lying to me). My problem with this is that one can break an agreement in a variety of circumstances without necessarily participating in an willing deception and this is such a case. No doubt, an agreement you made was broken, but it doesn’t seem like your partner did it with their full sober mind nor did they hide it or lie to you about it once it happened.

That’s not to say you don’t have the right to feel upset, but ask yourself if putting the label of ‘cheating’ on this is further inflaming those feelings by making you feel like there is more of a betrayal than there actually was. Is this more of a mistake, especially if your partner is taking ownership, settling the boundaries and didn’t at all hide it from you? Why is it that you are defining ‘breaking agreements’ specifically as cheating and is that really going to help you out in the long run? In this case, I think slapping the label of ‘cheating’ onto this situation is reinforcing what you’ve probably learned and understood about cheating through the monogamous lens that society has given you.

As someone who has a lot of strong feelings about cheating, I can understand this. Some people don’t consider cheating a big deal and have no problems participating in it, even if they don’t try to do it. I consider cheating, and by that I mean lying and deceiving a partner about anything (doesn’t have to be sex) to be one of the worst things someone can do and helping someone do that is equally as bad. But then there are some people who consider their partner watching porn as ‘cheating’ and I don’t.

It’s not as if those people who consider their partner watching porn as ‘cheating’ are wrong in their feeling of betrayal if that happens, but what I would encourage them to do is think about the assumptions they are making in this situation (e.g. being sexually attracted to someone other than your partner is something one can completely prevent in all situations and watching porn means that you’re less attracted to your partner or it affects the integrity of the attraction to your partner) and hope that through breaking that down, they can come to understand the source of the betrayal. Because often when we expand the net of ‘cheating’ to encompass more and more things, it can say a lot about our assumptions.

Likewise, in this situation, I think you need to take a good hard look at this rule and understand why you’ve put it there. What are you assuming when it comes to breaking agreements? Maybe you have a relationship with cheating in the past that you haven’t mentioned. Maybe this is part of your inherent fear that non-monogamy is unsustainable and your brain is creating rules to try and prevent something from happening. Accidents can and do happen and they don’t have to be devastating and destructive if we take people off of their pedestals, understand that we’re all humans and make mistakes, and figure out how what we’ve learned about certain concepts influences our behaviours.

But in non-monogamy we may be less inclined to see a simple accident as just that if we have such a small cultural script to pull from to define what commitment to each other means if we’re not using sexual exclusivity. If you’re not defining what makes a non-monogamous special by sexual exclusivity you may be searching for another place to put the meaning society has told you is important in and you may be doing that with the idea that breaking an agreement is tantamount to ‘cheating’.

It’s natural, whether you define a breaking of an agreement as cheating or not, for you to feel nervous and untrusting after that violation. It’s also natural for the fact that, regardless of how your partner feels, you know that this person is interested in your partner for that to kick up a lot of anxiety for you. But at some point, you also need to realise that there is only so much that you can control. The fact that your partner is taking ownership of this will help you rebuild that trust over time but it can also be helpful for you to realise that trust is really all you’ve ever had to begin with.

Even before this breach happened, none of us can prevent our partners from falling in love with someone else. Even if this person your partner slept with moved away and you never saw them again, another equally challenging or ‘messy’ person could come along in two months time. You can only prevent so much from happening. And rules certainly can’t prevent mistakes from happening.

Allow yourself to feel anxious and scared, but come back to the truth that, what little can be controlled is being controlled. Your partner is taking ownership and setting boundaries. Don’t prevent or berate yourself for having feelings. It’s very understandable. But also think about the way you’re classifying this situation and its impact on your relationship and whether or not your current definitions are really serving you.

People can break agreements in relationships unintentionally and without hiding that from a partner. Rethinking the labelling you’re adding to this will also help ground you a bit in understanding that while you may very well and validly feel betrayed because an agreement has been broken, you also need to zoom out and see the bigger picture of everything else that is going on around you to help you not get trapped in the undertow anxiety will try to pull you into.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

Polyamory and the LGBTQ community

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.

My question is this, why are most polyamory relationships associated with the gay, or lesbian society. I’m not prejudice[d] against anyone’s sexual preferences.

Currently, I am on house arrest. Because of a situation I put myself in. Since my first marriage I’ve had a belief that a man can love more than one woman.

I’m currently dating a woman of 52 years of age. We have known one another for almost 20 years. And have always been able talk and express our feelings to one another. We’ve always enjoyed a great sexual relationship also.

Right now, we see each other when we can. I love her very much, I’m not at all jealous of her seeing other men. And she feels the same way about me.

I guess what I want to know is why do you hear more about polyamory in the LGBT than you do with the heterosexual society?

Quite often in my column I say that polyamory can be a postcode lottery, meaning that the type of community that you find locally can be a lottery. Sometimes it’s very open minded and welcoming — sometimes not. While I wouldn’t say that I have experienced polyamory being more prevalent or discussed in the LGBTQ community, and in fact I’ve left quite a lot of online polyamory spaces because they were homophobic, biphobic and transphobic places, I do think that there probably is a trend where LGBTQ people are more open to the concept of polyamory.

There are a lot of reasons for this. I think socially as a whole if there is an aspect of your identity which you can’t change which is marginalised, you’re more likely to question the power structures that society puts into place, including the rules society places on how one should behave. To put it in a more simpler term, if the way you love another grown and consenting human being naturally is seen as ‘deviant’, then you’re going to question a lot about the society that has decided there is something wrong with other forms of love between consenting adults.

Furthermore, I think you also find this among people who are hypersexualised in society. If your baseline sexuality is seen as ‘too sexual’ then you might find that you’re more free to challenge some of the sex negative concepts the society hypersexualising you throws back at you. If you’re already on the margins and derided by society when you are harming no one, it gives you a better way of looking at other practices which aren’t harming anyone.

There’s also the pure and simple fact that LGBTQ people have a long history of not having the privilege to practice monogamy in the way society says one should practice it. Specifically in the US, queer people growing up the same time you did would face permanent disowning not just by their parents but also society. In many states in the US when you grew up, it was perfectly legal to arrest consenting people for having queer sex which would be sometimes called a ‘crime against nature’. In some places, if you were arrested for a ‘crime against nature’ you could have your name and picture printed in a newspaper and be forbidden from getting any form of job or license. Some queer people were lobotomised, castrated or given drugs that simulated waterboarding as a form of adverse conditioning to ‘cure’ them of being queer. Have a Google of the Atescodero State Mental Hospital which was known as ‘the Dachau for queers’.

And this isn’t isolated to the US. Many countries have a long history of either conversion therapy or execution for LGBTQ people daring to live their lives in the open. Alan Turing in the UK was condemned to chemical castration for homosexuality despite saving over 2 million lives through his contributions against the Nazis in WW2. Queer people were a target of Nazi Germany and, even after the concentration camps were liberated, many of the queer people in the concentration camps for being queer were immediately sent to jail and not liberated. The infamous picture of the Nazis burning books is actually a photo of them burning the books of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexuality which was making pioneering efforts of its time in transgender medical care.

So, suffice to say, many LGBTQ people did not have the option to marry and settle down with an individual, even if they wanted to, in a monogamous partnership for many years. This is a struggle that many people of colour had with interracial marriage in the US and in other places. And that’s not to say this struggle is over either. I know in the UK in particular, individuals fleeing countries where they would be murdered for being gay struggle to ‘prove’ their gayness to the Home Office to claim asylum. One person I met felt she had to submit a pornographic video of her and her partner in order to effectively claim asylum.

For many LGBTQ people, having a long term monogamous partnership wasn’t a realistic possibility. ‘Hooking up’ in semi public places like parks or closed down buildings was the only option a lot of people had for any form of sexual or romantic partnership. And I think the history of that has meant that over time many LGBTQ people have either been forced into a situation where their relationships had to be ‘open’ in the case of needing to marry or present a straight front to the world in order to prevent themselves from complete ruin or they just haven’t seen monogamy as something realistic and therefore have had a more open approach to relationships.

Still, while there is this history, I wouldn’t say that LGBTQ people are any more likely to be polyamorous or have open relationships than straight people. And in general, there are physically more straight people and therefore more likely to be straight polyamorous people than queer polyamorous people. But, to sum up the idea, it’s a lot more easy to see the validity of other lifestyles that harm absolutely no one when they involve consenting adults and not immediately dismiss it if you’re also immediately dismissed by society.

I want to add one last comment regarding your situation, even though you didn’t ask about it. You’re not required to stay in a monogamous relationship if that’s not what you want and you most certainly shouldn’t feel your current relationship is holding you literal hostage. It is possible to find people your age who are interested in polyamory and if that’s what you want to do, that’s what you should do.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Comments from the therapist

In my experience to date, most of the LGBT+ folks I encounter in the polyamorous world are bisexual/pansexual, not gay or lesbian. Some of the early leaders of polyamory, like Deborah Anapol who I believe coined the term polyamory, identified as bisexual. Someone who is sexually and romantically drawn to more than one gender may well have a higher innate interest in open relationships so they can satisfy a broader range of their interests and desires. Now this is not to say that all or even most bisexual or pansexual folks aren’t monogamous. Many are.

When I attended a polyamory conference in Ohio a couple of years ago, most of the dyads present were heterosexual pairings and yet most “polycules” (their extended network of relationships) contained at least one “queer” dyad as well. That seems to be a pretty common demographic breakdown here in the Midwest.

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

Overcoming vaginismus in 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’ve had vaginismus and vulvodynia for the past few years which made vaginal sex impossible for me due to the pain. I’ve been in love and a relationship through this with my partner who as a consequence of my health has also been sexually dormant for about 6 years. I feel such a strong sense of shame and failure in writing this. I have not had, not been able to have, sex for 6 years. It haunts me that that is who I am right now.

Through many different treatments and therapies I am now at a point where I feel confident about being able to have pain free intercourse and definitely need it. My partner, however, is not there yet. He isn’t being able to shake off the sexual dormancy. In the meantime, in an effort to refashion my sexual self, I began first with chatting up with strangers on naughty forums. That felt electric and made me reconnect with a version of myself I simply have not been — flirty, cheeky, aware of my desires, even giving them shape through words.

It helped me realise that I want to have sex with other men, not just my husband. At least for some time. Partly because my husband has no interest in sex, partly because the new relationship energy is thrilling and largely because after 3 years of a lonely journey towards becoming healthy again, I would like to know if my vagina works, so to speak. We are speaking with a marriage therapist weekly to figure out our boundaries. My husband is monogamous, and would much prefer I be monogamous. I need physical contact and I need to see myself through the eyes of multiple sexual partners to again feel like a desirable, confident, sexual beast; how I felt before the vaginismus.

I recently made out with someone, someone who isnt my husband, for the first time in 10 years, and it was a powerful experience for me. But then they ghosted and I’ve been feeling stung and deflated by it. Since then I’ve lined up a few more potential lovers but I feel scared of rejection, I feel scared of my vagina failing me, I feel scared of being bad in bed, I feel scared. And yet, I am aching for physical contact.

In therapy my husband expressed fear of me falling for someone else or finding sex with someone else much better than with him. These are valid fears. I’ve told him in many many many loving ways that I recognize it is easy for me to find someone to have sex with versus finding a man I love, admire and want to build a life with, i.e. him. I guess what I need advice on is how do poly[am] people manage rejection and heartbreak from their secondaries or casual partners? How do I get over the fear of being bad in bed or my vgina failing on me? How do I find my sexual groove again? My husband noticed I was glum but because he has a preference for a don’t ask don’t tell dynamic, I couldn’t reach out to him for succour. Even though no one reassures and comforts me like he.

I’m sorry to hear you had such a long struggle with your own body. There are a few things here I want to address.

  • Ways we define ‘sex’
  • Agreements on non-monogamy
  • Options for exploration
  • Rejection while polyamorous

Ways we define ‘sex’

This may be something you’ve long explored during your period of time going through so much pain, but I wonder if part of the way that our society defines sex has been a reason why you’ve felt so restricted from having it. While I don’t mean to say that it’s silly or wrong for you to want to have vaginal sex, there are other ways to have sex or be sexual that don’t have to involve something that would have been painful for you. And it may be that the archaic way of defining sex that society outlines for us may be affecting your partner’s way of thinking as well.

We live in a society that gives us a lot of messed up ideas about relationships and sex and among those ideas are that sex that involves penetration is somehow better or is the only sex that matters. It also gives us a lot of incorrect ideas about how vaginas typically work and also tells us that we need to behave in certain ways to be ‘good’ at sex.

Even if you don’t logically subscribe to these ideas, you might still feel a lot of self-imposed pressure on yourself to perform in certain ways and likewise your partner may also be experiencing some of the negative messages told to men about their worth as it’s tied to their performance in bed.

It’s hard for me to say without knowing your full situation if there would have been ways you could have explored other forms of sex or sexual touch that could have been less or not painful for you and therefore wouldn’t have led to you feeling like you couldn’t have *any* sex at all. You may have done that.

But I do know that asking for a non-penetrative focus or exploration can be a hard ask for many cisgender heterosexual men who feel like utilising toys or doing other forms of sex are somehow “less” than penetrative sex. Most people with vaginas can’t actually orgasm from penetrative stimulation alone (and you may already know that) so it’s quite normal for many people with vaginas to struggle with penetrative forms of sex.

If this isn’t something your current therapist has brought up as an option or highlighted as a concern, I would consider finding a new therapist because I do think that you could have had some exploration of other facets of your sexuality during this time — and can still now! And that may take a lot of pressure off you to ‘perform’ in other ways. A quality therapist should have pointed this out or explored this as an option for both of you to rekindle things without necessarily leaping to non-monogamy as an option.

Lastly, on the subject of the fear of ‘not being good enough’, I would tackle this the way I tackle any fear of not being enough and this may seem counter productive but… there are billions of people on the planet and with that comes the absolute certainty that, in every facet of your life, there is most certainly a person who is ‘better’ at any given activity or skill you could possibly have.

The same culture which teaches you that sex is only defined within certain rigid categories also tells you that that, in order to find the right partner, you must be the ‘best’ at certain things (and of course, conveniently, there is a nice product you can buy if you’re currently not the best).

The truth is that we don’t choose our partners because they are ‘the best’ at everything they do. And to be honest, I don’t know if any of us can say exactly and specifically why it is we find the people we do attractive. Certainly there are a combination of social influences and factors, but it’s in no way as simple as ‘this person was the best at everything’. If it was, well… let’s just say there are a lot of men out there with one or more partners who are *certainly* not the best at anything I can see.

What makes someone ‘good’ in bed is subjective. It’s okay to be nervous and it’s okay to be scared. Anyone who is going to reject you for not coming out of the woodwork, especially given what you’ve gone through, and being some type of porn star is a jerk who doesn’t deserve you. You may be nervous and that’s okay. You don’t have to be bubbling with confidence all of the time. What will help you overcome that fear is accepting that it’s okay to have fear instead of demanding of yourself that you be confident in a situation where it makes total sense for you to be afraid. Give yourself permission to be afraid.

Agreements on non-monogamy

I think non-monogamy can be a good option for couples that currently struggle with a mismatch of preferences or drives sexually, but I wouldn’t say it’s a good reason to open your relationship up in the first place, especially because there may be ways to solve the problems without necessarily opening a relationship up fully. What concerns me here is that your partner is fundamentally uninterested in non-monogamy — or at least, that is what I’m assuming from the preference for a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ setup.

What this preference tells me is that there is some avoidance of the real issue and while I understand you have needs and desires you want to explore, opening your relationship isn’t going to solve the critical problem here, which is that your partner and you are no longer sexually compatible for whatever reason. You were at once and something changed and I do think things can go back to what they were before, but that needs to be a desire you both have and right now it’s unclear if your partner has a desire to work on the problem. And them begrudgingly letting you sleep with other people isn’t a solution. In fact, it might just be you both avoiding the thing you don’t want to do — breaking up. Which you may actually have to do if you’re inherently incompatible or if he refuses to engage in some willingness to solve the problem.

So I think before you worry about coping with rejection and even necessarily before you consider dating other people, you need to solve the problem of whether or not this is the situation you and your partner want to be in. This is not about holding him hostage to have more sex with you or else you’ll see other people, but it feels like this problem remains unsolved and I’m unsure of whether or not it’s wise to really pursue non-monogamy in a way that might further erode your partner’s trust and confidence.

His fears are very understandable — but they are based in something real that’s not being addressed. Has his sex drive changed? It’s possible that he is an asexual person who has always figured that sex must be part of a relationship and only now, after the years of not engaging, he has figured out it’s not something he actually wants. This may not be a problem he really wants to ‘solve’ but you should know what the reason for it is and either come to a different understanding of what your relationship might become (he could very well be a platonic romantic partner of yours, but he also has to be interested in being non-monogamous and not be just doing it to keep you in his life in a way that means the resentment will eventually take over), understand that you’ve become incompatible and split up, or recognise and identify the problem and be willing to work towards a solution.

Options of exploration

It’s very understandable that you should be interested in exploring your sexuality and, regardless of your partner’s issues, you do have a desire to have different sexual experiences with other people. Polyamory isn’t necessarily the solution for this unless what you explicitly want is romantic relationships with others. There are lots of different forms of non-monogamy that could work for you including swinging or even hiring a sex worker.

In fact, I would highly suggest you consider hiring a sex worker, especially given the amount of pressure you feel to ‘perform’. It’s not to say an individual couldn’t be respectful and sensitive towards you, but a sex worker in particular might take a bit of pressure off you in terms of worrying about messing up the opportunity to have a continued relationship. You could also find a sex worker who has experience working with clients who have or currently have vaginismus or vulvodynia and may know some techniques for relaxation or other things that have helped other clients.

There may also be some other solutions to try with your partner, if he’s open to them, including hiring a sex worker together or going to swingers clubs together or on your own. He is understandably worried about being replaced because there is a base incompatibility between you two right now. If he commits and wants to work on the reasons he may be feeling dormant, this may be something that you can do now or in the future that might re-awaken things for him or might be something that will make him feel less scared or threatened.

Which isn’t to say he won’t be scared or threatened. He absolutely will be. It’s understandable — especially if he doesn’t really want to be non-monogamous. But I think that opting for full polyamory when it sounds like what you really want are other sexual experiences rather than full on relationships with others, may be additionally threatening in a way that can be prevented. If he also has an interest in other sexual activities, this is something you could do together in the right setting in a way that works for you both — so long as that’s his interest. And that may work out for you better than trying to date other people.

This is all said with the caveat that it seems unclear why he’s feeling dormant still. And fundamentally if he doesn’t want any form of non-monogamy, as hard as it may be, you both may need to come to the agreement that you’ve grown apart and go your separate ways. Forcing someone into a non-monogamous situation, even through don’t ask don’t tell types of scenarios, will only just build resentment and hurt until it’s impossible for you to be together any further and have to break up out of pain rather than choice.

Rejection while polyamorous

Even though I’m not sure if polyamory is really the solution for you right now, what I will say about rejection is that there really is no easy way to come to terms with that. Flat out — the more people you date, the more likely it is that you will get your heart broken.

One of the inherent risks of polyamory is more heartbreak than you would have if you weren’t polyamorous. For many people the risks outweigh the benefits, just like dating in general as a monogamous person risks heartbreak, but it’s up to you if you want to take the additional risk that comes with that.

What helps for me personally is just being annoyed about it and getting that out somewhere. I know logically that if someone rejects me, it’s not always personal. I know that I have rejected people who I just didn’t feel and they didn’t do anything necessarily “wrong”.

Some people I’ve rejected are really lovely and kind people, I just don’t feel anything for them and I can’t fake that. But getting rejected still hurts and it’s okay to be upset about that and be a little sad or a little angry. As long as you don’t turn that into a raging sense of entitlement where you assume that people are machines that you put kindness coins in and sex falls out — you’re fine!

Find a friend or a confidante — or go to your therapist! You should be able to talk with them about these things. Or find a polyamory group and post a whinge post. All of that is fine and acceptable — but rejection sucks no matter what your relationship style is or how many times it happens to you.

I hope that helped to address some of your issues and good luck!

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

Parenting 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 34 year old female in a 14 year relationship with a man. We have one preschool age child. Before we got married, six + years ago, I was very clear that I was not interested in constant monogamy. My partner was equally not wanting an intimate relationship with anyone but me but also was not against this part of me. Before we had our kiddo I dated a bit, but once I was pregnant and absorbed by child rearing for the last four+ years, I didn’t think about it for awhile. Now I am coming back to myself. I’m still a mom of course, work full time, but have the brain power to consider dating other people. My husband is still supportive, still not interested himself, what are some things I should consider when navigating this world with a kid at home? I’m currently flirting with an old friend who lives across the country and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle maybe, but what about more local people?

Many parents feel a significant amount of worry about how to navigate parenthood and polyamory. While I wouldn’t describe my biological parents’ relationship as ‘polyamorous’, I did live in a house where I believed my parents were together and knew my mother dated other people.

I’ve always said quite frequently on the column and the podcast that this was never an issue and I think, although I’m not a parent, I can say that the most important thing in a child’s life is having people there for them who follow through rather than having any particular family structure that looks in any particular way. And in that regard, there are a few basic things to consider.

First and foremost are the physical aspects of non-monogamy. Agreeing to non-monogamy, whether you are interested in dating other people or not, inevitably means that you agree that your partner will not spend as much time with you as they would if you were monogamous. As I’m sure you know, children take a lot of time and require a lot of time. Figuring out with your partner how you’re going to balance childcare and time is going to be one of the things that can facilitate establishing some solid boundaries with your partner or it can cause a lot of arguments.

It’s worth your partner considering how this would fare if you had a time intensive career. If you were a doctor or a lawyer or an actor and had to disappear for long periods of time, how would you balance childcare? It’s important to not forget that, even if your partner is not dating other people, they can’t just be stuck with the duty of childcare all of the time and it needs to be fair and balanced so that they can also go out and do things they want to do as well.

It might be worth considering how you’ll handle date nights, overnight stays and of course physical protection from STIs, testing and how to disclose or manage risk. You might consider slowly escalating the amount of time you spend out just as how you now have the mental space to date more people and didn’t before. Definitely talk it through with your partner and think about how you want to arrange things and how that agreement might change over time. Once you figure that out, it’s good for you to be honest with future partners about what they should expect.

The second thing to consider is what role your partners will or won’t play in your child’s life and how your partner feels about that. Because this is also really important to communicate to future partners so they don’t go into this with you expecting something that they’ll never get. You may have heard of “the relationship escalator” which refers to the cultural script we have around monogamous relationships where there are milestones that indicate the ‘seriousness’ of a relationship that help ground us and create security that doesn’t have to be built.

You meet someone, you get into a monogamous relationship, you move in, you marry, you have kids, etc. and all of those steps represent the level of commitment of a relationship and sometimes within polyamory because you don’t have these same milestones, you have to figure out what represents commitment for you and what represents seriousness for you. One of these milestones may be being introduced to your child and it’s worth thinking about what that means and what role they will take on.

I emphasise this because I was personally impacted by adults who came into my life and communicated that they were to be like parents to me and then left me and never communicated with me again and that cause a lot of devastation and negative impact in my life. That made it hard for me to trust people in the future. So I always feel like it’s important to be mindful of who and how you introduce people to your child.

Having more adults to trust and rely on are always positive things for children, but having those people leave can have a really horrible impact, in my experience. Anyone who is not willing to consider being part of your child’s life even after your relationship with them ends but wants to be introduced as or function in the role of a parent… that’s going to be an issue.

Whether you date people locally or far away depends on the compromise of time you make with your current partner and child care needs. It’s worth also planning for and talking about future anxieties. Your partner may have not had any severe anxiety before because you didn’t, as it sounds like, have any ‘serious’ relationships.

And now, with a child, he has a lot more to lose in this scenario. Thinking about how to manage that in the future and preparing for it would be helpful. It might be useful for your partner to have something to do, other than childcare, while you’re on your first date nights or overnight stays.

Those are some basic things that you can consider on the outset of getting back out there and navigating parenthood and polyamory. It’s worth considering a polyamory friendly therapist that also works with couples who might be able to help both you and your partner navigate some of this, if that’s an option available for you.

Otherwise, I think thinking about the physicality of what this means, the role your partners play in your child’s life, and the way you’re going to manage anxiety in this relationship is a great start.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

Episode 17: Delaying The Inevitable

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.

Your partner has agreed to open your relationship, but you’re afraid to make the first leap. Should you wait until they have a date first?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Listen below or on Libsyn. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers. Or, conversely, use our RSS feed.

Episode 17 – Delaying The Inevitable

Your partner has agreed to open your relationship, but you’re afraid to make the first leap. Should you wait until they have a date first? 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 am 25 and married, and me and my partner (a 24 year old male, we’ll call him Lewis) are very close and very happy. We’ve known each other since middle school, began dating in college and were married 2 years ago — so essentially we’ve been together and monogamous our entire adult lives. I had a small hand full of sexual partners before we got together, but Lewis had just one before we met and it wasn’t very healthy.

Lewis and I got married because we love being together, we’ve lived together for five years and it has never been hard. We fight well, we communicate well, and have bonded HARD over the years. We could see very clearly that we wanted to go through life together and could holistically trust one another. What I could NOT see is that I would still develop feelings for other people despite being so happy with Lewis.

Marriage as a goal was pushed very hard in my family. My parents framed a romantic partner as the only “real friend” you’ll have in life, and that if you’re happy with your partner, you will not be interested in other people. But as time has gone on, there are one or two friends in our social orbit which I have developed strong feelings for — strong enough that, despite my efforts, I haven’t been able to bury or ignore in the interest of protecting my marriage.

I came to my partner with this very quickly, I am not very adept at hiding my emotions so it felt important that I explain myself to him before he noticed it on his own and felt deceived or that I was hiding something. I expressed my desire to connect with other people and he completely understood. He expressed that he knew it was natural, and trusted that if I let other people into my/our life, he would still remain a, if not the, priority in my life.

With all that background established, the problem itself: I feel that I am going to have a much easier time with establishing additional partners than Lewis, and I fear hurting him in seeing other people. Lewis is handsome and well liked, but socially anxious and a bit insecure. He, in his own words “can’t see anyone being interested in him” in the immediate future. I disagree with him, but I also know that posturing yourself as open to new connections is a large part of successfully meeting romantic partners, and I don’t think he’s comfortable with the vulnerability right now.

I, on the other hand, have already started very passively engaging with someone I know is interested in me — a male in our social circle who Lewis likes and respects. Nothing has actually happened between us, but our chemistry is very very strong, and I can see him trying to capture my attention to the extent he feels in appropriate at the moment. I would very much like to start seeing this friend of ours, but doing so means really initiating something me and Lewis have only talked about. None of our friends know that we have agreed to open up our relationship, including the one I am interested in.

Because my relationship has been monogamous so far, I have this emotional perception that I cannot reach out to new partners until Lewis is poised to do so too — that non-monogamy is still something we should be doing together. I do not know if that’s realistic, but attempting to connect someone other than Lewis feels wrong, despite our agreement on non-monogamy, so long as he isn’t also in his own process of connecting with someone other than me.

So, I guess the advice I’m looking for is how to effectively navigate this transition so that I am able to claim the freedom to connect with other people without making my partner feel left behind. I feel unsure how to ask for time alone with someone, how to set or talk about boundaries, etc.. We are both so young and I think both our lives could be enriched by opening ourselves up, but it clearly isn’t going to come as naturally to Lewis as it is to me. I do not know any non-monogamists in my life, so any guidance/analysis you can offer would be much appreciated.

Response:

So the first thing, before I get into kinda… cause I think that you’re facing a situation that quite a lot of people face. The first thing, just the tiniest little red flag that shows up to me, is that you say that none of your friends know that you have agreed to opening up your relationship, including the person you’re interested in, but you do feel like he… you can see him capturing your attention to the extent he feels is appropriate at the moment.

Some weird thing about the way monogamy works in culture is that some people feel way more comfortable with cheating than they do with what would be called “ethical non-monogamy”. I don’t really like saying “ethical non-monogamy” cause I do feel like non-monogamy should be in end of it self ethical. If it’s not ethical than it’s cheating.

And weirdly enough some people are are ok with cheating, but not ok with non-monogamy and I’m not saying that this person is necessarily cheating, but it… and I’m not sure, you know, what it means that he is “trying to capture your attention”.  I don’t know. It just strikes me as something to think about because you know you might prepare yourself and get yourself already to open up and approach this person, you might find that when you tell them that you’re in an open relationship and Lewis knows and is fine with it… they aren’t fine with that.

And then you end up in this very weird situation where someone in your social circle who is friends with you and Louis was totally cool with with betraying Lewis by helping you cheat essentially but wasn’t okay with everything being above board. It’s just something to think about. I’m not saying that’s definitely what’s going on.

Some people do do playful flirting and they are… some people flirt even if they are in a monogamous relationship. And it’s not necessarily… it doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re interested in a relationship. They just enjoy flirting so that, you know… It could be nothing but I just think that’s worth you preparing yourself for. Because, especially if you’re going to date with in your social circle, especially if you’re not going to seek out people within non-monogamy communities who are already in that vein and interested in that.

I don’t know if dating friends and dating people you both know is a good first shot. I mean it could be that this person is also non-monogamous and they just haven’t told anyone as well. I mean, you don’t know but just bear in mind that even for people who are sort of seasoned, I guess, as you would say, “non-monogamists”, their partners dating their friends can be a touchy subject. Because, you know, if things don’t go right with that partner than it feels very awkward. So those are just some things just to keep in mind before you pursue this relationship.

Because I don’t want you to get all your hopes up and get ready and do all this preparation and communication build up and then “oh whoops” it turns out that that person that you consider friend is totally okay with cheating but isn’t okay with non-monogamy. It’s weird but it happens. So that’s the first thing.

Second thing I want to say is that… I think that there are quite a lot of people in situations with a domestic partner or an anchor partner where one person inevitably has more partners than the other. That’s not always true but I do think that it’s a quite common thing. And it’s certainly common for me. So I’m kind of in almost Lewis’ position, but a little bit different. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I can’t see anyone being interested in me but I know that I am not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s not necessarily a dash at myself. I just know that I am an introvert so I don’t really like doing a lot of the things that people my age might like doing. I know I can be quite picky and I also you know… I can be quite difficult sometimes I think to get to know me and that’s just who I am. It’s just part of me.

If my partners had to wait… I think people feel like that all the time. You know, they gotta wait until their partners has had an equal about of dates because they’re worried that the attention might upset their partner. And it might do. You know that is a very real thing. I think it’s usually the case where you know… Usually you have a lot of situations where men open up the relationship and then the woman that they’re with get tons and tons of dates and tons and tons of attention and they immediately want to close the relationship because they get nothing.

It happens, but I do think that like sometimes that’s just an inherent part of things. Like, you are a person who… maybe you are just a person who is a little bit easier to get to know. Maybe you feel more comfortable in social situations. Like you said, he’s a little more socially anxious and I just don’t think that you know… It’s not to say people can’t get over social anxiety but that just might be part of just how you relate to other people and you don’t want to put Lewis in a position where he has to be someone that he’s not.

He might just meet you know… I haven’t been able to find like a steady second partner really. I’ve gone on dates. I’ve had some things with some people. But it just takes me awhile. You know, that’s just how it is. And I might not ever meet another person that I can have as a long-term partner but that’s just how it is sometimes. And I used to get really anxious about it. And I still like… you know, it is a very big discrepancy between you know… My partner is more interested in… my anchor partner is more interested in casual things. I’m not really that interested in that.

So there’s always going to be a discrepancy between us and if we were gonna tally things up and keep score in that manner, there’s always going to be that discrepancy and I think sometimes it’s an issue that you have to talk about but I don’t think that you should respond to that by holding back.

Because I think that you know, you’re taking a lot of responsibility in this situation for Lewis’s actions and I see this a lot with people with people who are may identify as women or are read as women. I do feel like in a lot of different cases the responsibility that… you know because society is kind of encouraged them to take on everyone else’s emotional labour, they do feel a responsibility to kind of help their partner do stuff.

And it’s very tricky because obviously you love your partner and you want… The way that you phrase it is just really perfect. You’re sort of like, “I don’t think that he’s never gonna find anyone”. And, you know, you want to help them out. You wanna be their like wing man so to speak. But you just can’t. You can’t take responsibility for that. You have to let Lewis make his decisions and let the chips fall where they may. If Lewis has agreed to this situation and you know it is…  Practising it is not the same as, you know, it happening. Theoretical is not the same as actual, but you never gonna find that out if you don’t do it.

And you can’t… you know which is kind of like my second point, you need to like abandon the notion that you can prevent some unhappy reaction from happening. This is kind of like one of the biggest things I struggle with with my anchor partner is that they are always trying to make an attempt to safeguard my emotions to the point where they’re trying to, you know… The next steps on that can sometimes lead to you behaving in ways that you know you think “I’m going to do this in a way that you know will protect my partner”. And it’s one thing to be considerate of people’s emotions and I do think that you should be considerate. I don’t think that you should be like, “Well screw him. I’m gonna do what I want”.

But you can’t prevent… you need to realise what you can’t prevent. If you go out and start dating people and he has a bad reaction to that, you cannot prevent that. It might be, you know, he’s agreed to it but you have to kind of accept the reality that he may find out through practice that it’s not for him and that he can’t go down this way. And I think that you’re trying to prevent that because you love him and you love this relationship. You have this great relationship together and you don’t want there to be an irreconcilable difference between the two of you that could drive you apart but you kinda have to accept that that is a risk. That is a risk— But that is a risk regardless of what you do. You can put non-monogamy on the shelf and you can say, “Alright. I don’t want to risk losing Lewis over this”. And then years and years down the line and he randomly decides to go scuba diving and he figures out this scuba diving is the shit and he loves it. And he wants to spend his life scuba diving and he wants to move you to a beach and you fucking hate the beach and there’s no way you’re going to move to a beach. And then that’s the irreconcilable difference that you have.

There’s no way to prevent a difference that drives you apart. There’s no way to prevent that so don’t abandon or try and delay it… don’t delay the inevitable. If it’s going to happen… If it’s going to drive you apart, it’s going to drive you apart. Whether it happens because you tried it, he has a bad reaction to it, and he figures out through that it’s not for him or you decide not to do it and then you kind of continue to feel resentful and it drives you nuts like… If this is something that you, as you said, you cannot ignore or bury then you kind of have to let the chips fall where they may. And you can’t… you need to abandon the notion that you can control his emotions by delaying the inevitable or protecting him from this. He has to kind of deal with it.

Now that said, you know, like I said, you won’t know until you try. You got to jump in the water. You know, there’s just not any avoiding this. I don’t really think there’s an easy way to get into non-monogamy. I think that you just have to try it and see. That said I do think like you know… you can be considerate of him. There is something that you mention, you know, “I’m unsure of how to ask for time alone with someone.” Asking for permission is like the biggest thing that I would say don’t do. There’s being considerate… There’s kind of like a spectrum. On the one end there’s asking your partner for permission. In the middle is kind of like saying “This is a decision I’m going to do” and being respectful of each other schedules and trying to be compromising in a way that shows your partner that you value their emotions but that you are still making the decision. And then there is kind of like the complete opposite end of the spectrum where you just say “I’m doing this. Fuck you. Bye.”

I think that if you approach Lewis in terms of saying “Is it ok if I go on a date on Tuesday?”, Louis is not going to want to to say no to you, even if Lewis is unhappy or uncomfortable. He’s going to want to say yes because and that’s kind of like the general fear. I think that’s why you’re kind of avoiding it, because you know he’s agreed to all of this non-monogamy thing. He seems on board with it. How do you know if he’s just on board with it because he wants to save the relationship with you or he’s really on bored with it? And I think that you know like I said you won’t know until that happens but also asking for permission I don’t think helps because it’s going to make it awkward for you.

So you say, “Can I go on a date on Tuesday?” you know, or “Is it ok with you if I go on a date on Tuesday?”, And he says “Yes”. And then you go on the date on Tuesday and then in the middle of your date you get a call from him and he’s like “I’m having bad anxiety”. It can feel really annoying for you understandably, even though you care about your partner, because he did say it was ok and now it’s not ok. Emotions happen and I think that you need to… you both need to kind of expect the worst in some situations.

Even you. When Louis has his first date, you might freak out. It’s perfectly natural especially with coming from the background that you had where you were literally told that having feelings for someone else me you don’t give a shit about your partner or you’re not really attracted to them. Like you have to unpick and unpack that and part of that comes from, you know… part of anxiety and part of fear is just living through it and coming out of the other side and knowing that you survived it. You can’t really avoid having that fear.

So the first dates you have, he might be a nervous fucking wreck. That just may be how he is and you just have to let that happen and he has to learn how to manage that. You can give him reassurance like… Like I said, the opposite of the spectrum is “I’m going on a date on Tuesday. I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing”. The middle bit is going like… looking at his calendar or looking at the shared calendar you have together and going, “I would like to go on a Tuesday. Is there anything in your schedule that might conflict with this? No? Okay, brilliant”. Think about it and then you can be considerate about it.

A lot of people find that the first time that a partner does go on a date with someone else, it is… you know I find, even as someone who has been in previous non-monogamous relationships, when I established a relationship with my domestic partner, the first couple of times if they went out all night or went to a party or did something, I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t get any sleep. Because initially like… the thing that I’m freaking out is that like “I’m not fun enough” and this might be something that Lewis deals with. If you’re the partner who doesn’t you know… you’re a little introvert dating extrovert, you’re not a party person, your partner is. I think it’s understandable to have that feeling of like “What if they meet another party person and they’re tired of my boring staying at home-ness and they want to just get rid of me cause I’m dragging them down or whenever.” Those are legitimate fears to have.

And it’s going to be very legitimate for you and Lewis to fear losing one another and I think you need to accept and anticipate that anxiety. And you need to allow him to find the tools to deal with that just like you need to allow him to find the tools to deal with the vulnerability, to deal with the way he looks at himself. You cannot be his therapist. If he needs a therapist and you can afford it and it’s accessible to you, he needs to find one and he needs to make that choice himself. You can’t make that decision for him and you also like… it sounds really callous in a way but like if he can’t be bothered to unpack that and if he doesn’t want to… if he feels too scared to put himself out there, you know, then that’s his deal.

You can’t you know… It’s one thing to care and you can make suggestions. You can be encouraging you know. The thing that I always to partner that think “Oh I don’t think that I’m you know…”. I say “Well I chose you and I’m picky as fuck” so… There’s encouragement and encouragement can happen. You don’t have to be totally cold and go, “Well it’s your deal. suck it up”. But you can’t put the responsibility on your shoulders and I do feel like you’re doing that a bit here. You’re sort of like… If you limit your own activities because you’re scared that he doesn’t have his own thing you know, you can’t let that be the deciding factor for you.

If he’s chosen non-monogamy, he’s chosen it. He’s aware of what you’re going to do. He’s agreed to it and you can be considerate and you can be kind but at the end of the day, you can’t… All of that stuff will not prevent it if it’s just not for him and all that stuff won’t prevent him from being afraid the first couple times to go on dates and stuff. That’s just going to happen like… Accept that it’s going to happen and try and find strategies to deal with it and cope with it rather than thinking you can prevent it.

I think it might be helpful because you say like you know “I’m not sure how to navigate the situation. I don’t know how to ask for time or set or talk about boundaries”. I think… A couple of things that I think that I tend to advise people when they’re starting out is think about the ideal situation, your ideal situation. How do you figure other partners fitting into your life with Lewis? What kind of situation do you want? You say that Lewis is your kind of like basically your domestic partner or your primary (and I’m gonna say more about that in a minute) but what does that mean? Does that mean that you know you spend most of your time with him? Does that mean that you know you are emotionally kind of more… respon—  not responsible but like that you give emotional support a little bit more to him? Where do you navigate your own kind of what you envision in your own head as being the ideal situation for you ?

And you might not know that but it’s worth kind of thinking about it and I just think start small and work your way up. Set out some some nights aside that can be date nights. Thinking about physical tangibilities, I find makes the situation little bit more easier because you can’t really measure emotions and feelings and I really always generally advise people to get away from promises like “I’ll only really love you” and stuff like that.

Because you can’t control that as you well know. You clearly can’t pick and choose the level of your emotional attraction or any kind of attraction to somebody but you can decide like “Okay this night is going to be date night” and I set outside these hours. I’m going to have some basic things… And another big thing is you know sometimes you don’t know that you have a boundary until it’s been crossed and I think that’s the kind of thing that you need to be aware of with one another.

He might not know that he has a problem with you doing something until you’ve already done it. And that’s kind of something to be aware of and think about, okay, how is he gonna tell you if he has a problem with something? And that’s going to be really tricky and it’s ok that It’s tricky. So you know you might stumble a lot but I think you’ve established really good communication with one another before this. And you’ve already established a lot of trust with one another. You’ve already kind of built your house in a really solid foundation. I think that’s going to help you and because if you can trust one another and you know when to communicate things I will help you a lot more any situations.

I think just keeping that line of communication open this really really important like… Don’t ask for permission but do check in and do say “I’m going on a date on Tuesday. How do you feel about this? Do you need any  reassurance?” People make the joke that polyamorous people like to communicate way too much. I think that’s just because it’s helpful sometimes in these situations to just keep that line open.

And last but not least, you know if you are going to have a hierarchical situation or any kind of you know… I’m not sure what it means for someone to be “a priority” or “the priority” in your life and I think you need to really think about what that means. And I think that you need to effectively communicate that to other people that you date so that they don’t end up getting the wrong impression and that they can decide if that’s something for them. And you can let them know like, “Look, we’re just opening up. This is our first situation. My partner is a little anxious. This is how I’m doing this situation”. Decide kind of boundaries. Like if Lewis calls you on a date, are you going to answer? Are you going to answer right away or are you gonna wait until you have a moment to excuse yourself from whatever you’re doing?

Think about things like that and just make that other person aware that this is where you’re at. And some people, for that, they might be like “Mm, I don’t want to deal with that” and that’s you know— that’s fine. You know, that’s their choice. But I think it always helps I think where— I don’t think hierarchy is inevitably a problem or inevitably has to be bad because I do think that sometimes like… people don’t have the resources always to—  or their  resources are focused on one area or you know it’s sort of like… if you know… If a bad situation happens like… if someone dies or something, automatically your kind of priorities shift and I think sometimes for some people… and I know especially for my situation like… I need really clear boundaries and hierarchy helps me navigate those boundaries and roles and expectations. But I try to be clear about what that means that the people because I’ve been in that situation where I thought I meant more and I thought I had more say because that person didn’t really communicate to me what I was to them.

And that’s where I think people who are “secondaries”— I don’t necessarily like the term but it does convey the idea easily— I think that that’s were people like that in that situation feel unfairly treated because nobody is going to agree to a situation where you know you are dating them and they put emotional investment in you and then they always have a risk of sort of being, as I say, jettisoned liked a defective warp core if the mother ship is in trouble. If you’re not like a geek, that basically means basically tossed out the second there’s trouble in your relationship. And there might be some temptation to do that.

It might be in that exploring this you know… a lot of people open up and then they close. And I… Generally I think that closing a relationship if there are problems, the problems will be right there when you open it back up again. Closing it doesn’t really fix anything. It just delays the inevitable. And if the problems are there when a relationship is open then closing it might solve it but only because it’s closed and then when you open it back up the problems are right there again like I said.

That’s why I said it’s also good for you to think about what your ideal is, what you plan on, and how other partners play in your life and what that means for you. And you might not know all the answers but I think it’s important for you to explain that to someone coming in your life so their expectations are managed and they don’t feel hard done by because they thought that they had more sway when they don’t really or they thought that they meant something he that they didn’t.

Like I said, I’ll kind of recap. First thing— it’s a bit of a red flag if your friend’s showing interest in you but doesn’t know that you’re non-monogamous. Like I said, it might not be a thing. Maybe they’re non-monogamous. Who knows? But just kind of be aware of that and be aware of the tendency of people to be more okay with cheating than they are with non-monogamy.

Really caution about dating friends, shared friends between meet you and Lewis. I mean it can work. You know that’s something maybe you and Lewis should talk about like what happens? If you can get a polyamory friendly couples therapist… and don’t be dissuaded by location like… I know a lot of people need to see a therapist in person and I respect that but there is also Skype therapy. So if you don’t have a polyamory friendly therapist in your area, you could find one who does Skype sessions, couple sessions which I think could help you guys work things out.

There might be an imbalance between the two of you simply because of the way you’re hardwired and I don’t think that you should prevent yourself from doing things until there’s kind of like equal partners on both sides because, like I said, in my situation, if my partner had to wait until I was interested in as many people as they’re interested in, they’d be waiting for a very very long time and there’s just no point in that.

You need to abandon the notion that you can control your partner’s emotions by your actions. Unfortunately if Lewis can’t do non monogamy, you’re not going to know until you try. You’re not really going to know for sure. So you just gonna have to take that leap. Jump in the water and see where it takes you.

Avoid setting up situations where Lewis has to give you permission to do things or you have to give him permission because I don’t think that generally works. Check in with feelings. Make sure your communication is constant because people can ok something and feel ok with something one day and feel very different the next and that’s just how people are. So check in rather than asking for permission.

Start small and work your way up. Think about maybe one date night a week maybe that, you know… things like that can really help you kind of figure out how… where you want to go and what your ideal is or whatever situation like you think you want in the future and how other partners play a part in your wife. And that might also help, you know, help you negotiate boundaries and what you want with Lewis if you know what it is that you want. And you might not immediately know but have some kind of picture. You can start, you know, start small and in your work your way up if it’s up is where you want to go.

And then last but not least, as I said, always make sure that the people that you date are aware of the situation and are aware of what your expectation is and they can make a decision about whether or not that’s something that they want to do or not do. Some people are so quite against hierarchy that they probably wouldn’t date someone who has any kind of hierarchy and that’s fine. That’s their decision but communicating that as early as possible I think it is really helpful for people so they don’t kind of end up projecting their own expectations of what they think that the relationship with you means that may not match up to what it actually does mean.

So yeah that’s basically what I have to say with regards to this I really hope that helps and good luck.

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.

Rushing into 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’ve been dating a guy for a few months now, he’s non monogamous and that has been clear from the beginning, though he doesn’t have other partners at the moment.

I have myself been interested in non monogamy since I was a teenager and read and talked about it a lot over the past four years, but a very bad, borderline abusive, “non monogamous” experience with my ex left me with deep trust issues and a sort of light PTSD (I’ve been seeing a therapist for the last year). I was also clear about this from the beginning.

I’m wondering how to deal with these issues and anxiety all the while being in a non monogamous relationship with someone I really like and value:

He went on a date not long ago and my trauma kicked in. For me, this translates mostly in a deep, freezing fear of being told one thing and done another as well as fear of a new love interest wiping me off the map.

I don’t rationally think this would be his style.

But I was also a bit caught by surprise when he announced his date because I thought (he told me, I think) he wasn’t looking for another partner at the time being (trigger here for “being told one thing and done another”).

My anxiety was so strong it made me wonder if this is the right time for me (I still feel pretty shaken from my last experience) but I definitely don’t want to ask him to be someone he’s not. I’m also afraid (though this is not at all the same kind of fear I previously named) that if he starts dating right now, a new partner would interrupt the NRE we’re still having and that I enjoy (even if it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming). I know there’s no “right way” to do this but I also think a common mistake (that I made myself) is to rush things. A lot of people in non monogamous relationships that work for more than a few months seem to have progressively “added” people to their lives and not rushed into a couple relationships in a short period.

So I’d want to take things slowly, but don’t know if this would be a fair thing to ask.

I value my relationship with him a lot, I see a lot of potential for us (whatever form this takes in the future) and don’t want to jeopardize that, and I would like to try a non monogamous, healthy relationship… I just want to make sure it doesn’t become toxic for me (I can only deal with so much anxiety).

I’ve talked to him about this and he’s being reassuring, but I’m wondering what to do about it myself.

There are a couple of things here that are jumping out at me that I’ll address:

  • Rushing into relationships
  • Fear of being replaced
  • Being “ready” for non-monogamy

Rushing into relationships

You mention how one of the things you want to do is to ask your partner if things can go slower, but, and I’ll be quite blunt here and hope you won’t take it the wrong way, I think you and your anxiety are what’s rushing things. He only has another date and another interest in someone else — not another partner. But you’re already battening down the hatches and preparing for your NRE to be ruined over what might be just a one off date that may not even go anywhere.

I think that ‘taking things slowly’ is a really nebulous ask, because what is ‘slow’ for one person is ‘fast’ for another and visa versa. And ultimately, what you’re trying to do is regain control over something that you have no control over. Neither of you can control how fast or hard you fall for another person. The only things you can control are the time commitments you make with one another, and that’s really what you should be focusing on.

You’ve only just been dating for a few months and you’re new to non-monogamy and on top of it, you mentioned not having the best experiences with it and all of that is going to mean that you’re just building your foundation with this person. It might be worth thinking about what you mean by your potential with this person. What form would you like your relationship to take? Do you both share that ideal? Are you both interested in the same type of lifestyle? No amount of slow moving will change a thing if you have fundamentally different ideas on what you want your relationship to look like.

Those are the types of things that are going to help combat your anxiety, rather than trying to put restrictions on how fast other relationships your partner has progress. Because if you decide, for example, that you both have two set date nights per week, then maybe you can start with one for a few weeks and then progress to two, if you need some type of progression. But try to make it less about how feelings develop with other people, which neither of you can control, and more about the time commitment.

If your partner manages your relationship correctly and if you both communicate, what goes on in other relationships he has really shouldn’t have any bearing or impact on you. Obviously as both he and you date other people, you will spend less time with one another, but if you figure out what that might look like and discuss the physical realities of that, it’ll be less scary of a change when it does happen. And that leads me to the next topic.

Fear of being replaced

Most people have this fear and it’s very understandable, but the truth of the matter is that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Your brain is hyper focusing on things like worrying that your partner has drastically changed just because he said he wasn’t really looking for a partner but wants to go on a date now which… isn’t really someone telling you one thing and doing another. He may not be looking for a partner actively, but that doesn’t mean he can’t meet someone in happenstance and schedule a date. But when you focus on little things like this, it’s your brain trying to convince you that you can control the ultimate outcome — being replaced — by controlling little things like this.

And while it may be more helpful for your partner to be aware of his words and how literally you will take them, it’s also more helpful for you in the long run if you face and recognise your fear head on. You cannot control whether or not a new love interest takes your place. Even returning to monogamy is not going to mean this isn’t going to happen either. Likewise, nothing you can do is going to stop your NRE with him, at some point, coming to an end. And at this point, you’re so entrenched in these fears, you’re spending less time enjoying yourself and more time worrying and trying to prevent things that you absolutely have no power to prevent.

Part of managing anxiety is experiencing it and seeing yourself come out of the other side and knowing you survived it. You’re going to have to go through some anxiety and fear in order to overcome it. I’m afraid there really isn’t any way to prevent than anxiety from happening. And even ‘going slowly’ is only going to continue to allow you to believe you have some control over the anxiety, which generally, in my experience, just makes the anxiety much worse. So, with that in mind, it leads me to the final topic.

Being “ready” for non-monogamy

If you have trouble with anxiety and PTSD, you might think it’s a good time to allow things to progress when you feel centred and settled and, while I would agree that maybe pursuing something stressful like opening your relationship right after or during an equally or more stressful life event isn’t ideal, I don’t ever think there is a perfect time for one to be “ready” mentally for non-monogamy.

I think putting things like dates and exploring other partners on hold for short periods of time only delays the inevitable, rather than giving someone space to ‘prepare’, because you just can’t prepare yourself for the oncoming anxiety. It’s much better of an approach to just accept that this is going to be something that gives you anxiety and try and learn coping strategies for dealing with it. Over time it lessens.

That said, I do think working on building a better understanding of what your partnership means to each other with your partner will give you more solid anchors that will help reassure you when you are coping with anxiety. I also think, if you have the resources, a polyamory friendly therapist could help be a sounding board to discuss your worries and fears, help deal with anxiety in general, and help you work through some of your issues from the past.

Definitely anticipate that the first couple of nights he spends with someone else will probably cause you a lot of anxiety and plan for that. And most of all, don’t kick yourself for this. It’s perfectly natural and normal to be afraid in this situation, especially with the experiences you’ve had. It doesn’t make you less polyamorous or less capable of being in a non-monogamous relationship.

In summary

Overall, I think you need to not rush in your own mind first when your partner is interested in someone else or has another date, because you never know what’s going to become of that. I think it would be beneficial for you to speak to your partner about what type of relationship you might eventually want so you feel more grounded, but ultimately delaying any action on his part in terms of relationships he can pursue just isn’t going to actually stop what you’re afraid will happen.

Seek a polyamory friendly therapist if you can to help you manage your anxiety and PTSD overall, but don’t beat yourself up for feeling anxious. Expect to feel anxious and try focusing less on preventing it and more on learning to cope with it and knowing you can and will come out of it alive. Try and accept what is causing you the most fear: that there is nothing you can do in this or any relationship to prevent being replaced by someone else. All you can do is focus on strengthening the relationship you have.

And, as trite as this might sound, try to remember that if someone does just think you’re replaceable, they probably aren’t a very good person to be with in general anyway. The therapist I work with wanted to add: “Because of the PTSD, I might encourage them to pursue things that help soothe them and increase their connection with themselves as part of managing their anxiety.”

I hope this helps and good luck!

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.

To read new columns, subscribe to the newsletter or follow us on Twitter.

If you would like to support me and get these columns early, please become a Patron or make a PayPal donation. Patrons get access to podcasts and columns 5 days before they are posted.