Avoiding pain and disclosure

Dating two people who have a history together is going to trigger some anxiety within you. Maybe you’re not jealous — you’re just normal.

[A year ago], I was in an open relationship with my ex, had just met someone new, and was confused while navigating difficult feelings. Your observations about the lack of trust in my relationship were very spot on and changed the way I saw things.

I decided to break up with my partner not long after I received your response. We still tried de-escalating the relationship after some time of no contact, but none of us can forgive and work on things now, so we decided to go our separate ways. I feel good about the decision and I've been processing a lot of feelings since then, not only in regards to non-monogamy but also on the issue we had in the relationship I am concluding that my relationship was abusive and toxic in many ways.

In the meantime, I am starting a new relationship with the new person that I met when I was with my ex. They are extremely nice, caring, patient and respectful, we've been having a really good time getting to know each other in the last few months. As we live about 2 hours away from each other, we only met a few times, but I feel we have a really good connection we are building. I am trying to take things as slowly as possible with them, as I am still healing and don't want to rush into being in a serious committed relationship.

I did bring up the question about non-monogamy to them, and they responded that they never had any experience with it but they think that as long as there is good communication, they would be open to trying it.

I am definitely falling for them, but I still find myself being attracted to other people and interested in exploring other connections as well, which to me seems like a good indicator that non-monogamy is something I want to continue to explore. I am unsure about which style of non-monogamy I am most interested in, and I want to take my time to decide.

Last month I met another person to whom I am attracted. I met him at a party, I asked him on a date and since then we went out twice. I feel this is something that could be a casual relationship or something like friends with benefits, or even more, I don't really know, as we haven't discussed anything.

My question is how to approach this kind of conversation. I am not thinking exclusively about this person I've just met but in general. I feel that with the first person, I started dating a few months ago, I already feel comfortable talking about it, but not with someone I just met, don't know much about, and don't know how they'll react.

Some things are difficult for me to deal with:

- As I am unsure of what I want, I am exploring new relationship styles. It may be that I will want a monogamous relationship in the future, it may be that I will want to stay single and date multiple people and only have casual things, and it may be that I will want to try polyamory. I really don't know! So, telling someone I barely know that I am interested in ENM and asking them how they feel about it is very frightening. I think I feel this way because a couple of months ago I opened up about ENM to a few friends that I tough I could trust, and I was surprised and hurt by the way they reacted. I felt judged and misunderstood. It was not long after my break up, and I felt as if they thought it was my fault that I was hurting and as if I caused myself pain for even trying non-monogamy. I know they are monogamous people, but I thought because they were my friends they would be able to separate their feelings and not project them onto me, but it wasn't what happened. So after this, I am being more careful about whom I talk about this, to protect myself until I feel more confident about what I want.

- At the same time, I know it can be unfair to people I am dating to clarify beforehand that I am interested in ENM. I've been following a few discussion forums where people are very prescriptive about being upfront with potential partners about ENM, as the norm is that people will expect things to progress to monogamous relationships. Whilst I get where people are coming from about the importance of being honest, I don't feel comfortable discussing this with people I just met. I am using dating apps and I included ENM in my profile, so whoever I match with, knows this, but I don't know how to go about it when meeting people in other contexts. and by the way, I don't really like dating apps, I would much rather just meet people through friends, as I usually feel comfortable being social and approaching people like that.

- It seems weird to me to bring this up very early, as for instance in the case of this person I have just met, he also did not mention anything about the relationship style he is searching for, so everything seems too casual for me to bring up non-monogamy. As far as I know, he might just want to have a casual sexual relationship, which I am fine with, but then why should I be the one to disclose this just because I am interested in something that is not the norm? Maybe I am just overthinking this, but this is making me anxious lately.

I would love to know your thoughts on this.

Firstly, I’m sorry to hear you experienced that from your friends. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t seem to understand that you were looking for support. I might suggest that your friends pointing out that polyamory might be the problem may not actually come from projection, but from a sincere desire to provide you with advice that they are hoping will prevent you from pain. Unfortunately, people often launch into a situation with a hurt friend or even a lover by giving them advice even when that may not be what is desired. I wouldn’t take it personally and I would instead make it clearer to them in the future that you’re seeking emotional support and not advice. If they are good friends, they should be able to respect that.

Secondly, there is a larger issue both behind the advice your friends gave you and behind what you’re doing to protect yourself which is avoiding pain. This is a pretty understandable thing to want to do but this is something that I think often ends up making things a lot worse. In some ways, your friends are correct in that trying non-monogamy opens you up to pain. It does. Having more relationships means you have more opportunities for heartbreak. That’s simple mathematics in some ways. And what you’re attempting to do by avoiding discussing non-monogamy with new dates is protecting yourself from the heartbreak of judgement from others. But, should you be trying to avoid heartbreak at all costs?

Many people fall into the trap of believing they have the ability to control everything around them. In a way, it’s a very comforting thing to believe. And in some ways, you can control some things. If you never get into a car, you’ll never experience a car accident. If you never date anyone, you’ll never have your heart broken (romantically anyway). However, in some instances with life we understand that the risk of being hurt is worth the benefits that experiences bring to our lives.

You will not be able to control whether or not any person you’re interested in is interested in non-monogamy. And even if they are interested in it, you will not be able to control whether or not it works for them or if they want it. Just like you cannot control whether or not someone will want to live in the city or the country. Or if they want children or not. There are many levels of compatibility that are just as important as non-monogamy which you cannot control about a person. If you decide to hide non-monogamy from them, that isn’t going to make it more likely they will be interested in it later. You may end up attracting them enough that they are willing to try it — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more likely to work.

I don’t consider it dishonest to not immediately tell someone you’re interested in non-monogamy but equally I can understand why people prefer to tell people right away. Just like a lot of people interested in having children will put that on their dating profiles, even if it’s too “soon” to talk about things like that. It’s a waste of time sometimes and a lot more pain to avoid discussing things like this. In my opinion, it’s one thing to not get around to talking about stuff like this but it’s another to avoid doing so because you’re worried about losing the other person. Because where does that desire to hold back end?

In general, I think it’s better to work towards a point — whether you’re monogamous or polyamorous — where you don’t make choices designed to prevent yourself from negative emotions or pain at all costs. Being avoidant of pain makes sense, but oftentimes I find trying to avoid pain generally ends up creating more problems than it solves. Trying to avoid negative emotions and pain, while it makes logical sense, what it often ends up doing is reinforcing a lack of trust in yourself. This is essentially the crux of anxiety — at least in my experience. The fear isn’t actually about the pain, but in our lack of faith in ourselves to take care of ourselves while we’re dealing with pain.

Negative emotions, rejection and judgment are inevitable parts of life. You’re not going to be able to put that off forever or completely protect yourself from it. Instead of trying to protect yourself from negative emotions, I would work on reinforcing the faith you have in yourself to take care of yourself. You have been and are capable of taking care of yourself throughout any experience of pain or discomfort. If you have faith that you can take care of yourself, then negative experiences won’t be so scary to experience or potentially have to face. And I believe you also won’t take it so personally when people decide to judge you for being non-monogamous.

It’s okay if you don’t know what you want. A lot of monogamous people operate in a non-monogamous way when they are “dating” and most monogamous people, in my experience, would expect some type of clear conversation before making things “official” and therefore “exclusive”. I do believe that putting “ENM” on your profile helps weed away people who would not be interested but I also think that it’s important to make it clear to people that you’re interested in casual things at the moment. I think that would make it clear to people without having to broach the subject of non-monogamy. If people do ask you about it, it’s okay to be honest about where you are — which is that you’re not quite sure.

To sum up, overall I think that re-approaching this by re-assuring yourself and focusing less on avoiding pain might help you with some of these anxious feelings you’re having. Both my 101 and 102 articles as well as my book explore some of the anxiousness that people feel with polyamory. Secondly, there are a few ways you can manage disclosure, but I wouldn’t worry too much about not knowing exactly what you want right away. Instead of managing disclosure based off of avoiding negative emotions, maybe focus on what would be the best use of your time and effort. Overall, understanding that you won’t necessarily be able to avoid pain will help you make decisions that are guided more around what you actually want rather than what you don’t want.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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