Balancing imbalances in polyamory

I am married and have been in a long term relationship with my nesting partner for a little less than a year (we dated for about 4 years off and on prior to that). We live together and are building a future together with house, kids, and all that. Recently, we got out of a very catastrophic situation with her ex-partner (with whom I lived with for a year and had a platonic, but very connected relationship), who engaged in some really toxic behavior including manipulation, gaslighting, and being really controlling of my nesting partner’s relationships and behavior.
The tone of our family dynamic was very much distrust and suspicion and taking out feelings on other people (rather than talking about them and being frank and honest about it). I witnessed a lot of really possessive and controlling behavior that was really unhealthy and went on for almost the entire past year of living together. It became kind of a culture or vacuum of unhealthy behavior because I would also engage in some of these behaviors that I had not engaged in previous relationships. There was a culture of BIG FEELINGS and allowing those feelings to take up a lot of space, all of the space sometimes.
My nesting partner and I have been slowly recovering from it all and she is doing some new dating with other people, a cishet man and a queer woman who are dating each other. She is dating them together and separately. I have a partner whom I have been dating for the last two-ish years. I came to non-monogamy in my late 20s when I dated someone who set out our relationship to be open. After we broke up I dated someone monogamously, but found the relationship dynamics were way too unhealthy for me and ended the relationship. My current partner is the longest I have dated anyone in my adult life and the first time I have been married.
I am having a lot of obsessive thoughts and hard feelings about my partner’s dating and sex stuff. I find myself split between rational thought (you see her more than anyone else does week to week, she restricts her dates to your non-date nights, she dates really infrequently, etc.) and having a lot of irrational thoughts and feelings. These are thoughts and feelings along the suspicion and big feelings spectrum that we have both suffered under in her ex’s toxic behavior.
I am scared that I am turning into another person that will attempt to control and manipulate her. I’m doing all that I can to keep it under control by doing meditation, going for walks, meeting up with friends, doing some of my own dating, etc., but I am so distracted and distraught by her dating/sex stuff that I just feel hostile and resentful. I want to snap at her when she makes sexual innuendos in my direction because it seems like our sex life has undergone some big changes since we started cohabitating.
My irrational brain is fixated on her having sex with her dating partners 100% of the time and with me about once a week. I feel like if I didn’t stay vigilant about it, that it could very easily fade away in importance. I’m caught between wanting to just give in and be flexible and let things be how they are (let the relationship become whatever it needs to be) and fighting for her attention and constantly working on our relationship. Nothing is in danger and she does go out of her way to remind me that I am loved and adored all the time. I just feel so afraid of things changing the way things changed in our previous family dynamic.
I also feel resentful of some of the culture of suspicion and big feelings that made dating on my end very scary and ended in me turning down dating I wanted to do or not pursuing anything because I was afraid of how it might impact my partner. We’ve addressed all of this and she has released her grip entirely, but I just feel resentful and exhausted by the previous family dynamic. I also feel like I am carrying it forward with my obsessing and ruminating on how she is going to trick me or fuck me over (that again, wasn’t there before this family dynamic).
There is an additional layer of myself being trans and she is a cisgender queer woman. I am having a hard time being preoccupied with the sexual dynamics in their relationship and feeling like that is “real” and “more legitimate” sex than what we have. Irrational thoughts and fears for sure and I know I offer something different and something more substantial and long term, but I fear I am going to be taken for granted as the partner who will always be there. There is also a layer of cishet privilege that is hard to swallow and sexual/erotic capital.
As a queer, trans/non-binary person my dating prospects are significantly less and my sexual/erotic capital is harder to parse. I fall prey to wanting to play oppression olympics with her a lot and I know that doesn’t go anywhere, but I am having a hard time coping with partner having sex with a cishet dude and how much more significant that is than what I have to offer. But I also know if it was another queer I would feel jealous/envious/insecure too. I find myself deeply curious about what they do together and what she does with her other dating partners.
How do you recover from toxic family non-monogamy dynamics? How do you cope with your partner dating cishet men while in a queer relationship? How do you navigate social/sexual/erotic capital imbalances in relationships (specifically queer relationships where cisgender queer femmes dating cishet men)?

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

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

Giving yourself permission to be afraid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not open the box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being trans and polyamorous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living with your partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working towards a solution

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

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

I hope this helps and good luck!

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