Episode 11: Long Distance Lament

How do you negotiate more time in a long distance relationship against new relationship energy? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

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

Podcast transcript


So bit of background, I'm a demisexual, married to a pansexual. We've been somewhat talking about trying poly[am] for years, with a few forays into it where we've both had other relationships that were short-term -- me with a mutual friend I was close to, and my partner finding casual relationships through dating apps and such. Recently it's felt like it's moved very quickly. In part because we're currently long-distance -- I'm half a continent away finishing up grad school, while they're living on their own looking for work.

A big part of the change is that this is the first time my partner has developed genuine feelings for someone else. It's not something I want to stifle, and I truly want them to be happy, but I feel... Left behind. Abandoned. They're caught up in that "new relationship energy" and putting all of their focus on the new person. Normally, it'd be okay, it wouldn't be a huge deal, and I would be happy for them. But normally we also are communicating a lot face-to-face. Normally after the early dates they'd come home to me and we'd be able to talk about it. Normally I may even get some opportunity to casually get to know the person early on. But not while long distance. But they met this person a few months ago after I'd already been gone for a month, and I'm lucky if I get a few texts and a 5 minute phone call from my partner in a regular day.

I definitely feel like I'm not being heard. I know everyone has bias, and everyone has something that they want out of relationships. My partner and I both have biases, as does the third person. But it feels like my side isn't as prevalent because I don't get the same say. Because I'm a ways away. Already this month their boyfriend spent 3 nights in a row at our apartment (out of only 4 since I returned to school), and had more than 72 hours straight that the two of them were hanging out almost constantly. During the same period of time we had a handful of texts a day, a couple of short phone calls, and that's it. And when I was at our apartment in person over the break, they were spending as much time with the other person as with me, even though we had been apart for so much and were about to spend 2 more months apart.

And we make plans sometimes, ranging from a quick 5-minute phone call to spending a whole day together, that are pushed aside by my partner. Like... If I'm told you're spending the whole day with me to go on adventures and have a date-day & date-night, I'd expect that you're back from your boyfriends before 4. But instead they sent me a text at about 2 asking basically what the latest was that they could show up and still make the two definite parts of our plan -- dinner early enough to make it to one of those painting classes. It made me feel so undervalued.

In terms of boundaries, they've been... pushed... more than I'm happy with. We've been fairly open with where boundaries are at. As long as what is happening is communicated. Sex for instance: if we think we've found someone we're interested in sleeping with and it may happen, we communicate it's possible. If it happens more unexpectedly, we communicate as soon as reasonable that it did. My partner never voiced anything about sex until weeks after they'd started hooking up regularly. Because they thought the conversation would be "uncomfortable". Which it was, because they waited so long to finally say anything. Plus, they also broke our only real solid boundary by not using protection for most of those hook-ups.

I know part of our issues is that we have a very different perspective on sex. That I have a very high, yet demisexual, sex drive -- I would like to share that bond as much as possible. On the other hand, they would perhaps rather find new people to sleep with. And so in that sense I feel... replaced... I can't have as physically intimate a relationship with them from a long distance, and sex has always strengthened our bond, always been such a powerful experience for both of us. And without that.. I feel lonely a lot. Feel more isolated. And act more emotionally needy, which I know pushes them away.

I don't really know what to do -- because of the distance we can't start couples counseling for a few months. And I feel like when I try to communicate my wants and needs I get push-back. Or I'm not given the time to really communicate. And whenever I do get my wants and needs expressed, such as needing more communication, wanting to know if someone I don't really know is sleeping in our apartment, etc., I get treated like I'm interfering in their life.

I keep reading and re-reading that, and I'm not sure how much sense it makes. It feels broken and I feel like I'm all over the place. But thank you so much.


There are a few things here. There are a lot of red flags in terms of your partner's behaviour and big, big problems that I want to talk about. But the first thing that I want to address, are some things in general that I think would help you regardless of this relationship or other relationships. I think in general they would help you and anyone in your situation with or without these red flags.

The first thing is there a lot of situations where, as much as we would like everything to be equal in partnerships, there are what I call “imbalances”. So it’s not inequity is so much as it is an imbalance. This happens all the time. Like people get sick or in your situation you're temporarily… basically your relationship is temporarily long-distance. There lots of situations where, for whatever reason, people are imbalanced in terms of their relationship. And I do think there are some aspects of this, even if there weren't red flags or issues with the way your partner's behaving, I still very much think that you would feel this imbalance and especially if you're the kind of person where the face to face really means very much to you. And that's the kind of exactly why some people don't do long distance relationships, because they can't really handle that imbalance. And it creates such an imbalance with them that it's just… you know, it puts too much strain on the relationship.

So I think that the first thing that you kind of are gonna have to realise in all of this is that until you return to wherever your partner is,  you're going to have that inherent imbalance and I think that's something that you and any partner you have, whether it’s this partner or another partner, have to accept and be willing to address because that like… especially when there's a new person on the scene. Like… it totally makes sense for you to feel unhappy about it even if you logically want the best for your partner and don't have any hostility or anything towards this person. The fact that they can be physically there and you can't is always going to create a kind of strain on you and that's ok and as long as it’s addressed I think it can be worked around. There's lots of different things that you can do to address this.

Like, you know, if you had written me before and said, “I’m about to go away and this relationship is gonna be long distance. I’m really scared. I don't know what to do”, I would have suggested highly that you have specific scheduled times that you can count on especially when someone is dealing with new relationship energy because there are a lot of things that people do when they caught up in that that I think can be forgiven. That I think can be worked around. And I think sometimes people when they get in that new relationship energy situation they don't really realise how much of a, for lack of a better word, jerk they’re being. And I think scheduled times like… hardline scheduled times can really help with that.

You don't really say… like you say you get 5 minute phone calls and you talk a little bit about some of the situations where you've been pushed aside but I think like… if you said like every Thursday night for example we definitely talk to each other. We have a scheduled date, a scheduled phone date. I don't know if this is something you are already doing. It doesn't seem like these are necessarily repetitive. And maybe that's because you haven't had a chance to arrange that. But I think something like that like, that way you know for sure regardless of how nuts everything else can be, you know for sure that you have this time that’s scheduled.

It also helps demonstrate to you, by that person meeting that time, and… it helps you you feel valued. And it could be… and there are  other issues with the way that your partner is behaving that I want to address… but it could be that this kind of thing creates an anchor and makes it easier as well for your partner to honour you. It might be that they are swept up in this new relationship energy, swept up in missing you and needing as well that face-to-face and they’re getting it from this person in that's really great for them. And having that really solid commitment and clear boundary of like, ok this is the day that we have a call, can really, really help with that.

Before I get into some of the problematic aspects of your partner's behaviour, another thing that I really want you to think about… so you said you have this boundary… I would really call it a rule rather than a boundary that if you find someone you’re interested in sleeping with, you communicate it as soon as it happens and you communicated as soon as you did. Now, I'm not saying that your partner is right in terms of the way they handled this, but I do think that you need to explore why you have that rule. There are sexual health reasons to have rules like that. Like the rule that I have like… I would like to know if my partner sleeps with someone new not because that would make it easier for me and it’s not for emotional reasons. That’s not say that emotions are bad.

It's for sexual health reasons because I just want to know as a person when technically my sexual health risk, because they slept with someone new, is a bit heightened. That actually helps my anxiety rather than… because if I don't know then and then I know all of a sudden that there is four more people like… that will make me way more panicky than just knowing when it happens. And I kind of work is well with my partners in that… if I'm having a bad day like… I remember my partner wanted to tell me that they slept with someone new but that was like…  the day of the Orlando shooting and I was very upset and so they decided to wait until the next day to tell me. I think things like that are fine.

It's not really clear to me why you have this rule. If it's for a sexual health reason or if it's for another reason. And the fact that your partner was avoiding bringing it up because they thought it would make you uncomfortable makes me wonder if there were slightly more emotional reasons behind it then just solid sexual health reasons. And I do think that when you put rules in place you definitely have to make sure they aren't rules that will prevent you from experiencing negative emotions. I think the biggest reason people say “Rules don’t work. I don't do any rules, blah blah blah”.  I think it's because they're used to the kind of rules that are put in place… they’re used to those rules being for preventing people from feeling jealousy, from feeling anxious, from feeling sad. You can't prevent those things and I think sometimes the more you prevent them, the worst things become. Which is one of the reasons why your partner probably avoided it, because it was uncomfortable.

And this is another thing that a lot of people who try and polyamory for the first time do. It's really weird because you would think that if you sat together and you said “Ok we’re doing polyamory. That's fine. Just let me know when you've slept with someone new… blah blah blah… ok”. When you actually have to let someone know that you’ve slept with someone new, it's very very awkward. There's no real blueprints to how this is done and so you know… people are so used to that conversation being an end to a relationship. Because if you're monogamous and you sleep with someone new and you tell your partner that's usually the end of your relationship. So they have this kind of fear that if they talk about it, even though they're fine to do this and even though they know it's OK, they have this real fear that is going to end the relationship and so they avoid it and then it sort of snowballs.

I can kind of understand that discretion because that does happen to a lot of people when they start polyamory. They’re scared to have an uncomfortable conversation and honestly a lot of people do this even when it's not disclosing that they had sex with someone. A lot of people, including myself… I find it really really hard to confront people or to tell people that they’ve hurt my feelings and it's so hard for me because I'm so used to living in an environment where if I told someone that I hurt my feelings not only would they not care at all but they might actually use the fact that I've said my feelings are hurt to hurt me further.

So I have a really really hard time being able to tell someone honestly they've hurt my feelings and sometimes I just wait and wait until something so uncomfortable happens that it all just comes out and I say “This is my problem and this and this and this and this” or I will sometimes try to manipulate the situation so that things happen the way that I want them to without me having to ask for what I want.

So you know that kind of thing I can totally understand them doing and I think it makes a lot of sense especially if this rule or this kind of thing that they're supposed to do is put in place to address an emotional problem. If you're thinking that this will somehow help with jealousy, I don't necessarily know if that's true. I'm not saying that you should go the opposite way and have a don't ask don't tell relationship. That's not what I'm suggesting. But I do think that you need to kind of think about the flexibility around it and make it really clear between the two of you why it is put in place and that might mean that there is less uncomfortable feeling around why they don't want to talk to you about it. That will really help. If you make it just like about pure sexual health risk and I think if you both expect and accept that it will be an uncomfortable conversation… you just have to accept that. If it's not uncomfortable, it's a bit awkward.

Like I don't get upset or jealous necessarily. There might be certain situations where I do get upset or jealous if my partner's that I live with has been with someone new. But if they tell me it… I don't want to be also forced into a situation where I'm not allowed to have any feelings about it. But I think if you kind of decide what the reasons for it are and it's not like “oh you know you need to tell me as soon as we can discuss it and handle any jealousy”, they might be worried that every single time you’re going to be upset. And you can't really predict how you're going to feel necessarily. You could have a bad day. So if the reasons are more around “ok it's just good for me to know” and you accept that it might be an awkward conversation then yeah… you know maybe there's some flexibility around like… you know if I'm having a bad day I don't necessarily want to know right away. Maybe if they're having a bad day, maybe put it off for another day. There are ways you can work around it and ways that you can do it in a way where you’re both in an ok state enough to potentially have a difficult conversation. But you can't completely avoid it and they have to be willing to not completely avoid uncomfortable conversations because that's really really not a good sign in general.

So those things are in general good for you to think about and to know. But I think that all of this… even if you were to work it perfectly becomes moot if your partner is unwilling to A: admit that when they've messed up and B: be willing to fix it. And a couple of things that your partner has done has made me a little bit worried for you in that regard.

The first thing is you sort of casually mention… and maybe it's just because of how you feel… you mention that they didn't use protection with this person even though that's a very clear sexual health rule that you have. For me, personally, if this was broken, it would be a huge deal for me. I'd be really really upset about that. I might be a little bit more paranoid about sexual health than some people are but the fact that they knew this was a rule and knew this was important to me and just completely disregarded it and potentially put my health at risk, I would be really really upset about it. I’m not saying you have to be as upset about it as I would, but I do think that that's a big thing.

It's one thing to avoid telling you something because they’re not really experienced in this so they’re just trying to get a handle on it and they just didn’t want upset you. That I can understand. But it's another thing to purposefully, knowingly violate a boundary like that. Violate or broke a rule about that… that is that is worrying. Because that to me shows that they don't really care what the rules are if it means that they get what they want. Which is a huge problem and you don’t really talk about that and whether or not they acknowledged it or apologised for it. But they have to be willing to acknowledge or apologise for it.

The other thing… some of the things that they've done in terms of like ditching you and sort of not really valuing your time… I don't really necessarily blame them for spending an equal amount of time with you and the other person when you were there even though you know you felt there was a bit more reason why they should spend more time with you. But I guess what really worries me about the situation is less that they’re kind of ditching you which I do think they could fix and sometimes people kinda get in a bit over their head and I can understand that. But the issue is… the biggest issue is for me that they’re pushing back on your requests for… to talk about how upset you are or when you ask for something, they’re sort of suggesting that the problem is with you, that you're interfering.

You might feel that you… maybe get more needy than you would in this situation but that's still valid just because it might be more or less needy, you're still you know… like I said, there is an inherent imbalance here and it has to be accepted on both sides. If there is an inherent balance, your partner is going to have to be willing to address it. If they’re not going to address it that speaks a bigger problems that are much more of a worry down the line.

I think the fact that they're kind of… not only just blowing you off in terms of dates, which they could do if they kinda get over their head, but also not really willing to talk about this with you is a really.. is not a great sign. You could go back and you could have the best couples therapist in the world, it will not matter if this person is unwilling to address or fix anything. No therapist can force them to do that. So I really think that this is kind of the biggest crucial issue here.

I think in terms of what you should do is I think you really need to put your foot down and have your boundaries addressed and realised and not stand for it being ignored. What I mean by that is, I would say “On this date, or whenever time that is soon works for you, we need to have a discussion because I am unhappy and there are problems and there are things that are making me upset and we need to have this discussion and we need to have it soon”. You can flexible in terms of if they can’t have it right away but you need to say that this has to happen. No excuses. No exceptions. No ditching it. It has to happen because this has to be addressed before you return and you want it to be addressed.

And you know if at that point they're not willing to do that, that really really speaks for some serious problems that you are not going to be able to fix. It has to come from both sides. You have to work together. If they're not willing to work with you at all then you know… It doesn't sound happy to break up but at least you know about this now rather than later. So that's the first thing you need to do. Be very very clear and say, “We need to have a discussion about our relationship. I need to talk to you about this. We have to have it”. Be a little flexible about a times because I can understand if they can do it right away but it has to happen and has to happen soon. You know, it can’t happen 3 weeks from now. It can’t happen when you get back. It has to happen soon and it has to be uninterrupted and it has to be serious.

I think before that meeting if and when it's agreed upon, you need to work out some things yourself. Think about, like I said, the rules around disclosing about sex, why you have that rule. You need to bring up the parts were they have really kind of completely violated your boundary and I don't mean like bring them a laundry list of all of the terrible shit they've done in the past few months but like… that violating your sexual health rule is a big big deal.

It doesn't sound like, because you mentioned it, it doesn't sound like to me they've apologised for it and promised not to do it again. If you feel like they've apologised enough that you don't feel insecure about it or if they’ve addressed it and they have apologised and they’ve taken some steps then you don't have to mention it. But if they haven't then they really need to be able to address it and I think in that discussion you need to say like, “Look. You have broken this boundary and that's really not acceptable for me”.

You need to bring up the not disclosing it to you cause, like I said, I'm not saying that you should move to don't and don't ask don't tell situation, but I do think that you can be a bit more flexible about when they tell you. But it can't be that they avoided telling you. And that, like I said, it's understandable to do that. So you know it doesn't have to be that they were terrible mean person and they were trying to hurt you, but you need to like… I think you need to address the fact that they avoid conversations and that’s something that, when you do return, you can work with a therapist on. If all else goes well and there are they are willing to address it. You can say like, “Look, you avoided having this conversation because it was uncomfortable for you. We have to be able to have uncomfortable conversations. It's part of life. You can't avoid it and if we can work around you know finding a good time or you know you can check in with me if I'm feeling ok and have that discussion but you can't just avoid it”. And they kinda have to recognise and realise and be willing to accept that they have a tendency to avoid things rather than discuss them and you need their word that they will work on it.

I think that you also need to, in this discussion, maybe suggest that you have a standing date night. Like bring up that you feel pushed aside. That you've had… like it's unacceptable for them to try and basically either blow you off or not take your meeting times or when you commit to a time seriously. They need to commit to that time. That you know… this is an imbalance and it can be addressed by you both but they also have to be willing to realise that you know they may be cuckoo about this new partner and that's great but they have someone they can kind of have that face-to-face thing with. You don’t. And they need to be kind of willing to acknowledge that and acknowledge that you don't have that and be willing to be more serious about the times that you do have to spend together and really commit to those times.

I think it's great for you both to talk about the inherent imbalance and how it's impacting you because they very well might miss you too and they very well might be struggling and that might be why they've gone a little bit kind of new relationship energy intense with this new person is because they’ve lacked that. And all of those are understandable reasons for why they’ve behaved that way and I think that you can be forgiving about that, but they have to be like I said… part of dealing with problems is acknowledging that they exist. If you don't acknowledge they exist and you have no willingness to commit to change them then there isn't anything you can do.

Overall, I think first thing you have to figure out as whether or not your partner is willing to acknowledge and commit to changing things otherwise it… I really would suggest that you consider finding someone else because, monogamous or polyamorous, it doesn't matter like… if you're with someone who just refuses to address problems and work with you to solve them that just won't be well for any kind of relationship.

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