Episode 125: De-escalating from Polyamory

Is there a way to do polyamory without doing polyamory or de-escalate when you figure out that polyamory is not for you?

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

Listen here on or on Anchor. Visit the Anchor website to find where else the podcast is distributed or use this handy RSS link.

This episode includes an ad from BetterHelp. Use my 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

How do you figure out which bouI have been with my partner for three years. We are deeply in love, and I knew they were poly[am] from the start. After much work in therapy and getting to know myself deeply and what I want, I have very recently discovered (and am coming to terms with the fact) that I will never find peace in polyamory.

Our love runs deep, and this is the best, most rewarding, safe relationship I have ever been in. I am working on accepting that I would rather be in a monogamous relationship where I know that when it ends I can move on, than be in a poly[am] relationship where I am always wondering about how things will change for us next time my partner meets someone new.

We have done everything right. My partner is amazing, considerate, supportive, and has prioritized my needs and we have compromised a lot to not walk away from this. We have cried, we have communicated, we have gone to therapy, we have been radically honest with each other. They want to be celebrated, not tolerated, and I want that for them.

On my end, I want a relationship structure that doesn’t lead to worry about how much time/resources I am going to get from a partner when things change, I want it to be clear and obvious where I stand. 

What makes polyamory particularly hard for me is that I need to create space for my metamours, and while I have worked hard on gaining my independence and autonomy, and creating a rich life for myself outside of this relationship, I know that if my partner meets someone they want to prioritize in addition to me, that is not going to personally work for me in the end.

I know that there is no security in any relationship, outside of the one I have with myself. We never promised forever to each other. But I love my partner and we have always made it clear that we want to be in each other’s lives. They are an amazing person/friend.

My question:

How can we transform our relationship into something that works for both of us? I know it’ll be up to us to decide and we have the freedom to figure out what works for us. What could this look like though? I don’t have a model for something like this. Would this be a queer platonic best friend? Chosen family?

I just feel utterly lost and don’t know how to end a relationship without really “ending” it and walking away. I don’t know if we need to take space, I don’t know if we need a trial run (they are currently starting another relationship, the first one since we’ve been together), do I wait to see how this other relationship progresses even though I know that ultimately I will not be happy in polyamory? 

Do I end this now and try to be friends? If so, what boundaries do I set, if any? Will it be too painful to transition from a romantic relationship to a friendship? I don’t know!


The thing that kind of confuses me a little bit about what you say is that you seem to feel like there's something inherent within polyamory. That means that your relationship with your partner that you have will change at any moment. And that monogamy means that it won't change. And you acknowledge that no relationship other than the one that you have with yourself is truly secure. 

But I think that this isn't necessarily true about polyamory. I think that it depends on the person. And I think that there are some people who very much know what it is that they want within polyamory, like they know they want a partner that they live with. They know they want to spend maybe two or three nights away. They know that – or maybe they don't want to spend two or three nights away.

Maybe they occasionally want to go visit another partner. Maybe one weekend out of three months, like… for sure there are people who haven't quite got that yet figured out and won't have that figured out until they do have multiple partners to manage because different partners need different attention levels. Not everyone needs that much time.

But I think that the idea that there's something inherent within polyamory that means that something is going to change is not really accurate. And monogamy isn't necessarily going to protect you from that. Like yeah, you do have the cultural scripts there. And you do have the expectation there that your partner is going to spend most of their time with you. But that doesn't mean that actually happens. And that doesn't mean that your partner won't say develop a sudden, wild hobby interest or develop a friendship with somebody and then want to spend a whole bunch of time being friends. 

I mean, there's totally lots of experiences even within friendships where someone dates someone new and doesn't spend very much time with their friends or situations where someone you know, meets another friend and doesn't spend– like there's nothing that says that polyamory is inherently about this idea that your relationship structure and the time that you have is inherently going to change every single time your partner gets a new partner. Like obviously, yes, there's only 24 hours in a day, your partner is going to have to always balance the time that they have with you with other people if polyamory is what you do.

But the notion that that necessarily has to change dramatically, isn't necessarily true. Because what you can do is… I don't know if you live together and I don't know if you do spend the vast majority of your time together in which case then yeah, that's definitely going to change. But you could “de-escalate” your relationship to a point where your partner may not have other partners to be with, but they're behaving as though they do. So they have– you know, maybe they only see you one or two nights a week. Maybe you don't have a primary live-in together type of relationship but you have something else.

So I think that you kind of need to have more of a discussion about what it is that you and your partner want. I mean, if you do want your partner to spend the vast majority of their time with you, and you don't want them to spend like that much time away. And if you were in a monogamous situation, for example, with someone who was say in the health care industry, or was a lawyer or had like a really time intensive hobby, intensive career where they couldn't spend that much time with you, maybe that also wouldn't work for you.

And therefore that's less about the fact that your relationship would suddenly change, but more about the fact that you would like a partner that doesn't have this other big claim on their time. And if that's what you want, then that's fine. And then I think that you may want to think about– it comes down to like what you need and maybe you do need a little bit of distance, and sometimes you're not going to fully know what you need until you know that something's happening to you that you don't like and therefore you set boundaries around them. Like you're never gonna be able to completely prevent yourself from pain and situations like this.

It's more about like, how you cope with it and how you like, identify it and go like “Okay, this isn't working for me. I need to take some time away” or what have you. But I think that like, if the case isn't that it's about the time spent. If the case is just that you don't want this rapid change, then that's quite understandable and that isn't necessarily inherent to polyamory.

And what you might consider doing is maybe having the same relationship with your partner, but instead of doing this sort of slow burn that a lot of people do where they say, “Okay, we're polyamorous now”, and then they kind of behave in the exact same way that they've always behaved. And then when somebody finally gets a partner, then all of a sudden you have to deal with time without them etc, and so forth. Maybe you can just start that now.

Like, think about what you physically actually want from each other and just start that now even if you are spending nights alone instead of together. Don't automatically default to that. Spend the intentional time together that you would have together if you had other partners, and then you don't have to worry about that as much. But it really depends on what it is your actual want is because I think, yeah, fundamentally, I would challenge the idea that polyamory is going to inherently involve these massive radical shifts in how much your partner prioritises you.

Because I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think that's a lot of people's experiences, especially when they start out. I think that a lot of people go, “Okay, we're polyamorous now”, like I said, and they really don't behave any differently until someone does get a partner and then that becomes like a double shock. Not only do they have to get used to this new way of being where they see their partner less, but also now they have to deal with the oncoming feelings and complications of having someone else there.

So I think that it doesn't always have to be such a shift. And that's kind of like why I advise people to work out when they're starting out in polyamory, like what physically doesn't doesn't work for them, and what they would like their ideal setup to be like, and then that way they can actually start working on manifesting that ideal – I said manifest, lord – they can they can start working on like making that something that they're actually doing now instead of waiting for someone else to come along and make that a reality. In the same way that like, you know, if you were preparing to, you know, if you were deciding to move from living in the country to living in the city, like it's going to be a shock because it's very different. And there are ways that you can kind of prepare yourself.

Like obviously, you could like– this seems kind of silly, but you could, you know, play loud, noisy sounds, you can –  but  you know what I mean? Like, there's going to be a shift in your life, definitely. But it doesn't have to be such a radical shock shift. And it doesn't also have to mean that every time your partner meets someone new, that suddenly everything's going to change. And again, monogamy doesn't guarantee that this won't happen either. Because even though yeah, your partner's not going to meet any new people in terms of romance and have new relationships, that doesn't mean that you won't be deprioritized for something else.

That can and does happen to monogamous people all the time. So I wouldn't necessarily put all of your eggs in these buckets in this way. And just sign off on a like relationship that you've spent quite a lot of time building just because you think “Oh, there's going to be these radical shifts all the time”. Talk about it with each other. What is his ideal physical setup and polyamory? What is your ideal physical setup? If the situation literally is like, “No, I don't want someone who's going to spend so much time away from me, and I couldn't even be in a monogamous situation where somebody had a time intensive career and was spending so much time away from me”, then yeah, then I would say that that's an incompatibility that is unavoidable.

But if it's not about that. If it's just about like radical shifts in that then you can just start on spending the time that you already carved out for each other now instead of trying to just pretend like– live as some a couple that's not polyamorous, even though you say you are and then have that radical shift happen to you all of a sudden. So that's one thing that I would really suggest.

And then the other thing I think that you should explore is rather than saying no to polyamory because of what you're afraid might happen, think about is there anything that actually motivates you to try polyamory? And this is what – a concept that I've called the anchor. An anchor is a reason that you alone, like within your individual ideals and purpose in life and etc, and so forth, the reason you're interested in polyamory for you. Ad it doesn't have to be like a complex, deep reason. It doesn't have to be like “Because I love so many people. And I just want to express that–”

It can literally be like “Because I like having the bed to myself on nights, because I'm really independent because I don't–”. Is there anything that draws you? If it's not dating other people and having more romantic and sexual experiences, which is what draws a lot of people to polyamory. If it is something that's super simple, like “I'm quite independent, and I like my alone time and I like– I don't think that the average typical monogamous living setup is going to work for me”. That is your anchor. So is there a personal reason why you would have an interest in this? 

Because you shouldn't — Generally speaking, I try to avoid– I encourage people to avoid doing polyamory to save a relationship because it's sort of like doing long distance to save a relationship when you know long distance doesn't work for you. A long distance relationship, even if it has the same emotional and intense meanings and feelings. It still is very different from an in person relationship in a lot of ways. And going long distance can sometimes work nut sometimes it doesn't work because there are needs that people have where long distance just doesn't cut it. And it's the same situation here. Don't try polyamory for the purposes of saving a relationship.

But if there's any interest that you have personally in it, that you can go back to and say, “Okay, yeah, this is a little bit difficult, but I'm actually interested in it for this reason”. That really helps and we have anchors for all sorts of things in our lives, like whenever we have a really difficult time and in any situation, like if there's a new job or a new move or something like that – any situation we always kind of have this like “Okay, I did this for a reason”. 

Like it helps you to bring you back and grounds you a little bit whenever you're having a hard time because it will be a hard time. Because it's new. It's not something that you have a script for. And like you said, you're a little bit confused about where to even go from this. So is there anything that motivates you personally, to try polyamory and have polyamorous relationships yourself or would you be monogamous to this polyamorous person but just have a lot of free time for yourself?

So yeah, I think in the end to sum up, I think that I would contrast – not contrast. I think I would disagree with your definition of polyamory as something that involves the structure of time in a relationship shifting dramatically. Whenever there's a new partner or even shifting at all whenever there's a new partner.

And I think that if you are really interested in keeping this relationship, and there are aspects of polyamory that you might find interesting, even if it's just having more free time, then I think you may want to look at it a little bit differently. And I think maybe instead of trying to de-escalate into “just a friendship”, maybe what you should try is being a little bit more loosey goosey about definitions. And instead think about like what is your ideal physical setup?

And like I said before, if your ideal physical setup is somebody who is there more, and you can't even be in a monogamous relationship where someone has a time intensive career and doesn't spend most of their time with you, then maybe this isn't for you at all. But if that's not the issue, think about what your physical setup is, that would be ideal where you can compromise on that and start living that now. I mean, you said that your partner already has another partner that they're pursuing.

So it may be that– or maybe has someone they're dating I don't know. So it may be that you can already start now but like it doesn't have to be a dramatic shift. Like how many partners does this person think that they want to have? How many nights away? Are you living together? Are you not living to get like– think about how to form that setup now and use it and see if it works for you.

And if you say, “You know what, having you home only for two nights a week doesn't really work for me and I would rather have situations where this isn't the case” and then you know, and then you don't have to like guess that polyamory isn't for you because you assume that these will rapidly change when they don't have to rapidly change.

You can start with them having already changed and see how that works for you. If the whole physicality thing isn't an issue for you. So yeah, I think if you do that, I think if you have a think about it, I think if you test out what your relationship would be, if he were to have the number of partners that he thinks he wants to have, or I actually don't know the pronoun of the person– they sorry, that they think that they want to have then see how that works for you.

If it doesn't work for you, it's fine. Just remember, like you're never going to be able to completely avoid the pain of change. Anything could happen in life. Tomorrow, you could get hit by a truck and not be able to use your legs and that sucks. And that's going to be something you'd have to deal with and that will be something that you'd have to adapt to and that you didn't plan for. 

So please just remember that like not only is it not about the fact that no relationship is inherently like secure other than when you have with yourself necessarily, but also that life happens, man, and you're not always going to be able to prevent yourself from feeling pain and it's less about preventing yourself from being in painful situations and more about knowing how to take care of yourself. Knowing when to say when. Knowing when to step back and learning that and that it's okay if you don't know that right away and it's okay if you test things and try things and they don't work out for you. 

There's no test at the end. There's no award you get at the end when you're on your deathbed for being the most emotionally balanced person in the entire world. There's no award you get for never losing your cool. That just doesn't happen. So figure out how you can cope with this. Work on that in therapy. See if there are situations where you would be fine. And if you know, let's say he has two nights a week with you, and that's what he thinks that will be you know, maybe he doesn't know how many– or they don't know how many partners they really want but at the end of the day, you can test it.

You can see. Maybe they'll figure out that actually more than one other partners too much and then they can spend more time with you. But start from that kind of ideal and work your way back and see if it works and if it doesn't, then that's fine. And then I think you can decide for yourself like maybe you have a little bit of a break. You know to give yourself a little bit of time.

Test out a break in that case, see if it works. If you spend a couple of days not talking to each other then you go “Man, this really isn't working for me”. Then change it up as long as you guys are communicating with one another. There are no hard and fast rules as to how you have to de-escalate or change your relationship or define it even.

It's just about working with each other, talking with each other and figuring out what works for you and what doesn't and sometimes you're not going to know what really works for you until you try it so yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

Subscribe to Non-Monogamy Help

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.