What if you wanted to become fluid bonded with a new partner — but they were already fluid bonded with someone else? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Listen below.
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So, I am currently dating an absolutely wonderful man (it's been around 2 months but things *feel* a lot more advanced than that time frame would suggest). I have never met someone who makes me feel the way he does - he's brilliant, the conversation sparkles, he cares deeply about my well-being, he keep track of little things that I like and dislike, the sex is some of the best I've ever had and I could just keep going on and on but I'll spare you any further gushing because now I am just making even myself a little sick :). Rest assured, I completely adore him.
I knew early on that he wanted some form of "entirely negotiable non-monogamy." I have some experience in the area (I was the third party in an open marriage in the past) and have always considered myself a sexually open and inquisitive person. The theory of non-monogamy generally appeals to me and from the get go I told him I was open to finding a form of it that works for us and our needs. Over the course of a couple of discussions, we decided that the best form of nonmonogamy for us is to play as a couple with other couples. There is, however, one issue that we seem to keep running up against.
The issue here is with respect to this one couple that he had been seeing fairly steadily for a while before he and I ever met. He started off playing with them as a couple but now he also plays with her solo every so often. They have an established a level of trust amongst them and have agreed not to use condoms.
I recently expressed an interest in the boyfriend and I taking things to the next level and forgoing condoms ourselves, but I said that I wouldn't be able to do so until and unless he started using condoms with the couple again. I definitely trust my bf and I also trust his judgement immensely but at the same time I just can't viscerally get comfortable with the idea of him not using condoms with them while he isn't using them with me. And it's not just about seeing periodic test results - it just feels too out of control for me (I have some background in epidemiology and that is definitely not helping me feel more comfortable).
My boyfriend hears me and my concerns but he is having trouble making the decision to stop using condoms with the couple whom he has technically known for much longer than he has known me. And this is starting to become a problem given that things are starting to get pretty serious. I can't help but feel like he is choosing them over me even though he has told me time and time and again that that's not the way he sees it. I get it intellectually but it's hard not to feel like he is choosing them over me emotionally speaking.
He wants me to meet the couple and then make a decision whether to trust them myself or not. The problem is I doubt I'll ever be able to get comfortable with the idea of more than two nodes in a condom-less connection. And now I can sense that I am starting to feel resentful of the couple and am even feeling a little angry towards my boyfriend. I know there has to be some mature way of dealing with this situation without giving into my more atavistic, lizard brain urges to start laying down ultimatums and getting suddenly jealous about a situation that I have otherwise been fine with since I found out about it.
To complicate matters, there's an assortment of other issues related to this couple muddying the waters - I found a picture of the wife and she's gorgeous and it's been a little difficult for me to come to terms with that (don't get me wrong, I do love my body and I know he loves my body but our culture and societal conditioning being what it is, this is just giving rise to some stuff for me that's been difficult emotionally - but I recognize this is definitely more of a personal problem I just need to deal with myself).
Then there's the issue that while I am very ok with my boyfriend having sex with this woman, it bothers me to no end that he texts this woman pretty regularly and the texts definitely go beyond simple logistical matters (I think this comes from me seeing texting on and off during the day as a thing that extends into one's *real life* and it's important to me that we keep bedroom things strictly in the bedroom) - when I brought up my concerns, he seemed to understand where I was coming from and said he would like some time to think about it. And then finally, there's the matter that I feel like an outsider walking into a situation where everyone knows one another, which makes me feel weird and left out in a way. I have expressed an interest in getting together to find new couples for us to interact with instead, but I get the sense that continuing this particular relationship is important to the boyfriend and I want to be supportive.
So, as you can see, there's a whole jumble of thoughts here and I cannot apologize enough for dropping them all on you! I'd appreciate any advice you might have for me!
Right. Well, there are a lot of different things going on here. The first thing that I want to say about the condom anxiety and this is to you and your boyfriend and to this couple: STIs... they don't give a shit about who you trust and what your feelings are. And I get the idea of trusting people and going, "Do I trust this person's understanding of sexual health risk? Do I trust that this person is going to make good decisions about how to protect themselves and therefore me?". I get that. I totally get that. But at the same time, shit happens. STIs happen. They happen. And condoms don't protect against all STIs. They just don't. They don't protect against HPV. They don't protect against herpes. So you're at risk no matter what sexual health activity you do.
And I don't tell you that to freak you out because I'm a peer sexual health educator. I learned all about STIs and which ways you can get them and all the horrible symptoms -- it is something in our culture as well that we're very-- there's a lot of stigma and a lot of panic about it and to a certain extent that's sometimes grounded because there are new strains of things like chlamydia coming out. There's a lot of worry about antibiotic resistance. So some of it is understandable but also some of it is a little just sex negative and just people freaking out and not seeing STIs as another infection that you can get just from being human and existing in the world and not wrapping yourself in cotton wool and staying in your apartment all day.
So, they don't care-- STIs don't care about your feelings or who you trust. And that's a big thing that I had to learn with my partners actually because I had super condom anxiety and I was at the point where I almost felt like I wanted to make a rule with my partner that, even without being fluid bonded with them, that before he had sex with anyone, they had to get tested. Like newly tested. Like he couldn't have sex with anyone new, and I as well, unless they had been tested.
This wasn't something that my partner wanted to do because he felt like, "I'm not gonna do that. I wanna go to parties and maybe hook up with someone. That's the risk that I accept". And it was very, very difficult for me because I felt mentally more comfortable with him continuing to have sex with people he'd already had sex with than having sex with someone new that he just met. In my mind, the risk of having sex with someone you just met was bigger than having sex with someone that you've already known for a long time. And he pointed out to me that actually no that's bullshit. Because even if you know someone for a long time, they could go have sex with someone new, they could get an STI, they could give it to him, he could give it to me so... because sometimes shit happens.Sometimes people, even though they've been tested, something hasn't shown up yet. Sometimes it's symptomless. Shit happens.
So, I think this whole argument about trust-- do you trust the couple? Do you trust him? I get the feeling behind that but you need to stop talking about it that way. Because on that path, there be monsters. There be a... a clinical germ issue that is being -- has feelings put on it. An emotional transference. It becomes less about how much risk there is in an activity to be exposed to something and more about who you trust and that's not what you want to go into. Don't go that way. What you need to do-- you're going to have anxiety about this and that's one thing that you're just going to have to accept and I deal with that shit every time my partner sleeps with someone new. Every time. It doesn't matter. Like every time. I have this slight panic in the back of my head that's like, "Oh my god! What if I get an STI and the world ends!" It's okay to have that anxiety. It doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't mean you don't trust anyone. It doesn't mean that you hate people with STIs. It's just normal. You're going to have that anxiety and that's fine. I hate the word normal, but anyway. That's fine. You're going to have anxiety and I think to a certain extent you need to allow yourself to have that anxiety and be able to learn to cope with it.
The other thing that you can do right -- so you don't explain if this couple is also sleeping with other people. So theoretically what you could create is a kind of fluid bonded agreement with yourself, your boyfriend and this couple. I don't -- and maybe this couple is monogamous except for what they do with you and your boyfriend -- I don't know how this is set up. And I know that this sounds like swinging. You don't use the word 'swinging' but it sounds like swinging and swinging... a lot of people who are in swinger communities, because they're married, they think, 'oh we don't have to use condoms' and that's quite common and there's actually a high prevalence-- from what I've read, I could be wrong.
There's a high prevalence of STIs in the swinger community because people think that they don't have to use condoms because everyone's married and it's fine. I don't know what this other couple is doing but if you want to-- I can understand why your boyfriend doesn't want to start using condoms with them. Equally, I can understand why you -- you're not completely irrational to see this as a higher level of risk. It is. Instead of you being fluid bonded with one person who is only fluid bonded with you and use condoms with everyone else, you're now fluided with someone who is fluid bonded to two other people. So yes there is more risk. But what you need to do is you need to talk-- not *trust* and get a sense of feeling for people-- you need to physically discuss the specifics of the situation with each other and maybe you can come to an agreement where you don't use condoms with each other but you do use condoms outside of the circle.
And you need to think about-- So the rules that I have in my relationships, if I'm fluid bonded with someone, I have to accept the fact that I'm at risk for things that can't be protected from condoms. That's just part of it, you have to accept that. But the sexual health rules that I have in place is that, if I or my fluid bonded partner want to have sex with someone new, we have to ask them a number of questions.
Usually we ask them: have they been recently tested? How do they safeguard their sexual health? What do they do? This is designed to see what their practices are and that's a better way of building trust rather than just meeting someone and seeing that they're 'trustworthy'. What does that even mean? You need to-- What I want to hear from someone or what's good to hear from someone when you ask these questions is, "I always get tested after I have a new partner. I get tested at least once every year or once every six months or once every three months depending on the frequency of partners." You wanna know that they're aware that some STIs can remain dormant for six months, as far as I know. Pretty sure I'm right about that but the testing cycle should be six months-- once every three months if you frequently have new partners and you can't keep track of things but six months after the exposure of a new partner or a new-- yeah. That would be ideal.
So what we're trying to glean from those discussions is "Is this a person who takes responsibility for their sexual health?". Because that's the only thing you can do. It's risky. That's just life and I totally get your paranoia. I can't emphasise that enough. I also have major STI paranoia because I know so much about sexual health. It sometimes isn't helpful to know a lot, but you can create these types of sexual health rules and decide amongst the four of you: "Okay, we don't use condoms with each other, we use condoms for everyone else." You need to think about dental dams as well. Like is that a thing? Decide what your sexual health practices will be. What steps will you take when you meet someone new and want to have sex with someone new?
And then that way you-- Your anxiety will not go away. I just want to make that clear. Like, you're gonna feel fucking anxious because that's anxiety and it's horrible. And that's yeah. You're gonna still feel anxious and you probably will still feel anxious when you first have condomless sex with your boyfriend and you know that he's not using condoms with these other people. You're still gonna feel anxious but when you have these rules in place and when you have this structure and when you say "Okay, I know that I can't rid of all risk but I know that I'm mitigating some of this risk by saying to these other people: Right. These are what we're gonna ask every new partner."
And I know when my fluid bonded partner, when I know they're going to go and sleep with someone new I still occasionally go like, "Have they been tested? Have you asked the questions?" I know that he's going to ask questions and I do trust him but it helps to hear stuff like that. And it's okay. That's really okay to be-- and it does get emotional and I think it gets emotional because this trust is being put on it. It doesn't surprise me that you're starting to feel like he's choosing these people over you because there's this emotional aspect of trust being added to it. So if you say that you trust-- if you don't lay down any of these ideas about, 'okay how are we actually going to protect our sexual health?" and you leave it all up to trust and 'I *trust* this person' than your brain is naturally going to come to the conclusion that your boyfriend *trusts* these people more than he *trusts* you. So, yeah, that's why you're feeling that way.
I think you establish these rules and you clarify your risk level figure out— how does this couple safeguard their sexual health? Do they get tested frequently? Do they ask these these questions of the new people they have sex with. I mean, if it were my ideal situation, every single person that I potentially could have some sexual health risk from, I’d be like, “How many people have you dated? What kind of sex did you have with them? What did you use?” I would get that detailed in my questioning but I don’t do that because it’s a bit much. And because I know it’s a bit of my own paranoia freaking out a bit and sometimes you just have to say “What am I gonna do? Am I gonna never have sex with anyone again?” Because that’s the only way to completely protect yourself from ANY STI is just to never have sex with anyone. Is that what you want to do?
I think if you just talk with these people. Let’s put it into words. Stop using emotional language. Stop making it about trust and identify what are the behaviours that these people have around sexual health. How do they protect it? What do they do? Don’t set a level of expectation that your anxiety will go away completely. Accept that you have some anxiety. Let these people know. Let your boyfriend know. Be like, “I’m anxious about this. It scares me. I am going to feel scared.” And they can also try and see what they can do to support you. That’s why I hate that shit that like, ‘emotions are your responsibility’.
Like, just like what you mentioned with the body image thing— that’s totally legit. Feeling… We all have been raised in this society and there’s so many shitty messages that we get and it’s very hard to ignore all of that shitty ass conditioning so when you— you can’t help but have these feelings. And yes, it’s not up to anyone to fix you but people can help. People can help and hurt the situation. People can be nice and including your boyfriend — He can give you reassurance both on your body issues and on the STI things and as long as people don’t set up an expectation of you that you’re not allowed to be anxious or afraid… I just think it’s important that when you do feel anxious or afraid that you learn how to cope with it and you learn the healthiest ways you can cope with it.
I struggle with this so much. I struggle with being able to tell people what I need. I struggle with… In my life, I’ve not been in situations where I felt comfortable to say what I need because that’s a very very vulnerable thing. One of the things I hate most about most polyamory advice is that it very much is like, “Just tell someone what you need and everything will be fine.” It very much completely makes it seem like doing that isn’t a fucking terrifying thing because it is. It totally is. So, yeah. Have that established idea of how people protect their sexual health and that will probably help the anxiety. it’s not going to get rid of it. I’ll tell you at least from my experience, I’ve gotten less anxious about the STI risk. Now, the anxiety peaks when I have other shitty things going on because when it rains it pours and — Think of it like your body anxiety. I’m sure sometimes you feel like, “Yeah I’m fucking kickass” and then there are just days when you’re like “Ugh, I’m the worst person in the world”. It’s like that. Anxiety is like that. Over time, I really do feel like when you build that trust, when you know that you can count on these people, when you have these things set in place, you will feel better. But you’re gonna feel fucking anxious and that’s just how it is.
The other thing I kind of wanted to mention was you said about the texting. What you said is that you’ve agreed that your style of non-monogamy is that you want play with other couples. What seems to be happening here is something a bit more than that and I think you and your boyfriend really need to talk about this because you don’t say that you’re swingers in that you only have sex. Like the boundaries there are that you love each other and you only have sex with other people and that’s all it is, just sex. And that seems to be your mental boundary but that doesn’t seem to be how your boyfriend is operating. And that’s not necessarily bad because I am very, very wary of people putting in rules which say, “I won’t fall in love with someone” or “I won’t develop feelings”. There are certain people who are aware enough of how they operate where they can say, “I can have sex with this person and not have any romantic feelings for them” Some people can do that. Some people are very self-aware and that’s just how they operate. I just generally feel like you cannot predict whether or not you’re going to fall in love with someone. You really can’t. You can see signs of it happening and you can kind of be a little bit wanting to disregard that in this kind of situation and wanting to kind of like, “Okay, if I were single and I met this person I would probably say that I was developing a crush and developing feelings for them but because I’m in a situation where I’m not allowed to develop feelings, I’m gonna be like ‘This is happening!’”. Same thing I mentioned in the last episode of the dog sitting in the fire saying, “This is fine.”
I think that rule of you only love one person and have sex with other people doesn’t always work and people develop feelings and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. You can— if you’re self-aware enough and you see yourself having feelings and you decide, “I don’t want to do this” you can break it off with that person. You can do whatever it is that you need to do to stop those— I don’t know how to stop those feelings. I don’t feel like I have any control over my feelings when I fall in love with someone or develop feelings. If I had control over that, that’d be fucking great! That means that I could pick people I knew who were amazing, great wonderful people and I could just fall in love with them and I… if that was the way the world worked, that’d be fucking great. It’d be not so great in some ways.
Anyway, the point is that you can’t control this so you really need to have a discussion about what it is— where the boundaries are and what it is that you both expect. Are you both on the same page about, “Yes, the type of non-monogamy we are is a type of swinger setup where we only have sex with other people but our emotional and romantic feelings are only for each other and that’s the boundary”. It’s difficult because theoretically, this woman is his friend so if he were texting— Put yourself in that situation as well. If he were texting a buddy and not this woman, would you feel the same way? Because people have different feelings about how friendship works in their life but some people have really close friendships and some people get really weird about that because they think that all romantic relationships basically replace your friendships and you stop having really close friends and having really close friends when you have a romantic relationship isn’t okay.
And that’s not true. I’m very against that. I think friends can be just as important as romantic relationships and maybe he’s friends with this girl and that means something to him and he doesn’t wanna stop texting her because they’re friends. It’s not— There may not necessarily be a romantic thing. They’re just friends. And if he was texting a buddy, not outside of his bedroom, would you have a problem with that? So think about that. Because it is a discussion worth having to make sure you’re on the same page about what kind of non-monogamy you want but you also need to keep in mind that your feelings around all this other stuff are going to kind of influence how you feel and just put yourself— Is he doing something that wouldn’t be okay if he were ignoring you for a friend? Would that still not be okay? Then it’s the behaviour that’s the problem, not the person. So just think about is it the person or is the behaviour? And maybe then you decide— If he was texting a friend, if you were out to dinner together and he was txting a friend instead of talking to you, that still would be a problem. Unless there’s an emergency, it would still be a problem because it’s the behaviour that’s the problem. So just think about that. Get on the same page about what you want out of non-monogamy but think about, is it the behaviour or is it the person?
The other thing that I wanted to mention, because this is the kind of thing— When I talk about relationship anarchy and hierarchies and why I think there are hierarchies that exist— this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. When you say you feel like an outsider walking into a situation where everyone knows one another, which make you feel weird and left out, there are real imbalances here that can’t really be necessarily, completely fixed. When you walk into this situation, they’re always going to have known him for longer than you have. That’s not ever going to change and if it helps, put that in the context of family and friends. What if he had a friend that he’s known for decades longer than he’s known you? And that’s why this hierarchy thing isn’t that simple and why it’s complicated and why, to me it feels weird to put all relationships on the exact same level.
Because how we value romantic vs. friendship relationships really depends on the person and the situation. I think the point is to understand and acknowledge when there’s going to be a hierarchy because if you’re in this situation and your boyfriend and your boyfriend is trying to say, “Oh no I care just as much about you as I do about the other people” and that might be logically true and that’s fine and I think it’s valid for him to say he values you as much as he values other people but it’s totally also understandable for you to feel at odds because these three people have known each other for a long ass time and you’re just walking into it. You’re just two months into this situation so it’s totally understandable regardless of what anyone says for you to feel like, “I’m the newbie here”. Especially as well if you’re a newbie to non-monogamy. Trying new things and you’re a new person in this relationship, even if you have this past experience, and you’re open to it, you’re still new to it in a lot of ways and that’s okay.
And I think over time this may bother you less because the more you start building time with your partner, the more it seems like that difference isn’t so big especially as you have different experience with your partner and you establish your trust and you establish— you get a better idea of each other and you have new experiences and intimate experience and you get closer— things like that will bother you less but it totally makes sense for you to be slightly insecure about it now. That’s fine. As I said on a previous podcast and as I’ve said multiple times in the column, you’re going to feel anxious and scared when you’re starting out a new relationship. You’re going to— regardless. It doesn’t matter how secure you are as an individual or how much self-esteem you have. You’re starting a new experience. New things are scary and that’s okay. It’s okay. And don’t feel bad about being anxious. Don’t feel bad about being anxious about condoms. Don’t feel bad about being anxious about your body. Don’t feel bad about being anxious about the inherent imbalance there’s going to be between you and these other people. That’s legit.
And as long as you feel you can express this and as long as you have the money and the availability of getting a polyamory or non-monogamy friendly therapist who can help you this kind of stuff, that’s helpful but— the problem with I think a lot of people starting off in non-monogamy and polyamory and open relationships is that they set themselves up for failure because they think that they’re doing something that’s free and without all the shackles of monogamy. And they don’t expect that it will be hard and they don’t expect that it will make them miserable or sad. They think that they’re trying something new that’s free so they should feel happy and when they don’t feel happy they think that there’s something wrong with them. And that’s just not true.
It’s hard to do new things. It’s scary. You’re going to feel scared. You’re going to feel anxious. You’re gonna be like, “What the hell am I doing? Why am I doing this when I can just fall back into the social structure of monogamy?” Because monogamy is reinforced by society, we’re sort of lulled into the idea that it’s a safer option when it’s not. Try to remind yourself of that. It’s really helpful. It sounds really morbid but it’s the truth and it’s that there aren’t any guarantees. You could leave these people now. You could leave them and you can go and find a monogamous person. You could settle down. Have a wonderful 20 year relationship, millions of babies, blah blah blah. And then could fall in love with someone and leave your ass. It’s not— Nothing is guaranteed. It sounds horrible. It sounds like the worst nightmare, but it happens to people. It’s shitty and unfortunate but it happens. People fall in love with new people and they change their mind. The only thing constant is change. And because monogamy has these trappings of marriage and the relationship escalator, and if you haven’t read that article, Google ‘relationship escalator’ and read about it. It has this culturally reinforced idea of stability and we sort of assume that if we follow the script, the movie will end the way we think it will and it doesn’t.
There’s no guarantee at all ever. In anything. So yeah, enjoy life! [laughs] I think basically, to sum up— STIs don’t give a shit about trust. They don’t give a shit about your feelings or who you have had sex with or how much you trust them. They’re just infections. They don’t care about any of that. So don’t rely on that to make your sexual health decisions. Identify what your risk level is, figure out what this couple do to handle sexual health risk. If you still feel like you want to be condomless with your boyfriend and you don’t want to tell him that he can’t be condomless and he doesn’t want to be condomless with these other people, maybe think about some rules you can all four establish for new risk coming in so that you can control a little bit of the risk and you don’t just feel like you’re flinging yourself into the wolf’s den at night with no idea of what the hell’s out thee. That will help make some of that anxiety go down a bit but like I said, you still will feel anxious.
Your body issues are understandable, don’t feel bad about that. With the texting, you need to have a discussion about what that means. What does i mean for you to play as a couple with other couples? Does that only mean sex? What do you count as a friendship? As a partner? As a play partner? Identify what that means because it may just be that this woman is his friend and he’s texting his friend. Think about, would you be this upset if it was another person? Is it the person or is it the behaviour?
And then yeah. Also your feelings of being anxious about the imbalance between you and your boyfriend and these other two people is legit and you’re gonna have that feeling and there’s not really much you can— You can get reassurance from your boyfriend but you’re gonna be anxious and that’s okay and it doesn’t mean that you’re terrible and you don’t trust people. It just means that you’re pretty much human. That’s what that means.
So yeah. As I say on the column, I hope this helps and good luck!