Episode 28: Unhealthy or Incompatible

What do you do if your partner wants no restrictions but you need reassurance that what you have means something?

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

Discussion Topic: What do you think of public displays of affection (PDA)?

Listen below. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers.


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


I’m not into the idea of monogamy, I never have been, but keen for a primary nesting partner. If pushed to slap a label on it I’d say ‘monogamish’ or ‘open’ but I can sympathise with the high level of autonomy demanded by those who prescribe to relationship anarchy. I also regard close friendships as no less important to my wellbeing than a flourishing romantic life and see the ambiguity within these relationships. However in my head this is called “having a healthy, balanced emotional life.” Longer term I can see how my comfort levels could adjust and full polyamory could be a thing. I’m a touch autistic, have social anxieties and a load of trauma from an abusive family home.

I’ve fallen totally in love with someone who is currently exploring ‘solo poly’ and ‘relationship anarchy’. He’s very new to non-monogamy as an idea and, in my opinion, has a lot of misconceptions about it. Realistically he’s currently just looking to sleep around while maintaining superficially intimate ties. We broke up some time ago because of this different view on how our relationship should be structured - Sometimes I was totally ok with him going out on dates with others, and other times not.

Sexual exclusivity doesn’t bother me but the frequency with which he would pursue other people and his refusal to put boundaries on the degree to which he would get involved did. It made me feel insecure and questioned how where I stood in his life. Whenever I brought this up he would panic. He’d take it as a sign that I “wasn’t poly” and eventually declared us incompatible. He wants ‘no restrictions’ and to use promiscuous sex to rid himself of his shame and guilt around sex. My feeling is that looking for that kind of validation from an outside source is a recipe for disaster.

Simultaneous to this I ‘came out’ about my abusive childhood, which was super intense experience. I had to live with my parents again for years and then had this bombshell of acceptance about the true nature of it, and decided to move out. Lots of flashbacks and surpassed emotions coming to the surface. He doesn’t seem to understand how much emotional energy this took and that was part of the reason I was reacting so badly.

This was when we broke up - about 3 months ago. And for the last 3 months we had been friends but as I say - with nonsexual intimacy and romance.

At the moment I’ve said I’m taking time away from him - the relationship was becoming physically and emotionally intimate in a nonsexual way, and also romantic. We were talking through our issues a bit but it all blew up when we came onto this issue again. As it turns out he is sleeping with quite a number of people, this was a shock. He had already told me about group sex he’d engaged in and that didn’t bother me, but these extra relationships do. He’s sleeping with 5 others.

Its a painful reminder that we are not together, and he is putting a lot of time and energy into maintaining this which is not time and energy he is putting into our relationship.  He didn’t really want to negotiate an agreement, but then he wants to have ‘no restrictions at all’ so negotiations were just a moot point. He knows he is being stubborn with his very fixed approach to pursuing this.

I was angry that he thought it was ok to pursue this intimacy and romance with me - but without being fully honest about the real nature of his sexual relationships, and also when he had no intention of returning to the relationship. I felt he misled me and was insensitive.

So I drew a line and said I needed space to re-adjust my expectations I thought it was better to draw the line now than allow things to get toxic, there is still a lot of good feeling on both sides.  This made him very sad. At the end of this conversation he started hating on his choice to ‘be poly’ because it had cost him a relationship that lasted 6 years and now it was costing him me.

So now I intend to not pursue interactions with him - I am leaving the country for an extended trip to Asia on Oct 2nd. I left the door open to further interactions but felt it best to reduce my attachment to him and my attachment to being in a relationship with him.


So, there's a couple of things here. First and foremost, if he doesn't want to have restrictions, then that's very fair in terms of how he wants to operate his relationships. I do think you're at a base incompatible here because even though you say that, you know, you kind of are slapping this monogamish and open label on it, but you do have very clear wants and needs with regards to you want to know about other relationships that people are having, you have kind of this feeling that sexual relationships are something you know, not just, you know, having one night stands. That long term sexual relationships are things that you need to know about and have some kind of say in.

I operate personally in a way of I do like to have one partner that I live with. I'd like to have two partners that would kind of be a really great situation. But I try to avoid any situation whereby-- and I heavily advise anyone new to polyamory about this: don't put yourself in a position where you can give someone else permission to date somebody else.

That's not a good position to be in for both sides. So when you say you're okay with him going on dates, sometimes and sometimes not. The thing of it is, is that even in a relationship where you do have one partner who you live with or one partner, you know that you know, if you want to say a primary partner, putting yourself in a almost kind of veto power situation. It's just not good because at the end of the day for me personally It's... if I put myself in that position, then basically, I'm going to feel pressure to say yes. I'm not going to want to say no. And I'm going to feel bad for saying no.

And if I say no, I'm going to be worried about causing someone resentment, or or having resentment directed at me because I've said, no. It's just not a good position to be put in. And I think that it's okay like for you to be notified about new relationships. But at the end of the day, you're really kind of a little bit more involved than you should be around the way he's doing his relationships. Pretty much, you know, if he's deciding that he wants to go out and have promiscuous sex for whatever reason, that's his situation to deal with. That's not your situation to manage, and you can't manage that.

You may have an opinion about it, and that's fine. You can have an opinion about it, but it's really not for you to manage and the problem that you might be having is that especially if you come from an abusive childhood, and I don't know, in what way your childhood was abusive, but sometimes you try to, especially... I mean, I can only speak for myself, I do think sometimes I will help too much, I get too involved in other people's psychological goings on, and I try to help them.

And that only ends up making it more frustrating for me because people have to deal with their own shit on their own terms. You know, if it is a recipe for disaster, he might have to have it blow up in his face. That just might be what, you know, he needs to get his own therapy, you cannot be his therapist. And so I think that you are kind of trying to be involved in this way. You know, you kind of say he's new to this, and he has a lot of assumptions. And, you know, I don't know. I just feel like you're managing his polyamory in a way that maybe you shouldn't. And I think you need to step back a little bit. Even if you do want a kind of monogamish situation, or it sounds like what you want is basically like a primary structure, like you said, you want a primary nesting partner.

Just because you have a nesting partner doesn't mean that you need to be so involved in their life, that you feel like you need to manage who they're in a relationship with. Essentially, any relationship that he has, is really none of your business and it only becomes your business when you feel like he's not giving you what you need. So, you know, the fact that... I don't mean this in a bad way.

But the fact that, you know, if you were in a relationship with him, and, you know, you didn't even know he was sleeping with five others, then that's in a way kind of a good thing. Because it means that he's not actually you know, unless you were like, "Man, you're never around or you don't you know, we can't meet up. We can't do This, we can't do that". Or he's ghosting or not responding to your texts like, it becomes your issue the minute that you're not getting what you want out of this relationship, or he's not showing you that he values you.

He can have however many other relationships he wants. And I don't think that you should involve yourself in trying to manage that for him. You need to let him do his thing. And figure out okay, what do I want from him? What does he want from me? And I think that, like, the reason he's stepping back is because he's pursuing these other people. You're trying to get him to put boundaries on that because you're trying to figure out where you stand among his kind of menagerie. And that's freaking him out. Because maybe he doesn't do that because as you said, He's solo polyamorous, he's a relationship anarchist, he's not interested in a primary partner. He's not going to be interested in that.

So the more you try to step in and say, "Hey, wait a minute, though. I want to be your primary and you need to kind of show me that I'm your primary". He's not going to respond well to that, because that's not what he wants. So when you start to question where you stand in his life it is going to make him panic. And it's not necessarily a sign that you aren't poly. I think that's kind of bullshit. But it is a sign that you are incompatible, essentially, because he doesn't want restrictions.

He doesn't want someone who's going to expect primary type of things from him, he wants someone who, you know, he can have fun with and that's fine. If that's what he wants, then that's fine. But, you know, you need to kind of accept that. You can't... even-- I really think that you have some tendencies here, where even if you do have a primary nesting partner, you need to not have these tendencies of trying to manage their relationships.

You... He can't put boundaries on other relationships to protect you. And that's a tendency that happens a lot when people are kind of new to polyamory.

And they think that they want to save and protect this one relationship. So what they're going to do is they're going to say, okay, you're the only person that I'm, I'm ever going to love and you know, they do this in reaction to fear. And really a thing that I always kind of continuously say in the column and in the podcast is that ultimately you cannot prevent someone from falling out of love with you. You can't prevent someone from deciding to leave you. No amount of time your lives together and being nesting and whatever the hell it is you want to do, is ultimately going to prevent someone from leaving you.

There are tons and tons of situations... I mean, if if that were the case, monogamous people would never divorce and they do because even if you're tied and tied together, someone can fall out of love with you. It happens. So you really need to think about this tendency you kind of have to, you know, when you when you get scared, you want to have that reassurance and when you're trying non monogamy, you don't have all of these stereotypical things that you can say, "Oh, yes, we're exclusive now and we're moving in now.

We're having kids now". And these you know, the relationship escalator, as I've referenced before, you don't have these kind of step stones that you can go on. So you don't have to create that yourself. But what you don't want is to create something is... you don't want to be serious only because other people aren't serious. You don't want to be special to someone only because other people aren't special. That's the thing that you really have to avoid doing.

Because monogamy kind of encourages people to do that. When they talk about... you know, if you listen to love songs, like you're the only person I'll ever love you. You're the only person. You're my heart and my dream and that... you know, it encourages this type of way of thinking in our lives that is-- your romantic partner should be the most important person in the entire world to you. And as you said, you want to have a healthy, balanced emotional life, which means that friendships and other people are important to you, but you need to-- you still have this kind of tendency which you've been encouraged to have through the society that says "Right. The only way that we can make this-- this is, you know, love is scarce. It's a scarce resource, the only way we can make this relationship be special is if everyone's less special".

And I think you need to kind of think about that. And that might be why he's panicking. But equally, I think that you also kind of need to communicate what intimacy means and is to you. So the other thing that's quite tricky about non-monogamy and polyamory, you know. Broadly defined polyamory is, you know, having multiple romantic relationships at once with the consent of all those involved. What a relationship is, is really, really dependent on the individual. And that's one of the things that I've been quite frustrated with, because, for me a relationship takes a lot. It's not just Isee you at a party every once a while we wave and have small talk and then we have sex. That's not a relationship to me. And I found that to some people that is a relationship and you know what? I've gotten past the point where I'm pissed off about that, and now I'm just like, okay, for some people that is enough of a connection for them to feel like they have a relationship with that person.

That's not a relationship to me. And even in my relationships now like with my nesting partner, like my nesting partner, they see people fairly frequently who if I were in the exact same situation, I would call those people my partners. But my nesting partner doesn't call those people partners because how my nesting partner defines partnership is different to how I define it, and the things that they would do with someone or things I would only do with someone I would consider a partner. So it's... that's the thing that you're also struggling with, is that for you some of this intimacy and some of these emotional situations that you've been dealing with, such as coming out about your abusive childhood have been really emotionally difficult for you and you naturally kind of reach out to those people who you feel emotionally close to, and I don't think that your boyfriend was trying to mislead you or or trying to hurt you in any way.

It's just that you have a different definition of what intimacy and romance mean. And maybe, you know, you've kind of addressed the problem yourself. You said that you need to readjust your expectations. So you do. You need to think about, you know, what intimacy means. I don't think he pursued intimacy and romance with you because he was trying to make you a primary partner. Because that's not... it doesn't seem to be how he operates. If he's doing a solo polyamory thing, if he's doing a relationship anarchy thing. That means that he can pursue intimacy and romance with anyone, regardless of what kind of state they exist in his life. But for you that intimacy and romance has a significant meaning and that's okay. It's not that you're wrong, or he's wrong. It's not-- like it's just a difference in how to see things.

And I think that you just need to come to some kind of agreement and understanding of how you both operate in this way or you need maybe really think about, okay, do I want to continue being with this person? Do I want to continue to reach out because fundamentally, I just think that you are unfortunately incompatible. You have a lot of good feelings. And I think that's what makes this kind of difficult is because he exists in a space where, you know, if he's doing relationship anarchy than, you know, he doesn't have to be partners, partners with someone to share romantic intimacy with them, to be close to them. He can be close to anybody and you do have a little bit of that going with what you said like you, you do think you can have intimate friendships and you don't, you know, you regard close friendships is no less important to your well being.

But for you, there is a separation at some point between a close friendship and a romantic partnership. And maybe what you need to do when you're approaching this is you need to think about Okay, where's that line? What are the behaviors that to me, indicates a romantic relationship versus a close friendship. And then you just need to communicate that to him and need to come back to him and say, "Look, I respect the fact that we kind of both feel positive towards each other. We are incompatible with regards to how we want to do polyamory". And you both need to stop like telling each other you're doing polyamory wrong. I don't think either one of you are doing polyamory wrong, you just have different ways that you want to do it. And there isn't a one right way to do it.

So you just need to figure out how to say to him, okay, or even how to enforce those boundaries yourself. Like, I think it's quite hard for you, especially if, like you have all this stuff about abuse coming out and like you need someone to be there for you. And you know, you're in a vulnerable state. It's really hard in that situation to turn away someone who you have a connection with, and who you know, will give you some type of intimacy and support that you need. Like it's so hard to just say no to that and don't blame yourself too much. But also kind of realize that, you know, you did have an expectation there that he probably wasn't aware that you had. And so maybe he needs to be, you know, you both need to be a little bit more aware of how you both operate.

And then maybe when if he's aware of how you operate, and you said to him, "Okay, these are the behaviors, which to me indicate that someone is more than just a friendship. This is romantic, it's getting into that. And so unless you do want to have this primary romantic relationship with me, which is what I want, I'm going to need you to not do these things". And then that way, you both can kind of keep an eye on it in your relationship. And be able to sort of stop yourself before you get to a point because once you kind of start to experience that, all the nice things are going to come back. It's gonna be really, really hard for you just to step away from that. So I think that you, you know, you need to kind of communicate that to him, so that you can have those boundaries. And, but I think that... I think that ultimately this separation is kind of good for you. And I think that maybe you ought to consider not that any of you have done anything wrong, but maybe consider a little bit more of a separation like.

You know, he might be going through a lot of difficulties because polyamory is going to cost you relationships like unfortunately. I mean, it's not so much that polyamory is costing a relationship, it's just that the more people you date, the more statistically likely it is that you're going to have more breakups. Like, that's just kind of the hazard of the trade. But you don't need to be part of like him maybe deciding to try monogamy again, and just... I just think that maybe what you need to do is to separate yourself from the situation a little bit, heal a little bit from all of the situations that you've been through. Have a relationship with yourself first for a little bit, heal a little bit more from that, instead of trying... like it's so hard.

Like I really don't want to blame you for trying to reach out to people because one of the huge things that I really, really hate about a lot of polyamory advice is that it's very much this kind of bootstrap mentality of like, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and just stiff upper lip and don't ask for help from anyone...

And I just hate that because I feel like, you know, somebody brought this point and I've read so many tweets about it at this point about, you know, self care, yes, but what about community care? You know, we're not islands as individuals, we are social creatures. As much as I who is like, the most introverted anti social person in the world. I'm still a social creature. I, you know, solitary confinement is torture for a reason. Unfortunately. I'm such an introvert. Unfortunately, you need people, unfortunately, Well, not unfortunately, you do need to have that support. But sometimes, it seems like reaching out for support with this person it's going to... you're going to go back into that mindset of wanting this thing from this person that this person can't give you.

And ultimately, that's just going to lead you to more pain, even if you have a little bit more comfort to begin with. So maybe what you need to do is take a little break from each other, you know, even a communications kind of lockdown. Even though you're friendly with each other, like sometimes you just need a little bit of time apart. Take a little bit of time apart. And like you said, like, leave the door open for the reactions, but reduce your attachment. And because I do think, on a base level, you're incompatible. You want something that he is not able to provide. You may have your own personal feelings about why he's pursuing this type of thing. But ultimately, that's not up to you to decide, like and people do pursue... You know, people have promiscuous sex, and that can help them get rid of shame and guilt. And that's legit.

Like... people do look for validation from outside sources. I think that whether or not that's unhealthy or when that gets unhealthy is ultimately kind of his decision to make and isn't, it's really not fair to kind of make that decision for him. Because ultimately, even if it is unhealthy, you stepping in saying "that's unhealthy" isn't necessarily going to fix that situation because somebody, you know, like... I'm pretty sure that like, coming, you know, dealing with this abusive situation that you've had, dealing with the kind of trauma of your childhood, you had to make the decision to deal with that. Other people might have stepped in at some point, like you might have gotten a few people who kind of said, "Well, that's a that's a bit messed up that story that you just told me from your childhood". Some people may have pointed it out. But ultimately, you had to make the decision to say, "Right, I'm going to actually deal with this. I'm going to actually cope with it. I'm going to move out of my parents home, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that".

You know, you had to make that decision. Like I can only give you advice. I can only give anyone advice, but they have to make that decision. And I think that you, understandably want to help your partner and want to try and point out, and I've done this with partners before, because I can't fucking help it. I'm absolutely horrible when it comes to this. I think that I can, you know, I mean, I give advice. So it's like I do give advice to my partners as well as you know, but the thing of it is, is that ultimately, you can't put that on your responsive--- on your shoulders as a responsibility because the second you start doing that, it's going to be so much more stressful for you. That you've just sit and watch, you know, you got all this anxiety about all these other relationships that he's in, because, you know, you're worried about it, because you know, all of this and you're trying to control this situation that ultimately is just not yours to control.

And it, you know, you want that kind of primary security from him that I just don't think he wants to give to anybody right now and that's just not where he is. And that's legit and your feelings are legit. And neither one of you are necessarily wrong about how you want to do relationships. You just at a base incompatible with it. So yeah, that's really... deep apologies for the sirens. I'm sorry about that. Yeah, I think that that's... that's kind of where I think I leave you in this situation. I think that you need a little bit of time apart a little bit of time to cope with all the stuff that you've been through. You have ultimately separate things that you want from each other.

But outside of this relationship, there are just a few things, even if you do find this primary monogamish whatever it is that you want the future, just kind of be aware of, because I think even in monogamous situations, it's kind of unhealthy for people to have this kind of much involvement with their partners actions, you know. And I think the culture we live in, encourages people to have this. And I think you just kind of need to be aware of that so that you can say, "Okay, I have all these feelings about the reasons that my partner is choosing to do these things. I'm allowed to have those feelings, but I can't control them and what they do, I can only express how I feel about it. But I can't try to fix that by saying, 'Oh, you need to put a boundary on this or you need to do that'".

I think that's kind of the biggest mistake people often make when they start off in polyamorous relationships. They try to address the anxiety and the fear that they feel by creating rules that they think will prevent the worst things in the world from happening. But essentially, they can't, if your partner is headed for a disaster, then there really is only so much you can do to stop that. It just might be that they have to, you know, he has to experience that. If he does, it might not be that he experiences a disaster, he might, you know, have a lot of promiscuous sex and then end up feeling less shame and guilt because of it. You know, you can't really make that decision for him.

So... so yeah, I think unfortunately, You know, you were kind of-- He was kind of right when you're incompatible. I don't think that you're not poly[am] rather, I think he should avoid making that decision for somebody else. Just as you should avoid making the decision of what is and isn't healthy for him. But yeah, I think you just have fundamentally different relationship styles and it's probably best if you do take a little bit of a break. Take care of yourself, figure things out on your own, maybe reconnect when you feel less inclined to reach out to him for this intimacy and this connection that you really, really want right now because you're going through a lot and find that intimacy and connection in the friendships and the other people that you have in your life.

And hopefully, if you can access it, therapy, because therapy is always good for everyone. Right? I really really hope that helps and good luck.

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