In trying establish rules, does that make you less “ready” for non-monogamy or polyamory?
That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.
Discussion Topic: List the now guilt inducing occasions when you were especially mean to certain people.
Just starting out. Boyfriend (46) and I (42) are in love almost 5 years. Didn’t date officially ‘til this year because we live in different states and both have kids, moving wasn’t an option, so I didn’t want to date long distance. But he’s the best I’ve ever known and we decided it’s worth the wait until we can combine households.
Here’s the thing. He’s NOT conventional. I hate to admit, I AM. Too many rom-coms :-) But at the start I told him I was open to a one-sided open relationship where he could see another person for mainly sexual encounters. He thought it best to not do that right away. He would be monogamous for me. Later he brought it up as an option because of the distance, until someone moves, and I agreed if it wasn’t a romantic relationship or an ex of his I’d give it a try. (I also could do as I please, but I don’t want to see others).
Well, he tried it. He hooked up with one half of a lesbian couple he’d been poly[am] with before. I balked when they invited him to a party. (Social outings? I hadn’t prepared for the thought!) Also the other half of the couple still had feelings for him! Messy. He called it off when I was concerned, to say the least, about the dynamics. He was bummed but didn’t want to risk our relationship. He could see the issues at play and was understanding to me.
Later he said a woman from his past reached out, who he had never dated but they were on and off regular sexual partners. And friends. I thought I might be comfortable with that so I okayed it. Then he didn’t make a move with her, and he told me he was feeling content without another partner. Plus we had a few plans where we’d see each other more than usual. We left it open, he could still decide.
It came up again. I start preparing my mind for him seeing her, when the other night he tells me they’d argued because he had never gotten around to seeing her, yet had flown out to see me a couple of times. And she’s seen me on his social media, when his policy for the longest time had been to not post anyone. She felt hurt.
I questioned, if their encounters were meant to be casual, how could she get jealous of me? Why should she have opinions about him posting my pic unless she harbors feelings for him? (Side note: Why did he tell me any of this?) I’m certain he hasn’t seen her in quite a while, and not since we’ve been together.
He chastised me that she has feelings and people aren’t disposable. He thought non-monogamy is just not going to work because I can’t handle it, and he was disappointed. He acted distant and cold. He didn’t seem to like how I felt threatened and scared/jealous about their fight. I thought it was unfair to me. I’ve never tried this before and I want reassurance, not for him to defend a potential partner so vehemently. But he’s put me at arms length for the past couple of days.
I asked him to go ahead and see her. Rip the band-aid off. He’s very wary of it. But I don’t want someone who believes as he does in personal freedom to abstain from someone else’s company/intimacy unless it’s absolutely his choice. So we started to talk about what that would look like.
Bear with me, here come the questions:
We wouldn’t have “rules”. For example, I can’t say “no holidays with this person.” Is that normal? Healthy?
What might he have been thinking to become so standoffish? It really hurt. He said he saw a different side of me but I swear I’m just doing my best with new information and feelings.
I’m sure it’s obvious I’m not “ready”! But I’m willing to read up, meditate, whatever. I’d rather he not conform to me. I think he should have physical companionship since we don’t see each other for weeks. I just wish he’d be patient with my learning curve.
Is it dishonest to agree to this if I know I will need to work through big feelings and I’m not sure how yet?
I thought our communication and conflict resolution was good, but now I’m at a loss.
I don’t think he’ll leave me. I’m more worried about losing my marbles. We love each other so much.
How do I make this work?
So a few things to answer in terms of the questions. First, what is normal in terms of rules? Generally speaking, I think that you need to look at what the function of a rule is, when you set it. If you want to say “no holidays with this person”… I mean, what what is that rule trying to do? What is it trying to prevent? And is it actually going to prevent the thing that you're trying to get it to prevent? If holidays have this really important big meaning to your— like, let's say, you know, you… let's say for example, you don't have any family to go to on Christmas and Christmas is a sad time for you. This kind of an example for my own life. Like Christmas isn't a great time for me.
I don't really have a rule that says my partner has to spend Christmas with me, but you know, it is a hard time for me. So if someone is in my life, who cares about me, they should theoretically give a shit what I'm doing on Christmas. So you know, and I do think sometimes rules are put in place that are kind of obvious. Like, if you're in a monogamous relationship, you wouldn't put up a rule that says “no being mean to me”, because it should kind of be obvious that you won't be mean to each other.
So I think when it comes to rules, it doesn't really matter what's normal because every person and every relationship is different. I just think you need to think about what is it trying to prevent? Quite often when people are new to polyamory, the first thing that they do is put in rules that are trying to prevent someone from falling in love with someone else. And you kind of see traces of that in this situation. Like, the biggest thing that bothers me about the situation is that it's not really clear what function non-monogamy has in your life. It's almost too open ended like at first it's just a temporary thing because you're long distance. And from your perspective, you're coming at this from you know, this is just for sexual encounters for sexual companionship. So it doesn't really make sense for your partner to be with people who have any kind of emotional or deep meaning.
Equally, I can see it from his perspective that you know, people have feelings. People you know— he could meet someone who is just interested in sexual encounters and doesn't have any emotional connection to him. But he's more than likely especially if he's previously been polyamorous and has— and knows other people who are polyamorous he's more than likely going to find someone he has some type of care for even as a friend, and people aren't disposable.
So I think you haven't really had basic discussions about what non-monogamy looks like in your life. What is it supposed to mean? What are the boundaries around that? And to be fair, I think you haven't had that because you're just trying to roll with the punches a bit because you've never done this before. I find it really, really concerning— You know, you say what might he have been thinking to become so standoffish? It doesn't really matter to me what he's thinking to become so standoffish. It concerns me that he's become so standoffish and what I see here is like the first chance he has to have kind of a sexual encounter doesn't work out. And you don't really describe what specifically happened.
But it seems like he made the choice to give up the chance with that, because of the potentiality for messiness. And because you had concerns and what he can't really do, and what it's not really fair to do is expect you— expect him to come to you and say, “I’m going to go sleep with this person” and then expect you to be utterly emotionless about it. I think what he did is he called it off, and he probably has some feelings about calling it off, because maybe he wanted to do that. You just weren't prepared for it. Like I think you just thought, “Oh, it's just gonna be— there's gonna meet up and have sex, you know, I don't expect them to go to parties together. I don't expect them to be friends. I don't really expect this kind of socialising. And that kind of throws me off, understandably”.
But rather than going “Okay, I see that it throws you off. Let's have a talk about this. Let's work this out”. Maybe sometimes you have to experience a little bit of anxiety and realise he's still there and you don't have anything to worry about. But instead of doing that, he calls it off. And maybe he has some kind of, you know, annoyance about that understandably. So, you know, he was trying to be understanding to you but really what he
did was just avoid a situation. You know it— that didn't really help you in the end. Was it really going to risk your entire relationship for him to sleep with this person? Well, you made it out to be and he made it out to be more of a mountain than a molehill.
So in a way it I think it just delayed the inevitable. You're going to have to have that point. If you're going to do any form of monogamy, you're going to have to have that point where you do freak out and you do feel scared because he's sleeping with someone else. If what you're trying to do is avoid that, then it's never gonna work. And I don't think he's helping in that regard. And and on top of that— on top of him going, “Okay, well, I'm not going to try this because you feel anxious about it”, that you know, okay, you feel anxious about it, he should support you, instead of just expecting you to just feel okay with everything.
So what he should have done is support you through that and work through that and then have you have that first experience. And then even if he didn't even want to sleep with this other person anymore, you would have at least had that experience but instead you kind of sideswiped it. So then you go on to this other relationship from his past.
Even though they've never dated, they obviously have a friendship. There's all these kinds of things that he's telling you. And then, you know, you don't have a great reaction to that, which is very, very understandable. And then he chooses to respond to you having a bad reaction to be standoffish and basically chastise you for not being able to do non-monogamy well enough. And that is, that's kind of the crux of this problem here. It is totally understandable for you to be really confused by her feelings.
Now, there may be a long, long history, you know, because you've mentioned how he always had this policy of not posting anyone. If he knew, you know, if he if he had this relationship with this, this new person from his past, and they had a sexual relationship before and she wanted him to post pictures. And he was like very much not doing it. And you know, if you think about it, a lot of people post pictures on social media with with their friends. It's not necessarily that you post a picture on social media with someone it means you're sleeping with them. But if he made this big deal about it, and was like, “No, no, no, no, I'm not doing that now.” And then he meets her again. And then he has you on his social media, you know? And then she goes, “Hey, is this policy changed now? Are you kind of putting people up? Are you gonna put me up there?” And he may have not really thought about that.
And they argue about it, because it's now become a hierarchy thing, because he had this big, important policy about it. So it's understandable that she would react that way. It's understandable that you would then go, “Wait a minute, this is just a casual thing. What's, what's the big deal?” They've made it into a big deal. And then on top of that, when you said, “Why did he tell me any of this?” You were spot on. Spot on. Why do you need to know about any of this? It's understandable yo say, “Oh, I had an argument with her”. But why do you need to know the ins and outs of all of this? And all it does is just stress you out? Because you're like, “Oh, crap, she's like freaked out to her pictures on social media. She wants her picture on social media. What does that mean? I thought this was casual”.
It's confusing for you, because you haven't established what non-monogamy really means. Other than this temporary that's supposed to be sexual only situation going on. And for you that's very separate and distinct. For him, it might not be so but because it's so separate for you, anytime people get into that realm of friends or more than just being a hookup, you're gonna freak out about it. It's understandable. It's understandable that this would freak you out. And there's really no reason for you to know all this. And then on top of that, for him to react
to you being worried about this, you know, first he— in the first situation, he reacts to you being worried by breaking off a chance with somebody. And maybe that wasn't the whole story, but that's how he reacts first.
And then the second thing, you have these feelings and you're kind of freaked out and confused about what this means for their relationship. And his response is to be distant and cold. And then say it's not going to work because you can't handle it, to basically put the entire blame on you because you're scared and jealous as if you're not supposed to have feelings. It is unfair.
You're 100% right. It is unfair, you haven't tried this before, and you're going to be scared. And even if you have tried it before, let me tell you something.
You know, the first— I had been polyamorous I can't remember how many years, maybe three or four years before I met my current domestic partner. The first time my domestic partner went out, and not even all night but just went out to a party where I knew that they would potentially probably sleep with someone. I was a frickin nervous wreck. And I had been polyamorous before I was just a nervous wreck. You're establishing new relationships with people. You know, even though you've been together for a long time, you've been long distance, you're kind of at this weird intermediary stage. You say you can't really do long distance very well. You're even pushing yourself to do this, because it's not something that really works for you in general.
So on top of all of that other stress, you're now trying also this new thing. So of course you're going to be nervous. Of course you're going to be scared. The first couple of times that you try non monogamy and your partner is with someone else you're going to be anxious as hell. It's normal, it's natural, that doesn't mean that you can't do it. And I— really bugs the crap out of me when people expect people coming from a monogamous society to just suddenly be able to do polyamory without any jealousy, without any anxiety. Because you know whether it's because he is not used to it. Maybe he's been polyamorous in so many situations with so many people who either didn't share their anxieties with him, or were just so experienced that they just weren't fazed about it.
Some people aren't fazed about it, that's fine. Some people go on rollercoasters, other people can’t. Different people are different. So maybe he's never had to actually manage a situation where his partner is anxious about it. And given how he's managing his other partner by telling you all of the ins and outs of what's going on in their relationship. It doesn't really seem like he's very good at managing that in general with anybody. But it's all your fault, though. It's all your fault because you can't handle it. It's just such bullshit. It's not fair. It's not fair at all. So yeah, I do think that this is a problem to acting distant and cold. Keeping you at an arm's length just because you have not so great a reaction— that's absolutely poor as fuck communication, and the fact that he's like, “You know, you're— maybe you can't handle it”. Maybe he can't handle it.
It sounds like he can't handle it. If he can't communicate in difficult situations— like it's okay if like you have a heated discussion and he needs to take a moment, like that's one thing, but for him to be like, put you at an arm's length for the past couple of days, because you had a nervous reaction. And I don't think that you were saying that she was disposable. And I do think that sometimes when people try polyamory for the first time, and they do have an established relationship with somebody, they do get to a point where they're so protective of that, that they are kind of looking at other people as disposable. But the thing of it is, it's not like you agreed to be fully polyamorous from the start, and that's the thing that kills me.
It's like, yeah, people have feelings and they're not disposable. But your original assumption of what this non-monogamy was in your life was that it was just for him to get like his sexual kicks while you are far apart from each other. So, of course, you're worried that there could be more to this relationship. Of course, you're worried about that. That makes sense. It's not like you're saying she's disposable and that her feelings don't matter. You're just like, “Well I’m confused that she's having these feelings because I thought this was casual”. And you're allowed to ask these frickin questions without him, you know, basically putting you in the naughty chair. Just absolutely ridiculous.
So yeah, and I think that to answer your other question, like, is it dishonest of you to agree to this if you know you will need to work through these big feelings and you're not sure how yet? It's not just dishonest with you. But the thing of it is, is if he's going to react to you having feelings by keeping you distant and cold, and keeping you at arm's length, it doesn't exactly give you total, any reason to share your emotions with him. It basically punishes you for sharing your emotions. So next time you are scared, you're just gonna want to keep it to yourself. Because the second you tell him he's gonna act like a big baby about it.
So it's not dishonest. A lot of people try non-monogamy try polyamory, try everything, not knowing how it's going to affect them. And to be honest with you, even if— you could be polyamorous for years and then you know something tragic happens, or you have a big life upheaval and all of a sudden, your mental health is all over the map and you can't handle the same things that you could handle the week before with the same grace. That stuff happens like it's not— polyamory it's not some type of higher level mental achievement that you get. It's not some type of upper level relationship unlock code that when you've meditated enough you achieve this— I didn't even know the right frickin words for it. But it's not it's not— It's not some higher level of thinking.
It's just a different way to do relationships. And people can be good and bad at it. Just like they can be good at bad at monogamous relationships, given the entirety of their surroundings and what's going on in their lives, it's not a zero some simple game like that. It's not at all dishonest of you to be like, “Hey, you know I'm gonna agree this let's just rip the band aid off” and I do think that instinct isn't a bad one. Because you are going to feel anxious so just get it over with. Stop waiting for you to just suddenly be okay with everything and just go let's just do it and manage it and cope with it and see how things go.
But because it seems like he doesn't want to deal with any unhappy emotions, and he just wants you to be okay with everything without him having to do any of that work. That's not realistic. That's what's dishonest. You know, you have to be able to come to your partner especially if you're trying something so new that you're not familiar with. You haven't been given the cultural tools to really take by the horns, you're gonna be nervous and you need someone you know, if not a polyamory friendly therapist, you need someone— a partner who is going to be understanding of that. It's okay to not know how you're going to feel about something and I think that's the other thing that if he had been you know, if he is more experienced in polyamory, the big thing here I see is you giving permission.
You're like, “Okay, you can sleep with this person. Okay, uou can sleep with that person” and the problem with giving permission and the reason why I always very much discourage people from feeling like they have to give permission is because it does feel like oh, you said okay to that person. Now, how do you take that back or It feels like once you've said okay to someone, you're not allowed to have any feelings about it. So in general, I would discourage that. And I kind of feel like if he was a little bit more experienced with this, he wouldn't be asking for permission, he would be like, “I’m gonna sleep with this person. And this is what this involves”, he'd be really clear with you. This is so unclear, like, you know, even though this has been given to you as “This is what we're going to do in the midterm of us moving in together, because I need, you know, to have some sexual relationships, and I've got some physical needs. And I'd like to do this well, until we move in together”.
This has been what's presented to you not, I'm gonna go and date and be romantically involved with other people. I think it's realistic of you, you know, I do think sometimes when people do that whole, like, “Oh, I'm only going to have sex with people. I'm not going to fall in love with anyone else.” It's not realistic. You know, the boundaries between friendship and you know, lover aren't always clear cut for everyone. And it's also like people don't want— not everyone wants to operate in such a cold way when it comes to like sexual relationships. People want to be friends with the people they have sex with. And that's fine. But none of that has been defined for you. So of course, you're going to be freaked out, it makes total sense.
So yeah, how do you make this work? You don't make this work. He helps— you both make it work. And he has to fix this conflict resolution problem, because you have to be able to come to him and this isn’t— even if you hang up non-monogamy and you don't try it again, like this is deeply concerning for other aspects of your life like this, how he is going to respond when things get tough is to keep you at an arm's length? Like you— You really need to. I think you both need to find a polyamory friendly therapist and talk this through. Because yeah, I do think some aspect of this is you're freaked out about it. You're gonna be freaked out about it and you do kind of have to— the only way out is through, kind of have to go through some of it, you kind of have to have him sleep with someone else and know that, you know, he's not all of a sudden not interested in you.
You kind of have to experience it, and know and live through it and know that you're fine in order to kind of get through some of that anxiety. But it's gonna be very, very, very, very, very hard for you to do that if the person that you want to come to for reassurance and guidance and patience is going to put you at an arm's length a second you have a bit of fear about something and is gonna chastise you.
And where basically you're in a situation where you need to prove that you can do non-monogamy because his ability to do non monogamy is totally you know, not a question. He can do it. It's you That's the problem— No, no, that's that's not a good approach. And it's not an approach that's going to even work for monogamy, let alone non monogamy.So he needs to whatever conflict resolution and communication skills he's employed the past he needs to find them and get back on them. Because this, this just isn't a way.
So to sum up, I think that it would be good for you all to start from a place of finding a polyamory friendly therapist, if that's an opportunity for you, because I do think you kind of need— when you have someone who's doing this kind of weird emotional stuff of putting you at an arm's length, it is helpful to have like a non— a non influenced party. But I do think you need to think about what does non-monogamy mean, in the context of your relationship? Is this just a temporary thing? I think you need to kind of maybe accept that, even if he is just seeing people for sex, that doesn't mean he's not friends with them, doesn't mean he won't go to social gatherings with them.
And it doesn't mean that they won't have feelings about how he does his relationships, but he needs to not tell you about stuff like that. Like he shouldn't really— and you know, you can say like, “Look, I get that, you know, you're my partner and I always feel feel bad that you have this argument and I don't want you to have arguments but mate I can’t— hearing this kind of stuff kind of freaks me out. So maybe I just— it's not that it's a don't ask don't tell situation. But maybe I don't need to know the ins and outs of whatever's going on in your other relationships, because it just kind of makes me a little bit panicked”. So, you know, I think that's fair.
I think that in terms of rules, whenever you establish a rule, think about what it's trying to prevent, and will it actually prevent it? Or is it just a way of preventing you from basically delaying the inevitable, which was kind of the first situation here. Like maybe it just didn't work out for other reasons, but he shouldn't pull the plug on something just because you're afraid. You need to experience that anxiety a little bit. And you need to have faith in your relationship together and know that it's going to last through that and go back to that kind of rock that you've built with each other and try and hold on to that and just know that it will be okay. You just kind of have to go through the anxiety a bit and he needs to let you have that anxiety.
He needs to figure out why he's being standoffish and sort that out because he can't be putting you at an arm's length. This is not a game of you proving yourself to him and he needs to stop putting you in situations where basically his ability to do non-monogamy is unquestioned but yours isn’t. Like granted, you are new to this, but it doesn't help that he's making this into a — the second you have any negative feelings about anything, you can't do it, like he needs to be a lot more patient, as you said, with some of your feelings.
In general, there's no “ready”, whether you're “ready” or not for non-monogamy. I think you should try and get rid of that out of your lexicon because your ability to do any kind of relationship has a lot to do with what else is going on in your life. There are people sometimes who go complete hermit who have a really, you know, not great mental health. And their response to it is to stay at home and not speak to anyone. They don't even do friendships very well when they're feeling depressed. And that, you know is how sometimes things work. It's not a zero sum game “ready” or “not ready”, like different things are going to provoke anxiety and the fact that you're a part to the fact that you don't do long distance to begin with very well. is already putting pressure so you need to kind of keep that in mind and not set yourself up for failure basically, by making it seem like you need to go through this without having any feelings in order to effectively “do Non-Monogamy”.
And last but not least, this is a big concern in terms of the way he's communicating, he needs to not communicate this way. It's okay for him to remind you that this other woman does have feelings, people aren't disposable. But again, I don't think that comes from you just assuming that anyone he sleeps with is someone that can be easily tossed aside the moment you don't feel well. And more from a confusion of this discussion. You know, you assume that the non monogamy that was happening was about gratifying, you know, sexual needs and not necessarily about building other relationships. So it's just kind of a misunderstanding between the two of you have expectations and what non-monogamy means and if you had that conversation about what it means, how it's meant to happen, when is it meant to end and is it meant to end?
Because, you know, you say he isn't conventional. Is he going to be happy being monogamous for the rest of his life? This is kind of a big discussion y’all need to have and think about. And you can't do it all if he is going to put you in the proverbial naughty step the second that you have any feelings about it that aren't happy ones. Maybe he is not ready for non-monogamy to be honest, if he can't manage people's emotions, and deal with the negative feelings that any of his partners have.
So yeah, that about sums it up. I really hope this helps. And good luck.