Can an aversion to non-monogamy come from relationship anxiety and trauma?
That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.
What have you changed your mind about in terms of how you want to live your life?
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I am a queer, AMAB, non-binary person, and most of my adult life I identified as a cis gay man, which I mostly still pass as (at 27 yo). I have never considered or wanted to pursue non-monogamy before in my life.
A bit over a year ago, I met Dean. Dean is queer and has sexual and romantic attraction to people of all genders. I was instantly smitten by him and asked him out after meeting a few times. A month into the relationship, when things were clearly getting serious, we had a discussion about what kind of relationship style we wanted. This was something I was nervous to do because I could tell from our talks that he thinks about sex and relationships very differently than I do.
For him, romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships can all overlap, and our relationship is one that happens to be sexual and romantic and exists in the quilt of his many other friendships, etc. I have deeply emotional and intimate friendships too, but they are all platonic. Sexual and romantic attraction are inseparable for me. Dean is 25 and never has had a long-term or committed relationship like ours before.
In that conversation in the early part of our relationship, he said he had "never been interested in monogamy before," but agreed to have a monogamous relationship with me. I immediately started seeking therapy from a sex therapist for help understanding my deep aversion to non-monogamy and past sexual and emotional trauma, because I love him, really want our relationship to continue, and quickly realised I have relationship anxiety.
I wanted to prepare to be able to consider a request from him for non-monogamy at some point. I didn't brush this potential problem under the rug. I'm still working on this though, and in seven months of therapy I have really only gotten better at talking about it and recognizing that my anxieties stem from past relationship traumas. I'm working on managing the anxiety, and Dean has been so supportive and caring through that.
In our sporadic check-in conversations since, Dean has said he hasn't felt like he's sacrificing anything to be with me in a monogamous relationship and he feels fulfilled romantically and sexually by our relationship. That is, until this past week. Two friends of his have been dating for three years and one wants to pursue non-monogamy and the other doesn't. The one says "she doesn't think monogamy" works.
In our conversations about it, I could tell Dean agreed with her. When I asked him directly, he said that was true, which really hurt me because I feel like our relationship is "working." We're still in the "honeymoon phase" but I'm stupidly in love with him and we have a relationship in which I feel really safe, loved, and cared for (despite my anxiety). Now he says ultimately he does want to have a non-monogamous relationship, and I still feel like I can't give that to him. The idea of him with other people makes me feel really horrible–debilitated even–and wracked with anxiety.
I don't feel like non-monogamy is wrong or gross. I feel excited that there are people who are happy and thriving in consenting non-monogamous relationships. As a queer person, I understand the liberation of loving who and how you want to. I also reject a lot of the gross power dynamics and toxic possessiveness and jealousy that pervades a lot of (white cis hetero) monogamy.
I just don't want non-monogamy for me, both for practical reasons (I am introverted and busy and don't want to dedicate that much of my energy to maintaining multiple romantic/sexual relationships), and because that's just not how I feel about romance and sex. I can feel within me the ability to love other people like I love Dean at the same time, but I find so much joy, vulnerability, safety, and love in waking up every day and choosing him and being okay with not knowing those other possibilities!
I feel so good about that decision. No FOMO here. I don't think I will feel good about that anymore if I don't feel like that is reciprocated. These feelings also make it really hard to understand where desire for non-monogamy is coming from in others and empathise. For people I'm not dating, that's okay! I don't have to get it! Now I am struggling and feeling deeply like I am "not enough" for Dean.
Dean says this is part of who he is. I really really want to be able to give that to him and to stay with him, but when I think about opening up our relationship, I immediately feel deeply violated. I can already feel myself turning into the most nasty, toxic, insecure horrorfest when I think about a life where he is seeing other people. I don't want that for either me or Dean!
He says he doesn't need non-monogamy to happen now, and he wants to be okay with this being unresolved, enjoy our relationship together, and figure it out as it comes. I feel like it has put an expiration date on our time together, I just don't know when that date is, and this is going to be an enormous elephant in the room from here on out.
And now it doesn't feel like therapy is working towards feeling free of trauma and societal expectations so I can have an informed and reasonable conversation over opening up the relationship IF that happens, but that I have no choice but to work to change who I am for WHEN this happens.
Anyway, I guess my question is what can we do? We both want to stay together a lot. I am trying to be open with Dean (who I trust deeply because he is a good communicator and has always been honest with me) and talk about it, but it feels like we are at an impasse, and also feels like fixating on it will wreck any other joy that we have. It also feels cosmically unfair! I don't know what to do. Thanks for reading this ridiculously long email, and apologies for not keeping it more brief.
There’s obviously a lot going on here. I super related when you said “cosmically unfair”. Just because I've been in a lot of cosmetic unfair situations myself, I think that the first thing that I would do if I was in your situation and what I encourage people who are in this situation to do is ask yourself if you can see yourself being monogamously with someone who has a time intensive career or hobby. And the reason why I asked this is because I think that even if you are monogamous to someone who is polyamorous — and that does happen. You can have someone who is monogamous to a polyamorous person and doesn't date other people.
The biggest difference between a monogamous relationship and a non-monogamous relationship is that someone who is non-monogamous will not be spending the vast majority of their time with you, and a monogamous relationship can have this. I think when you have someone who is a lawyer or a doctor or someone who works long hours, or who might be away for long periods of time, that is something that even if you are monogamous, you might not be able to deal with. So, dating that person won't work.
Another kind of thing to think about is like long distance relationships. A lot of people can't do them monogamously or not. So if you can see yourself being with someone who has a time intensive career or hobby or isn't around all the time or isn't fully focused on you, that is the first small step. The feeling of anxiety and being like wracked with all of this kind of tension when you think about your partner being with someone else: I don't think that that's necessarily a sign that you can't do non monogamy, because there's some people who really— they're voyeurs and they really like the idea of their partner— and they think about it and it's hot.
Some people even if they are non-monogamous don't think about that and they're not necessarily interested in that. And that doesn't necessarily mean you have a don't ask don't tell situation, but they don't sit there and dwell on it. It's not something that they're interested in. So I don't think you should definitely see that as a sign that it's not meant for you. Especially because you do think that some of those feelings are coming from past relationship traumas. So I don't think you should see that as a bad sign.
If you decide okay, he doesn't have to spend all of his time with me, that's fine, that's kind of like a first step. I think that the next step is: is there something, anything about that situation, that could be of a benefit to you? And it's funny that you say that you're introverted and like busy and that's like a big reason — that is kind of the reason why I am interested in polyamory, or non-monogamy, actually. Because I am introverted, because I don't like partying, I don't like dating. I don't like. I’m not attracted to many people I don't have what a lot of polyam people seem to have which is, “I just like so many people”.
And I'm not making fun of them just saying that like I’m not like that. I'm not a free love hippie type of person, I don't fall in love with everyone that I see. I'm barely ever attracted to anybody, to the point where like, if I get a crush, I'm like “oh my god it's happened again” because sometimes I think I will never have another one. That's just me and the reason why I'm interested in polyamory is because, if I am interested in somebody else, then I want the freedom to be able to pursue it.
And I want to also be able to have friendships that are close that could maybe become non-platonic without having to worry about it being too close, or, you know, being a bother like all that toxic shitty stuff you mentioned about not necessarily inherent to monogamy itself. But all of that stuff that brings up. It's just a lot easier. Also I like being alone, and like my partner going off and being with somebody else… Even if I want to live with another partner and I want to wake up with next to them, you know, sometimes I also like my alone time, so that can actually work quite well.
Just because you're not like a like social butterfly, doesn't mean that it won't work for you. When you try and separate this, that feeling of not being enough all that anxiety that is one thing and I do think that is something that you can work through. And that also quite an understandable feeling of not being enough but I'll get to it in a second. If you can separate yourself from that and think purely as an individual. What is a benefit that you could see for yourself in a non monogamous setup? Even if it's just having the house to yourself once a week.
There can be some benefit to you because like I said, there are situations where people are monogamous to a polyamorous person, and that does work fine for them, but they just have to be okay with them not spending all the time in the world with them. And also, there has to be some kind of benefit for them. And it can't and really shouldn't be a benefit that involves keeping this relationship and that's going to be really hard for you in this situation because it does kind of seem like that's the biggest reason that you want to try is to keep Dean in your life.
But there has to be something separate to that, because there's an issue that I'm seeing — from the get it seems like Dean has made it clear to you that in terms of how he sees relationships, he doesn't see romantic sexual partners as being better or more important than friends and stuff like that like it's all kind of mixed. And I feel like you've kind of ignored that a little bit in your head. He's agreed to do monogamy with you but just because he has agreed to be sexually and romantically exclusive with you, doesn't necessarily mean he's changed his mind about how relationships work.
And even if he continued to be monogamous with you that is still a big issue, because you're kind of assuming a hierarchical structure in a way that isn't even there now. Like you're kind of allowing this agreement to do monogamy, sexually and romantically, to redefine it in your own head, to give you a kind of a false sense of security of what this relationship means in context with the other relationships that Dean has.
If you kind of remove that web of safety that you've kind of put that isn't really there, you're already kind of in a relationship with someone who isn't necessarily going to prioritise you or believe in prioritising a romantic sexual relationship over other relationships. It sounds like that's the way Dean does things. I could be wrong, but it does sound like that's the way he does things so you might be kind of pulling the wool over your eyes a little bit right now already.
So thinking about “okay already, I'm kind of doing that”, thinking about that, and trying to understand what benefit you could get out of it might be a little bit helpful. If you can find a benefit for it that’s just for you, that is something that you can hold on to, when you're dealing with this stuff.
The next big thing is that you not feeling like you're not enough. It's a very very understandable thing. Going through the process of trying to figure out what it is that you could— you would want out of Non-Monogamy as an individual might make you empathise a little bit more with the desire for non-Monogamy and maybe that non-Monogamy isn't for you. But it's not about not being enough, and it's really hard to explain that.
The best way that people have been able to explain that to others is using the example of like if I go out to eat. If I want to go out to a restaurant, it doesn't mean that my partner is a shitty cook, or that I don't like it when they cook for me. Another way that I always encourage people to think about it because it's probably the easiest kind of example for a lot of people, if you have one child having another child or wanting to have another child doesn't mean that that one child is not enough.
And you can even think about it in terms of your friends. You might have very close— and you said you have very close emotional relationships with your friends. Wanting another friend or building a relationship with another friend doesn't mean that the friends you have are shitty or that there's anything bad about them. And we are encouraged within the society that we're in, even if we're queer, even if we try to break free of it, we are encouraged to think of love as a scarce resource that we have to compete with each other for.
And that if, you know, finding a one partner means that everyone else doesn't get that and that that scarcity is what you need to find and therefore need to buy all these products for blah blah blah. If you challenge that idea in your head and you try to think okay. There might be situations where in a way you aren't enough. There's always going to be somebody out there that's better at something than you regardless. But it's not easily about that for most non-monogamous people.
They don't choose it because one person isn't enough for them. They may identify that they have a personal need for non-monogamy and variety, and therefore communicate that in a way that is “well one person isn't enough for me”, but it's just a little bit more complicated than that. The other thing that might also be helpful for you and understanding your anxiety and understanding whether or not this is for you is that monogamy and the way that it's encouraged in society gives us a false sense of security.
And you can look this up when it comes to like “the relationship escalator” and everything else, you end even in this relationship that you're in now you have assumed your safety in this relationship because monogamy itself, as well as all of the signs of “progression” in a relationship a lot of things are kind of built on this cultural script. Going through the script, even as a queer person, going through the script is, in a way, encouraging to us, it shows us that our relationship is “committed” that things are more rooted, that things are grounded, that everything is going by the script. So is fine. It's safe.
There are people who have been together for 20 plus years, who break up. All relationships have an expiration date. There are no guarantees rather in life that anything will last. Just because you're monogamous doesn't mean your relationship will last. And also, if your relationship doesn't last, it isn't immediately a sign of failure. For me that has helped my anxiety. If anything. Realising that I have not as much control as I think I have, and that I need to, because my anxiety works on trying to make me think I have control over situations, because I've been in a lot of situations where I haven't had control, and that's been scary and I've been hurt yada yada yada.
But the point is, you can't control every aspect of everything. And you could break up with Dean, go and find someone who definitely wants to be monogamous for them with them for 50 years and get cheated on. Nothing is guaranteed. So you shouldn't assume that there is somehow more safety in monogamy than there is in non-monogamy.
To just challenge the person who said “monogamy doesn't work”. I really hate that. It does work for some people. It depends on your expectations for what you want in monogamy. Like if you want a relationship where the other person never has a sexual thought about another person but you. Yeah, probably that doesn't work. But monogamy in and of itself as just two people who don't date other people. That does and can work for a lot of people. It really irritates me when people say that. Monogamy does work and it might be that monogamy is what works for you. And it doesn't have to be because you're traumatised.
That's another thing that I want to say. Yes you might have a lot of traumas connected to the idea that your partner doesn't want you. Even within the context of a monogamous relationship I would still encourage someone who felt like they weren't enough to explore those thoughts, question the assumption of the safety that monogamy brings them, to build a relationship with themselves where if they aren't enough as their partner does leave them. They are still safe within themselves.
But, it doesn't work for everyone. Choosing monogamy doesn't mean you're insecure. Choosing monogamy doesn't mean that you are traumatised and broken and just need someone to commit only to you because you're too jealous or anything like that. That's just not the case. It is a choice that some people want to make just like some people want to be child free. Being child free doesn't mean that they're scared to have kids. That could be one reason why people would choose to be child free because they are scared that they will pass their anxious shit on to kids, raising my hand here.
But that isn't the only reason and that also doesn't mean that people should have kids anyway. Equally, choosing to have children doesn't mean that you're afraid of death, and that you are obsessed with your own ego and want to pass on your legacy. There's different valid reasons for why people choose different things in their life, and it doesn't mean that there's a problem with them as they choose it.
So, it may be that you just want monogamy, and as you've kind of explored it a little bit already in your letter. It might just be what you want because that's the lifestyle that you want. When I've asked you if, can you see yourself being with someone who has a time intensive career hobby if you said no, then no. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. It's just not what you want. So if it's not what you want then you shouldn't try to shove yourself into a box. And, and do it. If you don't want to.
As you said like the therapy isn't going to help you if you feel like it's not a choice. So, yeah. The other thing is, I am a little bit worried and I understand Dean’s like 25 and hasn't had a long term relationship before. But the thing that really worries me about the situation is that Dean agreed to monogamy in a way that made it seem like — to you at least — that it was going to be the choice. And only didn't really bring up until two weeks ago, that “hey actually at some point I may ask for non-monogamy”. And it would be one thing if from the beginning when Dean said “You know what I'd like to try monogamy, but I don't know if it's something that I'm going to want to do for for a long time.”
If he had presented that to you from the beginning, then I would have been like okay well he's been fully honest about that. I don't know if Dean’s being honest with himself. And I think that this confrontation will not really confrontation but this. Basically, seeing this breakdown in a relationship between your friends and then go “actually do you know what I think I do want Non-Monogamy!” It's not going to be easy for you to just relax and smell the roses. When stuff is shifted like this, that's really hard to deal with. You're being pushed and pulled out of your safety and comfort zones. And that's hard regardless of whatever lifestyle you decide to choose.
I hate the word lifestyle, hate it, but it is kind of a lifestyle. But the point is, like — I don't think Dean did it maliciously doesn't sound like Dean did it maliciously, however, that is still a really big concern. If he wanted to have to try monogamy. I feel like he should have made it obvious to you from the beginning that this was a trial. And it doesn't seem like it was obvious to you. It seems like you thought “okay we're doing monogamy, but I'm just preparing myself, to see if I might be able to do non-monogamy, and maybe who asked for it the future”.
But you haven't had that signed, sealed and delivered. Now you've had it signed, sealed and delivered — that's very different and it’s— to just be like, “well, we don't know where this is going, just like relax” like I do think that sometimes you can just have a relationship and just because it ends doesn't mean your failures, and that you don't have to expect a relationship to last until one of you dies. But it's like you said, it's like the elephant in the room now. And it's put an expiration date that you didn't really think about. I mean, all relationships have an expiration date, but it put a new dimension into this that you didn't factor in.
And it is a sudden thing and so it is very difficult for you to feel safe and comfortable with someone who has kind of just shifted their mind a little bit on something that's quite huge. A good example to compare it to is, is the decision on whether or not to have kids and I think that's just such a good comparison because if you had agreed “okay we were definitely not going to have kids, because I have all this trauma about children and I don't know if I'll be able to handle it, but I'm going to go to therapy and see if I can work that out and in case one day you asked me if we can have a family” and then all of a sudden he's like “yeah definitely I'm going to ask you to have kids one day”.
That's very, you know, like — it worries me that he doesn't realise how jarring, that is for you. Because it's going to be hard enough to kind of cope with attempting this on top of having to also deal with the fact that he's kind of changed the game on you a little bit. So, to sum up my response to this — ultimately I can't tell you whether or not you can, or are non-monogamous. Some people feel innately non monogamous. I don't personally necessarily feel that way, but I do feel like monogamy isn't something that I would ever want. However, there are things that you can go through, as I've said, that can give you an indication of whether or not this type of way of doing things, is something that you can do, even if you were monogamous to a polyamorous person.
And those are the things I said: can you see yourself being with someone with a time intensive career hobby where they don't spend all of their time with you? Can you find a personal benefit to non-monogamy that only applies to you, that isn't saving this relationship, even if it's being home alone every once in a while? Because like I said being introverted can actually work really well with non-monogamy. You don't have to be a social butterfly, or a free love hippie to be interested in it.
If you can find a benefit and if you can see yourself being with someone who has a time intensive career or hobby and can accept the fact that Dean won't spend 100% of his time with you, then I think you might want to consider working on this concept of unpicking your assumptions about safety in monogamy, really challenging yourself a bit on the assumptions you've made so far in the relationship that because Dean is sexually and romantically monogamous to you that that suddenly means he defines relationships, the same way you do because that isn’t— I don't think that's true. And I think there probably needs to be more discussion around that.
Challenging some of the safety assumptions that you have will really help. I wrote a article called “13 mistakes people make when they try polyamory”. I think that's what it's called. You can find it on the website. That talks about the beginning steps of finding your anchor, challenging some of your fears, challenging some of the assumptions that you make that can really help cope with the anxiety of it. I don't think that just because you have anxiety or disgust or fear or worry when you think about your partner being with other people that that means that you can't do non-monogamy.
Because that can sometimes be just part of what you've learned about the scarcity of love from the culture that surrounds you. Another thing is, I do think you should potentially find a polyamory friendly couples therapist for you and Dean, even if Dean is a good communicator as you said, it's a little bit worrying that Dean— It seems like there was a miscommunication. I’m not saying it's wholly Dean’s fault. I think that there's some assumptions made on both sides but it seems like when you agree to monogamy your assumption was that non-monogamy might come up, but that it wasn't a definite, and now it's a definite and you need to address that. miscommunication.
Even if it's that Dean didn't really realise that it was that important to him until now. It's something that you have to work out together. Like how important is it actually? And there's another bit in the article that I mentioned and what I advise people generally when they start out in non-monogamy is thinking about what their ideal situation is, and seeing if there's compatibility. Because both of you could be non monogamous but still not compatible. Being non-monogamous doesn't inherently mean that you're compatible or that you want the same things in life. So working out what the ideal state is can then help you get further down that road.
I think that if you can— If you're fine with him not spending all this time with you. If you can work on some of these feelings of not enough and challenging some of your assumptions of safety. If you can find a personal benefit out of being polyamorous, or non-monogamous for yourself. And if you can have discussions with Dean about why this miscommunication happened, and figure out how to avoid it happening again. Then, it might work out. You might be able to try being non monogamous.
You might be able to deal with some of these fears and stuff that you've been through before and push through that. I wouldn't say that you're always going to be happy because anytime you start something new or try something new or change up what you're doing and you don't have a cultural script to go by, you're going to be frickin nervous. It's going to stoke anxiety. Don't expect it to be easy. But I don't think that just because it gives you anxiety that it's not worth trying. Or that it's not something that you can do just because you feel anxious.
So yeah, if you can go by the steps, give it a try. If from the out, you're like, “Nope, I wouldn't date someone who's in the army. I wouldn’t date a doctor or a lawyer who was all the time at the office” or whatever then I just don't think that even the kind of monogamy that you would want with other monogamous people would work for you, let alone this relationship and you might have to— If you can stop and enjoy the roses, if you can
enjoy the aspects of a relationship that you have with Dean, understanding that it might come to an end, then, do that.
But it sounds like that— if this is not of any interest to you whatsoever — it does sound like that would just be a little bit of a waste of your time. Unfortunately, if what you want is to find one person and settle down and do that whole shindig, then there's no point in wasting your time. You know, maybe you have to kind of what they call de-escalate your relationship. Be friends and define your relationship that way until you find that person that you actually want to do that with. But yeah, I can't tell you if you can or can't do, non-monogamy.
It comes down to a couple of things that you have to be real with yourself about. And it's really hard. And, if there's one way that you feel strongly, don't ignore your strong feelings and stay because even if you think, yeah, breakups hurt. It's not a fun thing. It’s a sucky thing. But it's always much much worse to sit and let resentment fester or to sit and try and lie to yourself and pull the wool over your eyes and think that you're safe. When you're not or think that things are going the way that you want. When you're not. It's always much much worse for to do that than it is to break it off, in my experience. So yeah, I hope this helps and good luck.