I'm new to the world of ENM and after lots of time spent reading– I'm more confused than ever!
Before I get into all of it, I guess my concerns can be boiled down into two questions: 1) Is it possible to co-create an ethically non-monogamous relationship in which the majority of attention/ focus is placed on the primary partnership and other relationships are kept "casual"? I ask if it's possible because a lot of sources that I'm reading about ENM seem to suggest that such structures are extremely difficult to maintain and even naive, as people often fall in love with others. 2) Is it possible to do so ethically?
To question 1-- When my partner and I got together, he was very upfront about the fact that he wanted to create an ethically non-monogamous relationship. I'd say I'm a bit more oriented towards monogamy than he is, but ENM has interested me for a while and seems to align with my values. We decided to only see each other for the beginning of our relationship as we got to know each other and to then open things up down the line. I have been very clear with him and myself about what structure of ENM I think will make me happy:
Our relationship is a "home base," we prioritize this relationship in terms of time/ making plans for the future/ emotional support, there is an intention that outside relationships are "casual" and more like hook up buddies rather than other serious, committed partnerships (I say intention instead of rule because if one us wants something more serious with someone else, we'll have a conversation about it-- it won't be like someone did anything bad).
None of these are "rules" and I would only want to continue with that structure if we both continue to feel good about it. We don't have the strict "outside relationships can be sexual but not romantic" limit because it doesn't really make much sense to either of us. I know it's impossible to control feelings, and he doesn't feel like "romantic feelings" and "casual relationships" are mutually exclusive. At the same time, I just don't think I'd be happy in a non-hierarchical polyam situation. I really enjoy the sense of building "a home" and future with one romantic partner.
My partner says this structure also sounds fulfilling for him. He's a bit more open to a non- hierarchical situation in theory. But as he says, "I'm choosing to be with you and I know this is what you want, so I'm more than happy to do it."
But is this structure just doomed to fail? Am I being naive in thinking we can maintain it?
And towards my second question-- I'm super confused because so many ENM sources indicate that requesting limits on your partner's relationships with other people is unethical and controlling. I'm not interested in having veto power or commanding that he do things, but I do want to have a sense that I can voice discomforts about his actions with other people, and that those discomforts will be taken seriously. For example, if he started seeing someone really frequently, I'd like to be able to say, "Hey, this feels like your relationship with ___ is getting more serious and might be outside of the structure we initially agreed to. If I'm correct, I feel uncomfortable about that. What do you think?" That doesn't necessarily mean he has to end that relationship.
I mean, that could be one outcome of that conversation if he decided to do so. But it could also look like, "I know that I still highly value being your primary partner and I don't know if a non-hierarchical situation will feel good and happy to me. What are your thoughts around that? What do you want? Is there a way we can work with this other person so that there needs/ wants are being incorporated into that structure if we both decide it's still what we want?" I guess what I'm getting at is-- Is there a way to strike an ethical balance between influence and control? Where my partner might make decisions that ends up limiting his other relationships IF AND ONLY IF it is ultimately his decision, albeit one that is influenced by my wants and desires (given that I'm an important person in his life, and we've both said to one another that we want each other's feelings about situations to influence our decisions).
We have of course decided to be upfront with future partners as soon as possible about these things-- that we will prioritize our relationship in the above mentioned ways and that there is a chance our relationship may influence other relationships. But is it still unethical going into this knowing full well that we may be influencing each others' relationships.
Anyways, I know this is a lot! I thank you for reading this and would love to hear your thoughts :)
The issue I have with your first question is that a primary partnership and “casual” relationship necessarily mean the majority of attention and focus is placed on one “primary” person. I believe you could have a primary partner without necessarily focusing the most on them at any given time, but I think other relationships being “casual” doesn’t negate the meaning they have to the individual. It just might mean what is expected and agreed on in terms of time commitment. Basically, “primary” is really up to how individuals define it. Your assumption that building a home with one partner and not another means one means more to the person than the other isn’t necessarily true.
Not all non-hierarchical polyamorous people are solo polyam people. Some do build homes with others and sometimes multiple people. I would probably encourage you to challenge that perception. It’s possible for someone to have serious committed relationships with multiple people and actually live with only one. Some people don’t wish to live with any partners. That doesn’t mean that they don’t care as much about those partners as people who live with their partners.
The definition of “ethical” at it’s basic means that nothing is against explicit consent or hidden. Any structure where people are consenting to what’s going on and happy with what’s going on is technically ethical. Codependent relationships can be technically ethical. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, if agreed upon, can be ethical. That doesn’t always mean they’re healthy or good for the people in them or outside of them. Your structure is ethical if you agree on it. Is it fair for the people who come into contact with your partner? Probably not. But they can choose not to engage with your boyfriend based on that. I think to pretend like what you have *isn’t* a veto power is, to be blunt, lying to yourself.
You want the structure you want because, to put it simply, you want to matter more to your partner than other people. A lot of people don’t see this as an ethical choice because it’s not really what polyamory is about and you can’t matter more without others by default mattering less. You’re focused a little more on what this means for you without really thinking about what it means for the other people involved. You’re assuming that more time spent with you makes you mean or matter more, which isn’t necessarily true. And the deciding factor of this all hinges on whether or not you feel he’s spending too much time with other people, rather than his own desire to choose. He’s doing it because you want it, not because he wants it. Which means it’s ultimately your decision and based around your comfort, rather than his. Even if he agrees to go with what you want, that doesn’t mean that it’s not based on your decision.
It might be worth you considering why it is you want the structure you want. You don’t mention a specific desire to buy a house or have children (which you don’t need to do to build a home together), which would be a reason to want to make sure he shared in those goals and was willing to put forward towards them, especially given how the division of labour in households tends to be unequal, but you specifically want his other relationships to mean less than yours. You assert this isn’t a rule, but… let’s be real. It is a rule. You want hierarchy and you probably want it for an understandable reason - you’re scared of breaking up. Will this intention/rule actually prevent that from happening? If monogamy doesn’t prevent people from cheating or leaving their partner, this intention or rule is not going to be able to stop your partner from leaving you, if that’s what he wants to do.
This is ethical if you both decide you want to do it and if he is honest with others about it… but that doesn’t mean it will prevent you or anybody else from heartbreak. You can request limits on your partner’s relationship with other people and they can accept those limits, but I think it’s worth asking if that will prevent what it is that you think it will prevent. I think you’re being a bit naive in assuming that coming to him and saying, “I have a problem with the fact that you’re spending time with this person more than I’d like” isn’t going to be seen as a request for a change of action. Already you’re coming to him with a “What do you think about prioritising me above others?” and he’s going, “I don’t want to do that, but I will for you!” Already he’s sacrificing what he wants for what you want. It stands to reason that would be a pattern that would continue.
Even if you don’t outright demand he leave someone else, if you’re demanding that he spend a certain amount of time with you and not others… then you are kind of demanding that. He’s making this decision for your comfort and not the other way around. I don’t know if it’s fair to call it “control” because he is consenting to it but… it’s not really going to matter for the person that ends up being at the receiving end of this. Whether you call it influence or control, whether you call it a rule or a limitation, whether you think you’re executing a veto or not… it’s someone else who basically gets to have their relationship decided for them. If they agree to that, then that’s fine. But a lot of people wouldn’t for an understandable reason.
Relationships “fail” for all sorts of reasons. There isn’t going to be a magical structure that’s going to ensure the survival of your relationship. Even if your partner wanted monogamy and never wanted to sleep with anyone else, that wouldn’t mean your relationship is built for “success”. Monogamy won’t even necessarily ensure you have the majority of your partner’s attention or even their agreement on a shared goal in life.
I think what you need to do is consider the reasons you want other relationships to mean less. Consider exactly how much time you want from your partner. Consider whether your rules/intentions will actually solve what you think they will solve. Consider the feelings of the other people who might be interacting with your partner. Consider whether if time spent with you is the only way your partner can show to you that he is intending to build a home with you and what that means. Consider whether your assumption that building a home with a partner means hierarchy and that non-hierarchical polyamory means not building a home.
If he is happy to have flings and casual sex with others and that works for him, then it can work for you both. But I wouldn’t just hope that he doesn’t have feelings for others and that you don’t I would assume that it could happen. And what will happen if he doesn’t want to just dump that person because you’re uncomfortable. Can you commit to the idea that your partner may not spend the majority of their time with you? And is he already compromising by agreeing to a hierarchy if that’s not what he actually wants? It might be worth talking through this with a polyamory friendly therapist in the end and thinking about how you both manage conflict so you can address these situations when they come up.
I hope this helps and good luck!