I am 34 years old, female and since more than 10 years I am in an open relationship with my boyfriend. We follow the concept of a “primary relationship” (so most of our daily life we live like a monogamous couple) but we are free to have external sexual contacts. Most of the time we meet people from our broader circle of friends and sometimes we meet people that have nothing to do with our hobbies or social surroundings.
Our relationship has a very solid ground, but (as you can imagine) the openness keeps us emotionally busy from time to time. Especially I am struggling with the classic feelings of jealousy, fear of loss, conflicts of consensus and so on. But I (and we) managed to conquer most of it and I am much more relaxed compared to our first years.
There are still many “construction sites” we need to work on, but there is not much which deeply makes me feel insecure when it comes to our future. Only this one thing keeps eating me from the inside (if that’s a correct English metaphor): the fact that my boyfriend had (and I assume also will have) a large number of female sex partners, I would say the double of what I experienced. And I am aware that neither will I turn him into a different person (like, a less sexual/attractive person) nor do I want to restrict his openness.
What makes me feel desperate is the simple fact that there are so many people out there in this city, who know how my boyfriend looks naked and what it feels to be in bed with him. It concerns me so much that I already evolved a type of paranoia. Sometimes I even look at people in the metro thinking “who knows, maybe even she was already in bed with him. Who even did not go to bed with him?”. It's absurd, I know. And I am also aware that there is a notion of sex-negativity coming with it, that I can't avoid.
Though I am exaggerating a bit, it is still true that many women surrounding us where in bed with him, and it is overwhelming me constantly (even though there is no current case), every time I think about it. It automatically leads to feelings like inferiority, helplessness and anger. It has the power to make me lose my ground, to feel insecure about my role or my place in our relationship until I am no longer able to feel why I am special or not in the place to be compared with others. It's like I don't know how to act or to think about that fact. I don't find my position.
And so many times when I find out about “another name on the list” it just weakens me a lot and I would just like to feel indifferent about it. But the feeling is too strong that I feel beset, and that way too much people are too close to my life and my relationship. I think it's not the problem that I cannot handle it at all, it just feels like it's too much, that my patience is always challenged and that I don't have enough “openness battery” to digest these informations.
In a way I feel so dumb and also “poor” being on his side, having to arrange myself with his quantity of intimate contacts. I think one big factor of the whole story is my strong strive for justice, balance and equality. In my head and heart it feels impossible to perceive our roles as equal when I have to face so many more people around us that have been sexually involved with him. In my ratio I know it has nothing to do with a number, but more with the way how we treat each other and so on. If I could make a wish I would like to have a recipe how to not take it personally that my boyfriend does what he does and how to feel unimpressed by all these women.
Long story short, until now I didn't find any articles or podcasts referring to that problem. The question of not feeling devalued just because your partner has a large number of sexual contacts, that most of the time are part of our circle of friends. And let's imagine the future will be different. Let's imagine my partner will calm down a bit because of changing life circumstances (which truly is the current perspective), how can I arrange myself with his past?
How can I evolve a relaxed feeling about many people out there knowing my boyfriend in a sexual way? I simply don't know how to find peace with this fact and I just want to be aware of it without getting deeply desperate every time I think about it for some minutes :-( I am talking to my therapist about it since some time and still we don't find a way out. And also we are seeing a couple therapist since two months now and it's great, he is great. But still, I was just asking him about my problem today and he didn't have concrete ideas of how to help me out.
I hope I managed to make my point.. there is much more I could describe and tell you about, but I suppose in the core you know what I am talking about. Also it's not that easy for me to express myself in English..
I would be really happy if you have some ideas or suggestions for me and maybe some reading advices. Because, being honest, until now your writings gave me the most satisfying perspectives. Because you seem to take everything into account, while being authentic and very close to the emotional reality of many people, without idealising anything. I like that :)
There are a variety of issues that are going on here. First, I want to say that it’s not necessarily completely unreasonable to feel insecure about the number of sexual partners your partner has had. There are a lot of cultural factors that would encourage you to feel this way in addition to some of the issues going on in your current relationship.
It’s worth remembering that, unless where you are located is wildly different, we are encouraged to see partnership as a competition where we consume to be “the best”. Even if you don’t logically believe this, you’ve likely had a lot of messages throughout your life telling you that you need to be X, Y, or Z in order to be attractive and gain a partner. For women in particular, there is a lot of pressure to somehow be both sexually experienced but not have sexual experience.
Even if you are a woman who doesn’t buy into those ideals, it can be hard to escape that pressure. Women are also encouraged to believe that their true value is what they can add to a man’s life and that their primary goal in life, beyond careers and anything else, is attracting and keeping a man. And that’s just for starters.
You have a relationship where you are a “primary” and while there may be many upsides to this way of doing this, it does mean that there is essentially an MVP slot in his life that only one person can fill. When you create this type of hierarchy, with it comes the fear that you will replaced by someone else and it does compound your fears.
When you’re coming from a monogamous-centric culture, you have to remember as well that it’s taught you that exclusivity is the ultimate sign of devotion and meaning. Given that, we can feel like we are only special with someone if they are exclusive to us in some way. I think this has a knock on effect when it comes to sexual partners.
Without a doubt there is an aspect of sex negativity and even some slut shaming that is impacting how you feel about the number of people he has slept with but it seems less motivated by shaming him or seeing him as disgusting and more of a concern about what it means for the meaningful times you have with each other.
Something that might be helpful is reminding yourself of your own experiences. It doesn’t take away from your experience with your partner when you have sex with other people. He doesn’t mean less when you have other experiences. And it might be helpful to remind yourself of that. I wrote a polyamory intro article that might help you figure out how to reframe your fears and find an anchor that can bring you back when you’re afraid.
It might also be helpful for you to remember that there is an aspect of your brain that is trying to prevent you from hurting or feeling pain. Especially when you are out and about and your brain decides to go into a bit of a spiral wondering about who he has or hasn’t slept with. While I can’t say what’s true for everyone’s anxiety, I can say that my anxiety is usually trying to help in a sort of weird backwards way. It might be that your brain thinks worrying about this is going to change something. It’s less about stopping yourself from having these thoughts or feelings and more about recognising what their goal is and realising that worrying about this isn’t going to change anything.
In addition to working with your own personal therapist about these issues, I think what might be helpful for you is to reframe your fears and think about them within the context of the world you’re living in, the pressures you might be facing, and the culture you’re around. Your partner could also provide you some reassurance about how important you are to them and what your relationship means.
Lastly, give yourself a bit of a break, especially since it doesn’t sound like you’re using these emotions as a reason to control your partner’s behaviour. You’re aware it’s an issue and you’re trying to work on it. That’s the best you can do. Having these feelings doesn’t mean you’re a bad person and it’ll be harder to work through these feelings if you’re punishing yourself for having them.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Comments from the therapist
A reframe that occurred to me: Look how desirable my partner is! I must be hot stuff for him to choose me as his primary!
I focus on the power of being consciously chosen by partners as way to help soothe anxiety with some of my clients. I wonder if her thoughts tend towards comparing herself to these other partners and thinking she's lacking, rather than thinking how magical she must be for him to prioritize her.