Hierarchies causing paranoia

When I met the person (A) I’m seeing now, 5+ years ago, he was seeing other people. At the time I wasn’t particularly interested in anything more than casual anyways so seeing him occasionally suited me.

A few months in he told me that he was now in an open relationship with someone. The open relationship ‘rules’ he and his girlfriend had included no sleepovers, (which we never had anyways) and also that she wanted to know each time he met up with someone (presumably I wasn’t the only other person he was seeing).

Ultimately this didn’t make much difference to our situation, so we continued to see each other sporadically as before. We had several conversations about it, since I was curious about the idea of polyamory, having never really experienced it before. (I’ve had casual relationships with several people at the same time, but always stopped seeing the other people once it started to get serious with one)

Around 6 months in I started also seeing someone else (B) and it progressed rapidly. I considered how to keep both relationships going as I enjoyed them both for different reasons. B was very romantic, very much about us as a couple, very supportive, and very vocal about building a future for us together. A and I have a lot of interests in common, and we have a playful banter that I find irresistable. I asked A for advice on how to broach the subject of open relationship, which he gave me - be upfront and honest from the beginning.

I had one conversation with B where I asked him abstractly how he felt about an open relationship, and he said that while he wasn’t interested in pursuing it and wanted to only see me, but he was ok with the idea if I wanted to see other people. After some thought, I decided that it didn’t seem fair for someone to put all their energy into me and for me not to reciprocate the same in return, so I stopped seeing A, who wished me the best and we agreed to still be friends (although we had minimal contact for those years other than the very occasional friendly message).

Over 3 years later, B turned out to be one of the worst relationship experiences I’d ever had. He had lied, cheated on me with several people, and worst of all- gaslighted me. After a few months of discovering this, and some therapy, I managed to extricate myself from the whole unsavory situation and break it off for good. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since.

Around this time, I contacted A. He was happy to hear from me and we immediately picked up where we left off (he was still in an open relationship with the same woman). We saw each other occasionally.. and texted a bit in between. It was just what I needed after months of feeling unwanted in my previous relationship. Then COVID happened. We were all in lockdown, and I barely left my apt for months. A and I continued to chat via text, and about 1.5 months later I felt safe enough to venture out to visit him. He said he had been seeing someone else sporadically who also hadn’t really left her apt much too.

Things had shifted slightly during this time. He had split up with his girlfriend and invited me to stay the night. Over time we started to spend even more time together, 2-3 times a week. We were in contact almost everyday. He sometimes hung out with me and my friends, went away with me for a weekend in the summer, spent thanksgiving together with my friends. We continued to enjoy each other’s company (all this while I knew he was seeing someone else but I guess I never cared to ask for much detail). It has been just over a year since we started seeing each other, and about 8 months we have been hanging out since he split with his ex girlfriend.

Recently I’ve realized that I’ve developed feelings for him, when I felt jealous about hearing that he had made plans with someone else on a night that I had suggested to meet. Having not been a particularly possessive or jealous person in previous (monogamous) relationships I struggled with it quietly at first, trying to understand my feelings and why it bothered me (especially since I’ve known about his seeing other people all along). I realized that we had slowly developed a romantic relationship even though it had been undefined and hadn’t really been discussed. So eventually we talked about it all... how we both felt that this was much more than just a casual relationship, all the insecure feelings I was having, how he had approached his previous non-monogamous relationships.

He said he understood how it felt, having been through the same jealousy and confusion before when he first began an open relationship, of which he’s had 2. He patiently assured me that it was normal to have these feelings at first, and said that it was good to talk about it openly and honestly, asked how he could put me at ease, what ground rules would help me feel ok with it. It has been a few ongoing conversations that happen generally when I feel a little rattled about finding out that he has made plans with her. Not always, but sometimes, usually when Its a time I’ve suggested to meet, less so if it isn’t. I asked to know in advance when he was seeing her, so it wouldn’t be a surprise. He readily agreed to this. Then I said that like his previous girlfriend I prefer to be the only one that sleeps over. This he said was more difficult to walk back since the other woman and him had already been doing this, but that he would not sleepover with any other people he started seeing in the future.

I also asked about the nature of that relationship - he said they saw each other about once a week, and had no plans to increase the frequency. He told me a little about their connection, and tried to reassure me that it wasn’t as special as ours was to him. He has been seeing her for 5 months. She sees other people other than him sporadically too. There is also one other woman that he sees once every few months, that clearly isn’t emotional. No worries about that, in fact I think it’s pretty hot and like hearing about their sexcapades.

Anyways, I’m in a bit of a pickle. I think I am open to being in an open relationship, I'm in to the idea having other sexual partners, and am curious about meeting other sexual partners myself. I do however now feel the need to be the primary relationship, and that the surrounding relationships are casual, not emotional. But since his other relationship happened before we discussed any of it, it’s like a grandfathered situation. He insists it's not the same and that I shouldn’t feel replaceable but somehow I still have a niggling feeling that comes back every so often.

I don't want to ask him to end or some how de-escalate the relationship with her- to me it seems way too controlling and unfair(esp to her, even if I don't know her) I’d never dream of demanding that. I think anyone asking someone to do that would probably end up being resented anyways, even if they did agree/acquiesce to it. I also believe that by asking someone NOT to do something they’d likely want it more, so that’s counter productive ultimately.

So, it’s a bit of a conundrum.. How do I deal with these feelings I have? Is it reasonable to desire to be a primary person in an open relationship and for others involved to be secondary in this particular instance? I can’t help feel a little like I’m changing the goal posts/rules mid game. While I believe him when he says I’m the special relationship, I also can’t help feel like that could change at any moment should they spend more time together, and it makes me uneasy. Is it a case of learning to get over the jealousy and just trusting in him or am I not cut out for this and should I just leave?

You started as his “non-primary” relationship and that changed and shifted. Despite the rules his girlfriend instituted, their relationship didn’t necessarily last. I think deep down you know this, which is why you feel anxious. Although his reassurance should technically help, it doesn’t. I don’t think that’s what he meant, but this is what ends up happening when people give the kind of reassurance that your partner gave.

When one person holds the position of “primary”, inevitably this means that this is a position you can either be in and or not be in. Obviously, you’re going to want to be in this position and now that you have more to lose, you’re a lot more afraid of losing this position. You’re not necessarily jealous, you’re worried that what happened to his girlfriend could easily happen to you. Someone else could grow stronger and closer to him and if there is only one place for a “special” relationship, then you’ll always have to be vigilant that you can be replaced.

It’s normal to feel when starting in an open relationship, especially when you start having more feelings, scared to lose your partner and to want to have more stability. I think people get scared in monogamous relationships too, they just have more cultural scripts to tie them down and soothe their anxiety. You don’t have that, so you’re reaching for something to grab ahold of. And even though your partner is willing to provide it, the unfortunate side effect of being put on a pedestal is that you can be kicked off.

Having nervousness around this doesn’t mean that you’re not cut out for it. Negative feelings and jealousy is really typical especially since a lot has changed. Even if you dated previously but your relationship was different, it’s changed now so it makes sense that you would be nervous. I would suggest you and your partner not lean into your feelings. I wrote previously on this in a column called “When reassurance means denial” which might help.

I also wrote an introductory article which might help you and your partner find your anchors and figure out what you want out of non-monogamy and that might allow you to find something to cling to that isn’t a hierarchical polyamory position and also help you face some of these fears.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Subscribe to Non-Monogamy Help

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.