Non-monogamy without the turmoil

I am in an eight year relationship that has been mostly monogamous. The past few years we started dabbling in opening up but initially with the idea that we would never “go all the way”. We started reading the books and meeting lots of people in various non-monogamous relationships and a lot has changed in those few years. Even though we have been doing everything together, we have found through these explorations that one of us is much more about being sexual (always together) while the other (me) is more into the relational side of things. It’s hard to talk about this difference with my partner because he’s afraid my interest in others means a disinterest in wanting to stay with him. I know we are supposed to move slowly, but it’s hard when it seems like we aren’t moving at all. How should we go about making this work for us without turmoil?

There are a couple of things going on here that I want to address.

First caveat: Controlling emotions with rules

One of the first things I would say to you and any other non-monogamy newbie is this: rules aren’t inherently bad, but trying to control your own emotions or feelings with rules will never work. You may be able to control your actions in not going ‘all the way’ (and I’m not sure if this is referencing sex or a relationship in this context), but you won’t be able to stop yourselves from developing feelings for anyone. And you certainly aren’t capable of slowing down your ability to develop feelings for people.

So don’t try to set any rules about how your feelings develop. You both should accept that, regardless of your intentions with non-monogamy, feelings happen. And there isn’t anything you can do about that.

Second caveat: Fun in pairs

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the fact that you have different motivations for pursuing non-monogamy, but I am assuming by ‘always together’ you’re saying your partner only has interest in pursuing non-monogamy if you both are doing everything together.

On the surface, pursuing things together definitely seems like fun and almost a ‘safer’ option than pursuing things alone, but I generally would advise against this. Polyamory or ethical non-monogamy is circled around individuals developing multiple romantic relationships, whereas swinging is more about couples trying different sexual things as a couple. It sounds like swinging is not something you want but might be the non-monogamy your partner is thinking of, but maybe he’s only thinking of that because, as I said, it seems ‘safer’.

The swinging crowd is a very particular type of crowd, generally speaking, and you are going to struggle to find individuals who want to focus more on building a relationship than just sex. I feel as though you compromising would end up with you getting the short stick. However, when it comes to polyamory, there are plenty of situations where polyamory on the surface can be just like swinging — but with the capacity to extend into a romantic relationship or something that’s more established and frequent.

So I feel like, if your partner were to compromise and you both entered the polyamory crowd, it would probably be more successful in terms of getting what you want: although you would probably have the most luck acting independently rather than sticking together and dating as a couple.

If your partner’s desire to do things together comes from a place of feeling ‘safer’ that way, especially given his fear that your desire for other romantic relationships is somehow a reflection on your satisfaction with him, that is something that you’ll need to address head on. Choosing a relationship style based upon fear isn’t going to get rid of that fear. He might feel more ‘safe’ in the situation he wants but… it’s not going to eliminate the fear. And in general, when you try to avoid confronting fear, I find it only tends to grow bigger.

If you are going to do non-monogamy, you’ll both eventually have to face the head on fear of losing each other to someone else. Instead of trying to handle this through rules and only doing things together, try reinforcing to each other what you mean to each other and establishing a firm understanding between you both of what your relationship means and how it operates within the non-monogamy you practice.

And also, accept the fact that you will feel nervous and scared! This doesn’t mean anything bad about either of you, but rather an accurate and understandable feeling whenever you try something new.

Third caveat: Different strokes rule the world

Inherently, you both could be interested in non-monogamy for two different reasons — and it can still work for both of you, so long as you understand what you mean to each other.

In my relationships, I know that I want a primary domestic partner I live with and share a large amount of my time with along with other partners I can see occasionally but not necessarily rely on. I may only have one other partner. I’m still dating around, so I can’t say for sure. But my ‘polysaturation point’ as they say, may be 2 people.

My primary partner wants very similar things to me with regard to having a primary domestic partner to live with and share a large amount of time with. However, he’s much more interested in casual things than I am and some of the more sexual aspects of exploring other partners, rather than developing only one other long lasting relationship. His needs are much different to mine. He has several other ‘partners’ which mean different things to him. Myself in his same situation wouldn’t be happy and would be overwhelmed— but we’re different people.

It sounds like your partner is interested in non-monogamy primarily for the advantages it can bring in sexual experiences, which is valid and fine. He can share some of those experiences with you (if and when you want to) but it’s also valid and fine to be more interested in the advantages it can bring in developing new and other romantic interests. I would suggest you both talk to each other about what each of these brings to your life and why you’re interested in it — though you might not get it!

I still don’t ‘understand’ why my primary partner enjoys some of the things he enjoys, but I don’t have to really fully understand it, because he’s also explained to me the important role that I play in his life and what I mean to him. And when I get worried at times, I seek reassurance in that I do have that important role with him and that works for us.

Don’t assume you both have to be interested or pursuing the same things in non-monogamy. You really don’t! You may get the occasional worry, but as long as you speak with each other and reaffirm things — and sometimes just weather the storm that worry brings with it, you will find that you will come out the other end just fine.

Other general caveats

Whenever people open a relationship up, they often make the mistake of ‘asking permission’ before doing things from the other. It makes a lot of sense, but I feel like ‘asking permission’ is a stressful and difficult thing that only works if everything is fine and can feel really horrible if everything is not fine.

When you mention that you’re not ‘moving’ at all in your non-monogamy, I feel like the problem is that you’re trying to move together and you may not be able to. Moving together when you both have very different motivations for pursuing non-monogamy will get you stuck in a gridlock. If my partner was to wait until I found a date before ever having one well… considering how much I hate dating as a form of finding new partners, he’d have to wait forever.

There isn’t any reason for you to move within non-monogamy together. Instead of assuming you’re both on the same ship, moving through the same ocean, you should see it as one of you is going by boat and one of you is going by train. Check in with each other and make sure you’re okay, but don’t wait either by asking permission or trying to ‘slow’ things down for the other person.

Unhappy feelings aren’t always a sign that anyone is doing anything wrong. Sometimes we get scared. That requires reassurance. Right now, rather than putting your relationship pursuing on hold because your partner is scared, you both should be reaffirming what your relationship means to each other, talking through fears, and trying to reassure one another.

But also be aware that reassurance doesn’t cure fear. And sometimes you have to weather the bad feelings, come out of the other side and see that the other person has still stuck around in order to really experience a decrease in the fear.

Batten down the hatches

It’s always good, in addition to reaffirming your relationship, to be prepared for some of the likely scenarios that may happen and discuss what you’re going to do when those situations happen.

Many likely scenarios include:

  • One of you is getting loads of dates while the other is getting nothing.
  • Important appointments between your dates and other partners’ dates clash and become an issue.
  • Who you confide in about what and when it is and isn’t appropriate to tell someone something.
  • Meeting other partners and when and where this should happen.
  • Being in the same room or in the same event with your primary and another partner and how to conduct yourself.
  • Special places or activities between the two of you being shared (or not) with others.
  • When to talk about difficult feelings and safe words around being overwhelmed and needing time alone to process.

Now, one of you may find throughout this process that non-monogamy just isn’t for you, and that may well be the case. You also need to think about how you’re going to bring this up and what may happen to your relationship if that is the case.

As part of this, you really should, in explicit terms and detail, come up with a sexual health agreement between the two about the types of protection you use and at what points you use them with others. I’ve found that definitions of what entails ‘risky sex’ can vary wildly between individuals, so do be explicit.

Remember your ‘secondaries’

The other thing you need to remember is that, sexual or no, you’re going to be involving other people here who have their own emotions and feelings. They are moving at their own pace too and it’s not fair for them to have to always be subject to the whims of your relationship.

While you may be ‘primaries’ in this sense, you still need to be up front and honest with the people you are engaging so that they don’t get stuck emotionally in a situation where they feel deeply for you and then get the rug pulled out from underneath them because one of you are afraid.

Make sure you don’t lead secondaries into a false pretence of thinking and be clear about what your priorities are with non-monogamy throughout so they can be emotionally aware of what’s going on.

Don’t interpret negative feelings as failure

And last but not least, you’re asking how to navigate this ‘without turmoil’ and my immediate answer is that you cannot navigate any situation in life without turmoil.

Understand that monogamy is culturally defined as something which can be difficult and miserable. People make jokes about it. Whereas non-monogamy has this constant happy PR problem. Because so many see non-monogamy as impossible or inherently doomed, non-monogamous people are under constant pressure to be happy about everything. And I think that spells disaster sometimes for relationships.

It’s OKAY to be scared, afraid and upset now and then. It’s OKAY to have rocky periods and times where you’re afraid you might break up. It’s OKAY to cry, to feel your stomach drop to your feet and a gut punch when you see something you’re not used to or don’t expect.

If you start from a position of accepting that you both may feel these things, you can focus your energy on planning on how you’re going to address and cope with it, rather than denying it until it blows up in your face. Accept that there may be turmoil. That’s the nature of the beast of any relationship, non-monogamous or no. Try to trust in one another and trust in the bond you’ve created and that will help you come out of the turmoil to the sunshine on the other side.

I hope this helps and good luck.

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