It feels like I’m at the end of my rope right now. I don’t know what to do and all the articles and books I read and mental health experts I speak to don’t seem to help. Hence, I humbly submit the following to you.
I find myself in an open relationship with my wife whom I love very much. She’s been seeing a coworker from work for sex when I’m not around. This kills me. But more on this in a minute.
When we initially began the relationship, my wife was seeing a number of men…in addition to me. I was very possessive. I have since then read many books such as Ethical Slut, Sex at Dawn, Opening Up and more about non-monogamy but at the time I was still sorting out the Standard Model.
We set some ground rules about where we could have sex with others and about not hurting each other. These rules included restrictions on how our home could be used and rules around not hurting one another or our relationship.
In the beginning, I took it all very hard. I was very possessive. I tried to comfort my wife when she came to me with “Why doesn’t [other partner] love me?” I gave her advice. I supported her. But above all, I tried to make her mine.
More recently, when she got the hots for her coworker (closer to her age), I tried everything I could. First, I said “don’t tell me”; then, I said “tell me”; then, “don’t tell me” again. Then, I sought advice from all possible quarters including new books I mentioned before. Now, I’ve renounced my old ways. I no longer attempt to possess my wife.
In fact, I’ve made her life less difficult by agreeing to let her use the spare bedroom while I’m not there. The remaining stipulation were unchanged. She accepted. I love her very much. She loves me very much too. The conversations and debates we’ve had were nothing short of enlightening.
So what’s the problem? Here I am, on a business trip. I know my wife intends to seduce her coworker. I decided to nudge him too and told him to go for it. And I think he did. And she did. And last night I got barely four hours of sleep because all I could see in my mind’s eye was my wife and her coworker. It’s not even the sex. It’s the tender moments — her nuzzling into his chest, the cuddling, all that other tender stuff.
More variables: My wife says she’s not polyamorous (just non-monogamous), but she’s clearly pined for men she couldn’t have while still loving me. Is she wrong? I think I’m polyamorous (I also happen to be bisexual), because I’ve loved (and been in love with) certain men and women simultaneously, but, as I keep discovering time and again, my mind revolts against me when I try to force it back into online dating, going out, [sex work], etc. (all of which my wife encourages me to do); the emotional part of my mind wants none of it; it wants my wife to be all things for me.
Now, I know this is unfair and impossible. I just really, really, really need help with breaking this cognitive dissonance! I know how I must act, but why is it so hard. Moreover, all the reading I’m doing is suggesting that jealousy is still a normal factor in non-monogamous relationships
Is our relationship doomed? Or should I explain to my wife my needs better? How, even if she’s having a party on Saturday night, she can still send me a message back every once in a while to show me she’s thinking of me and/or cares about me? Or is this still wrong to want from her? Am I not being self-reliant enough? What is going on?
This…”crash course” in the “true nature of things” has certainly been hard, but I’m also quite an apt student. What am I missing? What do I need to be happy? Is there anything I can keep the relationship going without being tortures so terribly, or is it already forfeit?
I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with all of this emotional turmoil. It sounds really difficult to manage. There are a few things here I want to address.
- Non-monogamy vs polyamory
- Rules and their uses
- Emotional struggles
Non-monogamy vs polyamory
In your letter you’re concerned about whether you or your partner is ‘polyamorous’ or ‘non-monogamous’ and personally, while some people may find this distinction helpful in some regards, I don’t find it particularly helpful for you or your partner in this situation. One of the reasons I deeply advise people against having a rule where they won’t fall in love with anyone but one person is that not only can you not control who you fall in love with so easily but what love is and how one experiences is so individual and subjective that identifying the precise moment and your precise feelings about people in some situations is much harder than it seems.
People can be monogamous and still have the capacity to love multiple people romantically at the same time. Being ‘polyamorous’ isn’t necessarily about having the capacity to love more than one person but being specifically interested in developing romantic relationships with other people vs. others who may only be interested in sexual relationships without romance with others.
Now, I have argued in my piece “Why I don’t identify as poly” that I genuinely feel like someone define “love” in such a different way to me that I often see little distinction between them and swingers, despite them claiming how different they are to swingers. I personally use ‘polyamory’ and ‘non-monogamy’ interchangeably because of all of the reasons explained in my article but more generally, I’m not interested in defining something so individual and subjective.
Regardless, this distinction doesn’t seem like a useful thing for your relationship with your partner. What’s more important is to make clear how polyamory or non-monogamy actually function for you and what that means in real life terms — besides just whether or not your shared living space could be used. She may not know this being younger than you, but it’s worth you both thinking what your ideal set up is.
Do you want a ‘primary’? What does that mean for you? How many nights would you want your partner to be away? This obviously can and may change in the future, but thinking about this right now is a lot more useful than trying to define whether either of you can or will fall in love with someone else. That isn’t something you or her can control — even if you were monogamous.
Rules and their uses
If you’ve read a lot about polyamory, you’ve probably read a lot of people’s disdain for rules and to a certain extent I feel that’s warranted. I find that people often make rules in order to prevent the inevitable or delay it or control things that they can’t control. And several of your rules fall under that category.
It should be a given that no individual within a relationship acts in a way that would hurt someone they care about — but to a certain extent this can’t always be prevented. What’s really missing from this idea is the intent and even if that’s added, it should be a given, so why add it? You don’t have a rule that you won’t punch each other in the face, because that should be a given. The fact that you have rules about not hurting each other or the relationship really highlights to me that there is a fear here that this rule is trying to prevent that it cannot prevent.
A rule will not force a partner who has no consideration for you or the relationship you have to have that consideration. You cannot force someone who doesn’t care about you or the consequences of their actions to care by enforcing a rule. And the nebulousness of rules about hurting one another or a relationship means that you’ll end up trying to define what is and isn’t a danger to ‘the relationship’ based on your own personal subjective criteria which you may not actually share.
And to be honest, it’s also worth you both realising that ‘the relationship’ may be worth sacrificing if you’re incompatible. One should never value a relationship structure so heavily over one’s needs that it’s sacrosanct. Obviously all relationships, especially domestic ones, involve some compromise, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship you have with yourself and the one your partner has with herself isn’t important.
Making rules regarding a shared living space and how it is used is not necessarily ‘bad rule’ or a sign of you being possessive unless you’re making that rule with the full intention of it preventing your partner from being able to date others. You’re well within your rights to not want to have any associations with the people she dates and also well within your rights as an equal person in a shared living space to have an opinion on how that living space is used. That’s not possessiveness. That’s a boundary and that isn’t bad.
Likewise, you’re also welcome to ask your partner not to use you as a therapist for her relationship problems with others or even discuss it with you. I see you push-pulling in wanting to be told the details and then not told and my guess is that your drive to want to be told the details has something to do with thinking that hearing the details will somehow act as exposure therapy and ‘cure’ your jealous feelings — and that’s just not really how things always work. I personally don’t want to know the details. I’m happy to help my partners when they are struggling, but if I feel like they are going to me with what they should be going to a therapist for, then I will absolutely tell them that this is not a discussion I want to be involved in.
If you are struggling with the details, do without them. And most certainly, while you can comfort your partner if she is upset, you don’t need to provide her advice and be her relationship coach. Especially if you have a tendency to use that position to your advantage. It might be worth you taking a good hard look at these ‘rules’ and how they’re serving you. I feel like rules around shared living spaces are so obvious that they’re more about trying to prevent hurt than actually doing anything to help you.
You have to accept that you both may very well, albeit unintentionally, hurt one another. It’s more important that you think about how you’re going to deal with problems than trying to rule them out of existence. And that, in turn, will help you stop worrying so much in the end about how things might change if problems do come up.
Frequently, I highlight that people opening up their relationship, especially if they have done a lot of reading on polyamory, will often set themselves up for failure without meaning to. Especially if one feels more oriented towards non-monogamy, there’s an expectation that trying polyamory or opening your relationship will immediately lead to good things. When polyamorous relationships end, people tend to blame the fact that the relationship was open for why it didn’t last.
There is a lot of pressure on polyamorous people to prove the validity of their relationships by demonstrating how long they last or how committed they are in very heterocentric and monogamous-centric terms. So you end up hearing a lot about all the Benefits of polyamory and very little about the downsides because no one wants to add fuel to the fire of people who say non-monogamy is doomed to failure.
Especially people who think they have the most solid intellectual grip on non-monogamy can often find themselves frustrated and confused by their emotions when they actually apply it in practice. Although you might have heard “there’s no right way to do polyamory” there is a “right way” that is implied through the narratives of polyamory people put forth and that’s of a relationship which lasts until the death of someone in it and where no jealousy or negative emotions are ever felt. We never put monogamous relationships up to these unflinchingly high standards. In fact, people are welcome to joke about how marriage represents the end of someone’s fun in their life. So why do we put this on polyamory?
You keep asking what is wrong as if you have the expectation of yourself that you ought to be emotionally completely unaffected or chuffed by your partner seeing other people and think that, by having emotions about it, you’ve somehow ‘failed’.
But there isn’t anything wrong with you. You cannot expect yourself as a person who grew up (unless I’m wrong about that) within a monogamous-centric culture to shed your ideas about what this culture has told you all of your life simply be reading one book of massive assumptions about the way human beings lived in previous generations. One of my favourite quotes is:
“No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of [their] involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society.” — Edward Said, “Orientalism”
Every aspect of your identity and your life experience impacts the way you perceive situations and process emotions and that continues to develop and change as you come across new situations and encounter new problems you hadn’t before. You are two months into a marriage with someone you have only known for one year. In many ways, you are still building your foundations and added to the other issues you’ve had in previous relationships, you’re very new to non-monogamy. It makes absolute sense that you have feelings about your partner sleeping with other people. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.
Instead of trying to define yourself as a success or failure based on emotions you can’t exactly turn on and off like a tap, figure out how you’re going to manage these feelings. Think about where they come from and what they’re telling you about what you’re afraid of. A lot of people, when they experience these fears, try to respond by controlling their partner’s behaviour to stop the feelings.
And while that makes sense and may work temporarily, if you want a non-monogamous relationship and that is what your partner wants, it will only delay the inevitable. It sounds like what you need is reassurance and your partner can provide you with that but, as I mentioned before, having a good idea of what you both want out of non-monogamy can also ground you and help you feel less scared of what the future may hold.
Another large mistake people make in non-monogamy is reassuring their partner by saying things like, “I won’t love anyone but you” or “I care more about you than other people”. This is not only incredibly disrespectful to anyone who you’re seeing but is also unrealistic. What helps ground me in my fear of being replaced or abandoned is removing that responsibility off of my shoulders.
My anxiety is always trying to convince me I have control over things that I don’t so I can respond to fear in a way that appears constructive. When I remind myself that I cannot control whether or not my partner loves me and wants to be with me, it take the burden of being the perfect partner off of my shoulders.
Likewise, if you remember that there isn’t anything you can do, even going back to monogamy, to prevent your partner from falling out love with you and in love with someone else, you will stop trying to balance this precarious plate by seeking constant affirmation that your partner wants to be with you. Because likewise, talking the talk is not walking the walk. I’m pretty sure many people out there have been cheated on by someone who could reassure them with the prettiest of words.
This isn’t about being ‘self-reliant’. Because another big problem with polyamory advice that I find is that it labels every negative emotion as ‘jealousy’ and adds that ‘jealousy’ is one’s own responsibility to manage — as if it’s some type of possessing demon independent of the lives and actions of others that one has to exorcise oneself. We’re social creatures, as much as that pains the loner in me to want to admit.
And people do have an impact on our emotions and feelings. It’s important that we are self-assured, rather than self-reliant and that we take responsibility for our own feelings rather than expecting other people to take responsibility for them. So it’s less about you just sucking it up and ‘dealing’ with your emotions and more about you coming to your partner knowing you have these feelings and working with her on ways you both can agree she can help you.
Things are harder when you expect them to be easy and you will not be able to address and cope with your feelings if you are too busy beating yourself up for having them in the first place. But, I think you particularly need to be wary about how your needs may be partially some of that possessiveness you mention.
My intention in saying this is not to undermine your ability to understand yourself, but you claim that you have renounced your “old ways” all thanks to a single book you’ve read. While I don’t have any doubt that what you’ve read on non-monogamy has impacted you, I think you’re expecting your emotions and reactions to follow through with your logic.
One of my recent favourite books I’ve read is Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen which is all about fatphobia and the ways it can impact you. I learned a lot from it and it helped me immensely, but I cannot say, even after having read that book, that I have renounced my internalised fatphobia and I no longer attempt to judge people based on their fatness — that would be ridiculous. Because fatphobia is part of the society I live in and I’ve breathed and swum in it like a toxic river. As much as I logically may understand what is fatphobic, that cannot undo years and years of fatphobic conditioning via society and reinforcement from the people around me.
Likewise, with all due respect, you cannot just undo possessiveness by reading a single book, even if you logically understand why it isn’t a good thing for you to be. As I’m sure you can see, you still have a desire for your partner to be ‘all things’ for you. Now, one can be both possessive and inclined toward monogamy. It could be that these feelings are partly a sign of you being possessive but also partly an indication of you not wanting non-monogamy. I think it’s worth trying to manage your emotions in the ways I’ve previously pointed out before throwing in the towel. But what is equally as important is accepting that the path of learning and progress are not linear paths.
You want this answer to your problems and describe yourself as a ‘student’ as if going through life is as simple as taking an exam and getting a grade. Another big mistake people make when they’re opening their relationship is waiting to open it for a “good time”, assuming that they will reach some sort of peak mental health condition that will be ‘ideal’ for them to try something new. But that peak or perfect condition is a mirage. Because that’s not how life works. You could be in the best, most confident condition you’ve ever been in your life, open your relationship, and then the next day all of your immediate family dies in some horrible accident and that’s it for your ‘peak’ condition.
If you have a tendency towards possessiveness, then it’s going to take more than just a book to undo this. And rather than trying to purge yourself of this, it’s important to recognise it and work on addressing it and finding new coping strategies, rather than telling yourself how illogical it is and then leaving it at that. It would be helpful for you to do this work with a polyamory friendly therapist who can help you identify signs of possessiveness and working against that.
I highlighted before that your first rule wasn’t inherently possessive but mentioned that if you created it with the intention on it being such an obstacle for your partner that they wouldn’t be able to pursue other relationships, then it was an issue. You don’t say whether that was your motivation but consider this when you’re asking things of your partner. Are you, by asking her to send messages to you when she’s out, trying to use a need for reassurance as a cover for your possessiveness?
Are you trying to create such an obstacle for her in your actions that you make going out an impossible or stressful task for her? While I am not saying you are abusive, quite a lot of times abusive people can isolate their partners by their actions and responses to things. Rather than saying outright that their partner can’t go see friends, they will create so much drama when they do go out, they end up deciding not to for fear of instigating that reaction.
Far more than the books you mentioned, I recommend you read Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft which is all about abusive and controlling people. Again, I’m not saying that you are abusive, but you might find it useful to examine what manipulative behaviour can be and identify the aspects of yourself which lean towards possessiveness and control and figure out how to counteract that other than just outwitting it. That’s also worth working through with a therapist.
To summarise, the distinction here between non-monogamy and polyamory isn’t as important as it sounds and you need to examine what your rules are for and how they are or aren’t serving you both. You need to stop setting unrealistic expectations for your emotional responses and start being real with yourself about your needs and your behaviours.
I hope this helps and good luck!