Regretting Agreements

Sometimes we say yes to things we don't want to ease our partner's anxieties or transition into non-monogamy.

My partner and I are in our twenties, unmarried, no kids, full-time students, dating for three and a half years, living together and practising non-monogamy for a majority of that time (approx. three years).
The journey has certainly been punctuated by all the fumbles, frustrations, faux pas, and foibles that one might expect when straying from the culturally normalised, institutionally supported, and interpersonally validated (for the most part) way of relating that is monogamy.
Which is not to say that I would or will turn back - which I could not consider for even a second! - as, despite the bumps in the road, both severe and mild, non-monagamy to me personally is incredibly rational, fulfilling, natural, reflective of my ethical beliefs, incentives broadly positive relational attitudes and habits, and is overall meaningful to pursue. Again, that is how I feel about it personally. I'm not trying to say that non-monogamy is inherently any of those things in all cases. Also, to be evenhanded, I'm not trying to imply that monogamy is inherently evil or something to that effect. Simply that, for me personally, it works.
But what about my partner? How does she feel about our near three year stint as non-monogamists (is that a word?)? For simplicity, let's call her S. How S feels about non-mongamy is somewhat confusing and tricky for me to parse, I must admit. S told me this morning that at the beginning of the opening of our relationship, she accepted the proposal initially just to appease me. S further clarified that she was nevertheless open to the idea of non-monogamy, but was not particularly fussed to try it. Which I read as a sort've apathy towards the prospect.
This was somewhat alarming to me as, during the time of our opening-up, I very frequently and very explicitly said to S that if she would like to put non-monogamy down because she didn't like it or didn't want to pursue it, then we can have that conversation. I made a point of doing this because the thought that she would simply acquiesce out of fear of losing me was painful and - in some sense - contradictory to the whole endeavor. Over time, I have come to see that was the right point for me to emphasis, as if S has gotten herself into a situation that she didn't want to be in from the beginning, when her refusal was invited, then it is on her for not showing up with that crucial information.
Since then we have 'paused' once, at S's request. Which was justified with reference to some personal issues S was having at the time in relation to her mother, attachment issues, and her self-worth. S believed that the non-monogamy was perturbing or worsening her state, and was even suggesting that we close our relationship all together.
At this time, I had really started to enjoy the openness, and had just started dating around three different women aside from S. So, by way of compromise, I suggested a pause of sorts which she agreed to. We paused, I then explained the situation and ended things with the three aforementioned women I was starting to date. It was very jarring, painful, sad, and awkward. The cherry on top of this whole pause-scenario is that S's issues persisted for months after the fact, and only subsided when she saw a therapist...Naturally.
I felt at the time that I was somewhat obliged to agree to this pause in order to demonstrate that S and I could stop the non-monogamy if she wanted - harkening back to our early days, when I made the option explicit. I know this is contradictory and non-sensical, as, if I wanted to show her that we could close our relationship, we would just close the relationship. But, at the time, the cat was out of the bag on my end of things, and I couldn't bring myself to accept closing completely. So, we compromised on the pause.
Which brings us to the issue at hand. Essentially, up until a month or so ago, S hadn't dated or expressed interest in dating anyone else. Then, she developed feelings for a coworker and confessed them to me. I had only just met this coworker, and we had hung out with some other friends a couple of times.
S then asked me if I felt comfortable with her pursing him, and I responded with a resounding yes, without hesitation. I also added that she didn't need my permission to do so, but she deemed it necessary. Now, here's the interesting part, because I knew coworker, and we got on really well, for S to pursue him would technically break a rule that we took on board at the start of our relationship:
The no mutual friends rule. I was happy for us to abandon this rule and treat mutual friends on a 'case-by-case' basis. Excited to test the bounds of this new non-rule, we started probing our social network, asking each other who we would feel comfortable with the other pursing (I hesitate to say 'who we would give permission for', but, really, that's what it was). 
Amidst this conversation a particular name came up, M. M is a mutual friend of ours from university. I had first met M when we had a class together, and a friendship formed from there. We started catching up nearly everyday on campus, having many conversations with each other, meeting each others' friends, etc.
Then I introduced M to S, and the three of us would hang out, as they got on quite well. I had been crushing on M for a while and - during our conversation about friends - brought her up. What followed was quite the decisive 'No'. I have since found out that S didn't feel comfortable with me pursuing M because 1. S felt as if she would not be able to continue being friends with M in that context, and was worried about how her negative feelings would impact their recently established friendship, and 2. S felt insecure or threatened by M, in particular about how much time M and I would spend together at campus (even through M and I were there 5 days a week, whereas S was there only 2).
Over the ensuing days or weeks, I couldn't shake a feeling that this was somewhat unfair. As, S had then started dating coworker, who was technically a mutual friend of ours, I have been nothing but affirmative, encouraging, and supportive of their relationship since, and we had just gotten rid of the no-mutual-friends rule. I have feelings for M, and expressed that. S made a point about this that I do appreciate, namely that there is a difference between coworker and M as I'd only met coworker twice, whereas S had known M for months by this point, and they genuinely had started a friendship.
The real kicker came when I came up with the perfectly analogous situation, but reversed...A mutual friend of ours, who was friends with S first, became friends with me later, and who hangs out with S more. We'll call him J. I seriously thought about S developing feelings for and wanting to pursue J, really attempting to empathise with the hypothetical situation, and was completely fine with it! I'd be will to try absolutely!
I also began looking around for resources on dating mutual friends, and heard about people who claim that they basically only date mutual friends. When I read stories like that, and the like, it all made so much sense to me. I'm hard pressed to think of any realistic person that we both know that I would not be comfortable with her dating - excluding like creeps, dickheads, fuck boys, etc. But even then, I don't know if I could even hard veto it. Like, to veto a potential relationship my partner wishes to pursue feels like an overstep, or inappropriate in some way for me personally.
At some point after that initial conversation, I met up with M for coffee, and, to cut a long story short, the topic of having sexual relations with friends came up. There was some intense eye-contact, some reaffirmation that we both are open to that, some coy blushing, and we left it there. I walked away feeling quite elated, admittedly, as it was as good a hint as any that M would be willing to explore different aspects of our relationship together.
I brought this up with S, and asked how she felt about it. I wanted to clarify if it was romance (so-to-speak) that she was uncomfortable with, or sex, or both. Again, S was uncomfortable with all of it for the same reasons. S then proceeded to emotionally shut-down, grew very quite, started getting teary, and removed herself from the conversation. S has had a habit of having these sort've disassociative episodes overcoming her during stressful times in the past, although I hadn't seen it in about six months, as the aforementioned therapy really helped her with it.
S has some dependency and attachment issues, that can be quite severe at times - usually manifesting in episodes like this. At this point in our relationship, however, having helped her through many of these episodes, having spent many hours talking to her, comforting her, holding her while she cries, they are somewhat triggering for me now - especially when I'm trying to have a conversation about my feelings and needs, and about how we can find the best path forward re: M for all parties involved.
I know that could make me sound like an asshole, focussing on what I need while she's crying, but I've grown very, very tired of this co-dependence, and it has been the only emotional support that I've ever given to anyone - in my life - that has given me fatigue and burned me out on multiple occasions. A very good friend of mine, who is also S and I's housemate has aptly said to me that this dynamic is one of S being a bottomless bucket, and myself being a vast but nevertheless finite ocean. He says I'm quite empathetic by nature, and always have time to provide emotional support, but, in a codependence situation, these otherwise good qualities could hurt me rather than help me.
After her episode, I go for an hour and a half long walk in the rain, and chat on the phone with one of my non-monogamous friends, and S stays home. I return later, and we fall asleep. It's quite the next morning, we make coffees for each other. Conversation starts happening, but S is still in somewhat of a sad mood. Day goes on and she perks up. We chat about everything, and, ultimately, I accept what she's saying, and commit to not escalating things with M. I feel great, happy, in love, grateful to be with S etc.
BUT, later that day, driving to band practice, I couldn't help but wonder...Did my emotions this morning change so quickly from sad to happy because S perked up?! Did I only feel good about not escalating things with M, because the tension of S's mood since the episode the night before, and our silence into the morning, had lifted? I had never realised this until today, but I think I may have been placated.
That's the whole story, and I am so confused about what is happening. I don't really have an explicit question, aside from the whole business with M, as I still would like to escalate that; But I'd really appreciate your input on this weird dynamic of being made to feel safe and happy by a partners lack of emotional term oil only to then potentially agree to things you otherwise wouldn't; on the equality vs equity thing about how mutual a friend is determining permissibility to date, as well as the method of going 'case-by-case' with friends when one partner clearly has a way higher threshold for tolerating and trying more mutual friends than the other; This whole bit about S wanting to be able to Veto people but me not so much; And if it sounds like to you that our whole arrangement was kind've defunct from the start. 

There’s a lot about your agreements that I don’t feel were good to have from the beginning. It’s actually not such a huge issue that S didn't have tons of interest in pursuing non-monogamy on her own. I myself don’t enjoy dating that much. Non-monogamy for me isn’t really something I choose because I love getting out there and meeting new people. I’m actually very rarely attracted to anyone.

The thing I encourage most people considering non-monogamy to do is first and foremost ask themselves if they could date someone monogamously who has a time intensive career or hobby which means they won’t be spending the time most people might expect out of a monogamous relationship because on a basic level, agreeing to any form of non-monogamy is agreeing to a situation where you may not get as much time with your partner as you would typically expect in a monogamous situation.

When it comes to the next step, in my opinion there needs to be something that someone personally gets from non-monogamy that isn’t just saving the existing relationship and avoiding a breakup. Now, while many people can be inspired to try non-monogamy because they’d rather try it than break up, I feel like an expectation adjustment is really needed. Agreeing to non-monogamy to save a monogamous relationship doesn’t work if you have the same expectations of that relationship in the same way agreeing to a long distance relationship doesn’t save an in-person relationship if you have the same expectations of that relationship.

For some people, even those who aren’t compelled to go out and date loads, non-monogamy can still offer them plenty of positives especially when it comes to freedom of choice and ability. However, even someone who has a huge interest in dating others may still experience a load of anxiety when their partner dates someone else. It’s understandably normal to have anxiety.

The personal reason you have for wanting to do non-monogamy can help anyone cope with that anxiety. However, someone who lies to themselves may still find themselves in a situation where they’re trying to force a square peg into a round hole and that’s something that an individual has to decide for themselves. It’s not the worst thing in the world to try and save a relationship by trying non-monogamy to find out it’s not for you, but it’s obviously a lot more rocky for many people than just breaking up.

I feel like the situation you have here is that you’ve attempted to protect your partner from experiencing anxiety about any of this by agreeing to things you didn’t want to agree to and things which are explicitly contrary to what you want your relationship to be like. I understand people’s desire to close a relationship when they experience a lot of anxiety but ultimately, I don’t think it helps, even when people get therapy to address whatever “issues” they think they have (and actually, they may not be having “issues” — it could be that non-monogamy is just not for them). It’s very similar to refusing to date anyone until you’re psychologically “healed” or perfect — but actually a lot of our relationship issues are healed within relationships and you can’t address the anxiety or learn to overcome it without experiencing it.

Rules around whether or not partners can give you “permission” I personally feel like cause anxiety rather than help it because once someone’s said “yes”, they often feel like they can say no. At times, giving people a chance to avoid anxiety rather than go through it and understand they will come out the other end just find often exacerbates the anxiety. However, I don’t blame you for agreeing to these rules and trying to find some type of situation where your partner could do non-monogamy and be “okay” makes sense. It can be really difficult to sit in the discomfort of your partner having turmoil and not want to pull the plug on that.

I think before assuming that S has all of these issues that need to be addressed or going further with other relationships, you need to have some foundational discussions with S. Could S choose a relationship that is monogamous but has a partner that doesn’t spend a typical amount of time with them? Even if S has little interest in dating until they met this other person, has their experience with that shared friend changed their opinion about whether or not they feel they have a personal interest in non-monogamy that isn’t saving your relationship? Would they continue non-monogamously with someone else if your relationship ended?

Once that sort of thing is figured out, I think it might be worth renegotiating the aspects of your relationship. What’s the purpose of the “no mutual friends” rule? What is it meant to solve? If you think that it will prevent you from breaking up, ask yourself this — the rule of monogamy is agreed to by both partners but it doesn’t prevent someone from falling out of love with their partner and falling in love with someone else. You’re both trying to protect yourself from experiencing jealousy and awkward emotions instead of accepting that may be part of the situation and trusting that you both can go through it together.

Personal anxiety fundamentally is about a lack of trust in yourself and very rarely is it actually about whatever it is you have anxiety over. I used to have health anxiety about any given thing and as soon as I got rid of a fear of one thing, a new one would crop up. Even if I “solved” one part of anxiety by either doing something or creating a rule (e.g. I have anxiety about my throat closing so I’ll avoid any food that gives me a panic attack), the anxiety would just move on to something else because fundamentally, I lacked faith in my ability to take care of myself. I had to have self-compassion and build faith in myself by sitting through my anxiety and realising I was always there for myself. By avoiding things I was anxious about, I was actually reinforcing the idea that I can’t be trusted with my own feelings.

So relational anxiety is often similar. Having a fear that you’ll date a mutual friend and this may create problems conveys a lack of faith in your ability to work through your own emotions as individuals and problem solve the situation together. Do you make rules about who picks the takeaway place you go to? Probably not because you have faith you can work it out together, so you don’t need to create a rule around it. Even though you could have a blowout argument over what to eat for dinner, you still have enough faith in your relationship that you don’t need a rule that won’t prevent that argument from happening.

If you constantly put up these rules in fear that you’ll break up, even while it seems like you’re trying to solve the issue, you’re actually reinforcing a lack of trust you both have in each other and your relationship and that makes coping with the natural ups and downs people may have when it comes to non-monogamy even more difficult. So, I would suggest you have a review of all of the “rules” you’ve set up and agreements you’ve made and ask yourself if these will actually prevent the things they’re designed to prevent. Ask yourself if you can’t cross these bridges when you come to them. Already your “no mutual friends” rule did not prevent either of you from being attracted to a mutual friend so… is it worth sticking to?

Also, in general, I would really — both you and your partner — try to re-think the story you’re telling yourselves about the feelings S has been having. I feel a little bit concerned about S believing the narrative that they have “issues” and they are “traumatised”. While I don’t know what S has been through, your approach has a lot to do with your emotional resilience. If you continue to tell yourself that you have “issues” and you are “traumatised”… I don’t know if that helps.

When it comes to you supporting S in this, I think that it might be worth S diversifying her sources of emotional support and you maybe seeking therapy yourself with learning how to set boundaries around what you give and what you do. From this I can see that you seem to end up agreeing to things or giving up things you ultimately don’t want and it leads you into feelings of resentment and frustration. Consider for a second that it might actually make S’s anxiety worse because she can’t always trust that you’re saying “yes” to something you actually want to do. Is it just that S has issues? Because it’s very difficult to have agreements or trust in the words of someone who, either knowingly or unknowingly, has a habit of agreeing to things they don’t want to do.

I think if you can have a basic discussion around your wants and needs (review my 101 and 102 articles and there is an exercise in my book The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy that’s around discussing your ideal polyamorous set up), what your anchors are, how polyamory fits into your life, and what your ideal set up looks like then you can proceed to re-examining the rules you’ve set up and asking if they should still apply. You could get a polyamory friendly therapist to help you work on this. I’d say in the meantime while you’ve decided on this, it makes sense to put things with M on pause, especially since it would also be fair for M for them to know where other relationships fit into your life overall.

Also working individually on coping with anxiety and you in particular coping with setting clear boundaries and not agreeing to things you don’t want, will also benefit both of you regardless of whether or not polyamory is something that you end up wanting in the future. I think once you have a good foundation set up with each other and things are clearer, you may both experience a lot less anxiety — though it definitely still will happen because that’s pretty typical for most people regardless of their past.

Last but not least, make sure to forgive yourselves and each other. Most people start off “bumpy” in monogamy, they just tend to forget about the mistakes they make when they’re younger. Self-compassion is a pretty big part of coping with anxiety better so be sure to give yourselves a break.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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