Relationship broken? Add people.

To get straight to it, I am a queer black woman and I have been in a relationship with another queer black woman for about eight years. We were friends before for about 4 years and always had a crush on each other but never got together because we were always in other relationships.
We never cross the lines of friendship until one day neither of us was in a relationship and decided to finally date. We started dating in our early 20s around 23 or 24, we are now in our early 30s so we have been through financial strain, unemployment, career insecurity and all the many things normal 20-year-old go through. However, nothing has been as hard as what we are going through now.
Since about September 2018, I noticed a feeling of disconnect between me and my partner. Our sex life was somewhat cold, we did cuddle and share intimate physical touch/moments but things felt different and I didn’t know how to bring it up so we didn’t really push the issue. Things didn’t really come to a head until December 2018 when she started personal therapy and was diagnosed with mild depression. Her therapist also told her she was co-dependent or had co-dependent behaviors (apparently her therapist was talking about her relationships with her family and works but my partner saw how it applied to our relationship, I have asked for here to explain where in our relationship and I still have yet to get a clear answer) and these diagnoses really set her off.
She’s always had an “all or nothing” personality and shortly after these diagnoses, rather than discussing these issues, she abruptly broke up with me, and even “broke up” with our mutual friends. I was devastated and really confused as I didn’t have any understanding around how she was codependent or why there was no opportunity to talk or negotiate etc.
We live together so we still had to see each other and about two days later she came to me saying that she made a rash decision and just panicked because she was being all or nothing about her diagnosis and felt that the depression that made her feel the need to isolate. We decided to get back together and try to work things out. However the abrupt isolating happened two more times.
It was a really rough way to bring in the new year and was very traumatic for me. It was never a planned thing on her part. It would always happen abruptly during a conversation and she would say things like “I went out last night and someone we both knew asked where you were and it made me feel like I don’t have my own identity independent of you” And she would break up with me after I randomly asked about last nights event. The talk about independence would really strike me because before all this madness we would comment of how we are not controlling of each other or trying to limit each other social time or even how we accept each other flirty moments etc. So I don’t understand how now she feels less independent.
In February 2019 we decided to go to couples therapy and have been going roughly every two weeks since we started. Since then her personal therapist has told her she in remission with her depression. The goal for starting couples therapy was to heal and to get comfortable stating our needs and feelings without feeling the urgency to fix anything, just holding space for our feelings and compromising and negotiating to meet each other’s needs, to work on our communication, and not avoid problems that we see arising.
I was happy that we were in therapy and it was clear that we had a lot of work to do. But before I could get too comfortable, she dropped another abrupt bomb that she is interested in non-monogamy or polyamory and that she has desires to have other sexual experiences outside of our relationship.
I was really taken aback by this, not because I am completely inflexible with the idea of non-monogamy but because of the timing. This is one of the weakest moment in our relationship history and our foundation is so vulnerable and to add something heavy like nonmonogamy on top of that seem like something that will create more tension and stress. She also is very confusing because she vacillates between what she wants out of a non-monogamous relationship. At first, she explained that the desire wasn’t sexual, she told me that she had no interest she said in being sexual with other people she just wanted to have intimate romantic relationships without sex.
Then it turned into her wanting loose casual sex with other people. Then she said she not really a casual person and that instead, it would need to be a relationship that would require investment. But there’s still no clarity as she seems confused about what she wants from a non-monogamous relationship or why she even wants one.
I’m just trying to get a grasp on our relationship and what we need to heal prior to this nonmonogamy topic and now the nonmonogamy seems to be talking so much precedence in our conversations that there seems to be a sense of urgency. I am starting to wonder if there are needs that she has that are not being met and instead of discussing those needs with me she looking outside of the relationship to get these needs met from other people.
Is this how non-monogamy or polyamory works? Where when you’re are not fulfilled by one relationship so you set expectations with your partner that you will find other romantic partners? Or is the goal to have multiple satisfying, fulfilling relationships? I am concerned that this non-monogamy route is just being used as a Band-Aid treatment rather than just working to heal our relationship. I truly feel that if we were in a more secure place in our relationship and didn’t just go through three back to back traumatic breakup/makes ups and she sat me down and said “hey I love you, I find our relationship rewarding and fulfilling and I see you as my long-term partner I also want to have different sexual experiences and I want to work with you to find some middle ground so I can explore that” then I really feel like I would not be totally adverse to the idea, I would still need patience etc. but I think I would feel differently taking on that change.
However, at this moment I feel as though I accept this non-monogamy lifestyle while trying to heal our relationship without even knowing what a non-monogamous relationship looks like for us in order to keep my partner or I just have to leave and lose the access I have to one of my best friends in the world. I just would love your input on this and thoughts on if you see a lot of successful happy polyamorous relationships where one partner practices non-monogamy while the other one was still monogamous. Also, do you see a lot of relationships where nonmonogamy worked as a solution to heal a relationship?
Also, is non-monogamy relationships created simply because one or both partners desire other sexual partners and instead of cheating they just create space to have other sexual partners?

There’s definitely a lot going on here. Let me get to some of your questions about non-monogamy/polyamory.

How polyamory works

There are some people with polyamory who say that it’s impossible for one person to meet someone else’s needs completely. I think that any time someone says something which is meant to be true for every billions of human beings out there, they’re bound to be incorrect about everyone. There probably are some polyamorous people who seek other people because they don’t feel fulfilled by one person.

But I would say that isn’t really a very good understanding of polyamory and sells it a bit short. A lot of the people I’ve read from or talked to are interested in polyamory because it brings something to their lives that monogamy doesn’t. Many people just don’t see there being this relationship tank of needs that’s either filled or unfulfilled by any one individual. But rather new relationships add something new to their life in the same way having more than one friend adds something to your life. Or having a child and then another child to add to your life. People, well most of them anyway, don’t decide to have another child because one child isn’t ‘enough’. It’s just not that simple.

However, I can’t really say for sure if that is a motivation that your partner has. Plenty of people do treat polyamory as a way to get everything they want more or less, or see it as that on the outset. But I can promise it’s nowhere near as simple as that. All relationships in our lives, romantic or not, come with compromise and less or more amounts of emotional labour. Many people do get away with having multiple connections where they give little to no emotional labour, but that isn’t something sustainable. If your partner wants to try having multiple partners, it’s definitely not akin to going to a partner megastore and picking out all your favourites and going home happy.

How polyamory comes about

I would say that it’s actually very rare for two people who are monogamous to both suddenly come to the decision that they want to try non-monogamy with the same amount of interest or at the same time. Most of the time, a choice to open a relationship comes from one person in the partnership, not both people. Sometimes it doesn’t happen in the happiest of circumstances either. Sometimes it comes out of cheating. Sometimes it takes a major life crisis or major event to make people get the courage to go for it. There hasn’t been any studies, that I know of, that have been done on it, so I don’t know what’s more common.

It’s hard to say what’s motivating your partner to want to try non-monogamy and you have done what I would normally suggest in this type of situation in terms of trying to figure out the physicality of what non-monogamy would mean for your relationship and unfortunately it seems like she either doesn’t know herself or she’s not making things ultimately clear for you, which is going to make this even more difficult to figure out. You’re not completely opposed to the idea and the main worry you really have is less about your partner leaving you for someone else or fear around them wanting someone else (which isn’t to say that won’t come later) but more just honestly around the current instability that you have rather than any worries about non-monogamy itself. And that’s actually a pretty good sign overall.

What does stability look like?

Right now you’re struggling to understand what a non-monogamous relationship would look like because you’re still unsure of what your current relationship is like. You’ve been together for eight years and then went through a period of breaking up and getting back together. It’s going to be very hard to understand when it is ‘safe’ again for you. You’re going to be worried that another breakup cycle is around the corner and I think that before you really get to working out non-monogamy, you’re right to think you need to focus a bit on re-stabilising your current relationship.

But it might be hard to really know when it’s going to feel officially ‘stable’ again. One thing that I think would be really helpful for you to work on is understanding what exactly has prompted her to initiate a breakup and identify strategies for how she can manage those feelings when she has them. I’ve been in a lot of situations where my survival lizard brain is telling me to get out of a relationship because it’s trying to protect me. And it can be really hard to ignore that part of your brain when it wants to protect you. Right now I’m trying to learn how to differentiate between a genuine red flag and me panicking and self-sabotaging my relationships in an attempt to ‘save’ myself more or less.

You may not be able to be part of that identification process or what she needs to do in order to come down from this, but it concerns me that you’re not really part of any of these processes, even when they directly affect you. I wonder if her therapist knows that she is taking the advice and applying it in such an extreme way. While her therapy isn’t necessarily about you or your business, it does have a direct impact on you. Now that you’re seeing a therapist together, it might be good for you to discuss together how these things came about and what strategies you can use to address them in the future.

Dipping your toe in polyamory

A lot of people try out non-monogamy by doing it ways they think are “safe”. They put up a lot of rules and boundaries and promise desperately not to love anyone else and swear to save their relationship above all other things. Not only is this grossly unfair to whomever they date outside of their coupledom, but it’s also missing the point — monogamy isn’t inherently safe.

While I do think that you need to come to a better understanding of what has made your partner come to these snap judgement for your own relationship, I don’t think that it’s necessarily going to work to put down the idea that you need to do this before you open your relationship. Your partner should be motivated to understand and addressing her ‘all or nothing’ personality before she decides to add more partners to her life, whether it’s because she wants more sex or more romance or both, because that ‘all or nothing’ type of attitude is just going to end up hurting more people than just you. Considering she didn’t have qualms dumping her ‘friends’ either… I’d say that this is less of a problem to address as a way to safeguard yourself against the challenges of non-monogamy and more of a problem to address as a way to help her overall in all of her relationships.

What she may also need to address is thinking she has to have all of the answers and being able to sit in discomfort. What you say about her back and forth choices about why she wants to try polyamory may be because she thinks she has to have all of the answers, so she’s trying to speak from a place of authority she doesn’t have. Maybe she’s uncomfortable with not knowing something for sure so she pushes herself to decide. That may also explain the decision to try and dump people. She doesn’t sound like she enjoys sitting in uncertainty, so she makes a decision, any decision, just to get herself out of that anxiety.

Unfortunately, that type of in-between is only going to continue through life and she needs to be able to learn how to sit in discomfort or learn coping strategies for how to deal with it. It may be that, in her life she’s dealt with so many things where she’s had to make quick decisions or sitting in that discomfort meant so many more terrible things than it does now, that she’s adapted like this to try and protect herself. But now, her instant decision reflex is not doing her any favours. As you said, you need patience and part of that, especially now that you’re rebuilding trust together, is going to mean sitting in some discomfort. Maybe if she learns how to better sit in it, she can give you an honest answer — which is that maybe she doesn’t know why she wants to try it or she wants to wait and see — instead of trying to stick to one decision.

In summation

Figuring out what it was that motivates her to make these split decisions and how she can learn how to disrupt that thinking, perhaps with you involved if that’s helpful, will really help you both feel more stable in this. It’s fair for you to ask for time before you decide to open your relationship, but think about what stability means for you and what you would like to see come from your couples therapy sessions together. Don’t necessarily think you need to wait for things to be perfect, because life isn’t perfect, but figure out some things that can be done to make things better between the two of you.

Lastly, I don’t think opening your relationship at this time is necessarily bad for your relationship. Your foundation is weaker, yes. But there will be things that challenge that foundation throughout your life — sometimes whether or not you’re adequately prepared for it. The fact that you’re willing to work towards a solution that works for you both, if she is also willing, is a good sign. And the fact that your primary interest is the stability of your current relationship rather than some of the typical worries people have with non-monogamy is also a good sign.

But it’s also good to remember that some of the behaviours she’s displayed will only create more frustration for her if she embarks on new relationships, if she hasn’t yet learned how to cope with them. She might be prepared for all of the wonderful things that new relationships can bring, but is she also prepared to provide more emotional support to more people right now in her life after recovering from depression? That’s something she might need to work through and figure out.

Finally, definitely seek out some personal therapy if possible for you to have someone to bounce ideas off of. I think they might also be able to help you work through some of the feelings you have about what you’ve been through so far and help you figure out the best way to get support for yourself in times of crisis.

I hope this helps and good luck.

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