See-sawing feelings in polyamory

About three months ago, I started seeing a girl (let’s call her Jenny) who I knew through a mutual friend (I’m a cis straight man, she’s a cis bi girl, neither of us have any prior experience with non-monogamous dating) with the understanding that we would stay non-exclusive and not “in a relationship” so to speak so that she could focus on her mental health and developing emotional independence after having been in continuous monogamous relationships for a good few years.
We communicated openly and thus I was aware that from the start she was also seeing another guy (let’s call him Dave). Initially the perception that I got was that she was more into me than him (reinforced by our mutual friend showing me a message from her saying “I fancy [my name] way more than Dave”), but as things have gone on and as we’ve talked about the dynamic between us, Jenny has said that it’s become more 50/50 between me and Dave.
She has tried to reassure and validate me in this regard and I appreciate that, but I still feel sad and probably a bit jealous whenever I think of them being together. These difficulties are worsened by, among other things, the fact that my emotions on the subject fluctuate quite a lot. Most of the time that I’m with her and some of the time we’re apart I feel like things are going fine and that I should stop worrying so much, but other times I feel a serious lack of self-worth, especially when I know she’s with him or when she talks about him when we’re not together, and tend to feel like the best thing for me to do is to just escape the whole situation.
I find it hard to communicate these issues because I’m quite bad at making any decisions that I feel I’ll regret, and when my feelings fluctuate so much it’s hard to know that I’m doing the right thing by saying how I feel because I know it will lead to having to have difficult conversations. I feel like while she’s in a mindset of being single but with regular partners (this is just a guess — due to my reluctance to bring these things up I don’t know this for certain), I’m in a mindset where I see myself as being in the “dating” phase leading up to an inevitable monogamous relationship, which is not only most likely incorrect, it’s also problematic from the point of view of potentially invalidating the fact that she has meaningful nonplatonic interactions with other people.
I worry that I’m waiting for something that can/will never happen, and in the process I feel quite sad about things on a not infrequent basis. On the other hand, I definitely don’t miss being on my own, and this has brought a lot of nice positive things into my life as well.

There are few key things here that I want to address: the see-sawing that I find can happen in non-monogamy, building relationships on a strong foundation, and when to say when.

See-sawing emotions

There’s not a lot written about it that I can tell, but I think it’s actually quite common to experience a sort of back and forth with emotions.

Personally, I’ve had experiences where I’ve felt like I was going crazy mostly because I would feel absolutely fine and happy when I was with a partner but then sad and scared when they were gone. It’s like when they’re right in front of me and hugging me and being close to me, it’s hard for me to listen to those nasty voices in my head telling me that they couldn’t possibly love me. But when they’re not with me, and especially if they’re with someone else, it’s like a welcome mat laid out for the worst mental health.

And when I was having particularly bad mental health days or sometimes weeks, this sort of swing from hot to cold was incredibly intense. You don’t speak very much about your past or what kind of home you grew up in, but I know that my brain tries to protect me by telling me to sabotage things. It’ll say, ‘See, look how bad things are going. Wouldn’t it be better if you were all alone? No one to hurt you?’

It’s rough. And maybe your back and forth swings aren’t as bad as mine, but I would say that it’s quite normal.

What helped for me during my low swings when my partner was out was to write my partner love notes and cards. The first card I wrote to my partner became a second card — and now I write them even if I don’t feel bad when we’re apart. Things are definitely more stable now and I feel less worried. But it’s good to find a way to cope with these feelings. It’s likely they will subside. They may pop back up again in times of crisis. That’s okay.

You can also let your partner know that you have these fluctuating feelings and you get scared. That’s okay as well. You should be able to comfort each other and tell each other whenever you’re scared or worried. Having that reassurance may also help.

But what you need to do is avoid reassurance that leads to competition. You’ve been reassured in the past by being told that she likes you more (and I would honestly ask that mutual ‘friend’ of yours to not divulge information and show you messages from your partner as that’s a violation of her privacy, and I’d definitely tell her if you can), but that’s not really good reassurance.

We choose partners for a variety of reasons, whether we choose non-monogamy or monogamy. We don’t always choose partners because they’re ‘the best’ at everything. When you make things into a competition, it’s going to make you insecure because you’ll be comparing yourself to everyone else. And it’s not your fault. We live in a society that encourages competition because it makes you buy more. Even if non-monogamy isn’t for you, I would encourage you to re-frame how you look at this. Just as we have different friends for different reasons and comparing them like for like doesn’t really work. We like people for different reason. It’s not always as simple as who we like ‘more’. And emotions aren’t always quantifiable.

Strong foundations

The second thing I want to address here is that you’ve only been together for three months. Feeling insecure and scared is understandable and expected. You’re both not experienced with non-monogamy, so you’re trying something brand new on top of being in a new relationship.

I believe I wrote about this in an earlier column, but just to reiterate, there is a Biblical parable that I like (even though I don’t live by the Bible) about building a house on rock and building a house on sand. The gist of the story is that building a house on rock means the house lasts, but building it on sand means it will fall over.

Regardless of where it comes from, I think it makes for a solid point. Right now, you’re just starting to build a foundation together and you’re adding a stress on top of it by trying something new like non-monogamy. It doesn’t mean your relationship is due to fail. It just means that it’s understandable for you to feel insecure, especially when there is so much in the air.

One of the things I advise people just starting in non-monogamy is to really think about what they get out of non-monogamy and what the relationship means within the context of non-monogamy. You’re feeling scared because that isn’t answered for you. You’re not sure where it’s going and you feel like you may want it to lean toward monogamy and you’re not sure if it’s going to go that way.

A lot of mainstream polyamorous advice will talk about insecurity as if it’s the same as self-hate. But actually, insecurity is just not feeling secure. And when you’re in a new relationship. you’re likely to feel insecure. That doesn’t mean you hate yourself or that there’s anything wrong with you. It’s expected that you’re going to feel insecure until you have a more solid foundation.

Even though you’ve only been together for a couple of months, I don’t think there’s anything to lose in figuring out what your girlfriend thinks and what she wants out of non-monogamy. Is she planning on having a ‘primary’? What does that look like? And it would also be good for you to really figure out what you definitely want and ask yourself some really hard questions, which leads me to the next point.

When to say when

You’re trying out non-monogamy and who knows? You might find that when you’re reassured, you worry less. You might find that your partner wants a style of relationship that would work better for you. You may have thought this would lead into monogamy because you’re so used to seeing a style of relationships lead up into one thing.

I can definitely relate to not wanting to let something go but just because you have a discussion like this doesn’t mean it has to end. You can make it clear to your girlfriend that you’re not sure if you’re going to be okay with non-monogamy. Sometimes you don’t know you have boundaries until they’re crossed. Right now, so many of your feelings could be coming from insecurity, from not knowing where your relationship is going to go and not feeling secure in it just yet.

I will say as well, it’s worth breaking down what your feelings are when you think of Jenny with Dave. I find quite often that people are generally feeling worried when they think of their partner with someone else because they’re worried about being replaced. They’ve been living their entire lives with a narrative that tells them that love is only love if it’s shared monogamously. Sometimes you can break through these feelings by remembering how you’re valued. But sometimes you just don’t want to do non-monogamy, and that’s okay.

Maybe when you do feel more secure in your relationship, you may consider things differently. I think it’s definitely worth trying to see if you can feel more secure before you decide to end things. And be honest with your partner the entire way and let her know that you’re honestly not sure if this is for you. Now she might decide not to take the risk if you’re unsure, but it’s much better to be honest than to hide your feelings. At least if you’re honest, if it doesn’t work out, you can end things on a more positive means than hiding your feelings.

In general, I think you should keep trying but try with more stability. If you still feel unhappy, if you feel like you know where you want your relationships in life to go and it’s not this way, then you have the option to leave without a lot of drama if you’re just honest from the start.

I hope this helps and good luck.

Comments from the therapist

“I like how Lola addressed the see-sawing feelings. I think it’s incredibly common as well. I have actually come to value the uncertainty in young relationships because the uncertainty is part of what fuels NRE (new relationship energy).

I used to want to lock down “What are we?” as soon as possible, but now I try to chill as long as I can. I do think expecting yourself to feel secure in a relationship that’s only 3 months old is expecting too much. I like that Lola made that point as well.

I’m in a mindset where I see myself as being in the “dating” phase leading up to an inevitable monogamous relationship…

This really stood out to me. I think you may be too pre-occupied with the validation that comes from the relationship escalator and struggling with simply enjoying the relationship for what it is, today. This mindset seems quite contradictory to your arrangement with Jenny and if you can’t set it aside, it will likely cause the arrangement to break.

One resource that I LOVE for starting to get a handle on insecurity and jealousy is this jealousy exercise. Many polyamory 101 sources can be a bit too much anti-feelings, but this jealousy exercise is useful for teasing apart what’s actually going on underneath the jealousy.

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.