When you first learn about polyamory or non-monogamy, what most people call ‘open relationships’, you’ll likely be directed to several publications: The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and the website More Than Two. And these were things I read when I started my journey into non-monogamy.
Quickly I found though that there were several lessons I had to learn the hard way that these sources either didn’t teach me clearly enough or actually got in my way of learning these lessons.
I have consolidated this and more into a guide for people new to polyamory called The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy which is now available to order in the Americas or UK/Europe. You can also find this book at most major bookstores.
So here are the 13 things I wish I’d learnt earlier about non-monogamy:
1. Every negative feeling you have isn’t jealousy
When you first start reading about non-monogamy, the emphasis on the unhealthiness of jealousy is drilled into you to the point where, at least for me, not being one of those jealous people you hear about that implode their own relationships by trying to control their partners’ every move becomes your personal mission.
Beginner reading on non-monogamy over-hypes jealousy to the point where people go into non-monogamy assuming any negative feeling they have about a person their partner is dating is inherently jealousy and any attempt to express that feeling is automatically controlling, abusive behaviour.
In my first non-monogamous ‘relationship’, I had spoken to this guy for a year (I lived in the US, he in the UK and I was moving to the UK within a few months) when he suddenly began dating a person he’d never mentioned before. This person seemed relatively cool and similar to me so I offered to friend them on Facebook to get to know them. The guy immediately banned me from speaking to them on the grounds that he felt more comfortable with us talking in person first.
Given I was about to be in the UK in 6 months and I didn’t want to be ‘controlling’, I obliged. He said he’d told this person about me, even that they wanted to have a threesome with all of us. But unsurprisingly, he hadn’t so much as breathed a word to this person about me.
In hindsight, I never would have agreed to not speak to his new partner. That would have been a red flag. But I was so anxious to be seen as ‘jealous’, I ignored my own feelings assuming they were monogamous baggage.
But they weren’t. Negative feelings are sometimes a result of your needs not being met. If your partner refuses to take you to your favourite restaurant and then takes someone new out on a date to that same restaurant, any rational human being is going to feel not so happy about that. Negative feelings and yes, even the scary green eyed monster of jealousy, can be justified and understandable.
What beginner sources of non-monogamy fail to communicate is that it’s not so much jealousy or negative feelings that are the problem — it’s what we do with them that can make things implode.
2. Confidence can look like compassion
When I started out in polyamorous communities, I was immediately drawn to those ‘experienced’ people who seemed confident in what they were doing. Those people were not only attractive to me but seemed like the best bet. Obviously confident people communicate clearly, right? Obviously when you’re just starting out in something, someone who has. had loads of relationships and many partners is a ‘safe’ bet, right?
Unfortunately, I found that confident people made me feel like I was being heard and listened to but that was rarely actually the case. Confident people can make you feel special and looked after, but when it actually comes time to devote emotional energy and resources to you, these people, in my experience, are rarely up for the task. Their ability to make you feel special is part of that confidence, but it isn’t actual human compassion you’re seeing.
Not to mention, just because someone has had many relationships, doesn’t mean they’re better at them. Relationships aren’t a game where playing gives you more experience. It’s about an individual exchange and if they have always come up a little short handed, it might be what is showing.
Another thing that beginner non-monogamous sources fail to really discuss is the fact that non-monogamous setups where an individual doesn’t spend a long time with any one individual but sees them rarely can allow for people who would normally be toxic and difficult to be around to have plenty of ‘functional’ relationships. If you only see someone once every two weeks and your time with them is great, you don’t necessarily see or have to deal with some of the more dubious aspects of their personality.
So sometimes having more partners than you know what to do with isn’t inherently a sign that you’re amazing at non-monogamy and beginners shouldn’t assume so.
3. Communication is hard and terrifying
Most relationship advice for anyone regardless of relationship style often boils down to this: Talk to your partner.
Like most advice, it’s much easier to give than it is to follow. And what non-monogamous beginner resources fail to really take into account is that communication is actually really really hard, but not for the reasons they assume.
As an autistic person, recognising my own emotions and understanding them can be really difficult. As a person with an anxiety disorder, my immediate response to my own fear is to not take it seriously or examine it with a fine toothed comb. And when embarking on something that you’re completely new to, sometimes you don’t really know or understand what you need until you’re not getting it and it hurts.
Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. And sometimes you have to experience emotional pain before you really understand that you have a boundary or you have a need that isn’t being met.
Asking for what you want isn’t easy
But admitting to your partner that you have a need can be an extremely emotionally vulnerable place. Most beginner non-monogamous resources are written, usually, by white people who more likely than not come from a specific socio-economic background. It’s not to say that white middle class people never have any problems, but I usually find that if you’ve been treated poorly systemically by society or have a history of being abused, it can be really difficult to feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable with anyone.
I found myself in my relationships trying to manipulate situations so that I got what I really wanted without having to ask for it because asking directly for something you need and being told by someone you care for greatly that they refuse to do it is absolutely gut-wrenchingly horrifying. And the greater my need for any one thing, the less likely I was to ask directly for it.
Imagine if you were heading to a funeral at the same time your partner wanted to go to an event that they were excited about. Imagine asking directly for your partner to be there for you at the funeral and having your partner either say no to you or seeing them huff at the idea of supporting you in a vulnerable place in your life. Even if it’s not directly a cause for breakup, having such an important need be either not met or complained about by your partner can damage the intimacy you feel with them. If you can’t be vulnerable and ask for help from them… then it begs the question of what your partnership is.
Talking to your partner is scary. Asking for something you need is scary. And especially because we live in a society that encourages us all to be independent beings that don’t need anybody, especially if you’ve been encouraged by society to see yourself as ‘clingy’ or worry about being so, and especially because non-monogamous resources reinforce the idea that you shouldn’t need anyone too much, it can be that much harder to want anything from anybody.
4. A relationship is not a skill
I wrote about how a relationship is not a skill in great detail, but to summarise, I often believed, like many monogamous people even do, that breaking up or not having a good relationship was a bad reflection on myself.
The reason I said above that having loads of relationships isn’t inherently a sign of someone good at relationships is because likewise having a bunch of exes isn’t necessarily a sign of being ‘bad’ at relationships either. It feels like non-monogamous communities especially encourage the idea that un-amicable breakups and ‘drama’ are a sign of people just being bad at relationships. And therefore some of the confident people I mention might have loads of relationships, but a lot of quiet exes.
The aforementioned guy who suddenly ended up dating someone new and forbade me to speak to them ended up being a jerk outside of this and when I confronted him on it, blocked me on all forms of social media. I was tempted after this to tell his other partner about him blocking me on everything when confronted because I had come out of my haze and also had the sneaking suspicion that they knew nothing about me — but avoided doing so for fear of looking like the ‘jealous and crazy ex’.
And I think many people who have poor experiences with people are so ashamed that their relationship has ‘failed’ they think it’s due to their lack of skill, or they are worried it will appear so, that they keep mum even when they think the person they dated is particularly toxic or abusive. No one wants to start ‘drama’ or be seen as ‘bad at relationships’.
But relationships are not skills. They are partnerships and co-ops. And just like getting in a car accident doesn’t mean you’re inherently a bad driver, ending a relationship or having to end it doesn’t mean that you’re bad at relationships. There are relationship skills you can certainly improve like communication and compassion.
You can be really good at knowing your own boundaries or not so good. But ultimately sometimes you can’t be good enough for two people and sometimes two people, as nice and as great at they are at communicating, just don’t fit that well together.
Maybe if people saw breaking up less as a sign that someone is ‘bad’ at something, people would be less worried about looking like a ‘bad ex’.
5. Compersion isn’t compulsory
I’d read so much information about non-monogamy before I started that I felt like I knew exactly how to handle things. And my first experience being negative, I approached things with a sense that I’d even learned well from that. One of the things I insisted on after my first experience was trying to be friends with my partner’s partners.
You will often hear ‘there is no one right way to do polyamory’ as a beginner and yet you will hear about ‘compersion’, which is meant to be the opposite of jealousy, whereby you hear about your partner having a good date or a good time with someone and you’re filled with happiness and feel glad for them.
Although people say there is no one right way, an ideal is communicated through this and many attitudes. The ‘best’ way to do non-monogamy is clearly one where you experience ‘compersion’, no jealousy, no negative emotions, and never have any problems.
And this level of happiness is not expected within monogamy. In fact, in monogamy an unhappy marriage is almost expected. Countless male identified comedians have made entire careers over the idea that marriage and sexual monogamy is the end of their ‘fun’ and although monogamy (read: heterosexual, white monogamy) is a standard encouraged by this society, the idea that it’s not a picnic and not always fun and happy is also something that’s widely accepted.
And yet, non-monogamous people, because people so often blame a failed open relationship on opening it up in the first place and assume that it fails because non-monogamous relationships don’t work, are often so encouraged to be good PR for the non-monogamy community that they are expected to attain a level of relationship happiness monogamous people never have to match up to.
The expectation of constant happiness
And this is an expectation reinforced within communities without monogamous people present. I’ve seen countless people in polyamorous communities feel so anxious by the idea that their forum is filled with people confused and asking for help that they post positive and happy stories to almost reassure the outside world. Monogamous people are allowed to be unhappy and that not reflect badly on monogamy necessarily, but non-monogamous people, not so.
This pressure on me to be happy with my partner’s other relationships and to be friends with metamours (the people your partner dates) made me anxious and unhappy. I forced myself to socially interact with people beyond my personal means.
I forced myself to be friends with people I had nothing in common with and it made me sarcastic towards them. Instead of just accepting that maybe I don’t really need to be friends with metamours, I forced myself into it which inevitably made the situation tense and difficult anyways.
Furthermore, I felt like my indifference to my partner’s romantic exploits made me heartless and even somehow ‘jealous’. And in fact, listening to details of my partner’s exploits stood my hair on end — not because I was jealous or bothered — but because the fear that I would become jealous was so intense it made me just as uncomfortable as jealousy would — maybe even MORE uncomfortable. I would only realise later that my discomfort in being a voyeur had a lot to do with the sexual abuse I’d survived and nothing to do with feeling jealous at all.
I had to accept that compersion just might not be something I felt and hearing the details just made me anxious about being jealous — and that was okay. I didn’t have to feel compersion to be happy for my partner on a wider scale. And I didn’t have to get along with or even like my metamours for things to be okay between any partner I had. Obviously, yeah, if we were to be friendly and when I am friendly with a metamor it is nice… but forcing myself to be friends with anyone in any situation is never comfortable and that’s just fine.
6. Time and resources are finite
Non-monogamous beginners hear multiple times a day that ‘love is infinite’ and it’s not necessarily wrong. While you may be able to love an infinite number of people, you only have so much energy in a day. As a person with a disability that affects my energy levels and social anxiety, I quickly realised that going out on a new date every night wasn’t something that I could physically do, and that’s okay.
I also found that a lot of people who espoused a ‘love is infinite’ philosophy had many privileges they took for granted that I didn’t have. They had careers (or the ability to live fine without one) with flexible time options, the money to spend on activities, the mental and physical energy to socially interact with people without going to a breaking point.
One time I can recall, I went to an open relationships event in a new city and the conference involved a lot of intense interpersonal social interaction. After being invited to a party, I accepted, despite being exhausted. I ended up in a very loud, strange, unfamiliar house without any proper place to sit away from the huge crowds of people and became so sensory overloaded, I ended up crying. I felt ridiculous, un-fun, ashamed of my inability to go with the flow of everyone else until I eventually realised that my resources just weren’t where others were.
You can love however many people you want, but there are only 24 hours in a day. Not all of us can afford to live within walking distance of all of our partners or afford a job that doesn’t run us ragged most of the week. It would be great if time and resources were as infinite as love, but they just aren’t. And it’s helpful to realise that.
7. It’s okay to be unhappy
As I mentioned before, there is an unhealthy expectation on non-monogamous people to be happy about everything going on within their relationships. You’re put under this expectation, especially due to some of the beginner material you read, to enjoy every aspect of non-monogamy, to be fine with all of the activities your partners have with others, and to be fine on your own.
But sometimes, you can be lonely — and that’s okay. Sometimes when my partner who lives with me is out visiting someone else I may in theory be very happy for them, but I am alone at present. And sure, I have found out the best way to resolve this issue is to try and make plans at the same time so I have company, but that’s not always possible.
Time isn’t infinite, as I said before, and ultimately agreeing to a non-monogamous relationship means agreeing to a relationship structure where any individual you partner with does not and cannot reasonably spend all of their time with you.
Monogamy also has this type of setup when one partner has a time consuming job like being a lawyer or doctor. But within non-monogamy it’s guarantee that part and parcel of what you’re agreeing to is for your partner to not devote all of their time and energies towards you.
And this can get lonely. Especially if you’re in the very likely scenario that one person has loads of dates and the other doesn’t. It can get sad. And I think we spend so much time trying to stay happy for our partner that we shove this loneliness down, don’t talk about it, and then it ends up blowing up in our faces. Especially given the polyamorous community crab bucket mentality of, ‘oh no, there’s to many stories about people struggling with non-monogamy, let’s talk about how awesome it is’.
Statistically, the more relationships you have the more likely it is for you to encounter heartbreak. And although that is a hazard of the trade, it doesn’t mean you have to pretend like you’re not heartbroken if and when you are or that you’re not scared of it.
Sometimes it’s not awesome. Sometimes you’re lonely. The important thing to remember in this case is the benefits you ultimately get out of non-monogamy as a choice and to take steps to try and handle that loneliness. Steps that acknowledge and recognise your feelings rather than shoving a grin on your face and trying to feel okay with it all. Because eventually, if our partners aren’t spending enough time with us for us to be happy, we won’t actually be able to realise that if we’re trying our best to not be unhappy and lying to ourselves about it.
8. Convention wheedles it’s way into un-convention
Monogamy, specifically heterosexual monogamy, is encouraged by the society we live in. And when you’re just starting out having open relationships, you can feel a bit isolated. You will have experiences where people will judge you for it (specifically if you’re read as female) and a lot of times people can feel this combination where they are shunned by society, admired by some while simultaneously feeling that what they are doing is ‘unconventional’.
You get a lot of mixed messages as a beginner in non-monogamous communities: It’s more natural than monogamy and yet it’s scorned and hated and yet it’s seen as ‘cool’ and ‘hip’. And that in turn can make things somewhat confusing, especially when the same sorts of conventions you see in monogamy seem to be still at play within non-monogamy.
For example, in a lot of non-monogamous settings I know, I see a lot of self-identified women in polyamorous families doing the majority of the child rearing or sharing child rearing between women partners while the men go out and do what they’d like. I see a lot of women stretching themselves providing emotional support for multiple people and getting nothing for themselves. I see a lot of situations where older men are using non-monogamy as an example of their ‘feminism’, dating multiple people who are much younger than they are and no one in their actual age bracket. You’ll find a lot of convention within unconventionality.
The historical accuracy of monogamous expectation
Also, I find that people tend to have selective memories about history. Even within monogamous people, you have this concept that 50s era 2.5 kids with picket fences zeitgeist family is ‘traditional’ and has been happening for years and years — but this just isn’t true.
Romantic love and the idea that it’s not a sickness that needs to be cured is a relatively new idea in human history. Marriage being a symbol of love and not an exchange of property between families is a relatively new idea. Partnerships in life in decades past were not usually about love and sex, they were about wealth and power.
And in some cases even today people practice arranged marriage situations which aren’t necessarily problematic whereby a marriage is secured and a partnership forms out of a common need rather than what we would consider ‘typical’ now of two individuals meeting and falling in love.
And ‘affairs’ have not historically been a problem. Having multiple ‘partners’ within socially sanctioned monogamy has been possible for wealthy men for hundreds of years. Maybe someone had a ‘marriage’, but that has never always meant sexual exclusivity. Or even if it has, that sexual exclusivity has purely been imposed on the person read as a woman within that exchange — but very rarely for the men.
Not to mention, so many beginner non-monogmous guides are written from the perspective that the nuclear family was a reality for all of the individuals reading it while many poor and immigrant individuals may have never had that experience or expectation. Living jointly with family members, especially elders, is a common practice for a lot of people. So this idea that non-monogamy is defying all of the traditional conventions… well, it just isn’t.
Which is not to say feelings of loneliness aren’t valid or that there aren’t people who genuinely will dislike you for being non-monogamous. I will say though that ‘open relationships’ aren’t necessarily completely unknown to mainstream culture and although there may be many misconceptions about them, there is yet to be a slur developed specifically for non-monogamous people.
And in my experience the vast majority of individuals who experience negative consequences for dating multiple people tend to be experiencing those consequences because they are read as women. People read as men can be judged by other men for “allowing” their wives to sleep with other men, but this isn’t an anti-male consequence as the roots of this judgement stem from the idea that men need to be sexually dominant of the women they date and that women are subduing men by owning their own sexuality — which is misogyny and ultimately about putting women back in their place, not about hating men or open relationships.
So the point of this is that, even while non-monogamy may be ‘unconventional’, there are still plenty old conventional habits that pop up within it.
9. No human is an island
Eurocentric/white societies in general reinforce the idea of the individual as more important. We are encouraged in many ways to shine on our own, pull ourselves up by our ‘bootstraps’, and not rely on others for help. Within non-monogamy, the reinforcement of the idea of being independent and allowing your partners to have independence means you often have this concept re-ingrained into you.
The advice so often given to beginners about jealousy is that they have to work it out themselves. In many cases, I find myself trying to handle everything on my own because I am worried about not only being a burden to my partners but also worried about making them feel I rely on them too much. I’ve been encouraged to be self-sufficient to the point where asking for help becomes really difficult.
Sometimes it feels like it’s so not okay to have needs of your own, especially emotional ones, that it becomes another obstacle in asking for what you need. Because you don’t want to be ‘clingy’ or be seen in a negative light within non-monogamy. Where monogamy is often characterised as unhealthy codependency, anything that seems to echo or reflect that can often be seen as just as negative. And when your relationships aren’t following an already culturally defined script of boundaries and what means what, you’re often left wondering who you can really ask for emotional support.
No one is actually an island though. We’re social creatures, even me who’s about as un-social as you can get. Sometimes we need help. And the people we feel comfortable enough to be romantic with are sometimes the people we feel safe asking for help from, moreso than others. And that’s okay. It’s not clingy to have needs. And while your partners may not be your therapists and relying on any one individual for all of your emotional support may not be fair, ultimately you can’t help the things that you need. And pretending like you can take care of yourself all alone isn’t actually going to work.
10. Take a good look around you
When I first started out within non-monogamous communities, I was, like most people, nervous and hopeful I would make a good impression. I also had a bit of rose tinted glasses, hoping to be around people who understood me and the choices I wanted to make. I barely recognised until it was a little too late that the communities that I particularly entered were full of people who had completely different life experiences than me.
Some communities of non-monogamous people, and indeed many other communities you’ll find, aren’t always the most diverse places and that can often leave you comparing yourself and your life to people who just don’t share the same experiences and understanding as you.
In my experience, feeling like I was the only non-binary person for example, was harsh. My feelings about being misgendered were often dismissed and glossed over. I’ve heard within a meeting of non-monogamous people that polyamorous people just don’t have the time to concern themselves about transphobia and transmisogyny because they’re too busy with other things.
Diverse non-monogamous communities exist, but you have to sometimes go looking for them. If you find yourself feeling a bit isolated in yours, that may be for a reason. Take a look around and ask yourself if the only thing you really have in common is non-monogamy and if that’s actually going to hinder you instead of helping you.
11. Insecurity is not the same as self-hate
If jealousy is the scarlet ‘J’ of non-monogamy, then insecurity is definitely its horrible cousin. People often will advise newcomers to work on their insecurities, to challenge them and to reassure themselves that they are worthy and worthwhile.
And this approach… might work. But what so many non-monogamy beginner guides leave out is the idea that being insecure can be a completely logical reaction to a given scenario and they very often assume insecurity is self-hate, when the two are not one in the same.
Insecurity is just that — a lack of feeling secure. And when you’re starting a new relationship with someone, you may feel very insecure about the relationship and what you mean to each other. That makes a lot of sense. Feeling insecure in that situation doesn’t mean you assume that the person you’re starting the relationship with doesn’t like you, but that you’re not feeling secure about your relationship.
Likewise, I’ve seen so many situations where people are kicking themselves for feeling insecure in a relationship (and ‘jealous’) when it’s totally rational for them to feel insecure.
For example, say one partner has repeatedly broken promises to the other and then found a new hookup and the other partner is insecure about the new hookup. And the entire reason for that is because their relationship isn’t stable. If you have a partner who is not doing anything to make you feel valued and wanted or is in fact proving that you aren’t valued through action, you can tell yourself how awesome you are all you’d like — it still won’t solve the actual problem or insecurity.
Being insecure doesn’t mean you hate yourself
Insecurity isn’t something that happens always because you hate yourself or you think you’re unworthy. An Olympic athlete could feel insecure about their performance but still understand that their athletic performance is above average. Someone can have 50 Oscars for their acting work but still feel insecure when they go to an audition. We fear the unknown. We fear bad things happening. And that fear can cause insecurity. And we often mistake fear and insecurity for jealousy when it isn’t.
Self-hate is when you tell yourself that you’re not good enough, that your partners secretly hate you, and all of the other negative things that people sometimes experience. And the solution to this is to try and talk to yourself positively and stop attacking yourself. And self-hate can and does indeed cause you to feel insecure in a lot of things, relationships included. But not all insecurity is caused by self-hate.
It’s complicated because if your partner, for example, is neglecting you, you may hate yourself for feeling like you need more time with them. You may talk yourself down and say that you’re too clingy, too needy and that you need to pull yourself together. But maybe your partner isn’t actually spending as much time as you as an individual need from them. Maybe your partner missed an important birthday.
So you may feel temporarily better by trying to remind yourself of how much you are loved and how much you matter… but if your partner is neglecting you and not meeting the needs you have, you’re just going to be stuck in a cycle of just trying to stay afloat. Assuming your problems are all insecurity that needs to be dealt with by you reassuring yourself and not an inherent problem within the relationship of an unmet need or even neglect will just cause you to stay trapped in this cycle forever.
Don’t assume that your insecurity is always about self-hate. Sometimes it’s a sign that your needs aren’t being met. And even though not all people have the same needs and maybe you do in fact need more than others in some situations, if your relationships are going to work, your partners need to be willing to meet those needs if they can.
You may have to come to the conclusion that you’re not as compatible as you’d like to be, but it’s better to come to that conclusion than to perpetuate a relationship where you, at the end of the day, aren’t getting what you want and instead are just trying to pep talk your way through it.
12. Rules and hierarchies are not inherently bad
‘I don’t need no stinkin’ rules’, as you might have heard. Also hierarchies where you have a primary partner reflect non-monogamy and end up giving ‘couples privilege’ to two people, hurting the secondary. All of this is bad, bad, bad, baaaaaad.
It’s ironic how many people who say they don’t need rules expect their partners to practice safe sexual practices as a rule, but somehow don’t seem to see using barriers and getting tested as ‘rule’, but instead ‘common sense’. And yet an individual’s idea of what is ‘risky’ sex can really vary wildly between people.
Especially given how so many people are just uninformed about sexual health risk that they are unaware that STI transmission is STILL possible, even using condoms. One of the reasons sex educators are saying ‘safer’ sex instead of ‘safe’ sex is precisely because of that misunderstanding.
What you can do and what you can’t do
I tend to take the Jack Sparrow approach to non-monogamy. The only rules that matter are these: What you can do and what you can’t do.
I can let my partners date whomever they like, but I can’t say that if they were to date someone who’s been abusive and nasty to me it wouldn’t affect my feelings towards them.
I can let my partners do whatever they’d like, but I can’t pretend like missing my birthday or something that’s important to me wouldn’t make me upset.
I can let my partners define their own boundaries, but I can’t, for example, see my partner abuse or hurt someone else and pretend like I’m fine with that.
Everyone has individual needs within their relationships, and that goes for all things. Any parent would tell you that each kid they have (or even teacher) is different, each individual needing different things. Sometimes you need different things from different people, but those needs become your boundaries and things that you want to deal with.
And part of the reason rules and hierarchies aren’t inherently bad is because they can help support those needs — so long as you aren’t trying to control the uncontrollable.
Hierarchies based on needs
So for example, I enjoy doing domestic things with partners. I prefer to have a partner who lives with me and where we establish a life together, maybe by getting a house together. The ideal type of non-monogamy that works for me is one where I have a ‘primary’ partner I can trust to ask for emotional support and where I have other partners who are more casual and who would give the same amount of emotional support I would expect a friend to give me. This is what works for me and more or less is what works for my primary partner, which is why we have that type of relationship.
My partner does have more of a drive for casual relationships whereas I’m not as bothered if I don’t go out on a date for months. This is a situation that works for us both. And we communicate that to other people so we manage expectations. And in many cases, both in my experience as a primary partner and as a secondary who’s been discarded the moment I became inconvenient, having a clear understanding of expectations is what made things a lot better. Especially as an autistic person who needs clarity.
The problem with rules and hierarchies and why so much of the beginner non-monogamy advice will rail against them is because often people use rules and hierarchies to solve other problems that rules cannot solve.
You’ll often find situations where one person has convinced their partner to do non-monogamy and they create a hierarchy and rules (e.g. you can’t sleep with someone until I say you can or we can’t have dates until both of us have one) to try and protect themselves against the fear of the unknown. And that’s understandable but the problem with rules is that the more you make, the more likely it will be that someone will forget and break one or that situations in life will create problems.
Think about your rule before you have one
What beginner non-monogamy advice should do instead of unilaterally saying all rules and hierarchies are bad is instead expand on those rules which are likely to blow up in people’s faces.
For example, creating a rule that your partner has to check with you before sleeping with someone new is something I always advise against. Anything where one person gives ‘permission’ creates a lot of pressure not only on the person giving permission to say yes to please their partner but also can create resentment if permission isn’t given.
And sometimes when casual situations arise, you may end up deciding to sleep with someone new at 1 AM in the morning, in which case telling your partner that you’re going to sleep with someone new could create more problems than it can solve, especially if your partner is having a rough day. Imagine missing your train, spilling your lunch, ruining an outfit, missing your partner, eating dinner alone and then being woken up at 1 AM by your partner calling to tell you they’re about sleep with someone else.
Yeah. Not so great.
The fear behind making this rule is an attempt to try and make sure that partners check in with each other to make sure they’re okay. And that doesn’t need to happen just before and can happen after. Instead of making a rule to enforce this kind of behaviour, what one should do is trying and create an atmosphere where your partner does check in with you, regardless of new partners or not, and makes sure your mental health is okay and where you feel comfortable telling your partner when it isn’t.
A rule enforced like this will not automatically create that type of atmosphere, so the rule isn’t going to help and may instead create more problems than it solves. I’d advise people to think about why they are making the rule and examine the reasoning behind it.
13. Maybe it’s not for you
Last but not least, the advice so often not given to newbies is plainly: maybe non-monogamy just isn’t for you.
A lot of beginner non-monogamy writing is made with rose tinted eye implants, practically. Non-monogamy has a way of defying some of the things that are inherent but not exclusive to monogamy. Sometimes it can be freeing to feel like you can flirt without ‘cheating’ or do what you’d like. And that in turn makes people feel like non-monogamy is inherently better, inherently more egalitarian, inherently more socially progressive than monogamy.
And it can get to the point where non-monogamous people refer to monogamy derisively, almost blaming it instead of structures like misogyny and heterosexism for the way monogamy has kept them in a box.
That in turn can make people feel like the only egalitarian, ethical and socially progressive choice people can make IS non-monogamy. And like capitalism, non-monogamy can seem great on paper, but not work in practice for many people — AND THAT IS OKAY.
As I said before, accepting non-monogamy means ultimately accepting that any one partner you have will not spend the entirety of their time and resources on you and visa versa. And maybe that’s not setup you want. Maybe that doesn’t work for you. Maybe having more people is just too complicated. Or maybe you’re just too damn tired to date more than one person.
All of this is okay. Choosing monogamy doesn’t mean you choose everything that society can tack on with it. Choosing monogamy doesn’t mean you’ll flip out if your partner notices someone else. It doesn’t mean you have a problem with your partner having sexual feelings or romantic feelings for someone else. Assuming that someone just being monogamous means they endorse society’s ideas about what monogamy should look like is a huge false equivalency.
That’s like me assuming as a non-binary person that any binary identified human being, trans or cis, automatically by identifying as a binary gender endorses everything that society tacks onto that gender — and it’s just not true.
You may try non-monogamy and find it isn’t what you want, and that’s cool. It doesn’t mean you’re backwards or want to live in the 50s. It may just mean it isn’t your cup of tea. And you’d think among ‘unconventional’ people, even that would be tolerated but sometimes it isn’t.
That’s all folks
So that’s it. I’m sure there will be more when I think about it some more, but for now, if I had known this before I started out, it would have saved me a lot of heartbreak and I’m hoping that for some beginners out there it helps them too.
If you liked this article…
I have written The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy designed as a starter book for someone who is new to non-monogamy and/or people struggling with anxiety in polyamory. You don’t have to be anxious for the book to help, especially as it comes with not just a bit of advice but activities for you to try on your own or with partners to help ground you.
The book is now available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and most major bookstores.