Traditional marriage and polyamory

I am in a strange position in my personal life and don’t feel like anybody around me really understands what I’m going through precisely because that would require a deep understanding of non-monogamy, which most people don’t possess. Here’s hoping I’ll find some answers from you.
I started seeing my now boyfriend sometime around October 2017. We were good friends before that and when I confessed to my feelings for him, he was already seeing someone else monogamously, although he had gradually begun to realise that he was in fact, polyamorous. It was confirmed to him when I came along and along with his then girlfriend, he fell in love with me and wanted to date me as well. He and his gf broke up (for entirely different reasons) and he and I started dating.
We agreed that it would be monogamous. It was my first ever romantic relationship. However, about 4 months down the line, monogamy did not seem to be working out for him and we had a painful break up. We decided to remain friends, however. But we could not do a conventional break up. It just felt like we had taken a label off our relationship but continued to be with each other in the same way as before (we also continued to be physically intimate after trying to restrain ourselves for some time, which was clearly in vain). This label-free thing continued and both of us became active on dating apps and started talking to other people while being with each other. We eventually decided to give polyamory a shot because it seemed that we were naturally falling in that space.
Fast forward to a few months and I went on a date (nice guy, but I wasn’t keen on taking it ahead). He also started talking a lot to one particular girl and went on several dates with her and then they got physically intimate even though this girl clearly expressed her reservations about polyamory. I lost my mind over it. I was jealous and I was scared of losing him. He is not the kind of person who opens up to anyone and everyone, although he is emotionally available for every person, be it a friend, a partner or even a work colleague. I know that I am one of those he considers closest to him. We weren’t always there.
It took us a whole journey (even a break up) to be as close and as brutally honest and vulnerable with each other as we are now. Coming back to this girl, he continued seeing her, staying over weekends at her place. Both of us don’t get so much time with each other because I live with my parents. Things work a bit differently in our culture. So, naturally I was jealous of the amount of time they got to spend with each other. Every time he would be at her place, I would feel a pang in my chest. I had jealous outbursts which he always handled with utmost care, understanding where I was coming from. Then another girl came along and it started as a physical relationship between them. Surprisingly I wasn’t bothered this time around. This new person did not have a problem with him being poly[am].
Meanwhile I also started seeing some guys, reconnected with an old friend and things were going fine, but due to structural problems I could never get enough time with any of them. And whatever little time I had, I spent with my bf. I wasn’t really in love with any of the other guys, while my bf was forging deep bonds with the other two girls. While his status with girl number 1 remains in the grey zone, he is decidedly dating girl number 2. This girl, while she does not have a problem with him being poly[am] and can be poly[am] herself, is choosing to not see anyone else as of now. She knows of me and has a sense of my position in his life.
I have had pangs of insecurity about her. My primary source of anxiety and insecurity being that he will become as close to her as he is to me, if not more. That maybe he does the same things with her, behaves similarly with her, sends her cute texts like he does to me etc. I have discussed my insecurities at length with my bf and while I have the option of leaving this relationship, I want to work things out because it is never as if he isn’t being mindful of my needs or not giving me enough love. In fact, he gives me more than I ask for. We know that come what may, we are always going to be there for each other, in whatever capacity it may be. As of now, we have a rule-free non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship.
The other problem is that our culture places an overwhelming importance on marriage. We even have arranged marriages where our parents look for suitable partners for us. He is certain that he doesn’t want to get married. Although his parents are beginning to pressurise him, he is certain in himself that it is not something he wants and he is willing to fight it out at home. For me, I had the conventional relationship escalator idea, that love and a relationship will necessarily lead to marriage. Although, I have two more years for this conversation to seriously begin at home, I am feeling nervous about it.
For me marriage was just the logical step after having a romantic relationship. I have no particular attachment to the institution in itself. And the individual, for me, will always be above the institution. I do not know whether I identify as mono or poly[am], but I know that at this point I do not want to break up with my bf only because he doesn’t want to get married. To me, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to commit, as most people I’ve spoken to seem to think. I know how much he loves me and cares for me, and he is wholeheartedly committed to me, but the thought of fighting my family, my parents worrying themselves sick over my future as a single woman (because to them if you are in a steady relationship, why wouldn’t you want to marry? Also, poly[am] is beyond them) is driving me crazy. I find myself constantly worrying about these things and it is exacerbated by my anxiety and depression that I have been suffering from for some time now. Any advice would be very helpful.

You’ve got a few things going on here that I’m going to address:

  • Inequity of time and resources
  • Relationship meanings and expectations
  • The symbolism of marriage

Inequity of time and resources

Unfortunately, you’re in one of those classic situations where there is going to be an inevitable inequity between you and your partner. I get that you want to practice a ‘non-hierarchical’ style of polyamory, but this is one of those situations where life will create a situation where equity between you and all of the partners your partner has impossible. Because you live with your parents and because of your schedule, you’re going to struggle to have the same amount of time and resources towards new and current relationships as your other partner.

This isn’t really anyone’s fault and there isn’t much you can do about it outside of trying to move yourself to a new situation where this won’t be an issue, but it looks like for now it’s something that you’re going to have to accept as a shortcoming of the situation that you’re in. It’s also something that your partner can be cognisant of and respect. If your partner is aware of your limited time and capabilities in forging new relationships, he can make sure to do what he can to maximise the time you have together — or make sure your time with him is prioritised so it doesn’t get rescheduled or changed at the last minute.

You might also want to ensure that when you meet new people, they’re aware of the limited resources you have in terms of them coming to your house. You might find that if you point that out early in dating people, they might be able to offer some suggestions in how to counteract that. It might be that you’re falling out with people not necessarily due to a lack of interest but, if they aren’t aware of the structural problems you have, they just might assume you’re less interested in them and disconnect. So it’s worth making that clear from the start, especially if you can’t get out of this situation any time soon.

Relationship meanings and expectations

While that might solve your logistical problems, there’s definitely more going on under the surface here that you need to explore. I’m not sure from your letter whether you decided on polyamory or went with it because this is something that someone you like wanted to do. I don’t think people always have to choose polyamory as a relationship style independently in order to have it work for them, but I do think that people need to examine the reasons they want to be polyamorous personally that go beyond just wanting to stay in one relationship.

You have a lot of expectations about relationships that make me wonder if polyamory is actually something you’re interested in. The main core of your jealousy is the idea that your partner loves or devotes the same amount of romantic energy onto others as he does onto you and… This is pretty much an inevitability in polyamory. Part and parcel of it is that your partner will have other romantic relationships and it’s very possible that those people will be intimate and close to your partner in the exact same way that you are.

That doesn’t mean however that, if you examine this thought process, you might come to some different conclusions. It doesn’t seem like your partner has taken an expected route to solve this problem by assuring you that he will love you more than other people he dates, which is good. But I do think you need to examine your own personal needs in this. Love isn’t a finite resource. It’s very possible to love and be intimate with multiple people without that impacting the amount of love one feels for anyone else. Think about it in terms of friends or relationships with family or children. Choosing to have another child doesn’t mean that one isn’t satisfied with the current children one has and introducing a new child into a family doesn’t mean that one loves all of the children a little less now to make ‘room’ for the new child.

But what new relationships *do* mean is that there will be less time devoted towards you than if you were monogamous. Love is infinite, but time is not. Accepting polyamory as the relationship style of your choice doesn’t mean you accept that your partner loves you less than a monogamous partner would — but it does mean that your partner will spend less time with you than a monogamous partner would. Is that something that you’re prepared to accept?

Some people cannot do polyamory because they do not like the idea of their partner being romantic or intimate with anyone but them and that isn’t necessarily a problem of jealousy — it’s just how some people prefer to do their relationships and it’s totally valid. Because you’ve been raised within a monogamous centric culture, you’ve likely received the message that your partner’s love has to be exclusive in order to be meaningful. I can’t speak for other countries, but I can say if you grew up in an English speaking or European country, it’s likely that you received the messages, especially from media, that love is measured by how much your partner wants to capitalise on your time and energy and that even being attracted to other people means you don’t love your partner as much as others. That’s not really true.

It might be that when you sit down and think about this and understand that your partner loving other people doesn’t mean that he loves you less, you’ll be less upset by other people. It will take time. It’s not an overnight thing. If you’ve been raised with these messages, it’s difficult to just get rid of them. I know it took me awhile to come to terms with the idea that my partner being with someone else didn’t mean they didn’t love me or want to be with me. But I definitely wanted polyamory for reasons outside of continuing in a relationship with one person, so I think that’s something that you’re going to need to work out with yourself.

The symbolism of marriage

When it comes to marriage, I think you need to work out what the symbolism of it actually means for you. You seem to not necessarily be attached to the institution itself or need to have it officially recognised by the government, but the idea of it still holds some type of symbolism for you and it’s possible that, even if your partner has no interest in marriage, you can work out between you some type of alternative.

I’m not very positive about ‘marriage’ myself because of what it’s meant throughout my life. I’ve got no real interest in it as an institution or even having a ‘marriage’ outside of institutions because I’m not fond of the idea. But, I would consider, after being with a partner for a certain number of years, having something like a commitment ceremony where we might recognise our mutual commitment to one another and celebrate that. It wouldn’t be state recognised or ordained or even as big as a ‘marriage’ would be, but it would be something nice that I would consider doing. And I might have more than one of them. I don’t like the idea of promising to be with someone until you die because I feel like that’s unrealistic, but recognising an ongoing commitment would be good for me personally.

Figure out what it is that marriage represents to you and what you want it to mean. It’s possible that your partner also shares this and would consider an alternative like a commitment ceremony.

Outside of how you feel about marriage, there is the very pressing concern of what your family feels and the pressure they’re putting on both of you. I think when it comes to your partner’s family, you need to let your partner manage that aspect of his own life himself because it’s out of your control. But when it comes to your own family, that’s harder for me to advise.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to your survival. There are some people who think that it’s important to be honest and up front about being polyamorous in all cases, but I think that’s a very easy thing to say if one doesn’t rely on one’s family for survival and the understanding of your own family is something you know far better than anyone who could give you advice. I don’t know what your family is like but I know that with my own family, following other people’s advice or examples in some situations would have created more harm for me than good.

Do what you need to do with your family to survive. If it means not being honest with them or being honest with them, if it means lying temporarily or lying forever, if it means waiting for a time when you don’t rely on them so heavily to tell them the truth or be honest with them about your feelings on marriage — do whatever it takes to ensure you’re in the best position possible to be happy and healthy. Knowing the stress of what it means to not have a family safety net, I’m not about to advise someone to sacrifice what they have for the sake of making a moral or social point.

In summary

The first thing for you to tackle an honest look into your own wants and needs to figure out if polyamory is something you genuinely want and can you accept both the limitations of your current position as well as the very real reality that your partner can and will have other intimate relationships and spend less time with you than if you chose monogamy. It might be that in taking this self-reflection you realise that you’d much rather have a partner who only had close, intimate relationships with you and that has some meaning and that makes all of your own problems superfluous.

If you decide polyamory is definitely something you want, work out some solutions to your current physical limitations and don’t blame yourself or feel bad for having jealous feelings or anxiety about new partners. See if this improves over time because, the more you establish your relationship with your current partner and understand he’s sticking around, even if he dates other people, the anxiety should decrease over time.

Then decide how you want to tackle the marriage issue both with your current partner and with your parents. I think you have to accept that ‘marriage’ in that name is not in the cards with your current partner, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a celebration or recognition of your current and continued commitment.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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.