Trial separation to try polyamory

My wife and I are 31 and have been married for 2 years but together for 13. We have 2 kids that I love very much and work hard to share all responsibilities and we have made great strides recently with improving our communication and me feeling more comfortable with asking for what I want in our sexual relationship. We have an active sex life and she is my best friend and I feel we are good for each other.
My wife and I met during the summer before going off to college and have been together since, with some issues along the way. I have cheated on my wife twice while we were dating and developed a crush on a coworker that might have resulted in cheating were the opportunity available. My wife was the only woman I had sex with up until the most recent cheating, with a women we will call C. After C, my wife, then girlfriend, and I to split while I pursued a relationship with C.
After phone calls with C and an eventual weekend away, I realized that she was not the woman that I wanted and that I was not in a healthy mental state, and I went to my wife telling her I wanted her back. After a couple more months of separation we moved back in together and 6 months later we got married. I expressed remorse to my wife for what I had done with C but I never owned up to my past transgressions.
About 1 year ago I had a serious seizure, I have a history of epilepsy, and this pushed me to work towards change, but it wasn’t until a therapeutic mushroom trip that revealed to me past trauma that I sought out true change. After that session I told my wife about all the mistakes I had made through our history together and I sought out therapy, which I still go to and it has been very helpful. I had never been good with understanding or conveying my feelings, a result of my childhood, but my wife listened to all the painful things I had to say and we are still together. I have been working to love myself more and be a better husband for my wife and I thought I was past my transgressions.
Recently however I developed a crush on a woman at my work, lets call her D, and I tried hard to resist. Over time the resistance started to fall away and I found myself being more and more drawn towards D, wanting to talk with her and I feel I can sense a mutual attraction even though she too is in a relationship. I have fantasized about a sexual encounter with D and she has been frequently on my mind and in my dreams, but I had no intentions of cheating on my wife, I don’t want to put her through that again. I have also rather recently come to accept that I am bisexual and that this was one source for much of the shame I experienced throughout my life (I grew up with a religious mother with outdated ideas of relationships and brothers who picked on me and frequently used the term gay or fag and shamed me for my emotional sensitivity and I resultantly learned to shut down my emotions and feel shame at attraction towards men and resist it fiercely).
I have told my wife about both my sexuality and about D and my desire to open up our relationship and it has been met with a lot of resistance. She would rather divorce or separate for a year while I “explore” things and try to figure out what it is I want. She feels she cannot be with me if I am with someone else at some point and she is especially uncomfortable with the idea of me being with another guy while we are together, although she is accepting of my identifying as bisexual.
I do not want to separate because I love her and want to be with her and I love the family we have together and don’t want to see it split up, but I recognize the patterns of my attraction to other women, and my past resistance to my attraction to men, and I worry that if we remain monogamous that it will only be a matter of time before this all repeats itself. At the same time I don’t see how exploring for a year will help me in 5 or 10 or more years down the road if we get back together and I have all of these feelings again.
My wife seems very against the idea of a non-monogamous relationship but I also know that I too was against this idea at one point and it has only been recently when I became honest with myself about who I am and what I want that I realized that this could possibly be a solution. I know I can’t force her into this relationship but I have to try and convince her to give it a try rather than just give up on us.
So I guess my question is: What should I do? How do I convince my wife to give this a try rather than be done with us? I have talked to my therapist some about this topic but she doesn’t specialize in non-monogamy and I feel a second opinion of sorts can be helpful for me working through this situation. I appreciate you taking the time to read through this and I am very grateful for any advice you have to offer.

I’m sorry you’re going through this difficult self-discovery journey, but the good thing is that you’re finding this stuff out now rather than repressing it and waiting years and years down the line. I’m going to cover a few topic areas but I’ll start with your first and foremost question: How do you convince your wife to be non-monogamous? And the honest short answer is “You don’t”. But let me explain.

Convincing people

You have a motivation to consider non-monogamy as a viable life option — you don’t seem to be able to function as a monogamous person. Whether that is due to any significant problem you have or it’s just the way you are, it’s something that motivates you to consider this as a realistic and live-able option.

Unless your wife has a history of cheating, she has no real reason to pursue non-monogamy. Just as you can’t convince someone to want children if they have no interest, you cannot convince someone to want non-monogamy if that’s what they truly want. And given the history with your wife and her decision for as trial separation, I think she’s actually showing some very clear awareness of her own boundaries and needs and providing you with what is the most realistic option for her.

Trying non-monogamy as a couple is fraught with problems, especially if there is a history of infidelity. When individuals come to me and tell me their partner wants them to be non-monogamous, I always say that the only way they should try non-monogamy is if they personally — outside of salvaging a relationship — can see an honest benefit in it. There are situations where individuals are monogamous to a polyamorous partner, but these situations aren’t necessarily common.

Your wife is communicating to you very clearly where her boundaries are and honestly, I think it’s incredibly mature and re-assuring. The fact that she has the bravery to provide you with a period of time to explore and is not walking away from the relationship entirely shows a willingness to work towards a solution in the future.

However, I can understand that a year feels like a nebulous time frame which leads me to my second subject matter.

Trial separations

The only problem I foresee occurring with regards to “trying out” polyamory for a year is that, if you do go forward with this with your wife, you will effectively become ‘single’. The chances of you, depending on the community local to you, finding not only another partner but an additional partner to ‘test’ to see if you are actually interested in non-monogamy is more likely than not very slim. A year down the line, you may not find any polyamorous person who is willing or interested in accepting a situation where you may have a ‘primary’ down the line that could potentially come in and cause problems with your relationship.

You could very well date multiple people at once, but I don’t think that’s really the same as being polyamorous and managing multiple romantic relationships at once. I can understand your wife not wanting to be around to deal with the emotional impact of seeing you with others and managing her jealousy — as you may discover through trying out polyamory in a fun and interesting way that it is your exact fit in terms of lifestyle choices she may equally discover through trying out polyamory with you in emotionally challenging and painful way that polyamory is, most definitely, not for her. It is safer for her to allow you to take a break for a year.

But, as I’ve said, there is no guarantee that you will be able to reach ‘polyamory’ essentially in terms of actively managing multiple romantic relationships and knowing that is what you want in a year’s time. And it is a random amount of time to set. How long is your wife willing to wait around while you figure out? Even though she is willing to wait for you to figure your life out, the fact of the matter is that many people in situations where themselves and their partner are both fully ready, willing and excited to try polyamory find that their first year is fraught with difficulties and they don’t necessarily find multiple partners for further years down the line.

Additionally, this trial separation may mean that, even if, ideally, you do find multiple partners and you decide this is the life for you and your wife is willing to try this out as she has done some self-exploration and has her own motivations to try it herself, you will still have a lack of experience in managing the relationship between yourself and your wife along with others as each relationship is individual. You may find yourself back at square one if she is just trying polyamory as well and there seems to be an assumption from her part that you could pick up where you left off when, even if your wife is willing to try polyamory after a year, your relationship will be fundamentally different.

My worry is that this trial separation won’t actually solve the problem that’s in place, which brings me to my next subject.

Cheating and non-monogamy

Frequently, I remind people that very rarely do people in couples come to a conclusion together that non-monogamy is something they want to try. Usually the discussion is prompted by one partner and at times cheating is a method by which this discussion is prompted. It’s not to say individuals cannot go from cheating to non-monogamy, but I hesitate to assume that non-monogamy can solve every single incident of cheating. It really has a lot to do with the motivations of the individual who cheated.

You don’t really discuss why you cheated and what motivated you and that is going to be the key to your answer. Clearly, you feel as though you cannot commit to sexual monogamy and need the freedom and probably want the freedom to explore sexual contact with others outside of this relationship. You need to make sure that the motivation for cheating is enacting a taboo or an avoidance of commitment because individuals who cheat because it’s “wrong” and that’s the draw or people who find it difficult to emotionally commit to one person cannot solve either of those problems by trying non-monogamy.

What is the draw of non-monogamy to you? Do you actually want multiple physical relationships or do you just feel like you want more sexual experiences with individuals? If the answer is the latter, you may not have to pursue ‘polyamory’ in the sense of managing and wanting multiple romantic relationships. You could instead consider hiring a sex worker in intermittent periods with your wife’s consent and good STI preventative measures put in place in order to try things out.

Or, as another option, you could act as a single individual within swinger communities where there are other married couples and less interest in forming romantic relationships and more interest in trying out new things sexually (however, from anecdotal evidence I have heard that bisexual men can struggle in swinger’s communities as most couples are only interested in bisexual, single women).

This isn’t to say you can prevent yourself from developing feelings for people down the line, but if you want to explore those options, rather than a trial separation, you could work on a sort of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell agreement with your wife where you may have the freedom on specific nights to go to these communities or hire a sex worker in order to more or less satisfy your curiosity which may ebb as you age or have other obligations in life which take up your time. This might be something your wife could agree to temporarily to see if this is a solution to the problem.

It’s worth you investing time to find a polyamory friendly couples therapist who may be able to walk you through both a process of self discovery in your motivations for infidelity as well as facilitating talks between yourself and your wife on how to best work through your exploration outside of your marriage, if she wants to do that, in a way that is least harmful. Unfortunately, if your desire stems from an inherent want to explore multiple romantic relationships or complete freedom to do what you want with anyone at any time, this is likely not going to solve that. You may not be able to figure that out until you try something like the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell setup, and it’s worth being honest about that with your wife rather than promising this will be the last hurdle she may have to consider.

Ultimately, if what you desire is total freedom or multiple romantic relationships, your only real option is to fully separate as you are inherently now incompatible and a trial separation in that case would only string her along further than is necessary.

Bisexuality and discomfort

One last thing I want to address is your wife’s discomfort with you exploring a relationship with a man (and in this cause I will assume she may have equal discomfort with you exploring a relationship with a non-binary individual who may be read as a man). The reason I wish to address this is because if you do communicate this to others in any community, you may get a reaction because this, essentially and no offense intended to your wife, is somewhat of a biphobic/transphobic attitude.

However, I do think that when people have this discomfort in heterosexual relationships it sometimes stems from a very real and understandable fear that you dating someone who is a “man” and all that people assume about that (i.e. that the man will be masculine and have a penis), means that they are providing you with something that they cannot personally offer. I think this is something that’s understandable to be intimidated by.

However, there is often the assumption that bisexual people will leave their partners because we’re inherently unfaithful or we can’t commit to one person. In many cases, the underlying assumption beneath that is that men are always a ‘threat’. Bisexual men are assumed to be secretly just ‘gay’ and bisexual women are assumed to be secretly just ‘straight’ — and rarely the reverse.

I would invite your wife to explore these fears and break them down. She probably has them due to the biphobic messages she has heard from society. Personally, I find it a bit of a relief when one of my partners is dating someone who doesn’t have the same biological configuration I have because then there sometimes, not all the times, is less to directly compare myself to. But it can be hard for people to fully engage with that. Also, you might find that there are assumptions that a man will always have a certain genital configuration which may not be the case and that’s an assumption that’s worth challenging.

In summary

The initial suggestion of a trial separation from your wife isn’t inherently a bad one and it demonstrates a willingness on her part to continue to be committed to a relationship with you but it may not achieve the aims she is thinking it will. In order to really get to the root of the problem, you need to identify what motivates you to cheat and figure out if there can be another solution such as entering the swinger community, attending swinger events or hiring a sex worker that could potentially solve your problem.

You and your wife should challenge the assumptions that you can make in either being threatened by you potentially having a relationship with a man and what you assume about what a ‘man’ is all together. And finally, if ultimately you wish to have full freedom and/or multiple romantic relationships, a trial separation will only delay the inevitable and a full separation is probably a better bet in the long run.

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.