Ultimatums and polyamory

I’m a woman in my late 40’s, married for 4 years to a woman in her early 50’s. About a year ago, we decided to open our marriage and date other people. We were both on board.
We shared a couple of threesomes, and all was well. Then I decided to begin a FWB relationship with my ex, who happens to be friends with both of us. Still, all was well. Then, about 4 months ago, I found a woman on a dating site that I was interested in. I met her and we had this intense connection immediately. Still, all was well. Until my wife began to pick up on how happy I was with her. That’s when she started having a problem with it. She accused me of falling in love with the other woman. I couldn’t deny it. But I still loved my wife, too.
After a week or two, my wife mentioned that she would like for me to stop seeing the other woman. I told her I didn’t want to, and wasn’t even sure that I could if I wanted to at this point. She was hurt, and began saying that she only agreed to the open marriage for me, to make me happy. Although she didn’t participate much in the one on one dating, she was always very excited about hearing all the details about my encounters. And she was very much into the threesomes.
After a lot of berating by my wife, I agreed to go to couple’s therapy with her. The counselor told us that she wasn’t sure our marriage could be salvaged. Part of me really wants to salvage our relationship. She has many good qualities and is very important to me. However, I have emotional and physical needs that she can’t or won’t meet. She was fine with me going outside our marriage to get my needs met until I met this other woman. Then it was all bets are off because I fell in love with her.
We did agree when we started the open marriage that we wouldn’t seek out a relationship, that it would be sex only. And that was my intention. But I didn’t bargain on falling in love. My wife argues that I could’ve stopped myself from falling in love with the other woman. I completely disagree. Falling in love is not something that can be controlled.
My wife is really pushing me to stop seeing the other woman and to close the marriage. I really have no desire to do either. In my past monogamous relationships, I’ve always struggled with fidelity. I don’t think I’m cut out for being with just one person. I know deep down that if I agree to do as she’s asked, I’ll more than likely end up cheating sooner or later.
I’ve already explained to my wife that even though I’m in love with the other woman, I’m also still in love with her and I have no desire to leave her. The other woman is fantastic, but I can’t see the two of us being successful in an exclusive relationship or marriage, for several reasons. However, I know the other woman expects me to leave my wife within the next couple of years. I’m not sure she will ever be okay with being the 2nd in line indefinitely.
I’m really confused. I don’t want to lose either one of them. I don’t know what to do.

This sounds like a very difficult situation to be in. You’ve got a few issues going here that I want to address.

  • What we expect from love
  • Controlling behaviour
  • Replacement partners

What we expect from love

Had I been able to advise you when you started opening your relationship, I would have told you to never, ever establish a rule against falling in love with someone. That absolutely and fundamentally cannot be helped. You feel your feelings and while we absolutely can control what our actions are, we can’t control our feelings. I don’t necessarily blame your partner for feeling betrayed if you agreed on only seeking out sexual relationships — but at the same time, I don’t think it is fair for her to, after the fact, say she never wanted to do this or was only wanting to do this for you.

It may be true that she only did this for you, but she is a grown adult who agreed to this of her own free will. She may not have been primarily motivated by this for the purposes of getting her own friends with benefits, but that doesn’t mean she can pretend like this agreement was a favour to you that you must repay by dumping someone she doesn’t like. But I think what is lying behind your partner’s fear is a real lack of understanding behind what it means when we say we love someone.

If you haven’t heard of the relationship escalator, it’s basically a framework that we culturally come to understand the progression of relationships from not serious to serious. When we’re operating outside of this framework or we don’t desire some of those hallmarks of ‘progression’ in relationships, we have to find other ways to define commitment and intimacy. We have to reframe sometimes entirely what ‘progression’ means in a relationship. It’s these hallmarks that soothe our anxieties about our partner and whether or not they will leave us. And love is a big step on that escalator.

What your partner may be doing by trying to get you to get rid of this relationship is she may be really afraid of what it means for you to love someone else and how that will change her relationship with you. And to her credit, you have not really ever said here at least what it means for you to love this other person. You didn’t necessarily expect to be in love and you began this exploration into non-monogamy with an agreement and understanding with your partner that it would only be sex. Well, now that this might not be the case, what does that mean?

Love may be infinite, but our time is not. And committing to non-monogamy ultimately means committing to a situation where any partner you have does not spend all of their time with you. And I would say monogamy, if it’s with someone who has a time-consuming job or when people have children, also involves committing to an agreement similar to that. So your partner’s fear and attempt to control this situation likely stems from the very real fear that your love for this other person may mean less time is spent with her and she may be afraid of how that will affect her.

Regardless of what happens with your other partner, if you want to salvage your relationship, you need to have your wife understand what it means for you to love more than one person and how that will impact her. Think honestly about what it means. And think about it in terms of tangibles. Will anything actually change physically? Will you want to spend more time with this other person? Maybe so or maybe not. But, I think if your wife can understand that another love in your life does not mean you have any interest in leaving her, she will feel less threatened by it. But she’s also going to have to really have an honest look at some of her behaviours — which leads me to my next point.

Controlling behaviour

Your partner is being controlling here, maybe for an understandable reason, but it’s no less controlling. And your other partner is also being controlling and that is throwing up some red flags for me. But first, let me say that your current partner is going to have understand that is not appropriate or okay for her to demand you leave anyone. Just as it would not be appropriate or okay for her to demand you stop being friends with someone or cut off ties with a family member. Your relationships are your relationships. It doesn’t sound like your partner is trying to be abusive or is intentionally trying to isolate you or anything, but that doesn’t make it okay. She cannot, even if you were monogamous, reasonably expect to control your relationships. She’s welcome to end your relationship if it’s not going a way she likes, but she cannot make these demands of you. It’s not fair and it’s controlling.

When she says that you can control who you fall in love with, she is to an extent incorrect about that. No one can necessarily control that type of thing. But I think what she means is that when a person begins to fall in love, there might be signs that this happening a bit earlier on before it officially happens and, in the future, if we’re aware of it, we might be able to pinpoint the likeliness of this happening earlier than when it’s already happening. Because, while it might have felt slow and gradual for you, it probably felt very jarring and sudden to her.

I do think that there is not much of a point in arguing whether or not you could have realised this earlier or not. You could look at what happened between you and this new person and think about signs that you could have noticed earlier where you might have discussed things with your wife before you truly ‘fell’, but at this point, it’s more important to be apologetic about how shocking this might be for her.

But she also needs to understand that this wasn’t intentional and you absolutely did pursue other people in good faith in terms of the agreement you originally had. You cannot continue a relationship with your wife is she believes you are operating in bad faith or you intended to violate the terms of your agreement. She might feel betrayed, but that doesn’t mean your intent was to betray. And while she should and can express those feelings of betrayal, ultimately if she can no longer trust you, you both can’t operate on a cracked foundation of mistrust. She either has to understand this wasn’t planned and reconcile that or progression may not be possible if she can no longer trust you.

Either way, you need to think about what it might mean if you’re in love with someone else and have a discussion with your wife about what that means specifically and whether or not it’s something she would be okay with. Reassure her that you don’t want to leave her and that loving another person does not mean that you feel less for her. You have to accept that if your loving someone means spending more time with them or changing any of your time commitments to your wife now, then she will understandably ‘lose’ something. She may not want to lose anything at all. But if you can have a discussion with each other about what it means for you to be in love with someone and she understands she is not being replaced, she might feel less threatened and afraid of it. Or you might be able to come to a better understanding of what your wants are.

You may decide that you don’t need to ‘act’ on your feelings of love. Technically you could have someone who is no different than a FWB but whom you just have feelings for. Just because you love someone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have more commitment, more time together, or more of anything. It may just mean you have feelings. explore what it means for you to be in love with someone, clarify that with your partner and she might not feel so threatened and afraid of it. But the question is whether your relationship with your newest partner is worth saving, which brings me to my next point.

‘Replacement’ partners

What really strikes me is that your newest partner is expecting you to leave your wife… which is really not healthy either. People on either side of you should not expect you to leave anyone. And most certainly, one partner should not expect to ‘replace’ another partner because that is absolutely not something that should be happening.

You need to really think about whether or not someone who is putting this pressure on you is someone you should want to be in a relationship anyway. I’m not sure if she described herself as being ‘2nd in line’ or if those are just your words, but even among a hierarchical situation… this isn’t a queue and anyone who doesn’t understand that and is pushing you, regardless of your feelings, to leave someone just doesn’t strike me as a good person to partner up with.

And it makes me wonder if this is something your wife knows about and if that might be another source of anxiety for her. If your wife knows that someone is purposely trying to replace her… well, I can’t really say I blame her for wanting you to leave this person. She might be going about it in a very controlling way, but if my partner were dating someone who was basically trying to replace me, I’d be pretty uncomfortable about that. You might actually consider ending this other relationship, not because it’s something that’s being demanded of you but because it’s just not healthy, even if you are in love.

I do recommend you continue to go to couple’s therapy, but you find a polyamory specialist or just a different therapist. I don’t think it’s time to call it completely quits with your wife because I do feel like it’s worth seeing what’s lying behind her fear, exploring what she might be fearing, and see if you can actually address that together in a healthy way and move on from that. It may be a situation where you are just incompatible and you discover that you do want to fall in love with other people and you want to explore that and she doesn’t — and that’s fine.

Or you may find that you can feel this love, it doesn’t change anything in the physical word for your wife, and she isn’t as threatened by it because she’s been reassured what ‘love’ means in the right context and that works. But you’re going to need help walking through that together. You may not ever have meant to fall in love or mean to fall in love in the future, but you now both need to work with the understanding that you can’t control it so you need to decide what you’re going to do about it if it happens and what i means when it does.

I hope that helps and good luck.

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