When polyamory makes you feel inadequate

My wife just dropped this on me.
We have experimented with swinging, and we have gone to a swing club a few times, and I was ok with it.
But she had also been talking to various individuals online, and had been wanted to be dominated (BDSM stuff), which I also have a problem with doing. I can’t slap my wife, it just feels wrong. I can’t choke her or anything like that, I could spank her, but that’s about the extent of it.
So we went to the Swing Club on NYE, and she ended up walking around topless much of the night and just in her underwear. I didn’t have much of a problem with this, as I got to touch her boobs all night. We even fooled around a little in the open in front of people.
Then we swung with another couple that we had been talking to. I was not interested in the girl at all, but whatever, that’s beside the point.
That’s where the pain happened for me. My wife had what appeared to be mind-blowing orgasms with the other two people, the guy and the girl. And I was crushed.
Then the following day, she said how free she felt and that she’s never felt that way before. And she was so happy, but here I was not feeling like myself anymore, even though we had swing previously with other people, and I was fine then.
Then she drops a bombshell on me, that she wants to be non-monogamous and that she would love to be poly[am] and be dominated by others and all that stuff.
And I was destroyed, felt inadequate, I was bawling uncontrollably, and I felt complete betrayal. I told her I didn’t think I could do that anymore and I wanted to just go back to being monogamous, and now there is this HUGE divide between us. I don’t want to swing anymore, I don’t want her talking to guys online anymore, and I don’t want to feel this pain anymore.
We have kids, and that’s why I’m even still here at this point. I want to make my marriage work and I want us to be able to get things back into Pandora’s box. I don’t want to feel like I’m not worth anything, and I want to have these same people in my life in a normal marriage, like it used to be. What can I do to get back to that? Or is it a lost cause? I love my wife and don’t want to lose her, and I love my kids and don’t want to lose them either. I don’t want them to grow up without a dad. Please help.

I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through so much pain. There are a couple of things that I can see in your letter that might help you figure out what to do next:

  • Polyamory vs. swinging
  • Inadequacy and competition
  • Wants and needs
  • Parenting agreements

Polyamory vs. swinging

The first thing that I have to say to get it out of the way and because it’s really important is that there isn’t going to be a way to make things go back completely to how they were. Things can definitely change for you for the better, but in many cases, ‘closing’ a relationship after opening it isn’t really returning back to a state a relationship was in before it was opened.

‘Non-monogamy’ is a wide umbrella that covers both polyamory and swinging, but the two are not the same in terms of what actually happens and what it means for you emotionally. So it’s important to nail down and understand what it is that your wife wants. Does she actually want other romantic relationships with other people? Or does she want to do more swinging? Does she want to do things with you? Or is she fine operating independently? Is she interested in an ‘anchor’ style relationship with you or is she wanting to create a fundamental change in how your lives are organised (assuming you live together with your children)?

Whenever a massive change happens in your life, anxiety and pain is likely going to follow. Change is difficult to cope with. Sometimes a big change can be welcoming and be happy, but it still creates fear and anxiety. So even if you were happy with the swinging and had a good time and your wife suggested being polyamorous — you might still end up feeling scared by the change. I don’t want you to think of your anxiety as necessarily a bad sign. It’s very normal. What helps to moor you when you’re lost among all of this anxiety is getting a good idea of how things are going to change and how you can cope with it.

It’s also going to help you realise what you want to do next if you understand what it is your partner wants. While you can’t go back to your relationship before you opened it, all of the things you’re afraid of losing if she, for example, just wants to swing with more people, you may not lose at all. It all really depends on what she wants to try. And she may not have all of the answers now, she just might want more of the experiences she had on New Year’s Eve, and that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘polyamory’ and it doesn’t necessarily mean your life will change. Which brings me to the next topic.

Inadequacy and competition

While part of your anxiety is coming from the unknown, a good part of your pain is coming from the idea you have that your wife wanting to have sexual experiences with others — or having good sexual experiences with others — is inherently a judgement on you as a person. This isn’t a ridiculous feeling to have. It’s a feeling that, unless you grew up in a completely different society, a monogamous-centric society will have endorsed in as many narratives as possible.

Many of us grow up with narratives that tell us there is ‘the one’ for us and that narrative comes with competition. We’re not inherently ‘the one’ for someone, not if capitalism has anything to do with it. We have to become ‘the one’ by being the best looking, the best in bed, the best in so many other ways, etc. But the reality of the situation is that — whether you are monogamous or non-monogamous — one partner you have will not be the best at every single thing they do. Even if you were to break up with your wife, date someone knew, they might’ve had more mind blowing orgasms with another person before you, and there’s little to nothing you can do about it.

It’s completely understandable to feel self-conscious if your partner has an amazing sexual experience with someone else. A lot of polyamory advice would tell you, “But hey isn’t it great because then you can learn what made them have these great orgasm and you can do the same thing”. And yeah, theoretically that does work… sometimes. But you’re going to have feelings about that, and that’s understandable.

Underneath all of that pain, it’s important for you to remember though that you cannot control who is ‘better’ than you at anything, whether it’s orgasms or cooking. Other polyamory advice would tell you “you have a lot to offer, not just one thing and you’re worth more than just one thing”, but it’s not easy to feel that when you know you haven’t measured up in one way — especially when sex is involved because it can be so personal.

The reason why I think it’s important for you to remember that you can’t control how you compare to others is because inadequacy and fear will be something you will still come up against, even if you were to divorce your wife and be monogamous. Many monogamous people struggle with this as well, so it’s very common. But, if you want to stay with her and work things out, understanding you can’t control this will help you out immensely in the future.

What may also help as well is that you don’t need to know things like that either. There may be all sorts of reasons that your partner might have had this great experience. It might be the rush of a new experience, incorporating some fantasy things you don’t wish to participate in, or it being a threesome — who knows? But in the future, your partner can have these other experiences and maybe tell you if there are things you can do to make things more exciting between the two of you that you can do, but she doesn’t have to share things that are inevitably unhelpful. Some people like hearing the details and it’s okay if you don’t.

A lot of your pain and fear comes from the idea of you being replaceable. And while the advice that you’re one of a kind and not replaceable, which many polyamory advice says, may be logically sound, it doesn’t always help with your feelings. I find it more helpful to accept that I have absolutely no control over whether or not I ‘measure up’ to someone else, especially since no matter how good I am at anything, given the billions of people living on the planet, there will almost definitely be someone who is better. And, more importantly and contrary to what the mono-centric narrative encourages folks to think, we don’t pick or fall in love with people because they are ‘the best’ at everything. That leads me to the next point.

Wants and needs

At this point, you can’t change what has happened, but you and your wife can decide what it is that you both actually want and how you want to proceed. And that means some explorations about your wants and needs instead of just your fears. You have perfectly understandable fears of being replaced or that you’re not ‘enough’, but think more deeply about what you want. You say you want to make your marriage ‘work’. And it’s very possible that you can make that happen and your partner can get what she wants as well.

Are you at all interested in any form of non-monogamy? You said you weren’t interested in the woman who you swung with on NYE and I would suggest in the future you not push yourself into situations where you’re not into it because that will only compound anxiety. But have you ever enjoyed the swinging elements? Are you interested in other relationships or other sexual experiences? It might be that you’re not terribly interested in that, but even so, it can still work.

Your wife is clearly interested in a non-monogamous situation. While you need to clarify whether it’s swinging or polyamory she wants, that does mean that she will not be devoting 100% of her attention to you in the way someone who is monogamous and doesn’t have a time consuming job or hobby would. You may have to decide if that’s something that you want or not. It might be that you don’t necessarily need that from your wife — you just want the stability of her being there for your children and also to feel like a solid partner in her life, which can be done through other means than just focusing all of her time on you.

Once you have a good idea of what you both need, you can negotiate what that looks like in the real world. You have children you should both be focusing the majority of your energies on, but what would your relationship look like if, for example, your wife was to swing? Or have another partner? Would you prefer to have an anchor/primary style relationship where you still live together but she spends some of her time with another partner or swinging? Maybe you’ll decide that she can go to swinging clubs on her own (if you’re not into it) one weekend a month. You might agree on safer sex rules.

This type of solution may actually help your relationship because it is clear that your wife has interests sexually that you don’t have. That isn’t necessarily such an incompatibility that you have to break your current relationship over, but it does mean that things won’t be exactly the same as they were before you opened your relationship because you do have inherently different wants. It just comes down to how you negotiate this. Depending on what your wife feels she wants, you might be able to come to agreement that works for both of you and still allows you to stay together and, more importantly, remain happy together. Which brings me to my final point.

Parenting agreements

I don’t understand why you would be worried that your children would grow up without a father. Because, even if your relationship with your wife doesn’t work out, nothing stops you from being a father in your child’s life except yourself — barring maybe a court that orders you to stay away. You have control over that. And what worries me about this statement is that either you feel an urge to abandon the situation all together or you have reason to fear your wife would ‘take’ your children from you and cause a problem.

Regardless of what happens in your sexual relationship together, you both need to be on the same page of committing to be good parents. And that means trying to give your children the best life that you possibly can. It is better for you to be separated and stable individually as parents than force yourselves to pretend you’re together and create an unhappy and unstable coupling. Take it from a person whose parents stayed together ‘for the kids’ — it’s not always the best option if the people involved are completely unhappy with one another.

It’s important to remember, even in the discussion of your wants and your needs, that providing a stable and happy home is also very important and sometimes that may mean you aren’t together but that doesn’t have to mean your children go without loving and caring people in their lives. So it’s important that you both remember that throughout your negotiations and you don’t involve the children in any of the pain and hurt feelings going on.

In summation

Overall, your feelings are completely understandable, but your situation isn’t completely unworkable. It all comes down to what it is that your wife is interested in and how you feel about the situation in your life changing — it’s going to change regardless, but there are different ways it can change that might not be as terrifying and as painful as what you’re going through now.

You’re going to experience anxiety and fear, and this is true in general even if you were to start a new monogamous relationship. See if you can find a polyamory friendly couples therapist that can walk you both through a discussion of your wants and negotiation, as well as addressing your fears. They might be able to help you work out a solution that can work for you both or work out a way you can separate and still create a stable and happy environment for your child.

Things around you are shifting and changing and this is going to cause you a lot of fear and pain, but I want you to remember that you’re always able to be a good father for your child if you put forth the effort. As scary as it might seem, especially given the way this society also makes it seem like a ‘broken’ home is a divorced home, what children need in their lives are consistent loving people who care about that. They can have that even if their parents divorce. It might be difficult for their lives to change in such a big way, but a home can be ‘broken’ even if the parents are married. No matter what happens between your wife and you, you can still be great parents.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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