Although I’ve been in a number of open relationships in my life, and intentionally so in the past years, I don’t really consider myself polyamorous. Nor am I accurately described as a swinger. I call myself poly-friendly, because I need to be friends with someone before entering into a sexual relationship, but I also am not falling in love with people or specifically seeking out love with multiple people.
I’ve also learned, over the past years, that it’s hard for me to focus on more than one romantic relationship at a time. Even in some of my relationships in the past years where my partner also has a primary partner…I know some of those men have felt that I wasn’t paying enough attention to them.
Currently I have more than one partner for the first time in my life, and I don’t feel I’m juggling that very well…or rather, juggling that well with all of my writing/art/traveling/teaching obligations. And being in open relationships has brought up some things I didn’t expect.
*** Note: This series of articles goes into me exploring what relationships mean to me, and what I want out of relationship. As I tend to, I write this from a pretty open/vulnerable place, but it might be TMI for some folks. Thus, you’ve been warned. ***
In the past, I’ve generally not had a lot of interaction with my romantic partner’s wife/primary partner. The word I used in Part 2 to mean my partner’s partner is borrowed from the polyamory community; the word is metamor. Right now I’m experiencing a new-to-me facet of being in an open relationship: I have had a lot more positive interaction with my boyfriend’s wife than I have had with any of my other partners’ girlfriends and wives.
My Partner’s Partner
In the past, I haven’t had much connection to my partners’ partners for a variety of reasons. For instance, I’ve been dating a man for the past year whose wife has extreme social anxiety and depression, and she’s really uninterested in any social interaction. Given I have my own struggles as an introvert with some social anxiety, I totally understand and respect that, though I admit that this has offered up some challenges in his and my relationship as it’s difficult to make plans together given she often has bad days.
One specific challenge I face with that scenario is that my own anxiety gets tripped when I don’t have solid, dependable plans, since my whole day gets thrown off anyways when I’m gearing up to do something social. If I’ve blown a day of work getting ready for social activity, and then the plans change, I’ve not only lost that day, but the resulting plan-changing anxiety can blow another day as well if I’m not really careful. And since I only see this particular boyfriend perhaps once a month, this causes some significant frustration for me. So, my relationship to her is more tangential in a sense in that she and I don’t directly talk, but this still has an impact on my life whether or not she and I hang out.
In a few other relationships I attempted, I found that I really didn’t get along with the spouse/primary partner. And that doesn’t mean they were bad–like I’ve said before, chemistry is what it is. Just as some people have personality types where they probably shouldn’t work together, there are also people that are just never going to work well as friends, and that’s ok. In some instances, however, the primary partner was actually fairly unstable or abusive. In one or two of those cases, the primary partner actively worked to keep their partner from being able to see me.
Now, in retrospect, those behaviors are some big red flags and I should have bailed on the relationship, but some things I suppose I had to learn for myself. General open relationship note: If you really don’t get along with your partner’s partner, that’s a real warning sign in an open relationship, even if you’re only going to have minimal interaction with them.
While I almost always initially grumble about having to put in the additional social time of meeting my partner’s partner (because, introvert with social anxiety here) I have found that in almost any open relationship, being at least on good terms with my partner’s partner is important. Depending on the open relationship, there are varying levels of expectations about how much social time one is expected to have with the partner’s partner.
In my case, my enemy is time. I never feel that I have enough time to get all my work done, and so the more social obligations I have, the less time I have to write or paint or do other work. And the more time I need to spend recovering from the physical/mental exhaustion I experience after what most would think of as social “fun” time. It’s a lot of pressure and part of my anxiety cycle. The anxiety and recovery profile changes significantly depending on various factors, but it’s something I have to factor in when I think about relationships, even friendships. People will often invite me over for something that’s “relaxing” or “fun” but in most cases, my definition of fun is likely to be a little different than the norm. Planning can help reduce my anxiety. (You might have guessed by now that I’m also not really big on spontaneity.)
In terms of open relationships that didn’t quite work out as expected, I have also experienced a couple of partners who really wanted me to be part of their poly family, even though our relationship agreements were very clearly stated up front and I was only interested in being a casual/tertiary partner. In at least one of those cases, the man I was dating seemed to be harboring this fantasy where I was going to move in with him, his wife, her girlfriend, and the kids, even though that was far beyond the parameters of our relationship. His wife and her girlfriend did work to make me feel welcome, but my gut feeling tells me his wife and I probably would have eventually butted heads. We’re both strong-willed, stubborn people, and we probably would have ended up like oil and water if we’d ever tried interacting much more than we did.
It’s worth pointing out that when the parties involved in a relationship have very different expectations, that can cause some significant pressures and in this case it was a big part of his and my breakup in that particular dynamic.
What makes that breakup somewhat more tragic is that that boyfriend was the “safe place” I went to when I needed to see if I could still cope with having sex after my breakup with my abusive ex Mark. I wasn’t sure if I’d freak out during sex or freeze up or what. Fortunately, everything worked just fine, but I think what helped is that I connected with someone I already knew as a friend via the Pagan community–a coven leader I’d worked with before. I was comfortable that we were on a peer dynamic so I didn’t have to worry about that aspect of things. However, because he and his whole family are Pagan, when we broke up, that had the potential to create tension, if not community conflict, all on its own.
With my newest relationship, I’ve had a fair amount of interaction with my boyfriend’s wife, and to a certain extent, with some of her other lovers. I’ve also met their kids, and some of their friends who are part of the local open-relationship-community. And some of these social interactions are a bit difficult for me to sustain, but they are definitely a factor in the dating-in-open-relationships process.
I think that this has all worked in this case because she and I actually get along pretty well. I genuinely like her. It’s worth pointing out how crucial stability is to an open relationship. His wife is stable, their relationship is stable. That makes me feel really good about my relationship with her husband; knowing that I’m not disrupting their dynamic really helps me a lot to feel safe and to trust my partner.
In a few other relationships, I’ve found that my partners started using me almost as a therapist in some ways; they’d complain about their primary partners and what they didn’t like about their primary relationships, and that isn’t at all the case here, so that’s really nice. (Interesting factoid: Most sex workers I’ve talked to have told me that their clients theoretically pay for sex, but often they just talk about the things they can’t say to anyone else, including talking about problems in their relationships.)
With my new boyfriend and his wife, I admit, probably will always feel a little awkward staying over at their place, but I think that’s probably more my general anxiety about staying in places that aren’t my own “introvert cave” than anything else. Heck, I feel awkward whenever I’m staying at anyone else’s place whether that’s a boyfriend who is single, or I’m traveling and staying at a friend’s place on their couch or in their spare room.
My new boyfriend’s wife has gone out of her way to make me feel welcome, and I don’t take that for granted. Not for a minute. And it’s not that previous partners’ partners’ haven’t also worked to make me welcome, but in this case, the dynamic just really works. It feels more comfortable to me than it has in any previous relationship like this. Usually when I try to sleep over at someone’s place I can’t sleep at all, and I’ve actually been able to sleep at their place, as well as in the hotel when we all went on a trip together.
What Is Relationship?
All this has really forced me to really look at and evaluate what relationship means to me, and what I want out of my life. If I really boil it down, I think that I like monogamous relationships in part just because they are simpler for me on a lot of levels. Particularly for an introvert with some social anxiety. I like the comfort of living with someone. I like movie dates at home watching movies on the couch. I like not having to go out to meet up.
In this new relationship, I spent a weekend with him and we did just that; I stayed at his place while his family was out of town and we ate, watched four sci-fi flicks, and just hung out in our pajamas. It was so comforting, and I realized that I hadn’t gotten to just hang out with a lover like that in years.
I will admit it: I hate the process of dating.
I like not having to worry about meeting new people and going through the whole song and dance of dating; vetting people, talking on the phone to screen them, going on the first “are you an axe murderer or so boring or full of yourself I want to gouge my own eyes out” date…all that.
I like intimacy. I like getting to know someone and have them get to know me so that I get to the point where I actually trust them. Relationship shorthand is so very important to me because it’s part of safety, part of security. There’s something amazing and brilliant when my partner knows I’m just not up for going out to XYZ social event, or that doing ABC is one of my major stressors, or that I can do DEF if we have a solid plan. Or even things like taking into account my food issues (I’m wheat and dairy intolerant, among other things) before making plans.
I’ve been in relationships where I’ve had to explain-ad nauseum–what I like, or don’t like, what works for me and what doesn’t, and that’s exhausting. Holding boundaries is exhausting when someone keeps pushing at them, and I’ve been in that dynamic over and over. With Mark, it bled over into emotional abuse. I was told, over and over, that it was bad and wrong that I didn’t want to go out with him and his friends, that “If I really loved him” I’d do this thing for him even though it would be damaging to me.
And, though I like the comfort of monogamy, the simplicity of it, of that shorthand and safety…and though I like the simplicity and comfort of not juggling multiple people…I’m long past the point in my life where I can move in and be in a committed relationship with someone just because I like the ease, the safety. Just because I want to shut up the tape that says “I’ll always be alone, nobody will ever get me.”
Links to the whole series: