Becoming Comfortable in Open Relationships

shutterstock_56046442I’ve been in open relationships of various formats for many years. For a long time I struggled with the label “polyamorous,” but I’ve come to accept it for myself, along with becoming comfortable with how polyamory and monogamy are a spectrum, not absolutes.

This is the essence of what polyamory means for me personally: I have to be able to be not just ok with my partner being with someone else, but genuinely glad for them. I have to be genuinely excited that my partner is happy, and in most cases, happy for the person/people they are spending time with too.

It’s being fully confident that my partner can love me, and other people. And that I can have feelings for more than one person, and those feelings don’t take away from anyone.

What’s Toxic?

Being polyamorous doesn’t mean I can’t also experience jealousy–some jealousy is normal. Or frustration when plans are complicated because I have more than two humans to schedule around. It’s that there’s something in there transcending the jealousy. Sure, there are times when I might want my partner’s attention and he’s with someone else. Or, scheduling dates is a twisted pile of spaghetti because we have multiple partners to schedule with. But ultimately for me, feeling comfortable with polyamory is me not worrying that my partner’s going to just find someone else and abandon me. Or, vice versa; that I’m not just dating one partner while looking for someone else I like better.

Image may contain: textWhat I think is most important for me isn’t so much whether I’m dating multiple people, but that I’m actively working against the toxic aspects of monogamy. I’m not one of those poly folks that thinks everyone should be poly and pressures people into it. In fact–that’s part of why I rejected the label in the first place.

I do, however, believe that monogamy has some toxic aspects that don’t serve anyone, and it’s worth examining relationship assumptions for relationships in any format. But I’ll get into that.

A few years ago I wrote a blog series on my own explorations in various different types of open relationships, i.e., ethically non-monogamous relationships. At the time, I was in an open relationship but hadn’t yet had the experience of being in love with more than one person at the same time.

In fact, it has been a little odd to realize that I’d never really been in love with any of my previous partners. I loved some of them, but I wasn’t in love, and there’s definitely a difference.

Why Avoid the Label?

Through good relationships, and bad, I learned a lot. The first reason I avoided the label “polyamorous”  was that, though I’d dated multiple men, I wasn’t in love with any of them. Friends, sure. Loving, sure. But I wasn’t “in love,” and I guess I didn’t feel like I fully qualified. The other reason was that there’s this really unfortunate thing where some of the most visibly polyamorous people in any given community are also the folks most likely to be sexually harassing, coercing, and lying to people to get sex. 

Now–we can say, “That’s not really polyamory,” all we want. It’s about as effective as saying that the abusive leaders in Paganism aren’t “really” Pagan. The point is that, at least in the Pagan community, the first exposure many people have to polyamory is the poly-pressuring person. The person sexually harassing others, or the person who isn’t poly at all but is cheating on their partner.

I’ve been cheated on by men who did that, and I’ve had men tell me they were poly and cheat on their partners with me. I also know of so many stories of people at Pagan gatherings, or in other groups, dealing with the unethical/creepy poly person. There are a few times when I’ve thrown up my hands and said, “Why is it always the abusive poly guy running the local polyamory meetup?”

However, I’ve also met a ton of really ethical poly folks, people with beautiful relationships, people working to learn better communication skills and how to be better partners and better humans.

Every subculture deals with people engaging in abuse, manipulation, and harassment. It’s not an intrinsic flaw with non-monogamous relationships.

But Feelings

When I wrote that blog series on open relationships, I hadn’t yet fallen for my partner G. We eventually acknowledged we had feelings for one another. I had to admit to myself that this was the first time I’d been in love with someone. Or at least, where that love was reciprocated.

I’ve had feelings of deep friendship and connection to past partners. But there was a visceral difference between “I love you and care for you” and “I’m in love with you.”

A year into the relationship with G, I developed feelings for someone else. He wasn’t in a fully open relationship, so we didn’t do anything about our mutual attraction, but I was able to experience feeling love for two separate people. And the love for the one didn’t take away the love for the other in any way. Love for the one didn’t make me want to abandon the other. It’s something that is hard to put into words, but I understood it fully once I experienced it.

It was also a unique experience to feel attraction to someone and be completely comfortable not doing anything about it. Something else that polyamory makes space for in a way that toxic monogamy doesn’t is the reality that we can love many people, and that those relationships are not required to be sexual (or romantic) to be valid.

Juggling Multiple Partners

One of my constant fears in relationships used to be letting my partner down. I’m busy, I get sucked into creative projects, I travel a lot. For my monogamous relationships in my 20’s and 30’s, I know my partners felt neglected. How much of that was them emotionally abusing me is a separate and more complex issue.

My response to this in my late 30’s was focusing on relationships with non-monogamous men with other partners; they were busy too. I wasn’t worried that they would be angry at me for not being constantly available. So I was dating men in open relationships, but I myself wasn’t dating multiple people. I was pretty comfortable with my partner seeing other people even if I wasn’t, because I didn’t have time anyways.

I still have mixed success with juggling multiple partners of my own. It seems to go the best when everyone else is also really busy.

When Poly Goes Badly

Fastforwarding through a lot of conflict, the relationship with G ended poorly. I had moved in with him and his wife. His wife made a show of welcoming me to the home, but ultimately that was a manipulative set up and she ended up being incredibly emotionally abusive. I finally was able to get the money together to move out of their house toward the end of 2017. (I’ll be writing more about abuse in poly relationships in the future.)

As I began trying to heal from the resulting trauma, I wondered, “How can I possibly try polyamory again? How could I ever trust a metamor (partner’s partner) after this kind of trauma?” Right after that, I even tried dating a guy casually, and it turned out that he had represented himself as not monogamous, but his other partner didn’t see it that way.

I wrestled with the trauma, with my fears about any relationships. Fears of discovering my partner’s abusive, or neglectful and unwilling to engage in emotional labor, or that just abandons me. Or that my metamor is abusive.

What Makes It Work

This is pretty obvious, but what makes relationships work whether monogamous or polyamorous is a good partner. Relationships are far less work when your partner is not manipulative, neglectful, abusive, or an asshole.

I met someone a year ago who has been an amazing partner. His code-name is Fantasy Author Boyfriend. We’re well suited to each other; we’re both writers, we’re both busy people. We love spending time together, but we also love having our own space. If I’ve got my head buried in a project (like this week I’m editing a book) he doesn’t worry that I don’t love him because I’m not available to hang out. And vice versa; I know that he’s busy and him not responding to a text doesn’t mean he’s leaving me.

Now–some of that is trust we had to build. Anxiety and C-PTSD are what they are, and I have my moments where I’m worried he’ll abandon me too. However, he also deals with anxiety, and he’s willing to engage in emotional labor with me. We fell in love with one another, but that was followed up with both of us caring for each other and putting the work in to communicate, be supportive, and respect each other’s boundaries.

It feels completely different from someone who is trying to manipulate me into thinking that I’m the one with the problem.

All of that is stuff I’d have to deal with in a monogamous relationship, too. It extends into polyamory, though–because of that work, I feel genuinely safe with my partner dating someone else. Because we do the work of communicating with one another openly and honestly, he knows I love him, I know he loves me, and we’re in a far better place to date other people without neglecting one another.

In other words–now that I’m in a relationship with a human being who isn’t manipulative, abusive, or otherwise a bad partner, trust is a heck of a lot easier. It’s easier for me to be happy when he says he has been chatting with someone online and they seem to have hit it off. He’s excited for me when I am going on a first date. Sometimes he helps me figure out a place to go out. Sometimes I help him flirt.

What is more important to either of us than who else we are dating is how we treat each other and the people we care about. We’ve both worked hard to make clear commitments to one another while avoiding the toxic aspects of monogamy.

Toxic Monogamy

I don’t have issues with monogamy, I have issues with the unfortunate cultural assumptions that go with it. This idea that once you commit to someone they own you, your time, and your affection. That feels so manipulative to me now. I also reject the idea that I’m supposed to be jealous because my partner is spending time with someone he cares about.

Given I’ve been cheated on (and used by cheaters), I have plenty of reason to inherently distrust men I’m partnered with. That being said, there are particular behaviors that also accompany cheating. There’s almost always a level of manipulation or abuse going on, so it’s never a standalone thing where cheating is the only problem in the relationship.

My partner and I don’t try to be everything to one another because that’s impossible. I no longer feel guilty when my partner wants to do something I’m not into, or if our schedules don’t line up. If he wants to go sing show tunes at karaoke, he has people he can do that with, platonic or romantic. It’s not a judgment against me

For me, so much of this is just about being comfortable. That the relationship is stable whether we’re dating other people or not. 

Metamors and Schedules

What has also transformed my experience of polyamory is that I started dating someone new. I’m still busy, but fortunately the pressure’s pretty low. We’re all pretty busy and there’s no huge blame or judgment when one or the other of us is busy. Also, his wife is awesome. And some of their other partners and friends are awesome. There isn’t a trace of the coercive abusive ick that I experienced with G’s wife.

Heck, sometimes I chat more with her than I do with the new guy I’m dating! I’m looking forward to becoming stronger friends with her as we get to know one another better.

Transparency, Communication, and Assumptions

One aspect of any relationship that is highly toxic is assumptions. The expectations aren’t communicated, it’s just assumed that this is how it’s “supposed” to go…and then your partner doesn’t follow the script, and you get pissed off. Or we bottle it up in a passive/aggressive dynamic til it explodes.

In polyamory, you really do have to talk about everything–or at least, if you take things for granted, the relationships unravel more quickly than monogamous ones because there are more humans involved.

I have found that being able to comfortably speak to my partner(s) transparently, and having them reciprocate this, is the core of what makes my relationship(s) work well. It can be a little awkward at first, but it has helped a lot to not make assumptions for each other, to respect each other’s boundaries. And the communication gets easier the more we are comfortable with one another.

My partner and I don’t assume that each other is obliged to attend family events, or assume how often we’re going to see each other, who pays for dinner, or a host of other things. We talk about what actually bothers us, we talk about what we need from one another.

Another interesting facet of polyamory for me is how much less attached I am to whether or not a relationship is sexual/romantic. Maybe a relationship starts out that way, then transitions to friendship. Or goes the other way. Or, the romantic aspect goes dormant, and then years later rekindles.

Being poly means I don’t have to pretend that my partner’s never going to be attracted to someone else ever again (because, that’s unrealistic). It means that I’m not pressured to cut off contact with a former lover because my partner’s worried they’re somehow a threat.

As I said at the beginning: polyamory, for me, is being glad that my partner’s spending time with someone he loves. And knowing he’s glad for me when I am. And, relationships of any type are going to work better if they aren’t full of toxic, manipulative garbage. I’m glad to have found some equilibrium, and to have found good partners.

Monogamous or polyamorous, you can’t make someone respect your boundaries, care enough to do emotional labor, or making assumptions. You can’t make someone want to communicate transparently and genuinely. Finding that has been a small miracle in my life, and I do not take it for granted for a minute.

 

 

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