Talking About Polyamory With Your Partner

As I learn more about polyamory I’m noticing a pattern.  Most of the people I talk to who live polyamorously began their relationships as polyamorous.

But is there anybody out there who started out in a monogamous relationship and later came to the realization that polyamory was what suited you best?  Did your partner come to this realization with you?  If not, how did you break it to your partner?  How did they react?

For those of you who are learned about the poly lifestyle, what advice would you have for someone breaching the subject with their partner?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • liminalD

    Hi JT, I just found your old blog through a facebook link to the talk you gave on mental illness at Skepticon, and followed your link there through to this new blog. I look forward to reading through more of your past posts :)

    In answer to your question, I think most poly folk do in fact start off their poly journey in more traditional, monogamous relationships, broaching the subject with their partner when they’ve already thought about it for a while. More often than not, it seems, this is pretty much the beginning of the end of that relationship – either the partner is so incensed by the suggestion that the couple breaks up (immediately or after some time has passed and one or both are miserable as a result of the disclosure), or the partner makes a genuine or token attempt to go along with what their lover has suggested. A minority of those that try to understand and support their lover in exploring polyamory will find that their relationship is strengthened by the experience, whether they go on to become a poly family or not; the majority, unfortunately, go along with it hoping it’s just a phase or actively trying to sabotage their partner’s poly journey in order to keep them. This pretty much always ends in tears. You can’t really blame them though, they entered into a relationship with certain understandings and expectations – inherited from family, tradition and mainstream culture, reinforced through film, TV, books, advice columns, popular music etc – and now their partner is trying to change the rules… they’ve a right to feel cheated (but not to be a dick about it). The couple either has to renegotiate or call it a day.

    Once that initial relationship has gone down in flames, however (and like I said, not ALL do – just most), the partner who expressed the interest in living polyamorously is free to negotiate the terms of subsequent relationships from the outset, and indeed, if they plan to pursue a polyamorous lifestyle, I’d argue that they have a RESPONSIBILITY to do so. To fail to do so is to invite feelings of anger and betrayal from future partners who will likely expect much the same sorts of boundaries and rules as the first partner, feelings that are perfectly justifiable under the circumstances. The reality that many poly people forget is that most people DON’T want poly relationships… we tend to think that our mono partners and friends just have all sorts of hangups, that they’re buying into what we see as unrealistic BS pushed on people by the media etc. And maybe they are, but it’s arrogant and pointless to try and argue that with them.

    I live in New Zealand, I’m a Kinsey 4 (bi, leaning towards gay) male in my early thirties my experience with polyamory has not, I’m sad to say, been a good one. I worked out that I tended to feel passionately for two or more people at once (even having two relationships with two separate married couples over 4 years) before I ever heard the word ‘polyamory’. Coming out of the second of those relationships (which was with two married gay men – New Zealand’s a bit ahead of the States in that respect) I entered a relationship with another gay man, spelling out from the outset that I consider myself poly and that I may, at some point, meet someone I’d want to pursue a relationship with in addition to my primary relationship with him, and he assented to my terms. Unfortunately when I DID meet another guy I liked after a couple of years, everything imploded. Maybe he didn’t know himself well enough at the beginning of our relationship to know that he wouldn’t cope with me seeing someone else, or maybe he was doing the very thing I describe above, going along with it to ‘keep’ me, even though he did know all along and wasn’t happy with it (I’m inclined to think it’s the latter). He started issuing ultimatums and sabotaging my attempts to spend time with my prospective ‘secondary’ (God I hate that word – I hate ranking people in order of ‘importance’), so I ended up resenting him for not being honest with me and eventually we split.

    Matters weren’t helped by our friends. I tried to keep it between me, my boyfriend and the guy I was interested in because I didn’t know if anything would come of it and because my partner didn’t want it getting around that I was ‘seeing other people’ (even though it was just the one) and I tried to accommodate him as much as possible. But when one person found out it exploded and some people started being really hostile to me, others stopped associating with me and one or two tried to push me and the prospective boyfriend together as a sure thing when we hadn’t even had a chance to get to know each other properly (and I think those are the people I was most annoyed with). Then there were a couple of other gay guys who looked at my potentially unconventional love life, misunderstood it and started cheating on their boyfriends, claiming that they were just doing what I was doing. It was a disaster. Polyamory is so far beyond most people’s cultural radar here that don’t know what it means or what to do with it – the poly community here is tiny, and I was really quite surprised that the gay and lesbian people I knew were, on the whole, the most hostile. My only explanation for that is that a lot of LGBT rhetoric focuses on the ‘We’re just like you, straight people, we’re normal!’ in the hopes of securing marriage rights and what-not, so anything ‘deviant’ is shunned.

    I know I’ve rambled on and gone a little off-topic, sorry (I do that a lot), but I wanted to try and cover as broad a base of the difficulties of beginning a poly life as possible. I haven’t covered even half of it here, but this is turning into a novel, so I’ll stop ;)

  • Dhorvath, OM

    Started off with a teal deer. Take two: If you don’t think you can talk to your partner about something like this, I would suggest it’s not a good idea. The core thing that we have seen among people who deal well with adding partners is knowing how to talk with their existing partners. As a corollary, the people we have met who don’t do well have almost to a person had trouble expressing their wants and needs to their existing partners. If frank conversation scares you off, or if you think it will scare your partner off, this may not be for you, at least right now.

    Now, if you feel like broaching the subject is not a problem, but you don’t know the best way to do so, context matters. Most people would likely agree that blurting out “I think we should see other people” will be misconstrued because the social context isn’t set up. Many when confronted with such a statement will infer a break up type situation. Defense ensues and conversation will often shut down, if not for good, at least for a fair length of time.

    This is where knowing your existing partner and how they communicate is important: set up the context. Make them an important part of the discussion, let them express their reaction, listen – a lot, give them time to think, don’t press the issue, and acknowledge that this may not be for them. You are not trying to convince them, but to let them know this is something you want as part of your life.

  • http://carlsagansdanceparty.wordpress.com Steven Olsen

    Having observed that a number of times in other people’s relationships. Sometimes it’s an attempt to save a relationship that’s on the rocks. Those tend to not work out. Other times, it’s an attempt to explore polyamory without sacrificing the original relationship. Those also don’t tend to work out. It’s usually seen as a sort of violation of contract.

    All of my poly relationships started that way.

  • Wes

    My wife and I were together for 6 years before we decided to open our relationship. Before then, we’d had conversations about jealousy, and how destructive it is, so we were already committed to overcoming that. We also were committed to the idea that the best way to get over an unwanted emotion is to confront it.

    Against that background, we heard Dan Savage talking about open relationships. We had a conversation (at Outback Steakhouse!) where we both said that monogamy was irrational, and only existed to accommodate each other’s jealousy. I think I originally brought up the topic, but I don’t think either of us consciously steered the conversation toward polyamory.

    If you were to breach the subject with your partners, I would suggest starting with the philosophical justification(s) for monogamy. Ask her how she feels about jealousy, sexual risk & safety, whether a significant other is supposed to be everything to the other partner, the morality of having multiple sex partners, and things like that. Make sure she knows that you are interested in getting her thoughts, and making the decision together, not telling her how it’s going to be. Also, be honest with her about where you are. If you will stay with her even if she insists on monogamy, tell her that. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, tell her that also. If there is a specific person you have in mind, be honest about that. It might make the conversation more difficult, but it’s your only chance at long-term success.

  • Larry

    If there are children born of a poly marriage, it may be of redeeming value to give that some consideration. The bottom feeders love daughters born of a poly marriage.
    I suppose if one is a hard core dedicated hedonist, it wouldn’t really matter, would it? except for the child that’s been raised in that lifestyle.

  • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

    It depends very much on what you want to see happen and how important it is to you that it happen. If you have decided you *are going to be,* as apposed to *want to be,* you need to be prepared for the relationship to end. That is not to say it will. In some cases the existing partner might actually want the same thing. You’d be surprised how many people actually want that sort of relationship. But it is something that you cannot push someone into. If the existing partner decides to accept it grudgingly, you need to either decide not to go that route or end it. Because the relationship with a partner who goes into that grudgingly is exceedingly likely to end extremely badly.

    As far as how to bring it up, that very much depends on the people involved. It isn’t as simple as a boilerplate “this is how you do it” talk. You not only have to consider the people involved, but also exactly what you want, how you suspect your partner will react, your partner’s sexual history* – there are a lot of variables that will apply.

    I think the most important thing is to assert exactly what you want and exactly how important it is to get that. And keep in mind that merely bringing it up might well end the relationship.

    * ie. if you are one of less than five people s/he’s been with, it is something to approach with great delicacy – not to say they won’t go for it, they might be very keen.

  • http://en.allexperts.com/q/Atheism-2724/indexExp_111189.htm Jeffrey Eldred

    I’ve never been successful at convincing my partner into polyamory, partly because I’m not sure I want to, but here is what I figured out:

    You have to be willing to share your partner before he/she will be willing to share you. The whole point of polyamory is that your partners freedom doesn’t negatively impact your own. But if you are only willing to let your partner sleep with someone else if you get the same chance, than your polyamory may come across as self-serving to the detriment of the relationship.

  • Alix

    My current relationship is going through a few kinks, which kind of sucks. He’s a very jealous person, and though he says he wants to have more than one partner, he doesn’t want me to have any others beside him. Wat. I’m going to try to work through it, but it is rather annoying, considering it’s the first relationship I’ve been in where my partner hasn’t been totally “Polyamory is wrong, so no.”

    Honestly, I think it can be a beautiful lifestyle, though I am also working on some jealousy and guilt issues of my own. But I’m jealous in every aspect of my life, not just sexual or romantic relationships, so it’s not strictly a jealousy of my partner’s partner. Oh well, I’ll get it figured out one day!

  • happiestsadist

    My current relationships started out poly, though I was with a different partner when I started going for a poly relationship. As far as that partner… well, let’s just say he did everything wrong. not just as a poly person, but as a human being, and a few years of intense therapy and I’m better. I am still with the amazing, patient, lovely girlfriend I started seeing during that time, and she may have played a big role in why I’m not dead. As for the current Mr. with whom I live, he’s monogamous, but deals well with my polyamory. He’d never done the poly thing before. Plus, he knew I was poly when we first met, so I think that helped.

  • S.Lim

    Sorry, can’t help you. My very first SO ever, already had someone else when we got together.

    And I’ve only ever had two SOs, so consider this: I’ve never broken up with anyone in my entire life.

    And I’m in my 40s. People say polys are scared of commitment?

  • Mike

    In my experience, it doesn’t work.

    “Polyamory” is just a fancy name for plain old fucking around.

    Like the first commenter, I’m gay, have been in a relationship (marriage, really) for twenty-six years, and have attempted a couple of side dalliances to satisfy my boyish lusts. These happened after extensive conversations with partner, who has low-to-non-existent sex drive. Each and every time, partner went off the rails with jealousy. I can’t blame him. It’s natural, after all.

    So I stopped. Our companionship and friendship is just too important to risk for the sake of sowing my oats.

    Next time, I’ll do it the old-fashioned way: discreetly, hemmed in by sweet lies.

    I don’t rule out other dalliances. Life is complicated. First and foremost–get tested for HIV. Get your Hep B shots. Use condoms.

    • Alix

      your right – in your experience, it doesn’t work. But that hardly means it doesn’t work across the board, or that it is wrong. For some people, it doesn’t work. For some others, it works even better than monogamy.

      Polyamory is far more than “fucking around,” which is what I suspected you were doing. In the poly lifestyle, the person we are with isn’t just a sexual partner, they are a romantic partner most of the time. It’s when you love two, three, four, or more people all the same, at the same time. And that is just as beautiful as loving only one person.

      • Mike

        “In the poly lifestyle, the person we are with isn’t just a sexual partner, they are a romantic partner most of the time. It’s when you love two, three, four, or more people all the same, at the same time. And that is just as beautiful as loving only one person.”

        Ah, now I get it. “Polyamory” is a euphemism for “fooling myself most of the time.”

        The idea that you can love four people “romantically” and as “beautifully as … one” means you necessarily spend less time–and commitment–with the others.

        • Vicki

          Less time, yes–but that’s also true of having a serious relationship and being in grad school, or having small children, or trying to make it as a writer or musician, or starting your own business. Less love or commitment, no. Maybe you can’t love more than one person that way; if so, it’s good that you realize it, and won’t lie to the next person you have an affair with. That doesn’t mean nobody else can.

    • liminalD

      Sorry Mike, but your responses here speak volumes about why ‘polyamory’ as you seem to have understood the term didn’t work for you. You’re coming across REALLY antagonistic here – snide and sarcastic – and the fact that you refer to me as gay, ignoring my own self-definition as bi, would seem to indicate that you’re not the most sensitive of souls. Your reactions are of the very same sort that my ‘friends’ had when I last attempted to live a poly life… those people also refused to listen when I said that it was more about the emotional side than about sex, those people also suggested that I’d be better off cheating discreetly. I’m no longer friends with any of those people, because I value integrity and honesty in others, and strive to live in accordance with those values myself.

      Polyamory has never been about ‘fucking around’ for me – it’s about family; living together, cooking together, eating meals together, going for walks together, play-fighting and joking around together, expressing concern, encouragement and support for one another, cuddling up on the sofa watching TV with a hot chocolate. It’s not the same for everyone, but that’s how it is for me. Sex isn’t a big part of it at all. But I can understand why people think that it might be – because non-monogamy is only ever presented as an option in modern mainstream culture (and yes, gay culture) in a SEXUALIZED way. A threesome is something that a guy begs and whines for, to which his girlfriend then assents after some protest, which she then finds (as she makes out with her best friend) she is perfectly OK with. If the narrative hints that there’ll be a further escapades in future, it’s only ever hinted to be in a ‘fun and games’ sort of way – the primacy of the dyad is maintained and reinforced.

      The other common narrative about non-monogamy presents it in terms of a difficult choice – a man or woman is with person A, but meets sexy, fun person B, and must then decide which person he or she wants to be with. Depending on what sort of film or book it is, they either choose the new person and leave the first partner behind – in which case the first partner is always presented as being in some way unsatisfactory (except in those rare cases where the pursuit of the new partner turns out to be a mere dalliance, resulting in the realisation that in fact the protagonist DID truly love person A after all, and in those cases it’s generally the new romantic interest who’s eventually revealed to be unsatisfactory: selfish, dangerous, etc) – or our protagonist proves how ‘moral’ and ‘heroic’ they are by NOT abandoning person A, they have the ‘wisdom’ to see that sexual attractions come and go, and that it wouldn’t be worth it.

      Thus non-monogamy is pretty much only ever presented in terms of inconsequential sex (usually heterosexual male wish fulfillment) or betrayal (usually the cautionary tale). It’s telling that the threesome, where it happens in entertainment, is almost always MFF – the presence of a second man is depicted as threatening (either to the first man’s masculinity or to the integrity of his relationship with ‘his’ woman) and thus the threesome itself is representative of a kind of denial of women’s own sexuality and autonomy. In short, “You can have sex with someone else, but only if it’s with another girl (something *I* like), and only if I can watch/be involved.”

      Obviously, real life and fiction aren’t the same thing, but the messages that we get from fiction shape the way we think about things, and so non-monogamy comes to be seen almost exclusively in terms of sex and betrayal, and thus people have difficulty grasping the concept of polyamory, in which the affective (emotional and relational) takes precedence – to varying extents – over the sexual.

    • Vene

      Been in one for approaching three years, you’re full of shit.

  • Dhorvath, OM

    “Polyamory” is just a fancy name for plain old fucking around.

    I wish this would die. I fuck around a lot, it’s just sex with other people, but nothing deeper emotionally than I share with my cycling friends. It’s not polyamory, which is not about the sex, but the connection. Poly people are adding family, not fuck toys.

    • Mike

      “It’s not polyamory, which is not about the sex, but the connection.”

      This sounds inherently self-deceptive, perhaps even dishonest.

      Try getting your “connection” without sex, then.

    • http://www.ziztur.com ziztur

      Mike,

      I’m sorry that you’ve had a poor experience with polyamory and consider it “just fucking around”.

      I think you’ve fundamentally misunderstood polyamory. The fact that you believe most poly are not poly but just people labeling their “fucking around” as polyamory sounds more like projection to me.

      Just because you like to “just fuck around” and used the label “polyamory” while doing so does not mean that everybody is like you.

      If someone (probably Christian) were to tell you that your relationship with your partner was “just sinning around”, you’d probably disagree with them. You have a loving relationship with your partner of 26 years, and that loving relationship also involves gay sex. It’s not just about gay sex. Someone (probably Christian) can try to label your relationship as “just gay sex” all they want – but they don’t have the authority to label your relationship – YOU do.

      Yet that’s exactly what you tell other poly people that their relationships are about.

      In the same way that someone (probably Christian) is completely wrong when they insist that your relationship to your partner of 26 years is just gay sex, you are completely wrong when you insist poly people that their relationships are just fucking around.

      Similarly, I could assert that if your relationship with your partner were really more about the relationship than the sex, then you should try it without the sex. Because we all know that gay sex is icky. =D (Icky comment is sarcasm, I’m very sex-pos)

      Asking you to consider omitting sex from your relationship to somehow prove that your relationship is not all about sex is asinine. Relationships are about many things. Sex can be one of them. That sex is part of the relationship does not mean that the relationship is all about sex.

      I also do photography with JT (and we’ve spent *much* more time doing photography than having sex!), but our relationship is not all about photography, and I shouldn’t have to prove that by ceasing doing photography with him.

      Also, I think that your tactic of being dishonest with your partner is pretty sad and does a disservice to your relationship. I’m not condemning your lusting about but I wouldn’t call it polyamory and I do condemn the dishonesty. If you want to have a hookup, then go ahead and enjoy it.

      For the record, my other partner and I have never had sex. We don’t really plan to have sex either. So there. =D

      • Mike

        It sounds like you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking up false analogies to not only justify your lifestyle complications but to denigrate others.

        Might I recommend banjo lessons?

        • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

          You need to contribute to the conversation. If you don’t make arguments and just splash around like a toddler in a mud puddle trying to get mud on everybody else, you get the ban hammer.

          I don’t have any issue with denigrating the opinions of others nor do I demand politeness – but you need to be at least trying to have good reasons in the process.

        • http://www.ziztur.com ziztur

          Denigrate: 1. to speak damagingly of; criticize in a derogatory manner; sully; defame: to denigrate someone’s character.
          2. to treat or represent as lacking in value or importance; belittle; disparage: to denigrate someone’s contributions to a project.

          That’s exactly what you are doing when you refer to my important and meaningful long-term relationships as “just fucking around”.

          … and if you think my analogy is false, tell me which analogy of which you speak, and then explain why.

    • Mike

      Dhorvath, what do you have against fuck toys?

      I didn’t realize you were a moraliste, as well as a cad.

      • julian

        And you’re a moralising fuckwit troll. Spent four hours grinding on a pair of you guys I found in Skyrim. Needless to say I’m quit sick of your kind.

        Please realize that the dinner plate sized asshole your pulling your comments from does not infact provide you with any level of insight. Also, your powers of regeneration aren’t that grand against a x15 sneak attack.

      • Dhorvath, OM

        Mike,

        what do you have against fuck toys?

        What makes you think I have anything against them? I spend a portion of my social life with people with whom our primary connection is at a physical level, does that offend you? Or is it just the term I used that offends?

        I didn’t realize you were a moraliste, as well as a cad.

        There are likely a lot of things you don’t realize about me, but I am not too sure that moraliste is one of them.

  • S.Lim

    Dhorvath, OM: And how!

    Mike: I get invited to Thanksgiving with my SO’s OSO’s parents.

    (Couldn’t go this year, did go last year.)

    Does that sound like “just fucking around”?

  • D.Blackwell

    As someone who has been living with a legal husband and my boyfriend for 8 years, I can say that it works but it takes a lot of effort on everyone’s part. It is not a lifestyle for everyone because of the jealousy issues that arise. We both came into the marriage with the okay that outside relationships were okay as long as they were just side things. It became difficult when we decided to try the whole living together thing (as they were friends first before I ever came into the picture). That was what we affectionately call the year of hell. My parents have readily accepted both of them as my partners and M’s family has accepted all of us. J’s family has not but they are south Texas Church of Christ, so the fact that I work outside the home and am permitted to handle the check book completely floors them.

    We have rules about safe sex and about when relationships form (5 date rule prior to sex which absolutely must include the use of condoms as well as prior STD testing). We also have wonderful wills and powers of attorney in place (thanks to wonderful attorney friend of ours) as well as separate checking accounts with one joint for all household expenses.

    I guess that is all I have to say….

  • http://curiousmusing-curiousmind.blogspot.com Leila

    I have a few questions as an honestly curious person.

    1) What’s the difference between an open relationship and polyamory?

    2) Are polyamory and polygamy related and/or compatible? I ask this one because I have a very distinct distaste for polygamy, as I was brought up in a Muslim society where, although rare, not unheard of for a man to have multiple wives. As such, I have been against it, which until recently also tainted my opinions on polyamory.

    3) How do you know if you are or can be polyamourous?

    • Wes

      1) There is no official definition. I consider any relationship that is consensually nonmonogamous to be an “open” relationship. A polyamorous relationship is a type of open relationship where the parties are open and desiring of multiple loving relationships, as opposed to just multiple sexual relationships.

      2) Polyamory and polygamy are related, but not quite the same thing. Polygamy refers to multiple marriages, where polyamory refers to multiple relationships. In definition, they’re not that different, but in practice, they are wildly separate. Polygamists tend to be patriarchal, religious, and often unethical. Polyamorists generally stress ethical nonmonogamy, making sure everyone’s needs are met, and equality.

      3) The only thing you need to show that you “can be” polyamorous is the ability to feel romantic love for more than one person at a time. This is not a rare ability. Almost anyone can do it. For most, the choice is whether to engage in polyamorous relationships. As in, is it working dealing with the jealousy, the insecurity, the logistical issues, the discrimination, assholes like Mike telling you that your relationships are invalid & worthless, etc.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/ Greta Christina

    Poly people are adding family, not fuck toys.

    As someone who is non-monogamous but not polyamorous, I feel like it’s important to say this: There are options other than just these two. It’s possible to have sex partners who aren’t family, who you aren’t in love with or romantically involved with, but who you have respect and affection and genuine friendship with, and who aren’t just fuck toys.

    Which sort of answers Leila @ #15:

    What’s the difference between an open relationship and polyamory?

    There’s not a single hard-and-fast definition that everyone agrees on… but as a broad guideline, “polyamory” usually means multiple relationships that are both sexual and loving, while “open relationship” usually means having multiple sexual partners (or being open to having multiple sexual partners) that aren’t necessarily loving or romantic. Open relationships can be polyamorous, or they can just involve one-night-stands outside the primary relationship, or they can be any number of other alternatives and arrangements in between.

    • Dhorvath, OM

      Greta,

      There are options other than just these two. It’s possible to have sex partners who aren’t family, who you aren’t in love with or romantically involved with, but who you have respect and affection and genuine friendship with, and who aren’t just fuck toys.

      I would not disagree with that. I was aiming at making a distinction between most of my partners, among whom neither they nor I would think anything deeper was implied by our physical playtime, and those who are seeking to forge a close emotional connection with more than one person. It appeared to me that on the spectrum you imply Mike was placing extra partners closer to my end of the line than to the end where we start to consider people family and I think that was erroneous.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/ Greta Christina

    Oh, and to answer the actual on-topic question: Yes, sometimes people successfully turn a monogamous relationship into an open or polyamorous one. I can’t speak from personal experience on it, but I’ve seen it done, and have read accounts of it. It’s more difficult than starting out from scratch as open or poly, but people who say that it’s impossible or unheard of are talking out of their ass.

    Some good resources on how to pursue these options and decide which of them (if any) might be right for you:

    The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy

    Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino

    • http://www.ziztur.com ziztur

      I second Greta on both of these books.

      • pajamapaati

        +1 here, and specifically The Ethical Slut. I think Easton and Hardy write very engagingly, wisely and humanely (also amusingly!) about all aspects of honesty and openness in relationships, whether explicitly ‘Poly’ or otherwise. In Chapter 16: “Opening an Existing Relationship” they address the question you ask from the pov of the one who wants to open the relationship, the ‘outside lover’, and the existing partner – “The one who chose none of this”. I hope the authors will take it as a compliment (rather than as a breach of copyright ; – )) if I quote from this section:

        THE ONE WHO CHOSE NONE OF THIS
        We really hope you didn’t get this book as a Valentine’s Day surprise, but we know that could be the case. It is utterly no fun to be called upon to expand your relationship in ways you never asked for, nor to deal with your beloved’s desires for other lovers after you’d promised to forsake all others. You may be feeling like you’ve had an abyss open up under your feet, with no solid ground anywhere to stand on.

        Of course you are distressed, and angry as well – you did not choose this path. Here you are, in a maelstrom of scary feelings you never agreed to undertake. It may take a while for you to get that this is really happening. Eventually, though, this situation must be dealt with: once the subject of opening a relationship is on the table, it cannot be shut away in a drawer again. One way or another, you must find a way to cope with what’s been handed to you and begin considering what may happen next.

        It is unfair, of course, that you’re being asked to do hard emotional work that you never chose to do. Is there any reason why you should have to work so hard? Is there anything in it for you?

        Well, quite possibly. Perhaps this work will make you stronger. Perhaps you will make an unexpected journey into your own capacities: Maybe you too have the ability to love more than one person. Perhaps it will deepen your relationship with your partner. Perhaps it will improve your sex life. Perhaps you will find a path that allows your relationship to continue, that allows you to grow and change together. Perhaps you can see a faint gleam of a possible freedom somewhere on the horizon.

        We can’t promise that any of these will happen for you. But there’s one thing we can promise. If you tackle this difficult situation, and learn whatever you can about yourself and your relationship from it, at the end you will have a choice. You may choose to separate, or you and your partner may choose to go back to monogamy, or you may try a more open relationship … but whatever you do it will be because you’re looking at all your possibilities and choosing. Not reacting blindly, not doing what you’ve been told, not choosing the easy way just because it’s easy, but making your own, informed, heartfelt choice. We truly believe that consensual monogamy is a fine choice.

        Wisdom © Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, errors © me :-|

  • Toasted Rye

    Our relationship became poly almost a year ago. Prior we were mono with no intention of opening up. The change happened when I fell in love with a friend of mine. My husband could tell I was falling for her before I could but we are a very honest couple so when I realized I was falling in love we talked through it. It was hard on both of us. He is mono completely. I have always been the type that could relate to open relationships but I never really felt the need for one. Realizing I have the capacity to love two people with the same intensity as I love my husband has been a roller coaster experience for me. I thought my love wasn’t as pure as his. I thought I was defective. I thought I was going to drown in the euphoria of NRE. It hasn’t been easy on him either but there is no doubt in our minds that we love each other and I believe we can handle this through communication and a shitton of affection. I am not sure that I am answer your question well because I wasn’t looking to be poly when this happened. I am still not looking to be poly. I just am poly. My girlfriend and my husband are all I really want but I certainly want both of them in my life.

    As a response to fuckwit thread derailer above. Plenty of poly relationships have no sex between some or even all of the partners. While I am sexually attracted to my girlfriend and we have had some non traditional definitions of sex before. We haven’t in a long time due largely to the guilt I often feel afterward. I still have alot to work through before I am ready for regular sex again with her. Even if I can never get past that, I still want her in my life. I want her fingers enclosed in mine while mine are enclosed in his. So no poly is not simply an excuse to fuck around though some may call it that.

  • Wes

    Literally every other poly person I’ve met that’s opened the relationship midway through has a story similar to @Toasted Rye, above, where one or both partners took an interest in someone else, and they opened in order to explore that. My story is not like that at all. We opened up for philosophical reasons. Neither of us dated anyone for 6 months afterward. Did anyone else choose poly for that reason while you were in a mono relationship?

  • Summer

    This is certainly an interesting topic. For me personally, I am monogamous. I have friends who are poly, and I’ve seen their relationships both fail and succeed in rates that suggest to me that with good communication, as with any mono relationship, they can work. My current partner is poly, and stated so on the first date. I don’t know when he came to that conclusion, though now I’m curious, but we both entered into the relationship knowing who each other was. I can’t say I don’t get jealous, sometimes irrationally so (to my defense, I also have Borderline personality disorder which is characterized by an irrational fear of abandonment). I don’t know if I’ll ever be poly myself, right now I prefer to give my attention to one partner at a time, I suck at multi-tasking. But, as for now, we’ve managed to sustain a healthy relationship through communication, and lots of it.

  • Ben

    Hey JT,

    My partner and I have been together for two years and began experimenting with polyamory about eight months ago. We’re currently in a nonmonogamous arrangement – my partner is open to dating other people and I am currently seeing another person as a friend-with-benefits. I think we had a serious advantage when opening up our relationship because I had been exposed to polyamorous people and relationships in the past, so I was already comfortable talking about it and knew some of the concepts involved, as well as some of the more common hang-ups.

    I brought up the subject by talking about my past experiences with polyamory and my interest in exploring such relationships in the future. I was very deliberate with my phrasing – I made it clear that nonmonogamy wasn’t something I felt compelled to explore, but was curious about trying it again if my partner was similarly inclined. My partner’s initial reaction was largely negative, and so I didn’t bring it up again… and then she met one of my old partners (with whom I was poly) and began to feel more comfortable talking about it and discussing our options. Turns out she’d been curious about dating other people, too, but felt that she couldn’t explore that without getting into too much jealousy and insecurity.

    The best advice I have is to read some good literature on the subject of open relationships. I highly, highly recommend The Ethical Slut by Easton and Hardy, and Opening Up by Taormino. These books cover the terminology, ethics, and common issues around non-monogamy, in a manner that is approachable, informative, and very commonsensical. The books also have lots of advice for individuals and couples looking to try out polyamory for the first time – The Ethical Slut, in particular, has an entire chapter devoted specifically to opening up an existing relationship. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

    Oh, and talk to people in the poly community. Discussing polyamory with living, breathing people who’ve walked the walk is a great way to dispel fears and get suggestions about how to handle delicate situations.

  • E

    I’ve always had leanings in a polyamorous direction, though having been brought up in such a monogamous culture I didn’t really come to terms with them until my 30s. I discussed it hypothetically with people I dated in my late 20s, and eventually I brought it up as an active concern with a woman I’d been dating for a year. She was very open minded and not a fan of the traditional family model in the first place.

    She and I talked and read about it for a couple of years, before deciding to open our relationship up. It was mostly for me, as she wasn’t interested in dating other people – or so she said. That lasted three months, until my first new girlfriend’s partner asked her out … which she found very exciting, discovering in the process that she was also poly.

    That poly quad lasted almost four years, and we are all still close friends.

    She and I have now been together 7.5 years, poly for 4.5 of that. She has another boyfriend of over 3 years — he is also one of my closest friends and the co-owner of my small business. I have another serious girlfriend I’ve been with for over a year. Though we’ve moved on in a relationship sense from that first couple we dated, we’re still close and even occasionally sexual partners with them.

    So I guess you could say it’s worked for us. At this point, I’m coming to find it hard to understand monogamy anymore. There are so many wonderful people who deserve love, and so many lovely experiences to be had. Why wouldn’t you want that? If you love your partner, why would you want to deny them that joy?

    We have commitment, dedication, a life together, and all the other important qualities people attribute to monogamy.

    All it takes is compassion, trust, and a humongous dose of communication. But those are necessary for any healthy relationship anyway.

  • vcatalysis

    My current primary relationship started monogamously. Years before that, I had heard of polyamory and made some good friends who were poly (but incompatible sexual orientations and sexes), so I got to admire the ideals of polyamory and become comfortable with the idea. It sounded great, in theory. But it didn’t seem like it was “for me”. My partner was poly briefly years ago, but said it would have been great if the local poly community wasn’t “a bunch of fucking morons, except for that one girl who I’m still friends with”. So we were monogamous when we met, talked about our thoughts on being poly and said “not for us, but maybe someday”. What I didn’t realize was that the reason it didn’t feel like it was for me was becuase of my insecurities and feeling threatened by my partner’s feelings for others. After being together for over a year, I guess I started to feel secure in his feelings for me and that I am worthy of such love and care. Then his feelings for others didn’t threaten me anymore. This realization was subconscious. The only reason we realized I had changed this way was because I was able to joke about his crushes/loves on other women. I was joking lightheartedly, without being jealous or insecure, unlike before. Then he asked me if we could consider being poly “someday”. For some reason, then once he had asked that question, I just had to know if we could be poly. Then we read books, read blogs, talked to people and talked to each other endlessly about it. We were “mentally poly” for months before actually being actively poly. Things are great. I have no complaints and we’ve had a lot of fun. I think my feelings and relationship are much healthier now. Even if our relationship crashes and burns and/or I am never poly again, I have learned and grown so much that it would be worth it.

    • Ben

      For reference, the partner I was referring to at comment #21 is vcatalysis. So now you’ve heard both sides of our story.

  • Grant

    My wife and I had been married fourteen years when we first considered non-monogamy.

    We sort of fell into a friends-with-benefits arrangement with a few couple friends of ours. We were both surprised to find that we experienced no guilt, and very little jealousy in these experiences. In fact, opening our marriage ended up bringing us closer together, as we discussed sex far more openly than we ever had before. And frankly, making plans for our next rendezvous was pretty exciting. It was an experience that we shared, and that bonded us in an admittedly bizarre way.

    After a couple of years, my wife fell in love with one of her other partners. That was a difficult time for me. I struggled with feeling like I was being replaced emotionally, even though she did everything in her power to shower me with more love than ever. I struggled for three months, varying between trying to be accepting, and trying to convince them that they were on a path to wrecking both marriages.

    Finally, my wife told me that she was afraid I’d never be able to accept it, and that she would end the relationship rather than continue to hurt me. I decided I couldn’t be that guy–I couldn’t take something away from my wife that brought her so much happiness. I picked up a copy of “The Ethical Slut” and started writing essays on polyamory in order to force myself to confront the various issues that made me feel so threatened.

    It worked. When feelings are irrational, it really is possible to reason your way through them.

    Three years later, my wife and I are quite happy. We’re both poly, but I couldn’t possibly throw myself into the maelstrom of dating without having her as my anchor. She’s still with that same partner–they’re on a cruise to Mexico even as I write! I see every possibility of their being together for the rest of their lives. I’ve had two serious girlfriends whom I loved deeply, though I haven’t yet made the same life-long connection my wife has. I’m still trying, though. It’s what I want.

  • canhrdlywait

    I think it takes a huge amount of trust to be poly ( something I personally couldn’t do)
    I have had/been in tri relationships once or twice, and they broke up when becoming poly became an issue. Funny that I can share a lover with another as long as we’re
    all in the relationship, but not having a relationship that I don’t get to be part of -or vice versa, but I think knowing your and the relationship limits is huge. Plu in a little place like new Zealand there are not so many people and society is not as open to different as we’d like to think we are.
    became the issue.


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