I get email: relationship advice.

I got an email the other day from Peter (name changed to protect sender’s identity).

Dear JT and Christina,

I’ve never met either of you, but I’ve been following WWJTD for over a year and I respect your writings on the topic.  I’m writing to ask for advice in my personal life, and I’m writing to both of you because I know you both have first-hand experience with polyamory and this is the best way I can think of to start searching for information.

I wouldn’t ask you to offer personal advice knowing only my side of the story, and only by my recollection, which is why I’m only asking that you answer a few specific questions (as openly as you like), with my story provided as context.  Here goes nothing…

I’ve been with my girlfriend for three years, and we love each other dearly.  We’re a couple years out of college, and job searching is pretty rough for our demographic.  As such, we don’t live/work in the same city, though we would like to.  When she first started where she works now, she quickly made a small group of close friends, all of them male, and they all knew that she had a boyfriend.  I’ve never had a problem with her having male friends; in fact, I like the tomboy side of her.  One boy, however, stood out as being particularly close friends, and eventually confessed his feelings for her.  I know that when people spend time together, they (almost magically) begin to enjoy each others’ company more and more, and usually develop romantic feelings, so it came as no surprise to me to hear (from her, who has always been honest with me) that he liked her.  At that time, and at this time still, we are exclusive to each other in our relationship (though I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this), and although I expected he would do this eventually, I assumed she would gently let him down because she was already in a happy, committed relationship.  The problem is that she had romantic feelings for him.

One day, almost in tears, she tells me about her feelings for him and how she feels that she has emotionally betrayed me.  I try to reassure her that I would never hold her thoughts against her, that she hasn’t cheated on me, and that what’s important is that she still loves me just as much as she ever has.  My reasoning at the time was that she just had a little crush, and it got complicated when it was vindicated by his reciprocal crush.  She turns down his advances, but remains his friend, and she and I eventually move past what I thought of as a hiccup in our relationship, or so I thought.

Months later (recently as of the writing of this email), she tells me her feelings for him haven’t subsided, which brings me to the current conundrum.  As she puts it, she wants to be with me because we have a long, happy relationship together, but she fears that she will give in to her feelings for him, and make a mistake that will end our relationship.  She is racked with guilt for liking someone else, and I want more than anything for her to be happy, so I’m considering offering a solution…

I have no moral issues with polyamory, I just never saw myself being involved in it (call me sheltered).  My line of reasoning now is that since I’m not the jealous type, and she feels so guilty for her feelings, wouldn’t it help her if I give her permission to indulge her feelings and explore an extra relationship, especially if she doesn’t sacrifice her love for me?

The thought of her being with another man actually isn’t that upsetting to me.  My problem is not the idea that she could love me and someone else, but that, like most people in America, she comes from a culture where she it’s normal to assume you can only be involved with one person at a time.  What if she decides that she likes being with him so much that she leaves me for him?  I know that I’ve treated her well, but we only see each other every few weeks; she sees him everyday.  I guess you could say I’m threatened by the idea of losing her, but I feel that I owe it to her to try to help her be happy, and trust in her love for me, despite my personal insecurities.

This finally leads me to my questions: some advice on how to start the conversation.

Q1: When you first met your primary partner (before you started dating), where you both poly?

Q1a: If so, how did you find out your partner was poly?  Was it a casual mention or a long, serious discussion?

Q1b: If not, how did you two decide to open up your relationship?

Q2: When you meet someone new, someone you would like to be a non-primary partner, how do you explain to them that you’re in an open relationship?  How does the conversation usually go?  Are you open, up-front, and blunt, or do you get to know him/her and ease into it?  (I’m assuming you’re always open about the fact that you have a partner, so as not to lead them onto something that isn’t true.)

Q3: What was your first time with a non-primary partner like?  Were you nervous?

Q4: Was jealousy ever an issue?  Does it subside with time and familiarity?

Q5: What are the rules regarding safe sex?  I would guess something along the lines of, “all sex with a non-primary partner must use a condom,” simply for safety (every person that person has ever slept with and so on…).

Q6: I understand this is only a decision that she and I can make together, but I’d like it to be an informed decision.  Can either of you suggest other sources that she or I could explore in our research?

Some of these are very personal questions, which is why the last one is asking for sources of further study, in case you don’t feel you can answer them but know of somewhere that might help.

Thank you, JT and Christina, for reading such a long email.  I’m sorry to ask you to take so much time out of your day to respond, but I want so much to help her and I think asking your advice would help me organize my thoughts.

Godlessly yours,

Peter

Thanks for the email, Peter.  I imagine there are far more people in your shoes than you know.

I want to say that the worry that the person I love would wind up falling so deeply in love with someone else that they forgot about me is certainly something I have dealt with.  Your instincts here mirror my own.  For me, loving someone means wanting them to be happy.  If they are happier being exclusively with someone else, then why would I want them to be less happy just to cater to me?  I have found that an attitude of making my happiness dependent on the happiness of those I care about (regardless of whether they are happy in a way that involves me) endears me to them, and winds up making them want to be around me more (not that it wouldn’t have been ok if it hadn’t).

For what it’s worth, I think you are handling the situation wisely and with your heart in exactly the right place.

As for your questions…

Q1: When you first met your primary partner (before you started dating), where you both poly?

Yes.  We were both dating other people.  I’m not sure if we were consciously “poly” (well, I know I wasn’t) but we both liked going on dates and weren’t exclusive with anybody.

Q1a: If so, how did you find out your partner was poly?  Was it a casual mention or a long, serious discussion?

Well, as far as our attitudes toward “playing the field”, as it were, we talked about it after our first date and found that our opinions were both pretty similar.  We became poly as Christina introduced me to it and, I realized, that Michaelyn was organically becoming the woman in my life for whom I cared the most.

Q1b: If not, how did you two decide to open up your relationship?

Our relationship started very casually, and so it was already open.  You might say that it has gotten more closed over time, since we’re monogamous right now, but that’s not really true.  We both have the green light to be with other people, it’s just something we don’t do.  We’re monogamous by choice, rather than obligation, which I think is kind of cute.  If someone wants to be with you exclusively, then you have no need for a rule saying they must be.  If they don’t want to be with you exclusively, why would you want them to be?

Sex is not love to me.  It’s something fun to do, for sure.  But my relationship with Michaelyn is a collection of fun things we do: going to movies, playing Little Big Planet, rooting against each other’s pro football teams (and for each other’s college teams), trips to the zoo, little presents, inside jokes, etc.  I wouldn’t mind if she did any of those other fun things with other dudes, so why is sex so special?  I think the people who insist that sex is a significant part of love are really short-changing love, as well as the person they’re in love with.

Q2: When you meet someone new, someone you would like to be a non-primary partner, how do you explain to them that you’re in an open relationship?  How does the conversation usually go?  Are you open, up-front, and blunt, or do you get to know him/her and ease into it?  (I’m assuming you’re always open about the fact that you have a partner, so as not to lead them onto something that isn’t true.)

Honesty is the best policy.  Communication is the best thing for a relationship and the best way to determine if you really want to begin a relationship.

The hardest thing for me, actually, wasn’t telling someone that I had a partner and exactly where my partner and I stand.  That’s actually pretty easy for me.  It was, instead, telling others (including Christina) that while I was still technically poly, that I only wanted to be with Michaelyn.  I love Christina.  She’s a wonderful person; one of my favorites to this day.  But I had become so close to Michaelyn that whenever I was with Christina or someone else, I found myself missing Michaelyn more than I enjoyed the physical closeness of the other person.  For me to continue to pretend otherwise wasn’t really fair to anyone else.

The temptation to keep pretending was certainly there, but I’m not a fan of deceit and so, as bluntly as I tell the truth elsewhere, I told Christina.  Thankfully, people generally respond well to honesty (despite our fears to the contrary), and Christina is very down to earth.  She understood, we still love each other, we still hang out, we just don’t touch each other’s naughty bits (in any way other than jest).

Communication: even when it’s unpleasant communication, generally prevents resentment from growing, rather than creating it.

Q3: What was your first time with a non-primary partner like?  Were you nervous?

Well, I don’t think dating around counts as “love”, and polyamory is more about loving two people.  My first time with a woman in a poly sense was extremely nerve-wracking.  I’m so glad I did it.  :)

Q4: Was jealousy ever an issue?  Does it subside with time and familiarity?

Not for me, but it is for others.  I think the solution is to just remind ourselves that jealousy is generally a pointless emotion.  I literally cannot think of a time when acquiescing to my jealousy was ever a good idea.  It’s literally greed exemplified, and that is just not good for a relationship at all.  Even worse are the people who think jealousy means you love someone more.  I think it’s the opposite.  I think jealousy is self-love.  It’s saying that your happiness is more important than the happiness of the person you love.

Jealousy is what happens when our insecurity gets the best of us, and it can rob us happiness by making us worry about the secret trappings of our partner’s mind.  I think the way to beat it is to give your partner freedom and then see what they do.  If I let Michaelyn go on a date with another guy, and she still comes back to build a life with me, all while knowing full well I’d be ok if she went elsewhere, then I know that’s really where she wants to be.  However, if I were to put a rule in place that says she must cater to my jealousy by being with me exclusively, then how do I know if it’s her heart or that rule keeping her there?

Q5: What are the rules regarding safe sex?  I would guess something along the lines of, “all sex with a non-primary partner must use a condom,” simply for safety (every person that person has ever slept with and so on…).

Communicate if you’re going to do so, both parties must be tested, and use protection.

Q6: I understand this is only a decision that she and I can make together, but I’d like it to be an informed decision.  Can either of you suggest other sources that she or I could explore in our research?

Get a hold of the book The Ethical Slut.  Read it.  Share it.

Good luck, Peter.  Let me know how it works out.

  • Jessica

    As a fellow newb to Poly, I’d also recommend morethantwo.com and the podcast Polyamory Weekly as good places to get some info.

  • http://researchtobedone.wordpress.com ResearchToBeDone

    Also “Opening Up”.

  • Drew

    I’m not a poly, and I’m not certain that I could be. Frankly, I have no interest being with anyone other than my spouse, and I would likewise feel hurt if my spouse wanted to be with someone else.

    That being said, it does me no harm for anyone else to be and I don’t judge anyone for it; if you as a couple can make it work then great for you.

    I will say that the situation as you’re describing it, gives me the sneaky suspicion that your girlfriend has already acted on her feelings. I think she’s told you what she’s already told you to soften the blow and hopefully make you not want to dump her when she does tell you. Having said that, I don’t know you, and I don’t know her, so I could be way off.

    (speaking as an outsider) For people in a poly relationship the main issue seems to be openness and trust. If you’re open about it and set the ground rules ahead of time then whatever you’ve agreed to is fair game. However if you have previously believed yourselves to be in a monogamous relationship and she has already acted upon her feelings with this other person, then it would seem to me that she has cheated on you.

    How would you feel about it if she has already acted upon her feelings? Betrayed? Indifferent? Understanding?

    I think before you bring up the poly topic, this is an answer that you need to have.

  • Benjamin

    Polyamory is wrong. You should say either multiamory or polyphilia. Mixing Greek and Latin roots is just unpardonable.

    • John Horstman

      Uh oh, we’re going to need the proto-Germanic morpheme for “many” to use with Germanic-root words, too.

  • http://polyskeptic.com wfenza

    If you’re worried about how to meet non-primary partners after you open up (and it sounds like you are), I’d suggest okcupid. It has a pretty big poly contingent, and it’s easy to lay out exactly what your situation is, and what you’re looking for.

    Also, it’s great that you don’t feel too jealous, but it sounds like you may end up feeling a bit alienated, seeing as your girlfriend will get to see this new guy all the time, and you’ll be hours away. I’d suggest that you take an active part in their relationship. Don’t be intrusive, and be sure to give them privacy where they want it, but don’t be distant either. She’s going to be excited. You should get excited too! The first time they have sex, she’ll probably want to gush about it, but not to you, because that’s weird. Encourage her to tell you all about it. Introduce yourself to him, and let him know that you’re totally cool with their relationship, and that he should feel free to get in touch with you if he needs to know what to cook for her or what shoe size she wears. One of the easiest and most fun things you can do is to help her plan dates with him. That way, if the date goes well, that’s a win for both of you, instead of just a good time that the two of them had without you.

    I think if you feel like this is something that you & your girlfriend are doing together (rather than something she is doing without you), it will go a long way toward calming your fears about being left alone. If their relationship is better with you as a part of it, there will never be any reason for you to be cut out.

  • Artor

    Poly complexity aside, I’d strongly recommend that “Peter” get to know his competition. Presumably, the girlfriend has decent taste, so the guys aren’t likely to be wildly different from eachother. If they can build a friendship that is independent of the affections of Peter’s girlfriend, it is far likelier that whatever comes of this will be amicable. Do stuff as a trio; go to movies, games, dinner, etc. They should put off experimenting with the Poly dynamic until they’re all comfortable with eachother, an able to be completely open & honest.


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