One of the most difficult experiences for people transitioning to polyamory is having a partner who is resistant to an open relationship. It usually goes like this: Two people are in a monogamous relationship by default. One of them learns about polyamory (or meets someone she is attracted to) and feels an interest in exploring relationships outside of the primary partnership. He or she broaches the topic to their partner. The partner reacts in a number of ways: 1) They are relieved because they are also interested in exploring 2) They are open-minded but reluctant about opening the relationship 3) They are completely freaked out and resistant to opening the relationship. In this article we explore what an exploring polyamorist with a partner who responds with 2 or 3 can do to help them both transition to an open relationship. (Our next article will address what a reluctant partner can do in the same situation).
A word about pronouns: In order to reduce confusion, I’ve chosen to use the pronoun she/her to refer to the exploring partner and he/him for the reluctant partner. This matches up with my personal experience and my observation that in most cases it seems to be women who tend to be exploring partners and men who tend to be reluctant partners. It should be assumed that the roles can be switched and pronouns equalized for homosexual couples.
For the Exploring Partner
The challenge for the exploring partner is that she has an interest in doing something unconventional and has to overcome both her own internal barriers (created through years of cultural indoctrination) to exploring and also her partner’s reluctance. Despite feeling that exploring would satisfy her needs, she doesn’t want to hurt her partner or leave him. She needs to find a way to to satisfy her need to explore while ensuring that her relationship with her partner doesn’t break or is so damaged that it cannot recover. In the best circumstance, working through their differences is an opportunity for both of them to grow and become stronger in their relationship. It is also quite likely that the resistant partner refuses and the relationship ends. But if you think that there is a good chance that your partner can accept and adapt, then it may be worth transitioning to an open relationship.
Examine your reasons for being poly. Before you approach your partner with your interest in being poly, you need to get clear as to why you want to be poly. Do you have a need to connect intimately with people outside of your primary relationship? Do you crave sexual novelty and variety? Do you have an unmet need that your partner cannot fulfill? Is there a specific individual you would like to explore a relationship with? How will exploring change the way you relate to your partner?
There are many reasons to open a relationship, but experienced polyamorists will tell you that a bad time to attempt to open your relationship is when things are rocky between you and your partner. If the two of you are in the midst of a conflict, it’s a bad idea to try to bring another person into the relationship or subject your relationship to something as unsettling as polyamory. Polyamory can help couples meet each other’s unmet needs, but it will rarely solve fundamental problems. The foundation of your relationship needs to be strong in order to weather the challenge of opening a relationship with a reluctant partner.
If your reasons for polyamory do have to do with your partner, explore what those are and if there are other ways to address them. For example, if your partner is not giving you the amount or quality of attention you need, express that need to your partner so he has a chance to remedy that with you. If your partner has a hard time understanding you, try to improve your communications rather than turning to someone else. One way in which polyamory can hurt couples is if they use it as a way to avoid their problems rather than working them out. Like having a child, polyamory can make existing problems worse. It is also not fair to anyone who might come into the relationship to feel like they are crutch for your failing relationship.
Do your homework. Polyamory is complex topic and the more you can learn about it the better you will be able to deal with your partner’s questions and find a way to meet both of your needs. Find out what polyamory means, how people practice it, and what most suits you. There is also a vast amount of literature on dealing with jealousy, resolving conflicts and improving communication. You may find that your relationship skills will be kicked into overdrive in the process of transitioning to polyamory. You will need to communicate your needs, really listen and respond to your partner’s needs, and find solutions that work for the both of you. All this can help you improve your communication and strengthen your relationship.
In addition to reading, it is very helpful to talk to experienced polyamorists and get your questions answered in real time. Polyamorous people tend to be an open bunch and many have gone through something similar to what you are going through, so most are happy to help. You can talk to poly people by joining a Facebook group on polyamory, or an online forum. There are also blogs and websites devoted to polyamory where you can ask questions in the comments or contact sections. Meetup.com is a good way to find out if there are poly groups in your area. Many of them host discussion groups or social events where you can ask questions and talk to people. The nonprofit Lovingmore.com is dedicated to supporting the polyamory community and can help you locate resources in your area. Check out our Resources page for more information. Once you begin meeting people, it is extremely helpful to cultivate relationships with couples who have been in your situation and can talk at length about their experiences. Bring your partner to these discussions if he is willing. The more you can learn together the better you will be able to understand each other’s perspectives and avoid misunderstanding.
Introduce the idea to your partner in a nonthreatening way. Before trying to date anyone, spend some time talking about the concept of polyamory with your partner. One way to start the conversation is by talking about the ways you are already open to other relationships. Perhaps you have opposite sex friends you socialize with. Perhaps you have exes that you still talk to. You may be surprised to learn that few monogamous relationships are truly monogamous, most are open to some sort of emotional/social/physical intimacy with others.
You can assess how open your partner is to the idea by introducing your partner to an article on polyamory. Ask them what their opinion is on the subject. If their opinion is unfavorable, don’t try to convince them right away. Allow them to express their opinion and find common ground in what you both value in relationships. Propose that this is something for the two of you to learn about for a while. Even exploring intellectually can feel very threatening to a resistant partner, so be patient and provide lots of resources such as books, articles, and people to talk to. Polyamory has drawbacks as well, so make sure that you consider those. The process of examining one’s feelings and beliefs systems, questioning deeply held values can take months if not years.
Emphasize polyamory’s potential benefits to you, your partner, and your relationship. In general, polyamory can help couples…
- Have meaningful relationships that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
- Experience sexual and intellectual variety and learn new skills that can be used to enhance their relationship.
- Meet some unmet needs which would allow each to be a happier and better partner.
- Build a community of friends and lovers that add enjoyment to their lives and support in times of need.
Your partner is likely to have counters to each of these points, so be prepared to listen, understand, and have long discussions. Talking to experienced polyamorists will give you some examples of the real benefits and drawbacks, which may be more convincing than simply theorizing about them. By emphasizing the benefits to both partners, you avoid sounding like it’s all about getting what you want at the expense of your partner. Polyamory can be a win-win for both partners, even if only one of you is interested in exploring. A word to the wise: You must be prepared to allow your partner to explore as well. If you are wanting to explore but uncomfortable with the idea of your partner exploring, then you need to work that out internally before making your request or you will be shut down as a hypocrite or selfish brat.
Once you are ready to express your desire to look for a relationship, reassure your partner that it does not have to do with their inadequacies, but that your desire for other relationships is independent from your primary relationship. Affirm what is good in your relationship and your desire to maintain it. Even if your desire to explore is related to an unfulfilled need or inadequacy, frame it as an accommodation to your partner and a solution to your problem. For example, if one of you has a strong desire to explore BDSM and your partner has no interest in BDSM and never will, explain how polyamory can solve your problem without subjecting your partner to activities that he or she doesn’t enjoy.
Try other forms of non-monogamy. Another way that partners ease into poly is by trying forms that are less threatening to them. A lot of people end up becoming polyamorous after trying swinging first. In swinging, a couple engages in sexual activity with other couples, but there is no emotional attachment and no expectation to form relationships. Sometimes swingers have sex with the same couple every time and a relationship does develop, but the activities are with other couples rather than individuals. Some partners agree on a “100 mile rule” where they are allowed to engage in casual encounters while traveling and apart from the other partner. Some couples are perfectly happy with these arrangements for a long time, others use it as a stepping stone for more engaged forms of polyamory.
Take incremental steps. For the reluctant partner, even baby steps can seem like a huge deal and jumping in without preamble could cause a meltdown. Take incremental steps to allow your partner to adjust to the changes that are happening. Be clear about what your end goal is so that he knows where eventually you are both headed, and adjust to each incremental change with the understanding that more is to come. For example, if your partner is not comfortable with the idea of you dating, start by looking at online dating profiles together, then create one together. Make it clear in your profile that you are already in a relationship and exploring, and that you are not looking to replace your current partner.
Establish a time frame for your partner to adjust to polyamory. Having some mutually agreed on deadlines could help reduce the temptation for a reluctant partner to procrastinate on the difficult work of figuring things out internally. It also helps you understand how patient you need to be and still move things forward. For example, for the first month, you could agree that you will only chat with potential matches online. At the end of the month, reassess your feelings and establish a new deadline, say, that you will go on some casual dates with potential matches for the next month. If a second date is in store, introduce your date to your partner as early as possible, even if just to say hi. Don’t schedule your second date for the night after your first one. Space them out little so both of you have time to adjust.
A word about rules: Many couples who are opening their relationship feel more comfortable after establishing rules for dating others. If you are going to have rules, they must apply to both partners, no exceptions. But rules should only be used as temporary guidelines to help with the transition. They need an expiration date and they need to be renegotiated periodically. Nobody likes to be told what they can and cannot do with someone else. Of course, rules about safe sex and being safe in general should be common sense, but micromanaging things such what kind of touching is allowed, what kind of activities, how much time the other person spends with the other person are not helpful and are bound to be broken. Don’t agree to those. It is very difficult to control what happens when you are falling in love with someone. If you have an agreement not to have sex, sex may happen. If you have an agreement not to kiss, kissing may happen. If you have an agreement that you will be home at a certain hour, you may be 30 minutes late. Then your partner will be all upset that you broke the rules and you will feel resentful at the constraints that these rules impose.
Instead, reassure your partner that you will behave responsibly, that you will call if you will be late or if anything happens, and tell him afterwards of what happened on your date, if he wants to know. If you really want to help him feel better, text him during your date to say everything is ok. Things generally get easier with practice. Let your partner know as much as possible about your activities and he may feel less need to control them. Behaving responsibly earns your partner’s trust. Let him know you value his opinions on the people that you date.
Date someone experienced and mature. I would advise those new to poly to first date someone who has had polyamorous relationships before and is emotionally mature. If you try to introduce a potential lover to poly at the same time that you are introducing your partner to poly, things will get crazy. Your lover will be jealous, your partner will be jealous, and you will be stuck dealing with both of them at the same time. If you date an experienced polyamorist while you are introducing your partner to polyamory, that person will likely understand and be more patient with what you are going through. They will be more likely to make an effort to help your partner feel comfortable and help you process your feelings.
No cuckolding. A cuckold is a husband with an adulterous wife. The word used as a verb means to embarrass or shame your husband by flaunting your relationship with your lover infront of him or in public. Because conventional culture says the husband should maintain control of his wife’s sexuality, allowing his wife to have romantic relationships outside of the marriage can feel very emasculating and shameful for a husband. Along with the embarrassment is the feeling of inadequacy arising from suspecting that his mate desires someone else more. While it is unfortunate that our culture encourages men and women to base their self-esteem on controlling their partner’s sexuality, it is inconsiderate to make our mate feel inadequate by lavishing affection on someone else in front of them.
For the sake of easing the transition to being fully polyamorous, it is a good idea for all secondary relationships to be kept low key at the beginning, at least in front of one’s primary partner. This means not bringing the lover home to spend the night while he’s getting used to the idea of the two of you together, no PDA in front of one’s partner, and minimize talking about your lover to your partner (unless he asks). While I was opening my marriage with my very resistant partner, I made my secondary relationship as inconspicuous as possible. I remained honest and upfront about everything that was happening, but I spent time with my lover only when my husband was at work, and kept phone calls and texting to a minimum when my husband and I were together. I did not talk to my husband about my feelings for my lover and kept the conversation to logistics and things we had to discuss. Even though my lover was much on my mind and in my life at the time, it was not constantly in my husband’s face and we did not talk about it all the time.
Listen. Polyamory brings up strong emotions for reluctant partners ingrained in mainstream culture. Exploring partners need to be good listeners in order to help each other understand and overcome those difficult emotions. The reluctant partner may feel as if the exploring partner is leaving him behind for a new relationship so the act of listening and attending to the reluctant partner’s feelings reassures him that you still care.
When I was opening the marriage with my resistant partner, I would often ask him, “Why does this make you upset/angry? Why are you resisting this?” He was not able to tell me anything other than, “I don’t know. I feel like it’s against my moral beliefs. I have a sense of revulsion at the thought of anyone touching you.” I would press him and say, “Why do you feel revulsion? Why do you feel that polyamory is immoral?” Exasperated, he would respond, “I just do!”
My lover, who also was a reluctant partner when his wife wanted to open their marriage, expressed that it can be very hard for men to express the deep seated fears they have when it comes to polyamory. Thoughts such as “I’m afraid that you don’t love me anymore”,” I’m not good enough for you”,” I will be seen as a cuckold”, “I no longer have control”, are difficult to admit even to oneself, much less to one’s partner. He suggested that the exploring partner help articulate these thoughts in the form of questions that the reluctant partner can respond to. Such as:
- Are you worried that I will love someone else more and leave you?
- Do you have experiences with infidelity in your past that are influencing the way you feel?
- Are you concerned about what others will think?
- Do you feel that you are losing control over our lives?
- Are you worried that you are not good enough?
- Do you wonder if you did something wrong that caused this?
- Do you fear that being intimate with others will cause us to not want to be intimate with each other?
Once you and your partner are able to articulate the reasons and feelings behind his reluctance, you can help him feel heard simply by repeating what he said in your own words.
Bear in mind that these are not issues that can be resolved in one conversation. Don’t try to have a difficult conversation when your partner is tired or distracted. One technique from The Ethical Slut is to schedule a certain amount of time, say 30 minutes, when the two of you can focus on one issue. Have the conversation, stop when the time is up, and schedule another time when you can continue the conversation. Let what was said sink in for a while and bring your reflections to the next conversation.
Provide reassurances. All of the fears listed above are very legitimate fears and they can all be dealt with through loving communication. In addition to helping your partner feel heard, you can reassure him that you still love him and want to be with him. Words are important, but actions help too. Here are some ways to respond to common fears:
- Feeling unloved: Franklin Veaux said that if his partner says she feels jealous, the first thing he says is, “Do you want to cuddle?” What does your partner need to feel loved? Physical affection? Sex? A romantic date? Words of love and affirmation? Maybe it’s doing him a favor or giving him a gift. Understand your partner’s “love language” and actively provide it to him.
- Fearing abandonment: You could reassure him of your love and commitment. Pull out your wedding vows and say them to him again. Visit the places where you fell in love, got engaged or got married and reaffirm your commitment to each other. Spend quality time bonding. Remind him of the things that drew you to him.
- Feeling inadequate: Praise your partner and remind him of all the reasons you love him. Enlist your family and friends in expressing appreciation for him as well.
- Feeling out of control: Keep your partner in the loop about your activities. Avoid drastic changes and keep your life as normal as possible. Discuss changes and shifting expectations before they happen.
- Feeling concerned about what others might think: Reassure him that you will wait until he feels comfortable before coming out about your poly status to others. Do not discuss your affairs with others that he feels uncomfortable sharing this with.
Think of polyamory as a scale. Every time that you come back from being with someone else, balance the scale by spending more time connecting and expressing love to your partner than you normally would. Together, brainstorm ways that the two of you can address concerns and feel safe moving forward.
Help your partner find a lover. If your partner is open to exploring as well, helping him find a partner can accelerate his understanding of polyamory and enjoyment of its benefits. Browse online dating profiles together. Encourage him to pursue someone he is attracted to. Introduce him to people that he may be attracted to. Some exploring partners go so far as to insist that their reluctant partner explore new relationships first. The more you can demonstrate your lack of jealousy, the more he may do the same for you.
Be patient. You probably have felt poly your whole life and are predispositioned to viewing it favorably. Your partner could be very different. Maybe his parents broke up as a result of infidelity. Maybe he’s been cheated on in the past. Maybe he grew up with the view that sex is immoral or dangerous. It can take a long long time to undo a lifetime of indoctrination of one of the most deeply seated beliefs of civilization. If you push him too hard he may get more resistant. I have heard of couples who took a decade to consider polyamory, and those that took no time at all. How successful you will be depends on how open your partner is and how patient you are willing to be.
Own your position. You may be quite sure that you want to be polyamorous and an open relationship would benefit the both of you. You’ve read the poly literature and talked to people and are convinced of its merits. But in my experience, when I was confronted with my beloved’s pain, anger, tears, and resistance, it was incredibly hard not to give in just to make all the madness stop. Coupled with guilt at hurting your loved one, you will also feel the same insecurities that your partner feels, including, “Will he leave me?” “Will he still love me?” “What will other people think?” “Am I just a slut?” The pressure to give in will be internal as well as external, and likely the hardest part about doing any of this. But you will not do yourself or your partner any favors by giving in. Your desire to explore will likely not go away, and repressing it for the sake of your partner will probably not work in the long run. It will come back and your partner will be more hurt and confused.
The only way to become polyamorous is to own your position, especially if you have a reluctant partner. Are you willing to risk the possibility that your relationship may come to an end as a result? If not, then polyamory may not be for you. It helps a lot to have a polyamorous friend/mentor who can support you through it. Whenever the pain becomes overwhelming and you feel like giving up, talking to this person can give you the courage to go on. In addition you can get support from a Facebook or other support group, and by continuing to read poly literature. Remind yourself that
- You deserve to be happy.
- It is not wrong to want to love more than one.
- Polyamory helps create a more loving, just, and peaceful world.
- Polyamory is about being more loving without fear, jealousy, and possessiveness.
- Polyamory transforms love from a limited resource to one that is abundant for all.
Even though he doesn’t know it, helping your partner accept polyamory could help him grow emotionally and spiritually in the long run. The pain and discomfort he feels today is necessary in order to transform into the more open minded and freer person of tomorrow. Allowing that pain to happen is a part of growth. Hold him and reassure him, but challenge him nonetheless. You have our support and conviction that even if your partner cannot adapt, you have the right to be true to yourself.
Photo: Alice in Wonderland. Directed by Tim Burton.