Your partner wants to be poly. You’re … upset, sad, angry, confused, and scared, but you love your partner and you don’t want to end the relationship. This was me back in 1992 when my wife announced an attraction to another guy just a few days after our first anniversary. I felt like the rug was being pulled out from under me and I was asked to be someone I was not. While I let her explore from the start, it was a rocky road full of wild mood swings, bitter arguments, and lonely nights. It took six months of hard emotional work before I felt fully comfortable opening our marriage. In this post, I will share some things that helped me through that difficult period and eventually come to embrace conscious polyamory.
From birth onwards, we acquire beliefs about who we are and our role in society. Polyamory asks us to question and perhaps let go of these deeply held beliefs, so it’s natural to feel offended or unsettled. The more we say, “This is who I am”, the more we are locked into a narrow version of ourselves. So, my most heartfelt (and hard-won) advice is to step back and recognize that who we think we are–or even what we believe it means to be human–is really just a collection of “stories”. These might include:
- We can only truly love one person at a time.
- I would be so jealous if my partner loved someone else.
- Open relationships are destined to end badly.
- I’m just not cut out for non-monogamy.
If any of these statements resonate with you, here are some alternate “stories” or frames of reference that helped me. Try them on and see how they feel.
“Love is abundant”: We are often told that love is a zero-sum game and that there is only so much to go around. After we opened our marriage, I was astonished to learn that, actually, the opposite is true. When my partner or I open to love outside our relationship, we come back feeling more love for each other! Go figure! I used to believe we had to protect this precious and rare love in our relationships from others who might try to steal it away — like siphoning gas from a car. Now I see love as the essence of the universe and that our purpose in this world is to consciously foster greater intimacy and connection. Rather than living in relationships like cars running on fossil fuels, I now try to see my relationships as solar cars, powered by a source so abundant, we couldn’t imagine even beginning to use it up.
“Everything changes”: Inside my wedding ring is the word “anicca”, which is a Buddhist term for “impermanence”. Although it is easy to fool ourselves otherwise, there is no guarantee of security even in a committed marriage. Your partner might have an affair, lose their love for you, or even die at any time. Opening to polyamory may at times seem “too much, too fast”, but remember that change is inevitable and that it is easier to ride a horse in the direction it is going. And yes, even your partner’s New Relationship Energy will change over time and subside to something normal. At first, I thought I would never change how I felt about my wife being with another lover. I even felt a sense of pride in this internal consistency. So, it came as a surprise to find I could get used to and even appreciate things I once thought I could never accept.
“Life is a mystery”: While it might feel like jumping off a trapeze and flying into an unknown haze, there are other bars to catch through the mist. How much can you let go of possessing not only your partner, but even your own beliefs? Remember, “If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.” Rather than digging in your heels by trying to control and restrict (yourself as well as your partner), you might choose to see this as a spiritual journey with vast potential for growth and transformation.
“Ethical non-monogamy is possible”: Around the time my wife first asked to be poly, three couples we knew were devastated by uncovered affairs. I knew I didn’t want us to do that, but I didn’t know other options existed. It may seem inconceivable right now, but I can assure you that not only is responsible non-monogamy possible, but that it can expose and contradict many limiting and unjust stories in ourselves and in our cultures. Stories about control and ownership; stories of forbidden love and revenge; stories of disrespect and suspicion. All of these stories are less likely in a polyamorous world.
“My partner’s joy is my joy”: Why is it that couples often expect to derive all of their happiness from and with their partners, while parents easily experience pleasure when their children or friends get married? Feeling joy when your partner is enjoying another relationship is often referred to as “compersion”. It can coincide with jealousy, but in many ways is the opposite of feeling possessive, insecure, and suspicious. Compersion recognizes that individuals have different desires and that supporting our partners to find joy outside our relationship can actually strengthen our connection. As the Arabic poet, Kahil Gibran said, “Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
“I am worthwhile”: It is easy to interpret your partner’s polyamory as proof that you are somehow inadequate or unworthy of love. Not true! In fact, your partner openly sharing his or her desires with you (as opposed to cheating on you or breaking up to run away with another lover) is proof you are loved and respected. Try not to take her desires too personally. Know that you are completely whole and loveable and that polyamory is an opportunity to bring more joy, intimacy, and happiness into your life as well.
Here are some actions that you — as protagonist in a new story — might explore.
Know yourself: When the “poly life” get rough, I always ask myself two questions: 1) “How am I feeling?” And 2) “How am I really feeling?” because I find it difficult to separate how I feel from how I am supposed to feel. It’s almost as if we need to create a whole new vocabulary to describe our twisting and turning emotions. For example, if you are experiencing jealousy, try to describe the feeling without using that word. Is it a fear of abandonment? Of losing control? Of others’ judgements? Of feeling inadequate? How true are your fears and assumptions? Is she really likely to run off with another lover? Will she actually squander your joint savings on a lavish trip? Will she tell all her friends and your co-workers about her new lover–or her new lover about your deep, dark secrets? Has she, in fact, stopped loving you? If you’re not sure, ask! Ask for what you need to feel reassured. Find ways to go deeper in your self awareness. Meditate, dance, journal, make art, take long walks by yourself…Whatever works for you, take time to “have tea” with your thoughts and feelings and strive to recognize which beliefs are truly yours and which are just stories you’ve been told from an early age. You might be surprised.
Set boundaries: It is good to know your edges, but try to keep “rules” to a minimum. Ask yourself why you feel a need to be in control of certain things? What would be the worst-case scenario if you chose not to set a particular boundary? Remember that restricting your partner’s freedom tends to result in making the “forbidden fruit” even more desirous! I learned this the hard way when I initially set a boundary that my wife and her new lover could not touch each other where they would wear underwear. What was I thinking?! It is often helpful to put a time frame on any boundaries you set — both so your partner can know how patient he or she needs to be and — perhaps more importantly — so you know that you will need to deal with these issues sooner or later. You can also set positive boundaries. How about a sacred “date night”? Or a check-in over coffee after a night away?
Make all agreements two-way: When my wife first introduced the idea of polyamory, it felt like a win-lose proposition. She would either get to be with others while I felt like a doormat, or she would stay loyal while I felt guilty about restricting her happiness. And her being poly exposed her to judgements of her as a slut and to feeling guilty about not honoring our primary relationship. We eventually realized the only way for me to accept her being polyamorous and for both of us to “win” was to allow myself the same privileges. Even though it took three years before I so much as kissed another woman, knowing I could really helped resolve this power differential and allowed me to be more open to her explorations.
Communicate: You might feel confused, overwhelmed, or embarrassed by your feelings. You might want to shut down and sulk. You might even want to run away and escape from the situation. All that is perfectly okay to feel … and … it is important to stay as present to yourself and your partner as possible and to share your fears and vulnerabilities as well as your hopes and desires. When my wife started sleeping over at her lover’s place, it was really important for me to be on my own, feeling all my feelings, and for her to know I was home on my own — and then to talk about it!
Find support: You are not alone in your struggles! These days there are treasure troves of resources: books, blogs, Facebook groups, conferences, and poly-open therapists that can support you in your journey and help you articulate and express your feelings. Talk with friends who are understanding (and at least open to the idea of polyamory). You might be surprised that some of them have thought deeply or even experimented in opening their own relationships! Experienced polyamorists can offer valuable perspectives and tips.
Get to know your metamour: It is easy to think your partner is seeing someone better looking, smarter, and sexier than you. But they are real people with their own qualities and quirks. You might find you have a lot in common with your metamour (beyond your partner) and end up as great friends, and you may learn that your metamour offers different things to your partner that don’t compete with what you have to offer. Developing a direct relationship with your metamour can help build trust and acceptance of their relationship with your partner. For example, I had been friendly with my wife’s current lover, but when I learned they withheld an important piece of information from me for months, I was devastated and lost a lot of trust. My metamour said he had wanted to tell me, but was deferring to my wife’s reluctance. So, my metamour and I agreed to sharing important information directly with each other (giving my wife a deadline to do so first if desired). This has deepened our friendship and trust in each other.
Be good to yourself: Make a list of things you enjoy doing without your partner for when you are on your own. Focus on healthy activities and resist temptations to indulge in junk food, drugs, or alcohol. Remember, the essence of polyamory is to bring more love and happiness into our lives, but if you feel an urge to “run away” or “leave first”, find ways to nourish yourself other than cruising for other relationships as this tends to not end well. Mistakes will be made — by you, by your partner, and by your metamours. God knows we made some doozies! In those moments, try to remember we are all being the best humans we know how to be and that, together, with understanding, forgiveness, and hard work, we can reach ever higher in love and gratitude.
Opening to polyamory can feel like you are a caterpillar whose body is dissolving into a nutrient soup before it reforms into a butterfly. It can be painful and challenging, but it can also be a positive and even transformative experience. For myself, it has been the most difficult, yet most enriching activity in my life and has led to more spiritual growth than vegetarianism, meditation, and drugs — combined! It may feel like your whole world is unraveling, but know there are thousands, even millions of us who have gone through a similar process and are cheering you on! Poly ho!