Disclaimer: This blog post was inspired by an email we received from a longtime listener. In a half-flattering, half-accusatory sentiment, the email read that “[It] seems everything is [always] going awesome for you guys…” then went on to let us know that we could sometimes come off as, and I cringe a little writing this, “arrogant”.
Now, while we want to put our best foot forward and want to share our best experiences and the most effective lessons we’ve accumulated over the years, anyone who has experience with polyamory knows that it is absolutely not always easy or effortless, and I hope we don’t imply that this is the case. We’ve learned by doing--both by doing well and by doing not-so-well. At one time or another, all three of us have faced challenges, or not felt up to the task. I mean it when I say that we’ve had nearly all of the same experiences as the ‘poly n00bs’ out there.
Whether it be jealousy, trying and failing to maintain open communication, or sometimes even questioning our lifestyle choices, we’ve all fallen down sometimes. This is a topic and lifestyle that we care deeply about, and we wouldn’t practice it unless we found it intellectually, emotionally, and sexually fulfilling. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy.
We believe it is important to focus on the positive experiences that non-monogamy has to offer. We are, after all, advocating for the right to choose and explore alternative relationship styles because we believe it can be more than worth it; it can be life changing. But once in awhile it seems appropriate to be vulnerable, open, and honest about some of the very real and very difficult challenges entailed.
So in an effort to show a little humility for a lifestyle that still challenges me every day, I’d love to pull back the curtain from the shiny profile pictures, the stories of beautiful poly-holidays (polidays?) I’ve shared with partners, and of the genuine fulfillment and freedom of being able to pursue new experiences without discarding the old, foundational love that sustains me. I’d like to share something I’ve recently struggled with.
For the last two years my primary partner and I have been in something approximating a mono/poly relationship. This is, we find, an arrangement that some members of the poly community regard with some suspicion. And it is complicated, offering fertile ground for misunderstandings given the radically different relationship experiences each partner has--at minimum, it demands a great deal more understanding and communication when two partners conduct one of the most intimate and important parts of their lives in very different ways.
We have explored this because it felt right to us--for nearly two years, our ‘outside the box’ thinking guided us to this uncommon relationship pairing. From the beginning, I’d made it clear that I was interested in pursuing women outside of our relationship--as someone who lived most of my life as a semi-closeted bisexual, this has been very important to me. He, on the other hand, had expressed no interest in pursuing other relationships outside of ours.
Though I’d regularly encouraged him to feel free to explore the poly lifestyle I’d found so fulfilling, for the better part of two years things went on as they’d begun: I continued to pursue sexual and emotional experiences that were important to me while he’d shown no interest in looking outside our relationship for love, sex, or romance. I’m happy to say this worked for us. It was smooth sailing and clear skies and is still one of the most fulfilling, adult relationships I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with another human. That relationship structure, which worked so well and had remained so steady-state for so long, seemed like it would last indefinitely. We’d found what worked for us.
But as it is with nearly all things, there was change on the horizon. Things got complicated when I recently found myself starting a new relationship which was unique in one important way: it was with a girl that my primary partner had been romantically involved with in the past. I won’t go into their history as that’s their tale to tell, but suffice it to say there were some things left unresolved between them--things that might not have needed resolution but for their fresh involvement in a shared romantic ‘polycule’.
This presented some unique challenges that both fell outside the rubric of our past experiences, and changed how we each viewed some of the dynamics we’d taken for granted for so long. My partner assured me that things might be difficult, but that he could handle it. I’m happy to say that ultimately I think that was true. But neither he, nor I, knew how much this experience would rock the boat. This leads to the first lesson that I learned:
Lesson 1: Your partner does not always know how they’ll react to things, even if they think they do.
It became clear very quickly into this new relationship that my primary partner was having real difficulties adapting--a fact that took me quite by surprise. I’d been expected the genuine ease with which he’d handled me dating in the past. However, it became clearer and clearer that this time things were different. The way we handled these challenges took on a new tone--and not a positive one.
It was something that I didn’t understand at first, something I would bring up while we were having one of the many difficult ‘relationship processing’ talks we were encountering every few days: “But this has never been a problem before! And you said you were ok with this,” I insisted. I felt like I had been misled. It didn’t seem fair that he could change the rules of what he was okay with and what he wasn’t, and I’m sad to say I was not very understanding.
Looking back now, I can remind myself that people are complex and they have the right to their feelings, the right to change their feelings, communicate and be honest about that. But at the time, his difficulty adapting to this new situation, and my lack of compassion and my frustration at that fact, paved the way for some long-lasting changes in our relationship. As he struggled with the nuanced emotional difficulty of his one and only partner building a connection with someone from his romantic past, the sense that we were both on the same page faltered. The feeling that we had a clear understanding of our relationship structure and how we supported each other changed.
But we were in love, and though change is difficult, our commitment to each other and to building a life that suited us saw us through. We struck out to find our balance again, which included some shifts in the relationship structure that we’d both grown so used to.
He proposed that he might understand better and be able to be more supportive if he found some common ground and began exploring polyamory as well. As I expressed confusion about this new development, I was answered with words like ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’. My partner decided that, if I was going to be dating other people, he’d do so as well. Before long, my primary reactivated his OkCupid profile as “in an open relationship”.
Which brings me to the second thing that I learned:
Lesson 2: You do not always know how you will react to things, even if you think you do.
“Fantastic!” I thought. “He will finally be able to see all the great things that polyamory does for an existing relationship and develop an understanding for feeling deep emotions for more than one person at once! He won’t just accept that I date other people; he’ll see he can feel things with more than just me!”
Oh. Wait. More than just me?
I’d always believed that if the time ever came when my partner wanted to start dating other people that I would be an Awesome Poly Partner™. I could date new people, have fantastic communication with everyone, my partner could date new people and I would be totally supportive and understanding, and all parties involved would live in a state of compersion and bliss. While I still believe that’s possible, I was soon reminded that ‘possible’ doesn’t always mean ‘easy’.
Back in the early days of my poly journey with Jase, I had, of course, experienced the jealousy and possessiveness that nearly every poly couple I’ve ever met has struggled with, and I’d triumphed over it. But here it was again, and with a startling intensity. Hadn’t I done this already? Here were the same old fears. What if he finds someone he likes more than me? What if he finds someone he’s more attracted to, or has a deeper emotional connection to? What if he leaves me for someone else? What if? What if?
This might have been an opportunity for building understanding, for supporting and for empathizing with each other over the challenges we were facing. Instead, these fears became a dark cloud over our relationship. He went on dates while I paced the living room, sick to my stomach. While he flirted online, I sulked and scoffed.
One of the most frustrating parts was that the entire time, I knew I was acting ridiculous, but I just didn’t know how to dig myself out of the emotional well I had fallen into. I felt like a failure, and in some senses, a fraud. I didn’t see how I was ever going to be ok with my partner dating other people, even though I expected the same from him. And, seeing my reaction, he didn’t understand why I had urged him to start dating new people when he was having difficulties. He too was struck with frustration that things weren’t as advertised. And as the partner with non-monogamous experience, he looked to me for guidance on how to proceed. I’m afraid I was a poor role model. Why wasn't I better at this when I spoke about it every week and thought about it on an almost daily basis?
It seemed like there wasn't an end in sight. Though we were struggling with new, surprising feelings, the fact is that change is a constant in relationships, and something you will encounter when you share a life with another person for years. People and attitudes grow and evolve, and for a relationship to be successful, you must be willing to grow and evolve with your partner. Which brings me to the third thing that I learned:
Lesson 3: You have the ability to look inward and let your fears go, even if you don’t think you do.
I’m not exactly sure how or when I decided to pull my head out of my ass, but ultimately it came down to a decision: I realized if I wanted to continue to live a polyamorous lifestyle, I was going to have to make some serious adjustments to my thinking and reactions.
During a particularly lucid evening I asked myself, “What would my life actually look like if I just let my fears and insecurities go?” This simple question opened up an entire world of possibility for me. I realized, if I could just put down my fear, then my mind didn’t automatically go to the worst case scenario. Without insecurity, my mind did not automatically tell me that I was unworthy of love from my partner. Instead, I could focus on the compersion and enthusiasm for him and the experiences he might have, just as I had always hoped he could do for me. I began to regain lost ground.
I was once again reminded of the reasons why I became polyamorous in the first place. When done well, polyamory can change the face of a current relationship for the better, broadening one’s emotional and intellectual horizons. Through encounters with new people, I am reminded of all the intricate facets that make up who I am as an individual, and am challenged and changed by the people I meet in new and surprising ways. Through great effort, we were finally able to be calm, understanding, and above all, kind to each other when discussing our wants and needs pertaining to polyamory.
Though that ‘new’ relationship didn’t end up being a long-term one, I value the hard-won lessons my primary and I learned. There are still challenges, of course, but the toxic emotional patterns that plagued our relationship for months have begun to change, encouraging a more loving and empathetic way of relating to one another. Ultimately, I believe that a couple can hate adversity, or choose be grateful for opportunities to grow. Change can be chaotic, but it can ultimately make you stronger in the end, as an individual or as a couple. The fact of the matter is, you learn by doing well, and also by doing not-so-well...