DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My partner and I are non-monogamous, and I know that it would be ok for me to be with someone else, but I’m scared to.
I don’t feel this way about my partner dating and I don’t get jealous. But any time I have feelings for someone outside our relationship I get filled with self-loathing feelings. I worry over hurting my partner. I feel like a traitor. I become scared of loving someone more than them or neglecting them for someone else.
My partner encourages me and wants me to date additional people if I so choose, and I want to as well. But I don’t know how to deal with these feelings.
What do I do?
Less Than Two
DEAR LESS THAN TWO: As strange as it may sound LTT, you’re not the first or only person I’ve heard from who has issues like this. A lot of folks are in open or poly relationships where only one person is choosing to date other people, while the other won’t. Not can’t, or doesn’t but won’t. And often, the reasons for why they choose not to are for the reasons you’ve listed here: they’re worried about hurting their partner or that they are betraying their relationship somehow. It doesn’t matter that their partners are fully ok with them dating other people. Nor does it matter that their partner doesn’t feel threatened or upset by the possibility that someone they love may also have feelings for other people. It’s just a line that those folks can’t bring themselves to cross.
So I think it’s worthwhile to dig in and do some soul-searching and start asking yourself the hard questions.
I think the first question you need to ask is: are you actually poly? One of the reasons why you’ll occasionally find lopsided arrangements in non-monogamous relationships is that only one partner is actually interested in openness or is polyamorous. Sometimes the other partner is what Dan Savage calls “poly-under-duress”; that is, they’re open only because that’s the only way they could stay in a relationship with their partner. But other times, it’s because they’re just not interested. They’re perfectly fine with their partner sleeping with or having relationships with other people; they just don’t want it for themselves. It’s not about jealousy or betrayal or selfishness, it’s just that they’re not interested in other people.
That could be one thing for you to consider, LTT. Is it possible that you’re just not interested in others? Is it possible that you’re feeling self-loathing or worry, not because you’re afraid of hurting your partner but because you feel like you’re supposed to want these things but don’t? Are you feeling like you’re betraying your partner by NOT dating other people?
(The non-poly folks are shaking their head at this but trust me: it’s a thing.)
The next question I think you have to ask yourself is: what, exactly, is stopping you from trusting your partner when they say that they’re cool with your dating other people? Hell, they’re encouraging you to do so. So why don’t you believe them? Do you worry that they’re just telling you what they think you want to hear? Or, alternately, is it possible that you’re worried that they’re pushing you away? That encouraging you to explore relationships with other people is the first step in an admittedly convoluted plot to end the relationship? Are you afraid that your loving someone more is the end goal?
(Again, this seems like the sort of thing that’s more for baroque CW teen dramedies or over the top shoujo manga, but people will get weirdly aggressive in trying to push their partner to be the one to pull the “end of relationship” trigger instead of doing it themselves.)
Another possibility is to ask yourself: are you worried that this is going to expose fault lines in your relationship? That if you do pursue a relationship besides your primary partner, you’ll recognize that maybe you’ve already reached the end of your relationship and you just don’t want to do face that?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any easy ways of getting answers to most of these questions; they’re ones that are going to really require that you sit with your feelings for a while and dig deep while you try to decide just what you’re feeling and why. But there are a few things you two can do together to get answers.
To start with, you can address some of those fears head on. One of the ways that open and poly relationships will deal with issues like neglect or getting caught up in that new-relationship energy is to establish some clear boundaries and open lines of communication. If you deliberately carve out time for just the two of you, then you can help make sure that neither of you are neglecting the others needs. Similarly, having some strong boundaries, especially at the beginning, can help keep you from getting so caught up in the thrill of the new that you don’t neglect your primary relationship in the process. And by keeping your lines of communication open and clear, then the two of you can keep each other appraised about how you’re feeling or if the emotional “check engine” light’s come on and you need to address things.
But if it’s more of a question of trust or acceptance, then maybe what you need to do is shift the game a little. If, for example, you’re worried about playing outside of the relationship might cause pain, then maybe you should consider swinging, rather than polyamory for a while. You may find it reassuring to engage with people, not just with your partner’s permission but their presence. If you two set guidelines, like “we only play as a couple, never separately”, or attend sex clubs or swingers parties together, then you may find it easier to accept that not only is your partner cool with your seeing other folks, but that it makes them happy too. In fact, one of the surprisingly common side-effects of opening up the relationship has been just how much more satisfied couples were with their primary relationship. Plenty of people in open and poly relationships find that they get a thrill or feel good because of their partner’s satisfaction and pleasure — a phenomena known as “compersion”. It doesn’t happen to everyone or in every relationship… but it happens far more than most folks expect.
However, it’s also possible that this is just not a relationship style that’s right for you. If you’re cool with your partner seeing other folks (while respecting their relationship with you) and your choosing not to, then that’s a perfectly legitimate choice. You can have an asymmetrically open relationship if you’re down with that.
More than anything, you and your partner need to do some talking and some soul searching. And if you haven’t already, then you and they should be doing your due diligence and read up on polyamory and open relationships. I recommend checking out “Building Open Relationships: Your hands-on guide to swinging, polyamory, and beyond!” by Dr. Liz Powell (full disclosure: Dr. Powell is a friend of mine) and “Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships” by Tristan Taormino. These will help give you and your partner the tools and the vocabulary to really dig into the things you’re worried about and decide how best to move forward.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)