Polyamory: To Try Or Not To Try?

Reader poglodyte left a comment with some questions on a post about polyamory I wrote a few weeks back. I decided to answer it in a separate post, because I’ve been meaning to write about some of these things for a while and I figured others would find it useful too. So, while this is sort of addressed at that particular person/question, these are all things I would like to say to people in general.

Here’s the whole comment:

Hey Miri, I dig your blog and have always enjoyed the discussions of polyamory, but now the issue has taken on a more personal turn for me.

I’ve been married for five years, and my wife has recently shared her interest in polyamory with me. We both grew up in Christian patriarchy, so neither of us has much sexual experience outside of the other, even though we were atheists by the time we got married.

Logically, I don’t have a problem with going poly–we’re atheists with no real reason to commit to monogamy, and we’ve talked about the possibility of other partners in the past–but emotionally it’s another story. I’m worried that she’s going to find a better partner, and I’ll gradually be replaced as the boring, stick-in-the-mud husband. Part of the issue is that she’s way more social and outgoing than I am, and I have far less opportunity to meet people (I work full time from home and am also working on my thesis), so I think I’ll be left behind once she sees how much fun she can have with other, less hermitty people.

I understand that a lot of these feelings come from a place of insecurity (and, if I’m being honest, probably a little Christian purity culture baggage thrown in for good measure), but that doesn’t make them go away.

At the same time, the last thing I want to do is stand in the way of my partner’s happiness and try to dictate what she can and can’t do with her body. I just don’t know if being poly will make me happy; I can’t wrap my head around sitting at home while she has a great time with her other partners, let alone feeling compersion. Yet she seems to be excited about the prospect of me dating other people, which makes absolutely no sense to me; it tells me that she doesn’t particularly care what I do, that my actions aren’t important. Am I just being selfish and clingy to feel this way? Is there an easy way to just “get over” it?

There are a few separate issues/questions wrapped up in this post, such as:

  • Does being poly make it more likely that your partner will leave you for someone else?
  • Should you try polyamory (mostly) for the sake of a partner who wants to?
  • Do you have to experience compersion in order to be able to be poly?
  • Is there a way to get over insecurity?

I don’t like to give advice to people because I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on anything except fun things to do in New York. However, as someone who used to be in this boat in a few ways, I think I can offer a perspective that might be useful.

That said, I wasn’t raised Christian (or religious at all, really), so while I did have some hangups that came from growing up in this culture, it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal as it was for you, probably. I lost the whole sexual shame thing pretty early, since there was no religion and no shaming parents to keep me believing in that. So this is an area where maybe some of the commenters here can be more helpful.

As for the rest, I’ll address it piece by piece.

I’m worried that she’s going to find a better partner, and I’ll gradually be replaced as the boring, stick-in-the-mud husband. Part of the issue is that she’s way more social and outgoing than I am, and I have far less opportunity to meet people (I work full time from home and am also working on my thesis), so I think I’ll be left behind once she sees how much fun she can have with other, less hermitty people.

This is, I think, a pretty common fear for shy/introverted/socially anxious types who are trying or considering trying polyamory. (Really, it can be a fear for anyone, but being someone who doesn’t go out and meet people much may compound it.) The fear of being replaced is very understandable, but it’s important to remember that plenty of completely monogamous people experience it, and plenty of monogamous relationships do end when one of the partners meets someone new that seems like a better fit for them in any number of ways. Being monogamous doesn’t necessarily prevent this from happening.

In fact, while I suppose it’s possible that this would happen in poly relationships, too, I think it’s much less likely to, because you don’t have to choose between leaving your current partner, cheating on them, and just ignoring your feelings for someone new. Monogamous people may find themselves in a very difficult situation if they meet someone new and get a crush on them, because there’s no way out of it without someone being hurt, even if it’s only themselves.

In my experience, it’s actually easier in some ways to maintain a relationship that’s poly because falling for someone new doesn’t have to be a threat that must be carefully managed and, usually, ignored. And people will fall for each other whether they’re poly or not. The only difference is whether or not they have an ethical way to act on it as opposed to just letting it go.

It’s possible that your wife will start dating someone new and realize that there are things missing in her relationship with you that she needs in any relationship and that you cannot provide; sometimes that happens and it can be challenging for everyone involved. In their book More Than Two (which is amazing, by the way, and I recommend it to you), Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert call this a “game changer”:

A game changer is a relationship that causes us to rethink all our relationships, and maybe even our lives, entirely. It may be a relationship with someone who fits with us so naturally that the person raises the bar on what we want and need from other relationships. It may be a connection so profound that it causes us to look at our lives in a new way. It’s a relationship that alters the landscape of life.

So, given what you’ve shared, that probably sounds very scary. I want to validate that fear, and this possibility, while also noting that game changers can happen in monogamy, too–like when you meet someone new and realize that you can’t stay with your current partner anymore because they’re just not right for you. The reason why many people don’t have this fear in long-term monogamous relationships is because many of us buy into the idea that a relationship (especially a marriage) can be guaranteed to last forever, and that it’s possible to promise everlasting love to someone and to always fulfill that promise. Others may disagree, but I don’t think that’s possible. I think that learning to be secure in healthy, loving relationships requires learning to acknowledge the possibility that they will end (and all the feelings that come along with it) without being overwhelmed by it.

That said, the great thing about polyamory is that you can have several partners who may have all sorts of different personality styles. Your wife may enjoy having some partners who like going out and doing social things a lot, as well as a partner like you who doesn’t. You’ve been married for a few years now, and I’m sure she realizes that there are people out there who are more outgoing and social than you. Yet, you’re still together!

At the same time, the last thing I want to do is stand in the way of my partner’s happiness and try to dictate what she can and can’t do with her body.

That’s commendable! But saying that you’re uncomfortable with opening up your marriage isn’t the same as dictating what she can and can’t do with her body. It’s giving her useful information that she can choose what to do with. She could decide that her interest in seeing other people is more important than your comfort and do it anyway, but that doesn’t sound likely based on what you’ve shared. She could acknowledge your discomfort and try to work with you on it to see if there’s a way to compromise. Or she could decide that she would rather have you feeling more secure than see other people.

The fact that our society is centered around monogamy and especially the fact that you were both raised under Christian patriarchy meant that, unfortunately, it was probably just assumed that you’d be monogamous when you got married. Maybe it would’ve been helpful to talk about that when you were dating or thinking about getting married. But most people don’t because they just don’t think to, and it’s not really anybody’s fault. And even then, desires change; maybe back then she wouldn’t have expressed any interest in polyamory. Now she is. It doesn’t make you bad or controlling to say that you’re uncomfortable with it; it just means that it’s not the sort of relationship you’re looking for.

I just don’t know if being poly will make me happy; I can’t wrap my head around sitting at home while she has a great time with her other partners, let alone feeling compersion.

Are you interested in seeing other people at all? You mentioned that you have less opportunities to meet them than she does, but you haven’t mentioned whether or not you’d actually get anything out of dating other people yourself. If not, that doesn’t necessarily mean polyamory is a bad idea for you, but it does make it a little less potentially rewarding. Maybe you’re taking it as a given that you’d never meet other people given the way you spend most of your time, but that’s not necessarily true. (And if you’re writing a thesis, that won’t take forever, either.)

As for compersion, people talk a big talk about it, but not everyone who’s poly experiences it. I only do very rarely. I do feel crappy sometimes when a partner is out with someone else. Although, my situation’s very different because I’m not married and my partners are all long-distance, so having someone around all the time at home was never an option for me anyway. For you it might be more of an adjustment. I can’t really imagine what it’s like to live with a partner because I never have, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend almost every night with someone in your shared home and suddenly not have that be a given anymore. But other married/cohabiting people do open up their relationships and deal with that challenge, so it’s not insurmountable.

Remember, too, that you definitely don’t have to sit at home while she does that. Even though you said you’re not very outgoing, maybe you still have a few close friends that you could spend more time with, or you could go out and do things by yourself just to get out of the house. If you have work to do, it may even feel better to work on it at a coffee shop or with another academic/writer/work-from-home friend.

Yet she seems to be excited about the prospect of me dating other people, which makes absolutely no sense to me; it tells me that she doesn’t particularly care what I do, that my actions aren’t important.

I’m unsure what your thought process is here. If she’s excited about the prospect of you dating other people, wouldn’t that mean that she does care what you do? I obviously can’t speculate about her thought process, either, but many poly people get excited about the idea of their partners dating other people. Some of that is just compersion; some people feel about it the way they’d feel about you getting an awesome new job or making a cool new friend or getting involved in a fun new activity. Some of it could be a positive sort of projection–they want to date other people and imagine that others might too and get excited about them having that opportunity. For some people, having metamours (polyamory term meaning “the partner of one’s partner”) means having more cool people in your life. If you don’t understand why she’s excited, you might ask her to try to explain it. Sometimes people’s brains just work in different direction and the excitement might not make sense to you, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care what you do.

Am I just being selfish and clingy to feel this way? Is there an easy way to just “get over” it?

Some people disagree with me on this, but I don’t think it makes sense to label feelings “selfish” or “clingy.” Behaviors can be, sometimes, but even that depends on one’s perspective to some extent. Feelings are what they are, and you can choose to ignore them or try to relieve them or try to make them stronger, but the feelings themselves can’t be selfish or clingy on their own.

I do think that you can, if you want to, work on these feelings and make them manageable. You can do that by talking through your concerns with your wife, reading materials about polyamory and how it works, and/or finding a supportive, poly-friendly counselor to talk to about it.

In terms of things to read, books on polyamory tend to have material on managing fear and insecurity (as well as many other useful things). I recommend More Than Two and Opening Up. In terms of counselors, this list of kink-aware professionals is targeted at the kink/BDSM community, but some of the practitioners on it explicitly state poly folks as a population they work with (there’s also a lot of overlap in these communities). You could also call up potential counselors and ask them what they think about polyamory and what their level of knowledge is. Look for someone who has extensive knowledge, and preferably has worked with lots of polyamorous people before.

It is also okay to ask your wife for affirmation, to remind you of why she values you and you specifically. For me, it can be very hard to believe someone when they answer this question for me, but I try to tell myself, “I know this person is honest and self-aware, and I have every reason to believe them.” Nobody can promise that their feelings will never change, but they can say what their feelings are now, and have been for the past however-many years.

Like a lot of things when it comes to relationships (and life in general), there isn’t really a way to know how it’ll go until you try it. People open up relationships and marriages all the time, with all sorts of fears and reservations. Sometimes people who were very excited about opening up discover that it’s not really what they wanted; sometimes people who were afraid of opening up but agreed to try it find out that it’s a lot more fun and fulfilling than they ever imagined.

You may decide you’re unwilling to take that risk, which is okay. Or maybe as you learn more, the insecurity will become manageable and trying it will seem worthwhile.

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Polyamory: To Try Or Not To Try?
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4 thoughts on “Polyamory: To Try Or Not To Try?

  1. 1

    I think what’s missing here is an unambiguous affirmation that OP is within his rights not to renegotiate the terms of the relationship, and that doing so isn’t inherently to reproduce patriarchal control over women’s bodies or anything like that.

    Imagine this situation with the genders reversed: we would probably feel a much stronger need to reassure OP that she shouldn’t feel pressured to accept terms she isn’t comfortable with.

    1. 1.1

      @Anonymous Commenter: Hmm. It kinda sounds to me like you’re here mainly to air grievances against what you imagine my feminism to be.

      From the article:

      saying that you’re uncomfortable with opening up your marriage isn’t the same as dictating what she can and can’t do with her body. It’s giving her useful information that she can choose what to do with.

      […]It doesn’t make you bad or controlling to say that you’re uncomfortable with it; it just means that it’s not the sort of relationship you’re looking for.

      […]You may decide you’re unwilling to take that risk, which is okay.

      So I think that what you think is “missing here” is not at all missing. And I can easily imagine the situation with the genders reversed, and my response would’ve been the same.

  2. 2

    I’ve been married for five years, and my wife has recently shared her interest in polyamory with me. We both grew up in Christian patriarchy, so neither of us has much sexual experience outside of the other, even though we were atheists by the time we got married.

    Is this polyamory effort just a compromise between needed or wanted sexual experience and wanting to keep a safe place? Is this a more sexual focus(like swinging) or an emotional focus?
    More questions, uggh.

  3. 3

    Yet she seems to be excited about the prospect of me dating other people, which makes absolutely no sense to me; it tells me that she doesn’t particularly care what I do, that my actions aren’t important.

    I’m unsure what your thought process is here. If she’s excited about the prospect of you dating other people, wouldn’t that mean that she does care what you do?

    It sounds to me like he’s bothered that she wouldn’t feel jealous. He’s scared that if she dates other people she’ll end up leaving him, and it worries him that she wouldn’t be scared of the reverse happening — if she’s not afraid of him hitting it off with someone new and leaving her, does that mean she wouldn’t mind? Does that mean it would be easy for her to leave him? If she’s actually excited about him dating other people, is that because she secretly wants to leave and would feel less guilty knowing he can find someone else?

    That’s my guess as to the worry underlying that statement.

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