I’m monogamous, and I’ve fallen for someone who’s polyamorous!
Making relationships work when you’re monogamous and your partner isn’t
Created April 2003
The information presented here assumes that you are in a traditional, monogamous relationship, and your partner has just told you that he or she is polyamorous. It’s also possible that you may be a monogamous person considering starting a new relationship with someone who’s poly–and already in a relationship. I’m working on a resource to cover that situation as well, which you will find here.
My lover just told me he or she wants other lovers. Now what??!
For starters, it’s not what you think. It’s not necessarily the “We should see other people” speech, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your relationship.
If your partner says that he or she wants other partners, your first impulse may be to feel attacked or rejected, and if the time comes when your partner does take another partner, you may feel that person is attacking you simply by existing. Take a deep breath, relax, and try to let go of it. Your partner is not attacking you, and your partner’s other partner is not attacking you; it’s important not to respond angrily, but to try to make a relationship that works for all of you.
Having said that:
Any relationship in which the people involved have different goals and expectations will not be an easy relationship. Making any relationship work requires a dedication of time and effort, and there are never any guarantees; a relationship in which one partner is monogamous by nature and the other partner is not is particularly difficult, and fraught with peril.
This doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
But it won’t always be easy. Compromises will be required from everyone involved. This may especially be true of the monogamous partner, who will have to learn and adapt to a completely new way to approach romantic relationships that may seem at first to fly in the face of everything you understand about the way love is supposed to work.
There may be times when you will feel insecure, jealous, and hurt; this does not mean that your relationship is failing, and it is not wrong, bad, or irrational for you to feel this way. It simply means that your partner will have to take the time to pay special attention to your needs and your feelings, that’s all. It also means, though, that your own ideas about relationship, your own fears and insecurities, and your own doubts will probably be brought to the surface, and you’ll likely be asked to confront those ideas and doubts and insecurities. If you can find a way to confront and defeat them, then your relationship will definitely be improved.
It’s no picnic for the polyamorous member of the relationship, either. As the poly person, it is up to you to do everything in your power to help your partner feel safe and secure. This may mean you must move more slowly in new relationships than you want to. It may mean that you must give up relationships that your partner finds threatening. It may mean that you must negotiate boundaries that are narrower than what you might otherwise want.
The place where it gets tricky, though, is in doing these things while still being compassionate and respectful to any new person who may join your relationship. Often, the temptation exists to create rules and set boundaries that will protect the existing relationship even at the expense of any other member of the relationship, particularly when it’s all theoretical and there is nobody else involved yet.
This ability to compromise, and to negotiate a set of agreements that both people can function in, is absolutely critical if you are to make this work. Equally critical is a commitment to follow through on the things you say that you will do, and abide by the negotiated agreements in your relationship completely and without fail. A relationship where the people involved have different expectations is already under stress; even seemingly trivial infractions can easily be magnified to the point where they jeopardize everything you wish to build together. Remember, though, when you’re building these rules: any new person becoming involved with one of you is a human being, too. A new person is going to bring needs and desires of his own, and it’s wise to respect them. Consider the needs of everyone involved!
It may not seem obvious why this is necessary, but it is, not only for the sake of that person but for your own as well. Actions can be regulated, but feelings and emotions are a bit trickier, and can’t be controlled or dictated arbitrarily; if you agree to let your partner explore a new relationship, there’s a very real chance that your partner will become emotionally involved with a new partner, and at that point, asking your partner to change or end that relationship is likely to hurt your partner. Think carefully before you do this, and understand that hurting your partner may have consequences in your relationship.
And relax. It does get easier over time. Security is learned. As your relationship progresses, you will find it easier and easier to feel safe with your partner, and to build a foundation that can make both of you happy.
There are, however, some mental roadblocks you’ll need to get past before you can be happy this way. The first and biggest is in thinking your lover’s polyamory has something to do with you–that you are insufficient, or you are not “enough.”
But why? I don’t get it. Why am I not enough?
If you are wired for monogamy, that can be a very difficult question to answer in any way that makes sense.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that it really may not have anything to do with you, directly, at all. It’s not because you don’t have enough to offer. It’s not because you don’t meet your lover’s needs. It’s not because your partner doesn’t love you, or because your partner is selfish, or because you don’t satisfy your partner, or because you aren’t good enough.
Many people seem to be naturally inclined, whether by learning or by hard wiring, to need only one person in their life. Such people experience a drive to seek out romantic companionship, but once they have found that romantic companionship, that drive disappears. It’s as if the need to seek out intimacy is switched off; the drive is satisfied, and the person is content to settle down with his or her partner.
For other people, this is not the case. People who are poly by nature experience the same drive, the same need to seek out intimacy and romantic relationships, but once such a person has found a partner, that drive is not switched off. A poly person is still driven to seek out intimate romantic relationships.
This is what many poly folk mean when they say “Having one lover does not meet all my needs.” It’s not a way of saying that a poly person expects to have every need, no matter how trivial or transient, satisfied at once; rather, it’s a way of saying that the need that is completely satisfied when a monogamous person finds a lover is not satisfied when a polyamorous person finds a partner.
Put simply: Monogamous people can be happy sharing their lives with one and only one other person. Polyamorous people can not.
It’s not necessarily a choice. I don’t believe polyamorous people choose to be poly any more than monogamous people choose to be monogamous. I know that I did not make this decision; it’s simply part of who I am, and for better or for worse I cannot be happy with only one person in my romantic life. My wife can be. Neither of us is right or wrong; we are simply different, and we must acknowledge and accommodate those differences in order to be successful together.
If your partner is polyamorous by nature, then your partner’s desire to have additional romantic partners is not your fault, nor is it his or her fault. It does not mean he or she does not love you. It just means you have different drives and different needs.
If my partner is poly?
Yes. It’s important to realize that not everybody who claims to be polyamorous is polyamorous.
The world is not composed entirely of fair, ethical, and honest people. There are people who are selfish, and who see in the word “polyamory” a way to justify sleeping with anyone they choose without consequence.
Such people can usually be spotted fairly easily. For example:
- They cheat. A person who has cheated on you in the past and then, when caught, offers up the excuse “But honey, I’m polyamorous!” probably isn’t. Cheating and polyamory are not the same. A successful polyamorous relationship rests on a bedrock of trust, compassion, and love. People who are prone to betraying their lovers don’t generally make good poly people.
- They lie. Again, a successful poly relationship requires a commitment to trust and integrity. Security comes from the knowledge that your partner loves you and respects you, and can be counted on to treat your needs and your feelings with deference and compassion. You cannot feel secure if you cannot trust your partner to keep his or her word.
- They do not remain within negotiated boundaries. It is important that anyone in any relationship, traditional or no, do this; a person who violates the rules of a relationship does not make a good relationship partner. Any relationship, even casual relationships, exist within a framework of parameters that allow the people involved to feel that they can know what to expect. It is especially true of romantic relationships, and absolutely critical of romantic relationships between someone who is poly and someone who is monogamous. I cannot stress this enough. A relationship between someone who is monogamous and someone who is polyamorous requires compromises on both sides. You absolutely, positively must be willing to remain within the parameters you negotiate, and follow through on the things you say you will do. Without, this, the fundamental trust that is a prerequisite to the success of the relationship is broken.
- They do not consider your needs. The monogamous partner in a polyamorous relationship faces a considerable challenge. It is vital, vital that the poly person do everything possible to reassure the monogamous person of his or her love, support, and understanding. It is natural and reasonable to expect someone in this person to feel insecure and frightened from time to time. These feelings are completely reasonable. Your need for comfort and for understanding is very important.
I can handle the physical stuff as long as my partner loves me the most…how do I do that?
You can’t; in fact, you may do tremendous damage to your relationship if you try.
Okay, so I think I can give this a try…
There is no “trying” a poly relationship; if you wait until your lover’s heart is on the line, then change your mind, you run a very real risk of losing your partner!
“Trying” a poly relationship assumes that if the relationship doesn’t work out, you can go back to the way things used to be. But relationships are fluid, dynamic things; there is no way, once you have introduced any significant change in a relationship, to make things be the way they were before. Even if you do close your relationship and become monogamous again, it won’t be the same; you and your partner will have had experiences that will almost certainly change the way you relate to one another forever.
In fact, just by having the discussion about polyamory, you may change your relationship, even if you remain monogamous for no other reason than you may learn things about your partner that you didn’t know before.
Change doesn’t have to be scary; often, these changes can be healthy and positive. But there’s no denying that if you decide to begin a polyamorous relationship with your lover, things aren’t going to be the same again; you will not be able to press a button and erase everything that happens from that point on.
My partner has cheated on me. Can we make a poly relationship work?
Is it possible? Yes, though it requires a lot of work.
Human beings are highly adaptable, and there’s no way to predict what might act as a catalyst for growth. If someone is polyamorous by nature but doesn’t know that he’s polyamorous, he may cheat because he simply lacks any kind of frame of reference for ethical non-monogamy, and may not even be aware that such a possibility exists.
But people cheat for a wide variety of reasons, most of them having little to do with being polyamorous. People may cheat because they like the excitement of an illicit thrill, for example; or because they want to be able to experience multiple sexual relationships but can’t stand the thought of their partners having the same experiences.
It’s often easier to justify violating the principles of something you have always believed than it is to challenge those beliefs and question whether or not they are valid at all. Many people who cheat do not really question the value of monogamy; they may find ways to rationalize or justify their own behavior, but they will still believe that monogamy is “right.” Sometimes, people will even blame their partners for their cheating; “Well, if my partner was more [x], then I wouldn’t need to cheat.”
Such people still hold to the ideal of monogamy—and more important, they still want their partners to be faithful. Such a person is not likely to make the leap from cheating to polyamory.
Like many things, it all comes down to the reasons why someone cheats. A cheater who cheats because he feels compelled to seek out or maintain multiple romantic, loving relationships quite possibly can make the leap to polyamory, if he can learn honesty and unlearn the structures of monogamy, and if he can learn to treat his partners with compassion and respect. The advantage that cheating offers that polyamory does not is that you do not have to consider the feelings of your partner when you cheat. In a poly relationship, there may be circumstances where you don’t get what you want.
Making the transition from cheating to polyamory requires a lot of work. You have to deconstruct the ideas you were raised to believe and build a new set of structures that allows you to have outside relationships while still preserving honesty and trust—and you have to do this from a foundation of broken trust to begin with. All in all, it’s not the easiest way to construct a polyamorous relationship.
Can it be done? Sure, provided all the people involved—including the partner who was cheated on—choose to make it work, and are willing to invest the effort it will take to do so. Is it easy? No.
You keep talking about “negotiated boundaries.” What does that mean?
Put most simply, it means that you have a say in what your lover does, even if your lover wants other partners. Being poly does not mean that your lover gets to run around having sex with all kinds of other people.
You have a say. If you are to survive as a monogamous person in a non-monogamous relationship, it’s very important both for the health of the relationship and for your own psychological well-being that you feel empowered in that relationship. You can and do have a voice in your partner’s behavior; you can and should have a say in the form your relationship takes.
Talk to your partner! Make your concerns known. You are being asked to compromise some elements of what you want from a relationship; there is no reason why that compromise has to be one-sided. Whatever the specifics of the agreement you may establish, the important aspect is that you have created a framework with your partner that helps establish your place in your partner’s life, in a way that gives both of you what you need.
Many people in the poly community will tell you that love is infinite—if you love someone else, you do not love your first partner any less.
Love may be infinite, at least in theory, but time and resources are not.
This is a “gotcha” that can get even well-meaning people who are experienced with non-monogamous relationships.
It’s true that sharing your love with one person does not mean that there is less love available for you—but it does mean that there is less time available for you. For that reason, learning yourself well enough to know exactly what it is you need from your relationship—how much time, how much attention—and learning how to communicate your needs clearly and unambiguously to your partner are two of the most important relationship skills you can have in a polyamorous relationship, especially if you are monogamous by nature.
So once I know what I need, and my partner knows what he or she needs, we’re set, right?
Well…no. You’re partway there, but there’s one more key part of the equation that is easy to overlook: you have to consider the needs of the other people involved, as well.
It’s easy to think of your partner’s other partners as your adversaries, people who compete with you for time and energy from your partner. This impulse, as natural and understandable as it may be, is very likely to muck things up but good.
Your happiness, and the happiness of your partner and your partner’s other partners, are all interrelated. Establishing a healthy friendship with your partner’s other partners is a key component to being happy yourself. If you allow your relationship with your partner’s other partners to become adversarial, you’re most likely to hurt yourself, and to hurt them. It is possible to maintain a healthy set of relationships if you don’t like your lover’s other lovers, but it’s much more difficult—and even if you can’t make friends with them, it is still necessary to treat them with respect.
Your partner’s partners are human beings, too. They have feelings, and they deserve to be treated with compassion and respect.
More to the point, they can enrich your life. Even if you do not establish any kind of romantic relationship with your partner’s partners, they clearly have something to offer to your partner; these relationships have the potential to make your partner happy, and by extension, to make you happy. When your partner is happy, your relationship with your partner benefits.
The one lesson here that I think is more important than any other is this: the best way to make a mono/poly relationship work is to find a way to make it work FOR YOU.
No, I don’t mean going out and finding another partner yourself. I mean finding a way to be happy in a polyamorous relationship, and discovering ways to build healthy, positive connections between yourself and your partner’s other partners. This doesn’t mean romantic relationships, but simply any kind of relationship that is positive and brings you happiness. The more successfully you do this, the more successful and happy your relationship with your partner will be, and the fewer stresses and strains you’ll encounter. Don’t assume that the relationship between you and your partner’s other partner must be adversarial!
The second most important lesson here: don’t break your lover’s heart. If you break your lover’s heart, you can reasonably expect it to have consequences; and one way to do that is to agree to a situation that allows your lover to become emotionally intimate with another person, then hurt that person or (worse yet) order, beg, or manipulate your lover into withdrawing from that person. Kindness, compassion, and respect—even toward your lover’s other partner, even if you’re feeling jealous or angry or insecure or frightened—will help prevent this from happening, and are positive and beneficial parts of any relationship.
Make no mistake about it: poly/mono relationships are challenging. Ultimately, everybody has limits, which, if crossed, make it impossible for that person to be happy. Many people in the poly community advise others to steer clear of a monogamous partner. Having a partner whose fundamental wants and needs from a relationship differ from yours is extremely painful—not only to you and to that person, but to anyone else who becomes involved with you as well. Poly/mono couplings are a very common form of polyamorous relationship, but they are also very difficult.
Love, of and by itself, is not necessarily enough. Love does not always triumph over all. There may be many reasons that a relationship simply cannot work, in spite of how much the people involved love one another. Everyone has limits of some kind: no matter how much you may love someone, there are things that can make you leave the relationship.
You cannot be anyone other than who you are; to thine own self be true. Ultimately, you do have to honor your own beliefs. And when it comes to crossing your own non-negotiable boundaries, you do not have a choice. You cannot be happy if your non-negotiable needs are not met. The question is not “Is it fair that my partner must have other partners,” the question is “Is my need to be monogamous a non-negotiable prerequisite for my own happiness?” If you are debating whether or not you can exist in a polyamorous relationship, that will tell you the answer. If you are not happy in your relationship, you’re not going to make your partner happy.