One thing I have noticed about non-monogamy is that it can often be used as a way to excuse poor behaviour and/or avoid conflict and issues in a relationship. This is something I am exploring in my new novels, a pair of books about relationships, family, sex and work.
I also notice that some people think that, because they are sexually open, they can sidestep certain issues. Unfortunately, there is no relationship framework that will save you from discomfort, or from change.
This article is a look at some of the ways in which non-monogamy can be ‘used’ unhelpfully.
1. Allowing the fact that you have multiple relationships to let you not deal with problems in one of them.
All relationships need to be able to stand up on their own most of the time, regardless of what form they take. Is each of your connections stable and/or growing, sustainable and consciously negotiated and discussed? It is important to make sure you have conscious and clear agreements with all the people you are relating to and that the agreements are reviewed at regular points.
Or perhaps you are hoping someone will drift away… I met someone last year who said that they had opened their relationship up in the hope that the other would meet someone new and therefore leave. Yes, my jaw dropped too. Opening things up should not be used as a way of sliding out of a relationship without a conversation. That is a crappy way to behave no matter what.
2. Thinking you have to tell your partner every tiny thing.
When we start communicating more, there is a risk that we communicate about too much too often. Not every momentary feeling or twinge of dissatisfaction or desire needs to be communicated. Yes, of course it is important to discuss your feelings, but it is also important to get in the habit of compassionately yet critically assessing which feelings are yours and which can be let go of without being analysed or discussed.
Concepts like radical honesty can be unhelpful, as they frame having any private thoughts or feelings as withholding. It is perfectly okay to keep things to yourself within the boundaries of your agreements, and it is perfectly okay to discuss and make changes to these agreements.
3. Treating ‘casual’ connections disrespectfully.
It is important that all and any connections are treated with respect. It can be too easy to think ‘Well, this is not a relationship’ and therefore to cast aside the fact that the other person is still a human being and deserves to be treated with care.
I have a friend I met at a play event whom I currently see once a month or so and who could, I guess, be called a friend with benefits or a play partner. But even this ‘FWB’-style set-up is a conscious one – we agreed that we would to check in with each other a few times a week and we also agreed on how often we would be likely to meet. When we meet, we chat and then we have really great sex. We say thank you to each other, we acknowledge how good it feels and talk about what we might like to do next, we have a cuddle and say bye… We consciously make plans to explore together and we very much enjoy the focus on mutual exploration within a relaxed, expectation free set-up.
I like that we check in and that I am in the habit of making sure that even what might be a ‘casual’ thing is fully seen and taken care of, and I think it is an important thing to do.
4. Thinking that sexual freedom means your relationship will be a permanent feature.
All too often I see people who have reduced the limitations of monogamy to just the issue of sexual freedom. The absence of sexual freedom may be part of the issue with monogamous relationships but mostly it is lack of communication, lack of honesty about feelings, unbalanced emotional labour loads, unexpressed or misguided ideas around expectations as well as a lack of awareness of one’s own emotional habits and patterns. All too often, even non-monogamous people are making many of the same mistakes, and this is because not making them is almost impossible to some degree…
All relationships can be hard, regardless of the framework. Having a clearer and more open dialogue around sex makes some people think they can avoid going as deep as they should into the bigger stuff around emotional needs and expectations, or perhaps they are yet to learn that they even need to. It is hard to say and even harder to hear, but being sexually open will not save you from heartache, loss or changed feelings (yours or theirs). There is no relationship framework that guarantees an absence of pain and loss.
5. Thinking that you can ‘transition’ with no pain.
Unfortunately, the likelihood that both you and/or partner(s) feels exactly the same about the preferred nature and form of your relationship at exactly the same time is fairly low. There will be pain and discomfort in any transition, whichever way that goes… Being aware of that will always help when change invariably comes your way. I have written some more about managing change here.
6. Thinking that because you are talking a lot, you have no need for help.
Effective external support makes a difference. This can be professional support, but can also be the confidential support of an objective and emotionally aware third party.
My former husband and I sought support when we were having the same conversation over and over, as did I and my current partner. A third person can help you see things differently, can offer solutions to manage and negotiate change and differences. Acknowledging that you may have to seek help to develop the advanced skills that conscious relationships involve is a good thing to do. Seeking support is a sign of strength and awareness. Pink Therapy is a good place to find therapists who understand non-monogamous relationships.
7. Thinking that poly is the problem, and not the incompatibility of the individuals.
It can be easy to get caught up with seeing the framework as the problem when it might actually be that you and the other(s) are just not suited to each other. It is important to take a step back and assess whether you and the other person share enough interests and values outside of non-monogamy to make a relationship sustainable. Of course, if you have an agreement that the relationship looks a certain way or only involves certain activities, that’s fine, but what I am drawing attention to here is an underlying fear. The fear of scarcity that makes people think: there are so few people who will accept my non-monogamy that I have to take what comes.
I understand the fear: the scarcity mentality is an inbuilt and/or learned one for many of us, but this is also clearly not a strong foundation for any authentic connection. This type of scarcity mentality can drive people to stay in relationships that would not have survived more than a few weeks if they were monogamous ones and almost always causes pain as well as falsely attributing problems to ‘non-monogamy’ rather than the incompatibility of the individuals involved.
8. Using non-monogamy as a way of hoping the ‘other’ will meet someone else so you do not have to ‘break up’ .
The worst type of behaviour – which is why I mention it twice in this article.
Embracing a different relationship framework can be challenging and, for most people, there can be a lot of learnt and/ or unconscious communication and relationship habits that are often brought to the forefront by stepping off the standard path. Our assumptions, our ideas about what certain words and behaviours mean, as well as our own responses to situations, need to be carefully and critically assessed and reviewed to ensure that we are best serving ourselves and all those with whom we are in relationships.