Committing to a monogamous relationship when previously polyamorous
March 24, 2014 9:13 AM   Subscribe

If you were previously polyamorous and committed to a monogamous relationship: how did you do it? How did you deal with those feelings that monogamy just didn't felt quite right? Were you able to replace the need outside relationships fulfilled with something else?

My spouse and I have been together for 13 years, married for 8. We dated young (20) and have been living together since then. I had a handful of relationships before we started dating, but my husband only had one.

From a teenager, I felt I was polyamorous. I wasn't exposed to the concept as a kid, and didn't quite know what I was feeling, but I knew that I felt capable and wanted to love/have serious relationships with more than once person at a time. I didn't have the vocabulary to parse this, so I cheated in my earlier, younger relationships, which (of course) caused a lot of heartache and drama. I didn't like the feeling of cheating, and, even more, I hated the deceit and how it hurt my partners. I felt absolutely ashamed.

When my spouse and I started dating, I shared my feelings and he thought we should try a polyamorous relationship. Again, however, we were young, didn't know what we were doing and absolutely didn't communicate well or set boundaries. What happened is that I had a few relationships outside of the marriage and he had none. Each relationship made him more uncomfortable, and I started hiding details until, about 6 years ago, when I again start outright cheating and he caught me.

I was devastated and felt terrible for hurting him. We broke up. In the interim, I went to therapy, educated myself about polyamory, and my spouse and I got back together. We went to couples' counseling where he revealed that he had also done his own soul searching and knew he was monogamous. This was a dealbreaker for him. I told him I would commit to him and a monogamous relationship because I loved him and couldn't imagine life without him.

For the past six years, we've been living as a monogamous couple. Our relationship, beyond this issue, isn't even close to perfect, but it's a supportive, stable, safe place where we raise our pets (no kids), can still talk through the night, and are each other's rocks. It is not a particularly passionate relationship (though it was very passionate for the first few years), but this is something we both want to work on in counseling. The lack of passion, admittedly, is on my side. I find him extremely attractive, but my sexuality from a young age, as mentioned, has been tied up in "newness" and seems to fade in older relationships - another topic I'm exploring in therapy.

However, I can't tamp down the nagging feeling that I'll want a relationship outside of the marriage. There have been a few close calls, but I've removed myself from the situations, which has felt good because I'm honoring my marriage and being loyal to my husband, but strange because it feels most natural for me to have several relationships at once.

My question, if you can believe it, isn't how do I convince my husband that we should try polyamory again (he knows he doesn't want this and won't), or how do I leave him to live a polyamorous lifestyle. I want to stay with my husband. I want to stay with our life. The life we've built is vital and important to me, and I want our marriage to work and get better and stronger.

I struggle with feelings that I'm missing out on a part of life that brings me a lot of joy and happiness, but I also know that without my marriage, I would be missing out on a different from of joy and happiness that's longer-term and more rewarding in the end. I imagine I'll always have these feelings, but I want to get to a place where my marriage outweighs what I perceive as a loss of polyamory. I want to continue to deepen and strengthen my marriage.

As stated in the earlier question: if you were previously polyamorous and committed to a monogamous relationship: how did you do it? How did you deal with those feelings that monogamy just didn't felt quite right? Were you able to replace the need outside relationships fulfilled with something else?

I understand this is a touchy subject, so I appreciate your answers. Understand that I've worked through my thoughts in therapy, both individual and family, and I've made the decision to stay with my husband and stay monogamous. This is what I want. I'd just like to know how to stay open and loving and true in a relationship style that isn't necessarily natural for me. Thanks, MeFi.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

My experience: like you, I have always been poly but didn’t have the words for it/ understanding that it existed as an alternative relationship type for many years. I agreed to monogamy for the sake of a man I loved very much, and while I would have preferred an open relationship in that period, monogamy wasn’t a terrible hardship either. I’m not sure if I would recommend how I did it though, or if it would even be possible in your situation since you’ve been together so long… the relative newness of our relationship in the six years we were monogamous helped me quite a bit.

That said, I did it by focusing my life very much around our relationship, with outside interests, friendships, etc. being insignificant in comparison to our time together. We focused on the life we were building together and reaching the goals we needed to pass to reach our big, long-term plan. (It helped that we were young, starting out still in college, so life was in striving mode rather than maintenance mode.) We happily did pretty much everything together.

Later, having special needs children rendered me too busy to be able to imagine outside relationships for a number of years. I don’t recommend that route, but perhaps getting really involved in something you would enjoy obsessing about (starting a business, committing to an activist organization, fostering puppies, etc.) could distract and fulfill you in a similar way. Maybe try to avoid those that put you in constant contact with people you’re likely to find attractive though. :)

Depending on how you experience friendships, etc. you may consider consciously limiting their intensity. In the long term, you might also discuss with your husband if there are any ways he might feel comfortable with you exploring sensuality and/ or intense relationships with other people.

(My then-husband eventually agreed to open our relationship, and we have since separated for other reasons. Just mentioning this so you know that I don’t know what it’s like to maintain monogamy indefinitely.)

It doesn’t sound like you’re interested in comments about the long-term feasibility of your plan, but if you’re interested in hearing a few stories from friends of mine in the poly community, feel free to message me.

Good luck!
posted by metasarah at 9:53 AM on March 24, 2014

I don't want to come off as confrontational by saying this, but if you're not sexually attracted to your husband at all and only want sex with someone new, it doesn't sound so much like you're polyamorous so much as that you have a roommate/bestie rather than a husband.

I think this is an arrangement that could theoretically work. I have had my own share of happy partnerships with people who were friends and not lovers and think it's a really underrated life arrangement.

However, I don't think it's a great recipe for monogamy. Because you're not attracted to the only person you're allowed to have sex with.

I think that, short of a mutual agreement that you guys are now more like "permanent life-pals" and not really in a relationship that comes under what we traditionally think of as "marriage", this is not really a sustainable arrangement. He pretty clearly wants to be your husband. You seem like you're pretty distinctly not looking for that, at least under the terms that our culture currently defines that relationship.

I think the only way forward with monogamy, for you, is going to be to find a way to be sexually interested in your husband.
posted by Sara C. at 10:06 AM on March 24, 2014 [11 favorites]

Mrs. Duke and I met through our local polyamory community and starting dating in that context. That said, we came at it from very different perspectives. For her it was an experiment. For me it was closer to core identity.

It was clear from the beginning that she wasn't really comfortable as poly, at least she wasn't comfortable with me having other relationships. In fairness, she didn't have other relationships either once we really started dating. This led to all sorts of drama and upsets for the first couple of years that we were together.

Ultimately I decided that I wanted to be married, I wanted to have a family, I wanted to do this with Mrs. Duke, and all of that was more important for the portrait of my life than the poly stuff was. I made the decision to be monogamous and since then I have stuck with it.

This was a compromise on my part. I'd love to be able to love other people. I still miss that. But I'm happy with what I have in my life. I could have made the other choice, but if I had I'd be missing something else. That's what choice is about.

How do I deal with this? I have a very active fantasy life. I have sex with other people in my dreams. I have the fun without the drama. And I have my real life with Mrs. Duke and little Dukes one and two. That works for me.
posted by The Grand Old Duke of York at 10:13 AM on March 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

That sounds like a really hard situation to be in, but I do think you need to think a little longer about whether this IS the best relationship for you and your husband. You can love him and still have it not be right. If you truly feel you are poly then it is simply going to be a daily denial of that desire/need in you. I don't know what you mean by "far from perfect", but if there are other problems in the relationship I'd imagine that they THIS problem (your being poly, his being monogamous) that much worse. If you are going to deny yourself something you very clearly want you'd need to feel sure that you'd be getting something as good if not BETTER out of the deal. For example, I am gluten intolerant. I am pissed off by it but I was feeling unwell every single day until I figured out that it was gluten that was making me sick. I LOVE pan rolls and licorice and english muffins, I crave them like crazy, BUT I will give up eating delicious gluteny foods if it means not feeling sick all the time. Not feeling sick is WORTH giving up those foods I enjoy so much.

I'm not sure you think your stomach aches are bad enough to make you feel okay about never getting to eat gluten again. Or in other words, I'm not sure that you are positive that your relationship is worth denying your poly needs/desires for the rest of your life.

If you aren't sure the relationship is what you want for other reasons I can't imagine that is making your motivation to stay monogamous any easier. I absolutely commend you for wanting to stay faithful to your husband and his needs. None of this can be easy. You're faced with a very hard choice, and neither choice is optimal.

Think on that a bit, maybe.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:29 AM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is useful to you, since I've never identified as polyamorous, but when I finally settled down into a long-term relationship after a decade of being single, there was absolutely a rocky adjustment period where I had an abundance of energy and restlessness that my relationship could no longer satisfy.

I missed the emotional rush of a new crush, yes, but for me, the problem was more that this huge chunk of my brain, which had previously been devoted to finding new people, and analyzing them, and figuring out what their feelings about me were, and flirting with them, and obsessing about them-it suddenly had nothing to do, and that made me really unhappy. It was like a puppy that was left at home by itself and chewed up the furniture out of antsiness and boredom. It got to the point where I was considering breaking up with a guy I really loved because I was feeling that need for a new crush so intensely.

I needed to channel that energy, and this is what I did. First, I allowed myself to have crushes. I actually told myself that I was allowed to make out, once, with someone who wasn't my boyfriend, and not tell him...but I only got one free pass. So every time I got a crush, instead of thinking OMG I don't love my boyfriend anymore, should I leave him, blah blah blah, I thought - is this crush the person, out of all the people I might have crushes on in the future, that I want to waste my "free pass" on? And immediately, the crush would start to deflate, and I realized I wasn't really into that person at all. I never used my "free pass" and I'm pretty sure I never will. Still, letting myself have crushes in a controlled manner was really helpful, because you realize how frequently they come and go, instead of idolizing someone you can't have.

Also, you know that kind of gross saying, "It doesn't matter where you get your appetite, as long as you eat at home"? For me, that's somewhat true, and it's not about fantasizing about other people, although I did allow myself to start doing that occasionally. It's that if I want to keep my sex drive up, I do need to be going out, getting dressed up, flirting a little, and feeling attractive to people other than my partner. A little bit of healthy competition - say, all of us going out for drinks with someone he thinks is attractive - spices things up for me, too. I consider myself monogamous, but I could not maintain a healthy sex life if all we ever did was sit in front of the television and eat popcorn together, and I think that's true of most people.

Eventually, I also started channeling this energy into creative projects, and that feels really good, and not like a crutch at all. Now, in retrospect, the period of my life where I spent 90% of my extra brain energy obsessing about my crushes and chasing that rush seems like as much of a "stage" as the period in my early teens when I was obsessed with movie stars. Now, that part of my brain that tends to obsess thinks obsessively about the novel I'm writing...and also, occasionally, about having kids, which is an odd sensation. Obviously, again, this is a vastly different situation than that of people for whom polyamory is a core part of their identity, but I think it's important to remember that pure monogamy doesn't come immediately and naturally to most people. There was a time in my life when, if I'd learned about polyamory, I probably would have said, ooh, that's me, but I would have been wrong. So I think you shouldn't be afraid to set aside the polyamorous label if it doesn't feel right for you anymore,and you shouldn't beat yourself up if it takes time for you to adjust to the transition. Monogamy doesn't have to be a perfect fit for it to still be the right fit for you.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:31 AM on March 24, 2014 [22 favorites]

Mod note: This is an answer from an anonymous commenter.
I've had more than one polyamorous relationship in the past, and now I'm in a different one that is monogamous and I feel 100% fine about it. Not the same as your situation, but maybe my take on it will be helpful to you.

Like you, I felt strongly that poly relationships could be a good thing for a long time before I had one. What I don't do is identify as poly. I think of both poly and monogamy as things I do and have done, not things I am. Current monogamous partner knew a little about my past relationships when we were getting together, and declared up front that for them, it was monogamy or no go, for reasons having to do with their own history. They understand that if in the future I start feeling non-ok about being with them exclusively, I'm responsible for bringing it up, and it will probably end our relationship. This is an acceptable risk for me. I don't currently have the feeling that monogamy "just doesn't seem right" like you mention, and I think there are a few reasons for that: my history's not a secret from my partner; they think poly relationships are fine for other people and genuinely don't judge me for having had them; I don't feel a bunch of shame about it so I'm ok talking about my history/desires if I have to; and we've chosen monogamy intentionally, not just by default.

I think Sara C. is correct in that the hardest part of your problem is having your sexuality tied up in novelty. I've never dealt with that myself -- but I do know how malleable sexuality can be, so I don't think it's an intractable problem. Taking it to therapy seems like a really good plan.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:33 AM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Via WebMD: 10 Ways to Make Your Relationship More Thrilling. If you are a thrill-seeker and thrive on novelty, this might help you spice up your relationship a bit without having to seek sex elsewhere.

And counseling is a good idea if your desire for novelty is caused by a fear of commitment or intimacy (or something else).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:58 AM on March 24, 2014

Like the anonymous commenter, poly and monogamy are things I do, not what I am. Currently non-mono with a boyfriend of 3 years, so I come at this from an empathetic point of view.

What have you done to seek novelty in your life right now? Both non-sexually outside your marriage (getting involved in new groups and hobbies), and in the bedroom.

I'm sure you're working on this in therapy, but by identifying what (specifically) you're missing from an outside relationship can help you find other sources for it.

Just last night, while my boyfriend was in the other room chatting with someone he met at a recent party, I was in the bedroom feeling upset. It would've been easy to read that upsetness as jealousy ("HE's talking to HER and not ME") and cast it into a light of how I can't do polyamory, but the more I broke down that feeling, I came to realize that I was feeling lonely and isolated in a way that has very little to do with our relationship style. I, me, personally, felt disconnected from my friends (for legitimate reasons that are not relevant to this story). So instead of running to a dating website, I opened up Facebook and reached out to a friend who was online. During downtimes in that conversation, I thought about other actions I could take to feel less isolated in the coming week.

Are you able to communicate with your husband about your non-monogamous feelings in a neutral way? Can you have a matter-of-fact chat with him about your desires without it turning into an emotionally charged discussion?

In your situation, I'd want to be able to say "I miss X" and have my partner make sympathetic noises, not judge me, and maybe offer a way to feel X without violating the boundaries of our relationship.
posted by itesser at 11:07 AM on March 24, 2014

P.S: as others have mentioned, developing a passion or passions in non-sexual areas of your life will probably help to take the burden off your marriage in terms of providing excitement and novelty. It won't help if you are not attracted at all to your husband, but if you are attracted to him and love him, and want to stay monogamous, you don't want to put all the onus of having an exciting life onto your marriage. A non-sexual passion of some kind - cooking, political activism, dancing, what have you - will do much to provide fulfillment and purpose.

Putting all your emotional/passion eggs into one single basket of a relationship is not good for that relationship, even if you are passionately attracted to one another. I have known people who seek out multiple relationships (not always polyamory, it also involved playing the dating field as well) because they don't have much going on in other parts of their lives. Their jobs were "meh" at best, toxic or non-existent at worst, and they didn't have much in the way of hobbies or interests. So they went out and pursued sexual relationships, because they didn't know how to create passion or excitement any other way.

I am not saying this is you, but I think it's a good idea to look at your "life wheel" and see if you are missing something in any area and if you can find passion from a hobby, a cause, friendships or family.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:07 AM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

As someone who is poly and has been with the same partner for 20 years, I think the thing about getting more sexual charge from being with new partners isn't a poly thing, it's a human nature thing. Many, most, maybe all people in LTRs struggle with this and I think a big part of growing mature intimacy is figuring out how to navigate this.

Check out David Scharch's book Intimacy and Desire--I think it could be really illuminating.
posted by Sublimity at 12:14 PM on March 24, 2014

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