Navigating non-monogamy
November 17, 2017 11:50 PM   Subscribe

I am dipping my toe into the waters of non-monogamy and looking for a little guidance.

I am coming out the other side of a 20 year relationship/marriage that was not the best. My husband decided to deal with our problems by having an emotional affair. We have two teenaged boys, one with significant special needs and are currently trying to negotiate a living situation that will not break us financially but will allow for co-parenting that will benefit everyone involved. This may involve us moving back in together, I don't know yet, we don't know yet.

My husband has an avoidant personality type - he prefers intimacy at a distance to some degree, and I believe is pursuing other online relationships in addition to the original affair which he never gave up. He was never big on leaving the house with me or the kids, and I sublimated my own desire for companionship and experience in deference to his preferences for years, mainly out of guilt earned through not understanding that he truly dislikes social contact unless pursued on his own terms. He is also utterly joyless. I suspect dysthymia.

We've been separated for three months, and one night a friend of mine encouraged me to fill out a dating profile just for laughs and somehow, lo and behold, two weeks later I have met a man that not only seems like he was built in a lab just for me but has given me complete and utter clarity about how shitty my marriage was for so very long. He is non-monogamous and unpartnered.

I have long wished for an activity partner in all senses of the word, and now I have found one. I am not looking for a new baby daddy (they already have a father) nor am I seeking domestic bliss with someone else. I want to be able to leave my complicated household and have something just for me, and that's all I want for the foreseeable future.

My reactions keep surprising me - my husband would activate all my anxious behavior but with this man, I am okay with him seeing other women. He has a date for brunch on Sunday and mainly the only feelings I have about it is that I like brunch and wish I was having some with someone, not even necessarily him. I hope he has a good time. He's been very open about everything with me, which is like a breath of fresh air considering what I've been through.

I realize this is making a complicated situation more complicated, I am in therapy and not avoiding the issues here. What I'm looking for is some advice on how to navigate a first time non-monogamous relationship. I'm interested in any guidance on setting boundaries, or if any of you have an anxious attachment style (me in a nutshell though therapy is helping) and are involved in this kind of relationship. Considering my complicated home life I am hoping that this will be a way to get my needs met companionship-wise for the future.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is the best book on the subject, in my opinion, and should help answer your questions.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 3:40 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I strongly endorse WfPI's book recommendation - it describes the many forms non-monogamous relationships can take, and gives the perspectives of individuals involved in those various kinds of relationships.

I think it is important to realize that an individual non-monogamous relationship can not work out, but that doesn't necessarily mean non-monogamy isn't for you. AND that some kinds of non-monogamy can work for you, but others might not. For example, I do well in casual non-monogamous relationships where both parties are seeing a variety of other people. I do less well as a secondary partner with a couple when I don't have my own primary partner. The inherent power differential between me as secondary and the couple is too upsetting for me. I also find that as I get more attached to someone non-monogamy sits less well with me, especially if I feel like I'm not getting what I want or need from that person already.

In your specific situation, this could be quite a good setup. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think having a low-stakes, "rebound" relationship following a not-great long-term relationship is important. It helps with sexual and social confidence and self-knowledge, and seeing oneself as an individual rather than part of the troubled pair. Non-monogamy gives you the opportunity to experience that without latent expectations of progression on the relationship escalator.

Another thing to consider is that you don't have to label yourself as "non-monogamous" as you look to meet additional people (you are going to meet additional people, right?). You just got out of a long relationship, and it is super normal to be just dating around for a while. Sometimes affixing the "non-monogamous" label to oneself can limit your dating pool, and I don't see a reason for you to do that at the outset (it would be different if you knew you were never going to be interested in a monogamous relationship, but I'm not sure you're there).
posted by jeoc at 7:35 AM on November 18, 2017 [12 favorites]

It sounds like you're in a position where reading could really help clarify/cement certain things for you. I'd recommend More Than Two, which I've found to be more comprehensive than things like Opening Up or Ethical Slut. Just remember that as in monogamy, there's a lot of dogma to be found within thinking on non-monogamy.

I'm sorry to hear about your ex's behavior, and I agree with jeoc that having a low-stakes "rebound" can be helpful. Non-monogamy sounds like a useful choice in this situation.
posted by lilies.lilies at 12:25 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I second More Than Two. It’s extremely thoughtful and comprehensive. Reading it and thinking through the questions posed inside will help you figure out what your boundaries are, how to adjust them when needed, and how to set and enforce them kindly and firmly.
posted by culfinglin at 1:48 PM on November 18, 2017

Well, this is how I run my relationships. Constant talking. About everything!

I look for poly dates who I can discuss anything with, no matter how hard, weird or uncomfortable. I expect that when we run into boundaries — new or known — about behavior, communication styles, sex, whatever — we volunteer them at the earliest convenience. That way we can find a good compromise for everyone's comfort! Or if you need time to process solo, before we talk, I expect you to say that! Leave no one in the dark. You should never find yourself guessing what he's thinking or vice versa. That's a recipe for jealousy, insecurity and crazy-making. Even if bad things are coming down the rails, I'd rather know ASAP so I have time to adjust to my new shocking reality. Or divert the damn train!

It's constant practice, and it's hard but really rewarding. I work on reading my emotional states on the fly, knowing what I want and asking for it, dealing with answers I don't like, GIVING hard answers like NO or LATER or THAT CAN'T HAPPEN SO LONG AS THIS CASE IS TRUE, and, when I inevitably misstep or fuck up, making amends and offering real apologies that aren't about me. Having reasonable expectations. Balancing different kinds of labor. Tweaking, adjusting.

For me, I like to know lots of detail and hear all the stories about my metamours. But some folks don't want to know or share anything! Or their dates have sharp bounds on what's free game. (I don't see folks who tend this way, it's too much of an emotional stretch for me.) You'll have to find your own balance. I know that my head fills with "what-ifs" in the absence of information, so hearing about Sunday brunch and new dates and laughing with my partners about their latest sexual foibles, sharing real talk and sadness and all of it, is heartening. I feel more trust, knowing that I can be a safe keeper of so many intimacies, and that my words are held in stead too.

As far as interacting with dates' dates... I meet long term partners when I can, but I don't always bother getting to know short-term flings. Though I ask for the 411! If there's mutual like, we all hang out. Some of my metamours have even developed into good friends! The ones I don't like, well, I still ask about them and keep up with news. I offer help or advice when it's important. Mainly we just keep our lives separate except when our partner-in-common wants to see us all at once, like special occasions or emergencies. Reign politely like a queen!

I always consider each set of relationships as it's own thing. For example, I was in a triad a couple years back, let's call us A, B and C. That's seven ships total: our relationships with ourselves; all three of us together; then A & B, B & C, and C & A. Each dynamic is its own garden to be tended!

The biggest imbalances I've seen in poly ships, besides the usual woes, come from:

+ Assuming the relationship escalator is still in play and jumping on it...
+ Rushing to integrate new partners faster than anyone is comfortable with.
+ Neglecting an existing date cuz you're lost in the limerence, great sex and New Relationship Energy (NRE) of a spankin' new crush.
+ Treating new dates as if their needs and desires are less important than the needs and desires of established partners. This is common when a married couple opens up for the first time and brings in a third. They set a million strict rules like "You can have all the sex you want, just don't fall in love!" or "You can only see him on Thursdays and Sundays, but the rest of the week is mine," or "You can't call her baby, that's just for me." And it is important to feel special and have private things and enforce good, comforting, enriching limits! But all these petty rules serve one master, fear. The fear of being rejected or abandoned. And the truth is the heart feels what it feels, and you can't set limits on feelings. Love happens and conflict happens and unicorns almost never happen, and you have to deal with it. Being more established doesn't mean you get to set the rules! Each person gets equal say, unless you all deliberately consent to a different power dynamic. Even then the power to revoke or change is, ultimately, anybody's at any time.
+ Tricky scheduling. Shared calendars help.
+ Young children are involved. If this is the case I see Momma discreetly for a long-ass time before making introductions. I don't want to mess with anyone's home stability.

My only hard, hard line is being absolutely clear and precise about fluid bonding and other sexual practices that could put my health at risk. I see it as, "You're free to do whatever you want, but if you go down on someone without protection we're going back to gloves and condoms, because I can't afford any infections." That means another three to six months of STI panels before I okay a new fluid-bonding clearance. (FYI, no health-shaming here! You get to decide your own level of risk! I happily play with folks who have STIs. I just prefer to know what's what so I can decide for myself how I want to play. In blackout mode, aka unknown status, I default to full protections which for me means no oral or penetration without a barrier, and no genital grinding due to HSV/HPV transmission.) Whatever you decide, talk about it in advance, because unspoken sexual expectations lead to much heartbreak and sometimes bodily harm if they're violated.

For example: I've had several dates engage in sexual encounters I consider quite risky. One was up front about her predilection for wild times. We negotiated in advance. I kept her around! Another date had a fling that violated our existing fluid bond. She initiated a serious talk right away, before we had sex again, and even though I was disappointed we worked out a new arrangement. In the future she was careful to make promises she wanted to keep. Then there are the other two dates who violated our fluid bonds. One didn't tell me she had risky sex until several weeks later, after we had already slept together multiple times! The other told me right away but whined when I insisted on new protections. I dumped those immature jerks. Why be shady when you can have almost anything you want, if only you're up front?

I'm what lit nerds call "solo poly" so I don't do relationship hierarchies. Whether I see you every day or just once a year, all my dates occupy meaningful spaces in my life. I don't ever want to be second string or have a date feel like second fiddle. However, that doesn't mean everyone has the same privileges or access to me! To each and from each, according to our different needs, desires and abilities.
posted by fritillary at 9:49 PM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

More Than Two is also a website and a fairly painless way of dipping your toe in the water. After leaving a long marriage, I realized that I just wasn't interested in monogamy any more. Some folks are absolutely wired for that; some aren't; some, like me, can go either way. Best of luck in your adventures.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:12 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

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