You say toMAYto, I say toMAHto...
March 6, 2008 10:13 PM   Subscribe

So... if one person wants a monogamous relationship, and the other a more open one, there's some sort of easy solution to this... right? Anyone?

Yes, relationshipfilter.

We're at our wits end trying to figure out how to make our relationship work, and we're out of ideas. Here's hoping someone out there has a solution or two.


Him: 38 year old hetero male. Has been in several (not tons and tons, just several) previous relationships. Prefers relationships that are somewhere between open and poly – i.e. its agreed upon at the beginning that he will continue to have sexual relations with a few friends that he has had sex with off and on for years.

Her: 37 year old hetero female. Has been in two previous relationships since age 18. One of about two-three years. The other of ten years. Both monogamous.

They have been friends for a long time - many years before they started dating.

Almost six years ago, they were both single, and started hanging out together quite a bit.

As happens, they started sleeping together.

He was very clear – no strings, no monogamy.

She agreed. She was at a point in her life where she didn't think a long-term monogamous relationship was what she wanted either.

Time moved on.

She moved in.

Almost a year passed, and they've been living together really well. He goes on a trip. Sleeps with an old friend. Tells her. She's devastated.

He's confused. He has only been acting as agreed.

She agrees that she's changed the rules, and isn't being fair. She does her best to get over it.

And for the first time they realize they have a problem. However, they love each other very much and don't want to break up. So they agree to talk about it later.

Much later.

Four more years pass. The friendship is tight. Its not possible to imagine roommates that could live together better. But there's still the large, pink elephant in the corner.

Previous attempts at discussing the "issue" fizzle into repeated "what are we going to do?" "I don't know."

During this time, they have lived monogamously. She is aware that this is not fair to him. Nor does she want to force/trap him into a monogamous relationship.

He doesn't want to change her either.

So –

She wants to be in a monogamous relationship.

He wants to be in a more open relationship.

They desperately want to stay together, but don't want to force the other into a relationship style the other can't live with for 10-50 years. And yes, she's very aware that this has defaulted to a monogamous relationship. She does not consider this a "win."

If necessary, they have decided that if there is no other solution, they will end the "romantic" part of their relationship and be housemates as long as possible, understanding that there may be weirdness when one or the other starts dating other people. Or there may not be. But they'd rather not go there if possible.

Does anyone have any solutions / ideas we can try?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (66 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

I was in a similar situation (though without quite the same level of previous experience on both our parts) two years ago. What ended up happening is that the party interested in a more open relationship was presented with the option of having a monogamous relationship or not having one.

That person chose to acquiesce.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:22 PM on March 6, 2008 [8 favorites]

She should move out, find someone else who wants to be monogamous, because she will never be happy in this situation.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:22 PM on March 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

People have dealbreakers. Each person has to decide if what they want is a dealbreaker. It is fair that people have changed, or not changed as time is going on. If one finds they have a dealbreaker, they have to let the other person know and that person has to decide if letting go of their desires is worth the relationship.

*Note that one party's living monogamously while maintaining the idea that an open relationship is going on might be acting less on a desire for other people and more on a fear of being trapped situation and addressing said fear by the other partner in counseling might be a good idea.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:23 PM on March 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

He should move out, find someone else who wants to be polyamorous, because he will never be happy in this situation.

In other words, no, this won't work. This is a deal breaker unless one person is willing to give-in.
posted by BigVACub at 10:26 PM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

He's clear that he won't give up his sleeping around, and you're not okay with him doing that while you're together. If neither of you will change for the other, then the relationship is doomed.

It would probably be wise to end the relationship, and get a new roomate, to remove yourself from a dysfunctional situation that will ultimately leave you heartbroken. Better to make a clean break now, than to drag the inevitable on for many years. (years that you could be happy with someone you're compatible with).

This clearly isn't what you wanted to hear, but I think on some level, you know this already.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:27 PM on March 6, 2008

This is a no-win situation, sadly. Unless he realizes that being a man-whore is, generally speaking, not a good idea (legal, political, ethical, moral, religious - pick a reason). Or unless she decides that an "open" relationship is suddenly cool and is OK with him getting his rocks off with strangers and possibly bringing home diseases.

Look, the point of the sexual aspect of a relationship is that it is intimate. It is private. It is between the two of you, exclusively. You share every other part of your life with so many other people -- work, school, play, dining, sports, etc -- that the sex/romance part is supposed to be the one sacred "just us" thing.

And unless/until both of you understand that, I just don't see how this can possibly work.

Based on the limited information given in the question, it sounds like the boy & girl are ideal for each other and make each happy in just about every way. My final answer: boy needs to grow up, quit dicking around, and get serious with someone who, by all accounts, loves him and he feels the same.

Good luck. Hope you two can figure this out and be happy.
posted by davidmsc at 10:29 PM on March 6, 2008 [22 favorites]

I don't have an answer, sadly. If I did my romantic life would have played out much differently over the last 12 years.

I have *never* seen this work. And I've seen it at least a dozen times in person and hear tale of it at least 5x that amount. I recommend ending the romance and finding separate living situation because if you both care about one another that much it's likely to get much worse emotionally before it gets better.

If, on the other hand, you are both fool hardy enough to think that you can work this out (and more power to ya if you do!) - my only suggestion would be the following rules:

1. NEVER in the shared home.
2. Only while not in the same state.
3. No discussion of it.
4. The moment *feelings* enter into a sexual relationship, other than the one you share, your relationship needs to change/end.

Best of luck to you both and congrats on being as aware as you are.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:30 PM on March 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

These two people want different things. That is clear. The real question is, do they want each other more than they want those different things?

And it sounds like the answer is a pretty definite No.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:34 PM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

No monogamous woman should settle for being treated like a poly.
posted by johngoren at 10:41 PM on March 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

Oh, btw, I totally did NOT mean to imply that polyamory is "evil" and/or that monogamy is "good." Sigh, that's what I get for paraphrasing Ayn Rand :(
posted by 1 at 10:42 PM on March 6, 2008

Unless he realizes that being a man-whore is, generally speaking, not a good idea (legal, political, ethical, moral, religious - pick a reason).

Oh, Christ, please don't do this, if for no other reason (and there are many) than that you are talking about someone the poster obviously loves, and who seems to love and respect her (he's been monogamous for the last four years). The poster didn't come here for your judgmental shit.


I don't know if there's a way around this - it is something of an impasse. But given what seems to be the difficulty you both have in communicating about this issue, I'm going to vote for GYTCT,A (get yourselves to couples' therapy, already).

Good luck.
posted by rtha at 10:44 PM on March 6, 2008 [10 favorites]

1- for the record, I was convinced that this post was written by the woman, who has worked *very hard* to be OK with the guy's sincerely-felt desires because she loves him.

Also, it sounds like he's only, in the past, been intimate with "a few friends that he has had sex with off and on for years", no whomever he picks up.

I'm still not sure this could work, really, but it's not as bad as it could be.
posted by amtho at 10:52 PM on March 6, 2008

I think trying out a pre-emptive platonic partership between the two of you would be a valuable experiment. You sound like you want to be able to transition into just friends. Try it out, see how it feels, for an small amount of time, oh, say approximately six times the length of time you'd usually pass between sexual encounters. Test your relationship in other ways than pushing the boundaries of monogamy. Kick the tires.

And fuck that guy who's just evangelizing that poly love is not real love.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:59 PM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ah, you know amtho, now I think you're right. Or it was some sort of collaborative effort. My one point that remains is that neither party should feel that this is somehow unfair. It is what it is, and it's either acceptable to both parties or it's not. There's nothing that can really be "done" about it.
posted by 1 at 11:00 PM on March 6, 2008

(I, too, am totally convinced this was written by the woman.)

This isn't about anyone being selfish, unfair, or a "man-whore". He's polyamorous, she's monogamous. Those don't seem to be fluid categories. You've each had six years to adjust your relationship expectations, and it seems like the woman is more and more convinced that an open relationship is not for her, and he feels the same way about monogamy. Like you said, staying together would force one of you to feel unfulfilled for an indefinite period of time.

The two of you have spent the last four years skirting the issue because you both know there's no mutually satisfying conclusion that involves you staying together. You could continue to be housemates, but I imagine that would still be very hurtful and unfulfilling for the woman.
posted by arianell at 11:14 PM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing the "no, this can't work."

(Of course, monogamy seldom works either.)
posted by rokusan at 11:18 PM on March 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

rokusan is right. Nothing "works", it just makes it to the next day. Repeat ad mortum.
posted by telstar at 11:37 PM on March 6, 2008 [7 favorites]

A dealbreaker is a dealbreaker.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 11:45 PM on March 6, 2008

He was very clear – no strings, no monogamy.

"No strings" to me suggests that neither he nor she is under any obligation to stay in the relationship, which means it's quite fair for her to end the relationship - for any reason that she sees fit. At which point she can offer him a monogamous one in its place.

This doesn't help the heartache or the heart of the problem. But my point is that she isn't a flake or the bad guy, breaking or unilaterally changing the rules. The rules they both agreed on give her the right to decide that it's no-longer working for her, and to freely do everything up to and including the nuclear options. So she should stop letting guilt and misguided duty affect her judgement and actions, and focus on weighing the possible outcomes of her options.

Personally, I don't think the strings-or-nothing ultimatum is out of line, especially because now, unlike then, he is in an educated position to decide whether the strings of a regular relationship is worth it to him for this woman. She can decide likewise if monogamy is worth the risk of losing him. In his shoes, I'd be royally pissed off. In her shoes, I wouldn't accept any suggestion that I was going back on things or that I was the cause of the problem.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:23 AM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Dealbreaker, I think.
posted by BeaverTerror at 12:24 AM on March 7, 2008

I'm so sorry, but I can't imagine any scenario in which this will work. She can pretend all she wants that she's ok with his polyamory, but it won't last forever. Eventually, she will realize that there are some things she can't accept just to stay with him and it will end.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:34 AM on March 7, 2008

Yes there is no magic compromise solution to be found here, because monogamy and polygamy are essentially opposites. There's no middle ground where you can say "monogamy is what I need, but I'm willing to compromise and let you sleep with two or three other people, but not 10". I mean, if you can say, that's cool and would solve your problem, but that's not monogamy.

So the question is, has been stated, do either of you love the other person ENOUGH to give them what they want? Can he imagine giving up other partners for the sake of his love with her? Can she imagine giving up her exclusive relationship with him for the sake of her love with him?

Someone has to blink. If neither of you are willing to give up what it is that you have said you want, then this truly is a "dealbreaker", and you should get out now.

Oh, and please, PLEASE don't try and live on as roommates if you decide to breakup. That can only end very, very badly for all parties concerned, and would sure result in the end of an obviously valuable friendship.

Good luck.
posted by modernnomad at 1:25 AM on March 7, 2008

With as much history the two of you have, giving up on each other does not seem to be the best solution. The best way to allow him sexual freedom and her peace of mind may be establishing rules similar to the ones suggested by FlamingBore. Best of luck.
posted by andythebean at 1:26 AM on March 7, 2008

"He should move out, find someone else who wants to be polyamorous, because he will never be happy in this situation."

I think poly/mono pairings are much more -EV for the mono than for the poly. The poly person can screw around with others as he/she pleases, either because the mono person "agreed" to it in the beginning and thus the mono's emotional anguish is the mono's "fault", or because the poly person feels "morally" justified in cheating because they think being poly is more "natural" and the mono person should be more "enlightened". Also, the mono person is exposed to a risk of sexually transmitted diseases that he/she wouldn't otherwise have been, whereas the poly person would be taking those risks anyway.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:12 AM on March 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

This is sad. I'm sorry for you guys, because it seems that at this point right here, it's pretty much fail... and you both appear to be rational, loving and kind people. As it stands, whoever compromises will definitely feel resentful (at the very least), and whoever "wins" will feel guilty. And this seems inevitable as far as I can determine, despite the very best of intentions on both sides.

If I were the female/monogamous party in this relationship, I would break up because I couldn't take the pressure of feeling as though I was cornering him into an exclusivity commitment that he made clear from the beginning that he didn't want - and continues to feel trapped in, and I couldn't just forever swallow the hurt whenever he acted otherwise. I know it would come out in other ways, no matter how much I didn't want it to intellectually, and slice away at the relationship with a hundred tiny invisible knives.

So I would go. I would probably keep in the back of my head a whisper of a hope that some day he may truly want the monogamous thing, and want it with me... but I would move on. Contracts become untenable all the time. If they didn't, I guess you could say there would be no need for contracts to begin with - nobody changes their mind, nobody ever grows out of certain restrictions, nobody ever finds a better offer: all deals are sealed. But nothing works that way, and especially not love. This contract hasn't been valid for a long time.

The heart is very insistent about what it wants, and no lawyer's argument will ever persuade it that it's wrong. Even though you both really want to compromise and be totally rational, the actual players here (libido, trust, desire, jealousy, faith, pride, passion, et al) are simply not rational parties, and won't stick to early rules.
posted by taz at 2:20 AM on March 7, 2008 [16 favorites]

Yeah, probably a dealbreaker in your case since it's causing major anguish, but in general, some couples do manage to make some sort of compromise work despite being wired differently about relationship style.

For instance, I know some folk who have carved out a workable (for them) "don't ask, don't tell" system, i.e., "I'm perfectly OK philosophically with your having other involvements and with knowing vaguely that they exist as long as I don't have to hear about them or any of the particulars." And the other partner is OK with the monogamous one being monog., again, as long as it isn't done aggressively or moralistically and doesn't become a commonplace subject of discussion.

A perfect, happy, no-sorrow solution? Probably not -- but all longterm partnerships are less than ideal and include sorrow and discomfort, after all. It's up to you-all to do the cost-benefit analysis of measuring that against the level of joy and contentment. Your situation sounds like Big Joy + Big Sorrow, which is probably the hardest kind.

And if you do part, nobody dies, you know. Yeah, your relationship changes, but especially since you have been longtime friends, there's no reason why you can't find your way back there eventually after the dust settles. You can still be important to each other in some configuration -- and maybe one that will have a healthier joy/sorrow ratio for both of you.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:25 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

If she cannot reconcile herself to his dalliance then I think the best course of action for her would be to present the issue as the deal-breaker it is to her partner. That is, to tell him "I know we had such and such a relationship when we got together, but things have changed now and unless you are willing to show me that you value my feelings on this subject by committing to a monogamous relationship with me then I don't think we can continue with things the way they are." (In a more eloquent and loving manner, surely.)

If he does truly value the relationship as much as she does, then he will snap out of it, come to his senses and make this "sacrifice" to preserve what sounds like a great thing. It is also likely that he has some illusions as to the importance of the relationship in his life which he may not realize until she is gone, at least temporarily. Such is the nature of human relationships in my experience.

There are many biological reasons which pull us (particularly males) towards multiple partners, but over the course of history (social) monogamy has arisen as the most common long term practice. This is likely due to the fragility and care needed to raise human children. Extra-pair copulation is and has always been frequent however, and there is reason for her to consider the fact that a more realistic relationship with the rules such as those flaming bore describes may end up longer-lasting than a traditional monogamous relationship. I would, however, add a stipulation of protection against STD/pregnancy on all occasions, which raises a whole 'nother can of worms.
posted by sophist at 4:22 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Easy solution" is "just cut things off now before they get worse."

I've been on the receiving end of polyamory. There is a reason I phrase it like I was a victim of something -- it simply doesn't work when only one person is into it.

And yes, some people will argue that Their Love Is Just As Real, but that doesn't change the fact that people who are into monogamy (most of us) will not, generally, be fond of feeling like "one of many" when it comes to the one person that they have made their top priority.

Otherwise you could do it like on Arrested Development (paraphrased):
"As a psychiatrist, I've seen this all the time. People always think that they can have an open relationship without things getting weird. It never works out, but everyone thinks that they're the exception. But maybe we can make it work!"
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:48 AM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Does she really believe that he's been monogamous for the last four years?

One person is having their cake and eating it too, the other person is being played.
posted by matty at 5:22 AM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

This is like trying to plug in a European hairdryer into an electrical outlet in America. It just wont end up going very well.
posted by zerobyproxy at 5:33 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

The man has a choice - keeping the woman he loves, or sleeping with other women. Unless she starts sleeping with other men, which it doesn't sound like she wants to do, there is no both.
posted by desjardins at 6:33 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't see there being a way this can work. She wants apples, he wants oranges. They, as a couple, only have enough money for one piece of fruit. Which is it going to be? It can't be both.

You could stay together, and make one another miserable. One of you would be accepting of the situation, and one of you would be unhappy. Doesn't sound much like a fun relationship to me.

In this situation, I would leave, as either partner. I'd probably stay in the house, as housemates, but that's only because I could make a clean emotional break. Anything less would be quite uncomfortable, I think. As the monogamous partner, I'd be wondering what the polygamous partner was up to with other people, and as the polygamous partner, I'd feel awkward bringing people home.

Sometimes, things just don't work out the way you want.
posted by Solomon at 6:42 AM on March 7, 2008

She agrees that she's changed the rules, and isn't being fair. She does her best to get over it.

Other people have answered the question well, but I wanted to take issue with the notion that we can make "rules" at the infancy of a relationship that must extend to the end of time, and that a person whose needs change isn't being "fair." It ain't about fairness -- you think how you think, you believe what you believe, you feel what you feel. It sounds like you're not questioning what it is that you want, and if you compromised that belief, the only person you wouldn't be "fair" to would be yourself.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:01 AM on March 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

There is such a rampant anti-poly sentiment in this thread that it's sickening. It's not "he'll be monogamous for you or else he doesn't want the relationship" any more than it's "she'll be totally OK with poly or else she doesn't want the relationship."

My advice is for both parties to examine their feelings, and attempt to come to a compromise.

For her: Why do you object to his polyamory? Does it make you feel emotionally/socially/sexually inadequate? Are you afraid of sexually transmitted diseases? Are you afraid of losing him? Are you afraid of what the neighbors might think? Other reasons?

For him: Why do you feel the need to have relations with other women besides your girlfriend? Is there something these women provide that your girlfriend does not? Do you realize the risks inherent in this lifestyle? Are you minimizing these risks via contraception and prophylaxis? Are you willing to curtail your behavior to fit within certain "ground rules"?

It may be that she is fine with the concept of him doing it as long as she doesn't have to think about it, or know about it. It may be that the freedom is more important than the action, and he barely will want to actually do it if other issues are discussed.

Figure out if there's a framework in which he can be with other women while abiding by certain rules such that it might bother you slightly, but isn't heart-rending. It sounds like you both care a lot about each other, and I would encourage you to try to find the middle ground.

If it's really a deal-breaker on both sides though, then the whole thing is a non-starter, and I'm sorry you didn't address this sooner. Good luck.
posted by explosion at 7:07 AM on March 7, 2008 [14 favorites]

If she want monogamy and he wants to sleep with other women he frankly is looking a little selfish here. Relationships with selfish people rarely work. He can prove he isn't selfish by giving up the idea of sleeping around, but if I were her I would find it hard to trust him. He seems to enamored with the idea to give it up for good. That might even be worse. I don't think there is much hope for this relationship.

(this is pretty sad and my warmest sympathies go out to both him and her)
posted by caddis at 7:13 AM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Caddis, I strongly disagree. He is no more selfish than she is.

What if he was an omnivore, and she were a vegan? He says that he doesn't want to give up meat, and she's uncomfortable with his consumption. It may be a total incompatibility, and they will have to find a middle ground or give up the relationship, but he is being less selfish by eating meat than she is by demanding that he change his diet to suit her tastes.
posted by explosion at 7:21 AM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

I don't feel like I have advice for you, but I have to say, that in your summary of the problem, both of you seem like some of the most rational people ever to post a relationship question in AskMe. You seem to be asking the right questions and interpreting things in a balanced way. You really need to get to the point where you can answer the big question, which for each of you is 'Is there any way I can live with that?' If the answer for both of you is no, then I think you're going to have to break up.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:23 AM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

One of them has to freely and willingly make choice to be in the type of relationship the other wants. They have to believe that making that choice is a net positive to their life otherwise it won't work.

This is not easy and whichever one of you posted "there's some sort of easy solution to this... right?" probably has a serious lack of understanding of the complexities involved. That doesn't bode well for a happy conclusion.

Honestly, I'd tell her to move and get the kind relationship she wants.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:39 AM on March 7, 2008

As others have said, there's basically no way this is going to work out. If you (being either him or her) haven't adjusted over six years, there's little chance you will.

Even if he agrees to monogamy, she'll still be suspicious. Unless she's tremendously oblivious, there's always be that little voice asking if he's really still monogamous. This kind of subtle and persistent distrust does not make for a healthy relationship.

If she agrees to being "okay," with polyamory, she'll probably never be. Even if he doesn't talk about it, she'll be left wondering. Again, persistent nagging distrust does not for a healthy relationship make.

It will be painful, but it's far better to get out now than several more years down the line when marriage, shared property and children are potentially involved.

If she want monogamy and he wants to sleep with other women he frankly is looking a little selfish here.

Yea, I'm calling bullshit on this one. I'm totally monogamous with my partner and don't desire otherwise, but assuming the poly partner is "selfish" by default is absurd. Going into the relationship, the guy made it quite clear that he was into the poly thing (for whatever reasons, they are his). She knew full well what she was getting into. If he sprung this on her several years in, that would be something else. But she said she was fine with it, only to change her mind several years in and ask for a complete change in his behaviour. If anything, she's being a little selfish. It's understandable, of course, but it's not fair to ask monogamy of someone who entered in the relationship of the terms of polyamory. She needs to find a monogamous partner.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:41 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Explosion: Because the polyamorist's legalistic clauses are ill-fitted to human nature. Sleeping with someone else has a built-in component of hurtfulness, unless everyone has decided to be a swinger.
posted by johngoren at 7:45 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

While I agree with most of the above posters that this is sortof one of those dealbreaking situations, it is definitely a blow to walk away from something so good. I've been in a similar situation, and it's hard not to think "well, what if I just deal" or whatever.

Something that might be helpful is to sit down and talk frankly about exactly why the girl doesn't want to be more than monogomous (which, by the way, is the default position here - I strongly doubt that he is cheating. From the text above, it seems he is generally interested in being upfront and honest with her).

There may be compromises available. Maybe it upsets her because she doesn't want the dude to be emotionally involved in someone else - if that's the case, there's room for a possible compromise on random hook-ups (or even things like threesomes, which would include her). If it's a sexual thing, would she have a problem with the dude having strong emotional connections to someone else? Perhaps there's a compromise there. Is it a jealousy thing? Is there something she's scared she wouldn't be getting from the relationship if it were more open? Addressing that concern directly may help.

In any event, The Ethical Slut is basically the bible for polyamorous folks. I would recommend taking a look at it, with your partner. They spend quite a while addressing this issue in the book.

In the end, you should be prepared that it just won't work. Still, don't be too quick to throw out the relationship without having a more in-depth conversation about potential compromise and specifically about exactly what each person needs in order to be happy.
posted by lunit at 7:54 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've known people who tried and failed to reconcile a non-monogamous partner and a monogamous partner, and I've known people who have successfully come to a compromise. The latter is a lot more work, and it's not for everyone. It will require both of you to make compromises.

If you want to try, you're going to both have to do a lot of thinking and talking about why she wants a monogamous relationship/doesn't want an open relationship, and why he wants an open relationship/doesn't want a monogamous relationship. If either of you are not interested in the answers to the following types of questions and in having your answers challenged, then this is just going to be a dealbreaker.

What specifically is he seeking from other people? What do these people mean to him? What does she mean to him? What does the idea of being open mean and why is he attached to it?

What does he mean to her? What other non-sexual-but-intimate relationships does she have? What does she think his other lovers mean to him? Why is she attached to the idea of monogamy?

We all carry around a lot of assumptions and amorphous "I dunno, that's just the way I always though it would be" stuff. There may be or may not a compromise lurking in what you both want and need from this relationship.

Needless to say, I don't find judgmental-ness or couching the issue as one of selfishness to be very useful.
posted by desuetude at 8:03 AM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

They desperately want to stay together

No. ONE of them is not actually desperate for them to stay together. ONE of them can resolve the issue simply by stopping having sex with other people, but hasn't done so, even though he would if he were actually desperate to make things work. ONE of them says having an open relationship is a requirement for him, but so far as I can tell, he hasn't even tried being faithful.

ONE of them should either stop saying that he cares about the woman that he has hurt repeatedly, and end this charade of a relationship, or he should start treating her like he cares.

Furthermore, ONE of them should get over the idea that he can have everything he wants in life without ever compromising.
posted by kindall at 8:19 AM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Kindall, I believe it was clear above that he is *not* currently sleeping with anyone but her. I'm sure sure where you get the idea he hasn't been faithful.
posted by korej at 8:27 AM on March 7, 2008

Because the polyamorist's legalistic clauses are ill-fitted to human nature. Sleeping with someone else has a built-in component of hurtfulness, unless everyone has decided to be a swinger.

Hinging an argument on "human nature" is laughable enough, as we're so far removed from "nature." Any behavior by someone that their partner does not appreciate has a component of hurtfulness, but that does not make it inherently wrong. Relationships are about forgiveness, flexibility, and compromise. I believe my omnivore/vegan analogue to be relevant. Just because "omnivore" and "monogamous" are defaults does not invalidate the feelings of the poly or vegan partner.

Regardless, for this specific couple rather than society as a whole, they need to talk, because polygamy is the default for this guy, and monogamy is her thing. His continuing to act on his polygamy hurts her, but caging his feelings is just as hurtful.
posted by explosion at 8:27 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of grey area and room for accommodation in between the binary extremes of "forsaking all others till death do us part" and "honey, I'd like you to meet my new girlfriend." Many couples whose natural inclinations are more toward the poles manage to find a place in between where both can live and be happy. And of course, people can start out in one place and move over time to another. Love is a great motivator for expanding your limits.

Past efforts at talking have resulted in avoidance or premature impasse ("what are we going to do?" "I don't know.") It doesn't sound like you have really been able to delve in detail into what each of you wants, needs, fears, etc. so you can negotiate from a place of deep and compassionate understanding. Agree with desuetude about the kinds of questions you need to be asking.

So: You love it each other, you're both strongly committed to making it work, but you don't seem to really understand where the other is coming from. This does not sound like a lost cause. Find a poly-friendly counselor and get some help in figuring out whether there's a solution you can both live with.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:35 AM on March 7, 2008

I'm inclined to agree with those who say "dealbreaker." It's probably going to be difficult for these two to find an acceptable solution that doesn't grind away at the woman's self-esteem or make the man feel unduly trapped.

That said, it is apparent that SHE loves him to bits and wants the relationship to work - but is he that into her? It's not apparent from Anon's accounting that he is as much into her as she is into him - especially because he started the relationship with a "no-strings" clause. I beg the OP to please, please don't twist yourself into a pretzel for someone who isn't that into you (if this is indeed the case).

Bottom line is that BOTH partners deserve a relationship where they can get their needs met. This may not be that relationship. If there are no kids or property keeping these two together, it might be best to split up.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:50 AM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sounds like this situation is worth trying counseling. You've invested enough in this to try, and none of us here can fix this as well as you talking to each other and being honest and open about things. It sounds like you're doing this already, but counseling would enhance the process.

Probably this has been mentioned already, but to me, the fact that he's wanting an open relationship and not acting on it sends up a flare that this might be less of a debate between polygamy/monogamy and more about possible issues with commitment and intimacy. I bet a counselor would pick up on that pretty quick.

P.S. I think your upper estimate of 50 years of dealing with this lifestyle choice might be a bit high. Seems like it would get increasingly harder to be a swinging type by age 60. It'd be downright remarkable at 90.
posted by dosterm at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2008

This is a dealbreaker. The clue is that the issue has been festering, undealt-with, for seven years. Reasonable people do not leave things hanging for seven years if there is a reasonable way to resolve them. And the reason that I think these are reasonable people is that these people have been clear in expressing their wants and needs to each other. That's the way the first step of the process is supposed to work.

Sometimes the second step is realizing that those wants and needs aren't compatible.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:02 AM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Monogamy emerged out of humans (men, really) realizing that sex=paternity=property. Polyamory is not inherently evil or wrong, it's a choice some adults make. He was upfront with her from the start and she is not dealing with it well.

If he can be poly and discreet and if she can live with the idea that he is poly but not rubbing her face in it (with all necessary precautions against STDs and pregnancy), it could work. But it doesn't sound likely. Find a sex-positive therapist and see if you can compromise? Good luck.
posted by hulahulagirl at 9:20 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

For her: Why do you object to his polyamory? Does it make you feel emotionally/socially/sexually inadequate? Are you afraid of sexually transmitted diseases? Are you afraid of losing him? Are you afraid of what the neighbors might think? Other reasons?

For him: Why do you feel the need to have relations with other women besides your girlfriend? Is there something these women provide that your girlfriend does not? Do you realize the risks inherent in this lifestyle? Are you minimizing these risks via contraception and prophylaxis? Are you willing to curtail your behavior to fit within certain "ground rules"?

Well, I think it's equally unfair to cast the concerns of the monogamous party as potentially being explained by fear -- of inadequacy, disease, and others' opinions, while casting the concerns of the polygamous person as a rational desire for something withheld, awareness of risk, and acceptance of rules. The second person could be every bit as inadequate-feeling and fear-driven, and the first person every bit as driven by rationality. If we want to talk about this in a non-loaded way, that's good, but there are still a lot of embedded assumptions there.

If the decision is to end the relationship, I would strongly encourage that the OP and the ex no longer live together. I might suggest that it seens as though setting boundaries has been a challenge for the woman all along. The relationship 'just happened,' She allowed him to set the terms from the beginning, and even now it sounds as though She is hesitant to admit to herself that She really wants monogamy in a partner and is not comfortable in the situation. I don't think any of that would improve by continuing to share a house.

It's okay to want what you want. You've both found the courage to be very clear about what you want. Breaking up will be very sad, but if you both agree that you can't give each other what the other wants, you are really better off if you do not both keep twisting the knife into your own guts for the rest of your lives. Give yourselves what you most need - you deserve it.
posted by Miko at 9:21 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Things haven't been "hanging" for seven years. They've been in an monogomous relationship, despite the fact that it's not making him happy. The issue is - can they continue to be in a monogomous relationship (can he find out a way to be happy with that situation?), can they figure out some compromise into non-monogomy that can make her happy, or do they need to just end it? I think really specific communication is the only way to go here.

Besides the one incident where he was with someone else (which wasn't against the rules, and she admitted as much), he's been doing nothing but compromise throughout the entire relationship unless he's been cheating, which, again, there's no evidence of.

It seems like he really cares for her but just thinks differently about relationships. I don't understand why everyone is so quick to pile-on him for being selfish, inflexible, or deliberately hurtful - sounds to me like he's been very patient and understanding for a long time.
posted by lunit at 9:22 AM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

He's been doing nothing but compromise throughout the entire relationship

And just to be fair, so has she. When you want a comittment to be monogamous and don't have it, you're compromising.
posted by Miko at 9:35 AM on March 7, 2008

You would not be coming here for help after 6 years had this not been a problem. It's a dealbreaker. I've gone thru similar phases and I've never experiences anything half as painful as being the monogamous part of a relationship. And in your case, you seem to have developed more of an attachment which might mean the pain will be greater. It might also be that you are *really* accustomed to what's going on but I'd not bet on that.

Just move on and move out. It might hurt for a while but it's better that way.
posted by the_dude at 9:45 AM on March 7, 2008

My heart goes out to you both, and I think you need to accept the possibility that your relationship is going to have to change significantly soon.

Still, please read explosion's original comment and dosterm's as well, though I feel a need to point out that Non-monogamy != Polyamory, necessarily. And reading The Ethical Slut may or may not be helpful since some of the relationship models within tend to be a little more ritualized and based in multi-commitments, rather than one commitment with an intimate friendship or two on the side. Neither approach is wrong; every relationship is something that's never happened before.

And if I may?

It would be great if people stopped posting as if they magically had more insight in to the boyfriend's mind than the OP does - it doesn't answer the question, it clogs up the thread, just sets a really vile tone, and seems to veil some pretty simplistic assumptions on gender (I can almost guarantee you have met at least one couple where, for instance, a man is trying to deal with a woman's preference for non-monogamy - or maybe it's two men, or two women). Insisting that he's selfish, childish, and whatever else runs contrary to all the evidence presented.

There's come to be some sort of community intolerance for hopped-up atheists barreling in to religiously-themed threads and attacking the traditional basis of the poster's question rather than actually answering the question; I see a parallell here and I'd like it if we could in instances of questions about non-monogamy similarly resist the urge to shit on things we don't understand, and, honestly, know nothing about. AskMes aren't the place to grind axes. Thanks.

posted by regicide is good for you at 10:24 AM on March 7, 2008 [9 favorites]

They've been living together less than a year, despite the long friendship and relationship, and it seems to me that for one partner, her, moving in meant a change in their relationship. That was the point to say, "I feel that this is a serious relationship now and we should only be with each other." But she didn't say that. And I find it very telling that the subject didn't come up. Because you would think he would have restated his poly stance at that point, too. I think she was afraid things hadn't changed for him, as they had for her. And I think he is taking advantage of her guilt over having, unsurprisingly, grown to want more from their relationshp.

I am frankly very dubious over his surprise and concern when he slept with the old friend and his partner was devastated. I think he weighed the consequences of hurting her versus sex with the old friend and decided the sex was worth it. That doesn't sound like a good basis for a relationship in the future.

I know that a lot of you disagree with me on this issue, feeling that she is the one who changed her stance, but this has been years in the making, and of course feelings deepen and ties grow stronger after all that time! He'd been in other relationships, but had he lived with anyone else, stayed with anyone else this long? I doubt it. These are not teenagers or young adults any longer, exploring who they are and what they want. How could anyone be with another person for so long and still claim to know so little about her that he didn't realize how she would feel about him sleeping with someone else?

For this to work, he's got to grow up and accept what a mature, committed relationship means--honesty, openness, and devoting yourself to your partner. You can argue with me all you want about poly relationships making sense biologically, etc. but I have never, not once, met anyone over 40, anyone with children, who had made a poly relationship work for all the partners. The only ones I have even heard of that are still going on in these situations involve heavy mind-games, serious power trips and brain-washing, and complete subjugation, usually of the women involved. And I find myself wondering if, in his earlier relationships, even then, his partners wanted things to be poly, or did they end over similar 'misunderstandings'?

So, yeah, I think he's being selfish and immature, and if he won't agree to a monogamous relationship with her, she should get the hell out.
posted by misha at 10:54 AM on March 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

I think the question to answer here is "who is willing to change?" If the answer is "neither" than that is your resolution.

If you're talking about polyamory, as opposed to sleeping around, it is possible for either to change to accommodate, but here are the stakes:
1. If polyamory switches to monogamy, he may feel empty and unfulfilled
2. If monogamy switches to polyamory, she may feel cheated and resentful

If he is simply sleeping around, I would always assume that he will sleep around no matter what, just not tell her about it. Sorry.

What I will recommend is to see a couples counselor and try really hard to find a way to negotiate a solution. We're a bunch of amateurs. See a professional.
posted by plinth at 11:26 AM on March 7, 2008

If her boyfriend is empty and unfulfilled by her alone, she should find another boyfriend.
posted by caddis at 11:42 AM on March 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Since it hasn't been mentioned, there's a MeTa thread. (Perhaps some of you would like to go discuss your personal opinions of polyamory over there, where I will go as well, in lieu of replying "Well, it's not about you!!!" to many of the responses in this thread.)
posted by desuetude at 12:21 PM on March 7, 2008

I wonder if part of the conversation in both persons' heads isn't something like "Well, obviously I can't be happy if the relationship isn't X" where X is some supposedly immutable characteristic.

To the male: You haven't slept with anyone else in four years, yet you haven't been miserable enough to leave. Is polyamory something that you then really need?

To the female: He slept with someone else four years ago and although it upset you, you didn't leave. Is monogamy thus something that you really need?
posted by desjardins at 12:34 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I may be projecting my own experience and emotion into this, but it is eerily similar to my own experience.

Isn't this a battle within him instead of a battle between you two? I think it is only because he's acquiesced to what will make you happy, likely because he loves you very much. Yet he has urges and desires that aren't being met, and he doesn't know what to do with them. He loves you and feels miserable with the idea of hurting you, but he's kinda miserable himself by acquiescing to you.

Is there a part of him that wants to be monogamous or is he resentful towards you? Or are you feeling bad because you think you're winning the battle?

In reality, the battle is within him. And yes, you win. But it's not you winning, it's his love for you that is winning. And I imagine you feel rather guilty about that.

This is not a cut/dry black-and-white situation. There are lots of really powerful emotions at play here, and you're not going to get this solved in I'd say the biggest thing here is that there is a lot of love... cherish it and don't overlook it. Don't make the one problem the detriment of what does work between you. He wouldn't have stuck with you and acquiesced for so long if there wasn't love, and neither would have you.

Don't focus on what isn't working in the relationship as the big elephant, but put your mental and emotional focus on what is very much working in the relationship. And get some help and counseling for the fears and unfulfilled needs and intensely complex emotions you are both going through.

It's very easy to rubber stamp this as a deal breaker, but that doesn't take into consideration the complexity of human relationship. It's never that freakin' easy.

He needs to explore his urges and desires, and you need to explore your fears, urges, and desires. But never let go of the fact that you love. Love him because he's not perfect for you, love him because he is. And love yourself because you're the same to him.

If you can focus on the love and explore those emotions at the same time, you will learn more about yourself than any other experience in your life.

You wouldn't even be asking the question if you didn't love him and he didn't love you, would you? You'd just say, feh, not what I want and go look elsewhere for love. But you've got love, you both feel it, it's just that the biology isn't playing in your favor.

Also, take societal rules and what other people think out of it as a step one and focus on the individuals -- what you really want from him and what he really wants from you. When you make those lists, you'll see that the only reason monogamy/freedom is playing so loudly in your head is that you're fixating on it and holding each other in a place of discontent.

Don't end it because of this. That's giving into the fear instead of focusing on why you're together in the first place. If you end it, end it because you don't love anymore.
posted by kat at 12:54 PM on March 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow. A lot of interesting opinions in this thread. It's late in the game, and most of my sentiment has already been espoused, but I wanted to add something small to the conversation.

I agree with most of the posters here that the monogamous partner in the relationship should move out and move on. That sounds very simple from the outside. I know what it's like to have a relationship where everything is great but the ONE LOOMING ISSUE. There is always this feeling that the relationship can be fixed somehow. If only this...if only that. But this is six years of your life already. Female, you need to begin taking your wants and needs as seriously as your partner is. I think the best chance for happiness for everyone involved is to move out AND -- most importantly -- cease contact for awhile after you do so. Don't talk about it with the other person. Don't try and be friends right away. Don't, I repeat, DON'T HAVE SEX. You both need to be in a place where you can see, very clearly, what life is like without the other person. One of two things will happen when you do this.

1. You'll move on, after awhile. You'll mourn the loss of the romantic relationship, but you'll eventually be able to become friends again if you so choose. You'll find another partner who shares your idea of a relationship and you'll be glad that you were wise enough to recognize that the relationship with your current partner wasnt what either of you needed in the long run.

2. The time apart will make one of you realize that your partner is worth making a lifestyle change for. To be honest, I'd say this option is more geared towards him than her, but not necessarily so. In my opinion, making a split now is actually the best possible chance to save the relationship. It's hard to recognize how much something is worth to you if you always have it. It could make him realize that the possibility of sleeping with someone else isn't as important to him as he thought -- if it means he can't have you.

Good luck.
posted by theantikitty at 1:15 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

(dodgy 'net connection prevented me from responding earlier)

I've been in a similar position to you; or, perhaps, "her". Granted, the other person was much more of a ... how shall I put this ... jerk about it. Pressuring, guilt-tripping, telling me I was selfish, claiming he was wasting his best sexual years by acquiescing to my childish desire for monogamy.

So, with that large caveat out of the way, I still think I have to agree with many upthread who are saying you are essentially in an unwinnable situation. If it's been as long as it has been, and there's been no movement toward resolution, this would imply that you are both pretty committed to your own ways of thinking. You'll probably never be happy agreeing to a poly lifestyle, because it's just not what you want--if you did want it, you would have sought it out already. Ditto for him--for whatever reason, monogamy doesn't do it for him. If either of you felt less strongly about this, you probably would have reached some kind of resolution during the intervening years.

Someone mentioned The Ethical Slut, which is a good handbook for people who are interested in pursuing a poly lifestyle. But even two people who are enthusiastic about polyamory run into huge difficulties trying to put the theories into practice--there's so much emotional stuff going on under the surface that we have no reason to confront until a situation arises that brings it to bear, and it can take huge amounts of time and emotional capital to work through all these things. A friend in a married poly relationship once characterised it as needing to add an order of magnitude of difficulty for each added partner. (YMMV, of course)

If one of you acquiesces, understand that it's going to be very, very difficult for a while. It's going to be exhausting at times, and may often seem like it's the only thing that your emotional energy is going toward. Dealing with the feelings, dealing with the thoughts that come up, trying to retrain your brain to thinking in a different way, whether that be that poly is okay or that monogamy is what you've committed to. And not just for the "changing" partner, but for the other as well--lingering jealousy, guilt over the other person compromising for you, wondering if you're enough for them or if they're worth giving up on what you're missing out on. Not to mention constantly fighting what your brain thinks is "right"; IMO, this can be exhausting, emotionally draining, and misery-inducing. There will be days when you'll feel sick from trying to force yourself to go against your nature.

If you are ready for this, and the relationship is worth it to you, try the suggestion of counseling. A good counselor can probably give you a lot of help in dealing with all the stuff that's going to get stirred up over this. My personal advice, though, would be to walk away from it. I've seen this kind of thing rot a relationship from the inside out, trying to force a round peg into a square hole until the original reason for trying to make it work (genuine feeling for one another) is worn away and it just becomes another job, albeit one with very little recompense. It may not seem like it now, but there are a lot of other fish in the sea; if you really want to find another relationship, there will be someone out there for you.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 11:11 PM on March 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

He was very clear – no strings, no monogamy.

There is no way to compromise here. He does not want a relationship and she does. The notion of "settling down" with someone is partly about giving up your own freedom and autonomy to join up with them, and agreeing to those "strings" is a central part of the meaning of the whole thing. You can always break up later or think about other people, but that you at least try to give up the idea that you're a completely independent unconnected individual, and set up a serious, interdependent union with someone, is kind of the whole point.

An open relationship can be a committed relationship, but the "no strings" part here strikes me as him having deeper issues than just seeing sex as a wider interest - especially when he apparently wasn't even taking advantage of it for years. He's commitment-phobic - the sex thing is a symptom of a larger issue, rather than just an honest kink...
posted by mdn at 4:52 PM on March 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

The notion of "settling down" with someone is partly about giving up your own freedom and autonomy to join up with them, and agreeing to those "strings" is a central part of the meaning of the whole thing. You can always break up later or think about other people, but that you at least try to give up the idea that you're a completely independent unconnected individual, and set up a serious, interdependent union with someone, is kind of the whole point.

well said
posted by caddis at 5:30 PM on March 8, 2008

Does anyone have any solutions / ideas we can try?

idunno, but getting yourself well clear of the complicated crazies & getting together with a warm, generous, willing & red-blooded boy/girl next door isn't a bad idea. it's a far better reward for your energies.

posted by UbuRoivas at 6:26 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

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