Your partner has agreed to open your relationship, but you’re afraid to make the first leap. Should you wait until they have a date first?
That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Listen below. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers. Or, conversely, use our RSS feed.
Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.
I am 25 and married, and me and my partner (a 24 year old male, we’ll call him Lewis) are very close and very happy. We’ve known each other since middle school, began dating in college and were married 2 years ago — so essentially we’ve been together and monogamous our entire adult lives. I had a small hand full of sexual partners before we got together, but Lewis had just one before we met and it wasn’t very healthy.
Lewis and I got married because we love being together, we’ve lived together for five years and it has never been hard. We fight well, we communicate well, and have bonded HARD over the years. We could see very clearly that we wanted to go through life together and could holistically trust one another. What I could NOT see is that I would still develop feelings for other people despite being so happy with Lewis.
Marriage as a goal was pushed very hard in my family. My parents framed a romantic partner as the only “real friend” you’ll have in life, and that if you’re happy with your partner, you will not be interested in other people. But as time has gone on, there are one or two friends in our social orbit which I have developed strong feelings for — strong enough that, despite my efforts, I haven’t been able to bury or ignore in the interest of protecting my marriage.
I came to my partner with this very quickly, I am not very adept at hiding my emotions so it felt important that I explain myself to him before he noticed it on his own and felt deceived or that I was hiding something. I expressed my desire to connect with other people and he completely understood. He expressed that he knew it was natural, and trusted that if I let other people into my/our life, he would still remain a, if not the, priority in my life.
With all that background established, the problem itself: I feel that I am going to have a much easier time with establishing additional partners than Lewis, and I fear hurting him in seeing other people. Lewis is handsome and well liked, but socially anxious and a bit insecure. He, in his own words “can’t see anyone being interested in him” in the immediate future. I disagree with him, but I also know that posturing yourself as open to new connections is a large part of successfully meeting romantic partners, and I don’t think he’s comfortable with the vulnerability right now.
I, on the other hand, have already started very passively engaging with someone I know is interested in me — a male in our social circle who Lewis likes and respects. Nothing has actually happened between us, but our chemistry is very very strong, and I can see him trying to capture my attention to the extent he feels in appropriate at the moment. I would very much like to start seeing this friend of ours, but doing so means really initiating something me and Lewis have only talked about. None of our friends know that we have agreed to open up our relationship, including the one I am interested in.
Because my relationship has been monogamous so far, I have this emotional perception that I cannot reach out to new partners until Lewis is poised to do so too — that non-monogamy is still something we should be doing together. I do not know if that’s realistic, but attempting to connect someone other than Lewis feels wrong, despite our agreement on non-monogamy, so long as he isn’t also in his own process of connecting with someone other than me.
So, I guess the advice I’m looking for is how to effectively navigate this transition so that I am able to claim the freedom to connect with other people without making my partner feel left behind. I feel unsure how to ask for time alone with someone, how to set or talk about boundaries, etc.. We are both so young and I think both our lives could be enriched by opening ourselves up, but it clearly isn’t going to come as naturally to Lewis as it is to me. I do not know any non-monogamists in my life, so any guidance/analysis you can offer would be much appreciated.
So the first thing, before I get into kinda… cause I think that you’re facing a situation that quite a lot of people face. The first thing, just the tiniest little red flag that shows up to me, is that you say that none of your friends know that you have agreed to opening up your relationship, including the person you’re interested in, but you do feel like he… you can see him capturing your attention to the extent he feels is appropriate at the moment.
Some weird thing about the way monogamy works in culture is that some people feel way more comfortable with cheating than they do with what would be called “ethical non-monogamy”. I don’t really like saying “ethical non-monogamy” cause I do feel like non-monogamy should be in end of it self ethical. If it’s not ethical than it’s cheating.
And weirdly enough some people are are ok with cheating, but not ok with non-monogamy and I’m not saying that this person is necessarily cheating, but it… and I’m not sure, you know, what it means that he is “trying to capture your attention”. I don’t know. It just strikes me as something to think about because you know you might prepare yourself and get yourself already to open up and approach this person, you might find that when you tell them that you’re in an open relationship and Lewis knows and is fine with it… they aren’t fine with that.
And then you end up in this very weird situation where someone in your social circle who is friends with you and Louis was totally cool with with betraying Lewis by helping you cheat essentially but wasn’t okay with everything being above board. It’s just something to think about. I’m not saying that’s definitely what’s going on.
Some people do do playful flirting and they are… some people flirt even if they are in a monogamous relationship. And it’s not necessarily… it doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re interested in a relationship. They just enjoy flirting so that, you know… It could be nothing but I just think that’s worth you preparing yourself for. Because, especially if you’re going to date with in your social circle, especially if you’re not going to seek out people within non-monogamy communities who are already in that vein and interested in that.
I don’t know if dating friends and dating people you both know is a good first shot. I mean it could be that this person is also non-monogamous and they just haven’t told anyone as well. I mean, you don’t know but just bear in mind that even for people who are sort of seasoned, I guess, as you would say, “non-monogamists”, their partners dating their friends can be a touchy subject. Because, you know, if things don’t go right with that partner than it feels very awkward. So those are just some things just to keep in mind before you pursue this relationship.
Because I don’t want you to get all your hopes up and get ready and do all this preparation and communication build up and then “oh whoops” it turns out that that person that you consider friend is totally okay with cheating but isn’t okay with non-monogamy. It’s weird but it happens. So that’s the first thing.
Second thing I want to say is that… I think that there are quite a lot of people in situations with a domestic partner or an anchor partner where one person inevitably has more partners than the other. That’s not always true but I do think that it’s a quite common thing. And it’s certainly common for me. So I’m kind of in almost Lewis’ position, but a little bit different. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I can’t see anyone being interested in me but I know that I am not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s not necessarily a dash at myself. I just know that I am an introvert so I don’t really like doing a lot of the things that people my age might like doing. I know I can be quite picky and I also you know… I can be quite difficult sometimes I think to get to know me and that’s just who I am. It’s just part of me.
If my partners had to wait… I think people feel like that all the time. You know, they gotta wait until their partners has had an equal about of dates because they’re worried that the attention might upset their partner. And it might do. You know that is a very real thing. I think it’s usually the case where you know… Usually you have a lot of situations where men open up the relationship and then the woman that they’re with get tons and tons of dates and tons and tons of attention and they immediately want to close the relationship because they get nothing.
It happens, but I do think that like sometimes that’s just an inherent part of things. Like, you are a person who… maybe you are just a person who is a little bit easier to get to know. Maybe you feel more comfortable in social situations. Like you said, he’s a little more socially anxious and I just don’t think that you know… It’s not to say people can’t get over social anxiety but that just might be part of just how you relate to other people and you don’t want to put Lewis in a position where he has to be someone that he’s not.
He might just meet you know… I haven’t been able to find like a steady second partner really. I’ve gone on dates. I’ve had some things with some people. But it just takes me awhile. You know, that’s just how it is. And I might not ever meet another person that I can have as a long-term partner but that’s just how it is sometimes. And I used to get really anxious about it. And I still like… you know, it is a very big discrepancy between you know… My partner is more interested in… my anchor partner is more interested in casual things. I’m not really that interested in that.
So there’s always going to be a discrepancy between us and if we were gonna tally things up and keep score in that manner, there’s always going to be that discrepancy and I think sometimes it’s an issue that you have to talk about but I don’t think that you should respond to that by holding back.
Because I think that you know, you’re taking a lot of responsibility in this situation for Lewis’s actions and I see this a lot with people with people who are may identify as women or are read as women. I do feel like in a lot of different cases the responsibility that… you know because society is kind of encouraged them to take on everyone else’s emotional labour, they do feel a responsibility to kind of help their partner do stuff.
And it’s very tricky because obviously you love your partner and you want… The way that you phrase it is just really perfect. You’re sort of like, “I don’t think that he’s never gonna find anyone”. And, you know, you want to help them out. You wanna be their like wing man so to speak. But you just can’t. You can’t take responsibility for that. You have to let Lewis make his decisions and let the chips fall where they may. If Lewis has agreed to this situation and you know it is… Practising it is not the same as, you know, it happening. Theoretical is not the same as actual, but you never gonna find that out if you don’t do it.
And you can’t… you know which is kind of like my second point, you need to like abandon the notion that you can prevent some unhappy reaction from happening. This is kind of like one of the biggest things I struggle with with my anchor partner is that they are always trying to make an attempt to safeguard my emotions to the point where they’re trying to, you know… The next steps on that can sometimes lead to you behaving in ways that you know you think “I’m going to do this in a way that you know will protect my partner”. And it’s one thing to be considerate of people’s emotions and I do think that you should be considerate. I don’t think that you should be like, “Well screw him. I’m gonna do what I want”.
But you can’t prevent… you need to realise what you can’t prevent. If you go out and start dating people and he has a bad reaction to that, you cannot prevent that. It might be, you know, he’s agreed to it but you have to kind of accept the reality that he may find out through practice that it’s not for him and that he can’t go down this way. And I think that you’re trying to prevent that because you love him and you love this relationship. You have this great relationship together and you don’t want there to be an irreconcilable difference between the two of you that could drive you apart but you kinda have to accept that that is a risk. That is a risk— But that is a risk regardless of what you do. You can put non-monogamy on the shelf and you can say, “Alright. I don’t want to risk losing Lewis over this”. And then years and years down the line and he randomly decides to go scuba diving and he figures out this scuba diving is the shit and he loves it. And he wants to spend his life scuba diving and he wants to move you to a beach and you fucking hate the beach and there’s no way you’re going to move to a beach. And then that’s the irreconcilable difference that you have.
There’s no way to prevent a difference that drives you apart. There’s no way to prevent that so don’t abandon or try and delay it… don’t delay the inevitable. If it’s going to happen… If it’s going to drive you apart, it’s going to drive you apart. Whether it happens because you tried it, he has a bad reaction to it, and he figures out through that it’s not for him or you decide not to do it and then you kind of continue to feel resentful and it drives you nuts like… If this is something that you, as you said, you cannot ignore or bury then you kind of have to let the chips fall where they may. And you can’t… you need to abandon the notion that you can control his emotions by delaying the inevitable or protecting him from this. He has to kind of deal with it.
Now that said, you know, like I said, you won’t know until you try. You got to jump in the water. You know, there’s just not any avoiding this. I don’t really think there’s an easy way to get into non-monogamy. I think that you just have to try it and see. That said I do think like you know… you can be considerate of him. There is something that you mention, you know, “I’m unsure of how to ask for time alone with someone.” Asking for permission is like the biggest thing that I would say don’t do. There’s being considerate… There’s kind of like a spectrum. On the one end there’s asking your partner for permission. In the middle is kind of like saying “This is a decision I’m going to do” and being respectful of each other schedules and trying to be compromising in a way that shows your partner that you value their emotions but that you are still making the decision. And then there is kind of like the complete opposite end of the spectrum where you just say “I’m doing this. Fuck you. Bye.”
I think that if you approach Lewis in terms of saying “Is it ok if I go on a date on Tuesday?”, Louis is not going to want to to say no to you, even if Lewis is unhappy or uncomfortable. He’s going to want to say yes because and that’s kind of like the general fear. I think that’s why you’re kind of avoiding it, because you know he’s agreed to all of this non-monogamy thing. He seems on board with it. How do you know if he’s just on board with it because he wants to save the relationship with you or he’s really on bored with it? And I think that you know like I said you won’t know until that happens but also asking for permission I don’t think helps because it’s going to make it awkward for you.
So you say, “Can I go on a date on Tuesday?” you know, or “Is it ok with you if I go on a date on Tuesday?”, And he says “Yes”. And then you go on the date on Tuesday and then in the middle of your date you get a call from him and he’s like “I’m having bad anxiety”. It can feel really annoying for you understandably, even though you care about your partner, because he did say it was ok and now it’s not ok. Emotions happen and I think that you need to… you both need to kind of expect the worst in some situations.
Even you. When Louis has his first date, you might freak out. It’s perfectly natural especially with coming from the background that you had where you were literally told that having feelings for someone else me you don’t give a shit about your partner or you’re not really attracted to them. Like you have to unpick and unpack that and part of that comes from, you know… part of anxiety and part of fear is just living through it and coming out of the other side and knowing that you survived it. You can’t really avoid having that fear.
So the first dates you have, he might be a nervous fucking wreck. That just may be how he is and you just have to let that happen and he has to learn how to manage that. You can give him reassurance like… Like I said, the opposite of the spectrum is “I’m going on a date on Tuesday. I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing”. The middle bit is going like… looking at his calendar or looking at the shared calendar you have together and going, “I would like to go on a Tuesday. Is there anything in your schedule that might conflict with this? No? Okay, brilliant”. Think about it and then you can be considerate about it.
A lot of people find that the first time that a partner does go on a date with someone else, it is… you know I find, even as someone who has been in previous non-monogamous relationships, when I established a relationship with my domestic partner, the first couple of times if they went out all night or went to a party or did something, I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t get any sleep. Because initially like… the thing that I’m freaking out is that like “I’m not fun enough” and this might be something that Lewis deals with. If you’re the partner who doesn’t you know… you’re a little introvert dating extrovert, you’re not a party person, your partner is. I think it’s understandable to have that feeling of like “What if they meet another party person and they’re tired of my boring staying at home-ness and they want to just get rid of me cause I’m dragging them down or whenever.” Those are legitimate fears to have.
And it’s going to be very legitimate for you and Lewis to fear losing one another and I think you need to accept and anticipate that anxiety. And you need to allow him to find the tools to deal with that just like you need to allow him to find the tools to deal with the vulnerability, to deal with the way he looks at himself. You cannot be his therapist. If he needs a therapist and you can afford it and it’s accessible to you, he needs to find one and he needs to make that choice himself. You can’t make that decision for him and you also like… it sounds really callous in a way but like if he can’t be bothered to unpack that and if he doesn’t want to… if he feels too scared to put himself out there, you know, then that’s his deal.
You can’t you know… It’s one thing to care and you can make suggestions. You can be encouraging you know. The thing that I always to partner that think “Oh I don’t think that I’m you know…”. I say “Well I chose you and I’m picky as fuck” so… There’s encouragement and encouragement can happen. You don’t have to be totally cold and go, “Well it’s your deal. suck it up”. But you can’t put the responsibility on your shoulders and I do feel like you’re doing that a bit here. You’re sort of like… If you limit your own activities because you’re scared that he doesn’t have his own thing you know, you can’t let that be the deciding factor for you.
If he’s chosen non-monogamy, he’s chosen it. He’s aware of what you’re going to do. He’s agreed to it and you can be considerate and you can be kind but at the end of the day, you can’t… All of that stuff will not prevent it if it’s just not for him and all that stuff won’t prevent him from being afraid the first couple times to go on dates and stuff. That’s just going to happen like… Accept that it’s going to happen and try and find strategies to deal with it and cope with it rather than thinking you can prevent it.
I think it might be helpful because you say like you know “I’m not sure how to navigate the situation. I don’t know how to ask for time or set or talk about boundaries”. I think… A couple of things that I think that I tend to advise people when they’re starting out is think about the ideal situation, your ideal situation. How do you figure other partners fitting into your life with Lewis? What kind of situation do you want? You say that Lewis is your kind of like basically your domestic partner or your primary (and I’m gonna say more about that in a minute) but what does that mean? Does that mean that you know you spend most of your time with him? Does that mean that you know you are emotionally kind of more… respon— not responsible but like that you give emotional support a little bit more to him? Where do you navigate your own kind of what you envision in your own head as being the ideal situation for you ?
And you might not know that but it’s worth kind of thinking about it and I just think start small and work your way up. Set out some some nights aside that can be date nights. Thinking about physical tangibilities, I find makes the situation little bit more easier because you can’t really measure emotions and feelings and I really always generally advise people to get away from promises like “I’ll only really love you” and stuff like that.
Because you can’t control that as you well know. You clearly can’t pick and choose the level of your emotional attraction or any kind of attraction to somebody but you can decide like “Okay this night is going to be date night” and I set outside these hours. I’m going to have some basic things… And another big thing is you know sometimes you don’t know that you have a boundary until it’s been crossed and I think that’s the kind of thing that you need to be aware of with one another.
He might not know that he has a problem with you doing something until you’ve already done it. And that’s kind of something to be aware of and think about, okay, how is he gonna tell you if he has a problem with something? And that’s going to be really tricky and it’s ok that It’s tricky. So you know you might stumble a lot but I think you’ve established really good communication with one another before this. And you’ve already established a lot of trust with one another. You’ve already kind of built your house in a really solid foundation. I think that’s going to help you and because if you can trust one another and you know when to communicate things I will help you a lot more any situations.
I think just keeping that line of communication open this really really important like… Don’t ask for permission but do check in and do say “I’m going on a date on Tuesday. How do you feel about this? Do you need any reassurance?” People make the joke that polyamorous people like to communicate way too much. I think that’s just because it’s helpful sometimes in these situations to just keep that line open.
And last but not least, you know if you are going to have a hierarchical situation or any kind of you know… I’m not sure what it means for someone to be “a priority” or “the priority” in your life and I think you need to really think about what that means. And I think that you need to effectively communicate that to other people that you date so that they don’t end up getting the wrong impression and that they can decide if that’s something for them. And you can let them know like, “Look, we’re just opening up. This is our first situation. My partner is a little anxious. This is how I’m doing this situation”. Decide kind of boundaries. Like if Lewis calls you on a date, are you going to answer? Are you going to answer right away or are you gonna wait until you have a moment to excuse yourself from whatever you’re doing?
Think about things like that and just make that other person aware that this is where you’re at. And some people, for that, they might be like “Mm, I don’t want to deal with that” and that’s you know— that’s fine. You know, that’s their choice. But I think it always helps I think where— I don’t think hierarchy is inevitably a problem or inevitably has to be bad because I do think that sometimes like… people don’t have the resources always to— or their resources are focused on one area or you know it’s sort of like… if you know… If a bad situation happens like… if someone dies or something, automatically your kind of priorities shift and I think sometimes for some people… and I know especially for my situation like… I need really clear boundaries and hierarchy helps me navigate those boundaries and roles and expectations. But I try to be clear about what that means that the people because I’ve been in that situation where I thought I meant more and I thought I had more say because that person didn’t really communicate to me what I was to them.
And that’s where I think people who are “secondaries”— I don’t necessarily like the term but it does convey the idea easily— I think that that’s were people like that in that situation feel unfairly treated because nobody is going to agree to a situation where you know you are dating them and they put emotional investment in you and then they always have a risk of sort of being, as I say, jettisoned liked a defective warp core if the mother ship is in trouble. If you’re not like a geek, that basically means basically tossed out the second there’s trouble in your relationship. And there might be some temptation to do that.
It might be in that exploring this you know… a lot of people open up and then they close. And I… Generally I think that closing a relationship if there are problems, the problems will be right there when you open it back up again. Closing it doesn’t really fix anything. It just delays the inevitable. And if the problems are there when a relationship is open then closing it might solve it but only because it’s closed and then when you open it back up the problems are right there again like I said.
That’s why I said it’s also good for you to think about what your ideal is, what you plan on, and how other partners play in your life and what that means for you. And you might not know all the answers but I think it’s important for you to explain that to someone coming in your life so their expectations are managed and they don’t feel hard done by because they thought that they had more sway when they don’t really or they thought that they meant something he that they didn’t.
Like I said, I’ll kind of recap. First thing— it’s a bit of a red flag if your friend’s showing interest in you but doesn’t know that you’re non-monogamous. Like I said, it might not be a thing. Maybe they’re non-monogamous. Who knows? But just kind of be aware of that and be aware of the tendency of people to be more okay with cheating than they are with non-monogamy.
Really caution about dating friends, shared friends between meet you and Lewis. I mean it can work. You know that’s something maybe you and Lewis should talk about like what happens? If you can get a polyamory friendly couples therapist… and don’t be dissuaded by location like… I know a lot of people need to see a therapist in person and I respect that but there is also Skype therapy. So if you don’t have a polyamory friendly therapist in your area, you could find one who does Skype sessions, couple sessions which I think could help you guys work things out.
There might be an imbalance between the two of you simply because of the way you’re hardwired and I don’t think that you should prevent yourself from doing things until there’s kind of like equal partners on both sides because, like I said, in my situation, if my partner had to wait until I was interested in as many people as they’re interested in, they’d be waiting for a very very long time and there’s just no point in that.
You need to abandon the notion that you can control your partner’s emotions by your actions. Unfortunately if Lewis can’t do non monogamy, you’re not going to know until you try. You’re not really going to know for sure. So you just gonna have to take that leap. Jump in the water and see where it takes you.
Avoid setting up situations where Lewis has to give you permission to do things or you have to give him permission because I don’t think that generally works. Check in with feelings. Make sure your communication is constant because people can ok something and feel ok with something one day and feel very different the next and that’s just how people are. So check in rather than asking for permission.
Start small and work your way up. Think about maybe one date night a week maybe that, you know… things like that can really help you kind of figure out how… where you want to go and what your ideal is or whatever situation like you think you want in the future and how other partners play a part in your wife. And that might also help, you know, help you negotiate boundaries and what you want with Lewis if you know what it is that you want. And you might not immediately know but have some kind of picture. You can start, you know, start small and in your work your way up if it’s up is where you want to go.
And then last but not least, as I said, always make sure that the people that you date are aware of the situation and are aware of what your expectation is and they can make a decision about whether or not that’s something that they want to do or not do. Some people are so quite against hierarchy that they probably wouldn’t date someone who has any kind of hierarchy and that’s fine. That’s their decision but communicating that as early as possible I think it is really helpful for people so they don’t kind of end up projecting their own expectations of what they think that the relationship with you means that may not match up to what it actually does mean.
So yeah that’s basically what I have to say with regards to this I really hope that helps and good luck.