by Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D.
In my practice as a relationship consultant and expert in polyamory, I routinely encounter people who love each other dearly and have drastically different relationship needs. Most often it is a man who wants to have a polyamorous relationship and a woman who wishes to remain monogamous, but sometimes it is the woman who wants to be poly and the man who is devoutly monogamous. In either case it can be extremely painful for both people. There are a few things to consider if you find yourself in this position.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Excuse to leave?
For some people, trying to open a relationship is the last gasp attempt to save it from breaking up. A few people in my 15-year study of polyamorous families (link is external)explained how becoming polyamorous saved their marriage from divorce, though they are in the minority. Unfortunately, becoming poly to avoid divorce works only extremely rarely, and far more often the relationship self-destructs more spectacularly than it may otherwise. Because polyamory is so intense emotionally and requires such concentrated, compassionate communication, it can be difficult even for people in stable relationships that are not experiencing significant conflict. For those in high-conflict relationships, becoming polyamorous to save a relationship works about as well as having a baby to save a marriage—abysmally.
If you are unhappy in your relationship and considering polyamory as a “one-foot-out-the-door” strategy, please reconsider. Not only is your original relationship unlikely to survive the rigors of honest communication and complex feelings, but you will most likely hurt the other people you date in your polyamorous experimentation. If you know things are really over, then break up with your former relationship completely and take a moment to catch your breath before plunging in to a poly relationship. It will save everyone involved excruciating pain.
Communicate first, no cheating
Because polyamory is built on a foundation of mutual trust, respect, honesty, and communication, it is important to implement those relationship strategies right away. Hearing “Honey, I started seeing someone else and want to open our relationship” can throw even the most self-assured person for a loop. Transitioning to an open relationship from a monogamous one is tricky at best, and attempting to start out with cheating makes it even more difficult. Communication first, sex later.
Meeting needs of existing partner
If someone is feeling like they are already not getting enough attention, sex, love, or care from their partner, the idea of sharing that already inadequate supply will not sit well. In order to make polyamory more palatable to your reluctant partner, make sure to not only meet their needs now, but also reassure them that their needs will continue to be met in the future.
Part of meeting your partner’s needs is refraining from shaming, bullying, or badgering. The monogamous-leaning person should avoid shaming the poly-leaning person for being unhappy with monogamy—it might not even be a choice for them. If the poly person is poly by sexual orientation, it is no more realistic to expect them to be thrilled with monogamy than it is to expect a lesbian to be excited about being married to a man. Conversely, monogamy can also be a sexual orientation, and mono-leaning folks should not be shamed or badgered into polyamory against their wishes. Badgering leads to false consent and, very soon after, relationship meltdown.
If one partner just wants some open-ness and might be satisfied with something less threatening than falling in love with someone else, consider starting small. Swinging can provide the person who wants consensual non-monogamy with access to sexual variety while keeping the couple as the primary focus in order to help the mono-leaning person feel safe with baby steps. Attending a swing club for one evening can help couples communicate about their feelings and desires without leading anyone else on to think that this will be an ongoing relationship. People can make their own boundaries at swing clubs: It is OK to go and just watch, or flirt with others and not have sex with them.
Alternately, if even considering sex with strangers is too much, try a clothed social event like a munch or chat with folks at a polyamorous Meetup (link is external) group. People mingle fully clothed at poly Meetups which are often held in restaurants or other public places. Sometimes the people are there to meet potential dates, sometimes just to chat and share advice or experiences. Again, it is OK to make your own boundaries, so simply going to a Meetup does not mean you have signed up to be polyamorous. …