Polyamory may save your relationship — but it won’t fix it

A word of caution to those considering opening up a monogamous relationship

I met my best friend Kyla almost a decade ago and, at the time, she was the only polyamorous person I had ever met. I was five years into a struggling, fairly one-sided relationship and I had a lot of questions for her. Ten years later I don’t remember what those questions were, but she said she could tell I wasn’t happy based on how intrigued I was by the prospect of sleeping with other people. I knew my now-ex would never allow it, but I kept a current OkCupid account just to see what I was missing out on. What would it be like to be held by someone else? To touch and be touched? To fall asleep next to a person who smelled different, who laughed different, who made me feel different?

Looking back now I can’t help but chuckle. Non-monogamy wasn’t the answer to that relationship, breaking up was.

Today more than ever before, monogamous people—and especially couples—are dabbling in non-monogamy. Some just want to spice up their sex lives, while others are more seriously committed to the idea and practice of loving more than one person at the same time, often with mixed results.

When my primary partner and I decided to open up, it was for a lot of the same reasons that most couples do: we wanted to explore and experience other people, and we felt secure enough in our partnership to do so. That doesn’t mean we were secure enough, and the several page document we drew up outlining our rules for seeing other people probably proves that.

Let’s take a closer look at why non-monogamy appealed to me in the first place.

I wanted to feel, and this is a direct quote from my relationship agreement, “adored by many”. I wanted to find partners to go out and do things with—my primary is an introverted homebody, and I missed going out and experiencing the world. I wanted to explore different kinds of sexual relationships, in part because my partner and I were sexually mismatched (my libido is extremely high and his waxes and wanes). And I wanted to date women, which is still one of the better reasons I chose non-monogamy.

Polyamory, for me, has meant experiencing some of my highest highs and lowest lows. It’s meant an uncomfortable level of honesty and vulnerability, and growing pains galore. But my romantic relationships are better for it—the brutally honest talks, the tears, learning how to care for and reassure each other and ourselves in new and productive ways.

However.

Polyamory did not fix my relationship.

Yes, since becoming poly I have been adored by many. But that has never made it any easier when I’ve felt undesired by my primary partner. Yes, I’ve dated extroverts who like to go out and do stuff—but that doesn’t make it any easier when my primary doesn’t want to go out with me. Yes, I’ve had lots and lots of sex with lots of different people. But that hasn’t eased the pain of wanting a consistently satisfying sexual relationship with my primary and not ever really being able to achieve it.

Polyamory has allowed me to piece together all or most of my relationship needs from multiple relationships. That’s one of its greatest advantages—learning that it is no single person’s responsibility to meet all of my needs, and letting myself be okay with the fact that I can’t meet all of theirs. But if you become poly because you think it’ll fix your relationship, or make you less sad about your incompatibilities, you will be disappointed.

In my worst and most painful moments, I wonder if non-monogamy has been nothing more than a giant bandaid, allowing me to keep everything together while piecemeal-ing relationship happiness.

Did I open my relationship when I should have just left? And is that what you are trying to avoid by turning to non-monogamy?

Consider these questions before taking the leap:

Can you take a real hard look at your motivations for turning to non-monogamy, and be honest about what you hope to gain—or what you hope to heal—in doing so?

Can you be brutally honest with yourself about the needs that aren’t being met in your current relationship, and what level of devastated you will be if your partner is somehow able to give those things to someone else (while still having trouble giving them to you)?

If your partner doesn’t give you much affection, certainly that’s just how they are with everyone, right? Except that’s not always the case—especially when there are preexisting issues in your primary relationship. There are a lot of reasons that could be keeping your partner from being affectionate with you: anxiety, unconscious patterns of behavior that have developed over time, a lack of interest in being affectionate towards you in particular… maybe your repeated requests for affection and the arguments that follow have made spontaneous affection difficult. With a new sweetie and none of the baggage, your partner may find it easier to connect physically—and that can be incredibly painful to watch.

Of course, an open relationship means you are free to get your need for affection met elsewhere, and that in and of itself can be incredibly healing. But if you haven’t done the work to confront why certain needs aren’t being met in your pre-existing relationship, and not just to confront them but to really, truly be okay with whatever is lacking, you’ll likely have a rocky road ahead of you.

And, though it’s not what I did, I highly recommend doing this work before you invite other people into your life romantically or sexually. It’s not fair to your new partners if they’re being brought in to fill some unknown hole in your heart, and it’s definitely not fair if they end up in the middle of your pre-existing relationship problems.

Now let me be clear: I don’t say all this to scare you away from non-monogamy. When practiced ethically, with honesty and transparency and kindness and love, non-monogamy is really quite great! But it won’t fix your relationship—that’s really only something you and your partner can do together.

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