I just had a breakup from my first polyamorous relationship and I feel like a failure. After about six months something imploded. It feels like I had too many feelings and my now ex, who had years more experience than me, just didn’t want to deal with my newb vibes anymore. She would often dismiss my questions or what I thought was me standing up for myself/setting boundaries by implying that if I was truly poly I wouldn’t bring these things up and I would be chill. I admit that a lot of times in this relationship I was not chill, and I feel kind of ashamed about that now. I want to do better next time and I’m wondering what your advice is for newbies and/or dating more seasoned polyamorous partners?
Eager to do better
Thanks for this question! I think this specific scenario you’re describing is really significant and I want to tackle what could be going on from all angles. I’ve heard different variations on this scenario many times. I wrote a zine a few years ago about polyamory where I crowdsourced from friends and partners different red flags they wished they’d heeded when beginning their polyamory journey. Overwhelmingly, most of them said that early on they dated someone who weaponized experience and language against them to infantilize or manipulate them. “If you were a real ___, you’d do ___.” I’m not trying to say your partner did this specifically (or maybe she did?) but I think this is a good place to start.
When we don’t see our own relationships or desires mirrored back to us in society or media, there’s a blank slate for us to bring our wildest dreams to life. With any kind of alternative relationship (not cis-het monogamy) I think there are power imbalances that exist simply from having prior experience. Think of an older gay showing a baby gay the ropes, or an experienced domme playing with a new sub— the same exists for someone who has practiced polyamory before and someone who is dipping their toes in for the first time. The new person tends to defer to what the experienced person says is good or The Right Way, just because they trust that someone else knows better. This is great when it comes to something like apprenticing for a new skill, you want to stay humble and defer to your teacher. However, for matters of the heart and in relationships where you can choose your own adventure, allowing someone else to dictate The Right Way is never going to be in your best interest.
Let’s say that you ask your partner some basic questions about her new date and she answers with “Why do you want to know? This feels like an interrogation.” or “I don’t talk about other dates because that’s private.” Those responses can leave someone feeling really shut down and even ashamed for being inquisitive. A few more of this type of response and that person just stops asking questions at all. I know exactly how this feels because I’ve been there before! Another example is if you bring a hard emotion to your partner like, “Hey it didn’t feel good when you canceled our date to hang out with your other partner.” and the reply is something like “I’m sorry but that’s just how it goes in polyamory. I’ve been dating them longer so they always get priority. You would understand if you had more experience.” This answer may make a new person feel like they clearly just don’t know what polyamory is! And that they don’t have a right to be upset that their partner is acting like a jerk!
All this to say that I hope this isn’t the type of stuff your ex was saying! New or not, your feelings should be heard and you should be able to ask for what you want, advocate for your needs, and at the very least have your questions answered. Doing polyamory for the first time can be A Lot, and if your partner isn’t up for the patience that dating a polyamorous novice sometimes requires, they definitely shouldn’t be dating people who haven’t had prior experience. What’s most important, though, is that no matter what you are allowed to be an active participant in steering the ship of any relationship you are in. A one-sided relationship where only one person is calling the shots is a huge red flag.
You mentioned that you were not chill a lot of the time in this relationship. I’m here to first tell you not to be so hard on yourself! Nothing has been chill for a very long time *gestures broadly,* so if you get a little rowdy with your emotions, who can blame you? I assume you’d like to be more chill in your next relationships, and that’s a fair goal. In processing your breakup, definitely take your own inventory. Ask yourself where the anxiety was coming from? Were you feeling activated in some way? What do you have to work on? It’s always good to try and do better! I also just want to point out that in my most not chill times in relationships, I was dating people who were exacerbating my pretty baseline feelings of polyam anxiety, essentially the lifelong task of unlearning monogamy culture, by either lying, refusing to share information, or telling me that my feelings meant that I wasn’t radical enough. Surprisingly, I’ve been extremely chill since I stopped dating people who essentially don’t share my core values.
For the future, I recommend standing in your power. The more you are sure of what you want (or at least sure of what you don’t want) and the kind of bullshit you won’t stand for, the quicker you can weed out prospective dates who are not going to be the best match for you. Think of all the times that something your ex did or said gave you pause and you kept quiet for fear of being too needy, or seeming “not poly enough.” Make a list of what you should have said or would have asked for if you weren’t made to feel like you didn’t have a say. You’ve just made a list of your new boundaries! Be vigilant in the future about not shrinking yourself and pay attention to your future date’s responses to your feelings, needs, wants, and desires. If someone has a pattern of dismissing you or shutting you down, know that this is not a trait of people more practiced in polyamory, it’s a trait of people who are just selfish.
Consider this time as a blessing to take a step back and do an exercise in dreaming for yourself. There are so many different styles of polyamory and you will eventually find the one that works for you. It’s so easy to collapse all polyamory into one relationship style when it is really an umbrella term for being open to loving more than one person romantically. If you haven’t done this already, think really hard about how you might want to orient yourself in this lifestyle. How full your life is already can help you determine what you have space for and where your capacity may end. You have some experience under your belt now, and that’s great! What about your past relationship didn’t work for you? What were the things you wish you had more of? What do you want to do differently? Polyamory in theory is one thing, but remember that you have to put it in practice to actually figure out if your ideals work for you.
More advice for people new to polyamory besides me screaming from the rooftops not to shrink yourself is to get some community! Depending on where you live, I know that this is easier said than done. Online community can be really important here as well! Not only does community help you feel less isolated, but witnessing other people’s relationships can give you insight into what you do and do not want for yourself. TBH, witnessing other people’s extremely messy relationships explode has helped me keep my own self in check (what not to do!). This advice also harks back to what you said about your ex dismissing your feelings or telling you that you weren’t really polyamorous for having those feeling. Community and close friends help us to reality check both our own behavior as well as our partners. It can be hard to get advice or feedback you can trust if all of your friends are monogamous.
For example, let’s say I’m having some hard feelings of jealousy and I act out on those feelings by doing something that doesn’t align with my values. Let’s say that I create a fake Instagram account to follow (stalk) my partner’s date. My expectation and standards for my friends is that when I mention to them that I’m doing this, they immediately call me in and tell me that I need to delete the account and get it together. They ask me what I’m doing to manage my jealousy instead of being a creep about it. Friends who don’t lean in and ask me to be accountable are not friends I want to have. Another example in the other direction is that when my partners are treating me badly, let’s say someone is dismissing my feelings constantly and refusing to acknowledge their toxic behavior. My friends will also let me know “Hey, this behavior is really gross. How can I support you in standing up for yourself?”
I think the themes here are to really get to know yourself and what you want, start setting boundaries around other people dismissing your feelings, make an active effort to find community or at least a few polyamorous friends who you can trust, and always be kind to yourself. Choosing to have relationships that are different from the majority of the world is not a small feat, the road will be bumpy. If you know in your heart that this is for you, it’s really worth the effort. There’s no rush, Eager, you will meet the right people and figure out your own rhythm in time!