You Need Help: You Don’t Know How You Feel About Non-monogamy

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Q:

I’m suddenly having crushy, OMG I WANT TO JUMP YOUR BONES, feelings for a friend and I don’t know what to do. I think she’s attracted to me too, but I’m not 100% sure. She has a boyfriend, she’s bi, they’re in an open relationship. I guess I don’t know how I feel about non-monogamy. I do know I’m jealous of her boyfriend, but I shouldn’t be. I’m worried if I do or say anything about this it will ruin our friendship. I think that’s the main concern? Ugh, help.


A:

I was just barely able to drag myself away from refreshing my crush’s Facebook page long enough to read your letter, so I know the feeling. Crushes can drive you up the wall, in both good and bad ways, and not only are you dealing with that, you also have to confront the idea that maybe-kinda-sorta you’re interested in getting involved in an open relationship, without really knowing much about them.

The good news first: you have the advantage of already knowing that your friend is in an open relationship. There aren’t many things more frustrating than a huge crush on a friend in a monogamous relationship. Because your friend is in an open relationship, you have the opportunity to talk to her about your feelings, and even if she doesn’t reciprocate it’s less likely to make your relationship weird moving forward. But although her relationship structure makes that part more simple, it brings up a few other difficulties.

Open relationships are complex, but they sound a lot scarier than they are (or at least, than they have to be). It’s not clear to me what kind of open relationship your friend is in, and it’s probably not very clear to you either, unless you have asked her a bunch of questions already. You’ll want to ask your friend more about non-monogamy and how it works in her relationship specifically. Are they polyamorous? Are they open? Are they just open to her dating other women? Can they have sex with other people, but not date? Can they date other people, but not have sex? Maybe they just make out with strangers at parties sometimes? Are they only dating together? How do they define “polyamorous,” “open,” “dating”?

Non-monogamous relationships fall along a wide spectrum. “Monogamish” generally refers to a mostly monogamous couple that has fun with another person (or people!) on occasion. “Swinging” is similar but has more of a community around it. “Open” relationships are generally non-monogamous but in a strictly sexual or friends-with-benefits way. “Polyamory” focuses on romantic or otherwise emotional intimacy while generally (but not always) including sexual relationships. “Relationship anarchy” focuses on the idea that relationships can become whatever is best for the people involved, and can include whatever elements the relationship wants to focus on. Every definition varies — no matter what label your friend uses, ask her to explain what it means.

Ethical non-monogamy is hard work. I personally find it extremely rewarding, but it’s not for everyone. It’s not better or worse than monogamy, but it can be better or worse for individual people. Non-monogamy can bring out the worst of your insecurities, fears, jealousy, and dysfunctions, and you have to be ready to face them and work on them. It’s worth working through those in any type of relationship, but it’s more essential in open relationships.

Usually, the best thing to do when you’re not sure about a relationship with another person is to talk to that person (or those people). But in this case, what you need to do first is figure out what you actually want.

Before you tell your crush that she’s your crush, you need to figure out how you feel about non-monogamy. You’ll want to be extra careful that you’re not secretly hoping that you’ll steal her from her boyfriend. You’ll have to think about your relationship with her in the context of her having other romantic relationships, both with her boyfriend now and maybe with others later, and how that will affect your emotions and time together. If you think you would be comfortable in a non-monogamous relationship, then you need to figure out what kind of relationship you would want. (Books like More Than Two, The Ethical Slut, and Opening Up can help you think through this more.) Would you want to be friends with benefits or girlfriends or somewhere in between?

One last thing to think through before you talk to your friend is your jealousy. Your emotions are perfectly valid, and people in polyamorous and open relationships feel jealousy all the time. But instead of giving in to the gut reaction of jealousy, you need to figure out what actually caused it. Do you want to be in his place? Do you feel like he’s competition for her affection? Are you worried that a relationship with a man is more serious to her than a relationship with a woman? Ae you worried that he’ll take priority because they’ve been together longer? There’s many reasons for the jealousy, and you’ll want to look deep and figure out what exactly you’ll have to face in order to have a happy relationship.

Only after you figure these things out can you start to explore whether your friend has feelings too, and what to do about it. She’ll appreciate that you’ve thought through things first, and it’ll make it easier to start the discussion. Find some time to hang out with her one-on-one, and tell her that you’ve been feeling butterflies, and you hope that she feels the same. I’m crossing my fingers for you!


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Chelsey Dagger

Chelsey is married and poly, with multiple wonderful partners across the United States. They are a website developer by day, and are currently in school for psychology, and on their way to being a therapist, with focus on polyamorous individuals, couples, and families. They also run a polyamory education site.

Chelsey has written 2 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. YAY! I am a bi-poly girl and my boyfriend and I are in an open relationship. I would be SO SO excited if one of my friends was crushing and wanted to talk about it. This is prime ground work. Some folks are into open relationships, other people not so much, and it’s always good to know where you stand before you run off into the sunset. Thanks Chelsey, it’s always really affirming for me, reading your stuff. : )

    • Awww mann you are in the ideal situation I wish I was in. I’m bi and in a relationship with a boy whom I LOVE but who is not open to the idea of it being open and I know that open relationships are like anything else to do with sex in that you should definitely not be trying to make your partner want something they don’t want, so I’m not. But I cannot deny that it is so hard because I only really started working out how to go out with and have sex with women just before I started seeing this boy. Curious to know whether you started out with the understanding that it was open or opened it up after a while?

  2. omg This was so incredibly helpful for me. I recently started seeing a girl who’s in an open relationship with her boyfriend. I feel like we’re doomed from the beginning since they love each other so much. But this advice has made me feel better about the whole situation.

    • It can be hard to remember, or even realize, but one thing that many polyamorous people point out is that love isn’t a finite resource. If a parent can have one child and then a second without losing love for the first child, it’s pretty much the same thing. That’s a very brief way to put it, but don’t let her love for her boyfriend make you feel like she’s incapable of sharing love with you.

      • Slight intervention: there are also many non-monogamous people who believe love is a limited resource. Here’s one of many fantastic articles on this issue, this one by Clementine Morrigan: http://clementinemorrigan.com/2015/07/15/love-is-a-limited-resource-on-trauma-and-queer-utopias/

        Because there’s no one set of ways that non-monogamous people feel about, reason through, and act in romantic and sexual relationships, communication is EVERYTHING. Ask your partners what you need to know, talk through feelings, etc., in order to have the healthiest, happiest love possible. <3

        • very useful link. And yes love as soon as it is not passive and takes active participation in partners’ lives in terms of strategy/tactics/logistics becomes a limited resource. There is no ‘free love’ without either a sheltered infantile state or a corollary that every (wo)man is an island.

        • That was really great, I hadn’t heard of bell hooks’ thing about love as an action before. It reminded me in part of a friend of mine saying even if love *is* an unlimited resource, time is not (and intimacy takes time to build!)

  3. AS, HOW DO YOU KNOW MY LIFE

    I have a follow-up question to this question: Any words of advice for a non-monogamous relaysh in which my partner has other partners, but (because of circumstance, lack of prospects, etc.) I currently do not?

  4. Any words of advice for a non-monogamous relaysh in which my partner has other partners, but (because of circumstance, lack of prospects, etc.) I currently do not?

    Would love to read an article on this topic!

  5. Thank you, this a super rational talk-through! Especially in terms of defining the nuances of what ‘non-monogamous’ can mean. I’m (a bisexual woman) currently seeing a man who is in a polyamorous relationship with a long term partner. He basically explained their form of polyamory to me the first time we went out, and that disclosure helped, especially as I realised early on that if they were just in a monogamish relationship/he was looking for something without the potential for emotional intimacy that wouldn’t be for me. It’s a pretty significant difference so worth asking about and seeing how comfortable you can feel with your crush’s model.

  6. Good response! Especially about figuring out the why of the jealousy.

    I find reading books on it helpful to thinking through my thoughts and feelings. Also who your relationships are with makes such a difference- do they value communication and treating others with respect and kindness? I loved polyamory in the 21st century by Deborah anapol as an overview of different forms nonmonagamy can take. She herself is nonmonag and also a relationship therapist and she includes tons of anecdotes of different people’s experiences. I read it a while ago but I think I remember it being mostly focused on heterosexual relationships unfortunately.I felt like it was more neutral than some other books. .. I love the ethical slut but felt like it was a little proganda-like. I also like sex at dawn for sort of challenging the idea in our culture that monogamy in natural and non monogamy is weird. It’s really important to keep very honest with yourself first and foremost about your feelings, desires, needs and boundaries. Be good to you! Good luck!

    • I agree with the majority of what you’re saying. You absolutely need to have relationships with people that communicate well, and are respectful and kind. This is important in every relationship, but it can make or break a polyamorous relationship even faster.

      My preferred book on polyamory is More Than Two. I no longer recommend The Ethical Slut to anyone new to polyamory; it’s an interesting book, but it is not focused as much on the relationship aspect of polyamory, which can be the hardest part and the most important.

      There are many valid criticisms of Sex At Dawn, and so I hesitate to recommend it to others. I do suggest that people do their research on why monogamy is the default, however. I think trying to appeal to nature (that people are naturally non-monogamous) is a red herring. Whether it’s “natural” or not, it’s a choice everyone should be able to make.

    • For me, talking about it with my people is super helpful. And doing the brave/scary thing of asking for what you want. I’ve been trying to practice saying things like, “I’m feeling insecure, so any extra love/reassurance is much appreciated.” I’ve found that it may not solve the problem, but it certainly helps!

    • Hana has the right idea :) A lot of it is just processing it and communicating with your partner. It’s important to remember that you should not ask your partner to do much more than support you, you shouldn’t try to control their actions.

      Another big part is just “exposure therapy” – the more you ride out and sit through your jealousy, the more you’ll realize that it can all turn out well in the end.

  7. I yell about this all the time, but lot of poly books are not great resources for people evaluating whether they want to date a poly person (or deciding how they feel about a current partner wanting to open up a relationship, which is usually the context in which I yell about it). They are generally written by polyamorous people, for people who are at least interested enough to look into it. They’re the polyamory equivalent of this one site that used to exist, “amitransgender.com” or something similar, that just said “Yes”, because if you’re seriously thinking about it enough to look it up, you could probably use some “yes” to drown out all the “no, I couldn’t be.” They’re good for reassurance if you think this is something you want to explore. They’re horrible for helping you evaluate whether this is something that works for you when you’re only wondering about it because it came up situationally, not because you’re interested on your own.

    So, let’s talk about the material realities of this particular situation and evaluate it against your personal relationship needs. If you get together with this person, you’re likely going to be a secondary partner, at least at first. She might be someone who likes labeling her relationships this way, and she might not. Her end goal may be to have several romantic relationships that have pretty equal space in her life, or she might want more structure, or less. But if you get together with someone who’s already in an established relationship, she already has a life with that person, and she doesn’t already have a life with you.

    Secondary relationships aren’t necessarily less important or less intimate, but they’re not the relationships you build your life around. If you want to live with someone, or have children, or share your finances, you’ll be doing that with a primary partner. Your primary partner’s needs often take priority, not because they’re more important or better, but because that’s the role you’re choosing to play in each other’s lives. Primary partners are also more likely to be a part of each other’s social lives with friends and family, especially when not everyone involved is openly polyamorous. People can have more than one primary partner, and relationships can shift, but those shifts generally depend on 1) both you and your partner getting something out of the relationship being primary that you wouldn’t get out of it being secondary, 2) your partner actually wanting more than one primary partner, 3) your partner’s existing primary partner’s willingness to share that primacy with others (and it would be okay for them not to want to do that, because polyamory isn’t about everything being as open as possible, it’s about navigating multiple sexual/romantic relationships in a way that meets the needs of each individual involved). Because of that, it’s best not to enter a secondary relationship unless you’d be happy with it remaining a secondary relationship.

    Generally, people who do well in secondary relationships are at least one of these things:
    * Interested in having multiple relationships themselves that would supplement this relationship
    * Not particularly romance centered
    * Uninterested in the typical benefits of a primary relationship (living together/shared childrearing/shared finances/mutual responsibility for each other’s wellbeing)
    * Prioritizing privacy and independence
    * Maybe or maybe not looking to settle down someday, but definitely not looking to settle down now

    It also helps if they’re not jealous easily, or if they’re okay with experiencing jealousy more frequently as long as it’s acceptable to talk about it and work through it/receive reassurance, and if they’re comfortable being open about polyamory to their social circle/family, or uninterested in their relationships being known to those people.

    These are completely value-neutral traits. It’s okay if all of them are you, it’s okay if none of them are you. You might be thinking, ‘this sounds like me, this sounds like something I’d want’ (if so, this might be the time to read some poly books, particularly material about solo poly if the part about independence is what resonates with you, or general polyamory guides if you’re interested in having other partners yourself.) You might be thinking, ‘oh my god, none of this is me at all’ (if so, this might be the time to give yourself permission to say no to pursuing this crush). You might be thinking, ‘I’m not really sure at all’ (if so, you might want to read some poly books, but also look for the writings of people who tried poly and ended up deciding they didn’t like it.) You might be thinking ‘that sounds pretty okay for now, but I want to be in a relationship that at least has the potential to [something that matters to you]’ (if so, it might be a good time to talk to your crush about the way she specifically does polyamory, if she’s open to discussing it. Many people are happy to talk about what works for them and what doesn’t, as long as you approach the conversation in a kind and respectful manner).

    Another question involved with this specific scenario is, are you comfortable being in a secondary relationship where your only partner (at least for now) has a primary partner who is a man? Bi poly women with men as primary partners aren’t doing anything wrong, and this shouldn’t be a judgment of them, but we live in a culture that values man/woman relationships over woman/woman relationships so, so much, and we all have the right to form our own boundaries around it. Some people might need to make sure that both the prospective girlfriend and her boyfriend take woman/woman relationships seriously. Some people might not feel they want to be in that situation at all. Unless you’re judging bi poly women for being bi and/or poly, however you feel about it is an okay way to feel.

    Ultimately, keep in mind that a person can be great, but not great for you. It’s okay to make your relationship decisions based on your needs as well as your feelings, since no matter who you currently like and whether that person can give you what you’re looking for, there are plenty of people out there who you could like who could give you what you’re looking for. When a person who generally practices polyamory and a person who generally practices monogamy like each other and need to decide if they want to date, it often seems like a question of whether the monogamous person is willing to try a polyamorous relationship to be with the person they like. But the reverse of that question applies, too: is the polyamorous person willing to try a monogamous relationship to be with the person they like? And the answer is generally ‘no’, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s good to think about the strength of your preferences, and to reevaluate what your preferences actually are, but if it feels like having a different relationship style is a sacrifice you need to make because you like this person so much, keep in mind that this person isn’t making that sacrifice for you, and probably wouldn’t want you to do anything that felt like a sacrifice anyway.

    • These are all good things to consider, but it is also very much worth pointing out that not all open/polyamorous relationships deal with things in a “primary” and “secondary” way. For me, it depends greatly on the partner and how much of a connection I have with them. I may be closer and more in love with a partner of a few months than with a partner of a few years, because people are different.

      It’s entirely possible that the relationship that was asked about is a primary/secondary dynamic, but it’s definitely not universal to polyamory.

      As far as books, I would actually suggest the books “Sex from Scratch” or “Designer Relationships” to learn more about different types of relationships to figure out what would work best for the letter writer or anyone else.

      • I definitely made some assumptions, mainly that the girlfriend and boyfriend were already fairly seriously together and likely didn’t have other major romantic relationships (mostly because the girlfriend’s friend has heard about this boyfriend and only this one boyfriend, and because in my experience, the term “open relationship” is generally used by couples who have setups where the couple’s relationship with each other is centered and where outside relationships are generally casual.) It’s absolutely possible that, say, the girlfriend is solo poly and uninterested in being anyone’s main life partner, or that the boyfriend lives with his husband and wife, or anything else. It’s likely best for LW to ask her crush about how her poly setup works so she can figure out what she’d be dealing with.

        However, while primary and secondary are terms a lot of people don’t use, there is something of a divide between relationships where you’re life partners making a lot of big joint choices together, and relationships where you’re leading largely separate lives that have a lot of each other in them. Neither is better or more valuable, but those differences exist whether or not the people involved categorize their relationships as primary/secondary(/tertiary), and those differences affect what relationships people are going to want to be in. I wish there was better vocabulary for it that didn’t go against a lot of people’s wishes, especially because at this stage we’re largely talking about the potential of certain relationships rather than the actuality of them, but there you have it.

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