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.
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 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 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.
Dealing with Emotional Pain
While sometimes it is no problem for people at all, at other times the desire to establish an open relationship or transition from monogamy to polyamory can come with pain and discomfort for everyone concerned. Those seeking consensual non-monogamy can feel shame, guilt, and self-doubt when confronted with a loved one who is suffering as a result of their desire for romantic or sexual open-ness. The monogamous partner might feel inadequate, unloved, or angry that their beloved wants to change the rules of the relationship mid-stream. Regardless of which position people occupy, there is ample opportunity to experience emotional pain. Crafting strategies to confront and address pain, as well as seek emotional support and manage anxiety, are life skills from which everyone can benefit.
Invest in Yourself
If you are the partner who wants to be monogamous and feel upset by your partner’s desire to investigate other relationships, it can be very difficult to relax and let go emotionally. If that partner is your sole emotional support, strongly consider branching out to expand your social circle. This does not have to mean establishing additional romantic relationships. In fact, friendship might be just what you need. Feeling like your world revolves around someone who wants to spend time with other partners is often terrifying and can leave you bereft of connections. In order to ground yourself more firmly in your own experience, remember what feels good to you: engage in hobbies, learn something new, reinvigorate old friendships, and make new connections.
Be Willing to Try Hard
Polyamory can be challenging even when everyone involved is enthusiastic about being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. For those who are not so sure it is for them, it can be even more difficult. However, it can be worth it to try very hard to save a loving relationship. If you really love each other and trust that you each have the others’ best interest at heart, then give it all you’ve got to try make the relationship work. Be flexible, try new things, and tolerate discomfort to get over the hump into a new and more fulfilling relationship configuration. Don’t wimp out!
Be Willing to Admit When It's Not Working
If you really gave it your best try and it becomes clear that the relationship is not going to work, then admit it to yourselves sooner than later. Dragging it out will only make things much worse, creating a setting rife with potential to cause incredible pain and emotional damage. Rather than stringing an old partner along until you have found a new partner, break up first so you don’t create more wreckage than necessary. It is far better to face the potential fear of being alone than to inflict misery on existing and new partners.
Sometimes a monogamist and a polyamorist simply cannot find a romantic or sexual relational style that fits them both comfortably, and in those cases it is far better to communicate honestly and compassionately as they reconfigure to some other—most likely platonic—form of relationship. When these folks continue to love each other and stay together socially but not romantically, they have created what I call a polyaffective relationship. in that way, they can sustain family relationships even while pursuing different romantic paths. The important thing for a congenial polyaffective relationship is to treat each other well during and after the romantic split—no lying, cheating, or screwing over.