One of the questions I get asked over and over again by people embarking on the path of responsible non-monogamy is, “How does it actually work?” It can sound like a great idea in principle, but in practice? So I’ve decided to devote my next few posts to exploring some of the essential skills that have to be cultivated in order to successfully navigate open relationships.
Most of the people I know who identify as polyamorous start off with high ideals. They value freedom, respect and independence. They want to eliminate the link between the civil construct of marriage, the ownership of people (namely women) and the exchange of property.
These are beautiful principles that inspire people to be bold in their visions for their intimate futures. Often, however, implementing these bold new visions can be overwhelming, both in terms of the logistics of the endeavor and the emotional complexities of the process.
As someone who offers relationship therapy to people living a wide range of relationship styles, I can say with some confidence that it is indeed possible. It just requires a willingness to stumble a bit (sometimes quite a bit), and a big commitment to getting better at the art of relating.
People often start their open relationship journey by outlining their agreements. Agreements are a concept that most people can wrap their heads around. If they’re partnered, they want to outline the rules that will guide them in the process of “opening up”. It makes sense, right? Make the rules, follow the rules, and things should work out, no?
Well… unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. When I’m working with couples who are at the beginning of their poly journey, I see people walking through the door with what look like legal tomes, expounding upon the minutia of how they will navigate this sometimes treacherous territory. They come in prepared to argue their case, hoping that because it’s written down, there is no margin for error.
For example, one partner (partner A) may feel so clear about her case…so convinced that she is right…after all look at their agreements…that she doesn’t notice that as she’s been talking, her partner (partner B) has essentially checked out. Partner B is no longer making eye contact; her breathing is shallow, and she looks like she is ready to crawl out of her skin.
Though Partner B is nodding in agreement…they did make those agreements…and she did not honor them… She is not taking in anything Partner A is saying.
Her eyes are glazed over and she keeps losing her words. Eventually Partner B gives up. There’s no where to go with the feelings she has, because she has violated the agreement, and that’s what matters…at least that’s how it seems.
This brings us to point #1: Agreements are only as good as the relational dynamics holding those agreements. If you don’t trust that your partner is really with you, no amount of negotiation about agreements is going to make you relax into your partners’ commitment or if your communication dynamics are hostile and ineffective, it’ll be nearly impossible to speak the hard truths to one another when they’re most needed.
Becoming competent as a poly person takes time, dedication and a willingness to sit in the fire with yourself and your loved ones, no matter how noble your ideals. So what are the skills? I’ll give you one hint: they are not just about managing logistics.
The skills that you have to develop are about managing feelings. I am not saying don’t make agreements. I’m saying learn how to be responsive to changing emotions and relational dynamics, and learn how to tolerate uncertainty and the unknown.
If you have been fairly successful in relationships up until this point, you’re probably pretty good at this. But I promise you’re not as good at it as you will need to be to navigate these waters. In your first poly or open relationship(s), all those insecurities you and your partner(s) know you have (and some you didn’t even realize you have) are likely to erupt. If things go relatively well, you will get a crash course in managing feelings of the most intense kind.
The beginning of the process is really about figuring out how much you don’t know and what skills you don’t have. So, if you manage to avoid spontaneous combustion in those initial stages, then you will begin to get a clearer sense of what your growing edges are. At that point, you’ll be ready to continue learning how to smooth out all those rough edges on the path to having healthy, satisfying open relationships.