Multiple partners, multiple questions, multiple solutions

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Dear Sasha,

What do you do when you are a monogamous person in a long-term committed relationship with someone who is polyamorous and he falls in love with his lover?

I am a firm believer that you can only love one person and that's the person you share your home and life with. If my partner is in love with someone else (who happens to be married to someone of the opposite sex), how do I handle the feeling that I am compromising my belief system? I love my partner deeply, but I love myself, too, and stay true to my sense of integrity.

I'm in a pickle and unsure whether to keep trying to work on understanding (which I can't seem to do), dissociate from it altogether or cut my losses, end the relationship and start a new life. I feel that the love we have is based on hard work, truth and honesty and that his love for someone else is fun without the work. Is his affair fair to me, since I've done all this work? The sex thing I can deal with, but loving someone else I cannot.

Up the Creek

The term "polyamorous" implies that your partner doesn't simply maintain a primary relationship with you and have casual sex with other people, but is also free to cultivate love relationships outside of your commitment.

As Andrea Zanin, who conducts workshops on open relationships, points out, "[Up The Creek is] asserting a belief system that is fundamentally incompatible with polyamory -- even though she's using the term and seems to have willingly engaged in a relationship with someone who identifies as polyamorous. If that wasn't okay with her, why is she with him in the first place? This seems indicative of some problems in world view and/or communication that likely predated this new development."

If what you agreed upon was that your partner was only to have noncommittal sex outside of your relationship, a model known as partnered non-monogamy, then he has broken your agreement. But this is by no means uncommon. "Once you open up your relationship," Tristan Taormino writes in Opening Up (Cleis), "there is always a risk, since the way people connect and the depths of emotions that arise cannot be predicted." And as Zanin says, "The human heart doesn't always pay attention to terminology or rules."

What you are describing, the "fun without the work," sounds a lot like what Taormino calls "new relationship energy" (NRE), and for many of us it's one of the most challenging aspects of an open relationship -- to see a partner acting lovestruck, compromising everything you've built, breaking promises and threatening your bond.

However you define it, it can be distressing to watch your partner suddenly devoting more time to and interest in another. Anguish, jealousy, fear of abandonment and rage are often close at hand.

But, as Zanin says, "Relationships should be fun as well as truthful and honest, and most of them do require lots of work, too. I have no idea how much work this new partnership is for him, but regardless, it sounds like [Up The Creek is] just resentful that he's having fun with someone else, period -- as though their work entitled her to all his "fun" energy.

"Fortunately, fun is not a finite resource, but if she's going to be upset knowing that he's enjoying another relationship, then poly is not for her. Jealousy is normal even for poly folks, but actively wanting your partner not to have fun with others isn't helpful. Poly or not, that's just petty. Rather than get territorial about his fun, I'd encourage her to see their hard work as a couple as something that has built a solid foundation for their life together -- a life he has not built with his other partner - and have some trust in that."

Sounds like a hell of a lot of negotiation, self-reflection and attitude adjustment doesn't it? It is.

"It seems that [Up The Creek is] choosing her belief system over what appears to be the actual situation," says Zanin. "Has her partner fallen out of love with her, declared that he no longer loves her, etc? Or is he simply stating, in a way that's perfectly in keeping with his own belief system, that he's now in love with his other partner as well?

"If Up The Creek is absolutely convinced that loving more than one person is impossible, she's going to hear anything he says to the contrary as a lie even if he's perfectly sincere. And that'll quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which essentially means she's actively choosing to foreclose any possibility of this working out.

"That's well within her rights if her monogamous belief system is so important to her, but let's be clear, then, that she's the one imposing an ultimatum, not him. They're up the creek with two paddles, but if she's just refusing to use hers, they'll go in circles until one (or both) of them gets tired of it and jumps out."

At times, coming to grips with the endless possibilities that can arise in an open relationship feels like training yourself to withstand torture. If that's the case here, if this is only compromising everything you believe in and just completely stressing you out, then poly may not be for you.

"If polyamory is going to make [Up The Creek] miserable," says Zanin, "she should leave and make sure that in the future she only takes up with others who share her monogamous outlook. If she's into sexually open relationships, she might want to investigate swinging or a "one-night-stands-only" form of non-monogamy, to minimize the likelihood of emotional attachment to others.

"On the other hand, if she does want to try and work on this, I'd send her, or better yet the two of them, to a poly-friendly therapist who can help them untangle things a bit without automatically judging polyamory itself as the problem."

Zanin recommends Philip Strapp at new-choices.ca. As for reading, Taormino's book Opening Up and Wendy-O-Matik's Redefining Our Relationships (Defiant Times) are good choices. As Zanin says of Wendy-O-Matik, "She has such an expansive and inspiring view of what love is and how to cultivate it everywhere in life."

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