I’ve been polyamorous for about 6 months — well poly in theory anyway. I have mostly been looking until recently. My wife has had more success finding partners, and I’ve mostly just been hanging, going to meetups. But I finally started dating someone, and she’s great. For this letter, I’ll call her my girlfriend even though we’re not exactly “official” yet or anything.
Anyway, my wife has been really supportive about this new connection (as she has had a boyfriend of her own for several months, and I think she was feeling a little guilty about things being kind of lopsided). So wonderful and so appreciated.
My girlfriend and I went on a few dates where we mostly just talked and made out a little. So far, so good. But the last date, I spent the night with her for the first time and well… we got frisky. As in, sexual.
This was a hypothetical situation my wife and I had discussed long before this, and I had her blessing going in.
The sex, too, was wonderful. Different than with my wife but just as good.
However, I ran into something totally unexpected as I drove home the next morning. I had the strangest feeling, I felt… guilty. I think that’s the right word? Like I was undeserving of having these two wonderful women in my life, and even though they both seem happy (my girlfriend is poly, too, and has been also having a hard time finding someone she really connects with), I get this pit in my stomach like I’m cheating on them both.
I feel like I’m getting away with something. That I’m doing something wrong. That I’m a pig, an asshole guy.
Have you ever heard of this happening before? Is this normal, or am I really weird? What do you think this means?
I really want this to work. My wife seems so happy with her boyfriend, and I’m really starting to develop some strong feelings for my girlfriend, but I’m worried that feeling like this means that I don’t have what it takes to be polyamorous.
Thank you for any input. Love your blog and your books. My wife and I have had some really great discussions because of them.
First Night Effect
I’m so happy you asked this question! First of all, so you can get some answers (because it really sounds like you’re struggling with this).
And secondly, because I’ve seen this happen so many times, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to write about it publicly. Because no, it isn’t rare. But no one usually wants to talk about it.
I don’t know how many times I’ve talked with other people who have experienced this particular pattern of guilt or shame after their first preapproved nonmonogamous encounter. Usually people tell me privately, in hushed tones, under the condition that no one else will hear about it.
None of them want to talk about it openly.
So right off the bat, I know one thing that isn’t normal about you: You’re very brave to open up about this experience and put yourself out there like this.
But the phenomenon that you describe is actually a lot more common than most people realize. So no, it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you at all.
The exact cause is likely different for each person who experiences something like this, but I do think there are some common factors that tend to contribute to it.
As Shea Emma Fett writes:
Poly guilt comes from the belief that we are fundamentally harming our partners by being poly. That we are taking something away that belongs to them. Poly guilt comes from the belief that we are selfish when we enjoy our other relationships.
The cultural stigma surrounding consensual non-monogamy certainly doesn’t help matters. The idea that you’re “getting away with something,” getting more than your “fair share” when it comes to sex and love, that you’re doing your existing partner a disservice by simply dating another person.
It all leads very easily to polyamorous guilt. In your case (and in the case of many others who have gone through this), the guilt likely wasn’t a salient issue while you were “poly in theory.” But spending your first night with a new partner likely made the issue salient and brought all that guilt to the surface at once.
Gender and the Expression of Sexual Self-Stigma
At this point, I’ve spoken with both men and women who have reported experiencing first night effect (to date, no nonbinary individuals have come forth, so I can’t speak to their experience).
Interestingly, I’ve found very clear, distinct patterns divided along gender lines, particularly when looking at heterosexual relationships.
The worry that you’re a “pig, an asshole guy” is absolutely a typically male expression of first night effect. Men typically feel predatory or like they’re doing harm or damaging their partners by having more than one — especially if their partners are women.
Conversely, women tend to self-slut shame more. They seem to feel less like they’re being selfish or using their partners, and they more struggle with viewing themselves as dirty or damaged. (Especially if their partners are men.)
Widespread sex-negative culture tends to look at heterosexual sex as an act in which a man essentially conquers a women and takes something from her (her virtue or her purity), an act which in an astonishing double standard renders him better for the experience — i.e., a stud — and her worse — i.e., a slut. It’s horribly unfair. Pretty awful. Turns sex into a zero sum game where a man takes something away from a woman, in effect victimizing her to become a champion — rather than being a mutually beneficial experience that both can delight in and be better for.
And what’s shocking about this set of beliefs is that even if you don’t consciously agree with them, even if you consciously disagree with them and think they’re actual rubbish, they’ve been modeled for and reaffirmed for you enough times that it’s easy to internalize those attitudes anyway — without even knowing what’s going on.
I suspect these internalized beliefs are a large culprit in first night effect.
It doesn’t help that many polyamorous folks will run into judgmental folks who feed into those internalized patterns of guilt and shame. I’ve run into such things myself, with statements like this one: “Everyone knows that polyamory is just a thing that straight dudes made up so that their girlfriends will let them have some extra sex without looking like a creep.” (See this writing for a wild, cheeky dialogue refuting that and subsequent misconceptions.)
The Good News
Anyway, two bits of good news for you. The first you already know: First night effect is totally not a weird thing. More common than most people realize. There aren’t many universal experiences in life, so I suspect not everyone goes through it, but no, you are not the only one who has experienced it.
And I can tell you, having known a handful of people who have gone through this, the other good news: It goes away. For some people, it’s just the first night. For other people, they might feel it once or twice more, but never to that same degree.
The effect seems to fade quickly over time, especially in situations where everyone is polyamorous and happy and experiencing relationship systems that are otherwise harmonious. In fact, the people I’ve known who talked to me about it went on to become some of the polyamorous folks in my social circles who seem the happiest and best at managing their relationships.
Thank you for opening up about your experience! I’m sure there are readers who have gone through the same thing who will be happy to hear that they’re not alone.
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