Recently, I answered a reader letter in an advice column called “I Have My Partner’s Blessing, But I Still Feel Like I’m Cheating. Is This Normal?”
In my response to that letter, I wrote about first night effect. Essentially, first night effect is a phenomenon that many polyamorous folks experience whereby they feel either guilt or shame after their first preapproved nonmonogamous encounter. Even though they have permission, they will sometimes get the reflexive emotional response as though they’ve actually cheated on their other partner.
As I wrote in that piece:
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.
I received a lot of messages and social media comments after posting that column. The bulk of readers who weighed in had experienced the effect themselves and were happy to see someone finally writing about it.
“It’s something no one talks about,” one reader wrote in, “and I think that makes the feelings grow even deeper. It was a huge relief to read your article and the comments and see that other people had gone through this, too. When it happened to me, I really did worry it meant I wasn’t cut out for poly. But it’s just like you said in your post… over time those feelings went away when I could see that I wasn’t actually hurting anyone. It just took a little time for my brain to get with the program.”
I heard from many others who echoed this reader’s sentiments.
First Night Effect Usually Fades…But What If It Doesn’t?
However, not everyone I heard from had that experience. I did hear from a few readers whose first night effect never faded. Who still get the reflexive emotional impulse that they’re hurting their other partners by seeing new people. Indeed, in those cases, it seemed like first night effect had in essence blossomed into a chronic case of polyamorous guilt. I provided Shea Emma Fett’s definition in the original letter, but here it is again:
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.
Why is polyamorous guilt so persistent in some instances when it dissipates quickly in others?
When left to its own devices, first night effect truly does seem to drop off rather quickly. The trouble, however, is that we do not exist in a vacuum. Humans are deeply social animals and affected by their environments.
Re-Guilting and Re-Shaming Can Turn First Night Effect Into a Chronic Case of Polyamorous Guilt
It seems to be boil down to whether the person in question is subsequently re-guilted or re-shamed. Sometimes the person in question will also have life experiences or trauma (past or present) that cause them to re-guilt or re-shame themselves in a way that means that those negative feelings don’t naturally expire.
Or other people do it for them. This guilting or shaming can be done by people within the relationship system: For example, a partner who agrees to a polyamorous relationship but is very reluctant about it may lash out because of internal resentment and guilt and shame their partners in a way that reinforces those feelings. Or this can come from a metamour who is (rightly or wrongly) vocally unhappy about their share of available time or emotional resources.
Conversely, this can be done by other people in one’s life, for example, friends or family members, especially ones who are skeptical of polyamory or disapprove of consensual non-monogamy.
And there are other environmental forces at work. It’s not very difficult to find media (whether that’s movies, TV programs, books, or online) that reinforces the sex-negative and mononormative beliefs I wrote about above. So if a person is still rather sensitive to that messaging, that, too, can work against overcoming polyamorous guilt.
I’ve found that with time and a good polyamorous social circle (of polyamory-friendly friends, lovers, and metamours) that the media messaging is a surmountable obstacle. It becomes more funny than guilt or shame-provoking. I’ve been known to watch The Bachelor or The Bachelorette (and a variety of other terrible programming) when I need a good laugh (“Thank you, Bachelor, but your princess is in another castle.“).
But that’s with a good social circle. Without it? Yeah, I don’t know. It would be very difficult given that to overcome that internalized guilt. That’s part of why I tell newly polyamorous people who ask me how to meet polyamorous people not just to look for partners but friends and a social circle. In my experience, you’re going to need both to be happy long term.
Another Big Culprit: Worry About Things Being Temporarily Uneven
There are a number of ways that re-guilting and re-shaming can manifest. It isn’t just globally anti-polyamorous sentiment that can perpetuate guilt. For example, it can stem from guilt on one or both sides when one partner is dating more than the other (one reader wrote to me about this). This is a very easy trap to fall into but one that becomes more perilous the larger your relationship system becomes, because it’s rare in life that any two people are exactly even at one given moment (in anything, really, we all have our ups and downs day to day). Throw more people into the mix, and the odds get even slimmer that everything will be “even.” As I wrote in an earlier piece:
It’s a dangerous road to travel down, comparing yourself to others. It might just be the biggest no-no in polyamory.
Many of us know we shouldn’t be playing the “better this way, better that way” game with our metamours. Wondering how we stack up against the “competition” (and indeed competition and zero sum thinking can be really bad for us).
Even if we struggle with a tendency to compare, we at least know that we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to our metamours.
But many times? We forget not to do that with our partners.
Sometimes this rears its ugly head when we view our partner as a rival.
And sometimes it’s when we fall into the trap of comparing the degree of their successes to our own — and being concerned that it isn’t “even.”
Sometimes that’s feeling bad that a partner is dating so much more than us.
And sometimes? It’s feeling bad that a partner is dating less than we are.
I’m going through an underdating phase myself at the moment. Been working a lot and focusing on other things. I am very interested in some women I know, but they are also very busy, and I’m taking an ent approach to the whole thing. We make out at parties, but for much more than that? I have lots of patience. I’m in no hurry. And after all, it’s fun to have something sexy to look forward to.
But I have had well-meaning friends suggest that because Justin is dating some that it would be good if I went out on more dates, sooner than I had planned. Or, as one friend put it, “It would be good for you to have something of your own going on.”
It was advice offered with the best of intentions, and on the surface it sounds great, but personally?
Instead of trying to date more evenly, I’d rather be at peace with things being uneven.
Think of it this way. You get a cute shrub for the front of the house. As you’re putting it in the ground, you notice something. It’s a little lopsided, isn’t it? You didn’t notice until you got into this position. Until you could see things from this angle.
So you grab the hedge clippers and trim off the excess. But as you step back, you realize: Oh wait. Now the other side is janky.
Snip, snip, snip.
Back and forth, back and forth.
And if you’re not careful, before you know it? That cute little shrub you were so excited about?
Wilted. Sad-looking. Nothing but bare spots.
Because here’s the thing: It’s easy to get into a vicious cycle – particularly if your partner is also concerned about things being even. For example, if I did go out looking for a lot of action, I might wrangle a whole slew of new folks into my life — and if Justin were also obsessed with things being “even,” he might respond to this by being concerned that he was now the relative underdater and feel as though he might need to pursue more relationships. Which would potentially make me feel like I need to date even more. And so on.
Before you know it, everyone’s polysaturated, maybe even oversaturated. And the whole system turns into a giant mess.
A sad little shrub with bare spots.
That Said, Comparison Is Virtually Unavoidable. It’s Not Making Comparisons Per Se But What We Do With Them.
That said, comparison is virtually unavoidable. Human beings are hardwired to compare. We do that. But really comparison at the most basic level is just about assessing similarity and dissimilarity.
The problem comes when you start ranking people. When you start assigning value to those differences.
And it’s a hard question to answer, how to get away from that practice of assigning value to those differences, because everybody’s emotional maze is different. It would be easiest if I could just give you a map, but directions that will set one person free might drive another into the wall.
So I’m sorry to say that there’s no one solution that’s going to work for everyone. When it comes to not worrying about how I stack up to metamours, I wrote in this piece about what works for me.
And when it comes to not worrying if I’m dating more or less than my partners, I’ve found that my best ally is taking the long view (not always easy for me, to act like Mothra when I’m naturally Godzilla).
Taking the Long View Is Difficult, But Worth It
It’s worth noting that since I originally wrote that piece a year and a half ago that the tables have turned. At one point I went from seeing no one else at all and being functionally mono/poly with Justin while he saw a few other people for over a year — and then all of a sudden I ended up taking on two new partners in the span of one month (I’m still with one of those partners, the other relationship didn’t work out and is over).
These days, Justin is the one dating a little less, and I’m the one dating a little more. For a brief period in the middle of that time, we were roughly “even.” But it wasn’t very long, when you could hold a ruler to our love lives and say, “Okay, this is basically the same level of dating other people.”
But you know what? It’s been fine. It was interesting to watch friends (even polyamorous ones) notice I wasn’t dating very much and jump in and insist I needed to date more actively simply because my nesting partner was. Even though I wasn’t emotionally distressed by the disparity (this wasn’t my first rodeo, you see, a former partner had dated waaaay more than I had for a time until the tables turned).
Anyway, I find that things do have a way of balancing out over time. I recognize that this is something that can be hard to believe and feel like a leap of faith when you don’t have a lot of experience, but it’s one of the biggest lessons from being polyamorous for so long: Taking the long view is sometimes difficult but is usually the better choice and tends to pay off.
It can be difficult enough to get yourself to believe it. To stop fretting at every little imbalance. Or, to put it another way, to stop picking up the phone when fear is calling you and instead let the call go to voicemail.
I found it personally took a lot of work to build up that kind of security and trust in the long view. That’s difficult enough on its own.
Doing the Work Yourself Is Hard Enough, You Can’t Do the Work for Someone Else
The real trouble, however, is that there’s no way to do that difficult work for someone else. They have to want to do it themselves. And even with the desire to do it, they still are the ones who are going to have to fight like hell through the worst parts. You can’t make them ignore the phone when fear is calling. They have to do that for themselves. And they have to really want to, not just when it’s easy but even when it gets hard.
When it gets hard, sometimes guilt is the result — whether that guilt stems from inside of you watching your partner struggle and other times your partner may actively lash out and guilt you.
Unnaturally Polyamorous People Experience Growing Pains and Some of Them Can Be Painful to Others
If the guilt doesn’t stem from inside you and comes from a partner who has consented to consensual non-monogamy but still continues to lash out and guilt you, it’s worth checking in to make sure that this is something they really want to be part of. Now, some people will say that if your partner struggles at all with negative emotions surrounding polyamory that this means that it isn’t something they should be doing at all. That you’re either naturally polyamorous or not. And a person who is used to monogamous relationships can’t adapt and be happy in a polyamorous relationship system.
A lot of people believe this. But I don’t. I believe it’s possible for a partner to be having a hard time adjusting and still want to learn to adapt and eventually be successful at it. And that’s because I effectively learned to become polyamorous. There are a significant number of people who don’t fall into nonmonogamy as a default relationship pattern and instead discover it later in life through chance, circumstance, seeking, learning, and growing. There’s no shame in this. It doesn’t make someone “less poly.” In fact, I am not naturally poly. Instead, I am proudly, unnaturally poly — in two senses:
- I have put a lot of intent and purposeful work into being as secure and as good a manager of multiple simultaneous relationships as I can possibly be — i.e., I’m not at my factory default settings.
- Oh good lord am I ever poly, unnaturally so. A ghoulishly poly glow arises from my eyes.
And let’s be real: Not all of this work was noble or pretty (I mean, my memoir about those times was called “dumpster fire in the middle of a clusterfuck…a ride and a half… 5/5” by one reviewer).
But am I happy I did it? Yep. So happy. It was hard work, to be sure, but the benefits from doing all that work were frankly huge.
Dealing with Guilt from Hurting a Partner
There were many times when I was doing the work where I said, “You know, I’m struggling a bit, but I don’t want you to stop what you’re doing. I want to overcome these feelings. I want to grow.”
And since that time, I’ve gone on to have partners who were struggling more than I was with insecurity or jealousy or doubt (which was wild the first time it happened), and I had to learn another skill I never had to: How to deal with guilt from jealousy I was causing that my partner told me that they wanted to work through. I had always been in the other position, the more jealous and/or insecure actor pretty much always.
I found that being on the other side of it presented a unique challenge, one I frankly hadn’t read other polyamorous educators addressing. Readers who want more help with that particular issue, should see this piece: Distressed By Another’s Jealousy: How to Deal with Guilt From Hurting a Partner.
Now, if a partner says they don’t want to adjust, that they don’t want to be polyamorous, then that’s another critter altogether. No one should be forced into a polyamorous relationship system. If it’s not the style of relationship that they really want, just as non-monogamous folks shouldn’t be forced to be monogamous. If someone wants a different relationship style than their partner, they can either try to find a compromise (perhaps a mono/poly arrangement or being monogamish, etc.) — or maybe they don’t date each other at all.
But there are plenty of circumstances that are somewhere in between where someone is working through jealousy or insecurity and wants to. And it just gets hard for a little while (or a lottle while).
And in those circumstances, it’s important to learn how to manage any reflexive guilt you might be feeling while they work through what they’re working through. How to limit its intensity in the moment and prevent it from being a chronic overarching stressor.
So It’s a Complicated Problem, But There’s Hope
In working with folks who have reported first night effect to me, I’ve found these re-guilting and re-shaming situations to be rare (especially in poly-positive, enthusiastic, supportive relationship systems like the one the original letter writer described to me), but it’s good to acknowledge that they exist.
Part of guilt and shame’s power is that it thrives in secrecy. I’ve often found that the first step to overcoming these kinds of insecurities is admitting them. And doing your best to surround yourself with supportive folks who understand where you’re coming from and want to help you work through it.
For folks who are re-guilting and re-shaming due to past or present trauma, there’s often a strong role that therapy can play in reshaping those unhelpful self-beliefs.
Again, none of this is easy work, but emotional work has a way of paying off in a variety of areas — whether you’re mono, poly, or ambi.
I’m encouraged to find that while polyamory is far from mainstream that public acceptance has come leaps and bounds over the past decade that I’ve been tracking such things. There are more polyamorous-aware professionals than ever before. A great number of counselors who are LGTBQ friendly are becoming increasingly aware and knowledgable about polyamorous relationships, even in systems involving straight people. You can often find poly-aware counselors locally via word of mouth, and there are also searchable directories online (for example, this one by Tristan Taormino or this one from NCSF, technically caleld kink-aware professionals but full of poly-aware providers).
The number of positive news features coming out about polyamory and open relationships, too, has exploded over the last decade — as have fictional depictions (for example, Sense8 or Steven Universe, etc.).
Sure, I know it has a long way to go. That polyamory is still far from mainstream. But it does give me hope to see such trends. And I do think that other aspects of polyamorous guilt will become easier to manage as public acceptance continues to increase.