A while back, some friends of mine, Margo and Emily, had their first foray into polyamory as a couple. They’d already been sexually open for a little while, having occasional threesomes with another friend (who had an anchor relationship of his own). But neither of them had another ongoing relationship, nor a connection where there were strong romantic emotions.
That was their line basically. Outside sex was fun, but they were romantically and emotionally monogamous.
But one day that changed. Margo and Emily met Sheila, someone new that had an instant connection with Emily. And seeing the natural connection, Margo encouraged her partner Emily to start dating Sheila.
It was an incredibly gracious act. Margo was likely to get little to nothing selfishly out of the arrangement. And to do so meant that she’d likely have to sacrifice time with Emily — time that was already quite scarce due to the fact that they worked different schedules and had different days off. It was already rather typical for the two of them not to see each other for several days due to this (other than the time when they slept, as they shared a bed).
Margo worked first shift, Emily worked second shift. Even worse, Sheila also worked first shift. Margo and Sheila working the same shift meant that time with Emily would be zero sum, out of necessity, save for times that the three of them hung as a group (something that could happen a bit, but everyone would eventually want or need private time).
But Margo encouraged Emily to see Sheila anyway. Because Margo could see the spark, the chemistry between them. And Margo loved Emily and wanted her to be happy.
Margo had been on the kink scene for a long time, something like 20 years. She’d seen plenty of nontraditional relationships in that time, had plenty herself. She’d even been part of a polyamorous web in the past, albeit never as half of a cohabiting couple. The connections Margo’d had then had been more casual, more fluid. She’d never combined what she personally considered to be a very serious relationship with emotional non-monogamy.
I was excited for them. You never know how things will turn out, but frankly, Margo had a lot more experience compared to your average newcomer to polyamory. And Margo and Emily have one of the best relationships I’ve ever seen. When they started dating, I heard that audible click of extreme compatibility. They’re amazing together.
Emily started dating Sheila. Things started out rather promisingly. Everyone seemed quite happy. But things quickly unraveled.
There were a number of factors involved. First, the scheduling conflicts were even worse in practice than they’d seemed in theory, especially when Emily started wanting to spend the night at Sheila’s place (an eventuality that I believe Margo didn’t anticipate). Margo had a really tough time with this because it made it likely now that there would be times she wouldn’t see Emily for even longer stretches of time, asleep or not.
Further, while Margo had a decent amount of experience with non-monogamy, Sheila had considered herself not only monogamous but straight up until falling for Emily. Sheila was shell shocked and taken aback by all of the new things she was learning about herself. Not only was this her first same sex experience, but her new partner had a fiancee. Sheila had no psychological scripts for anything that was happening, and as a result, Sheila kept inadvertently saying things that were deeply hurtful to Margo. And as Margo was already experiencing upset over the scheduling issues and reduced time, the stuff Sheila was saying kept hitting Margo when she was already down.
Margo watched in horror as she began to feel bitter and say things (mostly privately) that were just as rancorous and upsetting as what Sheila was saying to her face. Margo couldn’t believe what was coming out of her mouth, how resentful she was becoming.
Emily’s lack of experience with emotional non-monogamy was also showing (as I mentioned, Emily and Margo had shared a friend with benefits prior to this, but there was no emotional or romantic connection with him, it was strictly sexual). Emily suddenly found herself in the overstressed hinge role, stuck between the wants and needs of her two lovers. And Emily seemed to be ping-ponging desperately between Margo and Sheila, trying to placate both’s anxieties, and in doing so, often making the situation worse (as Margo at least could see that Emily wasn’t being completely honest in her reassurances and sensed that Emily was censoring out unpleasant things, which was eroding trust between them).
Sheila was afraid to let Emily know about a lot of her doubts and insecurities (for example, worry that she’d eventually lose Emily to Margo, confusion about this sudden shift in her sexual identity and orientation, etc.) and kept bypassing Emily and instead coming to Margo for emotional support (plus, the fact that both Margo and Sheila were on first shift made this quite easy). Which was making Margo’s head boil. Since Sheila kept saying things quite indelicately, to put it lightly.
It was a powder keg. Finally, everything blew up.
It was a real shame. Of the three of them, I knew Sheila the least well, although I did eventually run into her at a coffee shop some months after her relationship with Emily ended. I was amused that she recognized me (I guess Margo and Emily had talked about me and showed her pictures, which I suppose makes sense as they had showed me pictures of her as well). Anyway, Sheila was just as Margo and Emily had described her to me. Sheila had her own (frankly understandable) gripes about the situation, but she also seemed quite happy as we spoke. She admitted that it had sucked when things fell apart with Emily but that now she was quite happy that it had ended. And she revealed that she was now in what she really wanted: A monogamous relationship.
As I spoke with Sheila, I could see why Margo had suggested she date Emily. I personally liked Sheila instantly. Sheila seemed like a very nice and sweet person.
They all are, actually, all three of them. I love Margo and Emily — they remain among some of my closest friends.
But the V didn’t work out.
I talked to Margo a bunch after everything exploded. She seemed rather devastated. It had been a hit to her self-confidence, her identity. She told me that she’d thought of herself as “that super poly lady” before it happened (on account of all her experience with sexual non-monogamy and as being part of a large polyamorous web). And yet, she hadn’t been able to make it work.
I’m not sure I ever said the right thing to her, what she needed to hear. But I tried my best to communicate that having a really monogamous vanilla metamour who still preferred monogamy and was confused about polyamory’s very existence likely drew upon skills Margo never had to access before. Her former web was crammed full of polyamorous veterans, long-time presences on the kink scene. This new situation was humbling and posed challenges she’d never before encountered — it made her defensive in an unprecedented way.
In my experience, having done it twice now with two different partners, opening up a relationship that’s closed is a different emotional process and draws upon different emotional mechanisms than establishing connections that are polyamorous from the start and always will be. My husband (essentially solo poly before people really called it that or had a word for it) has confirmed that it also went that way for him: That opening up a closed relationship provided attachment threats and security challenges that were completely different than when he had been living on his own and established every new connection with the expectation that it would start out polyamorous and remain so.
Entangled polyamory opening up from a closed status can be a real head trip… even under ideal circumstances. And these weren’t ideal circumstances. Margo was the only person in the V that had any experience with emotional non-monogamy, and she’d never tackled emotional non-monogamy in an entangled relationship.
The last time I talked with them about this, Margo and Emily had resolved that their relationship would likely continue to be sexually open but have no plans to be emotionally open again. Never say never, I suppose. But my thought is that it’s likely to be a while, if it does ever happen.
On Packing Your Ego in Mothballs
“You know,” I say to Justin. “Looking at everything that happened, I’m not surprised that it didn’t work out. Polyamory can have enough challenges when everyone involved has chosen it. Throw in a person or two who didn’t choose it at all and really would rather be monogamous, whoo boy, it tests you at a whole other level.”
He nods. “That’s why I’m always careful when I’m looking at profiles online. I try to only connect with people who either have it listed on their profile that they’re looking for something non-monogamous or if we have a high match percentage on those specific questions.”
“Mmm…” I say. “It takes a certain kind of fortitude, a non-defensiveness, introducing polyamory to people who would rather be monogamous. You basically have to pack your ego in mothballs and not take the offensive things about polyamory they say personally.”
“You did that back in Maine a lot when you were first polyamorous, didn’t you? Because you couldn’t find any polyamorous people, you were dating all monogamous people who were confused about what polyamory even was. Thought it was a weird idea.”
“Yeah,” I say. “And I’m not the only who has, or does.” I bring up a friend (and ex-boyfriend) who seems to do it a lot now, before adding, “Bless his heart.”
Justin laughs. “Indeed.”
“I’m sure it works out sometimes,” I say. “Statistically it has to, right? Surprise polyamory to which they’re initially opposed? I mean, never say never.”
“I just never had it work out that way for me,” I continue. “And I’ve never seen it work out for anybody else, not for more than a few months, onboarding a monogamous person who’s 99% opposed… I could see it working with a monogamous person who was polycurious. But 99% opposed? 90% opposed? 70%? I dunno… percentages are weird here, I suppose.”
“You’ve dated those, too, yeah? Polycurious people?”
I nod. I pause before adding, “You know, Justin, if you did for some reason start to date a monogamous person who’s dubious about polyamory–”
“Why would I do that?” he interjects.
“I dunno why Hypothetical Justin does anything. But let’s just analyze his behavior anyway,” I say.
“If you did date this monogamous person who thinks polyamory is sketchy and feels kind of contentious towards me, says hurtful things or whatever,” I continue, undeterred, “I think it would be a big challenge for me. I do.”
“Of course,” he says.
“But you know what?” I say. “For you, I’d do it. I’d be as gracious as I possibly could be. I’d turn it up to 11. And I’d ignore anything she said that rubbed me the wrong way. Pack my ego in mothballs, you know? I never could have done that the first few years I was polyamorous. I was too unsure of myself, too defensive about my unconventional life. But now I could.”
“Well, I don’t think you’re ever going to have to do it. It sounds like a giant pain. I don’t need to try to be someone’s sherpa, especially someone who would rather be monogamous.”
“Yeah, I could see you getting tired of it really fast,” I admit. “But you know, if you met someone really special that you just clicked with, but she was all leery of polyamory and the fact that you were married, I’d make my side of it work for you.”
“Awww,” he says. “Don’t worry. It’s not gonna happen. I wouldn’t want to subject you to that, to a metamour who I knew right out of the gate was going to make your life super stressful.”
“Well, I’m ready if it ever does happen,” I say.”For what it’s worth, I actually don’t blame Margo for not being able to stand it. Listening to her talk about it, I think with all of my experience with polyamory, with all of the security work I’ve done, with how comfortable and non-defensive I am about the fact that I’m polyamorous, with how much I trust you personally and your own high level of judgement and experience, that we could just barely do it, as two-thirds of that vee. Even then, I’d likely suffer an awful lot while doing it. And there’s a good chance even if we did everything we could to make it easier for them that your new partner would rage quit of their own accord anyway, even if we had our parts of the dynamic down pat.”
He hugs me. “You really love me,” he says, after a long pause.
Anyway, I think it’s something important to consider: If your partner is going to date someone who would prefer monogamy, who is reluctantly polyamorous, there’s likely to come a time when you’ll have to pack your ego in mothballs.
And if that’s something you aren’t going to be able to do, it might just be better to stay away from those arrangements altogether.
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