Too Much Love Will Kill You

Friday, January 08, 2010

Question

After a year and a half of love, hope, despair and all the best intentions, my girlfriend and I have decided to end our relationship, which was non-monogamous. It was the first go at this type of relationship for both of us, and we were intent on doing it right. At times we did it well, but in the end it seemed like it was the thing that tore us apart. When it worked, it worked; when it didn't, it really didn't. It often seemed we had different goals and ways of approaching it.

I don't want to give up on non-monogamy altogether. I hate the idea of holding myself and a partner back from exploring, but I'm left with the feeling that I might be a lunatic for ever having tried it. Am I crazy to think it will ever work for me?

Anthony

Answer

I've been wrestling with non-monogamy for many years, and I'll be honest, it's been quite a brawl. I often feel that unmentionable-within-the-community combination of envy and suspicion toward people who seem to manage it well.

I can have casual sex and remain committed to my partner, but at times it's impossible to grasp that my partner can do the same. Yet I remain — idiotically, perhaps — dedicated to this model because I know when I do figure it out with the right person, it will give me what I need, goddamn it.

Maybe that means only sleeping with other people together; maybe it means getting to know my girlfriend or boyfriend's lovers so they're not so overblown in my imagination; maybe it means getting old and tired enough not to give a shit who my partner is banging. I don't know yet.

What you've learned is that people approach this model with many, many different intentions and needs, and that these can shift and change over time. Non-monogamy can be exhilarating when it works, but when it's challenging, it's gut-wrenching. The bottom line: in every relationship, each person's expectations and personality deeply affect its chances of success.

It's easy to assume when we meet someone who also chooses non-monogamy (not polyamory — that's a whole other kettle of fish) that this commonality implies others. Overjoyed (and sometimes a little smug) to meet someone else who's chosen a sexually unconventional lifestyle, we forget to read the fine print. Or we read the fine print but, as feelings change, it gets blurry.

Non-monogamists often express frustration when monogamists say people choose non-monogamy because they can't commit. While I understand that irritation, I can also see that non-monogamy may allow people to keep others, even their primary partner, at a distance.

Just as a lot of people default to monogamy because they can't handle jealousy, some default to non-monogamy because they can't tolerate their independence being compromised. Fair enough. They've found a way to maintain their autonomy. Their loyalty to their relationship per se is not up for debate, but it is very much on terms that can feel incompatible with real intimacy.

I think the only way to know what you want out of this type of relationship is the same as in any other: experiment, perhaps painfully, until you recognize your own needs and limitations and are able to express them clearly.

But again, even when you've been clear, things can sometimes change radically. Welcome to getting involved with people and pulling your pants down in front of them no matter what model you choose. If you haven't read it already, Tristan Taormino's Opening Up (Cleis Press) is a book you might want to look at. Taormino interviews more than 100 couples who have done non-monogamy in its countless variations, and they share with her their successes and failures. It's a good guide to have along on your voyage.

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