I’m in a relationship with someone who I really love and we’ve been together for three-ish months. Before we started dating he knew I wasn’t a huge fan of monogamy, but I agreed I would try and now I’m feeling trapped. He’s so important to me and I don’t want to lose him. I guess I don’t know how to talk to him about it because I want to be in an open relationship, but I’m worried he will get super mad. Help!
— Oh No, I’m Monogo
Hi Oh No!,
When a monogamous person hears the telltale phrase “We should see other people,” they’re more likely to hear “I’m breaking up with you” and not “… AND keep seeing each other in an open and mutually satisfying relationship!”
Because monogamy has long been the preferred Western relationship style — what with the institution of marriage and fairytales — the monogamous mindset is a strong one that many of us take for granted. This means that when you tell your boyfriend that you want to be non-monogamous, rather than coming across as a valid, natural, or viable option, this might instead sound like a direct threat to your relationship.
A common response to emotional pain or threat is anger, especially when interpreted through male socialization. So yes, it’s possible that he may express anger when what he really feels is pain and fear. Unless this expression of anger is dangerous or abusive to you or him, it doesn’t need to be a reason to avoid stating your non-monogamous desires.
You say you don’t want to lose him, but if you decide not to tell him what is true for you, you will. Maybe not now, but certainly later.
My advice is to be both firm in what you do and do not want out of your relationship with him and also prepared with some options for him to look into for himself such as resources about polyamory from monogamous people (morethantwo.com has a whole section devoted to the complexity of navigating polyamorous/monogamous couplings). Give him the space to feel the big feelings and move through them rather than stuff them down (again, unless they are dangerous or abusive to you or himself).
Before you talk with him, sit down with yourself and determine what it is you envision for your relationship with him moving forward. Are you willing to open things slowly to help him build trust? Or do you want a wide-open, date-and-love whoever, polyamorous relationship right away? While it may feel completely out of his realm to consider the latter, maybe he’s willing to take some babysteps a la the former. Giving him a timeframe can also be reassuring to take the pressure off of figuring it all out by this weekend but instead looking at working on opening things up over the next couple of months.
Whether a developing non-monogamous relationship is fresh between first-timers or old news between poly pros, I’m always a fan of starting with trust-building agreements. These smaller steps allow partners to start by testing their least scary boundary first (“Make-out with a beautiful stranger, but no sex yet”) in order to build trust in their partner, themselves, and the relationship before gradually moving outwards towards bravery from there (“Invite your other long-term partner to Thanksgiving, babe, it’ll be swell!”).
Your boyfriend may want to remain monogamous to you even though you want to practice non-monogamy on your side of the street. This is a tough configuration to navigate but a possible one, too. While his hard work may be more obvious in that case, your work will be to learn your partner’s emotional user manual well so you can deftly keep him feeling safe and secure without the (often false) illusion of safety found in an entirely polyamorous coupling. And, to state your boundaries, wants, and desires clearly and confidently with compassion. So, start practicing now!
No matter your desired outcome, it’s crucially important that you are clear and upfront about your relational needs before y’all move forward with your relationship or you don’t stand a great chance of being happy, no matter how good you are at hiding resentments.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex resources, advice, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.