I’ve been practicing polyamory for three years. Right now I have two serious partners. Both of them have sex with other people occasionally, but not with any regularity. My jealousy isn’t nonexistent, but it’s manageable.
My big problem is that once my partners either a) show an interest in someone or b) have sex with them, I immediately do not want to spend any time with that person. I barely want to make eye contact (avoidance much?).
I just don’t want to imagine my partners having sex with these people. My avoidance achieves this for the most part, but I know I’m missing out on valuable and lovely social experiences because of this, AND I’m disappointing my loved ones.
— Avid Avoider
First, not all non-monogamous relationships are required to include interactions with partners’ partners in order to be successful. The boundaries of all relationships (monogamous or not) are able to be negotiated to best suit the emotional and mental health of all players involved and/or if negotiations don’t find a successful resolution, it’s okay for anyone involved to deem the relationship as not a good fit. In my experience, it can’t be overstated enough that “non-monogamous” is not equivalent with “boundary-less” or “anything goes.”
I find it interesting that you differentiate here between your jealousy (which you describe as “manageable”) and your desire to entirely avoid your metamours (FYI: a term used in the non-monogamous community to describe the partners of your partner). It makes me wonder, what’s fueling your avoidance if it’s not at least somewhat related to feelings of jealousy?
Are there ways you successfully manage your jealousy that can be applied to managing the fear leading you to avoidance? Are you good at reframing negative self-talk? Do you have effective ways of caretaking yourself and your feelings during a jealous spell (a…jelly-spell?) that could work here? Do you turn towards your feelings of security and value in your partnerships that could bolster you in this context as well?
Also, what is The Big Scary you’re avoiding by not making eye contact with these lovers of your lovers? Self-comparison? Inadequacy? Good ol’ fashioned FOMO? Are these fears, ultimately, survivable? (I say, “Yes, probably”).
You say you manage to dodge the intrusive thoughts of your partners and their lovers having what could only be the hottest and most amazing and most photogenic sex ever (and, let’s be real, no one who has been actively non-monogamous has been spared these mental images). But like… are you??
Are you really avoiding these mental images and intrusive thoughts? Or, are you just keeping yourself from the opportunity to adjust to these people and your unpleasant fantasies about them WHILE you’re simultaneously keeping yourself from social time with your partners AND probably STILL having these intrusive thoughts? Most people who experience intense reactions to a thought to the point of avoiding its trigger entirely aren’t actually successfully free of The Big Scary attached to those thoughts.
I sort of wonder if some casual “exposure therapy” is in order here. Meaning, what would it be like to gradually face these fears and thoughts rather than keep them in the dainty little glass cabinet called Avoidance you’ve stored them in, leaving them untouched and, ultimately, perfectly intact?
Maybe this looks like spending more time with these partners so that you can prove to yourself that even if it’s challenging, it’s survivable. Maybe it’s talking to a friend or therapist about what you imagine this hot, avoidable sex to be like just to get it out of your head and dispel some of its power over you. Maybe it’s asking your partners for specific words or actions of support as you work on this “exposure therapy.”
Fuck it, maybe it’s totally leaning in entirely and just straight up fantasizing about your partners with their other partners a la “erotic compersion,” defined as taking literal sexual pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with another person (remember: privately fantasizing is not a hurtful activity as it exists only in your mind!).
Whatever you do, the only way to stop avoiding is to stop avoiding. Otherwise we never allow ourselves to learn that what we fear is not so scary after all.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.