COMMON PITFALLS IN OPEN RELATIONSHIPS
Many people who are in a primary relationship stumble into an outside relationship either by choice or by chance, and once involved, things can go beautifully or can go terribly awry. Here are some of the most common problems that develop and some ideas for either avoiding them or effectively addressing them should they arise.
The most typical poly dilemmas are inevitably created if the partner that has an outside relationship devotes too much time and energy to the new relationship and to some extent ignores or neglects the partner at home.
On the one hand, this is understandable as a new romance, even if casual or “secondary,” is often imbued with that infamous “New Relationship Energy,” or NRE, which involves a lot of fantasy and projection. When we first get involved with someone, we imagine them to be the perfect person and ideal romantic partner we have been longing for, since we don't know them very well yet and do not know all their bad habits and annoying behaviors. There is an unbeatable combination of novelty, mystery, and chemistry, mixed with our own romantic fantasies and the fact that our new partner is on their best behavior and trying to impress us by exhibiting their most attractive qualities. So there is some excuse for getting distracted by the “shiny new toy” aspect of a hot new love affair and want to spend a lot of time exploring this new person and thinking about them obsessively.
On the other hand, it is understandable that the partner who is left at home will feel extremely hurt and threatened by this new relationship that seems to be taking over your life. So some compromise must be struck between the compelling desire to bask in this fun and exciting new experience and the primary partner's need for reassurance, security, and attention.
The most common problems growing out of this tension between competing needs are what I call demotion, displacement, and intrusion. I will discuss each of these problems briefly.
Demotion: The primary partner has previously had you all to him or herself, and has not had to share your time, affection, attention, and loyalty with another lover. Most partners take this hegemony for granted without thinking about it explicitly. When a new partner enters the picture, suddenly the primary partner feels demoted from “the one and only” to being one of two partners. This is a huge shock and very distressing to anyone who is experiencing it for the first time. We have no particular training for sharing our lover's romantic attention with someone else, and most people find it so disorienting and painful that they describe it in words like, “I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach” or “I suddenly felt I didn't know what my place was anymore or what my status was in my partner's life.” Some amount of demotion is inevitable as some portion of the partner's attention will necessarily be diverted from the primary relationship to the new partner. Everyone has to face the undeniable reality that things are different now than when the relationship was exclusively monogamous, and we can no longer depend on having a monopoly on our partner's romantic energy. It doesn't mean our partner loves us less or that we are less important to them, it just means there is another person who has some small claim on our partner's time and affection. Making this adjustment is usually painful and takes time. This transition can be eased by clear and loving communication about how this will affect the primary relationship. Both people need to articulate their needs and negotiate what the partners can reasonable expect from each other. How much time will our partner be spending with this new person? What kind of boundaries will bracket that relationship? What kind of activities are allowed and what will be off-limits and reserved for the primary relationship? The partner who has initiated an outside relationship can reduce their partner's anxiety and jealousy through frequent reassurances of their commitment to the relationship and by consistently keeping agreements in order to foster greater trust.
During this initial transition, the partner who is feeling “demoted” often reports experiencing sadness, betrayal, distrust, a sense of loss and grieving, fears of abandonment. The partner often makes the situation worse by denying that there is any loss, ridiculing or dismissing their partner's fears, and stressing that this new development will enhance the primary relationship. While this is sincere and is intended to reassure the partner that they have nothing to fear and that the primary relationship is not in jeopardy, it is bound to backfire by making the partner feel invalidated. Instead, it is important to acknowledge that their partner has lost something: they have lost the primacy of being the one and only lover, and they need to grieve that loss even though in the long run the new relationship may have an overall positive effect on the primary relationship which may outweigh that loss.
Some people have such intense reactions to this that there may be some past trauma that is being triggered or old wounds re-opened. For instance, one man thought he would be fine with his wife having outside partners. However, when she did become romantically involved with another man, he had panic attacks and episodes of rage. He eventually realized the source of this reaction. For him, this situation was very reminiscent of his childhood, as he was an only child until he was 10 years old, when his parents had another child. He experienced intense sibling rivalry with his baby brother as he felt betrayed by his parents for demoting him from the “one and only” to one of two sons. With the birth of a sibling, things will never be the same again, as the children will always have to share their parents love, loyalty, time, and attention. This entails loss and grief, even if eventually the joy of having a sibling outweighs the loss of the parents' total devotion. With an open relationship, it is inevitable that there will be some loss and grief when someone who had a monopoly on their partner's romantic attention has to share that status with another lover.
In another example, a woman experienced intense episodes of jealousy and felt completely betrayed when her female primary partner became involved with another woman. In counseling it emerged that she had been raised by a single mother and had her undivided love and attention. Her mother married a new man when she was 9 years old and she was devastated that a big portion of her mother's love and attention was now being diverted to the husband, and she felt ignored and left out. The new poly situation was bringing back those same feelings of shock, betrayal and exclusion. She needed to work through those feelings and realize that she was no longer a helpless child and as an adult she could take care of herself and ask for what she needed to feel safe. For those of us who find that our reactions are more extreme than seem warranted, counseling or a support group may help you discover the origin of these feelings and learn to separate past trauma from the present poly situation.
Displacement refers to the experience of feeling that a partner's outside relationship is beginning to receive so much time, attention, and loyalty that it is crowding out the primary relationship. This is a common mistake of people who are trying out an open relationship for the first time, but unfortunately many people repeat this mistake numerous times with subsequent partners. Because the outside relationship is new, unpredictable, tenuous, and mysterious, there is a tendency to become infatuated and pursue the new partner intensely. Since the primary relationship is stable, secure, and familiar, it is often taken for granted while the new relationship gets more of the romantic attention. The partner at home feels abandoned, unloved, and disrespected, and begins to feel that they are being displaced by the new person. Often their partner exacerbates the situation by spending too much time seeing the new partner, calling or emailing the new partner, making lots of romantic gestures like cards, gifts, and affection, while ignoring the primary partner's need for romantic attention.
While some feelings of displacement are likely to occur, they can be minimized if the partner with the outside relationship is diligent in providing adequate time, attention, and loving gestures to the primary partner as well as the new partner. Spending quality time together and having special dates, as well as giving romantic attention to the primary partner can go a long way towards reassuring them of our love, commitment, and intention to sustain the relationship.
Some people have expressed confusion about the difference between demotion and displacement, and in fact they are similar. However, demotion is about the change in status of the primary relationship, as the partner no longer has an exclusive relationship and no longer has the same rights and roles as before. Displacement is more about the loss of time, loyalty, and attention, and having to learn to share aspects of their partner with another. So demotion is about loss of status and roles, while displacement is more about logistics and the practical reality of less time and attention from your partner.
This refers to the way an outside relationship has the tendency to invade the time and space of the primary relationship and make the primary partner feels unsafe in the relationship. What often happens is that the outside relationship starts to interrupt the time being spent with the primary partner, through phone calls, emails, or visits.
When we are spending time with our primary partner, we may feel the need or desire to stay in close contact with the other partners, and may spend a little or a lot of time phoning, texting, emailing them, or chatting with them on-line, when we are “supposed” to be giving your attention to the primary partner at that moment. This can be very painful for the present partner whether we do this openly in front of them or excuse ourselves and leave the room or do it surreptitiously such as while they are in the shower or sleeping. This can be especially difficult to manage at the beginning of a new relationship, when passion and infatuation are high, and there is often excess drama that feels compelling to resolve. At the same time the primary partner's anxieties and jealousy is likely to be higher at the beginning of a new relationship and they are likely to be even more sensitive to the other partner invading their time and space.
Other relationships can also intrude in less obvious ways, such as one partner being too tired for sex after staying out late the night before with the other partner, or being distant and distracted during a date because of some intense drama or trauma going on in the new relationship. We may make the mistake of talking way too much about the new relationship letting discussions about that relationship take over the time we spend with our primary partner. Scheduling conflicts and logistics can also feel very invasive to the primary relationship. Now that there is a new person in the picture, schedules need to be renegotiated to include dates with both partners, and special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries need to be taken into considerations. How will the new relationship affect vacation and travel plans? Will there be a reluctance to take trips because the new partner will be left alone? Is it okay to take a weekend trip or longer vacation with the new partner? All these possibilities can make the primary partner feel unsafe, as if their world is no longer secure and everything is up for grabs.
It is even more painful if in fact we are gradually beginning to spend more and more time with the new partner, triggering a fear of being abandoned and replaced by this new partner. Often the person having the new relationship is under the influence of lust and infatuation, and feels so motivated to pursue this exciting new love affair that they ignore their primary partner's pleas for time and attention. They rationalize that they must focus on the new partner to solidify that relationship or it may not survive. At the same time, they see the primary relationship as stable and secure. As a result, they take their relationship for granted and fail to grasp that it needs maintenance and sustenance in order to thrive. The damage done by neglect during this phase can often be fatal to the primary relationship.
This is because the primary partner is experiencing a scarcity of time and romance with their partner, and their pleas for their partner to focus attention on the relationship fall on deaf ears. As one man said, “Not only was she spending most of her time with this other guy, whenever I tried to tell her how I felt she ignored me and didn't seem to care that I was very unhappy.” Eventually they feel so abandoned and humiliated that they are likely to leave the relationship, because the cumulative affect of unmet needs will necessitate them shifting their own relationship energy elsewhere to another partner (or partners) who will be more attentive and available. Unfortunately, it is only at the point that the primary partner decides to end the relationship that the partner usually takes their demands seriously, because they have been oblivious and naively believed that the relationship was secure. And by then it is usually too late to repair the damage, as their partner is already on their way out the door, and feels so mistreated and distrustful they are unlikely to be deterred.
Some amount of intrusion is inevitable in any open relationship, as it is impossible to neatly compartmentalize relationships so completely that no relationship will ever intrude in any way on another. It is likely that there will be times when one partner is in acute need, such as needing to be driven to the Emergency Room in the middle of a date with the primary partner, or having a “poly meltdown” and needing to talk at a very inconvenient moment. There will also be likely to be a few “oops” moments in any poly relationship, such as accidentally scheduling a date with one partner on the other partner's birthday and having to humbly ask to reschedule. And there will also be moment when we are distracted by something going on in an outside relationship and may need to make contact with that partner while at home or on a date with our primary partner. These do not have to be catastrophic, and can be handled rationally by most partners as long as they don't happen too often and have some valid reason.
Like most things about open relationships, these small intrusions usually become much easier to handle the longer the relationship goes on. This is especially true if we treat both our primary partner and outside partners lovingly and respectfully, listening carefully to their experiences and their feelings and making a good faith effort to meet their needs and avoid pushing their buttons. Some of the charge goes out of the situation after a while as all partners prove themselves to be reliable and trustworthy, and give each other more slack as time goes on.
I usually suggest that each person give each of their partners three “Get out of jail free” cards. What I mean by this is that we just assume that there will be some intrusions that will cause us pain, and that our partners will be likely to make a few mistakes on the learning curve in balancing their own needs and the needs of multiple partners. Each time some intrusion happens that creates great distress for us, they use up one of their “Get out of jail free” cards. Hopefully they will try their best to avoid hurting us and it will take them awhile to use up all three cards. By then it is likely that we will be much more accustomed to the situation and much more tolerant of occasional invasions into our relationship, and our partner will have a much better skill set to avoid repeating their mistakes.
In the meantime, it is important to establish some boundaries about how much, how often, and in what ways the outside relationship may intrude on the primary relationship. By the same token it is important to make agreements on how much the primary relationship can intrude on outside relationships, as those relationships deserve protection as well.
Some couples establish guidelines on whether it is okay for someone to phone, email, or text the another partner while in the presence of one partner. Some people decide it is fine to discreetly email the other partner while you are on your computer doing other things anyway. Some agree to text or phone their other partners while the present partner is occupied doing something else, such as on the phone with relatives or putting the kids to bed. Some agree that it is fine to leave the room and call or email a partner, as long as a specific time limit is kept, so that it does not drain too much time or connection away from the present partner or trigger abandonment fears. There is no right or wrong way to do this, as long as everyone is comfortable with the situation and can tolerate the degree of intrusion involved.
Many couples find it most difficult to manage the more subtle intrusions, such as talking too much about outside partners, or being tired or emotionally unavailable due to thinking about or spending too much time on outside relationships. Sometimes it helps to commit to more time together, even if it means taking time away from work or some other activity to give the primary relationship more attention. Going to a poly support group or social group can help as you can talk with others about what works for them and can see healthy models of working out these conflicts. Often couples counseling can help navigate these perilous situations and give both partners a “reality check” on reasonable expectations and standards of behavior.
If you are experiencing an intolerable degree of displacement, demotion, and intrusion in your relationship, you are in poly hell and need to intervene in order to stabilize your relationship. Sometimes counseling is necessary to help turn things around if one partner is not responding to their partner's needs.