Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My Wife's Boyfriend Wants Her to Be Monogamous -- With Him!

Dear Viny,

I'm married in an open/poly way. Actually my wife and I had together a girlfriend in the past (but it didn't work out so well). She still has (kind of) a boyfriend. The thing I'm bothered about is the fact that he wants to go monogamous with her. I've already told her to talk to him and explain that that will never be possible, but she likes him very much. I, on the other hand, don't have currently a girlfriend or a fixed partner. Actually I can go out with girls, but I can't seem to find any girl interested in joining an existing open relationship (we live in Berlin, Germany). Also, to make matters worse, I tend to fall in love easily with the girls I go out with, only to painfully find out later that they never even considered anything serious to be possible with me. My question is: how to handle such a relationship and such expectations? I'd appreciate if you could help me.

– D.


Dear D.,

Although you have asked a general question – you want to know how you and your wife can maintain a committed open relationship, given that the people in your dating pool seem to simply assume that any serious relationship entails sexual exclusivity – I would like to begin with the three specific concerns you mention.

Concern #1: Your wife's 'kind-of' boyfriend wants her to be monogamous with him, and you have told her to tell him this isn't possible, “but she likes him very much.” Whoa, wait a minute: what?! Is your wife actually entertaining the idea of ending her sexual relationship with you, so as to give this other guy what he wants? Or is she merely hoping to string him along, because she is worried that saying a firm “no” to monogamy with him will mean the end of their relationship? I would suggest that the first thing you do is get clear on why your wife is resisting this much-needed talk with her boyfriend. The foundation of every successful relationship is mutual trust and respect. And, in my opinion, trust and respect is best fostered by being who you say you are. If your wife would be willing to change the parameters of her relationship with you in order to please her boyfriend, then she needs to tell you so. If, on the other hand, she is not willing to change the parameters of her relationship with you, then she needs to be upfront with her boyfriend about where she stands. She cannot hope to have a healthy relationship with either of you unless she understands her own priorities and is willing to be honest about them.

Concern #2: You can't find anyone who is interested in joining an existing open relationship. Well, my friend, join the club! And by that, I mean the club my boyfriend and I went to a couple of weeks ago, where we spotted a coltish beauty dressed up as a unicorn, horn and all. (We assumed, of course, that her costume was a deliberate advertisement to couples searching for that rarest of beasts: the hot bi babe whose sole ambition in life is to be a third wheel on the Tricycle of Love.) Seriously, though, “we can't find someone who wants to date both of us” is a very common complaint among couples in open marriages. There are different philosophies about how to deal with this problem, but I think relationships should be allowed to develop organically. The successful triads I know all formed in one of three ways: either one member of a couple formed an intimate relationship with a third person, who then, over time, became closer to the other member of the couple; or an open couple and a single person started out as friends only, and eventually, with no pressure from the couple whatsoever, the single person became curious enough to ask about exploring something more; or two couples got together and one person dropped out of the quad. Remember, relationships between three individuals are four times more complicated than relationships between two people [A+B, A+C, B+C, and A+B+C vs. simply A+B], and therefore they take more time to develop and require more time to maintain. I think it's unwise to go looking for someone who is ready to sign up for a serious relationship with a couple without some pre-existing intimacy – either romantic intimacy with one member of the couple, or friendly intimacy with both. If you did manage to find such a person, the relationship would be unlikely to work out in the long run.

Concern #3: You keep getting your heart broken, because you are looking for love from the women you date, and the women you date are merely looking for a good time. In other words, what you want doesn't match up with what they want. So, I have to ask you: what are you doing to communicate your hopes, desires, and expectations to the women you go out with, and what are you doing to encourage them to communicate theirs to you? Do you present your situation accurately, or are you being misleading? Yes, I get it that nothing screams “Fun!” like a two-hour conversation about relationship expectations. I'm not suggesting that you bring your NVC manual and a talking stick on every first date. I'm suggesting that you hold off on falling in love with people until you get to know each other well enough to have a real conversation about what each of you is looking for. (Okay, maybe you can't hold off on falling in love – but you can hold off on developing expectations about exactly where the relationship is going to go, and try to just enjoy what is there, even if it isn't everything you're hoping it might turn out to be. The problem is that you are becoming attached to a certain outcome before you know whether that outcome is even possible.)

Now, to answer the question you asked. There is a simple solution to your dilemma, but it's not a quick fix. It will take time and patience and an unwavering commitment to showing up as your real self in all your relationships.

Are you ready? Here it is: restrict your dating pool to people who already identify as non-monogamous. It may be more difficult for you and your wife to find such people where you live, but I'm pretty sure it can be done. Berlin is a large city in a generally progressive country, and I would be surprised indeed if there weren't at least a dozen like-minded folks within a dozen kilometers of where you live. Your best chance of finding them is by being open about being open. If that is not a risk you are willing to take, try selectively expanding your social circle. Work on making new friends who are more open to the idea of open relationships. I hear the Internet is a great place to meet people who are pre-selected to share a specific interest of yours: if geocachers and rat fanciers and HAM radio enthusiasts can find each other online, so can poly people! Dating sites that cater to people in alternative relationships, or at least that do not require you to be single in order to have a profile on their site, are especially useful in this regard. I met many of my current poly friends via OKCupid. Even though I had an active profile for only a few months, several years back, I got to know some great people during that period of time – and since then, those people have introduced me to other great people (some of whom they originally met on OKCupid). 

Good luck! If it helps to imagine me here on the west coast of the USA, shaking my virtual pom-poms and cheering you on, please feel free. 

Shnuppdiwupp & Alioop,

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Open Relationships and Sustainability (A Little Intro to a Big Topic)

Someone recently asked me what I thought needed to be said that isn't already being said on the topic of open relationships, and I immediately said, “Sustainability.”

I went on to explain that I see a troubling polarization in the discourse on alternative relationships. On the one hand, we have Esther Perel's argument in Mating in Captivity, which is basically that if we value the institution of marriage, we need to re-think our expectations around sexual fidelity; on the other hand, we have Laura Kipnis's polemic Against Love, which calls into question the whole idea of relationship maintenance as a worthy goal. It's either couple privilege or it's solo poly.

Do you want structure, stability, and commitment? Then you're looking at a slightly modified version of what already exists the world over: a primary couple, with maybe some extra-marital satellites, who are allowed to orbit only so long as they do not exert too much gravitational pull. Do you want freedom, fluidity, and self-sufficiency? Then you need to embrace the real truth, which is, to quote a Sharon Olds poem, the “single body alone in the universe / against its own best time.”

Maybe it's all that deconstructionist philosophy I had to read in grad school, but I am suspicious of forced choices. I don't want to pick A or B. I'm looking for a third way. I wonder if there's such a thing as Relationship Permaculture?

This is too big a topic to get into right now, one hour before a dinner-and-a-movie date, so I'm gonna bookmark this idea and get back to it later.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Singing the Open Relationship "Expert" Blues, Just Slightly Off-Key

I spent a rather large portion of the day today texting back and forth with various people about an upcoming birthday celebration for a partner's ex-partner (who is still an intimate friend of his). Do you want to know a great recipe for Completely Unnecessary Drama? Here it is: mix together five people's schedules, and five people's venue preferences, and five people's communication styles; then blend in a truly dizzying array of dyadic dynamics, one at a time, stirring constantly; and finally, top with grated old resentments and a dollop of fresh jealousy.

Yum, yum. Does anyone want fries with that?

Whenever I have a day like this, I feel a little bit silly about having set myself up as a relationship advice columnist. Although I have fifty years of experience in long-term relationships – nine more years than I've been alive, even! – I still regularly run into situations where I don't know what the hell I'm doing. Relationships are complicated. Open relationships are even more complicated. And I am not remotely perfect, or even perfectly poised about my many imperfections.

What does all of this mean? It means that there is no way I'm ever going to get everything right. The best I can be will never be as good as I wish I were. But it'll just have to do.

So today, I'm feeling great fondness for all my fellow strugglers and stragglers out there: if you are earnestly engaged in the messy process of doing your best, but you're feeling a bit down right now, this one's for you.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More on Polyamory and Parenting: Exploring Some Possible Drawbacks

Dear Viny,

I read your post on poly and parenting a while back, and I'm writing because I hope there is room here for a real discussion about the possible drawbacks to raising kids in this setting. The truth is, while being poly is vital to my current well-being, I'm not so sure it's great for my little kid. There are the obvious extra time demands. But also, I think it can be detrimental to kids to have adults shifting in and out of their lives and homes. I say that as someone who experienced discomfort in childhood around partners of my (divorced) parents I didn't like.

I always thought I'd be the type of poly parent to be building long-term relationships involving the intertwining of families, and I didn't understand people who kept their relationships separate. After my non-primary partner and I broke up recently, I began to respect that choice more. I have this amazing photo of my 2 y.o., smiling widely, hugging my ex-partner tightly. It was taken less than a week before he initiated our break up. I am pretty haunted by that photo. I'm not blaming my ex for anything (he is an awesome person); I'm pointing out that I didn't fully understand what I was getting into when I involved my kid socially in my relationships.

Obviously, issues that are difficult for kids can pop up in any kind of relationship; poly isn't special that way. But, because poly relationships are under such scrutiny, and we feel we need to be protective and defensive and rah rah rah about them, we don't always explore the negatives. I'm not asking you for advice. I'm just wondering what your perspective is.

– Considering the Cons


Dear Considering,

I have an eighteen-year-old son who is getting ready to move out at the end of the summer. Whether he goes to the University of Oregon (the parent-approved Plan A) or finds a job that pays well enough that he can afford to rent an apartment with his girlfriend (the not-yet-discussed, not-so-appealing-to-his-parents Plan B), we've got another three months with him, at most. We'll still see him regularly, no doubt, but in a very real sense, we'll be letting him go.

And man, am I ever going to miss him.

Maybe because I am reaching the end of full-time, functional parenting with my son, I have been feeling nostalgic and contemplative, thinking a lot about what I have learned over the course of his childhood. What went well? What do I wish I could do over, and how would I do it differently the second time around? Questions like these aren't purely hypothetical, in my case: I also have a seven-year-old daughter. So I appreciate this timely opportunity to tackle the topic of poly parenting again, this time focusing on the possible negatives.

I do agree with you that there are cons – some of them considerable – to raising children in a poly context. And I think you've put your finger on two of the biggies: 1) parents who are trying to maintain multiple intimate adult relationships probably end up with less time for their children; and 2) poly households may be less stable, overall, because more people often means more chaos. I also think that there are cons you didn't mention in your letter, such as the possibility that children with poly parents will experience difficulty reconciling the different, and often discordant, messages they receive about love and relationships from parents, peers, extended family, and the wider culture.

I have to tell you, though, that my own personal list of parental regrets does not include anything very poly-specific. I wish I hadn't been afraid to let my son co-sleep with us as a baby. I wish I had been more patient with him as a small child. I wish I had been better about giving him permission to express his emotions, even when those emotions were hugely inconvenient for me. I wish I had involved him in more body-centered activities that he might have enjoyed, instead of giving up when he didn't immediately take to soccer. I wish I had paid more attention, been more fully present, when he used to prattle on about Bionicles or Legos or Bugdom or Harry Potter or Magic (the card game), or any of his other childhood obsessions, even though his monologues made my eyes glaze over and my brain go numb. Sometimes I think I might have been better able to focus on Denali and his interests if I hadn't been so distracted by my own interests, and it is definitely true that adult relationships have been a huge interest of mine. But I suspect that the real problem was my youthful self-absorption (I was only 22 when I gave birth to Denali), rather than polyamory per se.

I do often wonder what lessons – positive and negative – my son has learned from watching me and my husband interact, both with each other and with our other long-term partners. And I wonder how those lessons will manifest later, in his own intimate relationships. The jury is still out on that one. It may be that there are future regrets that haven't come into focus yet, or poly-specific parenting pitfalls I will really wish I had avoided once it becomes apparent I already fell into them long ago, bringing my kids down with me.

One thing I can say for certain, however, is that I do not regret involving either of my children socially in any of my relationships, or the relationships of any of my partners or ex-partners. Yes, some of those relationships have involved some drama, and even, on occasion, a bit of dysfunction. Yes, not all of those relationships have lasted. But every one of my partners, and every one of my partners' partners, has been a person well worth knowing. Every one of them has enriched my life, and therefore – either directly or indirectly – the lives of my children as well.

My perspective, Considering, is that you do not need to worry about having exposed your child to an awesome person. I think your child's bond with your ex-partner will turn out to have been a good thing, on balance. The photo that's haunting you now? The one in which your two-year-old is tightly hugging your ex-partner? That's your proof. From your perspective, it may be a painful memento, something that stirs up sadness, regret, and resentment – but I'm willing to bet that the memories it evokes for your two-year-old, if any, are basically positive. (Now, if your kid had felt uncomfortable around your ex-partner, that would be a different story. I sympathize with your desire not to subject your kid to the negative experiences you had as a child with your parents' panoply of successive partners. I think it behooves us as parents to be careful about the people we bring into our children's lives. Personally, though, I wouldn't consider dating anyone I didn't feel comfortable introducing to my children.) 

I do understand why you might want to shield your child from the disappointment of bonding with someone you're dating, only to have that person up and disappear. However, losing people we love is just a reality of life. Whether you like it or not, your child is going to develop meaningful relationships with all kinds of disappearing acts: friends who move far away; favorite teachers who retire; lovers who write break-up letters; close relatives who succumb to dementia or mental illness or addiction or cancer. I believe that one of the best lessons we can teach our children is not to let fear of loss limit our ability to love. Love always entails loss, and it's always worth it. That's my opinion, anyway.

Since this post could use a bit of levity at this point, I'm going to leave you with one of those “you can't make this shit up” stories we parents love to tell about our children, this one courtesy of my daughter, who is always coming up with quotable quotes I'm way too embarrassed to post on Facebook: the other day, as I was bending over to retrieve a clean bra from my underwear drawer, Sienna observed, “Did you know that your breasts look kind of like twin baby koalas hanging onto their mama?”

The moral of this story is that no matter what you think of yourself -- as a polyamorous parent, or just as a person -- your children are very likely to have a completely different perspective. And you may or may not find it flattering.

Kids. Ya gotta love 'em.

Snickers and Doodles,

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Am I a Fool for Opening My Marriage, Or Can I Learn to Be Okay with My Wife Having a Lover?

Dear Viny,

I have been in a long term relationship for the last 10 years, most of my adult life. We are recently married, and have always been very strong together. About 4 months ago my wife asked if we could open our marriage and try polyamory. She also indicated that she had developed a crush on one of our friends. I had thought about poly before and had imagined we might end up there one day. I also imagined that I could get some benefit from it. My wife came at it from an angle of being in a strong place in our relationship, but feeling like we could get more, if we opened ourselves up to love beyond our marriage. With all this in mind I agreed that we could try it. She had been thinking about it for a while and reading quite a lot. Within a week she had kissed the friend and struck up a relationship. I busied myself with reading and thinking but was not quite happy. There was a lot of fear, jealousy and unhappiness – too much to really get into the details, but I imagine you know the deal. I was mainly afraid that she was so excited by this new man and by this new lifestyle that she would realise she didn't actually need me. She always denied this though and insisted that she really does want me, but also wants a polyamorous relationship. At one point it got too much for me and I asked her to call it off while I spent time getting my head right. I also have a very stressful job that is at its worst and is really damaging my happiness and self-esteem, and it is mingling in with this relationship stuff to really make me an anxious wreck. It is one month later and we have done a ton of reading, talking, thinking, fighting, and crying, and we have also had some good times within that. She would now very much like to go back to her lover, and I want her to be happy. I also do feel like I can get behind us being polyamorous, but it is very difficult to adjust to. The feelings of fear and jealousy are stronger than ever and I am not sure what to do. I feel so conflicted, because I want to be the type of person who is ok with this, I want to be less jealous, possessive and weird. I want her to be happy, and I want to be happy too. I want to meet new people, but I am not quite there yet from a confidence point of view. I have now told her that it is ok for her to go back to the lover, but I am conflicted. I think that part of me is letting her do that out of fear of her resenting me for not letting her do it, part of me really wants to be ok with the whole thing and thinks I can get ok with it, and part of me really doesn't want it. I am also not sure if it is just because of who it is with – the friend is someone I respect and feel inadequate in comparison to, and I also have to see him quite a lot because of our friendship circle.

Really, I am just wondering if I am a fool for thinking that I can adjust to this and get ok with it, even though I feel quite scared. Is it better for me to tell my wife to break it off completely, rather than toying with her emotions while I am uncertain? Or should I just let it happen and attempt to sort myself out while it goes on? Any advice would be most welcome.

- Space Ghost


Dear Space Ghost,

In your travels through the ether, have you by chance come across an article titled “Lasting Relationships Come Down To 2 Basic Traits”? If not, read it. It's interesting. But in case you're not in the mood for clickbait right now, I'll do you a favor and give you the Cliff's Notes version: the two basic traits are kindness and generosity.

Please keep those traits in mind as you read on, because we'll be getting back to them.

This morning, I read your letter aloud to my husband. We were still in bed, and I didn't have my contacts in, which meant I had to hold my cell phone practically against my nose to read the words. Parker was holding the sheet to his nose, as he often does when he's in bed, awake, and deep in thought. I'm telling you this so you get the picture: two sets of naked shoulders; two noses, both covered by something; two sets of eyes; two heads of messy hair (his looks much better messy than mine does, though). We've known each other for thirty years, Parker and I: we met in sixth grade, when we were both eleven.

This person sounds so much like you would have sounded, if you had written a letter back in the early days, when I was first with Scott,” I said. “So, I'm curious: if you could say one thing to this Space Ghost guy, what would it be?”

Hmmm – one thing?” Here Parker's voice descended about an octave: “Dude – it sounds like you got 99 problems, and your b*tch ain't one.” Then he added, in his normal tone, “You did want the ultra masculine perspective, right?”

He explained that your actual problems, as he saw them, were these: 1) your job is stressing you out and damaging your happiness and self-esteem; 2) you don't have a crush on anyone (which means that opening your marriage has not brought you a sense of excitement or heightened possibility); and 3) you are using your social network to fuel your own feelings of inadequacy, rather than as a source of support.

So, okay, only three problems, not ninety-nine. I hope that softens the “tough love” blow.

Is it possible, my dear Casper, that your relationship with your wife is the One Really Good Thing about your life? It sounds like you've pinned all of your happiness and all of your self-worth to that relationship. If so, that's a BIG reason why this new development is driving you to distraction and despair. Not because your relationship with your wife is a problem, but because it's the only thing that isn't a problem. What happens if you lose your One Really Good Thing? You'll be left with nothing, that's what. No wonder you're so scared.

I'm not much of one for trotting out Biblical parables, since religion is a sore subject with me (I grew up Mormon, and am still recovering), but have you heard the one about the three servants who got different amounts of money? Their master was going away on a business trip or something, and he wanted them to steward his money, with the hope that they'd increase his wealth in his absence. He gave one servant ten talents, and another five talents, and the last he gave one talent. The guy with ten talents went and bought something, like probably sheep (I'm getting this all wrong, but it's the basic gist that matters), and the sheep had lambs, which he sold for a profit, so when the master returned, he had twenty talents to show. And the second guy went and bought, I dunno, let's say grapes, and made them into wine, which he sold for a profit, so when the master returned, he had ten talents instead of just five. But the guy who only got one talent was so worried about losing what little he had that he buried the money – and then forgot where it was.

I don't see kindness or generosity in that parable, but it is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we are so afraid of losing our One Good Thing that we in fact cause our worst fears to come true.

Here's my advice. I think you should believe your wife when she tells you she still loves you and needs you. I think that instead of treating your relationship with her like it's the problem, you should tackle your real problems – your shitty job, your feelings of inadequacy, your competitive crappola – with a “can-do” attitude. I think you should work on strengthening your capacity for kindness and generosity in all your relationships – with your wife, and with her new lover (who is also your friend, after all), and definitely, most definitely, with yourself.

Whenever you are faced with a “how do I deal with this?conundrum, and you are evaluating possible action steps, just ask yourself, “Is this approach as kind and generous as I am capable of being?” Telling your wife and your friend to break things off completely? Not so much. Toying with their emotions while you are uncertain? Um, nope. Just letting it all do whatever it does while you flounder and flail, even though that is going to make you feel like absolute shit, because the other guy is better than you and beggars can't be choosers and all that? Also a big fat “En Oh spells NO.”

You're a thoughtful person, S.G., and you have good intentions. You're also clearly struggling with feelings of low self-worth. That's a normal (albeit super sucky) side-effect of jealousy, but it also sounds like you're self-critical even when you are not feeling jealous. Use this as an opportunity to work on becoming a better you – namely, someone you yourself can depend upon to be kind and generous – and I promise you, it will get better.

Yes, unfortunately, it may get worse before it gets better. And after it's gotten better, it may get worse again before it gets better again, but overall, it does get better. (Yes, I'm borrowing a phrase, because it's perfectly applicable to your situation.) Please remember that I'm saying this as someone who has been in your position. I'm saying this as someone who knows many other people who have been in your position. I'm saying this as someone who is intimately familiar with the conflicting thoughts and emotions you describe, and I am telling you, it gets better. I hope that helps.

Spring rains & slow gains,