New Relationship Energy

First in a two-part series covering both New Relationship Energy and Established Relationship Energy, this blog will focus on the former.

New relationship energy, or NRE, is the feeling of limerence associated with a new, chemistry-heavy connection between folks in the beginning of their relationship. It is borne of a combination of brain chemicals that feel extra amazing, and an absence of the baggage that comes with knowing someone long enough to have developed things like pet peeves.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I have an intense dislike of NRE.

I am comfortable in the driver’s seat, in control at all times, cool as a cucumber and preferably a little intimidating. NRE renders me silly. Oh god, it’s the worst. When there is actual chemistry I will feel all the dumb feelings and hate myself every step of the way. 

When in a state of NRE, I consider myself inebriated – because I am. Endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, lord help me . . . how does anyone survive this cocktail with their wits intact? The compulsion to back-burner otherwise very important things in life is a little frightening, and yet it seems so rational in that state of being. I mean, of course I should quit my job and move across the country for someone I’ve spent exactly 24 hours with. It just makes so much sense!!! 

So while it’s feasible to go ahead and abandon your entire life in exchange for this tangible high, it’s really important to put these things into context with an intentionally rational mind to avoid ruining your whole life in the pursuit of endocrine treats. Sweet, delicious, brain chemical pastries, filled with idiot pudding. 

One of my partner’s has this advice: “Just enjoy the ride.” So yeah, let yourself feel the amazing awfulness that is NRE, because there’s just no stopping it. Trying to limit your feelings is an exercise in futility and entirely inauthentic. So enjoy the giant roller-coaster you never agreed to get on – while it climbs the impossibly steep hill and there’s no escape, because you know exactly what’s coming next and it would be super great if you didn’t pee your pants but you MIGHT. You might. . . Is my disdain showing? Oh, apologies.

*Heavy Sigh*

I find the following to be helpful:

Remembering I’m essentially drunk – and resisting the urge to make hugely impactful decisions, like co-signing a car loan or buying a timeshare with the babe I matched with on Tinder last week

Keeping my priorities straight – because I assure you that my kids, friends, and partners will all notice if I no longer seem to be able to keep my plans with them or I’m always focusing on someone else, and that will feel pretty sucky to them. Hand in hand with this is relying on my important people to ask for what they need, and then giving it to them if it’s within my ability to do – sometimes those not experiencing NRE need a little extra TLC from those who are, and that’s okay!

Letting myself be dumb, and being transparent about that – and this is important . . . when I am vulnerable with those closest to me about feeling a bit out of sorts, it’s a lot easier for them to find compassion for me when I stumble around and make a mess of things in my twitterpated haze.

Reality check: if you are indeed experiencing a level of NRE that is making you authentically miserable, perhaps seeking mental healthcare to assess your levels of serotonin makes sense.

And on the flip side . . . 

When your partner is experiencing NRE with someone else, it’s a good time to remember that you’re always better off asking for what you need and want rather than brooding silently and cultivating resentment. Seriously, they are DRUNK. And it’s not just for one day, either. Lol lol lol *cry*

Here are some things you might consider:

Asking for reassurance – this very basic ask can cover a lot of ground. Simply communicating how you feel and asking for some extra emotional support is the least you can do for yourself when you’re feeling the wibbles.

Defining quality time – one of the things that can happen during a partner’s NRE is that it seems like their focus is always on the new person. NRE can absolutely shift a person’s thoughts like that, but asking for things like date nights to be free of texting or your meal times to be phone free are not unreasonable.

Focusing on self-advocacy vs partner management – because as scary as it can be, I assure you that attempting to stifle or limit the experience your partner is having with their NRE will only serve to create a rift between the two of you that need not exist.

Practicing acceptance – I have a not-so-mature phrase I use to get through my pettier moments in this situation and I will share it with you here and cross my fingers you won’t judge me for it. When the going gets tough and I’m in my feels, I remind myself this situation is kind of like letting the goats eat the garbage. Oh, I know, it’s not very charitable of me, but NRE is a bit of a fucker on both ends and some sardonic shade can an effective salve when you’re feeling a bit burnt out with your partner’s new shiny object. Just, you know, keep that shit to yourself – this too, shall pass . . . goats and all. 

It can be a terrifying thing to witness how happy a partner is with their new person while you see your own relationship as a rather mixed bag of bliss, mundane, irritating, and settled. This “established relationship energy” (or ERE) is a treasure trove of valuable assets, and we’ll cover those more in depth next week, but if at any time you’re tempted to compare ERE to NRE and it seems to fall short, just know that the same is true in reverse.

Scarcity and Abundance Mindsets

I reference mindsets in non-monogamy a lot. In particular, the effect a scarcity mindset can have on how one approaches relationships, both in seeking and maintaining, and what it looks like to do those things with an abundance mindset.

This concept was first introduced to me in an episode of Poly In The Cities, a local podcast no longer being produced, but that has an archive online I recommend to anyone looking for more resources on non-monogamy. Listening to that, I learned a new-to-me way of thinking about my motivations in relationships. It encouraged me to consider why I settled for less than I wanted at times, and why I found it easier to walk away from those situations at other times.

I’ve been returning to those thoughts a lot over the last year as I’ve ended and started relationships, been fortunate enough to address some brain chemistry issues through access to mental health care, and I’ve taken on a large-scale project with one of my partners that focuses on autonomy as a guiding principle. In all of that, I’ve landed on a bit of an epiphany regarding scarcity and abundance: it’s not so much a mindset as it is a state of being.

And that state of being isn’t necessarily a choice.

For example, there have been times in the last five or so years in which I felt incredibly lonely and like the only thing that could fill that void was the presence of a particular person who was not always available to me when I felt that way. There have also been times when I felt completely fulfilled and I still desired the presence of this person, but didn’t feel a desperate need for it outside of missing them when they weren’t around. The primary difference between those two experiences was my mental state. It didn’t have anything to do with how many partners I had or how often I saw them, it had to do with how true I was remaining to what kept me mentally stable. 

In a state of scarcity with my mental and emotional well-being, I had a tendency to focus on filling those voids with external feel-goods. When my emotional well-being felt abundant, I did not.

I have had multiple relationships that probably went on longer than they should when I was younger and less aware of how critical my boundaries were to my mental health. And what I’ve come to understand about those situations is that they created a vicious cycle in which I was compromising my boundaries to hold on to a relationship that contributed to my emotional instability which in turn bred fear and insecurity which manifested as scarcity, rendering me fearful of losing that relationship. And that’s a lot. It’s a lot to read, it’s a lot to live through, and it’s a lot to acknowledge is still possible if I don’t hold true to what’s best for me. Time and again I have had the universe show me how relying on the outside world to do my work for me puts my emotional well-being firmly in the care of things I cannot control.

My life now looks very different, and once I shifted my focus to internal restructuring as opposed to external validation, I felt a shift in how I approached everything from resource allocation to boundaries. No longer was I willing to make myself miserable in order to attain small bits of things I thought would make me happy. So now when I reference scarcity, I’m careful to focus on what’s scarce on the inside instead of what looks to be external. Because you don’t fill a well by pouring water in; you dig deep enough and allow it to fill itself.

The Heart is a Muscle

The heart is a muscle.

That’s a statement of obvious anatomy, but I think of the metaphorical heart as a muscle as well. One that flexes and contracts with a smooth strength as it navigates the emotional boot camp that non-monogamy can be at times. When you’re keeping pace to it’s beat and the endorphins are flowing, it’s a blissfully easy piece of equipment to have. But many of us feel one premature ventricular contraction away from uncharted territory.

If we dare to consider our emotional strength similar to our physical strength, we can begin to look at ways to maintain it in much the same way.

In non-monogamy, sometimes we can fall into a pattern of complacency where it’s too easy to ask someone else to do the work for us while these important emotional muscles simply atrophy from non-use. Asking partners to manage our pain points seems so appealing in the moment, but it does nothing to alleviate the pain long term when what that spot really needs is to be touched, worked on, stretched, and developed. 

My body has been through a lot. I know where my pain points are, and how I’m supposed to take care of them. I know which side is weaker, and which is stronger. The recommended stretches, optimal duration of workouts, professional advice, and healthy habits – all of these are things I’m aware of. Sometimes, I even avail myself of them in such a way that I make actual progress!

The heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

My heart has been through a lot. I know where it’s pain points are, and how I’m supposed to take care of them. I know when I feel weak and fall short of my own standards for emotional maturity, and I know where I am strong enough to feel good and stable and safe. When I take the time to stretch a little further, I am rewarded with more comfort in that flexibility the next time. The efforts expended in areas of emotional growth are balanced best with self-care in appropriate doses. My therapist provides professional advice during these workouts. My healthy habits make all of these things more possible.

When I stop taking care of my body, it does things that make me unhappy. I lose strength and my muscles atrophy. I lose my resolve to progress. I compare the weaker version of myself to the one I could have been if I’d kept up with my program. It’s harder to feel good when I don’t do the things I know make me feel that way.

The heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

When I stop asking myself to work on the areas of me that need to be built up in order to support the whole of me, other areas overcompensate. If I neglect my mental health, my compulsions will step in and manage my thoughts for me. If I relax my boundaries to make others happy, the part of me that once only had to check for cracks in the foundation now has to pick up the pieces and rebuild with compromised materials. But when one part gets stronger, the areas that had to take up the slack before can go back to their original jobs.

Recently I’ve come out on the other side of some intense emotional work, and I’m beginning to see the payoff. It’s like flexing an impressive bicep after a year of focused training – there is a sense of pride, but also a genuine strength that informs how a body, or a heart, moves through the world. 

Finding time and expending energy to keep my body healthy and strong can sometimes be a chore. It doesn’t always feel great in the moment. I get sore. I get tired. I have days when I just don’t want to and the couch looks so tempting with perhaps a quart of ice cream. But I’m better for sticking to it – stronger, more stable, and far more confident in my abilities.

And the heart is no different, because the heart is a muscle.

Expect Autonomy

In my adulting adventures, I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in several communities that have high expectations of autonomy and accountability. To this end, one of the groups I had the pleasure of belonging to phrased this expectation as “be your own camp counselor” which, while self explanatory, has some layers.

I write a lot about autonomy without actually using the word, but I’m going to hammer it pretty hard this time around because autonomy is the foundational principle upon which I structure relationships. And autonomy is very much about being one’s own camp counselor. In relationships, we shouldn’t expect to be managed by our partners and we shouldn’t expect to manage our partners in return.

More to the point: when we expect our partners to modify their behavior to address our insecurities, we’re asking to be managed. Partners are not camp counselors, and we should not expect them to change anything about themselves that isn’t causing harm. We can ask, of course, and it’s our responsibility to advocate for ourselves by asking for what we need. But we always need to be okay with a “no” so long as what we’re asking for is not a reduction in harmful behavior.

For example: if every time my partner picks up a cookie I ask them how their diet is going, they’re going to be justified in asking me to knock that the fuck off. However, if every time I go on a date with another partner they text me and ask me to cut my date short, they are going to have to do a little self-wrangling to get to the bottom of why that request feels reasonable to them. It isn’t my job to modify my behavior in the meantime; they will need to be their own camp counselor.

Furthermore, if I were to modify my behavior to address their insecurities, that would be me infantilizing them and taking away an opportunity for them to grow. Autonomy is a great defense against future resentment. To deprive yourself of experiences that cause no harm simply because someone else is struggling to allow you to fully utilize your autonomy is a sure fire way to grow a great big resentment garden out of a well-meaning seed of consideration.

On the other side of things, there is a lot of dignity to be found in managing your own shit. When a partner attempts to tailor my experience with them to match some imagined version of what I might be feeling, it takes away my ability to show up authentically. Not everyone will find comfort in every aspect of non-monogamy, but if they’re never allowed the opportunity to develop those muscles, they’ll remain in a static state of discomfort.

Once upon a time, I had an agreement with a partner that we would give each other a “heads up” if another relationship progressed to the point where sexual activity was on the table. I think the reason we felt this was reasonable is because there was some discomfort around the idea of the other one getting to that point with someone else. Knowing about it ahead of time might allow us a chance to work through any feelings that came up for us before *it* happened. But . . . why? Why did we feel like we needed to wait until someone new came along before we did that work, and why did the work need to be done each time? I don’t recall how we justified that, but I can tell you the person giving the heads up ended up feeling like they were reporting to a supervisor, and the person receiving the information lived in a state of waiting to be hit with it. We decided pretty quickly that it felt icky to treat each other like children, and it felt a lot more dignified to deal with whatever came up for us naturally as the other person did what people do when they date new folks – have sex sometimes, or not. Whatever. Being our own camp counselors in this regard felt a lot better than being each other’s.

Autonomy is a gift we give not only to ourselves, but to each other. Each time I feel compelled to ask someone to do something differently, I try to take a moment to ask myself if what I need is really within my own abilities to provide; it usually is. I feel best building my own fires, leading my own hikes, and picking which obnoxious songs to sing. Being my own camp counselor may include handling the occasional garter snake, but when it’s all said and done, I can be proud of the path I’ve forged and the way I’ve shown up in my life and the lives of those I care about more often than not.

Oh, The Humanity . . .

I once had an English professor insist that no experience was truly universal. She was right to caution us against alienating readers with hyperbole, but if there were a universal human experience, it would be a perfectly imperfect existence.

The human condition requires that we make mistakes. Statistics ensure we make them most often with those we spend the majority of our time with. If we are lucky, we are loved through them and trusted to do better next time. But being worthy of that trust requires awareness and a desire to do better. Aye, there’s the rub . . . 

It’s easy to make mistakes when you don’t have a clear path. Walk your living space in broad daylight and your route is simple to discern: your spatial awareness, balance and all your future moves can be processed and mapped out before you take the first step. Walk that same path with no light and it’s another experience entirely: each move you make carries with it the possibility of ruin, or at least a stubbed toe. This is what it can be like to navigate non-traditional relationship structures. Without millennia of approved examples to refer to, we’re left to make it up as we go – or, you know, muck it up as we go.

Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you just don’t know any better. Sometimes you do . . . and you do it anyway, only to wish you hadn’t. Oh, and sometimes you don’t realize you’ve messed up until much, much later.

I’ve been on both sides of Mistake Lake. I’ve been the person rowing us out to the middle, and the person being dragged behind the boat. Neither position is particularly pleasurable; both have roles and responsibilities in relationships focused on continuous improvement.

If there were achievements to unlock in this regard, you could consider me an expert-level mistaker. It’s like I’m on a lifelong quest to locate all the ‘Oh, Shit’ easter eggs on this plane of existence. Sometimes I make the same damn mistakes over and over, even as I watch myself do it. 

OH MY GOD HOW DOES ANYONE LOVE ME?!?!?

My mistakes generally happen in the form of words that come out of my most prominent face-hole. It would stand to reason that a writer would gravitate towards that particular mechanism of dumbassery, yes? Words: they are my blessing and my curse. But words, contextualized with motivation, are behavior indeed. Speech is an act – never doubt it. Whether unkind, unnecessary, untrue, or unhelpful, there are all manner of reasons to need to reconsider one’s words. And I’m aware of all of them.

My weapon of choice? Passive-aggression.

Because of COURSE I choose the sword I hate the most from my own collection. After all, it’s forged in the fires of plausible deniability and is therefore nearly invincible. The only defense against it is a higher moral standard, but one cut alone is often enough to exsanguinate my victims of their moral lifeblood: emotional maturity.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself, but folks, there are days when I feel like such an imposter and Bad Poly Person that it’s hard to imagine ever fully coming back from my missteps when they happen.

But I do. We all do, if we want to.

Regardless of your weapon of choice, I carry a nifty tool in my relationship toolbox you might find helpful. It’s called an amends. The way it works is pretty simple: when you realize you’ve done something you wish you hadn’t, you acknowledge the error in an apology, ask if there’s anything you can do to right the wrong, do that thing if it’s in your power to do, and then resolve to do better next time. Also? Forgive yourself. You’re not in control of whether or not anyone else does, but believe in your own desire to be a good person and be gentle with your self-talk. Beating yourself up will accomplish nothing.

And if you’re on the other side of this ritual? Try as best you can to extend the grace you’d hope for if it were you. This is how we love each other through the bullshit when we have to build our support networks from the ground up. Holding onto resentment when someone is making an effort to repair their wrongs is usually an inefficient use of emotional energy and does little to incentivize folks to do better next time.

One caveat though: if these missteps become a pattern of behavior someone always apologizes for but never shows up differently in? You just might be dealing with someone it would be best to distance yourself from. Leveraging false grace to continue to be an asshole is some next-level shit. Recovering from mistakes requires effort, progress, and change – don’t accept less than that.

Once upon a time, I became an ordained minister of an internet church so I could perform services for my eldest child and my now daughter-in-law. In that, I was gifted the opportunity to write their vows. The only one I wrote was a promise that they continue to be sweet one another.

And really, that’s all this boils down to. The human condition guarantees we will grind some undeserved salt on our loved ones from time to time. I implore you to use your grown-up tools to find the sweetness you truly intend, and the vulnerability to give, and accept it, in kind.

Mismatched Desire

Most non-monogamous people hail from amatonormative upbringings reinforced by pop culture, media, families of origin, etc. We work to unlearn that while trying to navigate a course that isn’t supported by a lot of widely available maps. Along the way communication becomes our primary religion, because without it we’re condemning ourselves to actual hell.

Talk, talk, talk – listen, listen, listen – and then talk some more, while listening, and on and on forever until death brings its sweet release.

I’m kidding of course – even if I never had another partner again besides the one I have now, I’d still insist on that much communication because I am a better partner for it. And what requires the most communication, is the stuff that isn’t all matchy-matchy in our hearts and minds.

For example: I have three kids. Well, actually I have four because one kiddo is married and his wife is for sure one of my darlings. So I have four kids, and there’s a good chance someone, someday, is gonna add a twig to the family tree. After holding a new niece last year, I began to wax pre-sentimental about the prospect of being a grandparent. My partner informed me in no uncertain terms that I should NOT become attached to the idea that we grandparent together . . . and, that’s fair. When I was much younger, I took for granted I’d be growing old with someone who would share my affinity for children, but rarely does reality look like a romanticized fantasy. I won’t give up the dream of being the coolest grandma in the whole wide world, but my current partner has clearly communicated that he does not see himself by my side in that endeavor and I am genuinely grateful to know that up front.

And that’s the thing about communicating freely and welcoming it from your partners: you never have to be blindsided by mismatched desires. He and I can move forward with the awareness that I have positive feelings about the prospect of someday being a grandmother (maybe – no pressure, kids) and I know he’s less-than-thrilled and even a little worried I might be disappointed in his non-involvement there. It doesn’t mean we have perfect feelings, but it means we are well informed, and therefore we can negotiate with reasonable expectations if the issue ever arises.

Wait – isn’t negotiation something you do with a hostile force?

I mean, yeah, sometimes. But I prefer negotiating with nice folks like my partners. And I like to keep the focus on self-advocacy vs. compromise as it’s a really big component of autonomy. Self-advocacy focuses on individual priorities, while compromise is more about meeting in the middle.

So, if my priority as a grandparent is maximizing my time with my grand-kids, and my partner’s priorities do not match mine, it is not a given that we should meet each other in the middle where he’ll be partially miserable and I’ll be getting less than I want. Self-advocacy and a willingness to honor individual desires instead of subscribing to the dominant narrative that states couples have to basically be a hive mind or they’re not truly connected allows each individual to come out on top.

I feel truly connected when I am free to do as I please and my partners love me exactly as I am without making themselves miserable on my behalf or expecting me to do the same for them.

Misery is not a metaphorical bouquet of long-stemmed roses.

If my partner chose to grandparent with me out of a false sense of obligation to my desire and not because he wanted to, it would ruin it for me. If he does opt to join? Cool beans – I’ll be able to trust he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing. Cuz you know what? I’m gonna be one stupidly happy old lady spending time with my grand-kids (that may or may not manifest, and honestly it’s super okay if they don’t – I mean it, no pressure kids) and he can go be stupidly happy doing something else, and then we can reconnect as stupidly happy people living our best lives instead of partially miserable ones, wishing we were elsewhere.

Which would you rather be?