What Does “Normal” Look Like in Non-Monogamy?

Normal. There’s a loaded word if ever there was one . . . 

Our sense of normal comes from what we see every day. It’s determined by what most folks do and find acceptable. By their actions, words, values, and judgements. Normal is what you are conditioned to expect, and when it doesn’t manifest there are feelings to deal with – mostly negative ones.

Once upon a time I thought it was normal to settle down with a member of another gender, have lots of babies, and live happily ever after. Like most of us eventually do, I discovered that “happily ever after” was not a guarantee, or even a reasonable expectation. It was a misrepresentation of normalcy, and the price for deviations from that were paid for with shame and self-loathing. The reality is: most relationships end, and ALL of them have problems. We can add it to the list along with death, and taxes.  If only *that* were part of the dominant narrative . . .

In the absence of an authentic roadmap for relationships, most of us turn to groups of friends, a therapist, or support groups. But those are mostly doing so in a monogamous framework that validates their feelings about things not lining up with the dominant narrative. So what about those of us who already reject that? What do we look to as normal? How do we know we’re okay?

Oh man, I have been wrestling with this for about a year . . . let me tell you.

There is a phenomenon that happens in non monogamy. Folks open up a pre-existing monogamous partnership and baby step their way to full autonomy over the course of some years. Meanwhile, they place limitations on their new relationships because that shit is SCARY, okay? So this artificial limitation happens, but gradually it eases, and eventually most folks become comfortable with the idea that their partners aren’t going to leave them in a bout of wild NRE. But those new relationships forced to grow in a limited environment? Well, that will always be the foundation they were built on, and it can be very disconcerting to watch a partner experience freedom with new partners when they had to limit themselves with you. That’s not a thing anyone really talks about when they discuss how to protect their Original Relationship: the fallout that occurs when you build another long term situation with someone new and you don’t allow for the same opportunities to experience joy with you as someone else got to.

Or at least, that’s how I saw it. 

I was the partner whose relationship was artificially limited in the beginning but who later watched that same partner date, and even fall in love, with full autonomy. Readers, I grieved the loss of what never was for us HARD. Every time a new person got to experience new milestones unencumbered, I could only focus on how I had been made small in the same circumstances. It ate me from the inside and I did not expect to ever move past it.

But you know what? This is . . . normal. Just because it sucks, doesn’t mean it’s not normal. It doesn’t mean that a ton of folks haven’t worked through the same things. And there is actually a bright side, but I’ll come back to that.

More recently I am nearing a huge relationship milestone with someone I consider a life partner. We are moving in together, a thing we’ve talked about wanting to do since before our first anniversary. For years we saw ourselves living in a shared home with their other partner in a V configuration. My meta and I had, (and still do), a wonderfully close friendship, and it looked like a real possibility. That didn’t turn out to be the way we would eventually live together, and in fact this transition is a mostly negative one for my partner. I found myself experiencing profound sadness that this is such a happy milestone for me, and that I cannot expect him to experience the same happiness given the circumstances.

But it occurred to me that this, too, is normal.

It is normal in non monogamy to experience complicated layers at every turn. To taste the bittersweet reality and be unable to pretend it is only sweet in the way that monogamous configurations often take for granted (authentic or imagined). There is no denying that the original plan did not manifest, or that there is not more sadness in that for one of us than the other. I am gaining a nesting partner after nearly a decade of living as a solo parent, but my partner is grieving the loss of a life he’d believed in. And that, too, is normal.

Normal, in non monogamy, is coming out to your family and being asked not to bring “other” partners to family holidays, or to at least not tell your grandparents.

Normal, in non monogamy, is worrying that loving more than one person will cost you your job, your kids, or your life partner.

Normal, in non monogamy, is wondering all the time if you’re doing this wrong because there are no concrete answers or “professionals” or spiritual guides . . . and it seems like someone is always upset about something.

Normal, in non monogamy, is growing a steel backbone to deal with the pressure of toxic monogamous ideology as it creeps into your psyche and tries to tell you’re an asshole.

Normal, in non monogamy, is celebrating different things. It probably won’t be marriage, kids, and a white picket fence in the majority of your relationships – and you have to relearn what success looks like. Because success is just whatever works for the folks involved and brings them happiness along the way.

So back to that bright side I promised you, yeah?

I indeed allowed myself to feel envy and process grief regarding things I wish had been different, but I also know this: relationships that require effort on the part of the individuals building them will have a broader foundation than those built on relative ease. By the time we’d reached our one year anniversary, I already knew he was in this for the long haul because of how difficult some moments had been for us.

And, I know that living together will be the same; I get to be happy that we are moving forward, and I get to love him through the grief he’s feeling without requiring he be happy in the same way I am. Because this is our normal. It’s a mixed bag, but reliably so. This is just another hard won addition to what we’re both still choosing to show up in.

It will be what it’s supposed to be, just like every other normal thing.

Photo by Jonas Denil on Unsplash

Perspectives on Special

A challenge I face as a polyamorous person in a primarily monogamous society is working to unlearn what my culture has taught me about certain concepts. One of the things that keeps coming up for me is the idea that a place or event or experience is special and that if it is shared with more than one person, it becomes less so.

I call out the dominant narrative a lot for informing how we think about things. In this case, we are led to believe that to be special means singular and reserved.

But what really makes a thing special?

When I am in the moment and connected to the person I’m having an experience with, that is where the “unique” feeling I end up being possessive of is created. I don’t know why the idea of that same person having that same experience with someone else makes me feel like it will take anything away from mine, but sometimes it does. I attribute that to how the idea of special has been constructed for me, and I’ve done some brain-thinking on how to manage my perspective in that area.

Do I really think the special moments in my life can be undone by someone else being happy in the same place? No . . . I do not. But I can be a tough person to sell paradigm shifts to at times.

So, it starts with the idea of same. Or more accurately: it starts with letting go of the idea of same.

There is no same.

If you take your friend Chris to a baseball game, and then you take your friend Eryka to a baseball game, is it the same experience for you each time? You could sit in the same seats, eat the same processed meat tube in a bun with extra relish, wear the same fan gear, and sing the same baseball songs – but you would still be having two completely different experiences.

By taking Eryka to the baseball game, you’re not undoing the experience you had with Chris. And it’s not even an issue of who was first. You are going to the game with Chris for the first time! AND THEN YOU’RE GOING WITH ERYKA FOR THE FIRST TIME! It’s all of the winning, and you get to do it over and over.

Because it’s the connection you have and what the other person brings to the experience that makes it unique. And if Chris and Eryka are your romantic partners and not just friends? It doesn’t change a thing.

Have you ever had the exact same sex with two different people? (Spare me your threesome jokes…) I have not. I’ve never eaten the same meal twice, seen a movie the same way, walked around a lake with the same sky, or written the same love letter to two different people. Most of us are not wired to seek absolute repetition, but we do find comfort in what makes us happy, and happiness in sharing that with those we love.

So love abundantly, and share your happiness in kind. You cannot make what is special, unspecial by enjoying it exponentially.

You find the special in the people – that is where it lives.

Pocket Monster: Envy

Jealousy is a thing, peeps.

It is the dead horse beaten on a regular basis when discussions of polyamory are on the table, but that’s because It Is A Thing. And it’s not the biggest monster in my closet . . . but I have one – it’s just more like a pocket monster. I carry it with me and occasionally take it out to play. You know, when I want to torture myself a bit!

Seriously though, jealousy gets a bad rap. No, I’m not saying we should aspire to jealousy, but it doesn’t have to be the horrible thing people think it is. It doesn’t have to be something we shame ourselves for experiencing. It can be, like all things, an opportunity to grow.

In an unrelated area of my life, I’ve learned that a hallmark of emotional maturity is the ability to be happy for others when they have what I hope to have, but do not. For example: if my best friend won the lottery, I would not be mad! I would experience both joy for her, and likely, a twinge of envy. Some people might not experience envy in that situation at all, while others may find themselves struggling to be at all happy for her.

In poly circles, some of us are able to feel happy for our partners when they are finding happiness with others – this is called compersion. It’s not a universal experience. It comes very naturally to some while others work to feel it, and still others never do nor find value in its pursuit.

Now, I will tell you that I identify as one of those people for whom compersion is a natural thing. When my partners are happy with their other partners, it brings me Great Joy! I would go so far as to say I sometimes attempt to facilitate greater happiness there by suggesting fun things they might enjoy together, or talking to them pre-event to share in their excitement. I am disgustingly poly, it’s true – but I do have that envy monster in my pocket.

Recently I had a partner do something REALLY BIG with their spouse, and I was SO EXCITED for them to do that thing together. I did not want to join, I did not want them to have a bad time, I wanted everyone to really enjoy themselves – but I was also so sad.

For me, envy manifests itself not as a territorial “that’s my partner and they should do fun things with me only” type of feeling, it’s more a “something along those lines would be a lot of fun, but I don’t think that experience is available to us” – very much like a best friend winning a lottery I will likely never win. And to be very clear: the lottery here isn’t the experience itself, it’s the experience with that particular person. I have never been able to substitute one person for another in my life. All of my relationships develop separately and are unique unto themselves.

So I felt pure compersion, and also envy.

And this means I have an opportunity to grow.

I have a future blog brewing about What Makes Things Special, and I know that writing that out will help me with this. But in the meantime, I also have the following tools:

  • Focusing on being grateful for what I have as opposed to focusing on what I do not – because perspective has a lot to do with where we focus our energies. If I’m wearing myself out pining for things I do not have, then I’ll neglect the things I do and run the risk of them atrophying.
  • Expressing happiness and feeling it returned – I’ve learned that when I’m feeling down, putting the emotion I want to experience out into the world allows it to come back to me.
  • Looking forward to special plans I’ve made with my partners – because the fact is, I do a lot of amazing things with my partners and I can’t tell you another time in my life when my life was this much fun!
  • Acknowledging that envy is not a product of a broken system, but a side effect of being human – as a human, I’m allowed the luxury of imperfection.
  • Choosing to act out of love, instead of envy – and this is the key . . . because I could, in a moment of envy, decide to make my partners miserable. This is why jealousy gets a bad rap – it’s not the feeling itself, it’s the terrible ways people treat each other when they’re affected by it. Jealousy itself is just another emotion we get to experience and choose how to act in response.

So, I’m not at all ashamed that envy wiggled around in my pocket and wanted to play with me over this. I know where it settles in my body when I feel things that need fixing. It’s nearly always a perspective shift that needs to occur,  and I have a big toolbox full of perspective tweakers at the ready!

I’ll just keep on humaning, and letting you know how it goes.