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

Friends With My Exes

Not long ago, I connected with a guy on a dating app who laughed when I mentioned I retain most of my former partners as friends. He made it a point to let me know that he was certainly not friends with any of his former partners. I almost unmatched him on the spot! Instead, I explained that I really prefer to transition relationships rather than end them, and that I don’t tend to date folks who’d require that I cut them out of my life for any reason. I’m a nice person; I date nice people.

I haven’t heard back from him.

One of the questions I commonly get from folks who learn this fact about me is some form of “how in the word do you negotiate friendship with former partners?” and the answer to that is fairly simple: I lay the groundwork up front. And I do that by simply bringing up the fact that my expectation is that my relationships remain intentional connections for as long as they make sense, regardless of the configuration. I guess you could say it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

Here is a list of reasons I’ve terminated the romantic portion of a variety of relationships:

  • Substance abuse
  • Unchecked jealousy 
  • An unwillingness to communicate needs
  • Geographical distance
  • Lack of chemistry

Here is a list of reasons other folks have terminated romantic connections with me:

  • Serial monogamy
  • Quarantine (thanks, Covid-19)
  • Lack of chemistry

At the time of this writing, I remained friends with every single person on those lists. I can’t imagine cutting anyone I’ve ever loved completely out of my life unless they were maliciously harmful to me or others I care for. 

It’s a red flag for me when someone is not inclined to maintain relationships with their former lovers. It certainly doesn’t bode well for us, considering that most romantic/sexual relationships end. 

I suppose one of the things I really appreciate about non-monogamy, and more so Relationship Anarchy, is just the freedom to have the kind of relationships with folks that make sense for us. I don’t need to have any of them be a certain shape or check a certain number of boxes. I can have a partner I see once every few months with little to no contact in between, and have that work for us. Wonder that! I love it.

I also work hard to honor the hearts of the folks I connect with by being transparent about my feelings for them out of respect. I would never want anyone to spend time with me that they were not authentically enthusiastic about, so I don’t foster inauthenticity by showing up in my relationships only out of obligation. I am there because I want to be, and when I don’t, I say so. I also encourage my people to come and go without struggle. Anything less is codependence and leads to resentment. It has not been an easy road to becoming a person who can hear difficult things with grace, and I am not perfect by any means, but once I understood that this was how I wanted to be treated by others, I began to show up that way more ease.

My romantic connections are inherently fluid and entirely dependent on whether or not the circumstances are conducive to maintaining those feelings. Sometimes I’ll feel that way about a person for a few months; sometimes it feels like it will be a lifetime. I appreciate not having to blow up my connections every time it doesn’t turn into a lifetime affair. Instead, I get to maintain friendships with people who’ve known me in very intimate moments and seen me in ways others won’t. I see myself as lucky to still have them in my life, and I hope they feel the same about me!

Image: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Breaking Up Well!

A while back a dear partner determined their life was too complex to carry on our intimate relationship. Having only experienced breakups with bad behavior in the past, they approached me with anxiety. We had been friends for over a decade, but our increased level of intimacy was only six months old. They feared this break-up would flush our friendship down the toilet, but there was no huge fight and no name calling; just two old friends negotiating new boundaries.

When you begin a relationship, things are amazing and fun and exciting and intoxicating! No one will tell you to stop and ponder the end, but I think you should consider talking about it. Maybe not on the first date, but before saying “I love you.”

A discussion about past relationships and why they ended can give insight into how this person works in a relationship. If all their exes were the problem, you may end up being their next problem. Some people have rules about not remaining friends with exes or allowing partners to remain friends with exes. They may be prone to harboring resentments or feel possessive of mutual friends, social groups, or even locations. These can be red flags indicative of emotional immaturity.

So how does one go about negotiating the end of a relationship?

  • Avoid making territorial agreements about shared spaces and mutual friends. Break-ups are not easy and adding drama with friends is a terrible way to draw it out. If you need a clean break, state your boundaries and negotiate that clearly.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t or shouldn’t keep. Even during the beginning stages of a relationship. 
  • Take some time to determine if you really want to break up or if it’s a strategy to negotiate a problem with your partner or relationship. 
  • Make sure the newly negotiated relationship is truly acceptable to you. Don’t accept crumbs you really don’t want for fear of having nothing. 

Afterwards . . . 

  • Utilize introspection and acceptance, and gratitude. 
  • Examine the lessons learned: Did communication falter? Were you really asking for what you needed? Did your goals align?

Each relationship is unique and each connection we make brings something different to our lives. Practicing gratitude for what each person has brought to your life helps you move on and be open to new opportunities. 

The healthiest relationships are built on a foundation of mutual support and compassion. Sometimes that means those involved grow in ways that call for the relationship to end or change its shape. Every relationships ends! Whether in death, or at some point before that. I’ve found it helpful to examine the Buddhist concept of impermanence, known as anicca.

Learning to let go in healthy ways can make the transition easier on everyone.

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This post was written by guest blogger and relationship anarchist, Christina S., aka “Red.” She lives in Minneapolis where she spends her free time immersed in her favorite hobby: collecting new hobbies!