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Jul 31 2013

“How Do I Get My Partner To Try Polyamory?”

The title of this post is one of the most common questions I’ve seen people ask, online and off, about polyamory. “I really want to try an open relationship but my partner doesn’t. How do I get them to change their mind?” “I’ve started seeing a wonderful new person, but there’s a catch: they’re not poly. How do I convince them to try it?” And so on.

Here’s the short answer: you don’t.

Here’s the longer answer: This way lies potential for mutual growth and awesomeness. But this way also lies an arguably greater potential for hurt feelings, manipulation, coercion, and even abuse. Please be careful.

The first important thing is to understand why your partner does not want to try polyamory. People have all sorts of reasons for that:

  • they’re afraid of feeling jealous
  • it’s against their religious beliefs
  • they want a partner who’s always available to them
  • they don’t want to worry about the complications of safer sex with multiple partners
  • they don’t want to face stigma from friends, family, employers, or communities
  • they’re not interested in seeing anyone else
  • they want to get married and/or have children soon and don’t want to deal with polyamory in that regard
  • they just don’t understand what it is or how it works or why it might be worthwhile
  • and many more.

If you are polyamorous, many of these may not seem like very good reasons to you. Some of them don’t really to me either. But it’s not up to you to pass judgment on how good someone else’s reasons are, and if that someone else is your partner, being nonjudgmental is especially important.

Ask your partner what their qualms about polyamory are. Don’t frame the question like “Yeah well why not” or “But what’s wrong with polyamory” or “But don’t you want [to feel more free/to let me be more free/to explore other options/etc].” Go into the discussion with the intent to understand your partner, not necessarily to be understood by your partner or to push a specific point of view. Ask, “How do you feel when you think about being polyamorous?” or “How do you imagine an ideal relationship?” This will probably not be a one-time conversation, though. Follow the discussion and see how it unfolds.

Eventually, you may–if your partner trusts you and if you’re empathic and patient–understand why your partner doesn’t want to try polyamory. If the reason is that it goes against their core beliefs or it’s just not how they envision what a relationship ought to be, you’re probably out of luck. Sometimes people have beliefs that you strongly disagree with; that’s a good indicator that they may not be the best partners for you.

Sometimes, though, people don’t want to try polyamory because they don’t really understand how it works. For instance, I once thought that polyamory meant that none of my partners would “truly” love me. None of them would ever want to, say, live with me or get married or sit at the hospital for hours while I recovered from surgery. I thought that polyamory just meant having a loose collection of friends with benefits who pass in and out of your life seemingly at random. While for some people that might be great, for me it sounded horrible.

But then I read some books about it out of curiosity and I discovered that there are people who would want to do all of those Serious Relationship Things with me while still being okay with me seeing other people! Those things are not mutually exclusive. And although I now value Serious Relationship Things much less than I used to, and would be comfortable being single and not having those things with anyone, it’s nice to know that they are not incompatible with polyamory.

If your partner is like I was back then, you can certainly help them understand what you’re looking for by sharing with them good books and articles about polyamory, introducing them to poly friends who can talk about how their own relationships work, and just talking about how you envision the future if you stay together and become poly.

But the key is that you cannot be too forceful or pressuring. If you do that, you will fail, but more importantly, you will probably seriously hurt your partner.

Often, though, it’s not so simple. Many people say that they don’t want to try polyamory because they would feel too jealous. Remember that jealousy, like any other human emotion, is neither good nor bad; it just is. Some people choose to hack their own emotions and try to replace them with more optimal ones (compersion, in the case of polyamory), but other people have no interest in doing this. That’s their right. Feel free to share with your partner your own perspectives on jealousy, but remember that it’s unfair to presume that your partner “ought” to try to get over their jealousy. That’s for them to decide.

You may be entirely correct if you think that your partner would be better off learning to manage their jealousy and becoming polyamorous. But sometimes, when it comes to relationships, being kind is more important than being right. I’ll share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.

The main reason I was initially extremely opposed to polyamory (personally, not universally) was because I had depression. I didn’t realize this at the time; I thought that I was just a person who has Extreme Feelings of Jealousy and that’s Just How I Am and nothing can be done about it, because I hadn’t ever been able to do anything about it for as long as I could remember having those feelings. The mere thought of polyamory made my guts churn.

But when I recovered from depression, I realized that those Extreme Feelings of Jealousy had all been tied into my depression, which was fueling my insecurity and fear. I started identifying as poly within a month of recovering and started seeing my first poly partner two months later. Although I still have manageable, healthy feelings of jealousy sometimes, that gaping chasm of fuckfuckthisisterribleIcan’tdoit had closed and becoming polyamorous was actually a very easy decision.

How would I have felt if, prior to my recovery, a partner had patronizingly informed me that the reason I didn’t want to try polyamory was because I was depressed? Pretty angry and hurt. I would have felt manipulated if I sensed that my partner’s main concern about my depression was not that it was making me depressed, but that it was preventing me from agreeing to polyamory and letting my partner get their rocks off with other people. I would have felt that my serious illness was being trivialized. I would have felt that my partner was treating me like a child by making assumptions about how depression affects the rest of my life. Because even if a partner of mine had understood what was going on–itself an unlikely feat–it’s not their place to tell me how my mental health is affecting my relationship choices and that I should improve my mental health so as to make “better” relationship choices. That was my battle to fight, and I fought and won it.

Sometimes being kind is more important than being right. And, I would add, presuming to know what’s best “for your own good” is not being kind in my book. It’s being manipulative and condescending.

So, try not to speculate about why your partner is feeling the way they are about polyamory. Let them discover that on their own. Hopefully, if they value your relationship, they will at least make an effort to do some soul-searching and help you understand them, just as you, if you value your relationship, will make an effort to understand their objections rather than trying to “convert” them to your preferred relationship style.

I want to emphasize how fine a line you have to walk. It’s quite possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory and they’ll be really glad they did. It’s also possible that you’ll convince your partner to try polyamory, and later–in months, or years–they’ll gradually understand that they only tried it because they started to believe that they had to do it in order to keep you. They may feel manipulated even though you never intentionally manipulated them. They may feel worthless because they were unable to do what you wanted them to. This may not be your fault whatsoever, or it may be a little bit your fault, or it may be almost entirely your fault. Neither of you may ever know for sure.

This is why my knee-jerk answer at the beginning of this post was, “You don’t.”

I completely understand how awful it feels when you really like/love someone, but you’re poly and they’re not and you don’t know what to do. Some poly people deal with this situation by trying monogamy, temporarily or permanently, to varying levels of success. Some try to convince their partner to give polyamory a try, as I’ve laid out above. Others end the relationship.

The later is, in my opinion, the safest and healthiest option. It assumes responsibility for your own needs rather than expecting your partner to conform to them, and it acknowledges the fact that trying to “get” your partner to try another type of relationship is a situation that’s pretty likely to lead to lots of frustration and resentment for both of you.

I would love it if people would reframe the question in this post’s title as, “How do I help my partner understand polyamory?” This suggests that your goal is to help them come to their own conclusion about whether or not this is something they’d like to try, and that your role in the process is to provide them with resources and support, not prefabricated opinions.

Whichever path you choose, be prepared to spend a lot of time examining your own biases and motivations and making sure that you’re not being coercive or manipulative. Remind your partner that you only want them to try polyamory if they decide they want to, not in order to please you or keep you from leaving. Try to refrain from making assumptions about their reasoning; while people are often wrong about themselves, they still have access to much more information about themselves than you do.

Remember that sometimes, being kind is more important than being right.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Dave Muscato

    What books did you read/would you recommend to learn more about this?

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Welp, why did I leave that out of the post. Jesus. Here are my favorites:

      Opening Up (this is what changed everything for me, basically)
      The Ethical Slut (perhaps with a few caveats, but still really useful)
      More Than Two: http://www.morethantwo.com/

  2. 2
    mdear

    “…remember that it’s unfair to presume that your partner ‘ought’ to try to get over their jealousy. That’s for them to decide.” YESYESYES. Several male partners have tried to pressure me into polyamory by claiming that jealous is immature, irrational and is thus something I should try to “get over.” One guy even said he’d break up with me for being “so immature.” Don’t worry, I left him.

    1. 2.1
      CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

      That’s terrible, mdear. For me, jealousy is just something I’ve never felt, don’t know why, but that bone is broken in me or something (envy, yes; I sometimes want things other people have, but not their partners, or at least not exclusively).

      But in no way does that make anyone else’s having it wrong, it just means they’re not me. And though poly is a perfect thing for me, it’s just vile to try and force someone into it who doesn’t want it. I’m sorry you’ve been so badly treated by people wanting polyamoury.

      Excellent post, Miri. I was lucky enough to already know when I started dating that I was poly (though I didn’t have the word for it then, back at…well, the dawn of time, basically), so was already dating two or three or more people at the same time, with full disclosure, back in the days of the Sex Pistols. I loved it, because with one partner, I might go to ska concerts, for instance, while another liked movies and cuddling, and a third loved wandering around graveyards reading old stones, and so on.

      With each, I had things I liked that they did too, where the odds of finding one person, to whom I was attracted, and who liked all the myriad things my magpie brain liked, were beyond slim. With poly, I can find partners who like things I do, and manage to keep myself from becoming utterly bored by only doing the few things we’d have in common if I had only one partner.

      I wonder if that magpie-brain thing is common to people who practice poly? Do you know what I mean, where it’s really impossible to just like one thing, I have to like a hundred different things, flitting from one to the other, and enjoying each massively while I’m doing it? It’d be interesting to do a large-scale psych inventory project of poly people, and see if there are any systematic and noticable ways in which we have similarities.

  3. 3
    wfenza

    This is great advice. I was also against polyamory originally because I didn’t understand it. Learning about how people actually practiced made a big difference.

    One of the things that I think is important to remember when talking about any relationship, that I didn’t see mentioned, is that a relationship is a two-way street. The terms of a relationship are all consensual. I often hear mono people talk about trying poly in terms of permission, as in, “I wish my partner would let me be poly.” Relationships do not work that way. Your partner doesn’t “let” you be poly any more than you “let” your partner be a doctor or “let” your partner eat eggs for breakfast. You can be poly or not without anyone’s permission. The question to ask is not “will you let me be poly?” The question is “if I were polyamorous, how would you feel about that?” Then, you can make an informed decision regarding what to do, taking your partner’s feelings into account. But it’s important to remember that the choice is yours. Thinking about it in terms of permission is disempowering.

    There is also a reason I phrase things as “I” statements. One of the things that bothers me about the titular question is that it assumes that for one partner to be poly, both need to be poly. This is most certainly not the case. MonoPoly relationships happen all the time, and are just as legitimate as any other. In order for you to be poly, your partner doesn’t have to see other people. Your partner just needs to decide that s/he wants to continue the relationship even if you’re seeing other people. I’ve had partners in the past who thought that way, and actually felt guilty for not being interested in anyone else. That’s not a good situation.

    This is also related to why I take a slightly different approach to what to do when you are poly and your partner is not. Ending the relationship may be the safest option, but I do not necessarily agree that it’s the healthiest. For me, it’s a little too much like saying “I’m doing this for your own good.” Unless my feelings for the person change (which, to be fair, is often the case when it turns out someone feels negatively about my other partners), I’m more likely to lay out the terms by which I am available for a relationship, and allow the other person the choice of whether to pursue the relationship or not. In practice, it’s not much different, since it almost always has the effect of ending the relationship, but it gives the other person a degree of agency, which I always appreciate when I’m on the receiving end.

    You are not joking when you talk about how fine a line you walk, though, and I really appreciate you driving that point home. Communicating your desires can often feel like demanding your desires if you’re not extra careful with your language and tone.

    1. 3.1
      Vicki

      This seems to get back into the old difference between “how do I tell someone I’m interested in that I’m poly?” and “how do I get the person I’m already involved with to try polyamory?” Someone who is in what they thought was an exclusive relationship–which may be because that was agreed on years earlier–may well read that question as them being not good enough, or a lead-up to breaking up. If the initial response to “are we going to be exclusive now?” is “I don’t do exclusive relationships in that sense, but I do want to spend a lot of time with you, and ….” they still might break up with you, but they’re less likely to accuse you of dishonesty. ["I knew you were poly as soon as we met" is a special case.]

  4. 4
    rilian

    I don’t suppose I would even have a partner? Not of the dating type anyway. So there wouldn’t be any convincing them, I just would never have promised them any exclusivity in the first place. I’m kind of a relationship anarchist? And I’m not interested in sex or romance. On the one hand there’s my friends to whom I feel committed, and on the other there’s people who are fun to hang out with casually. They can take it or leave it.

  5. 5
    heliobates

    I’m going to have to read those books. I seriously do not have any interest in other partners. My complete and utter loyalty to my wife seems like a feature not a bug. I don’t ever think it’s something that I want, but it does sound like it’s worth understanding.

  6. 6
    hc

    Thank you Miri.
    This is one of the most intelligent and straightforward commentaries I’ve read about polyamory.

    For myself, polyamory isn’t something that feels intuitive to me at this point in my life. Perhaps that is something that might change later on, or depending on the partner I’m with.
    I’ve encountered many people and articles that seem to take a moral highground with the subject, claiming it to be more emotionally evolved, as if people who choose monogamy are just scared, insecure, immature (some of the things that have already been stated here).

    I think that experiencing polyamory in a healthy way is about finding partners who you can trust and who you feel comfortable with and feel that you are being respected in that situation.
    And your commentary indicates a very respectful and honest way to communicate with a partner.

    Earlier this year I did try to date a friend who was involved in a poly relationship.
    What made it very stressful and often accentuated insecurities, was the fact that he started to create a hierarchy of the people he was seeing.
    He had a primary partner who seemed to dictate the rules and had ongoing turmoil of emotional drama with their relationship. He had another person he was dating that he prioritized his time with over myself, in a way that was disrespectful to time we had planned to spend together. As well as numerous other people that he seemed to just hook up with, almost like it was a goal in itself to see how many people he could add to the list.
    At one point he even complained to me that he was having difficulties managing his time with all these various partners – such behaviour in this situation definitely affected my overall experience and understanding of what a positive poly relationship can be about.

    (Thank you for the links to the books as well!)

    1. 6.1
      CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

      Sounds like your friend/partner was failing at a pretty central piece of poly life, namely complete honesty about intentions and relationships. Also, knowing one’s limits: not taking on a partner to whom you can’t give what they’re looking for in you.

      I hope if you find you want to try it again, you have better luck with a partner who gets the whole respectful communication and empathy thing.

  7. 7
    Augmarie2828

    My wife was the one who started the whole poly conversation after she watched the show for the first time. She told me the idea of it turned her on. Before that she was into “Sister Wives” and that show also turned her on. I have an ex co-worker that I still talk to and we are both attracted to her and have talked about bringing her in but usually the question of jealousy can’t be answered and we end it there. I’m just wondering if this is a real thing that can happen or is it more of a fantasy that she uses?

    1. 7.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I’m not sure if that question was rhetorical, but if not, I can’t answer that for you since it varies for different people. Some have little interest in acting out their fantasies; others really want to. Only way to find out is to ask.

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