Sometimes, open relationships just suck.
I say this as someone who's been practicing responsible, open, non-monogamy my whole adult life. I'm normally a cheerleader for open relationships, especially in my writing. There are plenty of misconceptions about what open relationships are like, and too few voices talking about how great it is to send your husband off to his date night and have the house to yourself for a few hours. I love talking about the good parts.
It's not all good, though. I'm going to take a moment to explore some of the hard parts.
1. Needing a Teleporter - It's always somebody's birthday at the same time as someone else's violin recital. Or worse, somebody's broken heart needs soothing at the same moment someone else has a car break down and needs a rescue. I can't be in two places at once, try as I might, and I often feel torn between competing sets of needs. This might seem obvious, but it is hands down consistently my least-favorite thing about being poly. I want to be every good thing in my loved ones' lives, and the tug-of-war over my priorities just rubs in the fact that I'm simply human, with painful limitations on what I can offer even to the people I love most.
2. Spillover - When things are good in my life, they tend to be good all over. And similarly, when they're bad they are horrid, as the saying goes. Relationship stress tends to ripple out and affect other relationships. One partner has a jealous fit because I'm spending too much time with another, who in turn gets upset because I'm suddenly distant and stressed out in response, and the difficulty with those two causes me to be distracted and less available to a third, who then feels alienated by my lack of attention. Just for example.
3. Surprise! Big Feelings - Jealousy is the one that gets the most attention, but surprise feelings can take all kinds of shapes: anger, fear, sadness, envy, inadequacy. Being in an open relationship means confronting the limits of your relationships, and it can be all too easy to start comparing yourself to someone else in your lover's life. You might feel fine about some aspect of your partner's relationship with their other lover, and then, boom, you're emotionally overwhelmed.
4. Scheduling - Ask any poly person what they love least about their lifestyle and you'll hear a rousing chorus of "scheduling!" Trying to keep the logistics of several people's social lives straight is a nightmare, even when everyone is happily getting their needs met. On top of the logistical hassles, scheduling often becomes the dumping ground for people's sublimated feelings about bigger things. Every social outing can start to fill imbued with meaning.
5. Loss - Daring to love means opening yourself up to the possibility of loss. Lives and relationships change, people grow apart or move away or evolve into needing different things. I don't know if polyamorous relationships are more likely to end than monogamous ones. I've seen data saying they're about equally stable, but there's not a lot of research on the topic. What I do know is that people in open relationships tend to form interdependent networks of relationships, so one relationship changing or ending affects many others. My husband and his girlfriend recently scaled back their relationship and the impact has rippled out onto our marriage and even put strain on my other relationships.
Bonus Point: Social Stigma - Being poly means being on the fringes of the relationship landscape. Even if you have a job where it's safe to be out about your personal relationships and friends and family who warmly accept your choices, it's still hard. Your relationships aren't reflected in popular culture, social assumptions are all built around monogamy and even in the best-case scenario, where everyone you love fully accepts your choices, you still have to explain yourself and push back against the assumption of monogamy as a default state.
Now, I don't know from experience, but it's my impression that monogamous relationships have to deal with these issues too, with the possible exception of social stigma. In fact, these troubles aren't limited to romantic relationships at all. I have these issues with my kids and my parents, my friends and my colleagues, as well as with my lovers. The problem isn't polyamory, it's simply the shadow side of attempting intimacy of any kind with another human being. When we get close to people, we make ourselves vulnerable to hurt and entangle our own needs to some extent with other people's. That said, some of these problems arise in particular ways that are unique to polyamory, and it's worth paying attention to that.
Next time, I'll come back in a better mood with a list of my favorite things about open relationships!
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