A Poly Journey, Lesson 1 – The Fundamentals of Open Relationships

The following piece is transcribed from personal counselling sessions. General examples are given for the benefit of readers. Only take the information that resonates with you and simply discard the rest. Respect for sharing this material and my style of writing is expected. 

It was time to start my first session with poly friendly life coach and sexologist, Olivia Bryant. Olivia has such a wonderful energy about her as well as an incredible amount of insight and experience in coaching those in open-relationships. It’s important to remember that my partner and I were a mono couple turned poly, so this is a journey we have agreed to take together. However, the advice is still relatable to all open-relationship dynamics. In my relationship, there were various instances of poor communication, not nurturing the relationship whilst connecting with others and not dealing with past occurrences that created hurt, dis-trust and affected my self-worth. Consequently, this created such a rift between us, we felt it necessary to seek the right kind of help. Our first session was about understanding some of the basic fundamentals of open-relationships.

Respecting Your Own and Others Boundaries

Firstly, we discussed sexual obligation. How many people have given in to having sex with their partner when they really weren’t in the mood? Or in the context of swinging and group play they hook up with someone (i.e. “taking one for the team”), so their partner can be with the person they want? I don’t’ think many could admit to not having experienced sexual obligation at some point. Olivia said to me firmly, “in a space of sexuality, obligation is not ok”. People should never give themselves in a sexual nature and provide such a profound exchange when the motivation is OBLIGATORY. She then continued, “If you compromise yourself for someone else, you are abandoning yourself.” This in-turn ruins your health, even if it doesn’t feel like it initially.

We then discussed how some of the issues within my relationship had come to fruition. A huge contributing factor being that I was bending my boundaries in an attempt to please my partner, essentially abandoning myself. I was unaware of this as I was under the impression that being poly meant your partner was free to do as they please and any feelings of jealousy, insecurity or discomfort was your own issue to deal with (that’s a lot of the advice I got). Olivia explained that any situation that makes me uncomfortable, I am allowed to say NO to, including my partner doing certain things with others. Due to low self-worth and feeling undeserving, I put my own needs and feelings aside in an attempt to make my partner happy. This tactic proved incredibly detrimental and even toxic to our relationship. However, that’s not to say you’re allowed to veto every experience that causes you discomfort. It simply means to open up the lines of honest communication and create a compromise with your partner/s.

When situations that I was clearly struggling with would arise, I experienced feelings of jealousy, anxiety, nausea, panic and I would shut down emotionally. I’d tell myself to get over it and even harbour guilt, shame, anger and resentment towards myself for these emotional responses. Moreover, I felt genuinely shocked and perplexed by these emotions, when I whole-heartedly believe in and desire an open-relationship. Olivia pointed out that this was my core being (or true self) crying out that this situation doesn’t sit right with me at this point in time. Whether it be because my own needs within my relationship were not being met, or I had issues within myself I needed to address. It was comforting to hear Olivia state that having boundaries was not only OK, but actually necessary for emotional stability and building trust within my relationships.

Furthermore, she emphasised that pressuring someone is NOT ok. Sometimes we may try and persuade a partner to be ok with something because it’ll make us happy or possibly be beneficial to them or our relationship (in our eyes). You don’t realise that this is actually forcing their consent, putting them into “victim mode” and not respecting their boundaries. My partner and I have done this to one another without realising. It can be as simple as trying to convince your partner to go out to dinner, to have another drink or do an activity they don’t like simply because you like it. In relation to poly dynamics, this may include persuading a partner to engage in sexual activities they are not comfortable with, persuading them to bend or forgo their boundaries or pushing them to engage in certain activities so that it can be seen as fair that you can do the same.

There’s a common misconception that everything in an open relationship should be equal. But Olivia explained that you and your partner may have different boundaries. Just because you are OK with one thing, doesn’t mean your partner has to be consenting for you to do the same. Boundaries like this need to be negotiated and for the partner who is coping, they need to come down to the same level of the partner who is not coping. Don’t try and pull your partner up to your level, it doesn’t work that way.

An example of this, is in my partner’s state of fear when I was requesting a “time-out” from our poly lifestyle (after all the things that went wrong) and return to a more monogamous dynamic, he would try and push certain situations onto me. His actions stemmed from fear, that if we completely shut out the poly world and returned to a monogamous life, I would not want to go back. He thought by keeping small amounts of polyamory in our relationship, we were more likely to return to it fully down the track. However, these actions would inadvertently put me into “victim mode.” I felt as if I wasn’t being heard and my boundaries were not being respected. The more he pushed, the more I pulled away and thus creating more tension and anxiety within our relationship. This was a great learning curve for us.

Re-establishing Broken Trust

After a series of events had occurred that lead to our relationship breakdown, I had asked my partner to take a step back and focus solely on us for a while. He expressed his fear in doing this (as stated earlier), as he was concerned that if we returned to a mono relationship, I would never want to go back to being poly. This was an understandable fear as it could have been seen that I was simply running away from my problems and wanting to go back to my comfort zone of having him all to myself.

It’s difficult to decipher when to push through and when to take a step back. Olivia validated my partners fear and firstly asked me, “Ash, would you prefer a monogamous relationship?” I thought for a while and imagined living that dynamic with my partner. I replied, “no I wouldn’t. I know I would revert back to feeling trapped and controlled and I’d probably get bored.” Olivia also agreed with my request and explained it to my partner, on my behalf like this, “at this point in time, I need us to reset and lay the foundations of our relationship again. It’s gone so far in the one direction that I now feel unsafe and if we are going to do this together, we have to reset.” It’s basically saying that as we seemed to jump into situations blindly, I have been left feeling unsafe and the foundations of trust, love and strength that we previously had, need to be rebuilt before I feel safe in returning to these dynamics.

Olivia explained that we need to go to events (poly gatherings, swinger’s parties etc.), pretending like we have never done this before. Being unsure of each other’s feelings and boundaries and completely starting from scratch. She also stated that it is VERY NORMAL for couples in this world to go through phases of swinging/dating others & then back to nesting. I definitely do this as I’ve experienced periods of loving sharing my partner and connecting with others and then wanting to take a step back and simply be with him. It’s the same when you’re single. Sometimes you’re keen to date and seek potential partners and other times you’re content being alone and just doing your own thing

I was concerned that my feelings were completely unwarranted and that I was exhibiting selfish and controlling behaviour. Olivia assured me that this was not the case at all. Based on previous experiences within our relationship and the things that had gone wrong, my feelings were quite normal and justified. She then made sure I owned my own behaviours in these situations and I wasn’t purely putting blame on my partner. If I said yes to a situation, when I really meant no, that’s not his fault. If we didn’t communicate a boundary beforehand and he accidentally did something that I seemed ok with, that’s not his fault, that’s miscommunication on both our parts.

Olivia then stated that if the relationship is important enough, we will meet each other halfway and my choices will be respected. My boundaries and needs come before his pleasure, his need for engaging with others, his desire for seeking new partners and so on. Same goes for me. If our relationship is my priority, his boundaries and needs come before all other things I desire outside of our relationship.

To Take Home

Learning about respecting my own boundaries first and foremost was something I’d never considered. We live in a society where we are expected to put other people’s needs before our own. Living by this societal dictation will prove destructive to your health and relationships, as it did for me. It’s also important to note how often we inadvertently force consent or bend boundaries from others in our everyday lives. This behaviour spills over into our sexual and dating lives and can be the crux for relationship breakdowns.

I also learnt how easy miscommunication is. When a partner is doing something that you may take as hurtful or selfish, their intentions may actually be for good and based on their own perception or life experiences. We all deal with things differently and when you don’t communicate openly and honestly, it’s very easy to misconstrue any action or situation.

Lastly, I appreciated Olivia’s fairness in conflict resolution between my partner and I. Making sure we took equal responsibility for the situations that had occurred so that even if I am psychologically in “victim mode” that does not mean I am a victim and entitled to place blame. Nothing good will come from pointing the finger and creating shame or hurting your partner if they always had the best of intentions.

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