approx. 10 minute reading time
Becoming actively polyamorous, for many of us, isn’t a simple choice. If you’re involved with anyone, you have to make sure they’re a willing (and ideally eager) partner in this adventure. If you’re not, you might have to find new places to look for partners. There’s a lot to learn—vocabulary, things to avoid, different styles of ethical non-monogamy (ENM) and what they mean. You might have to grapple with old beliefs around monogamy and the “right” way to love.
Naturally, if you’re going to do all this work, you want to really truly know that this is what you want. You might even be coming up against partners, friends, or family who keep asking you if you’re sure about this. So what do you do with those nagging little worries that it’s going to turn out that you’re not cut out for polyamory, after all?
What Are You Afraid Of?
First let’s take a look under the hood and see what might be fueling those worries. See if any of these sound like familiar brain weasels:
- You’ll be embarrassed if you make a big deal of coming out as polyamorous and then later you’re saying “never mind…”
- You worry that the friends and family who warned you about getting hurt, or who dismissed this as a phase, will be smug and I-told-you-so
- You’ll have put your existing relationship through a lot of heartache and conflict for nothing
- If you don’t love every minute of being poly and you want to stop, you’ll have “failed”
- You might find out that you’re not mature or sophisticated enough to handle it—that you’re not good enough as a person
- You might have had to deal with fallout from work, family conflicts, custody arrangements, or your communities’ disapproval, and what if they’re not willing to welcome you back?
- You’ll get into new relationships and everyone will get invested, and you’ll end up hurting people you’ve come to love
We’ll talk more about the realities behind these fears in just a minute. But first…
Is It Wrong for Me or Is It Just Hard Right Now?
Unfortunately, trying a new lovestyle is not like trying on a shirt, where it’s obvious that it’s the wrong size or that the fabric itches or the color is terrible on you. When you’re exploring polyamory, there are few if any clear-cut signs that this is truly not for you. For example:
- You and your partner are fighting and crying a lot? Many polyamorous folks had the same experience early on.
- You struggle with jealousy? So do most polyamorous people (even some of the ones that claim to be too evolved to feel such a petty emotion!)
- Trying to schedule dates with multiple partners is exhausting? Welcome to the endless Google Calendar dance of the polycule.
- It’s hard to find partners who both match with you and are willing and able to do poly? We’re nodding our heads.
- You’re tired and wondering if this is really worth it? Plenty of lifelong polyamorous folks have thought about chucking it all and never dating again.
- You and your partner seem headed for breakup/divorce? Polyamory has a way of pushing couples to deeply examine whether they’re going their separate ways in general.
You get the idea. It’s really hard to tell sometimes whether the struggles you’re having are growing pains that’ll resolve eventually, or whether you’re a square peg trying to make yourself fit a round hole. Worse, no one can say for sure except you.
There’s an upside, though: If you’re having a hard time navigating polyamory, if it feels like more conflict and sadness and fear than joy right now, it’s not wrong for you to still decide to stick it out. You’re not necessarily making a bad choice.
Early Polyamory Is Hard. Period.
Sure, there are probably more people these days who learn about polyamory/ENM at a young age, or at a time when they’re single and they already know a lot of polyamorous people, who decide it’s for them without a lot of angst. ENM is so much more mainstream now than it ever was, so there’s more support and more resources and it’s better understood. For some people, that will make for a pretty smooth transition—or they’ll just start out their dating life poly and never do anything else.
But for the majority of us, the entry into polyamory and usually the first couple years of actively doing it is pretty hard. We’ve had a lot of cultural messages shoved down our throats about “soul mates” and “finding THE ONE” and about possessiveness being a sign of real love. Couple privilege is everywhere—by which I mean that the world is built for monogamous couples at everyone else’s expense. Breaking out of that is hard. Learning the skills to manage multiple relationships is hard. Dealing with the anxiety of how to co-exist with metamours (your partner’s partners) or deal with not being anyone’s “the one” is hard.
For couples who decide to open up, you’re also completely rewriting the rules of your commitment, the structure that up till now kept you feeling safe and secure, and that can be terrifying. If one partner is enthusiastic about poly and one is reluctant, there will be a lot of difficult discussions and choices. There are a lot of things that, as a monogamous couple, you might have been able to sweep under the rug because nothing external was pushing you to deal with them—but polyamory is suddenly pushing you to face them. Yikes!
I’m going to be real with you: The first two or three years of being polyamorous (actively—not just inside your head) are going to be a very mixed bag of highs and lows. You’ll have some exciting and joyful moments, and you’ll have some moments that just feel awful. It varies, of course. Some people have an easier or harder time than others, some people get through that early stage sooner or later. But usually, people who make it through find new stability, peace, and joy on the other side. It gets better, if you’re being honest with yourself and your partner(s) and doing the work.
You Don’t Owe Anyone a Permanent Identity
Listen. At the end of the day, who you are is your business and yours alone. Your gender, whether you’re straight or gay or pansexual, whether you’re demisexual or ace, whether you’re polyamorous or a relationship anarchist or diehard single or monogamous—all these things are for you to explore and discover. No one gets to dictate them to you. No one gets to force you to pick one thing and stick to it. No one gets to disrespect who you are because you “can’t make up your mind”.
There are people who start out monogamous who become polyamorous and it changes their whole world and they are converted for life, sure. But there are people who start out generally ENM and for any number of reasons decide to go monogamous. There are couples where one partner stays monogamous and one is polyamorous.
Some people actively identify as “ambiamorous” meaning that they don’t feel hard-wired to any one relationship style. If they fall in love with a polyamorous person (or more than one), they might happily have a polyamorous relationship; if they fall in love with a monogamous person, they might just as happily commit to having just that one relationship. It might not be influenced by their partner(s) either—they might simply seek the kind of relationship that feels right to them at any given time.
All of this is to say that if you step out into the world of polyamory and then decide to step back from it or be fluid about it, you didn’t “fail”. You weren’t “wrong” to think you were ENM. You explored a new-to-you way of being in relationships, you learned some new stuff, and you made an informed decision about what’s right for you. That is AWESOME. That’s worth celebrating!
“Yes but,” you might be saying, “what about all the work I did to come out to people or to talk to my partner about this? Didn’t I just waste everyone’s time for nothing?”
To which I say: Not at all.
I get it, I do. You’re feeling a little tail-between-your-legs to tell people in your life “um never mind”. Maybe your partner is frustrated or angry that you rocked the boat so hard, that they dealt with so many fears and nights crying themselves to sleep, when you could have just not. I’m not saying that you don’t have very valid feelings and maybe some fallout to deal with—you do.
But was it a waste of time? I don’t think so. Now you have some skills and experience in sharing vulnerable, maybe controversial things about yourself with the people in your life. You know who you can trust to be supportive, and you can put them first in line the next time you have a hard conversation to have. It’s not a waste of their time—all you asked of them in the first place was a “Great! Thanks for trusting me enough to tell me that!” Any more work they had to do around it, they probably needed to do anyway.
As for your partner, hopefully the two of you talked through some important things, maybe shared thoughts or fears you had never voiced before, and made some discoveries about where your relationship is at. There may be some cleanup to do right in the moment, but if the two of you were working towards polyamory in good faith, you probably did some really vital work that will benefit you going forward.
Speaking of Cleanup…
Yes, there may be some difficult situations to deal with if you got involved in polyamory and then decided not to be active in it anymore.
- If you “poly-bombed” your partner, meaning you announced that you were polyamorous and planning to live that way with or without their agreement and participation, you’re definitely going to have some issues to work on. (More on poly-bombing in a future post!)
- If you and your partner ventured out on this path, and you want to pull back but they don’t, that’s going to make things harder—but there are solutions here.
- It might take time to repair relationships with disapproving family or community members, though I’d point out that the burden of effort should be on them, not you.
- If you got involved with more than one person, it’s possible that you will lose all those relationships, yes. (Even if there’s one partner you want to stay with, they might not be willing to talk about monogamy!) However, if you’re thoughtful and careful about how you handle it, you might be able to transition those relationships instead of ending them, and lessen everyone’s hurt.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether your risk tolerance for any of these possibilities is high enough for you to feel good about taking your first active steps into polyamory, but none of these things (except poly-bombing, which you just shouldn’t do anyway) are reasons to not give it a try—or to stick with it if you’re unhappy being polyamorous.
Okay, But…How Do I Know When It’s Not for Me?
No one can really make that decision for you except you. Perhaps the only true sign that you’re not cut out for polyamory is if you really don’t want to do the kind of work it requires.
Here are some reasons that people might decide—and have decided—to step away from polyamory/ENM:
- Their partner or spouse really didn’t want to do it, and they decided that they would rather be in that relationship than explore ENM.
- The deep personal work needed for polyamory put them in touch with old trauma or other mental health issues that they realized they needed to work on first.
- Their careers, children, elder care, or other life commitments were so consuming that they realized they genuinely don’t have the bandwidth for multiple love relationships.
- They didn’t have any polyamory communities close enough by to really participate in, and they prioritized having a relationship close to home.
- They had enough crises or challenges in their life that dealing with the emotional struggles of trying polyamory felt too overwhelming at that time.
- They decided that they really needed to focus just on themselves and be single for a while.
- They gave it a shot, but eventually had to admit they weren’t really enjoying it enough for the work and challenges to feel worth it.
You’re not a traitor to the cause if you explore polyamory and then decide it’s not for you. You’re not a flake if you shift between ENM and monogamy. You’re not less evolved at relationships if you don’t want to be polyamorous.
On the other hand, if you feel this burning spark of desire for multiple loves, if you dream of a happy polycule of partners and metas supporting each other, if you like the people you meet in ENM circles and want to see where things go, then polyamory might be right for you even if it’s hard right now.
Here’s the only question you need to ask in order to know if this is your path right now: Does it feel worth it to keep doing the work and finding your way through the hard times?
Only you can answer that question, but hopefully you have a clearer path now to finding that answer.
Are you interested in getting into the world of polyamory/ENM, but nervous about how to find and enter your local ENM community? Check out our Classes page for our upcoming workshop “Munches, Sloshes, and Play Parties: Getting Involved in the Polyamory Community” and for other polyamory/ENM classes and workshops.