Ethical Nonmonogamy | Polyamory

Are you punishing your partner for disappointing you, and is it worth it when it works to get you what you want?

Your partner is about to have sexual contact with somebody new and you don’t like it. Maybe you don’t like it because you don’t like the partner they’ve chosen. This person is either too much like you or not enough like you or they’ve done something that makes you question their integrity. Maybe you don’t like it because it makes you feel threatened or insecure about the “enoughness” of your own sexual relationship with your partner. Maybe you don’t like it because your partner’s sexual activities outside of your bedroom are increasing their risk factor to a degree that you’re not comfortable with.

Or, maybe you don’t like it because you’re concerned about what “people” might think if they were to find out, or you’re worried that if you try to explain to somebody why you’re upset, they’re not going to understand and tell you that there is something “wrong” with your relationship.

There are dozens of reasons why you might feel upset about the fact that your partner is about to do something with another partner that you once thought they’d only ever do with you for the rest of their lives.

And that’s okay. It really is. It’s okay to not like it. It’s okay to have discomfort around it. It’s okay to have any emotional reaction you have to this situation you’re in.

My experience whenever I’ve dug down to uncover what’s at the root of the anger or sadness I experience when I am presented with information I don’t like is that I realize what’s happening is that I’m disappointed that the situation didn’t go according to my plan or expectations.

You’ll get the people who decide to remedy this by saying that you should never have expectations, or at the very least – lower them to the point where you accept anything and everything without having any cause to have an emotional reaction to it.

I can see the logic in that. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t expect things from people so that you’re never disappointed when they don’t deliver.

I have a different approach to this. I do have expectations. Lots of them. I expect honesty from my partner. I expect that he will tell me what I need to know when I need to know it. I expect that he will make every effort to be consistent with his commitment to our plans.

And I expect that I will sometimes be disappointed.

Disappointment isn’t the end of the world, folks. Once you realize that’s what it is – it’s much easier to let go of the anger that flares up when someone has dared to defy your expectations of them. It does mean that there’s a little emotional labor in store for you, because now you have to process all those feelings you’re having without blaming someone else for them.

It’s so much easier to just blame someone else and not have to be responsible for your feelings ever. It’s so much easier to punish the person that has wronged you in this manner than ask yourself the question: “is this relationship still worth it?”

Because what if the answer is “No?”

“This is not what I signed up for when I got married,” someone recently responded to the suggestion that if they are concerned about increased STI risk factors now that their polyamorous partner is ready to start having sex with their newer partner, they might want to educate themselves on the reality of that increased risk. Instead, they decided the best course of action was to stop having sex with their partner altogether in order to adequately protect themselves.

“Ok,” I told them. My coaching training tells me that what they’re experiencing is a Level 2 energetic response to a stressful situation. Level 2 energy is driven by anger and competition. If Level 2 had a motto, it’s “I win, you lose.”

Suggesting that in order to “win” the answer would be to punish their partner by withdrawing sex as an option for them is certainly their prerogative. It’s also an adequate solution. They’re worried about increasing their sexual risk, and so becoming celibate will guarantee they don’t expose themselves to STIs. Problem solved! Yay!

Heck! It might even work as a manipulation tactic! Perhaps faced with this ultimatum, their partner will decide that having sex with a new person isn’t worth never having sex again with their established partner and they’ll give up this nutty idea of being polyamorous.

Often (not always), the “rules” that people set for their polyamorous partners to follow are unconscious attempts to make their partners as unattractive as possible to a potential partner, and it *works.* Anybody who has been through the ringer with prescriptive hierarchy riddled with couples privilege and spousal control over secondary relationships will tell you that they will NOT date anybody who subscribes to hierarchy. Achievement unlocked – the relationship just became a non-starter for all those who feel that way, and the ones who agree to your rules have unwittingly agreed that the pre-existing partner has authority over their sex life.

So Level 2. You win, at all costs.

But there are drawbacks to this, and I don’t think it’s difficult to figure them out. What if this person’s partner decides “Okay, so we don’t have sex anymore. That’s totally up to you.” What if this relationship suffers long term damage because of that decision? What if putting so many roadblocks in front of your partner’s other relationships results in your partner and your metamour both resenting you?

How’s Lady Macbeth going to handle it when this tactic turns her into the villain?

How is that going to resolve what’s *really* going on?

Because, as was pointed out, there were other solutions. Lots of them. Here are just a few:

  • Have a conversation about risk and come to an agreement on how to mitigate risk by agreeing to use condoms with all new partners until testing has been done and the results have satisfied all parties. (Level 3 or 5, depending on the motivation behind it)
  • Become apathetic about the whole thing and view this as a sign of your unworthiness and not-enoughness. (Level 1)
  • Decide that condoms will be used within the pre-established relationship until the mono partner feels comfortable around the increased risk of exposure (or indefinitely). (Level 3 or 4)
  • Seek knowledge about the different STIs and their risk of transmission and work toward dissolving the stigma they hold in your mind. (Level 6)
  • Break up. (Depending on the reasoning, could be Level 1, 2, or 5)
  • Realize that this might not really about STIs (or, at least not *only* about STIs). It’s about control and anger and being disappointed that the exclusivity you thought you were getting out of this marriage is no longer a factor. Choose instead to do the work to figure out if that’s something you want to learn to be okay with or not. (Level 7)

One of the tricks I use when I’m having a sad or anger response to something and I realize that it’s not actually making anything better is to work through what a response would look like at each energetic level. It helps me remember that there are always other options – some that will actually get me what I want without having to make too many sacrifices.

It also reminds me that I have control over my actions, and my emotions do not.

I was disappointed recently. My knee jerk reaction was actually some Level 1 stuff. I went with the “I’m unworthy and this thing that is important to me doesn’t matter to him at all” reaction first. That lasted all of five minutes, though – before I started going through the exercise of working through all the possible responses to the stress event and selecting which one was going to work best for everyone involved.

I think I landed somewhere between a 3 and a 4, which is (as it turns out) where I tend to end up in most things. Level 3 is the level of compromise and silver linings. Its motto is “we can both win, as long as I secure my win first.” Level 4 is all about giving and selflessness. Its motto is “You win and I will do whatever I can to ensure it.”

My solution was to accept that the the opportunity I was excited about to attend an event with my partner wasn’t in the cards for the evening. I allowed myself to feel disappointed about that while not letting it put a damper on all the other amazing things that we could do with our evening. I also didn’t sacrifice doing the thing I wanted to do altogether. I still went to the event for an hour and enjoyed it immensely.

The solution was level 3 because I still did what I wanted to do (go to the party and spend time with my partner) – just not simultaneously, which was my preference. It was level 4 because I honored my partner’s autonomy to decide how he needed to spend his time without making it about me.

By the end of the evening, I actually felt very Level 5 about the whole thing. Level 5 is characterized by collaboration and success. Its motto is “we both win.” And we did. I had a great time that night getting to experience the best of both worlds – attending the event AND spending quality time with my partner that we both enjoyed.

So, bringing it back to our friend Lady Macbeth – whose response to her disappointment over the loss of exclusivity with her husband was to seek advice and then respond with bitterness to anybody who offered a solution that didn’t result in her retaining that exclusivity – I can only say that it’s definitely a valid response, and if your goal is to win at all costs …..

…then be sure you know the price you’re about to pay.

For more on the Energetic Leadership Index and the 7 Energy Levels – Read This Post

I am now certified to offer clients the ELI Assessment and provide a comprehensive results debrief. If you are interested in learning more about this assessment (there is a fee to cover the cost of the assessment and my time) Contact Me

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