In my work as a non-monogamy therapist and coach I often hear things like, “My relationship with my boyfriend’s perfect except that his wife won’t let him spend the night at my house” or “my partner won’t let me have sex with our mutual friend and I’m so frustrated about it”. The hard truth in such situations, excluding instances of oppression and abuse, is that the person upholding those limits in their own relationship(s) is the one making those choices. They’re assessing the needs and desires within their different relationships and choosing how they want to delineate their time and energy accordingly. The choices to stay the night or to have sex with the mutual friend are still available to these people. There are simply reasons they’re choosing not to do those things. If they would own those reasons their situations would be much healthier and less confusing.
“The only people who can control the ship are the ones on board. Others can make suggestions on the radio, but they don’t actually have any control.
If you think of your relationship as a ship, it becomes clear that the only people who can control the ship are the ones who are on board. Others can come over the radio to offer suggestions or requests, but barring instances of abuse, they don’t actually have any control. To avoid the illusion that people outside of a relationship are the ones controlling it’s course, my main recommendation is that we all uphold boundaries and expectations that each individual in a given relationship own their own choices. When people abdicate responsibility for their own decisions by putting them off on their other partners, it creates feelings of injustice and confusion that harm all of the relationships involved. Each person owning their own choices improves metamour dynamics, while also increasing feelings of mutual respect and understanding in each romantic partnership involved.
Think of what a different picture it paints for someone to say, “If we continue dating I’ve made a decision not to stay overnight at your house because _______” rather than “my wife won’t let me stay overnight at your house”. That person’s reasons may be because they want to respect their wife’s feelings, because they feel a sense of obligation due to co-parenting, or to simply avoid conflict in their life. Their reasons also likely have to do with loyalty that’s been earned over time through many sweet moments and loving acts offered to them in the partnership they’re choosing to prioritize. Whatever their reasons, at the end of the day it is still a choice they are making and it would benefit all parties involved for them to own that and foster insight into the authentic reasons they’re making that choice.
“Whatever their reasons, it is still a choice they are making and it would benefit all parties involved for them to own that.”
If people can identify their motivations in their decision making they can often trace their choices back to core values. Are they being driven by compassion, empathy, family, loyalty, simplicity, peace, or some other fundamental values? If so, identifying that can often foster higher levels of understanding and acceptance. It’s hard to argue with someone telling you that they’re choosing not to spend the night at your house because they desire to live with a sense of integrity by upholding their values of empathy and family. That choice may indicate incompatibility, but it’s not an instance of injustice. It’s an instance of mismatched desires/needs and values that may or may not be reconcilable.
Sometimes, however, people examine their motives and don’t end up at core values. That is also very useful information. We humans tend to feel internal discomfort when we act in ways that are contrary to our values. Passing off responsibility for our decisions allows us to avoid facing those feelings of cognitive dissonance that can be powerful motivators in pushing us towards optimal fulfillment in our lives. When we acknowledge that we’re the ones actually making the choices that shape our relationships, we must evaluate if those choices are ones we truly feel good about making. In instances where they’re not, having that increased self awareness often organically inspires us to change course towards more authentic alignment.
In exploring this topic of choice I also think it’s important to acknowledge that the vast majority of us who engage in ethical non-monogamy are especially privileged, with very high levels of freedom. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see image below if you’re not familiar with that term). People who are struggling with their basic needs are much less likely to have multiple romantic partners. Having the extra time and energy non-monogamy requires certainly is not a luxury that’s afforded to all. In fact, it seems to me that such a luxury is in the self actualization realm of Maslow’s triangle, which makes the “(s)he’s making me do xyz” stance particularly unlikely.
“It seems to me that the luxury of non-monogamy is in the self actualization realm of Maslow’s triangle, which makes the ‘(s)he’s making me do xyz stance especially unlikely.”
In healthy relationships there should always be space for each person involved to express their needs, desires, feelings, and boundaries. If one’s partner(s) engaging in certain actions would cause pain, they owe it to themselves, their partner(s), and their relationship(s) to be authentic about that. Offering that information is not controlling a situation. It is simply providing one’s partner with complete and accurate information for their decision making process. Often when people use the language of a partner “making” them do something, what they really mean is that their partner made a request of them or expressed a clear boundary of not wanting to be in a relationship in which xyz occurs. The fact is - how one handles requests and boundaries of their partners comes down to choices they make of their own free will.
Furthermore, I often see people equate feelings to mechanisms of force. If one’s partner has an emotional reaction to something many people seem to take the leap of interpreting that action as off limits leading to “(she)’s making me do xyz” statements. For example, someone recently told me he wouldn’t have kissed another woman had he known that the “rules had changed”. Upon further exploration I realized he was interpreting his girlfriend expressing jealous feelings as a new “rule” when that was not desired on her part. To be clear: a feeling is not a rule. It’s just a feeling. For non-monogamous relationship dynamics to be healthy, there has to be space for everyone involved to express their feelings and for people to decide how they want to navigate those feelings in tandem with their partner(s). That doesn’t have to lead to avoidance of the behavior that caused the feeling. The best course of action has to be decided on a case-by-case basis in consideration of the circumstances and individuals involved.
Reality Therapy, a treatment modality developed by Dr. William Glasser, focuses on the value of fully acknowledging the power of our choices in creating our own realities and encouraging full acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of our choices. That’s a key component for creating healthy and sustainable non-monogamous relationship dynamics. Acknowledging our agency reminds us that we are the captains of our own ships. It also empowers our partners with more accurate information about our intentions, values, and priorities that can help them in best navigating their own journeys (AKA more ethical informed consent).
In curt recap - I strongly urge each of you to own your shit, own your choices, and expect that your lovers do the same. If you do I bet things will seem much less confusing out there on the open seas of love. So fair winds and following seas, Matey’s! I wish you all the best out there as you continue making the choices that will steer each of your loving adventures!
“Fair winds and following seas, Matey’s!
I wish you all the best out there as you continue making the choices that will steer each of your loving adventures!”