I mentioned in my earlier post on how to manage and deal with new relationship energy that people have a bad habit of cursing NRE (New Relationship Energy) when what they’re actually cursing is the fact of new relationships. It’s really tricky to separate out which one of these things is the “real” problem, especially when they tend to be so intertwined and both can cause problems. Frequently, you kind of need to take all the things that I mentioned earlier about managing NRE into account and all the shit that I’m going to explain here about managing new relationships into account as you’re trying to grow your poly garden.
Hey, I never said poly was easy. RELATIONSHIPS aren’t easy. With poly you just get (all that relationship trouble)^(number of people involved).
Everything that I’m going to talk about here applies to basically all poly, whether you’re doing more anarchical or more hierarchical poly. However, things manifest differently depending on which one of those you’re doing. The real wrench is circumstances: whether you’re transitioning your previously more-or-less monogamous relationship into a polyamorous one; or you’re a previously not-poly person entering into someone else’s already well-established polyamorous relationship dynamics; or you’re trying to start a new relationship (or set of relationships) and keep them poly from the start; or you’re in an existing poly relationship and starting a new relationship (which feels like it should be the easiest of all of these, but isn’t always).
(I’ve noticed more and more people sort-of drifting into poly recently in a way that didn’t used to happen much. I’m getting more “please help!” messages from people that go something like, “Well, he was poly when I started dating him, and it seemed like the thing to do, but we never really talked about it, and man… that shit got messy fast.” Call me crazy, but to me, that’s kind of the relationship equivalent of saying, “Well, he was into skydiving when I met him, so I figured, ‘why not?’” That might turn out awesome for you, but chances are, it’s going to get messy and need a lot of frantic education and training in order to avoid a messy crash. All of which is to say that ANY poly that isn’t pure luck requires some real thought and serious communication if it’s going to be anything other than a set of very casual disconnected relationships. And that adding new partners in a poly dynamic where everyone is just sort-of “dating” or doing that “I’m-not-sure-what-we-are” thing looks pretty different than adding new partners when you’re, say, married.)
So. With all that as background, here’s some advice on how to deal with new relationships in the midst of previously existing relationships. I’m writing this in problem-solving mode, but it’s entirely possible that everything goes just fine and none of these problems appears. You know, in fantasy relationships…
First off, always remember that “dealing with new relationships” is a three+-person endeavor.
New relationships affect everyone in a poly set: the old partner who might feel left behind, the old partner in the throes of a new relationship, and the new partner(s). Any of these people as individuals might be handling things badly or well, and any of the relationship units in there might be handling things badly or well. You might be insecure; your partner might be acting like an asshole; or both things can be true (I’ve learned that when people don’t treat me particularly well, it tends to make me insecure. Go figure). It’s important to notice everyone’s behavior here, and try not to pinpoint any individual as the sole source of a problem. Sure, you may be annoyed because your new metamour is texting your boyfriend constantly, but the real problem for you is that he keeps texting herback. It’s really important to keep all that in perspective and focus on the part of the problem that you can solve (i.e. your own relationship, and not the other relationship[s]).
Don’t try to pretend like nothing has changed
This is an awful strategy that people frequently employ to avoid dealing with the realities of their new relationships. Even if the only thing that has changed is that now you’re less available for spontaneous dates, something has changed. The question is whether whatever has changed matters much to you and the other people involved.
Try to have compassion for your partner’s anxieties, even when they seem weird or silly
This point follows directly from the previous one. People tend to manage new relationships (at least in their platonic ideals) very differently in hierarchical and anarchical poly relationships. In hierarchical poly relationships, new partners can pose threats to cherished statuses and relationship positions. People often take solace and security from the idea that they’re “your only boyfriend,” “your only sub,” and even weird things like “the only person who fucks your ass” (a strangely common one) or “the only person who chokes you.” People use those designations as a way to convince themselves that they’re special and matter to you. So if they suddenly find that they’re not your only boyfriend, sub, person fucking your ass, human choker, etc., they may panic and worry that they’re no longer important to you at all (even though what they actually mean is that they’re no longer important to you in the way that they were. And let’s face it—that’s probably true).
Don’t kid yourself or trivialize your partner’s anxiety about these things. There really is a pretty big difference between being your only sub and being one of two for all kinds of reasons. Also, don’t try to kid yourself into thinking that going from “being your only dom” to “being the only person who chokes you” is really going to provide the same kind of status-comfort. I try to constantly remind myself that relationships are more important than titles, but there’s no denying that psychologically and sociologically, titles and relationship distinctions mean something. There’s only so much you can do to replace them.
Don’t try to manage your partner’s other relationships for them
This one is just general basic poly advice, but still applies here as elsewhere. Your job is to state and manage your own needs/wants/desires as honestly as possible to your partner; then your partner needs as honestly as possible to tell you what they can do to meet them, given the needs/wants/desires of their other partners. You’ll create all kinds of poly stresses if you say things like, “I’m worried that you’ve been spending too much time with me and not enough with your wife.” Far more reasonable is, “Do you think that, given the constraints of your other relationships, the amount of time we’ve been spending together is going to be sustainable?” Or even, “I’m worried that the amount of time you’re spending with me is making your wife jealous and resentful towards me. This makes it really hard to spend time with the both of you. What kinds of things would help change that?”
Treat the other new relationship as an opportunity to clarify your relationship
A lot of times, especially in these days of fuzzy dating norms, people tend to drift vaguely into relationships that they don’t clearly define for themselves or each other. But sometimes, the presence of a new relationship can force the conversation where you define each other as “boyfriend/girlfriend,” or where you admit that you like each other a lot but aren’t really in love, or where you finally confess to each other that this really isn’t working as well as you want it to. You can also use the new relationship as an opportunity to try to force yourself to articulate your favorite things about the relationship and try to make sure that those things persist in it.
The subset of this one is the emotionally clueless version where you realize through your jealousy or by missing certain things how much the person meant to you when you hadn’t realized it fully before. This one is mostly problematic because it’s a lot harder to get something back than to keep it and let it grow. Generally speaking, you’re better late than never here, and you’re probably better off being honest. But ideally, you want to clarify your relationship while it’s still going strong and not after it’s deteriorated a bit from other relationships.
Use the other relationship as an opportunity to find and fix cracks in your relationship.
Following from the previous point about clarifying the relationship and what it means to both of you, new relationships tend to put pressure on small relationship cracks of existing relationships (well, they also put pressure on big relationship cracks that destroy them, but that’s a different issue). You may have been pretending that those cracks weren’t a big deal for a long time. You don’t get to do that once there’s so much outside pressure on them, and so the new relationship forces you to do some relationship housecleaning.
Unfortunately, this housecleaning often comes with the cost of harsh contrast. It’s unfortunately really common for people to be blissing out in NRE with their new partners and undergoing a lot of hard relationship processing with their older partners. This contrast only makes the new partner seem more attractive by contrast (because the new relationship feels easy by comparison). As long as you remind yourself that this is what’s happening, you can often come out of this housecleaning stronger. But it can be especially alarming to the outside person in the new relationship as they wonder what the hell kind of mess they’ve stumbled into. Don’t be surprised if they get nervous or wary as a result.
Try to stay focused on YOUR relationship
This may be one of the most effective ways I know to combat jealousy, and it’s also a way to combat the temptation to try to manage your partner’s other relationships. Stay focused on what the new relationship is doing to yourrelationship, and how it is affecting you–directly and indirectly. Try not to focus on the fact of that other relationship’s existence, but instead on the concrete ways it affects you. For example, it doesn’t necessarily matter much if her long-distance girlfriend is kind of a bitch if she always goes to visit her. If you want to live the giant poly train station house thing (where all the partners come and go frequently in a big happy poly blob), it matters a lot more. But you have to pick your partners differently if you’re committed to that fantasy than if you’re not.
New relationships, like NRE, don’t have to mean Big Scary Relationship Doom. In the best case scenario, new relationships can mean that there’s a new awesome person involved in your life (a new metamour) and sometimes they also come with a whole package of cool friends and lovers themselves as an added bonus. Basically, in the ideal poly world, new relationships can mean new friends and new bonding opportunities. But manifesting that ideal requires some really careful and strategic cultivation of all of the relevant relationships, and preserving an underlying sense of security among everyone.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s plenty of research that suggests that NRE (New Relationship Energy) is basically a drug. The process of falling in love tends to be accompanied by all kinds of gooey endorphin rushes that our bodies and brains are programmed to think are delightful. But as with most drugs, NRE-endorphins might feel great to some people, fine to some, awful to some, and like The Best Thing Ever to others. Which in practice seems to mean that most people seem to really enjoy NRE, some people are just kind of meh about it, others despise it, and some people lovvvvve it. The people who lovvvvve it are the ones who usually become NRE addicts. Please note that a lot of kinksters are endorphin junkies (it’s part of what many people love about kink), so it should come as no surprise that kinky poly NRE-junkies are also a common feature of the scene. Thus you get people like my husband (who ironically isn’t an NRE junkie) who like to say that their “vices are adrenaline and women.”
I’m not going to spend too much energy or too many words trying to parse the difference between NRE addiction and polysexuality. I define polysexuals as people who eroticize the experience of sexual difference and variety (unsurprisingly, they polysexuals tend to be switches). I think of it as the defining aspect of my own sexuality. It’s entirely possible for people to be polysexual and not be polyamorous, and for those people things like swinging can be very appealing because their priority is sexual variety. It’s also possible to be an NRE addict and monogamous, but it pretty much always leads to serial monogamy. I think of NRE addiction as being fundamentally about feeling perpetually enthralled, aroused, and excited by the process of getting to know new “partners”; while sex and/or kink is usually part of that, it is more about the thrill of getting lost in a person and a partnership than just getting lost in the sex/kink.
For the addicted
I’m going to take for granted that you understand the myriad ways that NRE addiction can potentially hurt you and your other relationships. So if you’ve realized that you are a bit addicted to NRE, you really have four choices: 1. Try to kick the habit 2. Become one of those “solo polyamorists” who never seems to have a “relationship” that lasts longer than a year (and to clarify, that is not all solo polyamorists by any stretch. I’m referring to a specific group of people) 3. Find that your “long-term” relationships usually fizzle or blow up like Pompeii because of the way you dis/invest in them or 4. Acquire some strategies for becoming a functional addict. I personally picked #4, and here are some of the ways that I manage my life.
- Find an exceedingly tolerant primary partner. While I don’t doubt that someone somewhere out there has successfully managed their NRE addiction by becoming a hardcore poly anarchist, I’ve never personally seen it work for even a year. In poly anarchy, unless you try to keep some pretty strict rules about date nights, communication (phone calls, texting, etc.), and all the other little things that make relationships function (and at that point, how anarchical does it really look?), NRE addiction tends to lead to constantly wildly shifting and overhauling relationship dynamics (not to mention relationship neglect) in a way that burns the relationship candle out quickly. Poly anarchy is attractive to NRE addicts because it’s so flexible, but in my not-so-humble opinion, it’s not a good relationship strategy for managing the addiction; it’s more a way to FUEL the addiction. If you want to MANAGE your NRE addiction, your best bet is to find a staid primary partner with whom you establish clear patterns and expectations, an adventurous secondary partner or two who like to go out exploring with you, and then get a good rotation of other people to keep your interest going without having to constantly form new relationships (see below).
- Deliberately form relationships with people who are not easily available because of distance or time (don’t try emotionally unavailable. That’s always messy). If you’re one of those people who is innately awful at keeping in touch with people by text, IM, or phone—work on that. It’s worth your while to get good at this, because one of the easiest ways to maintain NRE-like feelings without having to constantly acquire new relationships is to have a bunch of people with varying degrees of relationship seriousness that you actually don’t get to see very much or spend much time with. Then when you see them, it’s a big thrill! Plus people tend to do those relationships as “vacation-ships,” which has an NRE-ish thrill all its own (“I can’t do laundry tonight! My partner-who-I-never-get-to-see is over!”).
- Be honest with yourself about your addiction, and don’t treat every new person you have a crush on/fuck as The New Big Deal. There is, in my experience, exactly NO correlation between NRE and functional long-term relationships. Remind yourself of that fact a lot, no matter how full of sexy cotton candy fluff your brain might be with Pretty Person #102, and don’t neglect good solid relationships in favor of relationship junk food.
- Be conscious of the “I’ve never been in love like this before!” trap, for it is a trap that is especially easily for NRE junkies to lose vulnerable parts of their anatomy in. Among other things, NRE addiction tends to be fueled by an excitement from/eroticization of difference. What’s easy to lose sight of is that every new love is new and different from every other because every person is a special unique snowflake, so of course you’ve never been in love like this before. So what?
- Get really fucking good at doing all the things I described in my previous post about managing NRE. Go out of your way to make sure your long-term partners feel desired and are comfortable with your new relationships. Don’t expect them to take your new relationships seriously just because you do. Be respectful to everyone—old and new—with your time and energy.
- Always make everyone believe that you’re happy to see them.
But let’s say you’re partnered to someone who’s an NRE addict. What do you do?
Although I do have some experience on this side of the equation, I’ve never lasted more than six months on it (…see the above part about being an NRE addict myself), so I turned to my husband for some truly expert advice. It’s a good thing that I know that he loves me well, because the picture he painted was a rather bleak one; I’ve woven his advice into what follows. He warned that one of the hardest things about being in a long-term relationship with an NRE addict is that you usually lose one of the best weapons against jealousy in poly life: befriending the metamour. He says that NRE addicts have (I warned you this was bleak) an “assembly line” of relationships, where there are always ones going in, ones currently in production, and ones going out. According to him, it’s hard to keep up the motivation to really get to know people after a while because they come and go so easily.
Conversely, you have no fucking clue why the person is staying with you once the NRE is gone in your own relationship. All you really can do is just have faith that they’re going to keep coming back and aren’t going to get bored with you. And the only way to do that is to believe that the life you’ve built with them is interesting enough to make up for the fact that you aren’t new and shiny any more.
- If you want to be in a serious long-term committed relationship with an NRE-addict, you generally have to accept a position as the Comfortable Partner. Accept the fact that they’ll run off and sow wild oats and come home to you. Take that homecoming as a sign of their love and devotion, instead of reading the sowing of wild oats as a sign of disinterest in or boredom with you. Remember that when this all works well, they’ll bring home a big blaze of twitterpated enthusiasm that can reignite your own relationship as well, and just bask in the reflected glow.
- Be super clear about your relationship needs/wants/desires and able to assert them if necessary. Ideally, your partner is checking in with you regularly, but if you don’t respond honestly when they do, it’s not going to do either of you any good. People often don’t know how to articulate the little things that matter to them in relationships that can vanish when a partner falls into another person—the daily text messages that diminish, the cooking of random special foods, the special way you dress for Your Person. But as best you can, it’s good to stay aware of the things that are important to you so you can describe them and ask for them.
- Get a life. I don’t say that to be snarky—again, I’m quoting my dear spouse. It’s true in any poly relationship, but having hobbies and things that you enjoy doing with or without your partner is a strategy for success. Keep in mind that for a lot of NRE addicts, relationships and sex are hobbies in and of themselves. If those aren’t hobbies of yours, get a different hobby.
- Cultivate other relationships and just ride the waves. If you’re not an NRE addict and your partner is, chances are pretty decent you’ll have one other very serious relationship to their 10 it’s-complicateds at any given time. Great. That gives you an even firmer emotional cushion against the bumps from their relationship roller coaster ride.
I promise, being partnered to an NRE addict can still be lots of fun and interesting and really crazy wild ride… You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. It can be worth it. I swear.
The Slut (IPCookieMonster) will be one of the presenters and performers at an awesome bondage event called RopeCraft Feb. 19-21, 2016. For more information, check out: http://ropecraft.net/
One of the biggest challenges in poly life is new relationship energy, often abbreviated to NRE. My best friend and I actually worded that acronym (pronouncing it nuh-ree) and would go around squealing it whenever relevant like a couple of birds. (me: “omg she is so cute have you seen her hair and she always wears the best shoes and unf and she texted me like 100 times yesterday” her: “nuhree! nuhree!”).
NRE is also sometimes known as “twitterpation, ” which is a term I know some people despise as patronizing and trivializing. I think it’s adorable, especially given the original context:
The clip provides a decent overview of the concept: NRE and twitterpation are both associated with giddy and semi-obsessive feelings around the object of one’s affection. People in the throes of NRE also tend to be blind or at least uncaring about the object’s faults. And there’s a sense in all of this that NRE/twitterpation is more hormones and pheromones whizzing and banging than the kinds of feelings that help you establish and maintain lasting relationships.
One of the reasons I actually prefer the term “twitterpated” to “NRE” is because “NRE” implies that time is the crucial factor in all of this. My own experience suggests quite adamantly that it’s not always the case. On multiple occasions, I’ve become twitterpated with people I’d been playing with for over a year. Although I could argue in all of those cases that the precipitating factor was the new relationship, rather than the new relationship. My point is that the term “new relationship energy” can be misleading. If you have a years-long play partner you fall in love with for whatever reason, NRE can still apply.
Now before I go any further, let me hasten to add that NRE also still definitely happens to monogamous people. It’s also very problematic for monogamous people, as it is for polyamorous people, but for entirely different reasons that I’ll mostly elide. Suffice it to say that NRE often leads monogamous people to try to settle down with the wrong people, and mono folks who are addicted to NRE often become serial monogamists without really understanding why.
Wait, “addicted”? If that sounds like a strong term, let me assure you that it’s not. Twitterpation really basically is a drug (and psychologists have even studied it as such), and it feels reeeeeeally good. And just like with most drug addicts, there are functional NRE-addicts, and super-destructive not-very-functional-at-all NRE addicts. I’ll write a post-script post on how to deal with NRE addiction.
I don’t think most poly people are NRE addicts, but NRE nevertheless remains a very challenging aspect of poly life. The two most common questions about my life that I get from mono muggles is “how do you deal with STDs?” and “how do you deal with jealousy?” The most common question I get from more experienced poly folk about my life is, “how do you deal with NRE?” So here’s some basic advice from my own experience for managing NRE in poly life.
First off, as best you can, try to differentiate issues which arise from the “new relationship” versus issues that arise from the “new relationship energy”
This one is so tricky that most people barely even seem to try. Technically speaking, there are some very practical differences between anxiety brought on by seeing your partner form a new relationship and anxiety brought on by seeing your partner giddily forming a new relationship and not paying as much attention to you. However, these issues are in fact so different that I’m going to post separately about managing new relationships in poly life, which is a different question (and in my opinion, a much harder one).
Admittedly, this is easier advice when you’ve been with someone for, say, a decade than when you’ve been dating them for less than a year. But the fact of the matter is, you probably really have no way to tell if the person your partner is currently gooing over is going to stick around or not based on the fact that they text all the time and have 30 million photos of the person on their phone. Give your partner some time (you decide how long) to be ridiculous and enjoy the highs of this New Person, and then wait to see if this New Person actually turns into New Relationship.
For Goddess’ sake, don’t assume that NRE is necessarily a problem
Poly folks have a bad habit of talking about NRE like it’s this horrible thing that’s out to destroy them and their precious primary relationships. It really doesn’t have to be. If you have a good relationship, your partner’s NRE with someone else can actually be good for it. A rising tide raises all boats, and all that. People in the midst of NRE tend to just be happier all the way around, their libidos tend to get higher, they tend to engage in more courtly and romantic gestures… and when it works out well, everybody benefits from that, not just the new partner. Especially if your partner was previously polyunsaturated, NRE can be great.
Don’t demand compersion from yourself or your partner
Another bad poly habit is thinking that people who don’t experience compersionaren’t “true polys.” There are a lot of things that go into compersion, and you’re doing a serious disservice to yourself and your partner if you think that a lack of compersion is the same as a lack of love and emotional support. Settle for a lack of active jealousy or anxiety, and treat compersion as a bonus emotion if it happens.
Don’t trivialize the new relationship
People sometimes use “twitterpation” and “NRE” as weapons to trivialize the significance of the new relationship in contrast to their own. These are statements like, “oh, my husband is just caught up in NRE with his new girl” (with the implication of “but our marriage is real and what really matters to him”). There are some inescapable realities here—a partner’s 3-month-long relationship probably does look kind of insignificant next to your 13-year-long marriage, but you don’t need to throw that in anybody’s face. Similar comments include, “but you just met them!” Trust me, that doesn’t get you very far. Feelings are not objective rational realities, and you’re going to make things messy if you trivialize the feelings of your partner.
Don’t take the old relationship for granted
This one seems to be the one that most people fear. I love the metaphor of poly architecture, and the idea of relationship houses. On the one hand, if you’ve got a well-constructed stable relationship, it probably really does not require the kind of maintenance and upkeep that a brand-new “under construction” relationship does… but it still requires SOME. Check in with your old partner regularly to see how they’re feeling about the new partner, the new relationship, and the old relationship. There’s a beautiful world of difference between having your partner come to you and say, “How are you feeling about my new relationship?” versus having to be the person coming to the other person and saying, “I’m feeling anxious about your new relationship. Can we talk about it?” The fact that you checked in alone can go a lonnnnng way towards making the other person feel valued.
Don’t let NRE blind you to what’s happening to your other relationships
To my way of thinking, it’s okay to sink into the bliss of NRE and let yourself be temporarily blinded by someone else’s faults. Go ahead and lie to yourself that you can build a relationship with someone who’s entirely wrong for you. It feels good. You’ll learn from your mistakes. But there’s no excuse in poly life for letting NRE blind you to what’s happening in your other relationships. In poly life, you can’t calculate the cost of a relationship solely in terms of how it affects you. You have to calculate how it affects you AND your relationship set.
Don’t blow yourself out on your other partners
In the blissful throes of NRE, people have a terrible habit of cheerfully destroying themselves and their genitalia on their new partners and then coming home to their old partners exhausted and bruised. This is a terrific recipe for breeding all kinds of resentment from the old partner, who starts to really feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. On top of that, people will also sometimes further damage the old relationship by doing things like “saving their energy” up around the old partner for the new one…. Don’t do that shit. It’s really bad for you and your old relationship. Be respectful of your old partners, and try to keep giving them what they’re accustomed to in terms of your alertness, energy, sex, etc.
Try not to treat the relationship aspect of twitterpation like it’s super-special
I don’t know about you, but I get twitterpated with all kinds of shit—books, movies, and especially hobbies. Keeping me as a partner means dealing with the way I will inevitably become obsessed with something new all the fucking time because that’s just kind of the way I am. But lots of other people are like that too. It can be helpful sometimes to treat a partner’s excessive enthusiasm for their new partner as basically the same as if they had taken up running or rope or boxing with passion. You might share the interest in the hobby (and you might share the interest in the new partner), or you may be perplexed and bored by it. But you should both deal with it in a similar fashion regardless—i.e. manage how much time it takes up, how much conversation energy gets devoted to it, how distracted they are by it, how the two of you manage it together, etc.
Don’t be an asshole
I don’t know why people seem to think there’s some magical secret to managing NRE. There isn’t. It’s not special (see above). You manage NRE exactly the same way you manage everything else about your relationship: with respect, love, compassion, tolerance, and good communication.