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On how to manage an NRE addiction/addicted partner

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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.


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