Opening your relationship can be a big step. Even for folks who are enthusiastic to embrace ethical non-monogamy (ENM), it can be challenging. Many folks find that ENM requires way more energy and time than they anticipated. If you’re trying to sustain multiple relationships, it’s important to guard your energy. I’ve found that I’m a much better pal when I’m able to clearly recognize and state my needs and limits. Here are a few tips I’ve embraced in my practice that I hope will also help you preserve energy:
- Understand your saturation point!
“Saturation point” refers to the balance between your level of energy and the number of pals you’re seeing. When trying to sustain polyamory, it’s important to be aware of over-saturation and under-saturation; having too many pals or too few pals in comparison to your energy. Many folks who are just starting on their ethical non-monogamy journey experience what Kathy Labriola refers to as, “kid in the candy shop syndrome.” Basically, folks want to date pretty much everyone they meet! I understand the feeling, people are really hot and opening your relationship can be super exciting. However, this attitude can easily lead to over-saturation. When I first opened up, I went on a date with five different people (while still having a pal at home). I realized five pals was way too much for me to handle, but only after pissing off my nesting partner. When you have more pals than energy, chances are you’ll have to compromise on the quality of those relationships to maintain a higher quantity or risk stretching yourself too thin. It’s an innocent mistake, but it can lead to lots of hurt feelings from everyone involved. It’s important to remain aware of your capacity and recognize when you’re taking on too much. We all have different appetites for social interactions. As an introverted polyam person, I have to be really careful not to take on too many pals because alone time is really valuable to me. I used to struggle with having extraverted partners who were able to have more partners than me. I tried to date more, to balance out the number of pals we had, and quickly realized I wasn’t being the best partner. Over the years, I’ve recognized my saturation point, and it helps me protect my energy.
- Schedule relationship maintenance time
My biggest energy saver was implementing weekly “Office Hours” with my pals. All relationships require maintenance; we all go through experiences of conflict, spicy emotions, unmet needs, and disagreements. Talking to our pals about how we want our relationships to evolve is a must. However, doing relationship maintenance is admittedly exhausting. It requires us to put aside our egos, communicate clearly, listen to our pals, problem solve, etc. In polyam, more pals means more relationship maintenance as well as the potential for more conflict. In the beginning, my pals and I would try to address issues as they came up, which meant that most days we were forced to have really long, deep, difficult conversations. It depleted all of our energy. Establishing a set time, once a week, allowed us to table issues in the moment, reflect on them individually, and bring them up in a setting where we were dedicated (and mentally prepared) to provide support and validation. I realized that even if I was feeling jealous, my pal might be too tired when they came home from work to help. Waiting to talk about spicy emotions helped me build distress tolerance skills, focus on my emotional regulation, while also giving my pal the opportunity to provide support when they were in the right headspace. Scheduling time meant that we weren’t letting pain points go unaddressed, but we weren’t spending the majority of our time together navigating conflict. Of course, there are still certain times when conflict is unavoidable, but we also give each other the grace to not address things perfectly on the spot and to revisit issues again during Office Hours.
- Create deliberate time together away from phones & polyam
Polyam is supposed to be enjoyable. Unfortunately, many people get caught up in jealousy, and forget the fact that polyam is supposed to be enjoyable! While there are certainly challenges, if you’re stuck in conflict the majority of the time, polyam is going to be draining and not very fulfilling. I often have to remind couples (including myself and my pals) that we need to focus on pleasure. Building deliberate time together that is collectively enjoyable helps us sustain our energy for navigating challenges. I like to schedule specific times with each of my pals where we have no other obligation but to be present with one another. During these times, we put away our phones (of course giving other members of our polycule a heads up that we won’t be responding for a while – *A polycule is a connected network of people in non-monogamous relationships*), and table any relationship maintenance conversations. Building enjoyable rituals helps to reinforce why we are together and what we want our polyamory to feel like. I also give my pals the encouragement to do the same with metamours (their other pals), and respect no-phone times. Mutual respect goes a long way in sustaining functional polycules, and practicing together makes it easier. We all deserve to have fun!
- Don’t personalize conflict
This is admittedly the thing I struggle with most. Polyam will involve jealousy no matter how well you practice. We live in a capitalist, hierarchical society that frames love as a competitive pursuit. Regardless of the work you’ve done to unlearn toxic compulsory monogamy tropes, those scripts are still deeply ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships. Jealousy can feel like a variety of experiences including anger, sadness, resentment, fear, shame, and self-loathing. When we feel this way, it’s easy to blame our pals for creating the conditions for our pain, even if we are consensually practicing non-monogamy. Conversely, when our pals are experiencing spicy emotions, it can feel like we’re at fault. Understanding self-differentiation, what’s your shit and what’s your pal’s shit, can help us navigate conflict productively rather than personalizing the situation. When we personalize conflict we stop looking for mutually beneficial solutions to reduce suffering and instead we focus on who’s to blame and often end up in net-sum-zero situations. I’ve had to work hard to learn to be upset or spicy towards a SITUATION rather than towards my pal. I know for the most part, the folks who I’m in relation with are doing their best. None of us are deliberately trying to hurt each other, so it’s ultimately not constructive to blame each other for our pain. I can be mad, for example, at my pal for not showing up to dinner plans when she’s busy with someone else. But recognizing that this is a human mistake, rather than an attack on me personally, allows me to give her grace and compassion. I’m able to voice my concern about the situation, and give her the ability to problem solve ways to extend support. This isn’t easy to do. It takes practice, and I encourage people to revisit conflict a few days later to debrief ways they could have been more gracious towards one another. Remembering you’re on the same team as your pals is necessary for overcoming the challenges of ethical non-monogamy. If you personalize conflict regularly it’s likely that your energy will tank; you’re taking on too much. Try to let go and ask for support. Don’t let things get to you, everyone is doing their best, and at certain times that still won’t be enough.
- You’re not confined to a singular relationship structure
At the end of the day, ethical non-monogamy and polyamory are meant to be expansive options of relationship structures. The goal is moving away from compulsory monogamy, and allowing you and your pals to decide how you best relate to each other. Becoming dogmatic in our non-monogamy or forcing a structure on people who aren’t interested isn’t sustainable. Even if you really really really want to be polyamorous, there are certain situations that prevent you from practicing. Remember that you can and most likely will have to make changes and adjustments to your relationship structures based on who you’re dating and what other life circumstances abound. Embracing flexibility means you’re able to adapt to your needs and energy levels as well as your pals’. If hierarchical ENM no longer works, try something else! If you realize you need to go back to monogamy, that’s ok! Remember you’re not stuck. If a relationship or structure is sucking up too much of your energy and you’re unable to find joy, it might be time to make some adjustments. Stay in touch with your feelings and be open to your pals’ as well. There’s no perfect structure, after all the success of a relationship is far more dependent on the individuals.
Last but not least, give yourself some validation! Being polyam requires a lot of growth and energy. Even if you’re not doing it perfectly (spoiler: no one is!), you’re still attempting to learn something new. You will get better at communicating, working through conflict, and prioritizing your needs with practice. Mastery does not come easily, but in the end, trying your best and not being too hard on yourself is the most efficient way to protect and honor your energy.
Sam (she/they) is a proud queer vulva-owner (a clam parent, if you will). They are polyamorous; she loves many people and allows each relationship to develop in mutually supportive structures. Sam has a Master in Arts from New York University in social psychology with a focus on consumer behavior. They are a sex educator, writer, researcher, avid reader, designer (with a Bachelor in Fine Arts in packaging design from Fashion Institute of Technology), and artist who does social media content creation.
Sam created Shrimp Teeth in 2018 to talk about how we communicate / approach / talk and think about sexxx. Check out their Patreon http://Patreon.com/shrimpteeth, website www.shrimpteeth.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for questions and/or collaboration opportunities!