How to get over your partner seeing other people

I’ve been in a relationship with my high school sweetheart for about 10 years now. A couple of years ago we started to go abroad, on exchange and live in other countries. The distance opened the relationship. She had sex with another person for the first time ever (I was her first), and that hit me like a train. But I recovered. She fell in love with someone else, that hit me like a truck, but I recovered from that as well. I’ve also had my dalliances with other women (and men), but none as serious as her. I tend to be more of a serial one-night stander/flinger. I’ve only fallen in love with one other woman, but that fizzled out pretty quickly. After everything, me and my girlfriend always gravitate towards each other again, with new lessons about the world, other people, and ourselves. And through that we’ve grown closer.

And yet, I still can’t shake my crippling anxiety. She’s been abroad since August now, and though she now draws the line between love and lust, I still can’t internalize our open relationship to the point where I can feel comfortable. Everyone tells me (her as well), I have the best deal in the world, I can date and have sex with other women, it’s a dream. Or at least it should be.

But it’s mostly a nightmare, every time I hear about her being with other people. As we literally talk about everything and she wants to tell me everything (and I masochistically want her to), I can see a new lover coming from a mile away. And I’m never off. And she always ends up telling me after I badger her about it. I’m paranoid, images and thoughts torment me at night.

But then, on the flip side, I do explore with other women. Frequently. I have since the beginning of our relationship (only back then it was called ‘cheating’), and continue so now. But I always have a nagging feeling before/afterward/in between. That I miss my gf, that I want to just be with her and it just be the two of us. And yet, I think that if we were physically together, I’d still be open to explore other people. But letting her do that without me is the scariest thing ever.

I think my question is: why can I be with other people and still love her and trust in that, but when she does the same, my world ends? And: how do I get rid of the nagging feeling? Breaking up with my girlfriend is not an option. It’s really annoying and I want to be ok with it, because every time she’s with other people my world stops. I have a JOB, after all, can’t have too many days where I’m depressed. :)

There’s a lot going on here that’s understandably causing you some anxiety so I’m going to hopefully address the main things and that will help ease things up a bit. But before I do, I just want to say that I do think you love and trust your partner. There’s an assumption here that feeling anxious or paranoid means you don’t trust your partner and it’s just not that simple.

A lack of a foundation

The thing that strikes me about your relationship with your high school sweetheart is that you don’t really have a clear foundation or an idea of what the relationship means to either of you, or at least it seems that way. You mention her sleeping and falling in love with new people and that hitting you really hard. You may have ‘recovered’ from that, but you’re treating the symptoms here, rather than the disease.

You have no real understanding of where your relationship is going. It sounds like you’re kind of just going with the flow and while that can be beneficial for some people, it also has the result of a massive load of worry and fear. Even if we’re not monogamous, many of us have grown up within a culture that produces what’s called The Relationship Escalator. When we’re in monogamous relationships, we take for granted what society has built up for us in terms of structure.

We know that, in the monogamy society encourages, there are steps towards committing which symbolise that commitment. But with non-monogamy, that’s not the same. There are things here like becoming sexually intimate or falling in love, which tend to represent ‘commitment’. My instinct is that when you realised that these individual things didn’t necessarily represent a commitment to someone else and thus a change in the relationship you have with your sweetheart, you ‘recovered’ from the shock of these things.

But unless you really work with your sweetheart to come to an understanding of what your relationship means to them and to you and what that will eventually evolve into, you’re going to continue to fear what’s on the horizon — and that’s perfectly logical. For all you know, she could meet someone new tomorrow who convinces her to go with monogamy and you could be dumped. It makes perfect sense to have this nagging feeling, even as you explore other relationships, because you don’t have that clarity with this relationship.

Sometimes this is hard to define. Maybe you both don’t know where you want this relationship to end up. Maybe you and her both need to give yourself a little bit of leeway to have this fear, deal with it as and when it comes and have her reassure you that you do mean something to her. Which brings me to the next point which may be causing you anxiety.

Clearer understandings of disclosure

Disclosure is such an awkward thing for a lot of people just starting out in non-monogamy. I think that’s why so many in monogamous relationships that shift into non-monogamy they decide to make the rule of, “I won’t pursue any relationships without your okay”. Because when do you disclose a budding relationship? Well, it comes down to when someone becomes ‘more than a friend’ and that boundary is different for so many people.

Fundamentally, what it comes down to and what people want to know is when something is going to change. Maybe you are masochistically agreeing to hear all of the details because you think somehow it will steel your resolves for when she comes to you and tells you that she doesn’t want to see you anymore. I don’t think this is going to help you. You’re always going to feel sad if and when a relationship ends. Hearing all of the nitty gritty details is not going to give you a baptism of fire against jealousy. It’s not as if you’re giving yourself cognitive behavioural therapy by exposing yourself to these details — especially because cognitive behavioural therapy is all about exposing someone to what they’re afraid of slowly and in a controlled environment.

You are lacking that controlled environment. You’re asking for all of the details but what you really want to know is if and when your partner feels your relationship might change. You tend to operate on a basis of maybe having sexual relationships with multiple people, but having an emotional bond with fewer people. What this is about is emotional responsibility and a mutual understanding of commitment. You’re too busy talking about who’s she’s doing what with to get to the detail that matters — what it means for you.

Instead of asking her for details, you both need to sit down and think about what you want out of non-monogamy. What do other relationships look like? How do you want to practice this? It doesn’t mean you both have to practice non-monogamy in the same way. Maybe you do more casual things and her ideal is to find one other emotional and sexual based romantic partner. But it might be good for you to figure out how time is going to be split between you and future partners. Once you have a better understanding of where you fit in each other’s lives and futures, you might not need or want to know details. Which brings me to my next point.

How long distance impacts polyamory

You’ve shifted from an in-person relationship to a long distance relationship and this will have a large impact on you both. Some people are capable of doing long distance but many are not. You need to understand that not having each other there physically is going to radically alter any foundation that you’ve spent the rest of the time building.

And whenever something major happens in your relationships that shifts foundations, you need to make sure you’re addressing it. The distance has opened your relationship, which is also fundamentally shifting everything. You’ve gone from, what sounds like, a monogamous relationship to not only being long distance, which adds a stressor, but changing the very nature of the relationship, which adds stress on top of stress — of course you’re anxious as a result.

You need to make sure you make time for each other. Whether it’s having a scheduled date night over Skype or definite future plans to meet physically, it’s going to take some extra effort on both of your parts to continue to keep the relationship alive. You may have a lot of feelings and while absence does make the heart grow fonder, it’s important, especially if another real relationship does happen for you or your partner, to ensure you’ve got the basics of upkeep in your relationship solid.

If you don’t, what I foresee happening is New Relationship Energy (NRE) sweeping one or both of you up. NRE can cause people to neglect their partners they live with or see every day and it can add a layer of complexity onto a relationship that is long distance. You will naturally be sad that any new person your partner dates has the benefit of being physically near them, and visa versa. It would be wise to discuss this, to make some plans for addressing these feelings.

But mostly, just make sure you’re both stepping up and keeping your relationship alive so that neither of you feel neglected, especially if you’ve opened the relationship.

Addressing anxiety within a relationship

You might find that once you have some clarity from your partner about what your relationship means, once you’ve got reassurance of that on a consistent basis and a better understanding of non-monogamy and what it means to the both of you as well as a little bit more effort to bridge the gap that the distance is causing you, you may feel a lot less anxious.

But the most important thing for the both of you is to give yourself permission to feel anxious and scared. You’re going long distance and that’s a big step. You’re making a big change to the very foundation of how your relationship operates. You’ve made a lot of big changes all at once and you’ve shifted things, so you’re naturally going to feel insecure. Don’t automatically interpret your negative feelings as you distrusting your partner or as bad faith when you both are doing your best to maintain that.

You might consider one of your bonding activities to be meeting on Skype with a relationship counsellor or therapist, if that’s an option for both of you. It might give you a space to talk about your feelings and work through them together.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Therapist comments

It sounds like this guy is pretty intuitive and good at anticipating her future connections. It’s entirely possible he’s picking up on that possibility much, much earlier than she is. Which means it looks like she’s withholding information, when it may well be that she’s just unaware.

I see potential love connections for my partners way faster than they do, and I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly. Now when they come to me and they’re all like, I’m Into This Person… inside I’m thinking, yea, I’ve known that for a month, welcome to the party. I used to think they were aware of it and afraid to tell me, now I know that they really are telling me as soon as they’re aware.

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