How to Feel Secure Without Rules and Restrictions in a Polyamorous Relationship [Polyamory Conversation Cards #9]

When people are new to polyamory, and particularly if they come through the “opening up from a monogamous couple” route, it’s normal to feel a bunch of really difficult and challenging feelings: jealousy, insecurity, envy, and more. Most of us want to overcome these emotions as quickly as possible, and for good reason. They’re horrible to feel! But few of us actually know how to feel secure in relationships that do not have romantic or sexual exclusivity at their centre.

None of these feelings are unique to polyamorous people, of course. However, polyamory can provoke them and poke at sore spots in a unique way. In monogamy, it can be possible (though I would question if it’s healthy) to mask these feelings by implementing strict rules and restrictions in your relationship. But in polyamory, that’s often not possible… or, even if it is possible, it’s not fair or kind to either yourself or the other people involved.

In case you missed it, this post is part of a series inspired by Odder Being’s Polyamory Conversation Cards. Once a week or as often as I can, I’ll pull a card at random and write a piece of content based on it. There will likely be some essays, advice pieces, personal experiences, rants, and more! You can read the whole series at the dedicated tag. And if you want to support my work and get occasional bonus content, head on over to my Patreon.

This week’s card asks:

“What’s the most important thing your partner(s) could do to help you feel (more) secure and comfortable?”

This is a great question to ask yourself no matter where you are in your polyamorous journey. The problem is that a lot of people, when faced with this question, will immediately jump to ways that they would like their partner(s) to curtail, limit, or restrict their other relationships.

For example, someone might say “I don’t want my partner to have unbarriered sex with anyone but me,” “I don’t want my partner to take anyone else to that restaurant I like,” or “I would like them to promise never to love someone else as much as they love me.”

These types of answers are simple, seductive, and seem intuitive. The problem is that they’re almost always a bad idea. Let’s dive into why restrictive rules are problematic if you want to be polyamorous (as opposed to practicing swinging or some other form of more couple-centric non-monogamy)… and what you can do instead to build a lasting sense of security and safety in your relationships.

First, Why is Restriction a Bad Thing?

Placing limiting rules and restrictions on your partners’ other relationships is a problem for two main reasons. The first is that it’s unfair on the people involved in those relationships: your partner(s) and your metamour(s.)

Adults do not generally enjoy being told what they can and cannot do by other adults, particularly in ostensibly egalitarian dynamics like romantic relationships. Relationships tend to suffer under restrictions, particularly those imposed by outside parties. I have seen many, many relationships struggle, wither, and ultimately die due to restrictions placed upon them by an insecure spouse or “primary” partner.

It is grossly unethical, unkind and unfair to invite people into your lives as loving partners, only to then starve their relationship of the freedom and autonomy it needs to actually grow and thrive.

The second reason restrictive rules are a problem? They don’t work.

They might make you feel safer and more secure, but the safety that restriction gives you is an illusion. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: if your partner loves you and wants to sustain your relationship, they will. If they don’t, no amount of rules or limitations on their other relationships will compel them to.

Think about it: if rules actually protected people, monogamous people would never cheat. They would never leave their partners for somebody else. There wouldn’t be dozens of posts in the polyamory forums and discussion groups every week saying “help, my partner broke a rule! What do I do now?”

I’m also not even convinced these restrictions actually do help to build long-term internal security. Insecurities aren’t rational, and they will try to protect themselves unless you take the time to really decontruct and unpack and work against them. What I see most often is that one restriction helps for a while… until it doesn’t, and then the insecure person wants to institute another one. Which also works until it doesn’t. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum.

How to Feel Secure Without Restriction in Your Polyamorous Relationship: 5 Ways to Build Security

So if rules and restrictions on your partners’ other relationships have so many ethical issues and don’t even work anyway, what can we do instead?

Here are five things that I think do work. They might not all resonate with you, but hopefully some of them will. Even if you just work on one of them for now, with time they can help you to build the kind of lasting safety and internal security that allows polyamorous relationships to thrive.

Make Agreements (Not Rules)

I think it’s clear by now that I’m not a fan of restrictive rules in relationships. But this doesn’t mean I am against relationship agreements. Quite the opposite: I think agreements are a vital cornerstone of keeping relationships healthy, strong, and secure.

But what defines an agreement as opposed to a rule? In my opinion, the key cornerstones of agreements are:

  1. They are mutually arrived at and freely agreed upon by all affected parties
  2. They apply equally and do not invoke any kind of double standard
  3. They are renegotiable if any party becomes unhappy with them (or so fundamental that there would be no coming back from a breach)
  4. They do not limit, restrict, or adversely impact people who did not have a hand in making them

If you’re calling something an agreement but it doesn’t meet the above standards… sorry, it’s probably a rule or a restriction.

Your relationship agreements will be as unique as your relationship. But to get you started, here are some examples of agreements drawn from my life, my friends’ lives, and successful polyamorous relationships I’ve seen out in the wild:
  • “We will inform each other in advance if we’re intending to go on a date or hook up with someone new. If something happens unplanned or spontaneously, we will inform each other as soon as possible.”
  • “We will get sexual health screenings every 3 months and keep each other in the loop about our results and our safer sex practices.”
  • “We will tell the truth, even when it’s hard.”
  • “If one of us has sex with someone else in our shared bed, we will change the sheets.”
  • “We will give each other space when we’re on dates with other partners. Likewise, when we’re on a date with each other, we will put our phones away and focus on each other.”

…And so on.

Do Your Internal Work

This is perhaps the hardest of all the strategies on this list. I also think it’s the most important.

I do not believe that stupid saying that “it’s impossible to love someone until you love yourself” (in fact, I think it’s actively harmful.) What I do believe, though, is that a level of self-awareness and self-work are essential to building healthy relationships of any kind.

Internal work means taking your fears, insecurities, and jealousies out and examining them. It means considering where they come from and what they are telling you, then deconstructing those narratives. It means challenging yourself and finding safe containers in which to explore uncomfortable and painful feelings. Get curious, be kind to yourself, and adopt a philosophy of questioning your fears and insecurities rather than assuming that they are telling you the truth.

Doing the internal work doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It will, and should, require additional support and resources. For example, you might:
  • Read books and articles, watch videos, or listen to podcasts on subjects like healthy polyamory and overcoming insecurity
  • Work with a therapist to unpack your struggles and any traumas they stem from
  • Seek support and reassurance from your partner(s) as you process and understand your feelings
  • Talk to your friends, family members, or other trusted loved ones
  • Connect with polyamorous community, either in person and online, to share your struggles and get support
  • Engage in other healing, self-care activities such as yoga, meditation, or spiritual rituals and practices

It’s important to understand that self-work of this nature is not simple, quick, or linear. You’ll have good days and bad days, and that is normal. It’s best if you can view “working on yourself” as an ongoing, lifelong practice rather than a to-do item to tick off.

Work on Your Relationship with Your Partner

Security in a relationship doesn’t come from limiting your lover’s other connections. It comes from ensuring that your relationship with your lover is as strong, healthy, and happy as it can possibly be.

Remember: no-one else can make your partner leave you, neglect you, treat you poorly, or behave badly in your relationship. Those choices come from them. If your relationship is happy and healthy, no other relationship – no matter how wonderful – can threaten it or your place in your partner’s life.

So think about the things you need from your partner that do not relate to how they interact with others or behave in their other relationships. Figure out what you need and want, and ask for those things. Likewise, ask your partner what they need and want from you unrelated to your other relationships.

For example, you might ask for things like…
  • An evening each week where you have focused, one-to-one quality time together
  • Regular physical touch (hugs, cuddles, hand holding, hair stroking and so on as well as sex)
  • For them to plan something nice for your birthday, anniversary, or other special occasion
  • Regular verbal expressions of love, care, and affection

You’re not guaranteed to get everything you ask for, of course. People always have the right to say no to requests that are made of us. But if you ask for the things you want, you’ve got a much higher chance of getting at least some of them than if you expect your lover to read your mind.

Learn to be Reflective, Not Reactive, in the Face of Difficult Feelings

When we’re learning how to feel secure in our relationships, it’s normal to run into challenging, painful, and difficult emotions. These are a normal part of life and particularly of navigating a non-normative relationship style. As you build skills and security, though, you’ll find that they lessen in both frequency and intensity and become more manageable when they do crop up.

One of the most important skills you can learn is being reflective rather than reactive in the face of these difficult feelings. This means sitting with the feelings and asking yourself gentle questions to unpack them, rather than immediately reacting. Even just pausing to take a few breaths, count to ten, and regulate your nervous system before you respond can make a huge difference.

Examples of emotional reactivity might include yelling or shouting at your partner(s) or metamour(s), saying unkind things that you don’t mean and will later regret, crying uncontrollably, having a physical response (such as punching or throwing an object), or storming out of a room.

At its extreme end, emotional reactivity can include becoming violent or causing harm to yourself or others. If you’ve done either of these things in the wake of difficult emotions, or felt that you were at risk of doing them, you should seek out professional support urgently.

Emotional reflectiveness, on the other hand, can look like:
  • Pausing to breathe and think through your response to a situation before doing or saying anything.
  • Politely and calmly removing yourself from a space to self-regulate.
  • Using “I” statements, such as “I think…” or “I feel…”, rather than making accusations or making your feelings someone else’s responsibility.
  • Seeking out reassurance and support by asking for it clearly and kindly rather than by acting out.
  • Recognising your own limitations and honouring your needs. For example, in a polyamorous relationship you might say to your partner “I feel insecure when I see you interacting romantically with your other partner, so I’d like to pause spending time together as a group until I’ve got these feelings more under control.”
  • Recognising that a difficult feeling is not an emergency and consciously choosing to put it aside for now and address it (either alone, with a professional, or with your partner) at a later time. This is particularly useful when you are in social situations, in public, at work, and so on.

Challenge Your Underlying Assumptions

We are all raised with a certain set of beliefs and expectations. And, in the vast majority of modern societies around the world, one of those beliefs is that monogamy is the only correct way to have a loving romantic relationship.

These assumptions and beliefs, even if we do not consciously subscribe to them, can and do have a tremendous impact on our ability to feel loved and secure in relationships. This is particularly true when we are rejecting a social norm as entrenched as mononormativity.

It’s time to challenge your underlying assumptions and the societal narratives that are no longer serving you.

Each time you run into a societal norm or an ingrained assumption that you no longer actually believe, take the time to unpack it. Ask yourself what purpose it serves. Visualise yourself setting it aside and replacing it with the thing you actually believe and want to internalise.

For example, is some part of you saying that your partner can’t really love you because they also have other lovers? This story is immensely powerful in our society and deciding to be non-monogamous does not erase that programming instantly.

Remind yourself why you chose to practice non-monogamy and what you really believe about love and relationships. For example:
  • “We are capable of loving many people without it diminishing our love for any individual.”
  • “Love is not a finite resource, a competition, or a zero-sum game.”
  • “Each person my partner(s) and I love or care for bring value and joy into our lives.”
  • “I am happy when my partner is happy, even if that happiness is not coming directly from me.”
  • “When I fall for someone new it doesn’t diminish the love I have for my existing partner(s). The same is likely true for them.”

What other assumptions are you carrying? If you feel insecure because your metamour is younger, thinner, more highly educated, or richer than you, ask yourself why you believe those things matter. Your partner clearly loves and values you – they wouldn’t be with you if they didn’t! – and chances are they love you for far more important reasons than the size of your shirts or the number in your bank account.

When you challenge your underlying assumptions and make an effort not to let ingrained social norms dictate your beliefs and behaviours, you get to start building self-esteem, security, and relationships based on the values and beliefs you actually want to hold.

Security is a Journey

When people ask about how to feel secure or overcome feelings such as jealousy in a polyamorous relationship, they want a list of tips that will get them to the desired destination (“no more insecurity! All compersion, all the time!”) as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that’s not only aggressively optimistic but probably impossible.

Experiencing insecurities and difficult feelings on occasion is a normal part of being in a relationship of any kind. Polyamory can be challenging and can force us to confront not only societal norms but also our own ingrained beliefs, fears, and traumas. That’s a big deal! Give yourself a huge break. You’re doing the work, and that’s amazing. Perfection is not realistic or required.

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