Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, we heard from readers dealing with chronic pain in relationships. Today, relationship therapist Today, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helps someone who's navigating ethical nonmonogamy — an umbrella term that encompasses a range of relationship styles such as polyamory, open relationships, and swinging, requiring all parties have knowledge and consent— with their partner after moving to a new city.
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I identify as a lesbian, but a few years ago I was in an abusive heterosexual relationship with a man. Instead of breaking up with him when things were failing, I tried to “open up” our relationship. I thought this would allow me to explore parts of my identity while still fulfilling the obligations of my partnership.
This was my first experience with ethical non-monogamy (ENM), and it didn't go well. He was manipulative and insecure. Just talking about me pursuing other partnerships would upset him. I was disappointed by this, but not surprised — I've always found the pressure and expectations of cis-het, monogamous relationships to be harmful. We eventually ended things.
After that, I put the idea of trying out ethical non-monogamy back on the shelf — that is, until my current partner (who uses the pronouns xe/xim/xis and who also identifies as a lesbian). When we made it "official," I was ecstatic to be with xim — and to be in my first queer relationship. But I also had interests in reclaiming intimacy and exploring my queerness. I ultimately shared this with my partner and found out xe felt the same way. Instead of this being an obstacle, ENM actually felt like something we could explore together.
Now, when we make mistakes or someone gets hurt, we’ve been able to address the situation. It’s been such a validating journey of self-discovery. It's helped us both set boundaries and communicate better about what we want and need.
During our exploration of ENM, my partner and I have built a caring, loving, safe environment with each other. However, we recently moved together to a less liberal area. People have made assumptions about our pronouns, and we're not sure where to start with exploring polyamory in a new city. It's a big time of upheaval, and I don't want to lose the beautiful relationship we've built that gives us both a sense of agency, power, and a home, especially having seen how wrong ENM can go with my ex. How can we get through this period of change and preserve what we have in this new place?
One Nervous Non-Monogamist
One Nervous Non-Monogamist
I'm picking up on fear in your question. It's important to remember that our fears aren't always our reality — but we can still unpack where our worries are coming from. They could be rooted in the memories of patterns you had in past relationships that you want to avoid repeating now; or concern that you and your partner won't be able to continue this solid, fulfilling relationship due to a major environmental change in a place where you don't have an established community to lean on. Once you know where the fear is coming from, you can begin to address it head-on through solid communication. Luckily, it seems that's already a strength within your current partnership. Let’s move away from stressing yourself out trying to preserve what you have toward honouring that you both are going to evolve. And so is the relationship. Loosening your grip on the past will open you both up for experiencing great things together (and your palms won't be as sweaty as you do it).
When moving to a new place — especially one where your lifestyle is less represented in the dominant culture — it can make you feel “othered,” and that feeling can bring a heaviness as we venture into the dating world together. This is especially true if you have an intersectional identity, as author Kevin A. Patterson describes in his book, Love’s Not Colour Blind, in which Patterson details what it's like to be the only Black person in his polyamorous community. I recommend you and your partner read this together, as you may feel validated by his experiences.
During moves or times of high stress, some relationships slip into patterns of disconnection. That's often because, for some, it just feels safer to isolate and take care of yourself, even though most of us feel comforted in connection. To avoid any issues, I recommend you each ask yourselves every day how you are feeling — you could do this by taking a body scan or journaling. Then, this is important, share this with each other. That way, you're not leaving your partner to interpret any big mood shifts on their own, especially if they have nothing to do with your partnership, but other anxieties you're feeling about a new job or school, missing old friends, or dating in a new community. It is not your partner's job to fix what's causing tension in your outside life, but they should know what's going on with you. Given that you have a history of trauma with your past relationship, taking mindful, active steps to divulge how you're feeling may help make you feel safer with your partner (though it sounds like you already do that well in this relationship, which will serve you).
Loosening your grip on the past will open you both up for experiencing great things together (and your palms won't be as sweaty as you do it).
Moraya Seeger Degeare
Work to deepen your understanding of each other's needs and tendencies, as this can help support closeness as you each explore dating in your new city (to help you do this, I also recommend reading Polysecure, if you haven't already). I'd also take the time to discuss any pressure either of you feels to start dating here right away — is it coming from an urgency to return to what worked previously? Are you in a rush for things to feel familiar again? Or is this coming from a true desire to build a new polyamorous community? Depending on the answer, you may consider taking your time before diving back into the deep end of exploring ENM here and starting out at a slower pace. And if you're still feeling off-kilter about all this newness, it's a wonderful thing to remember you're not alone. You moved here with a partner, who is also navigating this search for community. You can do this together.
Another way to overcome any fears you have: Remember that although a lot will be new when exploring ENM in a new setting, you're not starting from scratch. You moved already having started to successfully explore what ENM is like in this healthy relationship. You can build from there. Remember times you felt confident in your partnership and in exploring polyamory in the past. Use those examples to remind yourselves: If you mess up, you know how to talk about it and how to repair, which is very different from your last open relationship. You bravely shared that your last partnership was abusive — one common habit people often take away from relationships where there is abuse is being afraid to directly express their needs because they were working to keep the other person happy for fear of backlash. Just noticing these tendencies of ours and digging into where they stem from can help us keep our future partnerships. Some ways to start this work: The book Attached includes a worksheet called the "relationship inventory" that may help you identify any recurring habits. (Although it wasn't designed specifically for those practicing ENM, it still may help.) Another way to start this work is to journal or think about the connection your primary caretakers had growing up and how that shaped you.
Each partnership is unique, and non-monogamous ones come with less pre-described scripts. This means we don't always automatically know how to navigate them, because they weren't mirrored to us as much. Because of this, I'd also be thinking about what narratives are coming up for you when you feel worried about the future of your current relationship. We can get stuck with the limiting belief that "good relationships" only look one certain way. If our way doesn't match, I could imagine feeling some society-induced shame, especially if some people say your organic thoughts or desires are "wrong." This is when we want to challenge where we get these images and rules from — whether it's media, religion, or our families of origin. You can have a happy, joyful life no matter what you want in your relationship, and breaking these moulds, as you have, can be terrifying at times but also extraordinarily freeing. One of the strengths of ENM relationships, including your own, is that they require you to have strong communication skills and to be brave enough to clearly express your needs, boundaries, and desires. Thinking about the positives can help support the shift from past relationship behaviours to a partnership that is more fulfilling for all involved.
Once you're both ready to explore ENM comfortably again — either individually or as a couple — a good place to start is online. A few dating apps you could try are Feeld, #open, and Bloom Community. On the apps, make sure to be clear about what you're looking for, says Brett Chamberlin, the co-founder and executive director of the Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy. It's key that you are putting that you're non-monogamous in the first few lines of your profile, he adds. Sometimes people wait until later in dating and it can really backfire, leaving everyone in pain.
When you eventually go on an in-person date, take it as an opportunity to learn more about where your community might exist in this new place (even if it's not a match, if they're a longtime local, they might have recommendations). And of course, just like before, every connection is a new opportunity to learn more about yourself in the process.
And finally, remember that while the process of exploring a new community together can cause fear, it can also be fun. It may bring a new level of intimacy to your relationship, and an even brighter future. So, again, loosen that grip on the past, wipe off those sweaty palms, put them together, and get ready to swan dive into this exciting unknown phase of your partnership. I promise, the water's fine.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specialises in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.