At 86 years old, a female relative just died. Though she remembered my birthday and bought me Christmas presents, we weren’t close. My sadness unexpectedly surfaced when I heard Amanda Palmer’s “Bed Song.” “I would have told you if you’d only asked me,” Amanda sings as she tells the story of how a couple grows farther apart, stops having sex, never talks about it, and then dies.
Sobbing, I felt my heart breaking. What a tragedy! The couple in the song spent their whole lives without addressing their conflicts. My relative hadn’t been big on open communication either. Despite being married for over 50 years, she didn’t seem all that happy. All for what?
Like most of you, I crave intimacy. I am in love with love and closeness. Like some of you, I have failed miserably in my pursuit of intimacy. The highlights include backsliding after breakups, dating men who don’t respect me, losing best friends, periods of intense loneliness, and being unkind to people I love.
Maybe the worst, I held high, often unspoken expectations for relationships.
Through inner work and a journey into ethical polyamory, I realized, these expectations hurt us. We grow disappointed, avoid hard truths, and pose as the perfect couple. Without clarity about what we want in relationships, we morph to meet others’ expectations, choose unhelpful partners, and stunt our growth.
Effective communication leads to healthy relationships. Meaning we take the time to explore what we need and expect in relationships and we share these needs with our partners. We honor and share our feelings, and most importantly, we value the people in the relationship more than the relationship.
Since starting my ethical poly journey four years ago, my relationships have been much more fulfilling and aligned. I feel more comfortable discussing hard truths and addressing potential problems early on. I notice my relationships evolving more naturally, serving the people in them.
Uncover your unspoken expectations.
In most monogamous relationships, there are tons of expectations that we rarely talk about. For example, I expect you to have a relationship with my family, not have sex with other people, spend large quantities of time with me, support my career, call me every night, etc.
After ending a particularly toxic monogamous partnership, I realized how angry I felt about feeling “owned.” I loved the status of having a successful boyfriend, even if I hated that he didn’t give me enough attention. The relationship wasn’t serving me, yet I felt like I should be grateful.
I have been close to marriage three times. Subconsciously, I was looking for the partner with the highest credentials who also was obsessed with me, enough that I felt confident he wouldn’t leave me. Though we don’t like to admit this, I believe many of us act in similar ways.
Our society puts monogamy on a pedestal and puts us in a scarcity mindset. Women seek men with adequate resources who will support them when they get pregnant. Men look for women who will give them sexual fidelity, ensuring the child will be theirs. If that’s what you want, great. Let’s be clear about what we’re doing here.
While I believe polyamory is more natural, some people seem to love monogamy, and I’m happy for them. I will encourage you to examine the expectations you have for your partner and to be explicit. Why are we in these relationships in the first place? What are we seeking?
When we take the time to explore our values, needs, and desires, we have a much better chance of getting what we want.
When we take the time to explore our values, needs, and desires, we have a much better chance of getting what we want. Additionally, we use our time well in dating, avoid unnecessary heartbreak, and prevent ourselves from getting stuck in toxic relationships.
Especially for people like me who have struggled with codependency, we have to prioritize our own needs. People-pleasing does not help anyone and leads us to misaligned relationships.
Discover your relationship desires.
As I learned more about healthy relationships and polyamory, I recognized that I was partly responsible for my dissatisfaction with past relationships. I had been operating with unspoken expectations and used passive-aggressive communication. If someone was going to get my undivided sexual attention, then they had better earn it. — My misguided way of coping with monogamous expectations.
Partially due to codependent tendencies, I made another common mistake: I expected my partner to fulfill all of my needs: regular sex, best friends, career support, wanderlust buddy, running buddy, activist buddy, etc. All humans have endless curiosities, and we should encourage growth and exploration instead of expecting people to morph into “oneness” with their partners. As humans, we want to expand and flourish, not make ourselves smaller.
When you take a moment to remove all the monogamy expectations, you must clarify what matters to you.
When you take a moment to remove all the monogamy expectations, you must clarify what matters to you. For example, I want someone who can do sleepovers a few times a week. I want to live separately. I want my partner to go with me to family events. When you clarify your desires, you can walk away from partners who won’t work out in the long run.
Thinking about what you have to offer is another way to discover what you want. For example, I want to go out on dates two or three nights per week. I am open to including a partner in my social groups if it feels right. I can share my creative process and music-making with a partner. I love talking about the books I’m reading. I’m happy to meet their family, etc.
Whether you’re polyamorous or not, many of my monogamous friends have described poly guidance as being good relationship advice, period. I agree.
Share your difficult feelings.
Once you’ve aligned on logistics, what about when things go wrong in the right relationships? And as we know, things always go wrong in relationships. Despite our best efforts, we get our feelings hurt, have off days, and miscommunicate.
While we are always responsible for our feelings, we are also responsible for clearly communicating our needs. For example, if you get lonely when your partner takes long work trips, you might say something like, “I feel lonely when you’re gone for a whole week. Do you mind calling me at least every day or two to check in?” Although it’s tough to communicate unpleasant emotions, it’s worth it.
Jealousy is an exceptionally embarrassing emotion that everyone experiences. I’ve learned jealousy either means 1.) I’ve been putting off something I need to do for myself, or 2.) our relationship has cracks in the foundation and we need to talk about it.
The latter helped me to end a relationship that wasn’t working for either of us. We both did acro-yoga in the same groups, and we had just spent the night before practicing a new movement flow. When I arrived at a jam night and saw him doing the flow with another woman, I felt the jealousy monster. But that was our thing! How could he! Am I not athletic enough for him?
We realized we had conflicting attachment styles through an open discussion and wouldn’t support each others’ needs. Then, we proceeded to have the most mature and gentle — still sad — breakup I’ve ever had. We wanted each other to be happy, even if it meant we had to break up.
Honor our individuality.
The idea often repeated in marriage ceremonies, “then two shall become one flesh,” is not helpful. That’s called codependency, two people who aren’t giving each other enough space to grow.
Through Esther Perel’s work, a psychotherapist known for her research on intimacy, We know we feel most attracted to each other when there’s distance. We see our partners from across the room, exploring their passion confidently, and we feel aroused. What’s a romantic relationship without great sex? (I’m joking. You can have romance without sex, but that’s a different post.)
I also made the common mistake of expecting my partners to compensate for areas I lacked, i.e., I feel insecure, and this person does a great job at complimenting me. While relationships can be powerful growth catalysts, they are not a replacement for therapy or inner work.
When we give each other space and pour ourselves into our own lives, friends, hobbies, and passions, we show up as whole people. Instead of prioritizing the relationship and posing as a perfect couple, we honor each other as humans and love without unclear expectations.
In the words of Brene Brown, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
We’re all human, and we will mess up. That’s okay. When we learn to share our feelings and needs openly, we find partners and friends who respect us and want to make us happy.
Through my failures, I have learned how to find more fulfilling and authentic relationships, starting with myself.
Uncover your unspoken expectations — Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by keeping your partner in the dark.
Discover your relationship desires — We all deserve to flourish and feel loved; let’s help ourselves by clarifying what we need.
Share your difficult feelings —Own your emotions, and communicate them. The right partner will honor you and be supportive.
Honor our individuality — We’re full of endless curiosities, and exploring those curiosities — not morphing into “oneness” — helps us grow.
Not only has open communication helped me to be more honest with partners, but I’m also more honest with myself. I’m not changing myself to meet someone else’s expectations. I’m bringing my whole self, a self who is worthy of love and affection.
If you learned only one thing from my mistakes, I hope it’s this: Expectations set us up for disappointment; open communication leads to authentic, healthy relationships.