Most people that participate in polyamorous relationships will come face-to-face with some relationship anxiety eventually. Most of what people tend to call jealousy has its roots in anxiety. Once you figure out what that source is, you can start moving forward. Whenever anxiety is experienced, it needs to be dealt with in one way or another.
Many people lean towards one of two extremes when it comes to dealing with anxiety, especially in regards to romantic relationships. On one side, there is the “My anxiety is your problem” crowd. These are the kinds of people that on the extreme side tend to assume jealousy and anxiety are signs of love, and that demand that their partners stop talking to friends of the gender(s) they’re attracted to. Anxiety is rarely faced and tackled by the person feeling the emotions, and they expect everyone else to placate them so that they don’t have to feel it again. In poly circles, these people tend to gravitate toward Unicorn Hunting or One Penis Policies. On the other side of the spectrum are the “My anxiety is only my problem” people. These people tend to pretend everything is okay and feel like they shouldn’t burden others with their feelings, assuming all of their anxiety is irrational. For everyone else this tends to look like everything’s okay, until the anxiety reaches the point that the person can’t hold it in, and their reaction seems like it comes out of nowhere. In poly circles, these people tend to feel as though they have to be the Perfect Poly Partner, and that any negative emotions, criticisms, or boundaries are imperfect and restrictive.
The “My anxiety is your problem” approach is romanticized and somewhat common in monogamous relationships, and it can roll over into polyamorous relationships, especially when a monogamous relationship opens up. It can be harder to get these people to work on their anxiety because they don’t think it’s something they have control over. They need to realize they have responsibility for their anxiety in order to start working on it, and their partners need to stop enabling it.
As far as the “My anxiety is only my problem” people, these are often people that are either experienced in polyamory, or people new to poly that are dating someone that’s been poly for a while. It’s easy to flip from one extreme to another to overcorrect from the “My anxiety is your problem” approach. A lot of polyamorous people and relationship anarchists tend to repeat the mantra of “own your shit” – your feelings and your reactions are your own burden to bear and your own problem to solve. To a degree, this is true. You cannot depend on other people to fix your emotions for you, you should not lash out in your reaction in a way that is harmful, and at some point, it is your responsibility to end or modify a relationship that is not fitting your needs. This mantra can go too far, however. Humans are social creatures, and the majority of our life experiences are influenced by the actions or words of others. Further, almost all reactions are directly caused by someone else’s action or reaction to a previous action. Actions do not exist in a bubble, and we have to navigate the social landscape in a way that takes other people into consideration if we don’t want to end up alone. Because of this, there has to be a balance between everyone owning their own shit and people taking responsibility for the role they have played in the current situation. This can be even more important in polyamorous relationships, where people tend to be more interconnected and therefore influenced in more ways.
Because of this, I have found in my experience that dealing with anxiety (among other things) can be easiest as a community, not just on an individual level. When people are willing to work together, it tends to help all relationships involved. There is no room for a “Fuck you, got mine” mindset in an ethically polyamorous relationship.
There are many things that can trigger anxiety in someone, especially in polyamory, and especially in newly open relationships. It’s not something that has a social script, and so you’re often without a guide besides some books and blogs that you stumble on. Some people forget this, but anxiety can happen for any partner. It’s not exclusive to primary or nesting relationships; secondary, newer, or less intertwined partners can still feel anxiety and it’s just as valid, but most of the advice out there centers primary relationships. I will make a point of addressing anxiety in a way that includes those types of connections.
As time goes by, anxiety triggers will change, and what makes you anxious in one relationship might have the opposite effect in another. Sometimes, you’re not anxious about what you think you will be and you’ll feel secure, but other times the anxiety will hit you out of nowhere over the smallest thing. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible to assuage anxiety with rules or restrictions; while these may stop you from feeling anxiety over that specific thing, it does not treat the underlying problem, and you will almost certainly feel it again over something else entirely that triggers the same fear. You’ll just keep creating new rules to patch over the same anxiety until you’re so restrictive that you drive off the other partner, drive off your own partner, your partner breaks a rule on purpose, or your partner breaks a rule inadvertently because there’s too many to keep track of. All of these result in resentment in some way, which is almost certain to make the anxiety worse.
So, how do you avoid this?
I don’t think it matters whether the anxiety is big or small, or whether it’s irrational or not. Your approach to it may change, but there are some key factors to help get through most anxieties related to polyamory, assuming your partner and metamour are acting in good faith. I’ll come back to this at the end. For now, we’ll go over some important tools you can use to manage and even reduce anxiety related to polyamorous relationships.
I know, this is everyone’s first suggestion. But this is the case for a reason. Therapy, with a poly-friendly or at least poly-aware therapist, can be a lifechanger, especially if you’re dealing with a lot of anxiety. An unbiased viewpoint from a therapist can help you look for solutions you or your friends haven’t thought of or couldn’t get to. Not only that, but they are trained to help people with anxiety in all sorts of situations, and can give you extremely powerful coping tools to help you deal with any anxious feelings in the moment. Therapy isn’t a cure-all and requires work, but having someone relatively unbiased to help you work through the anxiety can be extremely helpful.
You may also want to look into anti-anxiety medication, either temporarily or long-term, depending on your needs. This can help curb the actual physical symptoms of anxiety such as panic attacks and give you a clearer mind to work on the root causes of anxiety. It’s really no different from taking cold medicine so you’re less miserable as your body fights off an infection.
That said, not everyone can afford therapy, especially in the United States, and even if you live somewhere that therapy is affordable, it’s not always available and waitlists can be long. Online therapy is an option, both video chat and text chat, but it can also be expensive. I still encourage people to look into their options to see what’s right for them.
Friends and Community
Many people talk to their friends about their relationships and ask for advice. This can be a perfectly valid form of support, especially if you need reassurance that your partner is unable to give at the time. The important thing here is to find friends that won’t judge you for being in an unconventional relationship, and that won’t immediately rush to insist that you’re always right. Even though it can be reassuring to hear that you’re right, it can actually make things worse if you don’t have the opportunity to consider another point of view.
It can take time to find friends that you can trust for these kinds of talks. You may not be able to find someone in person, especially if you live in a small or conservative town. Online communities and chat rooms can be helpful in this case, allowing you to find other polyamorous people to talk to, and sometimes there’s added anonymity which can be helpful. If you are looking for a polyamorous community locally, Fetlife and Meetup are good resources to start with.
Be sure to keep your friends’ needs in mind when you want support. Ask if they have the time and energy to talk to you before you rush into it. Caregiver burnout is real, and you don’t want to be the friend that only uses people. Also remember that your friends will be biased based on their experiences, so you’re less likely to receive a relatively unbiased opinion compared to a therapist.
The Middle Ground and Partner Involvement
It can be extremely difficult, but you need to learn how to avoid swinging to either extreme with your anxiety. That is, don’t appease it with rules or forbidding certain things that trigger the anxiety, but you also can’t put on a mask and pretend everything is okay. Neither of these approaches work in the long run. There is a middle ground, but in the context of polyamory and anxiety, it requires the support of your partner. Your jealousy and anxiety are technically not their problem, but you have chosen to intertwine your lives in some way, so they should acknowledge that it affects them and that they affect your anxiety, and it is part of a good relationship to help a partner that is actively working on their anxiety.
If you can’t go to either extreme, then what can you do? There’s a few different approaches that help in different ways. The one that requires the least amount of interference, in my opinion and experience, is active listening and reassurance on the part of your partner, and honesty about your anxiety (to both yourself and your partner) without placing demands on your part. Often, this will not require action outside of listening, validation, and reassurance, though sometimes the conversation will be repeated a few times until it sticks.
In a non-anxious setting, talk to your partner about this method and start practicing it. Don’t start when you’re already extremely anxious, because it will be hard to get the dialogue going. Start by stating an anxiety, preferably something small when practicing. For example: “When you say you want to have sleepovers with A, I get anxious because that’s a big change, and I feel like I’m losing something special to our relationship.”
Once you explain your anxiety, your partner should repeat it back to you in their own words so that you know that they heard you. When they’ve done that and you know you were heard, you can ask for reassurance, something like: “I would like you to tell me that our relationship is special to you, and I would like a hug right now to feel close to you.” Note that you’re not asking for a change in your partner or in how they conduct their other relationships, you’re asking for something that will help right now. Hopefully, your partner agrees to give you the reassurance you request. In my experience, something like that can be a huge help even though it’s a small gesture. Saying the anxiety out loud can also often make it seem less scary.
In some cases, the anxiety revolves around a specific person instead of a specific action. Often, this is because you haven’t met your metamour or interacted with them. If you haven’t met the metamour, often all you have to go off of is your partner’s description of them, and maybe a picture or two that your partner has. This can make the metamour seem larger than life and comparatively perfect (or, if your partner shares mostly negative things, comparatively a problem or threat).
Because of this, it can be helpful to simply meet your metamour, if your relationship structure allows and your metamour is willing. It doesn’t have to be much. You can meet for drinks or coffee, your partner can be present too. Most polyamorous people hope that their partners will get along or even become friends, and most are happy to meet their metamours. Once you meet and talk to someone, it’s usually easy to see that they are just as human as you are, with both talents and flaws. This can help with the feeling that you’re competing with perfection, or help reassure you that they aren’t a threat.
Sometimes, your metamour will not be able or willing to meet. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a problem or have a problem with you. Distance or time may be a problem, or they may be more monogamous leaning, or prefer parallel polyamory. You should respect their decision in that case, and not demand a meeting, because if they are uncomfortable that may backfire.
Band-Aids for Extreme Anxiety
In the case of things that trigger extreme anxiety or panic attacks, there is a two-pronged approach that can help that involves your partner. You should be actively working on these anxieties, hopefully in therapy, so that you and your partner know they’re getting better over time. You should tell your partner what you’re doing to help with this anxiety so that they know progress is being made and they don’t get resentful. Genuine progress in decreasing the anxiety or panic attacks should be the goal, even if it’s slow. If it stalls, reassess what you’re doing and see if you need to change your approach.
On your partner’s side, ask them to agree to temporary rules or agreements with expiration dates (not a nebulous “in the future” or “someday” but more like “3 months from now”) and then revisit the topic then. These rules are band-aids, and won’t fix the problem, but will allow you to confront the anxiety without actively feeling like shit. An example using the anxiety above could be “One overnight with your other partner a month.”
After the expiration date, keep your word and revisit it, and agree to either no more rules on that topic if you’ve made enough progress, or agree to a less restrictive rule, such as “two overnights a month” or “Let me know about overnights at least a week in advance so I can prepare myself.” If there are less restrictive rules in place, those need expiration dates too with revisiting. Continue this cycle until the rules and agreements are gone or reach a level that is a good compromise for you and your partner.
When Your Partner or Metamour is Acting in Bad Faith
Sometimes, you find yourself in a relationship with someone that is unwilling to work with you, or worse, actively works against you. This comes in many forms. They may be dismissive of your anxiety and concerns, telling you that if you were really poly you wouldn’t be anxious or jealous. They may agree to rules and then turn around and break them. They may agree to and keep rules, but tell your metamours that the rules are your fault and that you’re holding them back.
If this is the case, you don’t just have an anxiety problem, you have a partner problem.
If your partner is dismissive and unwilling to sit down and have a serious talk about your anxiety, they are simply unwilling to take your feelings into consideration. Even if your anxiety is completely irrational, a supportive partner would be reassuring and help you work through why it’s irrational.
If your partner agrees to and breaks rules, they are lying at best, and possibly cheating. Agreeing to rules that you don’t intend to keep is manipulative. A supportive partner would negotiate the rules to better suit their needs. Even a partner that ends the relationship because they’re unwilling to agree to rules is more supportive than that.
If your partner says the rules are your fault, your partner is using you as a scapegoat for their decisions and making you the bad guy in the eyes of your metamours. While they likely would not have set or agreed to those rules without you asking for them, they still agreed to them, and they need to own their decisions. What your partner should actually be doing is saying something more along the lines of “I agreed with my partner that we wouldn’t have overnights with other partners, but I’ll talk with them to see if we can negotiate a new agreement.” You can’t control what they say, but that’s what a supportive partner would be saying.
There are plenty of other ways your partner could act in bad faith when it comes to dealing with anxiety, these are just some examples. In all these cases, however, if a serious conversation doesn’t change their actions, you’re seeing a giant red flag that you should leave that relationship, as it is not healthy for you.
Keep Moving Forward
For most people, anxiety is something that can be worked on and reduced. It’s hard work, but immensely rewarding. It improves communication and trust between partners when you put in the effort, and feeling less anxiety is always a good thing! Find out which approaches work best for you, and start feeling better.