I have been married to my wife Hannah for around a dozen years. She was my second ever girlfriend. We have been poly for the last five years. We both have had partners come and go, but nothing seems to stick. We date separately. We do not have rules for each other, we are fairly autonomous, and we are working on becoming non-hierarchical./u/PolyGuyBlue, /r/polyadvice.
I have been talking/dating someone new – Belinda – for a couple of months. She is very similar to me. Similar love languages. She and I connect romantically in a way I’ve never connected before.
I am very teen-like in my love: making out, high sex drive, clingy, etc. My wife is not that way at all. Sexually, we are different. And while we were monogamous, I just thought the way I loved was silly. Being polyamorous, I’ve seen that others can love this way and it be accepted. Belinda and I connected amazingly, and while Hannah never wanted kids I always did. I accepted it may not be in the cards. And that the romantic relationship with each other was more worth it than sacrificing the relationship by having kids. She was open to the idea of me having kids with a partner, something Belinda was excited about.
Hannah’s mother passed away a couple of months ago. She and I have been at each other and fighting a lot. I met Belinda just after this happened. Due to srcumstances, Belinda is staying with us for a few months. The plan was to build a polycule and have a home all together (myself, Hannah, Belinda, and a possible partner of Hannah’s). This has been the goal for years now.
Hannah was not sold on Belinda as it is still newer, but does not know the depth of feelings between her and I. Hannah and I got into an argument last night where I was asked “Do I feel more for Belinda?” and I was honest and said I do romantically. For me, romance is one aspect of love and relationship. Hannah and I have long known we are on different levels of love. I am a hopeless romantic. I am clingy. She is fine being in the same room and not touching.
Belinda fits me more than Hannah does, so to me it is more natural to feel that romantic connection. I do not love Hannah any less, but it is a different love. She feels I should feel the same and equal to everyone. To which I said that things are not always going to be equal. She may enjoy a sexual aspect with someone more compatible to her, and as long as she enjoys it and loves it with me, we are good. She feels as though poly should be equal.
I am truly asking… am I wrong here? Am I wrong for loving Belinda more romantically or deeper on a romantic level?
Dear Poly Guy Blue,
Since you and your wife have been polyamorous for the past five years, I will assume that both you and your wife have already considered the impact of New Relationship Energy when you connect with someone new and exciting, and that you two already know how to manage NRE in a mindful and respectful way. Instead, we will lightly touch on the transition process to a more non-hierarchical polyamorous arrangement, the role of honesty in polyamory, and revisit the recent fight you had with Hannah. Then at the end, we’ll come back to answer the main question: can partner preference be unethical?
Transitioning from an assumed hierarchical polyamorous relationship with your married partner to an explicitly non-hierarchical arrangement is a very challenging and potentially treacherous journey. There are many inherent couple’s privileges and protection that are legally baked into your marriage with Hannah that your or her other partners will never be able to exercise. While the goal of any non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship isn’t to level the playing field for everyone in the polycule, there needs to be a concerted effort for everyone to try their best to smooth out those inherent privileges wherever you can.
You mentioned that you and Hannah never intend to have a child together, while Belinda is open to the opportunity. I don’t have a legal background to give you any legal advice on how you can ensure that the child you might have with Belinda (or with any future partner) is properly and legally accounted for, or how you can protect your paternal rights. So I would strongly advise you to consult with a family law attorney to make sure that all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed long before you and Belinda start trying for kids.
Conscientiousness of honesty in polyamorous relationships
Like food you can order at a dine-in restaurant, there are three main parts of any message you deliver.
The first part is the content of the message itself. It is the exact transcription of the words that you type or speak to whoever is receiving your message. It is the words you choose in your head as it leaves your lips or fingertips. In our restaurant metaphor, content would be akin to the very basic ingredients being used to make the food. If you have any singular poor quality ingredient, it’d likely ruin the taste and soul of the food. In the same way, poor diction will mean annihilate a message no matter how it gets delivered.
Delivery is the second part of the message. Delivery is how the words you chose – content – leaves your mouth or fingertips. So the tone of the language, speed & volume in which those words are spoken, and body language are all crucial part of the delivery. In an online conversation, how quickly you deliver those messages in a conversation as well as timeliness of response would constitute delivery. In our restaurant metaphor, delivery would be the service staff as well as the plate or the bowl the food arrives on. Delivery is the presentation of those cooked ingredients and how it is displayed. It won’t matter if you are being served food cooked by a top Michelin Star chef if the food arrives on a used paper plate from last night’s takeout. In the same way, even if the content of the message is perfect, delivery determines how that message is received.
The last part is the context. Context is all the surrounding environment as well as the tone of the previous conversations leading up to this particular message. Context is also represented in the overall mood of the message recipient as well as the room this message might be delivered. On an online conversation, the messaging platform might be considered the context of the message. Context would be the quality of the service staff as well as the table presentation in a restaurant. Even if the food itself is great and arrives on an enchanted plate, your restaurant experience would certainly be soured by a rude waitstaff or a dog poop you stepped on on your way into the restaurant.
It doesn’t matter if the content of your message comes from a good place if they are shouted at each other (i.e. poor delivery). And it doesn’t matter if you thought all about how the message was going to be delivered if you were inconsiderate in your choice of words. Sometimes, even if you choose the perfect set of words and say those words perfectly, it might not be received because the message was delivered in exactly the wrong circumstance. It is important to take into consideration all three parts of a message when you do say those words.
Laying down true honesty in the heat of the moment without any emotional filter is not a healthy way to communicate. Doing so leaves out both the delivery and the context part of the content you aim to get across. Exercising mindfulness and approaching each of your connections with a sense of compassion and sympathy is crucial to your relationship’s success.
Revisiting the Fight
Now let’s go back and talk about what actually transpired.
First consider the context of your message. Hannah had just lost her mother couple months ago. I’m sure that has put a significant emotional stressor on your relationship with Hannah as you were asked to step into a more of a caretaker role for your partner. As she is processing the loss and the grief of losing a parent, she also had to witness her partner fall deeply in love with someone brand new. Even if she is a master class professor of jealousy and insecurity management, her current lack of emotional capital in processing those feelings of jealousy and insecurity could have easily overwhelmed her. Based on what you’ve shared, it isn’t just anyone that you fell in love with; it is someone her partner is considering having children with. That is an immense potential commitment that she’ll have to do emotional labor for, even if the initial plan was to maintain a very polyamorous household. Another factor to consider is that you never specified if this is the first time either of your partners have lived in the same house as you and Hannah. If so, learning to live with your metamour is not a level of emotional labor you might truly understand. Then there is the pandemic going around as well as the nonstop news cycle that adds a continuous trauma processing task to all of our plates. Lastly, this question that she asked was delivered in the heat of the moment. You two were in the middle of an argument where the collective emotions were running high.
Then let’s look at the delivery. Now, I wasn’t in the room with you and your partner to know exactly how that message was delivered. But I am guessing based on how she received your message that you were straightforward in your honesty about your romantic and sexual preference for Belinda over Hanna herself. That explains why she gravitated toward objective fairness in all relationships (as opposed to a relative fairness) since your message was delivered in such a way that indicated that her relationship with you was under threat of a direct supersession. And because she felt threatened in her standing, she appealed to equality as a way to remind you that she too is a person who deserves your affection – even if you might not feel that exact same way as her.
You later revealed that the intent of your message was that, while your relationship with Belinda functions at a different level, it does not diminish or otherwise adversely affect your appreciation for your relationship with Hannah. The relationship you have with Belinda is by essence and element different than the relationship you have with Hannah. And Hannah has had dozen plus years to establish herself as a trustworthy life partner for you, through opening up and more.
If that was your true intent in the content of your response, it definitely got lost between the contextual clues and the delivery method, leading to the miscommunication.
In defense of implicit partner preference
This is all to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with preferring one partner over another in specific circumstances. We all come from wildly different personal backgrounds with completely different personal values and ethics. Our goal in seeking particular partnerships is to find partners who can align close enough with our own values but also different enough that you two don’t immediately cannibalize each other’s beliefs. So it could very well be possible that you do have a romantic preference for Belinda at this specific time at this specific place in your current relational landscape.
However, communicating so when Hannah is already experiencing and handling so much on her own was discompassionately removed from her own personal headspace. Being that upfront and honest to the point of unintentionally hurting others is not a healthy way to communicate with someone you have been dating for the past dozen plus years. For a moment, step away from defending your own perspective out of necessity and step into her perspective to relate with her headspace even if she can’t do so herself at this moment. Think for a moment how much emotional labor she is currently contending with. So even if that partner preference was true, both the context and the delivery were both incorrect from your part.
Polyamorous connections are rarely ever equal. Even if for some reason, you started dating both Hannah and Belinda at the same exact time and did not have preexisting marital commitments to honor, they are very different people. So your relationships with either of them are going to be very, very different, depending on circumstance, personality, and the relationship history that you’d be carving out with each of your partners. But Hannah wasn’t looking for an honest answer from you. She was looking for a supportive answer from you. The kind of answer that would ground her back in reality with you as her partner while she is shouldering so much burden so that she may rest on your kindness for just one more evening.
Even if it wasn’t complete honesty.
So to go all the way back to answer your question…
No. It is not ethically wrong to have preferences. But it is wrong to communicate in such a way at this time.
Especially not to a partner who has been there for you for the past dozen plus years. And especially in comparison to a new partner who has only been around for a couple months.
Childrearing and wrapup
As a new father, I also have a couple to add here about the complexities of raising a newborn in a polyamorous household. Like polyamorous dating space, there isn’t really a popular model for you to follow as for how you can raise a child with multiple partners. Almost all the models out there are designed for monogamous households with varying degrees of community support. While some of the new parenting stressors – such as lack of sleep – seems as aligned in a poly household as would a monogamous one, polyamory does bring unique challenges that cannot be experienced in a monogamous parenting scenario.
As such, I strongly advise you to read this article from New York Times from yesterday. It is very rare that such a large publication would cover non-monogamy as something other than a modern fad. This particular article goes into a pretty deep detail into the types of agreements you can implement with your partners to ensure all your grounds are covered.
I am four years into my own personal polyamory journey. And there are days when I feel completely on top of my relationships, cruising between my different relationships like a fish through a stream. Then there are days where I am completely humbled by my lack of expertise and sense. I too am often knocked a loose by an illogical strand of jealousy or insecurity that I once thought I had a better handle of. So even if you feel that you’ve been able to manage NRE better in previous relationships, that wasn’t with Belinda. And that wasn’t while Hannah was shouldering so much external and internal stressors. Stay grounded and rooted in your own experience while fearlessly stepping into other perspectives occasionally. Even if you aren’t as romantically aligned with Hannah as you would with Belinda, love is not a competition nor is it a zero sum game. More you love Hannah, more you can love Belinda. And more you love Belinda, more you can love Hannah.
Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.
I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at email@example.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!