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Sexual Problems Cause Lots of Monogamous Breakups and Lots of Poly Breakups
This includes basic incompatibilities around sex, such as differing libidos, different tastes in sexual activities, and power struggles around sex, as well as cheating and breaking agreements around sex.
Cheating is high on the list of sexual causes of breakups. In a monogamous relationship, "cheating" usually means having sex and/or romance with anyone outside the relationship, and usually involves lying and a betrayal of trust. For monogamous couples, the definition of cheating seems to have been enlarged quite a bit in recent years to include emotional affairs. These are usually defined as close friendships that have some kind of romantic overtones, but which usually do not include sex or even explicit affection. They are seen as threatening to the monogamous pair-bond because so much intimacy and closeness is shared, and time is spent calling, texting, and emailing with that special person. A person having an emotional affair may deceive their spouse about the depth of the relationship.
Some of these emotional affairs are "cyber romances," often with someone who lives far away. The two participants may have never met in person, but carry on some type of fantasy relationship through email, sexting, and cyber sex. Many other emotional affairs are with coworkers or are platonic friendships that gradually become more intimate and erotic, without actually crossing the line into becoming physical. Whether it involves a real life sexual relationship or an emotional affair, cheating in a monogamous relationship can, and often does, permanently destroy trust and safety, and can prove fatal to the relationship. Ironically, this is much more often due to the lying and sneaking around than to the affair itself. A surprising number of monogamous people say they could get over their spouse having sex with someone else, but cannot forgive the deception and "being played for a fool," because they feel they can never trust their partner after that. That their spouse was capable of lying to them about the affair often leads someone to wonder what else they may be lying about, and trust usually deteriorates from there. Many people are devastated that their partner broke such a core relationship agreement as monogamy, shaking their confidence in their partner's ability to keep any other agreements with them.
In poly relationships, many people also "cheat," but since sex with other people is allowed, cheating is usually defined as breaking an agreement about sex or other relationships. Some couples make agreements about sexual behaviors such as:
* Don't have unprotected sex with anyone but me.
* Don't sleep with my best friend or anyone in our immediate social circle.
* Don't have a relationship with any of your coworkers.
* Don't get any other women pregnant or don't get pregnant by any other man.
* Don't bring home any sexually transmitted infections and give them to me.
* Don't get so worn out from having sex with your other partners that you are too tired to have sex with me on the weekend.
* Don't have sex with anyone else in our bed.
* Don't fall in love with anyone you have sex with, just keep it casual or secondary.
* Don't have sex with someone new without telling me first (or full and quick disclosure reasonably soon after the fact).
Poly people may define breaking these agreements as cheating, and doing so may cause a poly breakup. As with monogamous people, many poly people say it is the broken trust, rather than the sexual behavior, that makes it hardest to get over a breach of one of these agreements. The logic is that if a partner had such bad judgment or cared so little about the agreements to disregard them and do whatever they want anyway, what is the point of making agreements? And what would prevent them from doing it again, or breaking any new agreements they make?
It's important to understand that any partner can make a mistake, especially if they are under the influence of lust, alcohol, drugs, or infatuation, despite their best intentions. I have seen poly people with the utmost integrity break an agreement around sex because an irresistibly compelling sexual or romantic opportunity suddenly presented itself, and they just felt unable to say no. Often, they say later that in the heat of the moment, they did not feel it would harm anyone, and that they somehow believed their spouse would understand and forgive them. However, once they see the terrible pain their actions have caused to someone they love, they are flooded with remorse, and are very likely to learn from that mistake and not repeat it.
For example, Vanessa and Juan attended Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and they had agreed it was fine to have sex with other people there, but to do so discreetly and not to bring anyone back to their shared camp. However, Vanessa was under the influence of Ecstasy when a lovely couple propositioned her for a threesome. She consented, and brought them back to the camp, thinking that since Juan had gone to a party at another camp it would be okay. She was also feeling too incapacitated by drugs to walk all the way to the couple's camp. Juan came home drunk from the party a little earlier than expected and walked in on the three of them having sex. A physical altercation ensued, which caused them all to be kicked out of Burning Man by security, and led to the demise of Vanessa and Juan's relationship.
In another example, Jon and Scott had recently gotten married, and had an agreement that it was fine to pick up guys at bars, sex clubs, or through dating apps like Grindr, but that it should be casual sex, a "fuck-buddy," or a friends with benefits arrangement. However, Jon met Warren on Grindr, and after having sex a few times they really clicked both sexually and emotionally, and developed a serious relationship. At first Jon was not completely honest with Scott about his feelings for Warren or how often he was seeing him. Instead, he told Scott that the relationship was casual, because he was afraid of hurting Scott or being forced to end the new relationship. When he did finally disclose the truth, Scott felt so betrayed by the dishonesty and threatened by Jon's attachment to this new relationship that he moved out and filed for divorce.
While sex and sexual issues can cause a lot of poly breakups, it should be mentioned that being poly can help solve some sexual problems. This is especially true of a so-called "desire discrepancy," which is just a fancy way of saying that one person wants sex more often than their partner. Having outside partners can certainly take the pressure off of a situation where you and your partner have mismatched libidos.
For monogamous couples, when one partner wants more sex than the other, they don't have the option of openly and honestly having other sex partners. As a result, their only available options are: to fight about sex constantly, for the lower-libido partner to go along with sex when they would rather not, for the higher-libido partner to be chronically sexually frustrated, for one partner to cheat, or to break up. Often all of the above options occur, usually in exactly that order, with the end result being the demise of the relationship due to sexual incompatibility.
Having multiple partners can allow each person can get their optimal amount of sex. However, this carries some risk, even for experienced poly couples. If you start having a lot of great sex with another partner because your partner at home has a lower sex drive than you do, you may start to transfer your romantic and sexual loyalty to the new partner, and start feeling a lot less intimate with your pre-existing partner.
This sometimes leads to ditching a long-standing relationship while in thrall of New Relationship Energy (NRE). People often mistakenly believe that the intense sexual chemistry and romantic infatuation in the new relationship means that they should abandon the more established relationship and run off into the sunset with the new paramour. This is usually a mistake, because comparing a long-term committed spouse with a passionate new lover is like comparing apples and oranges. A long-term relationship has a different set of costs and benefits than a hot new love affair. The pre-existing relationship cannot really compete with a new relationship for excitement and sparkle. This is partly because you don't really know the new lover well enough to see their faults or to have any idea whether you are really compatible for the long haul.
It's a good idea to think back to when you first got involved with your long-term partner, and remember that it was probably just as hot and passionate with them at the beginning and that the sizzle is bound to cool down eventually, usually sooner rather than later. I always advise people to wait until the infatuation subsides, or at least a year (whichever is longer), to decide whether there is a really good reason to choose a new relationship over one that has already proved it has a lot of staying power.
Lack of sex in a long-term relationship can also lead to a poly breakup for a different reason. In many cases, one partner has been unhappy about infrequent or non-existent sex in their relationship, but has been willing to accept it because they believed that their spouse simply has a low libido or lost interest in sex due to stress, fatigue, or some other extraneous reason. However, when that same person starts dating someone new and is obviously having sex outside the relationship, it becomes clear that they have actually not lost interest in sex, they have just lost interest in having sex with their preexisting partner. What seemed tolerable when it appeared to be a generic lack of sexual appetite may now be unbearable. When your partner is having sex with someone else, it can feel like a very cruel sexual rejection and is often "the final insult" that causes the relationship to collapse.
For example, Peter and Susan were busy with their careers and two small children, so Peter was disappointed, but not so surprised, that their sex life had dropped off to nearly zilch for two years. When Susan started a hot new love affair with someone she met at a poly parents' support group, and was out having sex with him until 3 AM every Friday night, Peter was crushed. He insisted that he and Susan revive their sexual relationship, saying that he felt displaced by this new man. "An outside relationship was not supposed to replace our sex life, it was just supposed to enhance our relationship. I didn't sign up for having a sexless marriage while you are out having sex with someone else!"
She responded that since they hadn't had much sex for years, why was he upset now, and why was he suddenly pressuring her for sex? She said she wasn't sure if she wanted sex with Peter anymore. Peter filed for divorce, saying that the sexual rejection had always been very painful, and he had tried to be understanding and let her set the pace for their sex life because he understood that she was tired and busy with the kids. But now that she was obviously sexually involved with someone else, he felt betrayed and humiliated, and like a chump for being so accepting of a very minimal sex life for the past few years.
This scenario is particularly common in lesbian relationships. Lesbian couples are much more likely than heterosexual couples or gay male couples to stop having sex altogether, or to have sex only rarely, perhaps a few times a year, after the first year or two of the relationship. Often the couple has a comfortable, emotionally intimate, and very affectionate relationship, so both women think that they are satisfied with the situation. Almost invariably, one of them eventually becomes sexually attracted to someone else and starts an outside sexual relationship. Suddenly the balance is disrupted, and the partner who is not having sex is devastated, since it is now clear that a non-sexual marriage was not so satisfying to her partner after all. It can be easier to accept no sex or very little sex when your partner says they are too tired, busy, stressed, or depressed to feel like having sex, or when they say "I just don't have much of a sex drive anymore." It is extremely painful to find that not only has your partner not wanted sex with you for years, but that they are eager to have sex with someone else. Sometimes the couple can revive their sexual relationship through couples' counseling, sex therapy, and resolving issues that may have been causing anger or distancing. However, much more often, this sexual change destroys the relationship.
The underlying question that must be answered by any couple in an essentially sexless relationship is this: Are sex, passion, and romance integral components of a committed relationship for you? Most people would say yes, that romantic and sexual connection is part of what defines a love relationship and separates it from platonic friendship. While many spouses are willing to accept some "dry spells" with no sex or very little sex in a long-term relationship, eventually they are likely to become dissatisfied without sex and end the relationship. This is true even for poly people who may have one or more partners outside of the relationship, because for most people, sex is part of the "glue" that makes them feel close to their partner, and they sorely miss the type of emotional intimacy that is usually facilitated by having sex with someone you love.
A good rule of thumb about whether polyamory will solve your sexual problems or lead to breaking up is whether you are actually having at least occasional and reasonably good sex with your long-term partner. Even if you are very frustrated by not getting enough sex in your relationship, but you are still having some sex and enjoying it, an outside sexual relationship is likely to help your relationship. This is because your goal is to outsource some of your sexual needs and supplement your existing sexual relationship with your partner, not to replace it. If you don't have satisfying sex with your partner, or if you are not having any sex at all with them, having great sex outside the relationship is only likely to reduce the emotional intimacy and closeness with your partner and create conflict and dissatisfaction in your relationship.
There are other sexual problems that polyamory can sometimes solve. For example, when one partner is kinky or BDSM-oriented and the other is either primarily "vanilla" or has only a small amount of interest in SM activities. Being able to pursue those kinkier activities with other partners can allow a person to satisfy more of their overall erotic and relationship needs, without pressuring their partner to participate in activities that do not appeal to them. And even if both members of a couple are very BDSM-oriented, they often have wildly divergent needs and desires. Being able to satisfy their core kinks with other partners can reduce conflict in the relationship and increase overall relationship satisfaction. However, if most (or all) of a person's BDSM needs are being met by another partner, they may begin to feel much more intimate with that partner and start to withdraw their love and investment from the pre-existing relationship. Because BDSM activities can be intense and create strong intimacy, bonding, and attachment, they may begin to feel that this other partner is better matched with their needs and desires, and feel less connected to their partner at home.
For instance, Aisha and Brenda, a cohabiting lesbian couple, were deeply in love and had a very emotionally intimate relationship. While they were very affectionate and spent a lot of time cuddling, their sex life was never very satisfying to either of them. It took them a few years to realize that they were both extremely submissive and craved being dominated sexually as well as in role-playing outside the bedroom. They joined the Exiles, a women's BDSM organization, and attended parties where they had a great time playing with dominant women, but nothing ever went beyond casual sex and role-play. Then Brenda went to an Exiles party while Aisha was out of town on business and met Bettina and Eve, who had the opposite problem. They were both doms, and as Eve put it, "Neither of us has a submissive bone in our bodies." They both topped Brenda at the party, and she rushed home to call Aisha to tell her they had won "the kinky lotto." She suggested that they pursue a "quad" or foursome relationship with Bettina and Eve.
While it sounded like a poly marriage made in heaven, after a few dates two things became painfully clear. Number one: Brenda and Bettina had fallen madly in love, or at least in lust and infatuation, and completely ignored their respective partners because they were hopelessly obsessed with each other. Number two: Aisha and Eve had no chemistry and actually found each other annoying, and both were terrified that their partners seemed to be abandoning them. Eve gave Bettina an ultimatum to stop seeing Brenda, but she refused, calling Eve "a controlling bitch." This precipitated a physical altercation on their front porch, with Eve grabbing Bettina by the arm and shouting, "Seriously? I'll show YOU some controlling, you skanky slut!" The neighbors called the police.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Polyamory Breakup Book"
Copyright © 2019 Kathy Labriola.
Excerpted by permission of Thorntree Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Understanding Poly Breakups 1
Breakups Come With the (Poly) Territory 5
Part 1 What Are the Most Common Causes of Poly Breakups? And Can They Be Prevented?
Poly vs. Non-Poly Causes of Breakups
The Usual Suspects or The Big Seven
Chapter 1 Sexual Problems Cause Lots of Monogamous Breakups and Lots of Poly Breakups
Chapter 2 Money Issues That Can Doom Both Monogamous and Open Relationships 27
Chapter 3 Domestic Issues That Can Lead to Breakups 35
Chapter 4 Incompatible Needs for Intimacy and Autonomy 47
Chapter 5 Problems One Partner Brings into the Relationship, Including Addictions, Untreated Mental Health Conditions, and Abuse 52
Chapter 6 Breakups Where Polyamory Plays Some Part, but Is Not the Primary Cause 72
Part 2 Poly Causes For Poly Breakups 87
Chapter 7 The Most Common Cause of Poly Breakups: Picking the Wrong Partners 89
Chapter 8 Different Strokes for Different Folks: When Partners Want Incompatible Models of Open Relationship 98
Chapter 9 When Poor Management of Time and Energy Is the Culprit 115
Chapter 10 When Jealousy Is the Root Cause of a Breakup 138
Part 3 Surviving a Poly Breakup
Why Are Poly Breakups So Excruciatingly Painful? 160
Chapter 11 Self-Care Is the First Step to Surviving a Breakup 163
Chapter 12 Grieve Your Losses and Learn Whatever Lessons You Can from This Relationship 171
Chapter 13 Sustaining Your Other Relationship(s) Throughout the Breakup 195
Chapter 14 Handling the "Public Relations" of a Poly Breakup 195
Chapter 15 Is There a Better Way? 208
Chapter 16 Going Forward 230