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April 18, 2022

Are Open Relationships Right for Me?

Are Open Relationships Right for Me?

Maybe you only date one person at a time. Maybe you don’t. Whether you’re raising a family with your polycule or considering opening up your monogamous twosome, “Polysecure” author Jessica Fern talks about how to build healthy, secure relationships.

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Maybe you only date one person at a time. Maybe you don’t. Whether you’re raising a family with your polycule or considering opening up your monogamous twosome, “Polysecure” author Jessica Fern talks about how to build healthy, secure relationships.


Hiwote: This is dating. 

Jessica Fern: It was so exciting, I'm thinking of the first person I fell in love with. In the opening up process, like how exciting that was, how incredible that was to love that partner and my husband at the time, like to feel myself have that expansion and capacity and to get certain things. Like it didn't have to be an either or it could suddenly be a life of both and.

Eleanor: This is dating I'm Eleanor. 

Hiwote: And I'm Hiwote. 

Eleanor: You know, one thing I've been thinking about Hiwote is that the four main daters that we've featured on this season have all just happened to be approaching dating from a largely monogamous perspective, they were all looking for just one partner, but there are so many different types of dating situations that we still have yet to represent on the show, like dating after losing a spouse or a partner, dating while parenting, dating while experiencing gender affirming care, dating while asexual or aromantic or dating multiple people at the same time. And so, so, so many more. 

Hiwote: And actually a lot of what we're asking our daters to do is just be more open to more people. And in my experience in dating, when you're first just exploring your options is when you're actively dating multiple people at the same time. And then for some reason, as a culture, we all decide that there has to be this one person that you choose, and that you end up with. 

Eleanor: That is definitely the dominant narrative. 

Hiwote: Yeah. And I don't know, after spending so many hours talking to people about their experience of being single, and talking to the four daters who want long-term partnerships with one person, it's just made me question what it is about monogamy that's so appealing to us because it almost feels most appealing when it's a fantasy, then when it's in practice. 

Eleanor: Ooh, I like where you're going with this. Can you say more? 

Hiwote: We heard a lot about how we would make one partner our everything and that actually we need a village, right? So we need platonic friendships and we need other kinds of partnerships, et cetera. And then once we got past that, there was still this like other tier of partnership where we still expected our romantic partner to be our anchor. And I don't know, that still feels like a fantasy. We think that's going to make our lives way better, but in reality, I don't know if it does. 

Eleanor: Okay. All right, I love that you were bringing all of this up because I just read a great book that I feel might blow your mind a little bit. It's called Polysecure and it's by this psychotherapist named Jessica Fern. And, on its face, the book is all about polyamory and non-monogamy. Jessica brings in attachment theory, which we talked about in a previous episode as a way of thinking through the challenges of polyamory, but I feel like it is also just about reframing our whole conception of what relationships can look like. And so I feel like if you are in this place of wondering, is non-monogamy right for me, whether I'm single, whether I'm in a relationship, whether I'm nothing or something in between, I feel like it's going to give us a lot to think about. So should we talk to Jessica? 

Hiwote: Yeah, let's do it. 

Jessica Fern: Hi, I'm Jessica Fern. I am a psychotherapist and relationship coach and certified trauma specialist and the bulk of my day, other than being with my son and my partner, and my other partner is working with clients who are in alternative sexuality, alternative relationship, and just helping them navigate this path. 

Eleanor: I want to just start with the most basic question. How do I know if non-monogamy is right for me? So what would you say is the first step for somebody or the first thing you would ask them, if somebody came to you with that question, is non-monogamy right for me? 

Jessica Fern: That's a great question. And I just start with why are you even interested in it? And often what we see is a mix of things. There's not one clear cut answer, of course, but people might have a history or they just go, I've just never been good at monogamy, I go from one relationship to the other or they've, you know, cheated in previous relationships or maybe they've been great being monogamous, but they're always fantasizing about having more partners. And then some people just feel this certain sense of longing for more expansion. They feel the capacity in them that maybe they've never experienced to love more than one person at the same time, or they have a variety of sexual desires and expressions that they want, that one person isn't necessarily going to fulfill. So really getting clear on why are you called to do this, you know, is important first step. 

Eleanor: I feel like what you are hinting at is that this whole process involves a lot of getting right with yourself is going to be like opening the door to like getting right with all of your relationships.

Jessica Fern: Exactly. Yes. 

Eleanor: But I think before we go further, I'm interested in defining terms a little bit. So what do we mean when we say non-monogamy? 

Jessica Fern: Yeah. So non-monogamy is an umbrella term that as you're already getting to can mean or look a lot of different ways, and we're talking about consensual non-monogamy right or ethical non-monogamy where everyone involves knows. 

Eleanor: Very important distinction. 

Jessica Fern: Very important. So in that umbrella of consensual or ethical non-monogamy, it can be where I have multiple sexual partners. I have multiple romantic partners that may or may not be sexual. So it has a whole spectrum of, people who might be married and they're doing swinging. So they go to play parties or they have sex with, or play sexually with other partners to people who are completely in love, have, more than one full on attachment based relationship. And there's a lot of variations in between. 

Eleanor: In your book, Polysecure, you specifically choose to focus in on the term polyamory, why was that? 

Jessica Fern: Yeah. Cause in polyamory, people are intentionally going for more than one in love, romantic relationship. It's, it's usually not the type of non-monogamy that's looking for just sexual experiences or more casual relationships on the side. It's more, I'm having, multiple attachment partners. 

Eleanor: And, and there's that word attachment. We're definitely gonna get into why that's so important. But you know, one thing that I hear a lot is that this polyamory thing, this non monogamy thing, it's it's, it's new and all the kids are doing it, but that's not really true is that?

Jessica Fern: I mean, it's, it's having, it's more of its cultural moment where we're seeing it. Absolutely. But polyamory is not new. I mean, it's been going on for probably as long as people were having sex and being romantic and falling in love. But we could also just say that, if more than half of people who are married, admit to cheating, then while most people are not actually practicing monogamy in the way that we like to define it. But yes, it's having a moment where it's just becoming more in the mainstream, which is great. When that happens, it gives permission, you know, to people to try it maybe to experiment or to go, oh, wow. I didn't even know there was a phrase for what I've always felt myself to be. Thank you. 

Eleanor: And I'm curious in your capacity as a therapist and the work that you do with both individuals and couples do you get a lot of people coming to you who have practiced monogamy, not necessarily exclusively, but are maybe in a monogamous place who are looking to make that transition? 

Jessica Fern: Yeah, the majority of my practice, I get people everywhere in the process, but a nice chunk of my practice is people who have been monogamous together, couples that are looking to open up or in the beginning of opening up their relationship and they're wanting to do it well and mitigate as much challenge and conflict as possible, or they've already started to hit the stumbling blocks and they need support.

Eleanor: Yeah. I'm curious to ask about some of those stumbling blocks. 

Jessica Fern: I mean, one of the big challenges that I saw is that people are opening up from monogamy and their attachment with that partner is getting rearranged, and it needs to change to allow space for other partners to come in or they previously felt secure with their partners. And now they're feeling all of this insecurity that they weren't accustomed to. Or a lot of couples now are coming to me and saying, we want to make sure we can maintain our secure bond and our secure attachment through this process. And how can we do that? 

Eleanor: Yeah. Can we maybe talk about jealousy for a minute? I feel like one of the things I hear so often is I'm interested in non-monogamy, but I'm afraid I'm going to be jealous. 

Jessica Fern: Yes, that is one of the most common fears is, oh no. What happens if there's jealousy? So jealousy has this interesting, polarization where on one hand, it's like, if you're not jealous and you really don't care about me, there's this idea that jealousy is equated with love and possessing or owning your partner, but then also, oh, if you're jealous, then you're irrational. And it's a problem with yourself being insecure, in air quotes. So, but in non-monogamy yeah. What I say is first of all, to not be afraid of jealousy, that jealousy is okay. It's common people who are non-monogamous still get jealous. People who are secure in their attachment still get jealous. So not to pathologize or demonize it, but to really see jealousy as an important messenger, it's trying to point to something important. Can I tell you the things that I usually see that it points to?

Eleanor: Please.

Jessica Fern: So I say, jealousy is the messenger for me, we, or society, looking at these three realms, right? So jealousy can be pointing to something within me that just is my own insecurity. Oh, you're dating a partner who has those qualities that I don't have. And I feel insecure about myself because of that, so often it can expose ways that we feel less than, or it could expose things that we're desiring in ourself. And we're jealous. I wish I was doing those things in the world that person is doing, or I'm envious of that, right. And it could be nothing that our partners doing wrong. It's just oh yeah. There's places in me that I need to work on self worth, on self esteem. And look at the shame that's coming up here, yeah. Not easy, but really potent. And what happens sometimes is a lot of people just put jealousy in that category oh, you're just being insecure, get over it, and even if that is the case, that's not a helpful approach to our partners or to anyone who's experiencing jealousy to feel isolated in it, right. 

Eleanor: Is that somebody basically saying like, this is your problem, go work on yourself and then come back to me... 

Jessica Fern: When you've dealt with it, exactly and even if it is just coming from that individual, it's nice to support the people we care about in this process. But then the next one is "we." Jealousy might be coming from the relationship itself where you've promised to do these things with me and you haven't followed through, and now you're doing them with someone else. It's labeled as jealousy, but really that's just hurt. That's feels like unfairness or sometimes there's relationships that there's neglect showing up. And then a new person comes along for your partner and all of the hormones and the new relationship energy take over. And there's all this dopamine for this new person. And they're not paying enough or the same amount of attention to you that they used to, is that jealousy or is that the relationship is shifting and we need to reorient together. 

Eleanor: Yes, like the feeling is leading to these questions that we'll really dig deep beneath the surface to lead a couple to hopefully unpack where all of that's coming from.

Jessica Fern: Exactly. Yeah. And then the last one is society, which is what are the cultural societal discourses around, what is love? What is relationship? So these real cultural binaries show up right in the relationship in the individual and can really be internalized where we start to feel entitled to our partners, possessive of our partners. And it's showing up this jealousy. But it's not originating from us. It's oh yeah, these are cultural scripts that were acting out.

Hiwote: Eleanor. I hear Jessica saying insecure and secure in the way that she describes how people are attaching to other people. So she's talking about attachment styles right? 

Eleanor: Yeah, totally. It's a, it forms a big part of her book and her approach to polyamory. Yeah, we actually did a whole mini episode about attachment theory that really goes deep into three, sometimes there's four, but we really go deep into the three different styles. Do you remember what they are? 

Hiwote: I remember secure always, because that's basically people who have a healthy sense of connection and disconnection. 

Eleanor: Yup. I feel like that's a great way to describe it. Yeah. There's also the insecure attachments. There's avoidant attachment, and then there's anxious attachment, which is relatable. If you are feeling like you want to constantly text somebody to have reassurance of whether they still like you. But, even in the way that I just described anxious attachment, I feel like there is this tendency to point to the quote-unquote worst aspects of insecure attachment. But one thing I really appreciated about Polysecure is that Jessica reframes the insecure attachment styles to their positive attributes. 

Jessica Fern: These are needs that all of us have or drives that all of us have within us, is I need autonomy and independence, and I also need connection. So the positives is you can say someone who's more on the avoidant dismissive. They really do independence they're usually quite competent in the world. They're usually really good at their work. They can compartmentalize things, really well. Person who's more anxious preoccupied, they're really good at connection and relationships and tuning into each other and seeing the subtle changes that someone around them is experiencing. So those are some of the gifts that each style has.

Eleanor: I love that because so much of, the process, at least for me of identifying my attachment style almost feels like picking out what all of my faults are. And then I'm beating myself up about the way that I react or the way that I feel in relationships. But I appreciate that you're framing these from a perspective of, can you calibrate this to still, be who you are, but identify how that's getting in your way. 

Jessica Fern: Exactly. How is some of this getting in your way and how can you mean more towards the other end in certain moments? 

Eleanor: Yeah. So I'm curious how can attachment theory help us make sense of some of those distinct challenges that come with opening up?

Jessica Fern: Yeah. So we can start to see some of our own challenges. A lot of people might what's called primal attachment panic. So their partner goes on a date and they're having a total anxiety attack meltdown. And they don't understand why, because cognitively they're on board with this. They're like, I'm the one maybe who even wanted to do this, and, and I know that they love me, but my body is going through all this stuff that I don't know how to understand. And so attachment theory can really help us go, oh, you're going through an attachment, primal panic that when our caregiver, as an infant is too far away and unavailable, we panic because we think we could die. And as adults, even though we might know I'm going to be okay, I'm not going to die. Our nervous system might still respond in that way as if we're going to die. Helpful to know. There's ways to work with it. 

Eleanor: I was going to say, so if you're in one of these primal panics, what can people do?

Jessica Fern: Yeah, exactly. There's a bunch of things. And again, we're doing the assumption that this was a couple that's opening up and now they're dating, so with your partner before the date, there's ways to really, fill up the love tank, so to speak. What does, what do both of you need to feel good in this parting, right?

So the partner that's having primal panic or anxiety and is home, there's things that can happen before their partner leaves that support them. There's ways of what can you do in returning that also support your partner and having those in place can really help. For some partners having certain written notes or objects from their partner really helped for that. Oh, when I start to spin out, I can read this letter that my partner has written me about how important I am to them. And these concrete forms of evidence can really be supportive. However, if there's an individual developmental task here that's needed around emotional regulation, it's lovely when my partner can co-regulate with me and support me it's not about omitting that, but I also need to know how to self-regulate and self-soothe on my own. And people who take that as a path like, wow it's incredible, right. But it also is like a bootcamp, I'm just like, whoa, there's all these skills that I got by enough without really having, 

Eleanor: Yes. So for a couple who either has kids or wants kids and is, including childcare in their consideration for opening up their relationship, what do you tell. 

Jessica Fern: For many people who are doing non-monogamy it winds up being great to have more hands on deck. I mean, I have one child and we have three parents and adults, and we joke that we need one more. I guess a three to one, four to one ratio seems ideal. 

Eleanor: Amazing. 

Jessica Fern: Yeah. And so a lot of people really benefit from this where, there are other people involved in the child rearing and I'm a little bit more cautious personally. Like I don't, when I was dating people they didn't just enter my son's life, just because we were dating.

I'm like, there needs to be some time in and some commitment, not just to me, but to this child before I let my child get attached to them. But a lot of people really benefit from this model. And of course it depends how old your kids are. That my son was born into this. So it was a little bit easier to say, yes, mommy loves this person and daddy loves that person and that person.

But some people are actually coming out to their kids and whether your kid's four or 14 or 40 all makes a difference, in, in what it means to them. And what it means to their own social life, and what it means to their choices and all of that. So it's usually easier when they're younger.

It can get a little more challenging when they're in their adolescents. Sometimes adult children struggle, sometimes adult children are just completely supportive. You know, it's like anything, if you're coming out to your kids as no longer being straight or being trans or we're getting a divorce, 

Eleanor: yeah. And you also write about how you yourself made the transition from being in a monogamous relationship to a non-monogamous relationship. I'm curious if you're comfortable sharing what for you were the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of making that transition? 

Jessica Fern: Yeah, there was a lot on both ends, cause I'm like some of them go into both categories, that it was so exciting. You know, I'm thinking of the first person I fell in love with, right, like that was so, in the opening up process, like how exciting, that was, how incredible that was to love that partner and my husband at the time, like to feel myself, have that expansion and capacity and to get certain things like it didn't have to be an either or it could suddenly be a life of both and. That, and that certain needs, I didn't even realize that I needed were getting met in one way by one person in a different way. 

And I could show up and give needs to those people, in ways they weren't getting. So there was this real, like elevation of giving and receiving and feeling my own heart expand my own capacities expand. But then navigating that from an monogamous marriage or just even the time management of like, how do I give this person the attention and love they need and how do I do it over here?

And how do I deal with this person who's in primal panic, and yet I'm not doing anything wrong and I don't want to end this relationship with this other person, just because you're struggling and yet I love you and you're struggling. So there's there's a lot of that happens for awhile.

That was hard. But we did, we got through it, meaning me and my husband at the time. And then I felt like together, we did polyamory really well, but the other challenges are just like, there's more love, and there's also more breakups and heartache. And there was this one period of time where I had three breakups in six months and my nervous system was just like, I cannot take it anymore.

And some of those were my choice, like even if I ended it, I was just like, just completely frazzled from that experience. So yeah, it's you move into abundance and abundance isn't always there's abundance issues and challenges. 

Eleanor: Right. But I feel like what you're really highlighting is that no matter what format of relationship you're in, like there are still challenges and there are still things to look at and unpack. You talk about this concept in your book, the structure itself is not where the security comes from, right. Can you talk about that a little more? 

Jessica Fern: The structural aspects of a relationship having, children together being married, having finances together and living together, um, being publicly, acknowledged as the couple in the world on social media, whatever it is, right, legally. 

These structural things, they can create security. It's not that they don't or can't, so it's not about denying that. But what I see is what happens is people just use those structural elements for their sense of security and then how they're actually showing up for each other relationally, how their, their experience emotionally of each other, not so great.

And so really wanting people. It's not about giving away structures or denying structures, but saying that's not where I want you to get your secure attachment in your relationship. I want it to be based on your emotional experience of your partner, how you're treating each other, how you're being reliable and engaged and attuned to each other. That's what really creates the security. And in case in point, my first husband and I, we have changed structures so many times we have had a lot of relationship fluidity. It's like we have a secure bond and a secure experience, even though we've lived together, not lived lived together, been married, not married, like all of these different structural experiences.

Eleanor: And as you were saying earlier, it all really goes back to forming a secure relationship with yourself. 

Jessica Fern: You know, when I define it, what is being poly secure? And it's being able to have secure functioning with your partners, but really having the internal security to navigate the increased Uh, relational, emotional complexity, the ups and downs, but whether you're non-monogamous or not, the secure attachment with self is know thyself and love myself basically that I can be more situated in my autonomy and sovereignty. Really, to me, I get this image often of just like being a mountain and there's the storms or the clouds or the beautiful sun or the wild flowers or the snow. There's all this coming and going of life, but I can hold my equanimity in the face of all of that.

Eleanor: Wow. That's so beautiful. 

Jessica Fern: I'm glad you like it. 

Eleanor: Yes. I want to think about that a lot. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on choosing non-monogamy as perhaps an act of resistance. 

Jessica Fern: Yeah, absolutely. And for many people that is, in a world where, things like capitalism and patriarchy are still dominant choosing a different relationship structure absolutely is a form of resisting those things, for them, it's their expression of feminism, or it's their expression of anti-capitalism. 

Eleanor: Like how are those? And then maybe this is like a personal for each person, but how can that be an expression of anti-capitalism and feminism?

Jessica Fern: Some of it's understanding the history or the impact that these larger systems have, right, that the history even of marriage was more about control over women and their sexuality. And then a woman was seen to be, part of the possession of a man. And you know, part of his household. And then for many years, centuries, I don't know, I'm not a historian expert, but from what I've read, that, it was expected to know paternity that women were monogamous, but men weren't always monogamous. That's actually a newer expectation for men. 

And so to challenge that there's threads of that narrative, even oh, as a woman, I'm not as horny as a man. Is that really true? That's the whole way my sexuality has been told to me is that it's lesser than a man's, that I'm not as turned on or hungry for sex, and so it just starting to, like a lot of women are actually the ones who initiate, non-monogamy.

And for a lot of women and men it is an expression of not wanting to possess and own each other's sexuality of wanting people to have the choice to have multiple loves. So that's one way. And, and capitalism puts us in our nice little boxes, right? Where we have a nuclear family and no one shares cars and no one shares washers and dryers, and you live separately in your home and everyone has to buy those things, and we don't share tools, we each have our own tool set. So when we start to live and not everyone doing non-monogamy is living communally, but many people are sharing resources, they're sharing life, they're sharing child-rearing together in ways that are pushing up against the individual nuclear family that really fuels a capitalistic life.

Eleanor: Thank you for breaking that down. Yeah. Once we like peek under the hood a little bit and start to break all the systems in place apart we realized that it doesn't all have to be that way. 

Jessica Fern: Exactly. 

Eleanor: Thank you so much. I really hope that, monogamous people or people interested in polyamory will listen to this and feel less afraid or less daunted. And that maybe this conversation like broke their brain open a little bit and they're like, oh, all religions. Take a lot of work, all just take, digging deep and knowing yourself. And yeah, I just hope that folks have a good grounding from this conversation. 

Jessica Fern: Thank you. I love that you wanted to add it. So thank you. Um,