My spouse and I have been non-monogamous for three years or so, which for the most part has been pretty successful. We both have meaningful and sexual relationships with multiple other people, communicate our asses off about how each other is doing, and have promised to put each other first as a condition of the non-monogamy.
I met someone randomly a month ago who I really, really like. This is like think-about-him-all-the-time enamored, glowing-in-his-presence in love, want-to-spend-every-waking-moment-together smitten. He feels the same way about me, and both of us feel totally thrown off by the instant depth of our connection. I used to think those people who fell in love in six weeks were foolish, but now that it’s me, I have so much more empathy. I feel like I’ve been hit with a semi-truck of emotions and am questioning basically everything about my life. My spouse knows this is different too—he’s noticed changes in how I talk about this new person and how I’ve basically dropped the other people I’m dating (some for a year or so) to hang out with this new person. I’ve shared with him that this new relationship freaks me out, which has thrown him off guard because that’s so not my MO.
I’ve fallen in love with other non-monogamous people I’ve dated before, but this feels different. This feels big, and I don’t know how to honor the commitment I have with my spouse while being true to my feelings. I don’t know if it’s going to get to the point where the status of my relationships fundamentally change, but I honestly don’t know what I would choose to do if my spouse gave an ultimatum to close our relationship and end my new relationship.
I know you can’t tell me what to do, but how can I think about this rationally and what should I be considering if and when I do have to make a major decision?
Ahhh, the all-consuming, lovesick whirlwind of a challenge that is New Relationship Energy, or NRE for short. It doesn’t happen with every new partner, but it does happen, enough that there are books and articles devoted to this topic. (In fact, consider picking up: Rewriting the Rules, Finding Poly, New Relationship Energy.) It can blindside you and leave you questioning everything. It can upset and undo solid long-term partnerships. So before we go any further, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back for at least attempting to reflect and be rational. Good for you!
Here is the science: your brain has been hijacked. It doesn’t mean the love isn’t real and true and deep. But as humans with human bodies and a complex symphony of hormones influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it’s important we understand how the machine that is a human in love actually works. Your body is now running on dopamine and norepinephrine, making you crave this new person that has rocked your world. You can barely sleep, you don’t have much appetite, you just want more of what feels so good—time and connection with your new love. Your serotonin—which helps us feel satiated—drops when you fall hard in love, so you keep wanting more of this person but can’t seem to get enough. Your brain is running on chemicals it doesn’t often run on, and they are potent. And this can last anywhere from six months to a year.
So, before you get too far ahead into potential future decisions, acknowledge that this is just where you are at right now. Read up on NRE. There is a lot of good info out there from folks who have been in your shoes. Have your partners read up on it, too. And together, you can create a path through this intoxicating and delicious (yet disruptive) time.
I’ve been married for nine years and with my spouse for thirteen. There is absolutely an intimacy we share from building a life together, from showing up day after day even when we don’t want to and choosing to navigate partnership with all its ups and downs, that is nourishing in a way no new relationship could be. And it’s something I both want and need to feel happy, secure, and fulfilled. This awareness is what anchored me and guided me through my own intense experience of love and connection with a new person. I could’ve decided that things with this new partner were so amazing, that the connection was so potent and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, that I just couldn’t stay in my marriage. But I knew my brain was hijacked. And even though I do think of this going-on-three-years-now partner as a soulmate, my husband is, too, and he is my life partner. I don’t believe we have just one soulmate, and I love life with my husband. So I chose to keep honoring my commitment to my family. And in time, the intensity of feelings with my new partner evolved into a deep bond of connection that I value immensely, but that is not “better” than my marriage. It is different. I want both. I have both. We worked it out. Not everyone does.
I know that if I had listened solely to my feelings at the time I was falling in love, and not stepped back to reflect on the life I truly wanted to create, I very well might have ended my marriage over this. I told both partners what I wanted and hoped for—a strong, loving marriage to a husband who respects my love and connection to others, and a partner who I see once a month (give or take) who respects my love and connection with my husband. I continued to make time with my husband a priority, I continued to see other partners (although some of those relationships shifted or ended), I continued to honor and nourish my marriage, and I gave myself patience with my hijacked brain. Within six months, I was feeling a lot less overwhelmed by my feelings. It took time, awareness, communication, and a commitment to not making any rash decisions about my marriage for a year.
If three years go by and you still feel as intensely about this new partner, it might be time to re-evaluate things. For now, try to give yourself space—mentally AND physically—and figure out what will help you and all of your partners navigate this new terrain. Best of luck!