Ask A Helping Han #11: Negotiating Nonmonogamy When You Have Someone In Mind

Dear Han,

I'm a woman in a serious relationship with a man. Both of us are bisexual/pansexual but neither of us is 100% out.  We generally move through the world as a straight-appearing couple, with all the privileges that come with that.

We're long distance for the next few years because of work. Our plans for the future line up — we both want children, we both want to live where he is now, and all the logistics aside, I really love him. He's conscientious and kind, the only person who can make me laugh until I can't breathe, and I am so excited to live our life together! He is what makes a place home for me.

In the beginning of our relationship, we were all over each other physically, but that's waned as time has gone on. I strongly suspect that being on hormonal birth control tanks my libido, and finishing a PhD certainly did not help my stress levels. We still have a satisfying sex life, it's just that irresistible urge has faded, and I'm frustrated about it. I think it's mostly laziness and the fact that it's so familiar. I'm a very sexual person when I'm single, and I think for me the excitement is in the unfamiliar — finding a spark, a connection, the flirting, and exploring this new cool person's life.

My partner has mostly dated women, and I have mostly dated men. I have only recently been out to myself. I grew up in a religious, conservative culture and I met my partner at a time when I was just beginning to date women, so I haven't had time to fully understand my sexuality. We have talked a lot together about our same-gender fantasies, and also about engaging in ethical nonmonogamy together or separately, and I think opening up the relationship could improve our sex life — but it's all been hypothetical.

I have noticed that when I have been seeing a man for a while, I tend to get more sexually attracted to women. I fantasize almost exclusively about women and the people I notice around me as being attractive are mostly women. I still see men as attractive, but that sexual pull or chemistry I feel with people is mainly with women.

That makes this next bit weird and confusing for me. I've just moved to a small town outside of a major city where I travel often for work and to see friends (I used to live in the major city). I recently saw one friend I hadn't seen in several years — in fact, the last time saw him, we had an intense fling. It was fun, we like each other outside of the sex, so we stayed in touch. But when I saw him again, I realized that the sexual chemistry is still there for both of us, and it was powerful.  We talked, there was some light flirting, but nothing else happened. He asked if my partner and I are monogamous and made sure that I knew he would respect that. Still, the feelings are intense. I have never before understood how cheating happens, and suddenly, I totally understand and it scares me that I have these feelings.

Now the questions.

1. What's up with being more attracted to women when I'm dating a dude? Is this some internalized gender binary BS that I need to unlearn, or is this a thing? If it's a thing, why? What do I do about it? For what it's worth, I'm pretty much always attracted to nonbinary people, and in general, more attracted to queer people than straight people.

2. Is a long distance period the best or worst time to bring up nonmonogamy? It think it would be the easiest time to actually act on it, but is it more risky because of the distance? My partner is so emotionally sensitive, in a great way, and the last thing I want to do is to hurt him by making him feel like I don't want him. I do! And the fact that our sex life has gotten a bit boring makes it worse — it sounds awful for me to want it with someone else rather than more of it with my partner.

3. What do I do about my friend? Should I tell my partner I was flirting with my friend? Is that cheating? Is it cheating emotionally to keep hanging out with him? Should I avoid my friend entirely?

More broadly about nonmonogamy, how do you know when it's a good idea or not to get involved with a certain person? I think part of the reason my alarm bells aren't going off about my friend is that there is zero possibility of a serious relationship with him. He's much older than me, does not want children, wants to stay in the city he's in, and his lifestyle is not what I want. I have had a few of these types of relationships that have been 'friends with benefits' — people I genuinely love as people, whose life goals just are irreconcilably different than mine but with whom I have an amazing chemistry and a great friendship. I've really enjoyed getting to know these people and I still keep in touch with them — the door is always open between us. I travel a lot and have moved around a lot in the past 10 years, so I've just never had the opportunity to meet up with one of these friends while I'm currently in a committed relationship.

I would say this is a 'just about sex' type situation, but it's really not, because I care about my friend. I don't want to mislead him about the nature of our relationship, but if I could have the this relationship with him without hurting anyone else, I absolutely would. My feelings for him don't change my feelings for my partner at all — my partner is the one I want to make a life with. I think that's why I don't feel as guilty as I think I should. But I still have a lot of love for other people, and for the unique relationships we have together. How do I explain this to my partner without hurting him?

Thanks so much for your advice and for creating this community where people can feel safe and supported!


Confused about the Ethics of Nonmonogamy



This is comprised of so many pieces, and I want to address them all! Let’s get right into it.

  1. I’m not honestly sure what the deal is with being more attracted to one gender or another at any given time! Orientation can be such a mystery, especially when you’re on the bi spectrum. I find myself attracted almost exclusively to women and nonbinary AFAB people these days, and I’m married to a man — but I’ve definitely gone through phases of wanting to Kiss All Of The Dudes. As your chemistry with your friend indicates, this isn’t an all or nothing thing, so I wouldn’t think on it too hard. Maybe you’re just more into women than men, or really selective about which men you want to get involved with? WHO KNOWS. As long as that inclination isn’t making you be shitty to anyone, I wouldn’t worry about it.

  2. I think that the question of whether long distance is a better or worse time to try out nonmonogamy does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. It could be easier, in that you aren’t going to have to deal with your partner being busy because they’re out with someone else and vice versa. Conversely, it could be harder because you won’t have the reassurance of your partner’s physical presence to remind you that they still want you, and you won’t have the opportunity to meet any new partners of theirs IRL. I think that the best way to figure out whether this would be a good time for you and your boyfriend or not is just to talk it out! Be open with each other about the things that excite you and the things that scare you, think about your pros and cons, and make a decision together about whether this is the right moment or not. If it is, then make sure to discuss very clear guidelines for how you’re going to handle things. Full disclosure? Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? Are you only okay with casual sex, or are actual romantic entanglements alright? Make sure you’ve set yourselves up for success as much as you possibly can.

  3. No, flirting a bit with your friend is not cheating. However, if you and your boyfriend DO decide to move forward with opening up your relationship now or soon, be transparent with him about your friend; tell him what your history is, what you’re interested in pursuing, how you feel about it all. Ultimately, I’d say, give him veto power if he’s uncomfortable with it. I tend to not recommend nonmonogamy as a solution to an attraction to a particular person; I think it’s a decision that should be about what you both feel will be most fulfilling for you as a couple, not about getting a hall pass to follow up on a specific crush. Consider for yourself, are you interested in nonmonogamy at this moment because it’s a thing that you think you want in your life long term, or are you interested because you want to pursue something with your friend? If it’s only the latter, I’d do some serious thinking about whether it’s a good idea.

One note on the idea of your starting something with your friend: I know that balance can’t be guaranteed in any nonmonogamous relationship agreement, but in general, it tends to be harder for the male half of a male/female relationship to find additional partners than it is for the female half. You having a built in semi-serious relationship lined up right off the bat is only going to make that disparity more evident, so really think about your partner’s feelings in all this, and how you would feel if the tables were turned and he was the one who had a close friend he was ready to immediately jump into something with. Also, like I said before, talk to him about it — in a way that makes it clear that you really do want to know how he feels about the idea, and that you will respect his wishes if he doesn’t want you to pursue it.

Overall, I think this is 100% about open and honest conversation, expression of your respective wants and needs, and respect for one another’s deal breakers. If you decide to do this, you want to make sure to do it in as safe a manner as possible for both of you, emotionally. Set ground rules, set regular check ins to see how you’re both feeling and reevaluate as needed, and be open to renegotiating or stopping the experiment completely if it’s proving to be too painful. If you want to be with this person long term, you want to make sure that you’re fulfilling both of your needs — and that may require a bit of compromise from both of you.

A final note, which is only tangentially related: if you DO decide to open things up, I highly encourage you not to put gender rules on things. The idea of “it’s fine but only if the person is not the same gender as me” is so weird and heteronormative and queer fetishizing to me, it makes me a little queasy. That a woman would be “allowed” to hook up with women but not with men (or vice versa) is just so very diminishing of the value of same sex relationships, and leans heavily into bi erasure territory. I know you didn’t say this was a potential reality for your relationship, but based on your first paragraph about both being interested in exploring same sex relationships, I just wanted to throw it out there.

I hope you find this all helpful, and best of luck to you!



P.S. Thank you for using just as many em dashes in your writing as I do. It makes me feel very seen!


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