I was talking with a customer at work the other day, and surprise surprise, it comes up that he and his somewhat-of-an-ex and he have tried working with open/poly relationship structures and principles before.
After talking a little about their history (extreme jealousy on her end, preoccupation with school on his, possible cheating and boundary breaking on her end, unwillingness to have rules work both way on her end, etc.; and granted, I heard more about her indiscretions than his), his question for me essentially came down to this:
How do you know whether you and your partner can work through sticking points, or whether perhaps you are simply incompatible and should find a partner with whom you agree more on relationship issues?
When sitting with him, I was just as stumped as him. I really didn't know what to say.
After talking with J and sitting with it a bit more, I think I have some coherent feedback.
How compatible do you feel with your partner in other ways? How worth it does it feel to work through challenges? For instance, J and I are compatible 95% of the time, so working through our sticking points is worth it to both of us. And, we consider each other to be life partners (another indication that we both feel a high compatibility with one another).
How important is your relationship structure to you? Is it extremely important that you have the option of sleeping with other people or dating other people? Or, are extra-dyadic sex and romantic relationships just the icing on your cake- can you take it or leave it? Knowing this may help you figure out where you can easily compromise and where you can't. If a specific relationship structure is highly important to you, and your partner has a very different idea and different needs, then you may simply be incompatible.
He also mentioned that his somewhat-of-an-ex was more focused on extra-dyadic sex, while he was desirous of other romantic and emotional relationships via the dating experience (sex was not the focus for him, or as important). He wondered aloud to me, are these differences indicative that he and his partner are incompatible or could their desires coexist? I told him then, and I still think, that I certainly know people in long-term relationships in this very situation and I think it is quite possible to have them coexist. The important thing, I think, is for each partner to recognize that they simply have different desires and needs and to respect one another. I also told him that I think unique challenges arise from this situation if both people have a difficult time relating to one another because they don't understand each other's needs. I think it also presents a situation where insecurities and instances of feeling threatened are more likely to come up.
More than anything, it was very clear that he and his somewhat-of-an-ex don't talk. For one, he didn't even know if they were broken up or not, because they have broken up so many times he can never tell when they are together or not. He didn't know when she started sleeping with a past partner, because she wouldn't be clear about it, so he didn't even really know if she had explicitly broken a boundary of their previously monogamous relationship. They had different ideas of disclosure, but they hadn't figured that out together through talking (he wanted her to offer information about encounters and relationships and she thought that he should ask about anything he wanted to know; the result was that he felt like he was prying and she felt like he was suspicious of her). Talking is a positive thing; not talking creates problems and makes them fester. (Obvious, I know.)
Does anyone else have advice for my friend?