Dealing with “New Relationship Energy”

New relationship energy, or NRE, is a concept that comes from the polyamory community. It refers to that heady, overwhelming, crushy feeling that you get in the early stages of a new relationship, when every train of thought gets rerouted to refer back to the person you’re crushing on: “Oh, I’d love to see this new movie…I wonder if Marie likes it…” 

New relationship energy can be a wonderful thing. It’s a delightful feeling, and it helps you bond closely to your new partner. The world would be a duller place without it. But it’s also a powerful force. Often, people just don’t know how to control their impulse to be with somebody when they’re so driven to think about them, contact them, and be near them all the time. As you can imagine, this can cause some problems in polyamorous relationships if the partners don’t have some good strategies in place for how to handle it. 

Imagine you’re in a committed polyamorous relationship, and your partner has just started seeing a new person. They’re head-over-heels, completely obsessed. They might be able to keep a larger perspective in mind, strive to be as considerate as possible, and enjoy the NRE while still being a committed, responsible partner. 

On the other hand, they might get so caught up that they lose sight of the larger picture, in which case things can get a little annoying. Here are a few common ways I see this go awry: 

  • Phone snubbing. It’s no fun to be sitting across the table from someone who is busy texting with their crush. 
  • Mentionitis. Every conversation turns back to the person: “This meal is so delicious…I bet Marie would like this!”
  • Not honoring commitments. Maybe they end up changing plans at the last minute to accommodate the new person’s schedule, or maybe shared commitments start to slip their mind because they’re so focused on the new person. 
  • Being unreachable. This is a very common one: they’re out on a date with the new person when a crisis comes up at home, but they’ve turned off their phone or are ignoring it, meaning their partner doesn’t have help dealing with whatever is happening on the home front. 
  • Breaking agreements about safer sex. This is a bad one. Sometimes people get so caught up in the excitement of the new relationship that they don’t abide by the shared agreements they’ve made about safer sex. This is a real betrayal, because it puts their partner at risk, as well as other partners their partner may have, and the trust in the relationship suffers greatly. 

When NRE is causing problems for a polyamorous partnership, I make sure that my clients know that this phase is chemical and transitory. I say to them, “What’s going to serve you best in the long run? How do you want this to end up? Could you possibly place your need at this moment aside a little bit to attend to your relational contract with your spouse for the purpose of reaching the goal that you want, which is a stable open relationship?” Sometimes a stronger challenge is needed: “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to show up for you, when you’re not showing up for them,” or  “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to feel good about you, Marie, or polyamory when you’re breaking agreements.”

I also help the other partner self-regulate as much as possible. It certainly helps if they’ve had NRE experiences of their own and are able to chuckle over mistakes they might have made when caught up in the early stages. It also helps if they have other partners to lean on during this time. If they are able to do it, I truly believe the best strategy is to give their partner a lot of space and minimize expectations or commitments. I call the the “give them as much rope as possible” strategy. I ask: “Out of all the relationships you have ever had in your life, how many panned out into stable, long term situations?” The answer is usually one, or two. Then I say “So, what are the chances this thing with Marie is going to turn into something long term?” Then I offer a challenging piece of psychoeducation: “The one surefire way I know to make NRE last a really long time is to place limits on how much or what kind of contact people can have with one another. Longing obsessively is hot, and on the other hand, spending a little too much time with someone and discovering they are not so sexy after all is much less hot. Under restrictive circumstances, I’ve seen the spark of new love last YEARS rather than weeks or months. I know what I’m suggesting would be extremely challenging. I’m just saying, there is a risk to placing limits on your partner’s NRE. And there is a high likelihood of a good payoff if you give them a lot of rope.”

The one thing we can say for sure is that the NRE won’t last–eventually their partner will have to come back down to earth. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience, and they will be able to resolve to act with more consideration in the future. In most every successful polyamorous relationship I see, both partners have very good manners and act with consideration and thoughtfulness for one another. That said, when there are lapses, they almost always involve NRE. Help your clients manage their impulsivity, and keep their eye on the long game.

Asexuality and Labels, Part Two

Last week, I shared the first part of my response to a colleague’s question about young people identifying as asexual. You can read the first part here, where I talked about the benefits and potential pitfalls of labels, and how we can embrace fluidity while still communicating important aspects of our identity to one another. This week, I’m tackling the second part of the question, and talking about youth and sexual identity. 

Youth and Identity

Young people have so much to figure out about themselves. I often wonder if my own coming out process would have been different had I known a fuller range of possibilities when I was very young. I was born in the early 1960’s, and I definitely did not know anything about being gay or bisexual, let alone pan or asexual. 

But I do remember how I fought with my mother when she wanted me to study subjects that would lead to me having a good job, and I wanted to study art. I got very stubborn. And I remember her vociferously discouraging me from marrying when I was 18. I often wonder if I would have been able to find the courage to call off the wedding if it hadn’t meant I’d have to swallow my pride and admit to my mother that I had been wrong. 

In both cases, I fought so hard for my right to know myself better than she did that I was not able to change my mind easily. I wasn’t willing to have that conversation with my mom. I didn’t want to hear “I told you so” on top of everything else I was going through at the time.

So how the heck do you teach young people how to navigate fluidity, without telling them you think they will probably change their minds and identities multiple times in their lives? Young people are often in a process of differentiating from their parents, and also from their culture. That might involve trying on new labels or identities, and it may involve engaging with important aspects of themselves–such as sexual identity–that may be surprising to you or run counter to your expectations. 

Maybe that identity will evolve over time, and maybe it won’t. In either case, you can help them stay open to whatever may emerge by welcoming their disclosures with warmth and curiosity: “Thank you so much for trusting me with this information. Tell me more about what this means to you. How can I best support you?” 

Teaching Resilience and Flexibility

I think it is so important that we help children and young people build resilience, flexibility, and differentiation. But I don’t think these are skills that can be taught directly, by explaining the concepts. It’s likely that would just feel too didactic, or judgmental to someone who is just beginning to explore what it is to disagree with authority figures. I think these are things that are better taught by example, and indirectly. 

You might be able to help a young person learn to bounce back from disappointment by doing so yourself, and by celebrating when they are able to do so in any area of life. Similarly, teaching young people how to challenge themselves, evaluate and re-evaluate situations, and make course-corrections and pivots in other spheres will give them the skills they need to navigate fluidity in intimate and relational contexts. Supporting differentiation in young people means giving them positive feedback for sharing difficult material with you: 

  • “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.” 
  • “I’m so glad to know this about you.”  
  • “Would you like to tell me more? I’m so interested in how you came to understand this about yourself.” 
  • “How can I best support you?”

With support like that, I’m confident the young people in your life will be able to make any course-correction they need to, and will feel they can come to you with anything they want to share. They will meet with plenty of doubt and marginalization. Having a safe place where they don’t have to feel defensive about their self-exploration is the best gift you can possibly give.

Asexuality and Labels, Part One

After my most recent blog post about asexuality, a colleague wrote to me to ask a question about the topic. She was interested in my thoughts about young people who identify as asexual–whether it’s possible to know that you’re asexual from a young age, without having had much relationship experience, and whether it can be unhelpful to lock yourself into an identity early on. 

I thought that her question was quite valuable and interesting, as well as being a fairly common one, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share my response here, for all of you who may be wondering something along the same lines.

There are three overlapping issues in this question: 

  1. What is the utility of labels?
  2. What about fluidity over the lifespan? Do we lock ourselves in or limit our options by identifying in a particular way?
  3. What about youth and identity? What can young people know about, in particular, orientations such as gay, lesbian, bi, pan, or asexuality? 

As you can see, my colleague’s question got me thinking about some interesting, meaty, complicated topics–too much for a single blog post, so I decided to split my response into two. I’ll tackle the first two questions in this post, and next week I’ll share my thoughts about the third–as well as a few stories from my own youth that might help illuminate my perspective. 

Regarding Labels

No label can perfectly express the complexity of a whole human being, or even come close. But labels can be useful nevertheless. They can serve a purpose in helping us communicate with each other. Labelling yourself “bisexual,” for instance, is unlikely to capture the nuances of how you experience attraction, what kind of person you happen to be drawn to, what intimacy means to you, or who you are currently intimate with–how could it? But it can serve as a little signpost, guiding the person you’re speaking to a little closer to understanding an important aspect of you. 

Because labels are both useful and imperfect, everyone has to make their own decisions about how to navigate the relationship between the fullness of the experiences and the somewhat limited information captured by the label. 

So when someone tells you that they’re asexual, we know it probably won’t capture the full nuance and fluidity of their inner world, just as with any label. But it does point you in the right direction, towards an important aspect of themselves that they want to express to you. 

Seen like this, an identity label is a shorthand form of communication. One way to respond would be to get curious, and let them know you are interested enough to invite them to go beyond shorthand–not because you want to argue with them or because you doubt them, but because you care about them and want to know them. You can simply say, “Tell me more about that, and what it means to you.” Your goal is to better understand what they are trying to communicate about themselves.

Regarding Fluidity

It is certainly true that identities can be fluid, and that people’s perceptions of themselves can shift a whole lot over the course of a lifespan. Things change. But does having an identity and using a label limit the range a person might experience? 

My thoughts about this are informed by my own development. I was attracted to boys when I was a teen, and definitely identified as straight. But when I moved to Seattle in my early 20s, I came out as a lesbian. There were a couple of years in between, when I knew that shift was coming, but I had no idea what was ahead for me when I was in middle school and high school. 

Nobody considers telling a straight-identified youth they shouldn’t limit their options by identifying as straight. But I’m imagining right now what it would have been like for me if someone had. I don’t think it would have been helpful. In fact, anyone voicing any opinion at all about my identity would probably have made me dig in more, and show some resistance to change, out of sheer rebellion. In my case, I think it would have complicated my coming out process. That’s because, in addition to a lot of other things I was already grappling with, I would have had to figure out how I felt about capitulating to whomever had voiced the opinion that I might change in the future.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of someone locking themselves into a label, then, consider the possibility that, if you put them on the defensive, you might increase the likelihood of that happening. Sexual identity and experience are so individual and unique that, to an extent, we all have to walk our path and figure things out on our own. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is show up with a warm heart and a curious mind. 

Next week I’ll tackle the second half of this question, youth and identity, so stay tuned!