I'm a 33 year old cis-hetero female in a committed monogamous relationship of about ten years. We've been living together for about seven years and speak in terms of "we" when we discuss our future (retirement and beyond). But we both have concerns about marriage that have led us to leave the question alone for the bulk of our relationship. Over the last few months we've started to explore it, discussing pros and cons and what it might look like for us. Last time we talked about it a few weeks ago, we had a positive, objective conversation that ended with him saying, "It isn't important to me, but if it's important to you, then we will." Based on that conversation, I felt like he was essentially leaving it up to me. Over the last few weeks, several things have come together to make me realize I definitely want to get married. It was like all the hesitation I've been feeling for years just evaporated, and suddenly it just felt right. The revelation was freeing and joyful for me, and I was excited to talk to him about it. So this weekend I essentially proposed to him.
He didn't give a clear answer. Then he said the reason he's been hesitant about marriage is largely because he's interested in exploring poly.
I said, "I know you are, and I'd like to explore that with you." (Several years ago, he expressed interest in exploring ethical non-monogamy, and at the time I was overwhelmed with anxiety and thought it was a dealbreaker for me. But after a few days I agreed I wouldn't rule it out. I said I wasn't ready at the moment but asked if we could revisit it later. He agreed, and then hasn't really mentioned it again. But it's been in the back of my head ever since, and I knew he would likely bring it up again someday. In the meantime, we recently made some friends in the poly community who seem really happy and well-adjusted, and that has made me feel a bit more open and less terrified about exploring it. I've also been seeking out resources like websites and podcasts, trying to get more comfortable with the idea. My hope has been that my interest would continue to develop somewhat organically, in a way that allows the two of us to explore it together in a positive, healthy way—when we both feel ready.)
In our discussion I said I don't know specifically when I'll be ready to open up—but that I will be—and that I do want to explore it with him. He said his "biological clock is ticking" and he feels like he needs to get on with it before he turns 40, which is five years off. He doesn't want to marry me until I can tell him what this all will look like and when. I didn't understand that. I likened it to couples who both know they want children—before they agree to get married, do they really need to know how many, how far apart in age, and whether they'll attend public school? Isn't it more important that our general philosophy is aligned than it is to figure out all these details right now? I also didn't realize the poly thing was important enough to him for him to shut down the marriage thing, especially since it hasn't even come up in recent discussions about whether we should marry, and because we had already agreed that we wanted to be together for life regardless. He previously said he values our relationship more than he cares about exploring poly, and I said I care more about our relationship than staying in my comfort zone. So I thought our philosophies were aligned enough to make this journey together.
This new deadline feels like an ultimatum. The pressure is making me feel cornered in a way that the idea of exploring poly is no longer intriguing to me, but distressing. I feel that if I was allowed to continue to explore it freely at my own pace, I would likely be ready even considerably sooner than five years. But knowing there's this looming deadline there now is such a heavy weight on me. At best, it stifles my appetite. At worst, it gives me the kind of crushing anxiety that makes it difficult to breathe. I don't really know who is right or wrong here. I absolutely want to support him in getting what he needs, but I also want to feel emotionally equipped to do it right, and I don't want to feel manipulated into pursuing it sooner than that.
So it sounds like marriage is off the table again. But knowing what I know now, it feels difficult to even try to get back to where we were before. How do we move forward from here?
Potential Poly Under Pressure
When you wanna have kids, how many kids you wanna have, imaginary sky friends or secular upbringing—these are absolutely questions couples need to answer before getting married, PPUP. Being in "general" alignment, philosophically-speaking, where kids are concerned isn't good enough. You wanna make sure you're on the same page on the specifics. Because there are huge differences between wanting one kid or wanting ten and wanting kids right away or wanting to wait a decade.
Same goes for monogamy/non-monogamy: it's better to make sure you're on the same page before the wedding. Open or closed? If open, DADT or tell me everything? Just sex with others or is intimacy allowed? Anything goes or are some things reserved for you alone?
So no, PPUP, I don't think it was unreasonable for your partner to raise (or re-raise) the subject of ethical non-monogamy (ENM) before accepting your marriage proposal. Quite the opposite. You two have been together for a decade and your partner first raised ENM "several years ago" and quickly dropped the subject after you threatened to break up with him. "Overwhelmed with anxiety," PPUP, you informed your partner that monogamy "was a dealbreaker for [you]." So for much as you claim to hate ultimatums, PPUP, you issued the first one: you told him would think about it but you demanded a monogamous commitment from him and threatened to immediately end the relationship if you didn't get it. He agreed to your terms—he accepted your ultimatum—and pretty much dropped the ENM subject. (I think you might be misusing the term "poly." It's one form of ethical non-monogamy. There are other forms.)
And just as you were thinking about it over the last few years (and very slowly warming to the concept), your partner was thinking about it too. And he came to a conclusion: ENM is what he wants—he now knows for sure that he wants what he told you he might want three years ago—and he's prepared to wait, oh, another five years but no longer. As ultimatums go, PPUP, his came with a pretty generous timeline. He didn't threaten to dump you if you didn't agree to open the relationship up immediately. He said he'd like to "get on with it" before he turns 40.
Five years from now.
Look, I get it: he's made some degree of openness (which he wants) a condition for marriage (which you want). You want to separate those issues—but separating those issues isn't responsible, advisable, or really even possible. The shape of your sex life going forward—monogamous or not, open or poly (which, again, are two different things)—that's not a side issue. That's central. Your partner is trying to determine if you two are sexually compatible for the long haul, PPUP, before committing to you for the rest of his life. He's not being manipulative. He's being cautious, honest, and direct.
And patient! He's raised the ENM subject twice. The first time, you had a meltdown and he dropped it. Since you weren't really even discussing the issue over the last three years, your partner had no way of knowing that you were contemplating openness, slowly turning it over in your mind, gradually working your way toward possibly one day maybe... what? Somehow moving toward openness "organically"? What does that mean? Becoming open without ever having a second conversation about it? I'm sorry, PPUP, but ethical non-monogamy doesn't happen organically or spontaneously. It requires discussion.
So how do you move forward? Well, if you can't have this conversation without feeling cornered and manipulated, if a "looming" five-year deadline makes it difficult for you to even breathe, then your best course of action is to acknowledge that you two aren't sexually compatible, break up, and move forward alone.