My boyfriend had a passionate connection with his ex, and I feel insecure

My boyfriend has a tattoo of characters he and an old flame played who were romantically involved. They’re still friends. He says he’s over her but I can’t help feeling like I’m loving him from beneath her shadow. Doesn’t help that I realized the painting visible from his bed looks like her last time I visited. He was surprised when I pointed that out but agreed. I’m not sure how to deal with this. I know I have some insecurity issues but I’m not sure how to deal.

Everyone has a past - no one blips into existence the moment we meet them. It's impossible for someone to be faithful to you before you are in their life. Try to identify whether the issue is him, whether he is the one casting "her shadow" over the relationship, or whether it's something inside you being projected out. If he is specifically doing things to make you feel insecure - if he compares you to this old flame, texts her while you're having time together, etc. - then bring those up. He can change his current behavior to be a good boyfriend to you, but he can't change his past choices.  If everything in your current relationship is fine, but you just don't like the tattoo or the thought of her, consider working with a therapist who specializes on issues with insecurity.

If it's not his behavior that the problem - if he isn't doing or saying things to keep you in this state of feeling insecure or compared to her - then it honestly is a majorly positive sign that your boyfriend is able to remain friends with someone he dated. It takes a lot of maturity and perspective to recognize that a relationship isn't working in a sexual-romantic context, but also be able to hold space for how that person can continue to be in your life. Many people have black-or-white thinking; where someone is either their soulmate or a villain, and that kind of thinking has other implications that are not great.

Being able to say "this person gave me a lot of joy, and we had a lot of fun together, but the relationship needs to shift now, because our needs have changed, or we've learned more about ourselves and each other" is a powerful skill. If he had a lot of anger, regret, or shame about the tattoo, that might make you feel more secure, but it would actually be a red flag about his emotional maturity. So if that helps you reframe the situation, think about what a great guy this means he is!

How do I stay relaxed through the early stages of new polyamory?

Hi there! My partner and I are in our first truly poly relationships, but emphasis on "first". Firsts are scary. I know I want to do this, I'm just worried about jealousy feels. We have great communication and I feel good about things, I'm just new to this. What can I do to be more relaxed when I know my partner is hanging out with someone they're interested in?

One “thought exercise” I often recommend to people is to imagine yourself in your partner’s situation. You’re out on a date, with a new person. They’re cool and funny and cute! Are you thinking “boy howdy, this person is so great, it’s making me completely question my affection for my current partner! I’m totally dreading going home to this person I used to like but now, after this date, definitely don’t like anymore!”

Probably not. (And if you anticipate this thought pattern in your partner because you see it in yourself, consider that you may not be ready for healthy polyamory right now!) If you have the capacity to like and date other people without your desires for your current partner being threatened, it’s not a very big leap to assume that your partner can also do that!

Other things you can do to be more relaxed: find a distraction! Plan your own movie night with friends, or video-game marathon, or whatever else, when your partner is going out with people. Don’t be sitting at home letting your anxieties run wild about what they’re doing and feeling and thinking, out there, without you, and when are they coming home??? Do something fun and engaging that helps remind that little anxious part of your brain that you are a complete and independent person, capable of finding joy without your partner’s involvement.

One thing I don’t recommend is relying on rigid rules or structure to help yourself relax. If you say “I’ll feel secure if you text me every hour on the hour during your date AND you come home before midnight AND you never go past kissing on a first date,” then you’re setting yourself up to feel stressed out and agonizing over every hour-mark; and you will feel betrayed and unsafe if your partner misses a text or the date goes in a different direction than they expected. If you put out there for yourself that “if XYZ happens, I’ll be BETRAYED,” then you just established a condition under which you can feel let down and betrayed, and now it’s possible that it could happen, and it’ll be a huge mess. People don’t work well under conditions like that; nor do relationships. Don’t set that up for yourself.

My partner's partners say they're okay with our relationship, but I still worry that they're not

So first off I’m really new to the poly world i feel as though it is something that’s right for me but I don’t really know that much about it. I’m in a relationship with a married woman who’s a mom of two kids, to the kids I’m their aunt, and I love that part. But what I do need advice on is how to act around her husband and boyfriend (we’re all friends we hang out at her place as a group pretty often but I’m not into men so I’m not ok with like making it a group thing and they all get that) but I’m always kinda nervous when she kisses me around them or anything like that. I know they don’t mind, every time they see us cuddling they just say we are super cute and make awing noises so i don’t understand the nerves...any advice?

First off, congrats for finding a healthy, sweet, fun polyamorous relationship! The issue here comes down to one of trust. Even though your partner’s husband and boyfriend say that they’re totally fine with your relationship, and even seeing physical affection between you and your partner, it sounds like you don’t entirely trust that they’re being honest here.

And that’s perfectly understandable - lots of us have been in situations where someone says they are “fine” with something, but they really aren’t, and we’re expected to psychically figure that out and address it, and are often emotionally or socially punished for not doing so. If this is a dynamic that has been present in your family, or in previous relationships or friendships, you may be feeling like this is all a trap and eventually the false okay-ness will give way to anger, alienation, and accusations.

But, it’s not! It won’t! It sounds like these people have their act together, and it’s okay to let your guard down and trust them. If they are welcoming, let yourself be welcomed. If they are comfortable, let yourself relax. It’s okay to ask for a little extra validation - check in with your partner and say “hey, since this is all new to me, sometimes I worry that your other partners aren’t okay with me being around.” If she reassures you that everything is fine, trust her! It is okay to trust her.

If there is something that they do or say that makes you feel like their “aww”s and their friendship is less-than-sincere, bring that up. If you feel comfortable, you can also just pull one aside and have an upbeat check-in: “hey, since I’m pretty new at this, I just wanted to check in and make sure everything is going well - you seem like you’re all okay with our dynamic, but sometimes I need to just hear it straight and clear. We good?” And, again, if they reassure you that it’s all good, let yourself believe them.

This is the kind of thing that gets easier with practice - the longer you’re around, the more opportunities they’ll have to prove to you that you are welcome, that you’re not under some kind of emotional microscope, and that you won’t be punished for letting your guard down and taking them at their word. If this is the kind of thing you have an especially hard time with because of previous unhealthy experiences, it’s also worth considering therapy to work out some of that internalized sense that you’re always responsible for other people’s feelings even if they aren’t being clear about what that means.

So, I don’t really know where to go and need help with this. I’ve been with my partners for almost two years now and every time they have sex, I get uncomfortable or sad. I always think it’s because of some outside reason but what if it’s not?

This calls for some serious introspection.

What are the “outside reasons” you attribute the sadness to? Maybe there is a larger issue in your life that you’re projecting onto the situation of your partners having sex.

Is there a pattern to the “outside reasons” you attribute it to? Maybe there is an underlying issue about feeling left out, feeling threatened, etc.

How does the sadness feel? Is it loneliness? Jealousy? Anger? Insecurity? It may feel silly, but there are lots of online tools, apps, and worksheets to help with identifying or labeling feelings, which can really help.

What helps the sadness get better? Some doctors solve medical mysteries by trying a bunch of different medicines, then when one works, diagnosing the patient with whatever that medicine treats. If you immediately feel better once your partners are back with you, that may mean it’s a clear response to the situation.

Why are you so emotionally tuned-in to their sex life? Is there a way you could reduce your knowledge of it so you aren’t suffering like this? Do they rub it in your face or flaunt it?

Once you identify more about what’s going on, the next step is to talk to your partners about how you feel and what you think would help you feel better.

If lots of things in your life make you sad, or the sadness is disrupting your life, see a mental health professional.

If, after you’ve done some introspection and talked about it with your partners, it’s obvious that simply being in a multi-partner relationship makes you sad on a fundamental level - if it’s not about something else but simply the fact that your partners are having sex without you - then this relationship may not be healthy for you. It is okay to discover that something isn’t working after trying it out! But do your homework first.

I’m usually good at poly but keep hitting a block. Almost every person I’ve dated has, after meeting a friend of mine, wanted to date her too. Which should be fine. I get insecure about her. I feel like she is similar to me but without a lot of the stuff in my head that challenges me in relationships. She is warm, friendly, easy to know. I feel like once people meet her why will they bother having patience for me. I don’t bring it up with partners because it’s my own problem. But help?

I also have a friend who is basically guaranteed to be attractive to anyone who finds me attractive. Twice we’ve dated the same partner. I really love this situation, partly because I love the intimacy of our poly network, and if someone I’m dating is dating my friend, it makes things much more cozy and convenient. Also, it makes me grateful to have such an awesome friend. And it confirms some patterns I see in my relationships - they don’t want to date her instead of me, they want to date her as well as me. We all have a “type,” and what makes her such a great friend to me is that we have so much in common, so it makes total sense that folks into me would also be into her.

So it might be possible for a framing shift. If people are leaving you for her, that’s a different issue - but you said people meet her and want to date her too, which means they’re not losing patience with you, they’re just experiencing the “Pandora for people” effect that poly networks often have. Everyone has baggage, and everyone has something to offer - remember that you see your own behind-the-scenes but everyone else’s highlights-reel.

But you’re not obligated to make that framing shift. It would also be in your rights to talk to your partners about your insecurities about this and ask that, at least for now, they hold off on pursuing your close friends. Nothing in poly is “your own problem” - you have to be willing to communicate openly about what’s going on with you. And no matter what, do your best to keep working on the “stuff in your head” that challenges you in relationships - and trust that your partners are with you because you’re worth it, not because they just haven’t found anyone better.