There are plenty of guides to effective communication for couples out there, and I’m not going to replicate them by talking about non-violent communication and I-statements. Ultimately I believe that each person has their own unique communication styles and idiosyncrasies, and when you are in a relationship communication successes are mostly based on learning how to mesh your style with your partner’s. Maybe your partner has a tendency to raise her voice when she gets involved in a discussion, but it doesn’t mean she’s angry so you can learn to not get defensive about it. Or maybe he needs to take five minutes to be silent before he responds to something serious so you can learn to go do deep breathing exercises while he does that so you are more ready to hear what he has to say. Ultimately, when you have to have a serious conversation or an argument, the most important thing is how you both approach it. If you are looking at the argument as a chance to prove you are right and win, someone is going to get hurt. But if both of you are looking at it as a chance to understand each other’s feelings and communicate your own and reach an agreeable compromise or a solution to your problem, the chances of everyone leaving the conversation happy go way up. Learning to not take digs that you know will hurt your partner, learning to understand how they communicate and how you can make them understand you is hard, and I’ve found that it can take a long time, but when you realize that serious conversations don’t have to lead to arguments your relationship will go more smoothly.
When my partner first tells me he has plans to see someone else, I always feel an instant prick of nerves and anxiety. It’s not exactly jealousy, at least not yet; it’s a scared feeling. That is when it’s important to slow down and unpack my feelings. First I try to talk to myself and ask why I’m scared. Do I think Mike is really going to leave me for this person? Do I feel inferior to her? Is there something else going on in my life making me feel clingy? Anything else? Usually what I realize is that I’m afraid of my own feelings. I dread feeling jealous. The solution to this, obviously, is to not be jealous. That’s easier said than done, but knowing that I’m afraid of something internal instead of external is very comforting.
To some extent, I can simply tell myself “you’ll deal with that when it comes. No point in working yourself up before the day it happens.” Then, on the day of, I can always remind myself “you’ve known about this for days and been fine. What’s the big deal now?” My therapist taught me that way of tricking myself and it is pretty useful.
Of course, it doesn’t fix everything. But that’s when I make a plan. I remind myself of my in case of emergency note. I make plans with friends or to do something I’ve been putting off. I tell myself what I will do to distract myself and what I will tell myself if I’m upset and how I will calm myself down. If I’m really nervous or want to be really prepared, I will even write it down. Once I have a plan in place, it’s easier to put it out of my mind until it happens, and when it does happen I am more prepared.
This doesn’t solve all my problems, but it’s a good way to avoid working myself up and making things worse for myself.
One of the things that really scared me when I was first breaking out of monogamy was the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Part of my anxiety is an extreme fear of health problems and a bit of hypochondria, so that coupled with the stigma against STIs made it something that weighed on my mind. I would push those fears to the back of my mind until they burst out as an anxiety attack.
What made me feel better and stop worrying about it was taking control of my safety and facing the risk head on instead of hiding from it. I was already using condoms, but I had a discussion with Mike, who was my primary partner in every thing but the name at the time, about his safety practices. I was relieved to hear that he was already using condoms every time as well. But we codified it into specific rules about barrier use and then I felt a little better.
The next step was getting tested. I prefer Planned Parenthood, because I have a huge fear of needles and the nurses at my local PP are very nice about that. You can also go to your primary care doctor if you have insurance, which makes it cheaper. There are also free options in some places; in my area the local LGBT pride center gives certain tests for free.
It’s important to educate yourself and know what you’re getting tested for. Most standard urine tests will check for gonorrhea and chlamydia. You will need an additional blood test. If you just ask for a blood draw, though, some places will only check for HIV. Ask for HSV (herpes) and hepatitis as well. If you have gotten a hep B vaccine in the past, tell them that because it will show up on the test. Also, there are two types of herpes tests, so know the difference between them and between HSV 1 and 2. I don’t have the expertise or the space to feel comfortable telling you exactly what you need, so do research on your own. It can be scary at first but you will feel better after.
I get tested twice a year. I get nervous about the blood draw and then nervous about the results, but being anxious about it for two weeks a year certainly feels better than being scared about it all the time. Some people also ask to see the paperwork of new partners. Again, this is about assessing your risk and your comfort level. I certainly don’t think it’s risky not to do that, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea either. You have to weigh which will make you more anxious: not seeing negative test results or having to ask to see papers.
The last thing I want to mention is this: There is a lot of social stigma surrounding non monogamy. There is also a lot of social stigma about STIs. This makes my anxiety surrounding testing and health way worse than it needs to be. So when I am nervously waiting for my test results, this is what I remind myself: If I do have an STI, it is not the end of the world. Medicine is amazing these days, and even if I have something not curable, it will still be manageable to live with. Obviously it won’t be a good thing and I would rather not have anything, but life will go on. It will not be the end of your social life, either. Mike will still love you. There will be other people who have your disease. It may change the way you play, but it won’t end your love life. Having an STI does not make you dirty. It is no reflection on your morality or your life choices. This is a risk you take when you have sex, which is a normal part of human behavior. It is a small risk and you are probably fine, but don’t let social stigma and puritan values make you feel like a bad person for having sex.