How do you treat yourself?

Self Care and Open Relationships: A Manual

By on September 4, 2017

Gather round, children, and get comfortable: We’re going to talk about self-care.

What’s that? Self-care is for “pansies”? It’s for sensitive traumatized snowflakes that can’t “cut it” on the daily without leaning on a crutch and being handled with kid gloves?

Trust me, I would have been right there next to you, rolling my eyes to high heaven as recently as two years ago. I’d always been a high-functioning individual with a powerful work ethic, albeit one that was majorly impacted by a lifelong anxiety around being perceived as “lazy”…until I wasn’t. Turns out, even Wonder Woman needs periodic vacations. I discovered just how much of my ego and pride were wrapped up in this identity as a strong, impenetrable, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” hellcat when I burned out and hit my equivalent of emotional rock bottom last year. Strangely, the most difficult part wasn’t the spiral itself; it was watching what the spiral did to the people in my life who I love.

When it comes to non-monogamy, “hinge” partners – folks who find themselves the common denominator between two or more partners – and AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) people oftentimes take on the most time, energy, and labor in relationships. Anyone who has been socialized female is no stranger to the practice of training women to be the soothers, the negotiators, the mediators, the organizers. In my particular situation I was both the common denominator among the other three folks in my polycule AND the only femme. It took almost three years before I broke under the self-imposed pressure.

We’re living in a gig economy culture of radical self-reliance, and this can have devastating consequences for both our physical and mental health. We’re encouraged to be constantly creating, engaging, producing. We’re expected to be constantly connected and available to the outside world. We’re inundated with articles on how to “increase efficiency” and “make the most of our time.” For people like me, the societal pressure – coupled with the pressure I place on myself to be the best damn partner and lover I can be – can reach overwhelming proportions quite easily. Plus, in my experience, people in open relationships are more just more generally prone to “burning the candle at both ends” than monogamous folks are. We just have so many options!

No matter how counter-intuitive it initially felt, I eventually learned to embrace the fact that I was my best self when I was actively engaging in self-care. Now, one of the most valuable pieces of advice I carry for anyone in an open relationship is to take care of yourself FIRST. No exceptions.

To ensure a diversity of opinions and practices, I asked my non-monogamous community recently to talk to me about self-care. What are your go-to self-care strategies? How do you know when you’re due for self-care? How do your partners play a role in facilitating that for you, if at all? How critical do you find self-care as a non-monogamous person?

Here’s what we came up with:

Alone time. This is the most obvious self-care route, and yet it’s still severely underutilized. If you haven’t intentionally cultivated solo time lately, it can feel foreign, scary, and anxiety-inducing. However, practicing being alone is like exercising a muscle – over time, you get stronger and stronger, until you eventually begin to crave it. I use alone time as an excuse to indulge in the activities that I love – but my partners hate – like watching horror movies. I also like to keep a healthy masturbation practice up to stay tuned-in to my body and remind myself that I am 100% capable of taking my pleasure into my own hands.

“Spending time alone is the most critical thing for me…it usually involves lying on the couch cuddling the cat watching Netflix, but can also involve tidying up my apartment, taking a bath, reading, napping. Quality alone time is #1. I can tell I need it when I’m getting hyper-overstimulated by sound, light, other people and feel on edge, but I try to build regular self-care time into my schedule to manage my depression and anxiety and help me be happier and more engaged when I do interact with other people.”

“There was a point in my life where I started realizing that my free slots in my calendar would get taken up more readily by time with partners/metamours than by myself. Knowing I’ve a tendency to prioritize others and assume I’ll make time for myself eventually, I started scheduling time specifically for me to force myself to take space and time for myself to recharge. While my love is not a finite resource, my time and energy are. Prioritizing myself made my relationships within my polycules a lot stronger and I was a lot less checked out.”

“Learning to motivate myself to go to stuff alone has been important. Going to longer events like festivals and traveling alone have been crucial self-care. Being poly, I may never actually be ‘single’ again and it’s super important that I know I can do things alone, make friends alone, and maintain my independence. Historically most friends I’ve made have been through partners, which is fine, but I also don’t want that to be the standard.”

Pamper yourself. Contrary to popular belief, “pampering” has no assigned gender, although there is class privilege inherent in some forms of pampering. Some more financially-accessible options could be: an afternoon of retail therapy at Goodwill, giving yourself a mani-pedi, doing a labor trade with a friend who’s a bodyworker, or meditating alone. Also, honestly, sometimes “pampering” can be as simple as giving myself permission to eat half the bowl of cookie batter, or to watch an extra episode of Shameless before buckling down to write an article.

“Food prepping, attempting to have solid sleep, massage, acupuncture, chiro, hot tubs, going for walks, spending time outside in the sun, spending time with platonic friends, day time drinking, and make outs on the dancefloor with strangers are all my favorite strategies. Some weekends I straight up need a ‘bed day’. I know I’m overdue when I feel impatient or burned out.”

Amplifying your OWN definition of productivity – whatever that means to YOU. I know I spoke previously to rebelling against this toxic culture of hyper-productivity, but hear me out! It’s all too easy for poly folks to lose themselves in relationships. Lose time we previously devoted to other tasks, lose confidence in our ability to be anything but an amazing partner, etc. Reminding ourselves of our strengths and skillets – that we’re more than just our relationships – can be reenergizing and satisfying. So whether it’s pulling more hours at the gym, refreshing your grasp on a foreign language, or finally seeding that garden bed in the backyard, go on with your bad self!

“I clean. I may bitch about it if the apartment is especially messy from a double performance weekend from both my husband and me, but it is my meditation time. Cleaning for me doesn’t require extensive thinking and I can quiet my brain. I prefer to do this alone. Reading is my other escape. These are done from weekly to daily” go to the gym, increase your competency around something, etc.

“I like to organize my house and take care of my plants. It is quiet and soothing and makes me feel productive.”

“Make a short list of 5 things you have to do. Make a short list of 5 things you want to do. Do the easiest thing on the have-to list. Afterwards do anything you want on the want-to list. Repeat until all ten things are done. When your urgent to do list is finished, you’ll really be able to do self-care because you’ve taken care of the urgent stuff, given yourself breathing room, and now can actually relax.”

Spend time around animals. There’s something pure, simplistic and comforting about the unwavering love, adoration, and loyalty of an animal. If you don’t have your own, borrow someone else’s! Assuming you don’t have any allergies or phobias, of course.

“Time with my cats is critical. Seriously. I have actually had to cancel with people because I need to stay home and chill with my small fluffies as a method of quiet cuddle time that doesn’t require interactions with other humans.”

Schedule self-care proactively to avoid sudden burn out. One of the easiest poly pitfalls to trip over is failing to schedule self-care BEFORE hitting rock bottom. If you already know you’re prone to this behavior, put self-care sessions into your Google calendar, set cell phone alarm reminders for them, and keep the people close to you “in the know” so that they can encourage you to take the time you need.

“Whenever I find myself irritated and snapping at others, I know I need rest and alone time. As with everything, communication with others is the important thing.”

“I had always thought of myself as a seismic unflinching extrovert. Truth is, I am, but with introverted charging needs. So I can run to the end of battery before I realize I’m low and suddenly I’m no good to anyone and everyone is mad at me.”

Create an environment of community care and accountability in your polycule. Post-spiral, my new favorite word became “balance”. If one person in the polycule needs extra attention – or extra space! – because of an illness, loss, or other traumatic life event, the other partners and metamours in the polycule band together and provide extra care and support. They can also help hold you accountable for taking good care of yourself. Obviously, this works best in a family-style poly environment.

“I am stretched real thin right now too, so my polycule have banded together to help bring me lunch or pass over snacks. I regularly get asked what they can do for me to help me with my self-care. This is so important to me, as I am being held accountable for my self-care (i.e. that I actually take lunch) or tell me to stay home instead of staying with them, to help me get the most rest.”

“Self-care and having the freedom to communicate my self-care needs, regardless of what they are, are a critical part of my relationships. Sometimes astute partners catch that I need self-care before I even realize I am getting to that point.”

Initiate more intentional platonic friend and/or family time. That being said, make sure you set clear boundaries with them ahead of time if you specifically do or do NOT want to talk about dating/relationships. Actively discourage unsolicited advice or opt out of it altogether.

“There’s an epidemic of fixing in many interpersonal relationships. When one person seeks support from another, often the first thing they’re offered is unsolicited advice about what strategy they should use in their career, how they should handle that asshole on the internet, or what they should be doing differently in their activism. It’s all about fixing rather than holding space…We’re taught that our value to others is in giving good advice – we’re not taught empathy…In my close relationships, we’ve gotten in the habit of asking, ‘Are you looking for empathy or advice?’ This gives the person seeking support choice.”

“Cultivating friend time is super important, though I haven’t always been good at prioritizing it. I know as an extrovert I need time with folks that are not just partners or dates. So I schedule activity classes for me to take part in. I also try to keep in touch better with good friends.”

Want to learn more? Read Six Steps for Positive Polyamorous Parenting By Dr. Elisabeth Sheff.

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About Author


Andre Shakti is a journalist, educator, performer, activist, and professional slut living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is devoted to normalizing alternative desires, de-stigmatizing sex workers and their clients, and not taking herself too seriously. Andre wrestles mediocre white men into submission and writes about sex work, queerness and non-monogamy for Cosmopolitan, Rewire, Thrillist, MEL, Vice, Autostraddle, and more. She can frequently be found marathoning Law & Order: SVU under a chaotic pile of partners and pitbulls, and yes, she knows how problematic that show is. Andre is the reigning "polyamory pundit" at her non-monogamy advice column, "I Am Poly & So Can You!", which you can visit - and submit questions to! - via Visit her on Twitter @andreshakti, on FB as Andre Shakti, and as a pleasure professional on the new inclusive educational platform O.School.

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