Science of Poly

You Won’t Know Until You Try

Last week I listened to an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain that explained how humans are truly terrible at predicting their own future, in particular when it comes to guessing how the outcome of a difficult decision will make us feel. The guest host was social psychologist Dan Gilbert who teaches at Harvard. Whether it be getting a new tattoo or going to the dentist, you have no clue how these decisions will affect you until they play out.

This is troubling for me because I spend a great deal of time planning potential futures and always have. Seven months before my ex-husband and I separated, I wrote down three potential futures for how the year would play out. None were as good or bad as what actually played out. There were times I convinced myself I would never find love again if we split. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers from my upcoming book, but this was not to be the case. If I could have had a snapshot back then of what life would be like now, almost three years later, that summer would have been much easier.

One of the reasons we’re so bad at predicting our futures is we forget to factor in how much people change over time. When I split with my ex, I wanted a family and felt devastated because I thought I’d lost my imaginary future family, too. I was already 29. The clock was ticking. Would I be able to meet someone in time before all my eggs dried up? All my college friends were popping out babies. It seems overly dramatic, which is exactly what the point is. Now, I can’t imagine having children in my life and have no way of knowing if I would be this happy had I stuck things out with the ex.

I think this is particularly difficult for monogamous couples who decide to open their relationship in one way or another, especially if they’ve been together awhile. Perhaps on paper, the idea seems great. However, when your partner actually starts to fall for someone else, an explosion of emotions you weren’t ready for makes you wonder why anyone would put themselves through this kind of torture. On the other hand, maybe the first time you see your lover with another woman, you find yourself incredibly turned on and happy for them. Many books on opening a relationship discuss this concept. You really don’t know how you will feel about a future event until you’re there.

Another reason we’re so bad at these predictions is we don’t take into account all the little details surrounding a future event. The example they use in the podcast is going to the dentist. Everyone hates going to the dentist. We focus on the drilling and the discomfort of sitting there with your mouth propped open. However, something as simple as a friendly receptionist or finding your favorite magazine in the waiting room can completely change how you feel afterward.

Leaving my ex-husband was hard, but what I didn’t take into account when I was imagining all those possible futures was the support network I had and the friends I was going to make when I moved. I built this entirely new life for myself that was nothing like I could have imagined. So many months were wasted trying to make this decision, which I used to think was good because it made me feel more certain I’d made the right decision. Now I’m not so sure.

Opening a relationship is tricky. There are factors at play aside from nonmonogamy itself. Each person’s experience is going to be different based on a host of factors. You can decide how nonmonogamy is going to work for you and your partners, but once you break free from the strict script of monogamy, you’ll soon find no amount of planning can predict how you will feel in a given situation. This is why constant communication is so important. Also, if you are curious about nonmonogamy, but are stuck trying to imagine how it might make you feel, you might as well give it a try. It’s the only way you’ll really know because as we’ve discussed, you are terrible at guessing how you will feel in a given future situation.

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