NRE—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
NRE, or new relationship energy, is a term common to polyamory first coined by Zhahai Stewart in the 1980s. It’s the magical, heady drug of feeling enamored or infatuated with a new partner. You want to see them or talk with them all the time. Everything they say is fascinating. You may fall into fantasies of how perfect they would be as a long term partner when you don’t know them well enough to know their negative or painful qualities, so you assume they don’t have any.
What’s THE GOOD of NRE ?
It may seem obvious but NRE just feels good, and it can help to foster a deep connection with a new partner. With it comes all the endorphins of falling in love with the increased energy, lower levels of physical inflammation or perceptions of pain, happier mood, and more thoughts and feelings of hopefulness for the future.
If we fall in love with that new partner, these will be the first memories and experiences we keep and treasure of feeling that love.
What may not be so obvious is that we can consciously channel NRE for other purposes. If channeled properly, NRE can provide more love and energy to give back to our existing partners, and can inspire renewed feelings of passion and appreciation for our existing partners.
And, it can also inspire renewed positive feelings that our existing partners have for us. Seeing someone else feel NRE for us can remind an existing partner of what attracted them to us in the first place, and through compersion, can inspire renewed feelings of passion and appreciation an existing partner feels for us.
What’s THE BAD?
There’s a downside to NRE, of course. For one thing, it can turn full grown adults into hormone addled teenagers—with all the accompanying mood swings, rebellion, and bad attitude.
Teenagers suffer from a not-yet-fully-developed prefrontal cortex which can lead to reactive, impulsive decision making with inadequate consideration of the potential long term consequences of those decisions. Adults experiencing NRE may have fully developed brains, but can still be at risk of premature life changing decisions such as quitting a job, moving to another state, having a child, or imploding an existing relationship.
If managed poorly, NRE can be so painful for existing partners it can sour them on polyamory altogether, or end a long term relationship.
And, it can lead to the three levels of poly hell—demotion, displacement, and intrusion.
Demotion—when our existing partner feels their relationship has lost value or status by sharing us with the new person. Often our existing partner is actually losing something such as shared time or the specialness of being our only partner. It’s important to validate their feelings and support them as they grieve their loss. This is not the time to tell them they are gaining something because we have a new squeeze!
Displacement—Our existing partner perceives the new relationship is more important to us than the existing, longer term relationship due to us showing more loyalty to the new relationship. What does this look like in real life? Often what this looks like is that when our existing partner tries to make plans with us, or expresses that they need us to show up for them, if our first response is to move to protect our time with the new partner rather than express our desire to show up for our existing partner, it gives an impression that the new relationship is higher in our priorities than the existing relationship.
A form of displacement is where our existing partner feels insulted if we try to treat a new relationship as if it is of equal importance or value to a long term (possibly nested) relationship. (Love and feelings may be of equal importance, but when someone has invested years of their live with us, it makes sense that they want that investment of time recognized in some way.) An example would be if we try to present it as "just fair" that we spend equal time with each relationship, or divide significant holidays equally between the two partners when one partner is very new.
Intrusion is when actual time, energy, and resources are taken away from the existing relationship, and given to the new relationship in a way that causes harm. New relationships will inevitably intrude upon existing relationships by taking time, attention, energy, or other resources. But existing relationships can also intrude upon new relationships. This can harm both the new relationship and the existing relationship and when it harms the new relationship, this is often referred to as relationship privilege.
Relationship privilege is real and we should not use protecting our existing relationships from NRE as an excuse to treat a new partner poorly. At the same time, we should not use countering relationship privilege as an excuse to treat an existing partner equally poorly. It’s important to treat everyone's feelings and needs as important and validate their feelings, even when we can’t (or choose not to) give them what they want.
What’s THE UGLY?
It can get ugly when one or more of the people experiencing NRE doesn’t buffer themselves or their existing relationships from the potential negative impacts of NRE. This can happen due to inexperience, unawareness, or entitlement.
When people are unaware of NRE and the effect it has on people, they may think they feel the way they do because their new partner just IS that much more wonderful, and they may start to negatively evaluate existing relationships or existing partners in comparison to the bright, shiny, new relationship.
When we have the experience and awareness of what NRE can do, but we feel entitled—that’s when it can get really ugly. Some examples are:
when we think it should be okay to immerse ourselves completely in the NRE experience and our partners just “should be” secure enough to tolerate being neglected, or experience feeling demoted for the time it takes for our NRE to fade.
when we pressure our existing partners to integrate a new partner into a long term arrangement, such as living together, based on our feelings of NRE rather than allowing them the time to experience the new person for themselves and decide whether to integrate the new person into their lives based on their own feelings.
and, when we feel so entitled to immerse ourselves in NRE that we lash out in anger or express frustration when our existing partners ask us to continue showing up in our existing relationships with time, energy, and attention.
What’s THE SOLUTION?
If we want to protect ourselves, our new relationships, and our existing relationships from the potential damaging effects of NRE, we need to be aware of how it may feel, what it may do to our ability to think clearly and rationally, and what mistakes are common when people are under its influence. Some specific advice includes:
Keep perspective. Take new relationship energy with a grain of salt. Enjoy it, but remember to not make life altering decisions for at least a year, possibly two.
Resist the urge to talk about our new partner excessively (especially with existing partners).
Keep up with our usual responsibilities toward existing partners and relationships if we can, and negotiate compassionately with existing partners if we want to make changes for the sake of the new relationship.
Don’t make long term plans without qualifiers such as, “if I feel the same way in two years,” and “if you also like them and want to integrate them.”
Overcompensate—avoid taking the security and affection of existing partners for granted, or even the appearance of taking our existing partners for granted.
Validate the feelings of our existing partners, if they are grieving their losses. This is NOT the time to tell them they are gaining something because we have a new love.
Be diligent to provide extra time and attention, loving gestures, special dates and focused attention with our existing partners.
Talk with our existing partners about what are the things that make them feel special, loved, and appreciated and make sure we put in the time and energy to continue doing those things, and maybe revive doing those things if we’ve let them fall by the wayside over the years.
Make agreements and boundaries where appropriate to protect both the existing relationship and the new one from intrusion.
Remember, relationship privilege is real, so don’t let protecting our existing relationships be an excuse to treat our new partner poorly. And don’t let the concept of relationship privilege be an excuse to be insensitive to our existing partners or neglect their needs.
And remember, one of the beautiful things about polyamory is that we get to experience the comfort and stability of long-term relationships while also experiencing the novelty, passion, and desire of new relationships, as long as we remember to care for and nurture our existing relationships and partners.
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Spring Stewart, Zhahai, and Cascade Spring Stewart. “New Relationship Energy.” Aphrodite’s Web, aphroweb.net/nre_origin.htm.
Inks, Lexi. “How to Manage New Relationship Energy in a Polyamorous Relationship.” Bustle, 10 Jan. 2023, www.bustle.com/wellness/new-relationship-energy-in-polyamorous-relationship.
Kauppi, Martha. “New Relationship Energy: Polyamory’s Double-Edged Sword.” Psychology Today, 7 Dec. 2021, www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/relational-intimacy/202112/new-relationship-energy-polyamory-s-double-edged-sword.
Labriola, Kathy. “ARE YOU in POLY HELL?” KathyLabriola.com, www.kathylabriola.com/articles/are-you-in-poly-hell.
Sheff, Eli. “New Relationship Energy: What It Is & How to Deal with It.” Psychology Today, 19 Oct. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201910/new-relationship-energy-what-it-is-how-deal-it.