What's all this NRE stuff, anyway?
Reflections 15 years later
By Zhahai Stewart
Originally published in Loving More #26 in 2001
We've all felt it - the heady rush of escalating emotional connection and the hot juiciness of a growing sexual attraction, with a person we are just beginning to know and want to know better, much better. It may be viewed as new love, or maybe new lust, but it's definitely a factor to reckon with.
In the mid 80's while grappling with this phenomenon within my own polyamorous relationships, I coined for it the phrase New Relationship Energy, or NRE. When I joined an early Internet polyamory discussion group in 1993 (the triples list), I used the term in my posts and it immediately caught on and spread quickly through the online poly world and beyond. There was obviously a need for a shared term for a common experience.
NRE was more than just a label for something we already understood; it also represents a concept and perspective on relationship dynamics. This is sometimes particularly important for those who are just starting to integrate polyamory within their own life context.
Of course, NRE isn't a poly thing, but a human thing, and most of what I say in this article applies to conventional monogamous relationships as well. After all, NRE underlies many dynamics in the dating game, in serial monogamy, and in extramarital affairs. But it's especially important to have a good grasp on it within polyamory, as we often experience NRE with a new sweetie, alongside an established relationship which we plan to keep! We don't want NRE to change polyamory into serial monogamy.
I see NRE as rooted in a deep instinctual aspect of our species. It's the initial "molecular binding energy" which brings individuals together into intimate couples (and larger groups), overcoming the fears, judgements, suspicions, vulnerabilities and irritations which work against forming risky new connections with what are essentially still strangers. Lots of hot energy is given off as we open and partially merge our boundaries. In biological terms, this behavior (or mental state) survives because those who carried it probably tended to produce more viable descendants -- both through having more sex (at least for a while) and by jumpstarting more relationships which are important in raising our complex and slow growing offspring.
NRE is that dynamic which bridges between transient adventures (whether one calls them one night stands or Aphrodite encounters) and long term relationships. While it can certainly produce great sex, it also has emotional bonding aspects, typically with a strong component of wanting more.
NRE may well be the ultimate aphrodisiac. People are often surprised at the erotic artesian wells that burst forth from within to meet and match the overflowing energies of their partners. This is indeed one of life's sweetnesses, a blessing from the Gods to sustain us on a sometimes difficult path. We will discuss some of the problems or concerns below, but in no way do we want to make NRE wrong or simply suppress it. From my viewpoint, it's one of the sacred pleasures of incarnating in this species!
A key characteristic of NRE however, is that it passes with time. It may last weeks or years, but eventually the shine is off. In this it reminds me of the fiery JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off) rockets strapped to the wings of a heavily loaded cargo aircraft, which otherwise could not get into the air with a given runway. These JATO units provide temporary extra thrust for that crucial first stage of flight, accompanied by exciting flames and loud noises. But once the plane is up to speed and in the air, its normal engines will have to take over the propulsion - or there will be a short flight with an undesired landing.
Likewise, some relationships survive the cutover to more sustainable energy sources once the NRE tapers off and have a long flight; while others crash and burn once that early surge tapers off. Part of the mechanics of NRE, besides heightened emotional and sexual interest, is a bit of blindness to the flaws and compromises implicit in the relationship with a given person. Love is blind, our folklore tells us, especially referring to new love. When clear vision returns, we may find that we are not long term compatible after all.
Even without outright incompatibilities, however, the cutover to long term energy can be a rough one, as some of the spicy flavor of the initial excitement really does go away, even in very good relationships. While we can work together and play together in order to keep a long term relationship fun, alive, and exciting in its own right, it's generally not possible to keep it at the same level of heady intensity as it started with. On the other hand, with time and clearer sight we have more possibility of truly knowing and loving each other for who we really are, for real intimacy, for building solid levels of trust, understanding, and commitment for the long term -- perhaps for life. Sex may become energized more from deep trust and knowing each other well (including bodies and desires), rather than from exploring totally new territory - that is, a new person. Emotional connection likewise must be rebuilt through working through issues and finding ways to love each other with all our imperfections and differences. In truth, this "long term energy" (LTE) is wonderful and fulfilling, but it's not often as "hot" nor as easy as the new stuff can be.
This brings up the subject of NRE addiction. Some people have a tendency to give up on a relationship once the heady buzz (sexual and emotional) wears off, and look for a fresh one to get off on. This may even be a form of addiction, if it becomes an unconscious motivational short circuit driving the person to places they don't really want to go, running their life in a way that serves them badly. The highs are great, but the lows when yet another perfect partner bites the dust take their toll, and it may become harder and harder to open up and enjoy the buzz - a form of habituation. As with other addictions, the first step in such a case is to name and own the addiction, expose its real dynamics to the light of clear vision. When dealing with mixed results like this, it's important to Pay Attention to the Residues. Addiction often operates by numbing one out to the cost side of the equation, the residues after the binge - which the addict copes with by seeking the distraction of anther fix.
I don't want to label NRE addiction a moral judgement thing of right and wrong - we can each weave our lives as we wish. In some cases the endings could be more like parachuting out of the plane after the JATO units burn out, rather than crashing with it, and could be a personal choice of lifestyle -- but be sure the whole crew has parachutes and has signed on for that kind of ride. But even with the highs, addiction usually isn't very satisfying; it's a fraudulent sale which doesn't really in the end deliver that which it promised the psyche. So I want to raise awareness of the possibility of an addictive orientation towards NRE.
Let's not get too self-critical, though. Good relationships are difficult to find, and one has to take risks in order to find them, or to learn to create them. Risks mean that sometimes one gets scratched up, and it hurts like hell, and for a while we may feel like it was stupid to take the risk. And frankly, the majority of budding relationships won't survive for the long term - there is a natural filtering taking place which doesn't automatically mean addiction. How to tell the difference? I personally try to make my judgement calls when in between the highs and lows, to look for patterns rather than isolated incidents (being wary of the mind's tendency to invent patterns), and again to Pay Attention to the Residues. I look at whether I am learning and growing and changing, or stuck in a loop.
While the main purpose of raising the NRE addiction issue is for looking at ourselves, we may also notice possible signs of this in friends, or in potential partners. As part of expanded awareness this can be helpful, but let's not use this concept as a weapon of judgement and labeling to harm or manipulate others, OK?
Returning to ordinary (wonderful) NRE, we all experience this from time to time - in ourselves or (for poly folks) in our ongoing partners when they are in a new relationship. It can be the cause of jealousy appearing where none was expected. It can even make people unnecessarily switch relationships rather than expanding them.
So how do we deal with NRE? The first step is just to recognize it for what it is, not make it into more (or less) than it is. We can be internally aware of it as an altered state of consciousness, and remember that we are wearing some rose colored glasses. Imagine a little stencil at the bottom saying "love objects may not be as close as they appear".
The second is to remember that it won't last, even if other forms of love and connection which build upon it may. If the relationship lasts, we are eventually going to be somewhat less enchanted with our new partner and vice versa; or if it's our ongoing partner who is deep in NRE with somebody else, that too will fade.
These have to do with keeping perspective about the surge of emotional and sexual energy in a new relationship, which is basically a positive (wonderful!) thing if you don't lose your balance. We can also however address the blindness aspect, which may not be as positive a biological legacy, since just making more babies at any cost often isn't our personal goal in life. Our genes evolve based on pretty simple "goals" or rewards, like maximizing offspring. Living a conscious life as more than an automaton created by our genetics involves some elaboration beyond that level - but it's still always part of the mixture.
I think it helps to make a conscious effort to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of a new relationship from the start, knowing full well that one will tend to have a biased perception. It's a bit like an archer taking gravity and wind into account, aiming up and a bit to the left. You have to keep in mind that you are facing distortions between your initial perceptions of where things will go and what will really happen. However the goal here is not to become driven by doubt and suspicion (nor to abort NRE artificially). Rather, it is to sooner begin truly seeing the other person for who they are, not for who we would like to imagine them to be, and to find how much and in what ways we can love them as themselves. On one level, we're trying to intuit whether this plane will fly once the JATO units burn out, or at least looking for a good landing spot where nobody is injured in a crash if not. The trick is to cultivate this as an additional level of awareness, rather than replacing the good feelings of NRE with cold analysis.
A friend of mine works this from the other side as well. During the NRE phase of a relationship, she consciously avoids doing or acting in ways that she knows from experience she will not continue later. For example, since she's not normally the sort to frequently cook good meals, she won't woo her new sweetheart with a lot of fine cooking while under the influence of NRE and thus give him the wrong impression of what life together will be like later. There are many other things we are tempted to do while the initial surges of uncritical acceptance and high energy are flowing, but realistically will not continue. I don't think this approach is for everybody, but I can see where it might avoid some of the nasty crashes.
These concerns apply to everybody who has relationships. For poly folks already in a relationship, there is that additional factor of not letting NRE damage the existing connection. The new person may seem more exciting, more sexy, more interesting and more interested in you. Your unconscious may perceive them as basically a more rewarding investment for your time and energy, and cause you to behave accordingly. Unless serial monogamy appeals to you, this dynamic can be trouble, if acted out without mindfulness. So we can make a conscious effort to spend more quality time and energy with the existing partner, to keep that relationship alive and evolving as well. Not as a dreary "duty", but as part of living consciously, of manifesting soul and not just reflexes in our relationships. Creating the "residues" (like lasting relationships) which we want.
I've also found it helps to discuss NRE openly with both old and new partners, sharing how it looks and feels to everybody -- but within the context described in this article. That is, knowing that while in NRE you don't quite see straight. (Which doesn't mean that everything you see about the new person is wrong, either!) If you know that, and your partner knows that, and you talk about the feelings from that perspective without judgement, you may deepen your spiritual alliance with each other, even while enjoying (and in a poly relationship, perhaps even sharing) the delights of NRE.
I remember a time I was beginning to get interested in somebody, and after a visit to her house I mentioned to my long term partner Cascade about how interesting the conversation had been. Cascade hadn't found it very remarkable ("are you really that interested in school boards?", and when I looked at it objectively I had to agree. Ah, a form of NRE in action - it can make everything your new "interest" says seem more than usually fascinating! I found it amusing and somewhat enlightening to recognize this while it was fresh - and still enjoy the feelings. One key was that this was just an observation, not a judgement on anybody's part. It was perfectly OK that I found what she said extra interesting - and it was also true that my reactions were NRE enhanced.
Of course, there may still be jealous reactions to deal with, or practical concerns about time and schedules. Balancing NRE and long term energy relationships can still be tricky. It still takes communication, communication, communication. And sometimes it takes patience with each other.
One common communication difficulty is when the ongoing partner sees problems with the new partner, but the NRE stricken person in the middle can't or doesn't want to see them. Of course, the perception of problems can also be off target - due to jealousy or personality differences or just less contact. But experience shows that the non-NRE intoxicated partner's concerns are often well grounded in the long run. The pitfall here is if the non NRE partner begins to get shrill or distant because they don't feel heard, and the NRE partner begins to feel defensive and distrustful. This is easier to avoid if we can be aware of NRE but not judgmental. "Oh, you're just in NRE" as an accusation is about as helpful as telling somebody they only disagree with you because of PMS. Be gentle and sympathetic, an ally rather than an adversary in this tricky balance. It really feels good if you get to a place where you can discuss perceived up and down sides calmly and appreciate each other for the added perspectives.
What if you are on the other side, and your partner has lots of NRE with somebody else? This isn't as much fun, I know. Sometimes it can feel like "unfair competition" - comparing stable long-term energies with the intense excitement of a new relationship. Remember that this won't last, and try to work with your partner to keep the balanced perspective mentioned above. If you can get your real needs met (for time and energy, for love, for sex, for security) you may even find that the reflected energy enhances your life as well.
Certainly, it's fairly common (though not universal) that your sex life with the existing partner(s) will have new excitement, as the NRE wakes up erotic potentials - whether it is they, or you, or both who have the new lover. Enjoy it! Try when you can to be present for "what is" rather than obsessing on the things our minds make up - like comparisons, or envy, or resentments that the energy is "second hand". Good loving energy is good loving energy, and sharing it only enhances and grows it. Again, though - remember that NRE naturally fades, for good and bad. Try to learn or heal or gain something while it lasts.
I have written this as if most often only one member of a couple or group has NRE with a new person at a time. That's because in my experience, this is a very common situation, all desires and theory aside. Sometimes however that's not the case - the new love, and maybe erotic excitement, may involve both or all of you. This is especially wonderful! The pitfalls are that nobody may have that "grounded" perspective (we can survive this; after all, single folks deal with NRE); and of course the NRE may not be perfectly balanced all around. But mostly, the same suggestions apply.
I want to emphasize again that overall, NRE is a wonderful part of incarnating in this species, and it's great to enjoy it to the hilt (no pun intended). I'm focussing on problems and pitfalls to avoid, because we usually don't have as much trouble with enjoying the upside. But it's just as important that we don't pretend that NRE doesn't exist, or try to suppress or kill it - the Calvinist pleasure-phobic self control approach to avoiding emotional risks. I'm talking about learning to hold multiple good considerations and possibilities in mind and heart, not about closing down and numbing out. It may help to cultivate a part of ourselves which is not enmeshed in NRE (including not being against it), even while the rest of us is enjoying it.
As poly folk, we both have additional challenges from NRE, and sometimes extra benefits. It can indeed enhance existing relationships. Not only is there the possibility of some transfer of erotic energy as mentioned above, but sometimes it can help people to get out of emotional or spiritual ruts as well. People are sometimes more willing to stretch their envelopes and go beyond their habitual scripts while in NRE, and the growth this can produce can also help the quality of connection with other loves. Cascade sometimes notices ways that she treats a new partner well (perhaps having patience or even amused tolerance in some situation rather than falling into a set negative reaction) and realizes that she could bring that home to me, have that same flexibility with me.
New Relationship Energy is an important part of the poly terrain, representing some of the high peaks as well as some of the slopes where we can stumble if we don't watch our footing.
© 2001 Zhahai Stewart
Zhahai is a poly, bi, pagan meme gardener and writer living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with his long-term partner Cascade (the other Spring of these "Notebook" articles). They can be reached by email to spring(at)hisys.com.
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