November 4, 2012 by aggiesez
When you’re in a relationship where you’re not the primary partner, usually time spent with your partner feels short and precious — because, well, typically it is.
When you don’t live together or perhaps near each other; when either or both of you has other relationships and commitments (perhaps even a primary partner); it’s common to want to focus mainly on enjoying your limited time you share with your non-primary partner.
Consequently, non-primary partners often hesitate to “spoil” a date by “wasting” too much time addressing heavy, unpleasant, or awkward relationship issues — especially those involving metamours…
Furthermore, the inherent time constraints of non-primary relationships can make it harder to achieve resolution, since it typically takes time to really solve problems. In turn, this can make a non-primary relationship more fragile — under these constraints, it’s easy for the relationship to start looking like it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
…Of course, nobody likes thinking that way. We all want to feel hopeful in love. Which is another reason why it’s common for non-primary partners to simply avoid that line of thought by avoiding or delaying direct discussion of less-pleasant issues.
And while all that hedging goes on, small issues can fester and grow.
That’s the quandary in any relationship, of course: While issues are still small or new enough that they can be addressed relatively safely and easily, they’re also easier to ignore.
That’s why it’s important to realize when you’re starting to have an issue in your relationship, and to learn the skills and develop the courage to push past resistance and bring up issues before they become really bad entrenched patterns, or even crises.
Judgment call: When to talk to metamours?
It’s not necessary for everyone in a network of overlapping poly relationships to negotiate every issue in every relationship by consensus. Polyamory doesn’t have to be a continuous group hug or endless group negotiation. The trick is discerning when to bring metamours into the direct discussions and negotiations.
In my experience, it helps to ask: Who is already directly involved in, or affected by, this issue? — whether or not they’re already involved in conversations about it.
For instance, negotiating over boundaries regarding overnight dates or vacation/travel with nonprimary partners, or how “out” everyone wishes to be about being poly, are common issues that benefit from input from every partner.
In contrast, trying to solicit a primary partner’s perspective or support in an argument between the non-primary partners (i.e., trying to “gang up on” the shared partner) tends to be counterproductive.
Similarly, decisions about the primary partners’ household (such as whether to take a new job, have a child, or move to a new town) probably don’t warrant negotiation with non-primary partners. Conversely, if a non-primary partner decides to move to another state, that decision need not be subject to approval or agreement by the primary partners.
But in both of those examples, if the non-primary relationship has been going on for awhile and is fairly significant to everyone involved, it would probably be a good idea to for everyone to discuss (if not negotiate) those kinds of big decisions up front, in dyads or in groups — just so everyone knows what’s on the radar.
…In the real world, not every poly relationship network has a lot of direct metamour communication. Many poly people adopt an “only-in-emergency” approach to inclusive negotiations and direct metamour discussions. And honestly, as long as your relationship issues are fairly minor, or if a nonprimary relationship is fairly new or casual, this approach can work well enough.
But generally, when a non-primary relationship is long-term, significant, and emotionally invested, dodging short-term discomfort and risk almost certainly assures future crises.
This was my biggest mistake in my most recent relationship.
How I dropped the ball on metamour communication
Some background: I’m a solo poly person, and I like it that way. I don’t need a primary partner to feel happy and fulfilled, so I’m not seeking one. However, I do greatly enjoy having long-term, committed non-primary relationships. Until recently I had just that: a three-year, very mutually emotionally invested and committed relationship with a married poly man.
From the beginning we were great together — lots of intimacy and caring, amazing sex, many shared personal and professional interests, and plenty of laughter and joy. A few months into our relationship we were deeply emotionally invested. We spent a night together almost every week, and chatted online daily, and that was wonderful. We treated each other very well and were a positive presence in each other’s life. In many ways it was the best relationship I’d ever had — partly because we felt no pressure or expectation to be primary to each other.
When my boyfriend wasn’t around, I wasn’t lonely or pining for him. I have a very full life, with a busy and rewarding career, many wonderful friends, and I enjoy solitude. I didn’t begrudge him time with his wife, other friends, or interests. What we shared worked well enough for me. So for our first two years we had almost no problems.
But during our last year together I grew increasingly unhappy with life in the large city where we lived. So I decided to return to the state where I’d lived previously for many years and love dearly.
I made my own decision and commitment to relocate, but he and I discussed this extensively and agreed to continue our relationship long-distance. We realized this would be challenging, but we assumed we could figure it out, that it was at least worth a serious try.
Part of figuring this transition out, of course, would involve new patterns of spending time together: monthlyish travel with multi-day visits, as opposed to the one-night weekly overnights at his place or mine. (He and his wife have separate bedrooms, so when I would spend the night at their home she was never displaced, and we all seemed comfortable with this arrangement.)
Initially his wife had been quite friendly toward me. Gradually over the first two years that faded to superficial sociability, in person and via social media. I still assumed her goodwill — that if she and I ever needed to discuss important issues, her door would be open.
As my boyfriend and I discussed how to manage the logistics of a long-distance relationship, I saw this would have a direct impact on his wife. So I told him I would like for us to sit down together and discuss how we could handle multi-day visits so that everyone’s needs and feelings would be respected. I was especially interested in making sure I was respecting his wife’s needs and feelings. For instance:
- Would she be comfortable with me spending 2-3 days in a row at their place, or should he and I get a hotel room or stay with friends when it was my turn to fly out to visit him?
- How could we coordinate on scheduling visits a few months in advance to save money on travel?
- Did she have any questions or concerns about this transition she’d like to raise?
Over the course of a few months I’d occasionally ask my boyfriend if he’d asked his wife if we could all talk — or if it would be OK for me to approach her directly. Each time he demurred, claiming it “wasn’t a good time” because his wife was currently enduring some stressful situation or other. I was sympathetic with that, and was patient. It didn’t seem like an emergency. I wasn’t expecting trouble; I was just trying to be considerate and responsible.
As the time for my move drew nearer, things got worse. I began hearing from my boyfriend that his wife now was periodically getting quite angry at him about me, especially when I’d mention him on social media — something I’d always done occasionally in a casual way, not in an “Woo-hoo! Look who I’m fucking!” kind of way.
I was surprised and deeply saddened to hear that such casual mentions now upset her severely. Without me knowing, we’d drifted into rocky waters. So again I asked if we could all talk together. He still didn’t think it was a good idea, or a good time.
This is the point where I really dropped the ball big time. I knew that his wife had big problems with me, yet I failed to take the initiative to push through their reluctance (and my own). The shorter my time with my boyfriend became, and as my own stress about my impending move mounted, the more I wanted to not deal with problems and just hope for the best.
Had I taken initiative to approach his wife directly at that point (a couple of months before my move), I would have learned quickly that she had developed huge resentments regarding me and my relationship with her husband. Furthermore, she was strongly opposed to taking an active role in resolving or even discussing these problems.
Even more disappointingly, despite the love and commitment my boyfriend professed for me over three years, it turned out that he is so intensely conflict averse that he was utterly unwilling to stand up for our relationship in any way.
This, of course, spelled doom.
Self-deception and downfall
To be honest, at that time I knew this situation was not just sub-optimal, but untenable. I did everything I could to avoid thinking clearly about that reality. I didn’t want to have to weather a major breakup and a major move simultaneously. So I kept letting the problems with his wife slide for another day, so that I could savor another date with my boyfriend.
I lied to myself, and he and I lied to each other. We kept reassuring ourselves many times that we loved each other another enough and had enough history together that we could work this out after my move — and he assured me that his wife’s agitation and recalcitrance was a temporary aberration brought on by several stressors in her life.
Predictably, we reached a traumatic point of collapse. In the final weeks before my interstate move, my boyfriend and his wife demonstrated a stunning lack of consideration toward me.
On two of my last three weekends in town he chose to spend no time at all with me in order to be constantly by his wife’s side — including at a weekend event all three of us were attending. They refused to consider or negotiate with me on this choice. They didn’t even see this as excluding me; despite that I was moving out of state in less than a month, I simply wasn’t a factor in their decision at all, from what he told me later.
Worse, my boyfriend waited literally until the last minute to tell me that he wouldn’t be seeing me on those weekends. He kept me hanging, saying he’d let me know, and then gave me the bad news only when I asked him when what time we’d be getting together that evening.
That experience was shocking and painful. But at the time I was also overwhelmed with my impending move. For the first time in our relationship he and I seriously fought. Our remaining time together in that city was strained and overshadowed by obvious and increasingly overt resentment and hostility from his wife.
Still we decided to work it all out after I was resettled. Once again, I was part of that decision to delay.
Less than a month after my move — actually on the very first day of the very first time I flew out to visit him — my boyfriend suddenly broke up with me. His reason? Just the night before, he said, his wife had learned that, at a poly conference several weeks earlier, I’d expressed a strong opinion regarding the importance of primary couples negotiating directly with additional partners on decisions that affect their relationships.
They not only disagreed with my perspective; they were incensed that I’d spoken out about this issue in public. They felt personally “called out” — even though I’d been civil, named no one, was as free as any attendee to speak up at that event, and my remarks drew upon my extensive prior as well as current experience as a non-primary partner.
I certainly understood why they took my statement personally and found it upsetting, since it had been based partially on our issues at that time. What I couldn’t (and still cannot) understand was that my boyfriend considered this to be a instant breakup-level offense.
This was such an awful breakup that he and I are no longer in contact — and I consider that a terrible waste after sharing three-plus mostly wonderful years with a man I once loved fiercely and hoped to keep always in my life. I am close, or at least actively friendly, with almost all of my former significant partners. It’s very rare that someone I love drops completely out of my world.
So yes, I ended up getting treated shabbily and being very hurt and demoralized by how this relationship ended. While I certainly did not bring this grief entirely on myself, I do recognize, and take responsibility for, how I helped make things worse.
Lessons for future relationships
By punting too often on discussing problems during dates with my boyfriend, and especially by being somewhat complicit in dodging potentially awkward negotiations with his wife (by waiting for his permission to reach out to her), my inaction contributed to the immense amount of pain and stress we all eventually suffered.
If I’d had the courage to initiate direct, clear discussions with my boyfriend and his wife much earlier (probably we should have done this occasionally all along), I would have seen clearly the strongly codependent dynamic in their marriage and their highly compartmentalized “monogamish” approach to conducting additional relationships — despite calling themselves polyamorous for several years. And I would have realized that this would never work for me.
So I probably would have decided to end our relationship — months or years earlier, but almost certainly more calmly and less impetuously and destructively. That still would have sucked, but not quite so horribly. And he and I might still be friends now, at least in some sense.
My big lesson from this is that when I’m in a significant, committed, long-term relationship of any kind, it’s absolutely necessary to take the time to check in directly with my partners and metamours — to keep the lines of communication open, to foster goodwill and compassion, and to address issues while they’re small.
For me, this is not a luxury, and it’s not an emergency measure to be hauled out only when crisis strikes. It’s an integral part of being responsible in a relationship — even (and especially) when everything seems to be going smoothly. If I treat it like infrastructure, it’s less likely to become aftermath.
…Of course, I’m speaking strictly for myself here. Other people are free to handle relationships however they want.
That said, I do believe it’s helpful and fair for poly primary couples to at least consider what kind of communication and negotiation they want (or not) with additional partners, and why — and to convey this expectation clearly to additional partners early on, before new relationships get very committed or emotionally invested. Not thinking or talking clearly about this is far more likely to cause pain than prevent it.
Similarly, if you’re a non-primary partner and you’re concerned about being treated fairly or prefer to have a direct voice in decisions that affect your relationships, it’s a good idea to take responsibility to gently introduce direct, periodic metamour communication and negotiation early in a relationship. Stick to small, simple, positive issues first; set everyone up for success. How well these overtures are received can indicate a great deal about how your relationship might fare under stress.
As a solo poly person, it’s a daunting challenge to ensure that direct “relationship issue” communication with partners and metamours happens regularly. Personally, I don’t enjoy grappling with hard or awkward issues. That is not fun for me, especially on a date night.
Also, since I don’t intend to ever live with a lover again, my time with my partners is always limited. Consequently I face extra real and perceived risk in raising uncomfortable issues. When one of my dates turns into a stressful or awkward discussion, it feels like more of a loss to me than it probably would to someone who’s in a primary relationship. And as for risk — sadly I’ve found that non-primary partners often have good reason to fear becoming disposable if spending time with us isn’t always so convenient or enjoyable.
Despite this challenge, I hope to never again make the mistake of punting on talking directly with my partners and metamours about relationship logistics and issues.
Admittedly, my recent breakup stung badly enough that it’ll be quite some time before I’ll feel ready to venture into another significant relationship. But I do have hope for the future.
I personally know many people (including poly people) who are capable of navigating difficult, awkward, direct negotiations with partners and metamours — and several of them do this with ease and grace. I also know many people who understand that the best way to avoid conflict is to address relationship issues early and seek collaborative solutions. And there are many poly folk who are totally willing to “walk the talk” about fairness in relationships.
These are the kind of people I choose to have relationships with. I’d be wasting my time only if I tried to prolong connections with partners and metamours who lack these skills, or the will to learn them or use them. And when I fail to see evidence of these skills, it’s time for me to rethink whether or how I want that relationship to continue.
In the big picture, “spoiling” a few dates here and there, or risking occasional discomfort or awkwardness, is a small price to pay for having a healthy long-term relationship.