Entering an existing relationship: What’s the problem?

11

September 9, 2014 by aggiesez

square_peg_round_holeIt’s quite common for poly folk to talk about “entering an existing relationship.” I used to say that too. I don’t anymore. Here’s why I think that phrase is pretty problematic.

Whenever a new intimate relationship begins, it’s almost always that: a NEW relationship.

The context for that new relationship may include that one or more of the partners also has other pre-existing relationships, of any depth, duration, or level of commitment. Or they also may have a job, kid, health condition, or other important commitments or issues which affect how they approach a new relationship, what they can offer, and what they need — and who else might need to be considered or communicated with.

But still: That new relationship is its own thing.

…Unless it’s a situation where everyone is involved with everyone (triad, etc.). Or where there’s explicitly a heavy and mutual emphasis on family-style polyamory. (For instance, Cunning Minx, host of Polyamory Weekly, has voiced a strong preference for family-style polyamory — and she’s had a ton of experience as a non-primary partner.) And even in these situations, each dyad is its own relationship within the context of a meta-relationship, and warrants space and attention as such.

But aside from those circumstances, I don’t think anyone really ever “enters” anyone else’s existing relationship.

Networks: the real deal

In fact, what’s happening is the formation (or extension) of a network of overlapping relationships. Therefore, it usually is more accurate to say that people in a pre-existing couple are “entering” a network.

That kinda turns the tables — for the better, I think.

The network perspective becomes especially useful when one or more partners, metamours, or dyads in a relationship network has significant issues. Because that always, always happens. In life, the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease — so problems in one person or dyad tend to consume attention in a network. Everybody’s attention.

Every relationship needs its own space, to itself, to grow. Therefore, unless people make a conscious and consistent effort to see that their networks comprise separate and equally valid relationships, it’s too easy for the bandwidth for healthy relationships to get consumed by unhealthy ones — which doesn’t really help any of the relationships.

When relationship troubles “bleed”

Sometimes troubles in one relationship bleed out across the network. I’ve been in some situations where way, way too much of what my partner and I ended up talking about were his other partner’s issues, or problems in their relationship. Worse: if their relationship had been around a long time, with a lot of commitment and entanglements (like a marriage, shared home, kids, financial dependence, etc.), chances are good that whatever problems they have are pretty deep and thorny. Certainly nothing I can do much about.

But, being a caring person who generally tries to foster compassion and be supportive of partners and metamours, I’ll often lend an ear to my partners and metamours, and sometimes try to offer helpful information or context. For minor or temporary issues involving people who generally act like grownups, that’s a not a bad thing. When people have been long mired in a problem, it can be difficult to see all your options. A nudge from a new direction can help. (This is a superpower of polyamory.)

Also, sometimes genuine crises arise in a partner’s other relationship. Sometimes they’re making hard choices or big changes, and they need time and space to do that. It’s not all drama.

However, sometimes my efforts to support my partners’ other partners and relationships not only haven’t worked or weren’t appreciated — they totally backfired. Offering context or advice about your partner’s other relationships always carries that risk.

Another negative effect of “bleedover” I’ve experienced is self-squelching. When trying to respect that my partner has other pressing matters to attend to, I may start to chronically downplay (to my partner, and even to myself) my needs for attention, affection, communication and support within my own relationship. And I may start resenting metamours who are consuming most of my partners’ current bandwidth.

Now, I’m pretty damn self-sufficient. But even I have needs in my intimate relationships — regardless of what’s happening in my partners’ other relationships.

I do believe in being flexible, and in not needing to turn to any one person or relationship all the time. So when a partner is less available for awhile, for whatever reason, I’m usually able to draw on other internal and external resources. To a point. However, if I do this too much, eventually I end up running on low voltage in that relationship and become deeply dissatisfied.

It took me way too long to learn that ALL relationships in a network matter, including newer ones. They all need nourishment and space.

Also, if I too often feel it’s unsafe or unreasonable for me to voice my needs to my own partner, something’s deeply awry with the relationship I’m in. So I’ve been working hard to learn to speak up for what I need, when I need it. I can take no for an answer — but I think it’s only fair to at least give my partners the chance to be there for me. After all, they’re probably not any better at telepathy than I am.

Ultimately, there’s this: If you’re in a relationship with someone whose existing relationship has deep, persistent problems, or where metamours consistently fail to manage themselves well, you’re really much better off not “entering” those existing relationships — conceptually, linguistically or otherwise.

“Alongside” offers more room to maneuver than “inside.”

If you do happen to love someone who’s also in a troubled relationship, it may still be worth fostering an intimate relationship with them. Or not. If you’re well grounded in yourself and your own life, it’s easier to be patient, to give them time to work their own stuff out, to give them a chance to demonstrate their character and grow. That’s your choice to make — but that’s really a choice about your relationship, not theirs.

Sneaky couple privilege

Being a word geek, I also have a linguistic quibble with the phrase “entering a relationship.” It may sound nitpicky, but I think it’s important.

When someone says you’re “entering their relationship,” that wording belies some problematic assumptions about power:

  1. There’s only one truly “real” or “important” relationship — and it’s not the one that just got formed. (The newer relationship is seen as a mere appendage, not its own thing.)
  2. Who really holds power in that allegedly expanded existing relationship? It’s probably not the newer partner, since “the relationship” (there is only one) is “theirs” (belonging to the partners in the established relationship).

Ick. Can you spell couple privilege? Yeah, it’s insidious.

That’s OK — couple privilege is so ingrained, it happens to the best of us. Sometimes even to people with lots of experience with solo polyamory or being a non-primary partner. It took me well over a decade after I began having poly relationships to figure that out, to identify and unlearn deep assumptions which have proven toxic to me and my relationships.

Putting it in perspective

While everything I said is worth keeping in mind, it’s not absolute. There are indeed circumstances where it is correct to say someone is “entering an existing relationship.” That’s great — and in my experience, that’s true for only a very small fraction of what usually happens in poly relationship networks.

The often-unconscious presumptions that are signaled by verbal tropes like “entering an existing relationship” are a big reason why I personally prefer to have fellow solo poly people as intimate partners. However, solo-solo poly relationships tend to be less common, even for me, since most poly people are already coupled-up (or seeking to ride the relationship escalator toward couplehood).

So I don’t obsess over this. I let my heart go where it will, and I often do land in relationships with partners who also have existing, longstanding, deeply committed relationships. They may even call those relationships primary, especially if they don’t have a lot of poly experience.

However, other people’s labels don’t define my relationships. I’ve learned to be very clear with my partners and metamours, right up front, that my relationship with my partner is its own thing. I’m neither “entering” their existing relationship, nor am I “subject” to it. Even if they consider each other “primary,” I’m never “secondary” — and I won’t tolerate being treated as such. If they can roll with that, we’re cool.

It helps that I am very interested in, and skilled at, nurturing healthy relationship networks — including metamour relationships. It helps that I am secure enough to be patient. I just try to never lose sight of which relationships are mine; where I begin and my partners and metamours end. In that way we give each other room to grow.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Entering an existing relationship: What’s the problem?

  1. paleson says:

    Wow, great post. Thanks for being such a thoughtful voice of experience. I have definitely faced and generated some of the insidious problems you’re talking about. One of polyamory’s biggest challenges for me is that almost any relationship between two people is bound to have some problems, and when those problems affect other relationships, they can easily become multiplied. Very tricky to balance the porousness and boundaries of oneself and one’s distinct relationships without becoming selfish or perpetuating couple privilege.

    Also, extra thanks for the correct use of “comprise.” Pet peeve. 🙂

  2. Si says:

    One could look at the possibility that all new “relationships” are not new, or (not wanting to sound Orwellian) some are newer than others. For example, I have had all these situations in my life:

    1. Being sexual with someone within hours of meeting them and developing a relationship that lasted decades, some as continuing lovers, some as friendships. Mostly this has been with people who I met through my poly network, but not always.

    2. Becoming lovers with someone my otherloves and I have known for years and is “in network.”

    3. Becoming lovers with someone who is “out of network”. This, for me at least, introducing them to at least some of my network, especially my current lovers.

    4. Becoming lovers with someone I just met, but who is connected to others in my network.

    My point is that becoming lovers with long term, in network friends is different than becoming lovers with someone I just met. Less “newness” in the former case, less ‘splaining to do, less negotiating, perhaps.

  3. Cunning Minx says:

    I have to wonder if you posted this just to bait me. 🙂 Success: bait taken!

    While I agree with 90% of what you posted, there is one bit with which I will disagree heartily: “I don’t think anyone really ever ‘enters’ anyone else’s existing relationship.”

    Whenever I date someone who is in a preexisting couple, it always affects the existing couple. Adding a new person to the dynamic, even if she is only dating one person in the couple and forming a new dyad with him/her, simply by adding new energy, perspectives, commitments, ideas, etc. the new person will inevitably affect the existing partnership in new ways.

    Not to sound too full of myself, but the couple is never the same after I date a person in it. 🙂 On a more serious note, it is important to acknowledge that the dynamic of the existing relationship will change when one member dates someone new, regardless of how independent the new dyad is. This is not a bad thing! Many couples fear this change, but it’s helpful to embrace the novelty and changes that will come with it.

    Think of it this way: you can pretend that a new baby won’t change your relationship with your existing kid, but it will, whether you acknowledge it or not. Better to acknowledge, open communication and be prepared than just let the drama and tantrums happen.

    One of my goals as a polyamorist is not just to tolerate and respect existing relationships but also to enrich and improve them as much as possible. I want EVERYONE to benefit from the husband dating me, not just him and me. Since my dating him will leave a mark, I want it to be a positive one. Your mileage may vary on this point–just sharing my own philosophy.

    In the past, I had a slightly different perspective: I focused primarily on developing the relationship with the guy I was dating and on constructing our own dyad dynamic. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it works for many folks. However, it didn’t work very well for me, since adding me to the mix always did affect the existing couple. And if I wasn’t aware of that or just chose to ignore it as none of my business, it was more difficult to deal with issues that affected all of us when they arose. Instead, I find it much easier and more rewarding to meet my metamours early on, get a handle on both the existing couple’s dynamic and on how the addition of me might be changing it and figure out how I could help make that experience a positive one.

    As you can guess, part of my motivation is self-preservation: the more I know about how my presence is affecting a couple’s dynamics, the more I can help to steer it in a positive direction and keep my own relationship with the husband nice and healthy. But it’s also because in the past, when I focused on my relationship with the guy and ignored his relationship with his wife as none of my business, a lot of drama ensued–drama that I was helpless to prevent or avoid in my separate relationship. 😦

    Again, your mileage may vary, and feel free to disagree.

    • aggiesez says:

      Thanks for the reply, and the discussion!

      I don’t disagree at all that partners, metamours, and dyads within a network always influence and change each other. That’s one of the main reasons I enjoy being poly, as a matter of fact. In fact, I wrote about exactly that phenomenon last year.

      Where I differ from you is framing it as one person “entering” an existing relationship. That’s a separate matter from influencing each other. The “entering” implies that one partner/relationship is subsumed by another, which implies a lot about the relative power of partners and dyads in a network.

      Like you, I find it useful to know a fair amount about how my significant partners’ other significant relationships work, the personality and character of my metamours, and whether they’re currently facing any major crises, decisions or changes. Yeah, knowing the lay of the land so everyone can collaborate to keep a network running smoothly sure helps a lot. And it prevents poly roadkill.

      Yet, as I described, sometimes the “bleeding” of problems can become a problem, leading to unhealthy enmeshment. It’s a balancing act.

      Anyway, YMMV, and I appreciate your points. Totally fine to view it differently!

      …And if I were baiting you, Minx, you would have noticed the red cape 🙂

  4. stvkomodo says:

    It’s always interesting to read other people’s thoughts on this subject. There is a bit of give and take that most everyone will not see until the situation slaps you in the face. Love or infatuation with someone will always close off some of the common sense parts of the brain.

  5. […] to veterans. How to know when you should work on a relationship and when to leave. Entering an existing relationship as a solo poly […]

  6. todd8v says:

    I find myself in agreement. There is a vast difference between any relationship and how it is conceived. Many ideas subtly enshrine closed or possessive attitudes and mix them into an open (supposedly) event. It can be a set up when a person relies on such ideas for security. If something NEW emerges, it may very well be rejected, not because it is harmful but because it is outside the expectation and the false security offered by those definitions.

    In short, discovery involves being in the unknown with its sense of freefall. If the unknown (aka new) is rejected OR defined by the old ideas, we are left with a relationship that can’t adapt. That means imitation or routine, the very death of conscious choices. What is new is juicy and perpetually new means being covered in juice. Since the event/relationship never reallyhappened before we may as well admit its new.

    Consider the alternative of it being old.

  7. todd8v says:

    I find myself in agreement. There is a vast difference between any relationship and how it is conceived. Many ideas subtly enshrine closed or possessive attitudes and mix them into an open (supposedly) event. It can be a set up when a person relies on such ideas for security. If something NEW emerges, it may very well be rejected, not because it is harmful but because it is outside the expectation and the false security offered by those definitions.

    In short, discovery involves being in the unknown with its sense of freefall. If the unknown (aka new) is rejected OR defined by the old ideas, we are left with a relationship that can’t adapt. That means imitation or routine, the very death of conscious choices. What is new is juicy and perpetually new means being covered in juice. Since the event/relationship never really happened before we may as well admit its new.

    Consider the alternative of it being old.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Archives

%d bloggers like this: