September 9, 2014 by aggiesez
It’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:
- 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.)
- 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.