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Advice – Balancing conflicting boundaries.

“My partner John [29M] and I [23F] have been together for around 4 years, we’ve been poly from the start. We’ve both seen other people on and off and been able to work out boundaries comfortably before.

Recently I’ve started talking to and getting involved (sexually, not romantically) with our mutual friend Peter [27M]. Peter and I are really sexually compatible and it has been really good to start playing with him while I get my libido back because it does feel like Peter and I are at a blank slate.

John and I have had a lot of issues with sex in the past. We played together a lot when we first got together. But the hormonal BC in addition to the two years on antidepressants completely killed my libido. I’ve recently switched to IUD which has somewhat helped with my libido. However, John has an enormously high sex drive; so we’ve been in a weird position trying to navigate that, because I still enjoy sex and want to have it, even if physically I haven’t been easy to arouse. Plus it’s something I like to give him because it’s positive for him, and really connecting for both of us.

Over the course of the past two years, my sexual attraction to John has diminished immensely, and I think there are a couple contributing factors as to why. I’ve had to tell him no a couple times because I could not match his libido. It could also be that we aren’t exploring kink together much anymore. We’ve also had a lot of sex together without me feeling physically attracted to him. Or it could just be the changing nature of our relationship in regards to our respective mental and physical health. I honestly don’t know.

I do know I still want to have sex with John. I just don’t find him physically attractive in the way I used to, and the way I do with my new partner. He wants to bring kink back in to our sexual relationship, but I don’t know if I want that because I just don’t really feel attracted to him in that way. He has sort of known that I haven’t felt sexually attracted to him in the same way for a while, but we only recently started really talking about it because I’m only just getting my libido back. Essentially, I don’t want him sexually in the same way he wants me sexually. I do want him. Just in a different way.

Here is where things get even more complicated. My first overnight with my new partner Peter was pretty unexpected because he said wasn’t ready for that a few days prior. My partner and I hadn’t talked much about boundaries because no one expected the overnight stay. And then it was a weird situation where the three of us were just hanging out. I was messaging Peter about what he wanted to do while John sat by, not knowing what was going on. After the overnight, I apologized and explained why things happened the way that they did, and we set boundaries for next time, that I would work out in advance who I was going to go home with. It was difficult for him to deal with emotionally at a time when he was also dealing with physical health stuff too.

Now things are a bit awkward with everyone. There were plans to go out all together this evening. I asked Peter if he wanted me to come home with him tonight. I let John know that I’m sorting sleepover plans with my new partner. Then John responded by saying he does not want to go out if Peter – our mutual friend – is also going because he doesn’t want to put himself in that situation. This put me in a difficult position of having to choose who I want to go out with. My partner knows I’m not comfortable being in this situation. Things eventually ended up working out when Peter decided he didn’t want me to come home with him. And things feel sorted out.

I’m still a bit upset because I want and need to respect each of my partners’ boundaries. But I am not okay with the way John put me in a difficult situation even if things ended up working out.

How should I navigate this situation going forward? I’ve never had to deal with John setting a boundary that he knows I’m not okay with him setting. I thought we were on the same page about maintaining friendship with everyone.”

TL;DR – Seeing new sexual partner who happens to be our mutual friend. My partner asked for boundaries that I am not okay with, which put me in a situation where I had to choose between my two partners.

– A Non Descript User, /r/polyamory.

Photo by Olenka Sergienko on Pexels.com

Dear A Non Descript User,

I am really sorry to hear that you were put in a difficult situation with very little maneuverability. I can see how challenging it is to manage your two relationships while maintaining your partners’ respective boundaries. You have handled much of your conundrum with a sense of respect and depth of experience I do not see many experienced poly folks conducting in their own relationships.

You are right. This situation is very complex. So I am going to break down my advice into three different bits. I’ll first talk about your sexual headspace and how it relates to your libido. Then I’ll do a deeper dive into your connection with your long-term partner John. After that, I will give you some advice on how to manage personal boundaries conflicting with your relational boundaries.

Sexual Headspace and Libido

Human sexuality is pretty incredible and increasingly diverse. There is much to the way we love that the science has not fully caught up to yet. But one of the most common questions that a lot of people ask for advice is to how to spice up their sex life as static eros fades into ambient pragma over the course of any long-term relationships. Dan Savage often recommends to diversify spaces in which you are sexual with your partner. And there is great value to that advice; to occupy new spaces in order to build new neural connections is a very sound way to revitalize your sex life in a long-term relationship.

It is very interesting to read and hear the way you phrase and defend the flow of your sexuality and libido – almost as if your libido is an entirely independent identity wholly separate from your own desires. Instead, you recognize and rationalize your libido as a way to determine what you desire.

It is as if you ate a fried corn dog at a county fair and suddenly realized you were hungry, instead of eating a corn dog because you were hungry. The retrospective justification is evident in not just the way you dance with your sexuality and kink space, but it is also present in the way you manage your relationships as well.

That leads to my next point.

Photo by Nika Akin on Pexels.com

Relationship with John

It does not sound like your sexual connection with John had to compete with Peter; you and John were already experiencing a form of sexual disconnect even before Peter entered your life as your sexual partner. You did well by stating your sexual intentions in regards to your relationship with John here:

He has sort of known that I haven’t felt sexually attracted to him in the same way for a while, but we only recently started really talking about it because I’m only just getting my libido back. Essentially, I don’t want him sexually in the same way he wants me sexually. I do want him. Just in a different way.

But I think it is time to really sit down and discuss what this means for your relationship with John.

Sit with him and be frank with each other about your respective needs. If you want to continue having sex with him but completely take kink off of the table, tell him so. He needs to know that information as soon as possible. You do not need to consent to kink aspects even if that has previously been a part of your sexual connection with John. Consent is ongoing. Please recognize that this is going to be a very difficult discussion where there will be a lot of pain emanating from mismatched expectations about your and his anticipated levels of sexual intimacy. Neither of you will be able to get exactly what each of you want, so compromising to a level of closeness both of you can accept will be necessary. Arrive to a mutual understanding instead of shouting from your respective individual peaks. And be patient in the recovery process. It might take months or years before you and John arrive to the sexual harmony you can both accept.

Ethical intimacy requires ongoing informed consent; and both of you can proactively talk to each other about non-pressing preemptive discussions before the situation becomes immediate. Proactively discussing the potential logistics of your overnight accommodations could have saved both you and John a lot of heartache.

My partners and I call it the Hypotheticals Game, where we do a deep dive into potential scenarios that have not yet happened in the present yet, but could very well happen in the future. Playing the Hypotheticals Game have allowed each of us to do preemptive emotional labor associated with the inevitable changes that come with polyamorous relationships. A real life example involved my partners and I all proactive discussing living together as a polycule months before that scenario unexpectedly became a reality. This might be a good tool that you can use with not just John but also with Peter to get ahead of that anxiety ahead of planning overnight logistics.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Managing Conflicting Boundaries

You and John are not quite done yet. Y’all also need to discuss what happened recently, and how his assertion of his personal boundary could be a violation of your relational boundary. But let’s first distinguish a boundary from an agreement.

A boundary is defined as a self-enforceable statement of intention in order to create self-protection, to maintain internal balance, and to preemptively manage risk. An common example of a sound boundary would be, “I will not be sexually intimate with partners who do not maintain best safe sex practices.” Notice that in this particular boundary, the consent lies with the person who owns the boundary even though the assessment is externally driven. An agreement is a mutual, reciprocal statement of intention designed to protect the connection, to retain relational balance, and to insulate external risks. An agreement is different from a boundary in that boundary is wholly self-oriented while an agreement is managed by you and your partner(s). A common example of a similar agreement would be, “We agree to not introduce any new sexual partners who do not maintain best safe sex practices into our polycule.” Notice that a violation of either boundary or agreement could be relationship ending, but the consequences of a boundary violation is explicitly stated and self-enforceable.

You say that you and John have previously discussed that putting you in a position of choosing who to go out with would constitute a relationship agreement violation. But I would also point out that it is wholly within John’s ethical jurisdiction not to be around people he doesn’t feel comfortable with. Even if he did know about this particular relationship agreement, his personal boundary (“I will not spend time with people I do not feel comfortable with”) supersedes your relationship agreement (“We agree not to put hinge partners in difficult positions of choosing one partner over another on nights out”).

With all that said, John is putting you in a disadvantageous position of asserting his personal boundary which indirectly contradicts your relationship agreement. It is even more challenging because John and Peter were/are friends, and now you are put in a position of having to defend John’s boundary through the discomfort.

So I think you and John need to discuss how his boundary assertion made you feel. While he is completely within his right to establish and communicate such boundary (and generally boundaries do not need to be justified), he does need to elaborate on…

  • How long you need to be conscientious about John’s personal boundary when making future plans,
  • If John is actively working on rescinding the boundary at some point,
  • And if your relationship agreement need to adapt so that it is not constantly violated through his personal boundary.
Photo by Evie Shaffer on Pexels.com

I also wonder how this is going to impact John’s friendship with Peter going forward. You mentioned that the local poly community is very small and to ask you to fracture your personal community of humans even further is really asking you to do a lot of undue emotional labor. But the last point I want to make here is about the difficulties of being a hinge in a V-type polyamorous relationship.

It is your – the hinge partner – responsibility to manage the shared resources (i.e. time, money, space), to maintain proper boundaries & agreements with each of your partners, and to create meaningful spaces for each of your relationships to exist. It is also your responsibility to facilitate and organize logistics on who goes where whenever there is no full transparency. It can be very difficult to schedule and plan out in face of all these boundaries that seem to fly everywhere and the expectations that appear to constantly change. But you also need to recognize that John too is in a lot of pain and is constantly mired in a mountain of emotional labors associated with accepting your mismatching libidos, recognizing your new relationship with Peter, and managing his own health struggles. So please be mindful and compassionate that things might need to move at a slower rate than your NRE informs you so.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com.

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