“My primary partner and I have been together for almost ten years and polyamorous for five, but we’ve experienced real deep romantic love outside our relationship in the last couple years.
We are discovering our difference in values might mean he can’t date other people without causing pain.
For me, you should be willing to go to war for your family. I’d do anything for him. If someone doesn’t like him, it forever taints how I view that person. I would, without a doubt, break up with anyone who doesn’t respect him or my relationship with him.
He finds compassion and understanding for everyone. Everyone’s opinions are valid and he will hold space for them. If I’m struggling, he’ll be there to cheer on my success and comfort me in failures, but my battles are my own. All these characteristics are what made me fall in love with him. I love that he doesn’t have a judgmental bone in his body. I love the balance of commitment and autonomy in our relationship.
This all falls apart when he dates someone I don’t get along with. He will never take sides, in any way, which leads to me feeling trapped with someone I don’t like. (He usually dates someone from our larger shared friend circle, so I always know my metas.) We’ve been solving this by just creating more space between me and his other partners. But there always seems to be a new way that the his other partner can do something that gets back to me and affects me. And every time I don’t understand why he won’t do anything to find reconciliation. It’s impossible to keep us completely separate in our small town and our small community. At some point he has to do something to help us heal and get along. But he’s just not good at this type of problem solving.
He’s not dating anyone else now, but does that have to be forever? What can we work on so small fights with metas don’t always blow up? I don’t have these problems anywhere else in my life. Except with my last two metas, I’ve always been able to solve conflict without fighting. The fact that I feel abandoned in these conflicts is what makes it worse for me.”
Dear Fishy in the Middle,
I am really sorry to hear that you are experiencing this particular disconnect. There could be multiple contributing factors to why you are experiencing difficulty connecting with your metamours. It could be specific problems with your two former metamours. It could be a hinge problem with your partner. And it could also be a personal problem with you. Let’s dive into those one by one, and talk about what you can do personally about each of those problems.
Metamours pose a set of questions unique to polyamory.
Polyfolks’ relationships with our metamours is a lot like our relationship with our in-laws. They are close to our partners but we often keep them at some distance. It obviously comes with its own idiosyncrasies. But the overall sentiment still holds true.
You said you have had a lot of problems with your two former metamours. You did not specify the type of problems they each had. But I get the sense based on what you’ve shared that they did or said things that you weren’t totally on board with. I am curious what type of disconnects you had with your metamours, and would love to do a deeper dive to see where the responsibilities actually lie.
In my own personal experience with challenging metamours, I have found that my personal challenges with my metamours often boiled down to differing tastes and preferences. We all grow up with our own respective personal histories, which all contribute to the different styles and preferences we have as adults. As such, I found it difficult to assume that everyone was going to be exactly on the same page about our respective styles and preferences. Some of my metamours really understood this aspect. Some could not. It could be possible that your former metamours could not successfully assess what type of words and actions would upset you. That presents a specific type of challenge that is ultimately out of control for you: metamour incompatibility.
As for what you can do about the incompatibilities you had with your former metamours, it sounds like you’ve done your best to create distance to protect yourself and your metamours from any more hurt feelings. And I do think that boundary setting is generally a pretty good solution to people-problems. With that said, setting boundaries around people who are not used to being set boundaries on could have exacerbated and aggravated the growing disconnect you and your metamours felt around each other.
Your partner also has a lot of responsibilities to manage in his multiple relationships.
Hinge partners are responsible for managing their multiple relationships. By this, I mean it is your primary partner’s responsibility to resolve conflicts, communicate expectations, and uphold boundaries & agreements. That is the price of admission we must pay to engage in polyamorous connections: emotional labor.
This also includes facilitating productive discussions between their partners especially if they don’t get along.
It is clear that your partner does his relationships a bit differently from the way you do your own relationships. Based on what you’ve shared, I get the sense that your partner is very easy going and relatively conflict-averse. In his deep sense of care for others, he struggles to evaluate conflicting values and instead strives to spread a sense of understanding. He is very open to cherishing all the success as well as to supporting through any of the failures. Those are all really great open-minded characteristics to have in relationships; and it is one of the many reasons why he has had such a great, lasting relationship with you over the past decade.
His perspective allows for him to form the kind of connections he wants to nurture in his life. And it is apparent that his personality could attract a certain type of people – folks who are more driven and intentional. And when those folks – in the form of your metamours – butt heads with your more driven and intentional perspective, it creates conflict.
If his preferred role in conflict resolution is as a peacemaker, it is understandable why he would take a more cautious approach to resolving issues. It also explains why you have such a personal problem with the way he addresses conflicts. You see a refusal to reconcile in his slower approach to resolving conflicts. And he sees you pressing him for action before he is ready. Neither of those perspectives are accurate because each of your intentions are different than assumed. But it is a reasonable enough assumption that ultimately led to his latest realization, that he doesn’t think he can date others without causing you or his other partners pain.
Now that we talked about where his head is at, let’s now talk about what this means for your relationship.
For the sake of this section, I am going to assume that every other aspect of your connection with your partner is great. How does problem resolution traditionally work out in your relationship with your partner? Are you generally much more assertive than he is in solving problems in your relationship? Does his problem resolution skills present a direct conflict for your personal relationship with your partner? Or is it only in regard to his other relationships?
Let’s suppose that your partner dates a person who is cheating on their spouse. For most polyfolks, enabling infidelity is a hard boundary. In this particular situation, you would be justified to set boundaries around interacting with someone who is so clearly involved in an unethical behavior. But this scenario poses a deeper question into the character of your partner than it does for your hypothetical metamour. You aren’t in a relationship with your metamour. But if your partner is enabling infidelity, then your partner’s judgment too is flawed. It should be his responsibility to recognize when there are irreconcilable differences and only seek partnerships with people who also practice ethical non-monogamy, with people who are compatible with his own personal brand of polyamory.
So you should really ask yourself if he is consistently picking partners who are practicing unethical non-monogamy or folks who are deeply incompatible with his current poly happenstance. Both of those would reflect a deep character flaw which should make you re-think about the status of your relationship.
However, if he just happens to pick partners who become more incompatible down the line, then it might be more of an issue with you than him. Like I mentioned, it is the hinge partner’s responsibility to manage their multiple relationships. But he needs to have the space to manage in order for him to manage his multiple relationships. And if there isn’t the kind of space he needs to manage his multiple relationships, then he just doesn’t have enough resources to do what he needs to do.
I am going to tell you about the best metamour I’ve ever had. His name was Dave. He was monogamous, but cherished his wife’s other relationships better than any non-monogamous metamours I have ever had. He never outwardly expressed his insecurity or jealousy. His confidence was quiet and unassuming, but naturally flowed out of every interaction I’ve had with him. But better than anyone else, he knew how to manage space in his life. He knew exactly when he was welcome to join at the dinner with our shared partner. And he knew exactly when to leave us alone. He was the most unintentionally charming man I have ever met. I never had to do any kind of emotional labor with Dave because he was so secure and self-aware that he could manage his own feelings. Even though my relationship with Dave’s partner never worked out, I strove to be as self-assured, as socially aware, and as polyamorous as Dave was for me.
At the end of the day, you only really have control over your own actions.
There is a big difference between loyalty and autonomy. The perspective you have in loving someone so wholeheartedly is respectable. But based on what you’ve shared, it could be possible that you ask a lot from your partner. You say that you live in a small town with a small community. So you should already know how difficult it is to create distance among folks with whom you were already familiar with. That kind of boundary setting is ripe with potential misunderstanding.
I am also very curious about how you personally define “respect” with regards to respecting your partner or your partner’s relationship with you. There is already an explicit hierarchy in your polyamorous relationship. Demanding respect when you haven’t shown yet that you’ve earned so is going to prove incompatible for a lot of folks who want to explore a long-term connection with your partner as well. Instead, show them who you are by mindfully exercising your secure attachment with your shared partner, very much like Dave confidently made space in my relationship with our shared partner.
Based on your label, I also get the sense that you two have a very strict hierarchical polyamorous relationship. And based on what I gather, I get the sense that when you don’t get along with a particular metamour, you ask your partner to end his relationship. That is fine if that is the preexisting agreement you have with your partner. Whether it is an implicit veto (i.e. I’m going to But that veto agreement is unfortunately going to rub a lot of people the wrong way.
I’ll also float the possibility that your partner just happened to have had an unfortunate encounters with two incompatible partners. I don’t imagine that it has always been an issue in your five year polyamory journey together that he always pursued folks who were clearly incompatible with you as a metamour. But I also think that we – the non-monogamous folks – represent a small subsection of the overall dating population. The more selective you and your partner are about his secondary partners, the more difficult it will be to find any suitable match. So it might not be a bad idea to keep an open mind and more kindly approach your partner’s interests.
At some point, you are going to have to trust that your primary partner can solve his problems on your behalf – even if it looks like he lacks agency. And you are also going to have to trust that he will pick out the type of partners who will also get along with you. You’ve had a lot of opportunities to build trust around each other’s capabilities to be partners to other folks. The inherent part of trust is in having faith that your partner does have your best interests at heart. It looks like there are a lot of room for improvement and growth for both you and your partner as you continue to explore polyamory. So be patient!