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Advice – Can my marriage be salvaged?

[TW: Physical abuse, miscarriage.]

“I have been in a polyamorous marriage with my spouse (he/him) for the last 5 1/2 years.  He has been in a relationship with my metamour (they/them) for the last 2 1/2 years.  My spouse and I are currently separated due to boundary issues in the poly dynamic which led to a physical altercation between my spouse and I in which he pinned me down.

I take responsibility for my part in the toxic poly dynamics.  When my spouse started dating my metamour who was a member of our friend group, things progressed quickly between them at a speed that was uncomfortable to me.  I did significant work around my insecurities so I wouldn’t set boundaries that put limits on their relationship (which I did a couple times throughout the 2 1/2 years).

My spouse and I were in the process of starting a family and we had the desire to live together in our own family unit with anyone we were dating living separately from us.  We were open to other partners being in our future children’s lives as an aunt/uncle figure but had no interest in co-parenting with another partner(s).  We acknowledged this was a hierarchical arrangement that would regard my metamour as a secondary partner.  

It became quickly apparent that my metamour did not want to be regarded as a “secondary partner” due to their own past trauma of feeling “less than.”  My metamour voiced the desire to my spouse to have children with him and co-parent our children with us.  I felt that these spoken desires crossed a line and felt like a threat to what my spouse and I wanted for our family dynamic.  My spouse at times has had difficulty setting boundaries with my metamour about what we want in our marriage that may impact my metamour.  This has caused me confusion about whether or not I can trust my spouse to set appropriate boundaries with my metamour or whether he wants something different than we originally agreed on.  It has also led to resentments toward my metamour with the belief  that they are crossing lines and pushing boundaries that I am unsure of how strongly were set by my spouse.

In March 2020 when I found out I was pregnant after having miscarried in 2018, things seemed to be going better with our poly dynamic.  The three of us no longer regarded my metamour as the “secondary” partner.  I had worked through my insecurities and didn’t need that distinction at that point.  My metamour and I were working on our friendship and even attended a conference together without my spouse present the month before finding out about the pregnancy.

In the moments after finding out I was pregnant, I asked my spouse not to tell anyone about the pregnancy yet especially my metamour due to stress related to the poly dynamic in my first pregnancy.  My spouse agreed to this but was concerned that my metamour would find out.  I said we can just tell people who ask about my pregnancy that we are still waiting for the results and we left it at that.

The next day my metamour and spouse were spending time together and my metamour asked my spouse if I was pregnant.  My spouse couldn’t hide the truth and admitted that I was.  My metamour was very hurt that we chde my pregnancy from them (even if it was just temporary until we were ready to tell people).  My spouse in turn hid the fact that my metamour found out about the pregnancy for over a month because he wanted to protect me from stress.  I found out about the withholding and lying from my spouse on the same day I found out I had another miscarriage.  I felt hurt and betrayed that my spouse could hide this information from me for so long.  I also felt upset that my metamour pried to get information about my pregnancy that I didn’t feel ready to share with them yet.  

This incident has eroded the trust I had with my spouse and I also feel like I lost a friend in my metamour who also didn’t come clean and let me know my spouse was withholding the truth from me.

The day after my miscarriage procedure and finding out my spouse had been lying to me for a month, I felt numb and emotionally unavailable to my spouse.  He wanted to grieve with me but I was in a state of shock and couldn’t process things with him.  When I turned away from him and told him I couldn’t be there for him in that moment, he was triggered, pinned me down and demanded I look at him.  I went limp and dissociated because it was too much for my nervous system to handle.  He left that day (April 4) and we have been separated ever since.

Currently my spouse and I are in couples therapy and are beginning to take responsibility for our parts in these dynamics, build up trust again and trying to see if we can salvage the marriage. There is significant mistrust between my metamour and I and at this point I am terrified to put in the effort to work on that relationship.  My metamour has often projected hurt feelings onto me which I don’t know if I can even deal with going forward.  My spouse and metamour are talking about moving in together which is bringing up a lot for me because it’s something my spouse and I never discussed as a possibility before.  I am afraid that it could lead to my spouse changing his mind and wanting a family with my metamour instead of with me.  I also don’t know what would happen if my spouse and I repair things between us and want to move back in together while he is living with my metamour.

I know in order for the marriage to work I need to accept my metamour completely (even their desires to have a child with my spouse) and repair the mistrust and resentments that have built up on both ends over the past 2 1/2 years.

Do you think the marriage can be salvaged and what steps would need to be taken to get there?  What structural changes would be necessary in our poly dynamic to have harmony between the three of us?”

Anonymous.

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Dear Anonymous,

I am so, so sorry that you experienced two miscarriages, as well as a severe physical and relational trauma. I can’t imagine the multitudes of pain that you are currently experiencing as well as the dread for the uncertain future ahead.

There is an incredible amount to unpack and discuss from what you’ve shared with me. We first need to talk about your perception of hierarchies in a polyamorous relationship. There’s another discussion about parenthood. We also need to talk about agreements and boundaries before we can talk about your metamour. Then there is a wholly separate discussion to be had about your spouse’s behaviors. Then we can finally talk about what this all means for you personally and for your relationship with your spouse. For the ease of discussion, we’ll name your spouse as Tom and your metamour as River.

Hierarchies

So let’s start with hierarchies. Last year, I talked about how hierarchies in a polyamorous relationship can be ethically presented and practiced. Prescriptive and descriptive hierarchies in polyamory aren’t always inherently toxic. Even if your and Tom’s goal was to aim for a strictly non-hierarchical relationship where there is no inherent privileges in any one relationship over another, you will each find that it is nigh impossible to have everything be equal. Some of this is due to the mono-normative social structures. Some of it is due to inherent couple’s privilege. Some of it is due to the stigma we polyfolks face. So at best, things will be fair and equitable where y’all can best manage descriptive hierarchies. It sounds like River immediately perceived the existing agreement between you and Tom (“Tom and I will not have children with our other partners”) to be a restrictive and prescriptive hierarchy that felt unfair for them and the vision of the relationship they wanted to have with Tom. And instead of working on their big hurt, it sounds like they decided to weaponize their hurt feelings into breaking down the pre-existing agreement Tom established with you. We’ll talk more about what other red flags I’ve noticed in River’s behavior in the Metamour section.

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Parenthood

I am curious if you and Tom ever sat down to discuss why you two had this particular agreement not to have children with other partners. There are a lot of very valid reasons not to have children with more than one partner. One such reason is in childcare finances. Childrearing is very expensive. Even if you had the financial bandwidth to afford a child, the emotional and physical tax that comes with the first several years of parenthood is not something to be overlooked. A lot of polyfolks talk about how polyamory will highlight your deepest insecurities and relational issues. Parenthood is very much the same way. So let’s go back to hierarchies. If you personally feel that you need to have a long-term stability of a partner who is as dedicated to your child as you are, then the agreement regarding parenthood is not only a fair one, but a necessary one. And as such, it needs to be an agreement that Tom needed to specify from the initial dating phase that parenthood wasn’t an aspect of relationship he could pursue with another partner.

Let’s assume for a moment here that you two did alter the agreement to make space for River to also have a child with Tom. How would that have been implemented? Who is going to pay for what childcare? Even in an idealistic scenario of a holistic poly family unit, who will ensure that everything is running smoothly? How does Tom intend to balance his two distinct parenthoods? And no. “I don’t know, I’ll figure it out when I get there” is not a good enough answer.

Agreements & Boundaries

You said, “This has caused me confusion about whether or not I can trust my spouse to set appropriate boundaries with my metamour or whether he wants something different than we originally agreed on.” These are two very red flags that I noticed when I first read your message. Part of what makes relationships – not just polyamorous ones – so difficult is that your partners have to enforce boundaries that they themselves might not have established themselves. Agreement and boundary enforcement is an explicit price of admission to being entangled with another human being, which gets magnitude more difficult to manage when you have multiple relationships. When you cannot trust your partner to behave in ways that is mindful and respectful of his relationship with you displays a significant lapse in judgment regarding his emotional priorities that I’ll get to when we talk about Tom’s behaviors.

This particular behavior is illustrated again when he failed to uphold the agreement he had with you regarding pregnancy disclosure. In the medical field, HIPAA rules dictate who can disclose what medical status to whom at what time. Violation of HIPAA rules usually mean a professional end to their healthcare careers. I don’t believe that it is important for River to know exactly when you got pregnant. It is only important that you and Tom were trying to get pregnant. Based on the timeline you’ve shared, River was likely around when you had your first miscarriage. Even if they weren’t, it is possible that River knew that your first miscarriage devastated you and caused you a significant amount of anxiety regarding your pregnancy. With all that considered, River’s big upset makes sense when you later revealed that your metamour “often project[s] hurt feelings onto [you].” That is exactly what they did here. Considering your first miscarriage, your decision to not talk about your pregnancy status on a minute-by-minute basis is not a badly intentioned one, but a necessary one.

Upholding your agreements even when you are not present is not a trait you should only aspire to have in your ideal partner; it is a necessary skill the same way you need to breathe in order to live.

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Metamour’s behaviors

Your metamour River has displayed some very concerning behaviors over the past two and a half years. You say that you feel like a line was crossed when they spoke to Tom about their desire to have Tom’s child. I don’t think this is a boundary violation as much as a discussion of expectation. In any relationship, you are entitled to discuss what you aim to accomplish in your relationship, even if that goal is not achievable, so that you can proactively consent to the relational space ahead of you. When River communicated their discontent at not being able to have a child with Tom, Tom had a decision to own the agreement that he made with you and defend his own rationale (outlined in the Parenthood section). And then River can decide at that point if they were okay with a childfree relationship with Tom as a price of admission to be with Tom. But based on what I have gathered, I get the sense that Tom did not defend your agreement, and instead left a lot of room (intentionally or unintentionally) to have children with River as well.

To pick up where we left off, River got upset when they weren’t immediately told that you were pregnant. But instead of trying to understand why there was a delay, they immediately assumed that you chose to hide for all the wrong reasons. I can understand why River hesitated to talk to you about what she knew. It could be possible that they were upset about not having heard it directly from their friend. It is also possible that they expected Tom to communicate that he broke the agreement that he had with you. Either way, you were hurt to find out that River saw through the plausible deniability of your pregnancy status. It is humiliating to know that you were misled in your own self-assessment, especially for reasons outside of your own control.

I also want to point out that you’ve called out and acknowledged the work you’ve had to do to overcome your own insecurities. But I didn’t see where River has worked on themselves to make sure that they overcame their own insecurities. If they’ve acknowledge that they have past traumas in feeling “less than”, what kind of therapy work have they done to get over feeling “less than” in their current and future relationships? What kind of self-improvement process have they committed to in order to make sure that they were also making space for your relationship in their lives?

I do think that it is also important to point out here that a lot of what you know about River is through Tom. And it is possible that Tom could have misportrayed River’s feelings and expectations to you in the same way he has misportrayed your feelings and expectations to River.

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Spouse’s behavior

The biggest red flags I noticed in your message were regarding your partner Tom. I will list out what I noticed.

I’ve already talked about your concerns about his portrayal of your boundaries in his relationship with River in the Agreements & Boundaries section. And I’ve also talked about his inability to uphold the pregnancy disclosure agreement as a red flag in the same section. But I do think that the timing of this is also very important to call out. It wasn’t months down the line after you’ve established this agreement. He broke the agreement literally the day after he agreed to it. And it wasn’t for the lack of contingency plans. You talked about how Tom can defer to “still waiting for the results” as a deferment mechanic for River if River did ask about your pregnancy status. And while that itself is bad, it isn’t even as bad as his failure to communicate with you that he failed to uphold that agreement with you. Perhaps it was out of shame that he couldn’t communicate with you. But in his failure to do so, you’ve been humiliated you by allowing you to live a lie as a fool in a play you did not sign up for.

I want to take a step back here to point out an obvious discrepancy. You said that you wanted Tom to withhold information from River out of necessity. River got upset because they felt like they were being misled. And it could be possible that River asked Tom not to talk about what they found out. That is the best case scenario.

In this best case scenario, Tom chose to honor River’s agreement with more conviction than he did with your agreement, the agreement that he not only made the night before but for all the right reasons. In this, he has displayed yet another instance of his inability to respect your boundaries.

The worst case scenario is that Tom himself decided not to share what agreement he broke with you. And let’s talk about that worst case scenario. It is either reflective of a codependent behavior (in that he thinks he knows your emotional landscape better than you do, so he needs to caretake you in this way) or a manipulation tactic from an abuser (in that he can better control the narrative and decide what is better for you by robbing you of your autonomy to make informed decisions).

Both of those are terrible, and not at all representative of a healthy partnership. Both of those are justifications and self-enforced narratives he is using to explain why he committed an unethical behavior.

But nothing quite amounts to the physical altercation in April. I want to make sure that I am understanding this correctly. The day after you had your miscarriage procedure, I’m sure you were not just experiencing the emotional trauma of losing yet another child, but also the physical trauma of the procedure itself. His role is pretty clear cut from a societal expectation here. He was to be a sound support for you in your recovery. Your emotional bucket was full, so you established a boundary that you can’t be there to support him through his loss because your loss was magnitudes greater than what he was experiencing. And instead of supporting you in this difficult time, he took away your autonomy – bodily this time – to pin you down to address his hurt feelings. In this particular incident, he explained that he was “triggered” and behaved in a way that was unsound. I don’t buy it. What trauma has he experienced in the past where he wasn’t addressed and thus required him to physically pin down his partner to get an answer? And even if your particular behavior triggered him to pin you down, what kind of therapy work has he committed to pre-emptively address that in the past? It doesn’t sound like he actually considered your own traumatic experience and instead inflicted trauma on you – someone who is actually traumatized – to only again explain his poor behavior.

Based on the words you used (like dissociation), I get the sense that you are somewhat familiar with traumatic response to an abusive situation. And I’m concerned if that was something you learned about because it was something you’ve experienced in the past with this particular partner. So as your spouse, I wonder if he also knew that you could dissociate in that particular moment as a way to trauma bond you into submission.

I haven’t even gotten to the developments following the separation either. You shared that your partner and metamour were talking about moving in together. This is at best reflective of woefully short sighted approach to relationships, completely detached from the reality of his failing marriage. And this is at worst a form of retaliatory behavior to show you that “he has other options” in order to force you into complying with a non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship that is more amenable for your metamour.

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Putting it all back together

At the onset and at the end of the message, you asked “can your marriage be salvaged?” And I don’t think you are asking the right question. I think you should be asking yourself “do I want to salvage this relationship?” Your metamour has consistently displayed a lack of respect for your existing relationship with Tom. Tom has continued to enable and facilitate this metamour who weaponized their hurt feelings against you. And your partner has consistently displayed a complete lack of self-awareness, respect for your boundaries and agreements, and failed to meet the most basic level of communication becoming of a partner who can have healthy relationships with others. Are you sure you want to be in a relationship – much less a marriage – with such partner?

Another thing to consider is that in polyamory, you don’t just date the person – you also date the situation that this person is in. This is why I believe that proper practice of proactive consent is necessary for polyamorous relationships. River had to analyze and assess that you were already a major component of Tom’s life when they decided to pursue a relationship with Tom. Forcefully cutting out and demanding Tom to make space for them in his life is not only disrespectful of his relationship with you, but also the friendship that you two eventually developed. Based on what we know about River –and again, it’s mostly through Tom’s eyes here – they chose to erode trust in a deeply dispassionate and selfish way in order to maximize their personal relationship happiness quotient. Their inability (or failure) to be honest with you and imbue good will behind your actions tells me that they aren’t necessarily in a place of mind to be a good metamour (or friend) to you.

Take some time to assess this situation ahead of you. You did not initially sign up to be in a non-hierarchical polyamorous relationship with a person who assaulted you. In this particular abusive behavior, you discovered what he is capable of in a moment of emotional distress. And while miscarriage is indeed very stressful, parenthood will bring a wholly different degree of stress that neither you nor he can visualize. How can you be sure that in his next moment of emotional distress that he will not escalate to the next level of assault?

You say that you are terrified to put in the effort to work on the connection you need to have with your metamour. Why aren’t you more terrified to put in the effort to work on the connection you need to have with your spouse? Your partner has done magnitudes more damage to your relationship than your metamour ever allegedly did.

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Steps to salvage your relationship

If you do decide that you want to salvage your relationship with your spouse at all costs, there are some really momentous steps ahead of you.

You and your spouse are already in couple’s counseling. That is a great start. If you and your partner are not already receiving individual therapy to work through each of your respective relational and physical traumas, I strongly urge both you and your partner to do so as soon as possible. At minimum, your partner needs to pursue therapy to better manage his feelings to avoid future acts of assault – of you or your metamour.

Eroded trust is hard to recover from. But a place of healing will always start from acknowledging that your old marriage is no more. That ended when your spouse assaulted you. Instead, realize that your relationship with your spouse need to start from a fresh place where you two can throw out all the old existing agreements, expectations, and goals. Most importantly, you and Tom will need to start anew. Parenting together is out of the question, at least for now. And you’ll need to work back together to being in a collective headspace to live together again, if that is something both of you want somewhere down the line.

As for the poly structure itself, you will need to step back and assess his poly relationship landscape. Since you and Tom are starting anew, are you okay with dating someone who is in a serious relationship with River? Would you date your spouse if you met him on a first date? I would also disagree that you need to accept every aspect of your metamour. That isn’t your responsibility; that is their partner’s and their partner’s alone. Instead, you just need to acknowledge, coalesce, and learn to cohabitate with their quirks and habits. You don’t even need to be friends with your metamour if you choose not to be.

A lot of folks get caught up on the sunk cost fallacy of a long-term relationship. Longevity of a relationship is not necessarily a reflection of the strength of that relationship; it is merely the history of previous success. That is it. What has your partner done for you lately? Was he there for you when you needed him the most? Does he make you feel safe and protected in your most vulnerable spaces?

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. If you liked my advice for this post, please subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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