Dear Daemonum X,
I’m having trouble figuring out if or how I should address discomfort with the way my partner is engaging with her other partner. For example, my partner is great and in our relationship she has good boundaries and communicates pretty well. However, I notice that with her other partner she seems to have really poor boundaries, isn’t honest about her hurt feelings, has poor communication that leads to more hurt feelings, and the cycle continues. I know she is capable of these things because I see her enact them in our relationship. She also talks a big game about boundaries and communication being important so I know she really cares about this. The dissonance is confusing and disconcerting. I’m completely willing to accept that it’s none of my business, but am I allowed to have a boundary around the treatment of my metamours?
A really common theme that pops up in many different ways from people seeking polyamory advice is “Am I allowed to…?” So often in relationships we doubt ourselves, second guess our instincts, or think we aren’t allowed to ask for what we really need. There are a million different reasons why it’s hard to advocate for yourself. Asking for what you need can be really scary. It might be that we’re ashamed of having needs at all, afraid of being too much, and there’s always that pesky fear of rejection. It’s easier to avoid it or make up excuses for why we don’t actually need The Thing we need. We want permission to be allowed to ask for The Thing we need. Disconcerted, consider this your permission.
We’re taught to think that other people’s relationships aren’t our business. If other people’s relationships aren’t our business, then that means our partner’s other relationships aren’t our business either, right? I, for one, think it’s really dangerous to have relationships in isolation away from community or other people who can provide important perspective and help us be accountable. I think that it benefits everyone to make sure we’re all treating each other well and working towards being better people. I’m not saying it’s appropriate to comment on a stranger or acquaintance’s relationship, but when it’s a friend or partner that you are close with it’s definitely appropriate. No one is perfect and everyone fucks up — once we accept that we can all work together on getting it less wrong.
In polyamorous relationships we get the unique experience of witnessing how our partners interact in other types of intimate and romantic relationships. Seeing my partners in deep relations with others, witnessing them being loved and cared for, and watching them grow is truly one of my favorite things. When it’s good, it’s really good. The flip side, the realistic side, is that it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes we witness the person we love exhibit unhealthy behaviors and patterns in their other relationships. We might even be in a relationship with someone who is being abused by someone else. Something important to understand here is that we cannot control other people or the relationships they have, how they treat others, or how they are treated by others. It’s never our job to fix or save anyone else. However, we do have the ability to support our partners in many ways, as well as the gift of setting our own boundaries.
Boundaries are our manifestations of how we deserve to be treated and what we will accept from others. Their job is to protect us and to ensure that we can have healthy relationships while practicing self-preservation. In addition, we have personal boundaries we set with ourselves because the relationship with ourselves is perhaps the most important one. Not speaking up for yourself is crossing your own boundaries. Keeping your feelings inside when it would benefit you to share them is crossing your own boundaries. That being said, when it comes to your boundaries — you are absolutely allowed and encouraged to set whatever boundaries feel self-preserving and affirm your values while not trying to control other people.
As you said, the dissonance in your partner’s behavior with you compared to her behavior with your metamour is concerning. Different people bring out different parts of us. In my experience, some people just make it easier for us to be our best selves. This is not an excuse for treating anyone badly, but it is important to remember that we’re all at different stages of healing from whatever trauma we may have and unlearning survival tactics that no longer serve us. Let’s just say that you’re secure, confident, accountable to your own boundaries, and communicate well. You may have created a safer place for your partner to heal in relationship with you. It’s very possible that the pairing of trauma responses, attachment styles, or codependency (etc!) between your partner and metamour are setting them up to get stuck in a cycle of reopening old wounds. For example, if they have opposing attachment styles like avoidant and insecure it means they have to work a lot harder to meet in the middle. Or, if they both have trauma responses that activate each other, normal conflict will often feel like a constant state of emergency. When we learn these things about ourselves, a lot of our behavior patterns start to make sense and then we understand why it may be harder to step out of an unhealthy cycle. Working together to be mindful of our own trauma or destructive patterns in relationships can set up a healthy dynamic to heal from shame and grow with those we love.
Part of having close relationships is the gift of being accountable to others. When we’re on the wrong path and our actions don’t align with our values, our partners and friends should call us in and remind us to do better. Watching your partner act out unhealthy behavior in her other relationship is something you should absolutely discuss with her very kindly and without judgment. By letting her know exactly what you’re witnessing, it’s bringing awareness to her behaviors. She may not even realize what’s happening, or she might just need a little support or encouragement in setting boundaries with others. If she is aware, she might feel stuck in a loop and feel powerless to stop. Loving someone means helping them to account for their behavior. From what you said, it sounds like your partner cares about fostering healthy relationships and working on herself, and she demonstrates that in relationship with you. This is a really positive sign that she will be receptive to your feedback.
Now, let’s talk about what’s best for you to do in this situation. It’s pretty clear that your first step is to talk to your partner about how uncomfortable it makes you feel to see her crossing boundaries and not communicating about her feelings in her other relationship. Explain how you are observing a disconnect in her actions vs her words. Make sure she knows that you are bringing this to her attention because you know it goes against what she’s told you about her ethics. Remember to speak from a place of love. Do you want to be a support person for this? How much support can you offer without becoming enmeshed in your partner’s other relationship? If you feel you can offer support (reminder that it’s totally fine if you can’t!), talk about what that looks like and what would feel good for both of you. This could be as simple as quick, loving reminders in the moment, “Hey, I see you doing that thing again that you don’t want to do.” Or, it could look much more involved like listening and processing with her. It is very important to remember that you’re her partner and not her therapist! You can listen and cheer her on, but pay close attention to when you start to feel uncomfortable or drained because that’s a sign that it’s time to set stronger boundaries. Ideally your partner has friends and/or a therapist who are also supporting her.
If and when you need to, it’s totally ok to let your partner know that you need to create a boundary around her other relationship. Listening to someone complain constantly about interpersonal conflict when they refuse to just sit down and talk about it is really fucking draining. Avoiding conflict helps no one. You can say something like, “I don’t want to hear you complain about X because it’s clear that you’re not talking to them about your feelings and that makes me uncomfortable.” I always feel that I can’t fully trust someone who complains about others instead of just talking to them because it shows me that they can’t handle conflict. Setting this boundary supports you and your values while not trying to control your partner. Creating limits on what you will and will not listen to or support is very fair.
Dear Disconcerted, please know that you have permission always and forever to set whatever boundaries you need with anyone at any time and for any reason. Boundaries are wonderful tools that allow you to cultivate stronger relationships, and we all need that! Remember that helping your loved ones by pointing out their harmful behavior and offering support when you are able is an act of kindness. I wish you the best of luck!