You Need Help: How Do I NOT Cause a Breakup with a Tough Talk?

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Q:

I’ve been seeing someone since February, and I love spending time with them, but I need help. My partner, C., is poly, and while I don’t identify as poly, I’m very familiar with the community and the ideology behind it, and I know and understand why it works so well for some people.

C. has two other partners besides me that they see a lot, and I try to be very respectful of those relationships, but recently I feel like they are prioritized above ours. I don’t see them more than once a week, usually after 11 PM on a weeknight, due to the fact that we are both insanely busy (between us we work four jobs and I am in school at night), and sometimes C. will text their other partners or potential partners when we are together. A couple weeks ago, they spent twenty minutes booking a trip that they are taking with another partner while I was sitting in their bed. I don’t want C. to stop telling me about other parts of their life, such as their other relationships because I want to be involved and aware of what they’ve got going on.

I’ve written them a letter about feeling like I’m getting the short end of the stick, but I’m afraid that it comes off as a break-up letter and I don’t want to break up with them. I really just want to be happy with them. Not to mention that I only see them at 11 PM once a week, and I don’t want to talk about all this stuff when we could be spending time together.

My friends say I should just break up with them, but I REALLY like them. I’m driving everyone crazy. Please send help!


A:

Hi hi, friend!

First off, I want to commend you for knowing exactly what’s bothering you. That doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it is—some people just know they’re unhappy or frustrated in their relationships, and they can’t put their finger on why. So kudos! A lot of the legwork on this has already been done because you can articulate what’s going on for you.

I also highly recommend to people, while figuring these kinds of things out, that they do write a letter. It helps you clarify what exactly it is you’re asking of your partner. Rarely, however, do I recommend to people that they send said letter. For one thing, putting a relationship discussion in a letter makes your stance feel permanent, like you are unwilling to respond to what the other has to say. For another, if it’s a letter that leans more toward the constructive criticism side of things, there’s the chance that the person could read it over and over, dissecting every little thing and making themselves feel really awful. And that’s not at all what you wanted when you sent the letter! You just wanted to air some things that are bothering you and get them fixed up or explained so you can continue enjoying your relationship. Lastly, there’s the exact risk you mention in your letter—because it’s writing and not something where you can see each other’s faces and body language and change how you’re acting accordingly, letters can hit breakup territory really fast and without your control. You might be wondering: if that’s all the case, then why do I recommend people write letters?

Not to send them, that’s for sure. I recommend them as a sort of practice, a script you can follow when you begin this conversation with your partner. When you’ve written something out, you’re more likely to be able to calmly say exactly what’s on your mind. Because you’ve already done the work of picking out the words. Practice! You’re already ahead of the game. But I am gonna say you really do have to actively have the conversation. Here are some strategies you can use before, during and after the conversation.

Ask Permission First, And Schedule It In

You say you’re both really busy, which means you’re going to have days where neither one of you wants to do this. You might have had a rough one at work or school, or you might just be exhausted and you don’t want to deal. The conversation needs to happen, but you want it to happen when both of you are ready for it. Ask if now is a good time to have a more serious conversation, and if it isn’t, ask to schedule it in. But be ready to hear “not tonight” and respect that answer. Don’t try to force a conversation if C. says no, not right now. A) that’s kind of a jerk thing to do and b) it makes it more likely that the conversation won’t go the way you hope.

Literally Say This Isn’t a Breakup

You can say that, you know. If you’re worried it comes off as a breakup, legitimately say it’s not. “This isn’t a fight, and it isn’t a breakup. This is a few things that are frustrating to me, and I don’t think you’re intending to do them.” That’s the other thing—assume positive intent. C. probably has NO IDEA that you’re feeling deprioritized, especially if they’re busy too. They’re probably just trying to jigsaw their life together without any knowledge that anyone’s feeling any sort of way about it. They might have legitimately forgotten things they said they’d do with you, or things they were supposed to do earlier in the day. Likely, since you like them so much and I happen to know you have good taste, they’re not intending to be malicious toward you. When you’re going into this kind of conversation, remind them that you don’t think they’re trying to frustrate you.

Say Exactly What You Want

This is what I hear when I read your question: you want C. to be totally with you when you’re spending time together because your time is so limited. That doesn’t mean they don’t get to talk about their other people or what funny conversation they had with someone else they’re seeing. It just means that you want your time together to be valuable because you’re together. This is the part I think you’re going to have the easiest time with, because you’re really clear on what you want out of this conversation.

Be Prepared For Several Outcomes

So the most likely outcome is, wow, I had no idea I was making you feel like that, my bad, sorry, I’ll try not to do those things that are bothering you. Mostly because your asks aren’t huge. But people are people, and maybe this person will get defensive. Or maybe this person is unwilling to alter the flow of their life. Be prepared for these outcomes by knowing what your price of admission is. I’ve talked about price of admission before—it’s your deal-breakers, the things a person MUST have or do to partner up with you. Everyone has them, and everyone has different ones. Different things are weighted differently for different people. How weighty is this for you? Only you can tell.

If You Like The Outcome, Say So!

If you like how the conversation went, say that! Too often we’re caught up in providing feedback when we don’t like something, without any attention to the good stuff. If it goes well, say that you’re pretty pleased with y’all’s communication skills right now. And if they stop texting their other partners while they’re with you, let them know you notice and appreciate it.

A Note On Driving Your Friends Crazy…

Listen, every friend is going to feel differently, but in my experience, it isn’t the repetition of the actual words that drives friends crazy when you talk about something that’s going on in your life. It’s you feeling bad. That’s the part your friends don’t like to see. Bonus driving your friends crazy if you’re feeling bad AND there’s a solution you’re not taking (like having this tough conversation that will probably make everything better). Because if they could make you not feel bad for you, they’d do it! Your friends love you. They want happiness for you.

And that’s all I’ve got—AS community, what’ve you got?


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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. I think the advice about positive feedback is really important. It’s a common argument with my partner and I that I spend too much time on my computer in the evenings when we’re together. And I understand her complaint, but when I intentionally close the screen and try to be more present, I don’t often see a change in the dynamic and the cycle kind of starts over. It would make a huge difference to me for her to notice my efforts and respond to them.

    Definitely agree that using a letter is a bad idea. It makes the communication feel like a one-way street and leaves so much room for misunderstanding.

  2. So I think writing things out is a really excellent way to get your thoughts together with less pressure. Often when put on the spot I have difficulty articulating what I want to say.

    So I’ve written things out and either read them to the person, or handed the letter to the person to read then and then been there to immediately hear their response, clarify any misunderstanding and discuss the issues further.

  3. I’ve got partners who could spend 24/7 with me every day and not get tired of me or get enough. I even used to work the same days and shifts (at the same place) as my wife, so we were never apart! It seems like no matter how much effort or time I feel like I give, someone somewhere feels left out.

    C. could totally have the same mindset as I do. Like Ali said, they may not realize how you feel and it could come as a shock or a stressor for them. I know that for me, how my partners approach me affects how the conversation goes. If there’s stress and emotion present, I often get defensive (because I’m human)! However, if they approach me with calm, encouragement, honesty… allow space for my feelings, it’s much easier for me to allow space for theirs and we can have a wonderful discussion.

    Long story short? Listen to Ali. She knows her shit. :D

  4. Just to offer more reassurance from the not-driving-friends-crazy camp, I’ve been in a similar situation with a pal lately, and what makes me crazy isn’t that they’ve come to me, but seeing them prioritize their partner’s feelings over their own. I love everyone involved very much, and it makes me so, so sad to see them not asking for something they want or need. If I could wave a magic wand, I’d fix this whole thing for them (and you!)

  5. An ex of mine ( I loved deeply ) totally wrote a letter and read it to me. Like mentioned above, I felt like if she felt strongly enough to write it out and read it to me, then she was resolved. Needless to say, she is an ex because she listed way too many things and it felt like a breakup letter. Certainly, try not to read it to them even if you fear you might forget a few things.

    • I think it’s all about the contents of the letter – it could be a very loving tool for helping to work through issues, or it could be accusatory, nitpicky, or could list things that the receiver feels are fundamental parts of their being – things they can’t or wouldn’t change.

      The LW here is pretty clear – they care about their partner and there’s one main issue that they are having trouble with. It seems like C. could be receptive to it, even in letter form!

  6. I have to second the letter thing. I wrote one to my partner a couple of weeks ago, and just writing it really helped out and figure out what my priorities are. I think this sort of conversation is really tough and the clarification of “this is not a break up” is really important. (I think during our conversation I used it almost every other sentence) One of things with this sort of conversation is that you can’t actually know or control how your partner is going to react, and accepting that is terrifying but can really help from a pressure and self esteem side of things(at least it did for me). Also, your friends might not be being driven as crazy as you think, I thought mine must really hate my boyfriend because I felt like I was only talking about problems, but when I asked they brought up many examples of why that is not the case – apart from anything else, when things are good in a relationship its not necessary to talk about it. He made me a cup of tea and then we watched 6 Parks and Rec episodes isn’t as newsworthy as he drank too much and pissed me off for example. Wow, that was long. But this is something that has been on my mind a lot recently so I guess I had a lot of thoughts!

  7. Good for you for identifying what’s bothering you!! It gets under my skin too when my partner is paying digital attention to their other partners when it’s “our” time. Here’s my anecdote, maybe it’ll jog your thinking about your options. After many weeks of feeling irked about texting and tweeting (and feeling kinda guilty about it for not being sufficiently Chill), i finally snapped and made a rude comment that led – eventually, after the quarrel – to the opportunity to communicate my expectations about how I’m treated in a poly/open relationship: Don’t spend your mindfulness and emotional energy communicating with your other dates when i am doing the work to be present to JUST you. So while I’m driving us to our date, sure – sext away. Wanna talk about a bad date while i stack the dishwasher? Sure. But making plans during our cuddle time, or during our meals? NOT acceptable. I have to give verbal reminders sometimes but my partner at least knows what behavior was agreed-to.

    Just my $0.02 – hope it works out.

  8. I think the letterwriter’s wishes are very reasonable, but you never know what will happen when people start to have a conversation about boundaries (or any other conflict).

    Something I do, when preparing to have one of these conversations, is to think about what my hopes and fears are, so I am not just unconsciously holding them under the surface. If I do this before I talk to the other person, I am more able to be clear about my reactions in the moment, once the conversation starts.

    Also, sometimes what seems like a small thing is actually part of a bigger thing, and only focusing on the small thing leaves me unprepared for the conversation if it turns out that there’s more going on than I realized when I got started.

    If it does start to snowball, remember that if you need to, you can say something like: “Wow, this is turning out to be a bigger issue than I thought it was. Now that I have more information, I’d like to think about it more, before we continue talking about it, so I can be clearer.”

  9. I really appreciate your articulation of why written communcation can be ill-advised in these kinds of conversations, Ali. I learned the hard way not to do that by sending texts and emails I shouldn’t have but hadn’t had a clear rationale why it doesn’t work all that well

  10. I like Ali’a advice, and want to add two things:

    1. Beyond what they say, make sure their actions match their rhetoric. So they might say, “Sure, baby, okay,” but then continue the behavior, or backslide. Monitor. I think it’s appropriate to re-raise the issue once or twice, but if the consistently do it, you might have to accept that’s just how they are, and decide if you can live with that.

    2. The immediate issue you raise is whether they can be present with you during the rare time you have together, and it seems like all the advice here addresses that. But reading into your letter, it seems you’re not terribly happy with only getting to see them once a week at 11pm in the first place. If more time–and more quality time–is what you truly want, you can ask for that too, and make a relationship decision based on that. (If I’m misreading, feel free to ignore.)

  11. I personally have no problem receiving communication in written form. I think it really depends on the person, whether they like it or hate it. It can give people time to think things over before reacting, and doesn’t have to be an occasion for defensiveness. I think it all depends on how you write it and whether the person you give it to happens to have a thing for or against it as a format.

  12. One thing that pops out to me is this line “but recently I feel like they are prioritised above ours.” The letter writer doesn’t say whether their partner practices hierarchical polyamory or not. In addition to all the advice, it would be helpful for the letter writer to get clarity on where they fit in with the other relationships. How you’re being treated when you’re together isn’t acceptable even if your partner sees you as a “secondary” but it would explain how they’re prioritizing their time.

  13. I’ve written letters numerous times (a couple intended to be break ups) and everytime I feel like they don’t even begin to understand what Im trying to say. I shut down out of frustration for a couple days, blame myself, then reply like nothing happened or apologizing. I feel like I should walk away but when I think past the argument I do care for and appreciate them very much. I can’t walk away and I can’t stop having this same argument

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