Check it out – a real live human asked me personally a question! This time when I critique someone’s marriage, it will be because I was invited to do so, not because I stole Prudie’s mail! You can’t imagine how pleased I am right now.
Quick recap before we get started here, since we’re doing this all official-like now: I’m a huge ho here to help you figure out how to ho it up in an ethical, compassionate, healthy way, whether for fun or profit. You can find the remainder of my qualifications, such as they are, in that post there, but the pertinent one today is that I’ve spent most of my dating life in polyamorous relationships, trying to figure out how to interact emotionally and sexually with a lot of people while keeping them and myself healthy and happy. Poly-related problems are, with a few exceptions, monogamy problems with an exponential multiplier – the issue is the same, but the feelings and the confusion are amplified for every additional person in the mix. Very often, when you think you have a poly problem, what you have is a relationship problem that you’re trying to solve with polyamory, and that’s why it’s not working.
Our Letter Writer today gives a great example of a situation where that’s probably the case – the relationship was already limping, and polyamory has simply complicated the fallout – but also an occasion where honestly, the source of the problem doesn’t matter as much as what you do next.
You don’t know me (duh) but (if I read it correctly) something on your profile said to ask you anything so I’m taking you up on your offer.
I’m married. Have been for a year and a half or so. Spouse and I are sexually incompatible, so recently we had a talk and discovered we are both poly! Yay!
Both of us went on dating sites and happened to find the exact same couple through the opposite person in it. That’s cool! Now we are all a little cube of love and stuff.
Except we aren’t. Spouse got really upset at me tonight. We had some hard times with cars and finances and had to take rideshares to work and the like for a while.
Well, one day, I accidentally ordered all my rides from my personal account instead of the joint account. I got like 4 overdraft fees tacked onto my account, at 40 bucks each.
So I didn’t realize this till tonight and told them i was in the hole. They freaked out and started yelling about how I always fuck up finances. I’ll admit I’m not great with them, but this was an accident.
Their yelling progressed to how they’re upset that I have so many friends that support me and that I get sick and get off work for 2 days while, when they’re sick, they still had to go in. Also how apparently everyone always asks them about me. About how their gf doesn’t talk to them much while I talk to my bf a decent bit.
This isn’t the first time they’ve gone off on me for something, and honestly they’ve said much worse things, but it really hit me today for some reason.
Since the argument, I’ve been looking for apartments and trying to balance a budget based on what I under-guesstimate I make. I honestly feel I need to leave this relationship to help my own mental health.
Back to the poly thing though. That nice little cube we have. I don’t want to fuck up the lives of two absolutely wonderful and supportive people because of stuff my spouse said to me. I’m scared that if I do leave then things might be said and I know what will happen.
Honestly I’m just really fucked up and I don’t know what to do. I still love them, but I need to take care of myself. But I also don’t want to hurt the other two people we’ve only just started relationships with.
I know this is something kinda fucking heavy to send at 12AM but I need help and I’m entertaining all offers, so…. here I am.
Okay. First of all, let’s get one thing straight – you have nothing to apologize for. Thank you so much for extending yourself, for asking for help generally and specifically for inviting me to comment on your life. That is a brave and openhearted thing to do, and I am so happy that you did.
With that settled… I think you’re asking two questions here, a poly question and a validation question. The poly question is: “How do you break up only part of a poly relationship?” And the validation question is: “Will you give me permission to walk away?”
I want to answer the second question first: yes. It seems like you want to leave, and I think your reasons for that are good ones. Just from what you wrote, I know a few things about your spouse – I know that when you alert them to a financial crisis, they do an acrobatic pirouette off the handle and start yelling at you. I know that this yelling is aimed at your character and your person – “you ALWAYS do this thing, which shows that you are part of a GRAND CONSPIRACY TO BE MEAN TO ME, one in which you are in cahoots with my employer to deny me time off.” And this yelling, which to me sounds like a dealbreaker all on its own, has happened before. There have been other occasions when this person said “much worse things” to you, possibly at yelling volume. I’m using more specificity than I need here so that you can be really honest with yourself about how you’re being treated.
I don’t think it takes any kind of diagnosis to say that this environment isn’t good for your mental health. If you’re looking for apartments, you’ve already decided that you need to leave, so let’s take that as read while we move on.
First, the safety stuff:
People who get hurtfully shouty can get hurtfully handsy, especially when their favorite shouting target tries to leave. I’m not making any assumptions about your spouse, but if you think this is even a remote possibility, you’ll want to keep your preparations very much to yourself. You have probably already done this if you were worried about it, but here’s another permission from me: it’s okay to trust your gut, even if you’re not 100% sure, especially with regard to your health.
There are a lot of organizations that can help you, even just with planning and guidance. LoveIsRespect is a great one, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline can guide you in putting together a safety plan and finding local organizations and people who can support you.
This is also a really good time to connect/re-connect with your people outside this relationship. Do you have family nearby (whom you like)? Friends not connected to these three people? A therapist? It seems like a lot has happened in the year and a half since you married – potentially discovering a sexual incompatibility, discussing and trying polyamory, meeting the other couple, time spent as a unit – and a lot of times, that means that you’ve been very focused at home and let some outside connections lapse a bit. It’s time to recover some of that, to remember who you are separate from your spouse and your metamours. This is critical, because in order to have the conversations you need to have, it’ll really help to have an idea what it is you want to happen.
Some things to consider while framing that picture…
I would be very surprised if your metamours were totally unaware that your marriage involves this level of yelling and personal attacks. Depending on the level of intimacy between all of you, either of your metamours could be in a similar position or getting similar treatment from your spouse. In the same way that I would feel obligated to be honest if someone I knew entered a relationship with someone who abused me, I think in this situation it’s important that you’re candid about why you’re leaving. When you do that depends mostly on your relationships with your metamours, but I wouldn’t suggest doing it before you’re prepared to execute your plan to leave, unless they live with you. They’re not under immediate threat and you are, so you need to deal with that first, and these conversations can’t remain one-on-one for long. Order of operations is going to depend on your sense of your own safety – swap around #1 and #2 and leave first if you’re at all unsure about how Spouse will react to the news.
- Inform Spouse of your intention to leave.
- Talk to metamours.
(This conversation doesn’t have to be in-person. I would want to do it ASAP, and I imagine you feel the same way, so it’s constructed in such a way as to not require input from them. You can leave it as a message on their voicemail/Intertube of Choice if you want, and if Spouse is blowing up their phones at the same time, that might be a good idea.)
I’m going to offer you some words I would use, because often I find people don’t tell you that – they tell you, “Talk to them!” which I think for most people leaves you right where you started. But you don’t have to use my words in any way.
If you follow a basic format with the conversation, you’ll be okay:
- Explain the situation without going into specifics about any one event
- Tell them what you plan to do next
- Tell them what you need from them, or what you would like to happen between you, in an ideal world.
- Invite them to share their “ideal” outcomes and work with you to bring them together, if and when they want to do that.
- End the conversation, give all of you some space to process and discuss amongst yourselves. This is a great moment to do some self-care or vent to a totally unconnected friend.
It’s not necessary to trash your spouse here, and it is necessary to let your metamours make their own decisions about their relationships. I would say something like:
“Spouse and I have struggled with some incompatibilities for a while, as you maybe sensed, and due to Spouse’s recent hurtful behavior during those conflicts, I don’t feel safe staying with them. It’s not for me to tell you how to handle your relationships, but in case Spouse has directed this kind of behavior at anyone else, I wanted to have it on the record.”
You can’t tell them what to do, but it will help them decide if you can tell them what you plan to do. If you need their help executing some part of your safety plan, this is the time to ask. That request might feel awkward or painful, because they understandably have complicated emotions about what’s going on right now. But when your health is at risk, it’s okay to ask the people nearest you to hold onto their emotional butts for a second and give you a hand out of this pit full of snakes. It’s okay to expect adults to manage their own emotions and deal with the business at hand if it’s a threat to your health. You gotta be alive to have feelings, so protecting your body comes first.
Complicating this will be the question of whether you’re comfortable seeing Spouse again after you leave. Only you can answer that. Be kind to yourself when you do. If you’re at all unsure, err on the side of a full block, especially if there’s a chance Spouse will, ah… resist being broken up with. Fully separating will require a little reorganization of how you relate to your metamours, and it might be challenging for them if they choose to continue relationships with you both separately, but that’s for them to choose, and it’s a choice any friends have to make every time someone treats their friend badly. It’s not easy, and it sucks, but those things are not your fault. You did not cause this. You are not creating the problem by making them aware of it. There are many ways they can handle the situation, and if you’ve got an idea, you can offer it. Do you guys usually do things as a group, and can those things be rejiggered to work in pairs or on other days when Spouse is not available? What things do you do with your metamours that you most want to preserve? In an ideal world, what would happen here?
“I’m going to move in with Soandso Who Is Not You Guys for a little while, figure out my next move. I care about you both deeply and I would love to continue (having our dates on Fridays/doing game night with you both and not Spouse sometimes/sleeping over on a different night than Spouse does) if you’re comfortable with that, but I understand that our relationship will probably change somewhat. I just want you to know that I love you and I want to protect my own health here while causing you as little pain and stress as possible.”
Then it’s time to put your phone away and take care of yourself. Give yourself 24 hours to process and rest. Nothing is going to happen that can’t wait a single day, even though people will probably try to make you feel like it is. Their emergency is not your emergency. My Buddhist therapist tells me that we have three obligations when we speak: to be honest, to be kind, and to be necessary in what we say. If you have been honest with everyone, told them exactly as much as necessary for them to make informed decisions, and done it as kindly as you can, you have nothing to feel guilt or shame about, and nothing more to offer someone who wants to argue with you. It’s okay to turn the phone off.
Take the steps you need to protect yourself, tell the parties involved with clarity, brevity and compassion, and then treat yourself with that same compassion. This won’t guarantee that no one will react badly, fly off the handle, make a bad choice – of course it won’t. But you can’t control that. It’s not up to you to manage how they feel about your news, and when you try to take responsibility for managing their emotions (or they try to make you responsible for managing them), it denies their adulthood rather than treating them as an equal.
Tell them what you want so that they can tell you if it’s something they can give. Don’t ask for less than what you’re worth. Don’t let Spouse make you feel smaller than you are. You are asking for the bare minimum in being treated like an equal partner, and the fact that you have other partners has nothing to do with that.
I wish you safety, and clear eyes, and a bone-deep sense of your own worthiness, Alice.
If you have a burning question of your own, be advised that
I am no kind of doctor
but I’ll tell you if what you’ve got looks weird at