Today’s post is an answer to another question from a $500-level backer of our Indiegogo campaign, and… I must say, y’all are making us work hard for your money. This one is even tougher than the last one. So Franklin and I have decided to write it together, dialogue-style again.
How do you handle a situation where your live-in partner doesn’t like one of your other partners? Not a situation with a veto, just one where there is a dislike, possibly where one partner has hurt the other partner through past interactions.
Eve: Okay. First of all, for anyone in this situation, I’m sorry. It sucks. It really does, and none of you are going to have easy choices.
That said, it’s not all that uncommon. We as poly people, of course, tend to like to put our best face forward, both for personal and PR reasons. We showcase the happy poly “families” in the media, and we tend to minimize our own conflicts while playing up our successes. So it can look like most poly networks are happy little pods where everyone gets along, and it’s easy to feel like you’re somehow abnormal or are “doing it wrong” when something breaks—like two partners not liking each other—and you can’t fix it. But that’s bullshit. The situation you describe happens all the time. Every social group has conflict, and the closer people are, the more friction those conflicts can cause.
But it still sucks. It’s so nice to be in one of those happy poly pods where everyone gets along, isn’t it? When the relationships in a poly network are working well for everyone involved, and everyone loves spending time together, it can be pretty fucking amazing. Sleeping tucked in between two people who adore you? Bliss. If you’ve spent time in that happy poly place, it’s hard to give it up. But that’s just what you might have to do if you want to be with both of these people.
Franklin: I’ve been in this situation from every angle: having a partner who doesn’t get along with one of my other partners, being the person a partner’s other partner doesn’t cotton to, and having a partner who’s involved with someone I don’t particularly like.
When I’m in a situation where one of my loves is dating someone I don’t particularly care for, the first thing I try to keep in mind is, there are big parts of the world that are Not About Me. One of those things is whom my lover chooses to date; that is very much Not About Me.
I don’t need to understand what my partner sees in someone else; I just need to understand that she sees something. I don’t have to understand what value her other partner has to her; I just need to understand that she sees value. As long as I can recognize and respect her ability to make choices in her own romantic life, we’re all good, even if I wouldn’t make the same choices myself.
When you’re the one who’s in the middle, caught between two partners who aren’t getting along…well, it kinda sucks. It can be easy to end up feeling pulled in two directions. I don’t have a magic solution, though I certainly admire the problem.
Eve: In my experience, it can be hard to hold multiple relationships together without the active support of all your partners for the other relationships, especially if you live with one of them. Situations where partners are just tolerating each other may have a steady undercurrent of stress that can be damaging and hard to manage. But it can be done, and whether you can or want to do it depends a lot on your own coping, communication and boundary-setting skills; your emotional health; and how important both partners are to you.
I don’t have a solution, either, but I think we can offer some management strategies. First, as tempting as it might be, don’t try to fix things between your partners. That includes relaying messages, “translating” them for each other, or other forms of triangular communication. If they have pre-existing issues between them, as your question indicates, and they need to talk about those, they need to talk directly to each other, and not through you.
And—while it should go without saying—absolutely no shaming, blaming, or pressuring either of them to work things out, not even when the situation hurts (and it probably will). If you’ve been doing any of that, cut it out, now. Your partners are grown-ups, and they are responsible for their own relationships. And pushing them to have relationships they don’t want stands a good chance of making them less, not more, likely to ever get along.
Franklin: Indeed. Trying to play mediator is, in my experience, unlikely to succeed.
To me, there’s a bit of an unfair expectation in the poly community. In almost every other part of our lives,we don’t see an expectation that people involved with person A must get along with each other. Certainly, we don’t think “well, if I’m friends with Bob and I’m friends with Jill, that means Bob and Jill have to like each other;” the expectation that all my friends have to be friends with one another seems…odd.
Ditto for families. In fact, there’s been a long-standing joke in my biological family: if we ever host a family reunion, the dinner table will need to be set out with a knife, a fork, a spoon, and a dagger for everyone. A lot of folks in my family don’t particularly like one another, sometimes for historical reasons that go so far back I don’t think anyone really has any idea of what’s going on, but that’s the way it is.
What do we do? We try to behave like decent human beings even when things are difficult. I don’t know if there’s a better solution than that.
Eve: If you do think you are in a position to help them work it out (tread carefully here!), here’s what you can do: say something like, “I love you both, and I think I might be able to help the two of you understand each other, if you want my help. Do you want my help?” If both answer yes, you can sit down with them in a room together and help them talk through it. If either answer no—or if the talking doesn’t work—let them know that you’re available if they ever do want your help, and then… drop it.
That said, they should—unless their background together includes some form of abuse, bullying or violence—be able to behave civilly in a room together at social functions a few times a year, and they should be able to discuss important mutual issues (like hospital visits if, say, you’re hit by a car). You can’t make them behave civilly, of course, and you can’t make them attend the same functions (and shouldn’t try). But if you know that one of them is likely to create a scene any time they’re in the same room together, all I can say is… well, are you sure you want to be with this person?
Franklin: It takes everyone’s participation to get along civilly, but only one person to make a scene. My goal, no matter what role I find myself playing when I’m in this kind of situation, is to try not to be the person who messes things up. If I’m on one of the ends, not able to get along with my partner’s other partner, it means remembering that my partner’s choices are Not About Me, and putting on my be-a-decent-person hat even when I’m around my partner’s other partner. If I’m in the middle, I do what I can to treat everyone as compassionately as I can. It’s hard, and I’m not always perfect, but I try.
Eve: Even when they can be in the same room together, the fact that they don’t actually like being around each other is probably going to mean you won’t be spending a whole lot of time with them together, and that’s going to mean less time with each of them. And if that’s not the kind of poly relationship that suits you, that will hurt. But it doesn’t mean any of you are doing it wrong. Plenty of people do compartmentalize their poly relationships, either by choice or circumstance. Some people like it that way; others (me among them), hate it.
But you can create roles for people and then expect the people you love to fit into those roles—or you can love people and make space for them in your life. This is one of those situations where you might have to make that choice between roles and people. Loving both of these people may require you to create a life that you may not be the one you’ve dreamed of for yourself, and living a version of polyamory that is not your ideal, and it’s okay to grieve for that a little (just remember what I said about no shaming or blaming). Are they both worth it to you? Only you can decide that.
Franklin: The part about not shaming or blaming is particularly important, especially because you might be getting some of that from your partners, and it’s easy to want to return in kind. Something that I’ve experienced when two people can’t get along is they each may tend to want to complain about the other to the person stuck in the middle, and that’s an unenviable position to be in. If you’re in a situation where you have to compartmentalize your relationships, it’s important to remember that each of these people is important to you, and to try to be compassionate. There’s a balancing act in being compassionate without taking sides or becoming a go-between for each to vent to about the other, and it’s a tricky business to be there.
Eve: Yeah, that’s a very easy trap for your partners to fall into, and if you’re in the middle, you might have to set—and be prepared to vigorously maintain—firm boundaries to keep it from happening.
What we’ve been saying so far applies to anyone with partners who aren’t getting along. But the question adds the complicating dimension that you live with one of your partners, so you’re going to need to negotiate with them about how often your other partner can be there, and when.
I believe that everyone has a right to to be able to feel safe and comfortable in his or her own home. This means that the partner you live with may want to set some boundaries around the space you share together, and you’re going to need to live with those, even if it restricts your relationship with your other partner more than you might want. If she doesn’t want a particular person in her bed or even in her living room, ultimately she needs to be able to make that call. If you can’t live with that, and you can’t work something out with her than you both can live with… you may need to think about whether living together is the best arrangement for you.
See what I mean about no easy choices?
Your partners may, eventually, work things out with each other, especially as you become more closely bonded to them. The ability to spend more time with you, even if it means more time with your other partner, and the promise of seeing you happier, can be powerful motivators. If given time and space, they may find their own solutions. Professional mediation might help (I’ve seen it work near-miracles). But it’s up to them.
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