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Reader question #97: Bizarre Love Polygon

Dear Captain,

My question is about boundaries and rights, I think. Or maybe it’s about anger.

 The problem is Basil. That isn’t his name. The other problem is Maddy. Also not her name. Basil and I have been friends since college, and have held mutual attraction for each other for some time. About four years ago we made out a couple of times, and cut it off because a.) I was cheating on my husband with him (who never found out and whom I’ve since divorced for different reasons), and b.) Basil was seriously considering starting a relationship with Maddy. A few months ago she broke up with him. That is the back story.

Basil and I began “a thing.” I don’t know what else to call it. It wasn’t an affair, really (I have a serious boyfriend in an open relationship), and we weren’t really dating. We were hanging out and watching movies and having a lot of sex. Really wonderful sex. I had backed off from him for years, even enough to seriously erode our friendship (not that we fought—just that we didn’t really hang out at all), to avoid even the implication that I might be moving in on Maddy’s territory, given our history. And now I could be close to him again, platonically and otherwise. I was ecstatic.

He desperately wants to get back together with her. This wasn’t an issue for us because my boyfriend and I are moving out of the state soon. If and when she came around, he wouldn’t have to worry about me. We kept our thing generally quiet. He felt that she would be hurt by it, and wanted to be the one to tell her about it, if telling her became necessary. She asked him about it last night. I think our friend Michael had picked up on the fact that Basil and I had been spending a lot of time together, and mentioned it to her. I don’t know if he did it maliciously (the Basil/Maddy/Michael love triangle is a whole different story). Anyway, she blew up. We hadn’t expected her to love the idea, but we agreed that it wasn’t really any of her business, as he was the one dumped. Also, Basil felt that he could adequately reassure her. Anyhow, the fallout turned out to be much greater than we expected.

My history with Maddy is weird. She and I were friends, but we met when she was in the process of deciding whether to date Basil or another of our friends, which led to several months of the two of them not speaking. This, I understand, is how she has moved from and to every romantic relationship she’s had until now. A couple of years ago Michael decided he was in love with her, at which point he went from being my best friend (he basically carried me through my divorce) to spending time with me occasionally, but only when he wasn’t already doing something exclusive with her and never working very hard to accommodate me. When I did spend time with them, I was consistently the third wheel. She continued to let him believe that MAYBE she would break up with Basil (things have been on the rocks for a while), and if she did, MAYBE she would get together with Michael.

Now she is telling Basil and everybody else that MAYBE they’ll get back together someday. She still has feelings for him, you see, and is in therapy now. He’s clinging to that as desperately as Michael clung to the things she told him, and once again I lose. He’s cut off our physical relationship, even though it’s a very short time before I’m going to leave, anyway.

It hurts. A lot. I feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus for the sake of something that probably isn’t going to happen (it’s very clear to me and a lot of other people that in her lexicon, “maybe” means “No”) and certainly won’t happen before I’m out of the picture. I feel like he’s appeasing her, which he had at least implied to me that he wouldn’t do. I’m worried it’s going to make things between Basil and I awkward, at best, even when Maddy isn’t around, and even if I never touch him again, I want him to be a good friend.

I’m afraid to be angry. I’m afraid that if I get angry at Basil I’ll lose him, and if I get angry at Maddy I’ll be a soap-opera stereotype. But I’m jealous of her. I’m jealous that her needyness and willingness to say whatever she thinks people want to hear make her so attractive to some of the most important people in my life, to my detriment and theirs. I’m jealous that she’s okay with this, or oblivious to it, while I try to do my best to respect people’s time and desires, and my unwillingness to be (or fear of being perceived as) a manipulator means I get walked on. Nice girls finish last?

Do I have a right to be angry? Do I have an obligation to be angry? I don’t think Basil or I have done anything wrong, and he didn’t hook up with me until a while after their relationship had ended, which is more than she’s done for a lot of people. I hate how bitter I feel towards her, because I know it’s just as much his fault for being spineless. But come on. “You can’t have me but I’m going to get angry if you want anybody else” is bullshit, right?

How hard do I fight? Not necessarily for the sex: I asked Basil once to change his mind and give me this last little bit of time, and he said no. I’m not going to ask him again. But what about respect? What about my feelings? What about our friendship? Where is the line between being wronged and being a bitch?

 —He’s Under My Skin

Dear Under:

You have the “right” to be angry at this turn of events. Be angry that Maddy seems to treat people like old toys that you might donate to the Salvation Army but you might pick back up and play with at any time. Be angry that Michael ran his mouth (probably in hopes of cocking things up between Maddy & Basil so he could get back in there….OOPS!)  Be annoyed that Basil likes Maddy better than you and will accept the outside chance of a relationship with her rather than continue his sexy arrangement with you. Maybe it’s less painful to think of it this way:  You have a primary partner and you’re leaving town soon, so Basil is choosing a chance of having the whole enchilada with someone vs. being a side thing.  That’s understandable.  But it still is a breakup, and it’s also understandable that you would grieve over that.

So yeah, it’s futile to try to not feel angry, or jealous. It’s what you do about those feelings that matters.

This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but your ummfriendship and your actual friendship with Basil is going to be in the toilet for the forseeable future.  He sent you a strong message that you are not as important to him as he is to you.  Maddy’s not really your friend.  Just admit now that she sucks and you don’t like her and free yourself of the need to like her. Michael….I’m “meh” on Michael.  He likes being monkey-in-the-middle too much.  You can’t prevent any of their terrible decisionmaking, and sharing your feelings of hurt and anger with them is just going to deepen the drama and the conflict. Turn them into people you say a polite hello at before scurrying away to somewhere else.

My suggestion is that you focus your time on your primary partner (and not to vent to him about these failing relationships even if you guys are open, we just covered that!) and your upcoming move.  And if you’re feeling a gap in your social life (this is likely, Basil was taking up a lot of space), fill that with spending time with your other friends, coworkers, family, long walks, novels, whatever.

There is like 100% chance that Basil is going to want to “clear the air” with you in some way, and by clear the air I mean sit you down for a beer and talk to you endlessly about his feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelings….for Maddy…and justify why he had to leeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaave you….for Maddy. And here is where I can help you:  SHUT IT DOWN.  “Oh Basil, that does sound like a lot to handle, so sorry, I just can’t talk about that with you.  You should talk to Maddy directly about that.  So, about the Daniel Craig-Rachel Weisz marriage – do you think it’s part of a government plot to produce genetically perfect children?”

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10 comments
  1. kate said:

    Yeah you have a right to be angry and hurt etc. etc. Maddy sounds like a real piece of work, and Basil and Michael all too willing to let her pick them up and put them down and keep them on a string… (I’ve never understood the kind of siren who brings that out in people, but we all know it happens). And even if that weren’t the case, you always have the right to feel what you feel. Feelings aren’t choices, they happen at a primitive, irrational level… like CA says, it’s what you do about them that matters.

    Still, there’s a less painful way to look at this than what CA’s response suggests. While it may be true that Basil has shown he cares more about even a remote chance to get back together with Maddy than he does about the small remaining bit of the here-and-now sexual relationship he had going with you, it’s not like he was choosing between a serious, future-oriented relationship with you or the same with Maddy, and he chose her. He probably didn’t even think you’d care that much, since he knew he’s not the main event for you, either, just some hot sex on the side. (Yeah, you were more than that — but he didn’t ditch the friendship part, just the sex, so that’s what’s relevant here).

    It’s even arguable that he’s being sort of decent. Maybe he realized (from your hurt reactions) that you were taking collateral damage from Maddy’s on-again-off-again crap and his pathetic willingness to put up with it. Or maybe for the sake of his own sanity and/or trying to do things right in whatever is going to happen with Maddy he felt he needed to work through things with her without the complication of hot sex with you on the side (especially now that he knew Maddy was sooo not cool about him having sex with you). Not so unreasonable, once you accept the idiocy of his wanting to be back with her in the first place.

    What’s great about giving Basil the benefit of the doubt in this respect is that a) it means you don’t have to hate him, just pity him for having little enough self respect to let Maddy pull that crap and keep asking for more, and b) it’s less hurtful to you. Life has too much unavoidable hurt to go looking for more. Instead, acknowledge that the Basil-Maddy-Michael scene is a mess you’re well out of… be glad you don’t have to care how it all turns out, or to keep taking that collateral damage. You can wish Basil (and Michael) well, for all the good things you’ve had together, then back away and be glad you have a life to escape to that does not have all that icky drama in it.

    But also understand that part of the problem is that on some level you felt like Basil owed you sex for the rest of the summer, or whatever the relevant time period is. Where did that come from? Not, I don’t gather, from any promise he’d actually made. As someone in an open relationship, you need to realize the importance of clear communication about what your expectations are, and be alert for disconnects between the understanding you’ve reached with someone and what your actual expectations/desires of them are. (Especially since such things tend to evolve over time). Otherwise, you’ll wind up being angry or hurt and even ruin a basically good relationship because the other person failed to meet expectations/desires they never knew you had, or never agreed to meet. Be vigilant for those disconnects, and have open communication with your partner about how to handle your/their changing wants/needs.

    • k said:

      Agreed, agreed. The key to this is the “I already have a primary partner” part of the story. Yes Maddy sounds like a piece of work, and LW definitely doesn’t have to appreciate how she (or Michael) handles these things. Who knows why Basil is getting sucked back into her orbit instead of searching elsewhere for a new love.

      But yes, LW, focus on your life apart from this group of people.

      And as for “nice girls finish last”, well, maybe look at the stability you have with your primary partner and at your apparent ability to get some hawt pieces on the side when you want them, huh? What does Maddy have that compares to that, really?

  2. I’m glad you mentioned Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, because MY advice was going to be “Take a hint from Closer and turn this shitstorm into a screenplay.”

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m glad you mentioned Closer, where the moral of the story is “THERE ARE MORE THAN 4 PEOPLE IN LONDON, OK? Branch out.”

    • Sheelzebub said:

      Pure gold advice!

  3. karinacinerina said:

    And this is why polyamory is best left to people who can handle it. If I had not previously dabbled in the poly community I would be all “what the hell crazypants YOU HAVE A BOYFRIEND” and I am sure you’re going to get a bunch of replies like that, but not from me.

    Maddy is not an ethical slut, and she’s using emotional manipulation to have her cake and eat it too. If she were remotely respectful of Michael and Basil and you and anyone else everyone is involved with, she would be clear and open and either commit or not and it wouldn’t be drama drama drama. I think the good Captain is totally right, though; you will have to accept that you are far more into Basil than he is into you. Which sucks but it happens. At least you have your primary to comfort you. Perhaps you’re really just rankling at the injustice of people professing to have one set of moral codes (the ethical slut thing) but acting a different way. People suck, no matter what their sexual preference/lifestyle, and often disappoint. And sometimes they don’t. Poly people have a lot of people’s feelings to juggle and even the best-intentioned and most ethically minded of them fail, but it sounds more like Maddie does her dance of indecision by design. Not cool.

    You are best served emotionally separating from these folks and letting them implode in their drama without dragging you down too. Find some new, mature poly people to explore your open relationship with, and mourn the genuine friendships that will fade as a necessity of protecting your heart.

    I hug you and wish you luck! My brief foray into that universe was incredibly educational and valuable in terms of self-discovery and tolerance as well, but damn, that shit is hard to do.

  4. sasha said:

    These two people who’ve been great friends/lovers/supporters of you, and whose opinions you generally respect, like Maddy a lot. And to you, it’s beyond obvious that she’s bad news, and really not a good person, and why can’t they just see what’s right in front of their faces?

    And god, it’s so tempting to just explain it to them, because it’s so freaking obvious what a manipulator she is that once you spell it out, they’ll smack their foreheads and be like, “duh. of course,” and stop being so hung up on someone who is not worth their time in the slightest.

    Except, unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. You know it doesn’t work like that, and that’s why you feel so frustrated and powerless. Feelings are not always things that can be logically justified, and their feelings for Maddy aren’t going to go away just because logically, rationally, they should.

    So basically, the Captain is right. You need to step away from this situation. It sucks, and it’s unfair, but no matter what you do, as long as you continue to engage, this situation is just going to keep making you feel like crap. The only thing you can do is disengage–focus on other parts of your life until this is just background noise and you don’t care anymore how it all turns out.

  5. LAPC said:

    LW here. Thanks for all the support, everyone. I sat down and had a long talk with B. (“I’m mad, but we’re friends and that’s important to me. Let’s work it out.”) because I don’t want to leave with bitterness. I discovered that my letter gives him a lot less credit than he deserves for realizing how much bullshit is going on (Sorry, B.). But yeah, I’m pretty much walking away from the situation at this point. I was done with high school drama after the curtain fell on Hello, Dolly.

    • JenniferP said:

      Glad it will work out. And I totally understand the hurt feelings – poly relationships are *real* relationships, and breakups are breakups. Good luck with your move!

  6. Jiggs said:

    Not going to lie to you, LW, the whole time I was reading this I was like “Why are you still speaking to any of these people? They are a mess.”

    Glad you decided to move on.

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