#669: “My partner’s wife is a People-Pleaser. Good news, I am a Fixer!”

Hello awesome awkward people!

I’m in a poly relationship, my partner (of four years) has a wife of 20 years (her & I have been really close but have grown more distant the last nine months or so) who has really been struggling the last couple years with what she feels is depression (I’m phrasing it that way because there’s no official diagnosis it’s not to invalidate her). We thought it might have been menopause/hormonal but everything with the docs has checked out. She is seeking finding counseling now but more so because things really got to a crisis level. Her husband gave her an ultimatum to go. He ended up rescinding it but being explicit in things are bad and for his own well being if she doesn’t take getting herself better seriously he’ll have to eventually do what it takes to keep himself healthy.

We typically work very well together and in the 20 years of their open marriage they’ve never had issues like they’re experiencing now. About two years ago there were some serious life stressors (job, money, health etc) and she broke up with a very toxic boyfriend just prior/about this time.

We’re coming out of those things and everything is moving forward and looking so promising but she is struggling. We are working VERY hard to be supportive yet set healthy boundaries.

Through all the transitions and upheavals the last couple years I can’t help feel it has almost been a trigger for a midlife crisis type event for her. There’s no doubt she’s a people pleaser. She’s always happily gone in the direction her husband was going. He’s a strong personality but not manipulative or abusive. His friends have always been her friends, his interest and hobbies became her interest and hobbies. I’ve maintained and continue to cultivate life outside of our relationship and he’s always been 1000% supportive in that. He tries to do so with her but she lacks drive/motivation.

He and I were discussing this, the whys etc and he had a lightbulb moment of she’s such a people pleaser and he doesn’t think she even knows what she wants. Today I’ve done sooooo much reading about P-P and it’s so text book! I’m not going to tell her this is what’s happening but I’m wondering if there are healthy ways to help guide her in exploring this concept. I feel like it’s made doubly tricky because of the P-P attitude. More than anything we want to support her. We really want her to have opinions and to KNOW what SHE wants.

We want her to accept and believe we love her and value her because she’s awesome not because she does everything we’re interested in or that we want to do.

We know that ultimately that is on her to realize that but we would like to be supportive as best we can while maintaining healthy boundaries for everyone.

Dear LW,

Your original email subject line to me was “My partner is a people pleaser, is there a way for me to help?

Once I started reading, that confused me a bit, since the husband (and not the wife) is your partner as far as I can tell. While she was close to you at one time, the relationship has “grown more distant the last nine months or so” which suggests that you now get part of your information about her second-hand, through her husband, which made me think, well, even mostly swell dudes are capable of giving an edited picture of the woman-they-want-to-not-feel-bad-about-leaving to the person they are romantically involved with. Not telling in itself, but…interesting.

There’s something in here about a woman who might have/probably has depression, who went through a bunch of recent health and employment crises, who survived a toxic relationship, and whose marriage of 20 years is imploding. If you’re looking for catalysts for a crisis, mid-life or otherwise, those seem like pretty good ones.

There’s also something here about how you used the word “we” in your letter. If you read back over your letter, looking at each instance of the word “we,” who is that “we” describing? Who does it include? Who is on the outside of that “we,” semantically, and more importantly, emotionally?

I dunno, I think you can be as enthusiastically poly and into having an open marriage as anyone, but when your husband of 20 years is halfway out the door probably the second to the last thing you want is to hear him use a certain inflection of “we” to refer to his happy, very supportive, very functional relationship with someone else. The very last thing you want to hear is this “we” commenting on your life, as in “We are very concerned about you.” “We have figured out this psychological thing you might be, called a people-pleaser, and we’d like to help you fix it.” “We just want you to be happy, and to tell us what you want (so that our promising lives can proceed).” If he is using “we” the way you are using it when he talks to her, like, even once, even accidentally in a “mentionitis” sort of way, it will ring pretty loudly in her ears as confirmation that y’all discuss her when she’s not around and that all of his ultimatum-giving, all of their conflicts and arguments, etc. are things he talks over and possibly plans out with you.

Probably she knows or guesses that already, but as you know, being polyamorous isn’t a guarantee against feeling jealousy or possessiveness or for having primal reactions when an important partnership feels threatened or you find out for sure that people you care about are discussing you constantly in a very concerned manner. Nobody is so much of a people-pleaser that they’re like “You know what the death of my marriage really needs? An audience!

Whatever you intend or desire, no matter how happily you all co-existed in the past, in the present the tectonic plates under her life are shifting. The agreement she and her husband had about being each other’s primary partner and how their marriage works, is shifting. Maybe their relationship has truly run its course (likely, once ultimatums are being issued) and the best thing for everyone is to end it, but I bet it doesn’t feel like the best, most logical decision to her, right now. For instance, what happens to her, financially, if the marriage breaks up? Where will she live? Those aren’t your problems to solve, just, there’s more at stake here than everybody’s feelings. Quite possibly she also grieving the prospect of losing her marriage AND you, her close friend, and allllll her friends, since “his friends have always been her friends” when it all goes south. One sign that she may indeed have uncomfortable people-pleasing tendencies is that she has not (to your knowledge) asked her husband that they close the marriage for a while or stop discussing the marriage with other partners until they work things out between themselves.

I heartily agree that therapy for her (and consulting a good attorney and financial professional) would probably be a great idea. But she didn’t write to me, nor did her husband. So what can you really do here?

Plainly: Stop trying to fix any of this. 

Whatever closeness you may have shared in the past, I don’t think that you are a good candidate for helping her/nudging her gently toward fixing her perceived personality issues unless she specifically asks you to.

(and probably not even then)

(don’t worry, she won’t ask)

First, because while she may not have verbally re-negotiated anything with you, she has distanced herself from you. If she wanted to have a FEELINGSTALK, you’d know. Second, when you write, “She’s always happily gone in the direction her husband was going. He’s a strong personality but not manipulative or abusive. His friends have always been her friends, his interest and hobbies became her interest and hobbies. I’ve maintained and continue to cultivate life outside of our relationship and he’s always been 1000% supportive in that. He tries to do so with her but she lacks drive/motivation” you show me, the reader, that you are on Team Husband and that you share his point of view of her. In your descriptions, he comes across as right/assertive/healthy/boundary-setting/trying his hardest and she as generally wrong/timid/passive/people-pleasing/unmotivated. Being on his team is an okay decision to make since y’all are the ones in a relationship, as his leaving her would be an okay decision to make because people get to break up with other people even when it’s hard and sad, but own it: You have a side, and while you’d like her to be happy, your side isn’t 100% her side.

Perhaps the wife really is “unmotivated” and tends toward people-pleasing, and perhaps you and he are better suited than he and she ever were. Or perhaps he treats you differently than he treats her. Once upon a time he picked her, and her willingness to follow his lead must have worked out okay for him at some point during the last 20 years. I’m not personally in love with this dude and don’t have your awesome history with him, so forgive my skepticism of some things about him or if I’m reminded of Mad Men‘s Don Draper, who in the early seasons pursues affairs with assertive, strong, independent women that he compares favorably against his passive, fragile, “childlike” wife, Betty. It’s sooooooooooooo boring when the person you’ve groomed in every way to please you insists on trying to please you and doesn’t spontaneously develop the ability to assert herself after years of not doing so, amirite? And your partner’s problem isn’t that his wife is already depressed plus being really fucking sad at the prospect of maybe being left, and he feels guilty about that, the problem is that she “doesn’t even know what she wants” and/or most likely has a “textbook” personality defect that y’all can fix together, so he has deputized you as chief researcher/planner of the Kindness Invasion. Huh.

I’ll admit, LW, I like you way more than I like “we”/”him” from this distance.

Even if I am wrong about him (and I do hope for your sake I am reading him completely and totally wrong), if you truly want to be a friend to this woman, and you truly want to explore setting some healthy boundaries in this situation, I suggest you try saying things like this to your partner:

  • “I don’t feel comfortable discussing Wife when she’s not here.*”
  • “I think we’ve maybe overstepped some boundaries by discussing Wife so much, and I’d like to stop doing that.”
  • “Have you told Wife what you told me?”
  • “Maybe the two of you should go to counseling together, and work on the issues you have between you without me.”
  • “Maybe you can find a different sounding board for your issues with Wife, I don’t feel comfortable right now.”
  • “I need to set a boundary, that we don’t discuss Wife when she’s not here, and that I cannot be the sounding board for your issues with her anymore.”
  • “TBH I don’t feel like hearing about your marital problems tonight, save it for a counselor or something,” which I know you’ll never say but I just want to plant the seed that marital counseling is a job that people get paid to do a few times a month in distinct 50-minute sessions and not for free around the clock for people they are also romantically and sexually involved with.

Get out of the middle, Letter Writer. Making the ups and downs of your partner’s marriage less of a factor in your conversations doesn’t mean breaking things off with him. It doesn’t mean you stop being supportive or making soothing noises in his direction. What it does mean respecting that she has pulled back from you and that “they” have shit to sort out between them that isn’t about you, so you don’t need the details. Fortunately you have many outside interests, and this is a great time to throw yourself into them since your boyfriend’s pretty occupied with either saving or leaving his marriage.

I honestly and truly think that disengaging from the Problem of Them and creating clearer boundaries for yourself around this is going to be good for you. At very least, it’s going to free you somewhat from feeling every shock and reverberation of their unhappy union. It’s also going to test how good at boundaries your partner really is – will he respect it if you set some, with him, about this?

*For the love of all that is holy and unholy, don’t discuss their marriage when she IS there, either. Your script: “Sounds like you two have a lot to talk about, goodbye!

 Update: The LW commented to clarify some things (some things that I was definitely not getting at all from the letter when I wrote the response). You may want to read the comment before commenting yourself.

107 comments
  1. slfisher said:

    I agree with this. If part of the wife’s problem is that she’s a people pleaser, coming up to her and saying, “hi, we think you’re a people pleaser, so go look into this, because it would please us” is not going to work real well. And if she wants more independence from her husband, then the way to do it is to figure this stuff out on her own or with help, rather than with his help.

    Frankly, if I were in a poly relationship and so much of my time with my partner was devoted to fixing things in his *other* relationship, I’d start feeling kind of annoyed.

    I want to add that I totally believe LW is a mensch and has good intentions here, but I agree that for both her own benefit and the benefit of her partner’s other relationship, she shouldn’t be involved in “fixing” their relationship or the wife.

  2. peeta8 said:

    Great answer (one I wish I’d had a few months ago, for my own poly tangles). One thing I would add, as the LW may be feeling guilty for being happy… Throwing yourself into your other interests, living fully & with your own clear boundaries *can* help your metamour: by presenting a good example. Want her to find her own friends and interests? You can’t drag her there but you can model that behavior.

  3. Goat Lady said:

    “I’m not going to tell her this is what’s happening but I’m wondering if there are healthy ways to help guide her in exploring this concept.”

    Not gonna lie, this strikes me as creepy. Really, really creepy. Even with the purest of motivations the question here is “how do I manipulate her into agreeing with us that this is her problem, and then make her fix it?”

  4. Ginny said:

    I am poly, so my comments are coming from that point of view.

    Smallish comment: Captain, the first part of this sentence is really uncomfortable for me: “One sign that she may indeed have uncomfortable people-pleasing tendencies is that she has not (to your knowledge) asked her husband that they close the marriage for a while or stop discussing the marriage with other partners until they work things out between themselves.” Not asking your partner to dissolve their four-year relationship. even temporarily, is not a sign of uncomfortable people-pleasing tendencies; it’s a sign of a style of poly that recognizes the importance of secondary relationships (if this group even identifies as primary/secondary, which is unclear), as opposed to insisting on couple privilege to the detriment of other partners. (Asking them to stop discussing the marriage with other partners is another issue.)

    Main comment: LW, I’ve been in the position of having a metamour work with my partner to help figure out what’s wrong with me and how I can get better (without my invitation or request.) It SUCKS. It’s profoundly disempowering, even if it comes from the best of motives. And it’s very difficult to tell the difference from a kindly-meant but unhelpful interference, and an overall pattern of gaslighting and manipulation that masquerades as helpfulness, especially if you have been the victim of the latter. I strongly co-sign the Captain’s advice to stop making your metamour’s mental health struggles your business, unless your metamour herself comes to you and asks for your input. Even if you’re right about what’s going on with her, having it come at her this way is not the affirming, empowering help she needs.

    • JenniferP said:

      I see why that made you uncomfortable. I included it because I sort of suspect that what the wife wants here is “Husband, yes/maybe, Husband + Letter Writer, NOPE” or “Let’s revisit this entire open marriage thing” but a) it has not occurred to the other parties that that might be the case b) she is perhaps “too respectful” to ask for it because to do so will speed the end. Feelings aren’t fair and maybe when your marriage is ending and all ultimatum-y it’s not on you to be fair to the principles of polyness.

      • mamacitaconpistoles said:

        I think this is especially true if Wife feels like Partner and Husband are in a better relationship with each other than either is with her.

        If she wanted to renegotiate the terms of her open marriage in any way with Husband, and Husband is telling her he and LW Have Thoughts… she can’t be feeling like she’s in a good position.

        LW if you care about what happens with Wife as an individual, whatever happens to the marriage, and however much you love your partner, just stay out of it. Let her build her own Team Wife.

      • LW said:

        And he has asked her numerous times if she feels like poly is not a good fit for her anymore.

        I’ve asked.

        Each time the answer has been that’s not the issue.

        She has other partners and definitely identifies as nonmonogamous.

        But thank you Ginny for advocating!

        I have other partners also. We operate in a network/family type poly way. We don’t do primary/secondary stuff.

        We operate from the perspective of just loving and trusting that each other has good intentions with the comfort if something goes sideways we’ll talk about it respectfully and figure it out, learn from the misunderstanding and move forward.

        • JenniferP said:

          Good to know. I honestly did not get this read from the letter. I am truly sorry that trying to help put you in this position of feeling like you have to defend and justify everything comment by comment, and if at any points you want me to close comments say the word.

          I think duck-billedplacelot asked THE question downthread: Given that your relationship styles are pretty incompatible right now, do you still want to be in a relationship with her as part of it?” or, how long do you want to give this to get better before it’s too long? You don’t have to answer us at all, but I think that’s one of the questions on the table for you to think over with your support network (not your dude, not her).

      • Ginny said:

        May I observe that that’s a very — ugh to this phrase — mono-normative suspicion to have? Nothing in the LW’s letter suggested that poly is the issue (I agree with you that coming at the other partner with a strong WE can be pretty problematic, but that’s not the same thing). If their relationship has been open for twenty years and she’s been depressed for two… absent any reason to think so, the conclusion that the open marriage is causing (or contributing strongly to) the depression seems pretty far-fetched.

        I say this out of the deepest respect for you, your compassion and open-mindedness, and your history of advocacy for diversity of all kinds. One of the most common issues poly people face is that, whenever we’re having relationship or mental health problems, well-meaning monogamous people will assume that poly is the problem. While trying to find a road back to health and happiness, we have to invest a ton of energy trying to get others to accept that no, it’s really not the being poly that’s making us miserable. This can take a pretty big toll, especially if we’re struggling with self-doubt and stuff, and are prone to start thinking, “So many advisors and MY ENTIRE CULTURE are telling me this is the reason I’m unhappy, what if it really is?”

        And while yes, there are plenty of people who try poly and discover that it isn’t for them, and often spend some unhappy months or years trying to make it work before coming to this conclusion. But again — twenty years of poly, two years of depression, no other indicators that the presence of other partners is causing problems. It would mean a lot to me, and other happily poly people who deal with occasional mental health struggles, if you and other leading advice-givers would avoid jumping to the “poly is making you unhappy” conclusion without some solid signs that that’s the case.

        (And again, I think the rest of your insights and perspective on this were very on point.)

        • JenniferP said:

          Again, you are so right, and I appreciate the insight and correction.

          I don’t think poly is making her miserable. I think maybe that THIS Relationship is making three out of three people in it kinda miserable, tho.

        • duck-billed placelot said:

          Sorry you have to deal with that. Sometimes I think the poly/non-poly advice givers end up talking past each other around this issue – the advice maybe is meant more like “polyamoury seems hard, maybe don’t try to do a hard thing while you’re doing a super hard thing like dealing with mental health issues” rather than “poly is bad.” Probably does not make it less annoying.

          • jd said:

            For the record, because I’ve encountered this on this forum before and found it super alienating: polyamory only seems extra “hard” to people who are not polyamorous. As a poly person, trying to force myself to be monogamous would be pointlessly hard and terrible advice. All relationships are hard. Poly can have some different types of challenges, but if it’s your relationship style, then it’s your relationship style. It’s not something that poly people are forcing ourselves to accept–more often we’re trying to get other people to accept *us*. (Okay, poly gets harder when you lack social recognition and support for your relationships, but that’s external unfairness, not something inherent).

      • Jess said:

        I second both of Ginny’s comments here. (I don’t identify as poly (or as mono for that matter), but I’ve tried out a variety of different relationship models and principles over the years including poly. I also love reading your blog.) I have to say though, I think ‘not being fair to the principles of polyness’ is a very dismissive way of describing cutting off a relationship of four years because things are difficult at the moment, not to mention a callous way to treat a person who (hypothetically) has done nothing wrong and is doing as much as can be reasonably expected to avoid negatively impacting their metamours. In my view, even when your marriage is ending and all ultimatum-y, it’s on you to be considerate of the people around you and work within the constraints of the life you’ve built (which may also include jobs, kids, mortgage payments and other responsibilities) – as much as possible. Is that really what you meant or have I misunderstood?

        • JenniferP said:

          Ginny is absolutely correct that I read a lot of things about this situation wrong, however, from the LW in one of their clarifying comments downthread:

          “And he has asked her numerous times if she feels like poly is not a good fit for her anymore.

          I’ve asked.

          Each time the answer has been that’s not the issue.”

          It’s not the issue! But I did not invent the idea that it might be. Whatever is going on here has gotten so miserable that that was a question from within this relationship “numerous times.”

          I think that the husband saying “If you don’t fix x, I might have to leave you…,” no matter how kindly meant, has changed everything about how this relationship feels to the people in it. The marriage is imploding. The relationship is imploding. Fair, loving, lovely things that everyone negotiated in happier times are being stretched to their limits.

          • Jess said:

            I don’t think I expressed my point clearly enough because I’m not sure how your comment relates to what I said. Regardless of whether poly is the problem or who suggested it might be, I was taking issue with the idea that asking that your partner to break up with all their other partners (for reasons unrelated to their own behaviour or the individual relationships) when things get rough is simply a matter of failing to live up to a philosophical ideal (if that’s indeed what you meant), as opposed to a shitty way to treat the people in your life.

    • LW said:

      I really appreciate your honesty.

      I really don’t mean to be creepy or manipulative.

      We’ve had many talks (just her & I and the three of us) where she had expressed her frustration at herself at not being introspective and knowing what she wants. And has explicitly said, you guys know me tell me what I want/need. And we’re just gobsmacked in those moments. Reassure her it’s ok not to know but it’s not our place to give her answers but will support her in finding them.

      But I still don’t know how to approach her with saying hey I was reading this article and saw a lot of similarities would this help.

      • mamacitaconpistoles said:

        That’s probably because it won’t help. It sucks so bad, but it’s true. It won’t. She might be asking because you like to fix things and it makes you happy to help, and she wants it to work for you to fix it.

        You don’t know. You’re not a pro at this and you are not a disinterested party.

        If she asks, maybe consider saying “I want to be able to give you answers, because I don’t like seeing you hurt.

        But I don’t know you better than you know you. You are the only one who knows what is in your heart and head, and you can decide what you need and want because you are the expert on you.

        I am not even a mental health expert in this area, and if I were I still wouldn’t know because I am biased by my own perspective. (**Srsly, if she is a PP, neither of you are qualified to design next steps. That is a job for a professional.)

        It sounds like you want guidance, and I think you deserve that. Would talking to a counselor about this help you find clarity, do you think?”

        LW, another thing that might help is for YOU to talk to a pro. You are in a stressful place, too, and deserve a Team LW who is there to help you figure out how to support your own life and your relationships. It’s hard to see people you care about suffering.

        • LW said:

          Thank you!

      • olives said:

        I hear what you’re saying here. I also hear echoes of me, many years ago, in a weird friendship which involved me being told, over and over, that I wasn’t communicating right or acting right or living my life right. And I was pretty much a people pleaser too at this point, and recall having exactly this conversation with the person. I responded the same way: basically said, okay then, you tell me what to do.

        This person basically took me up on this, at the expense of any goodwill between us. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get “better”. It did, however, destroy the friendship as a result.

        Later, much later, I started to learn how to advocate for myself and my needs. I was only ever able to do this once I got rid of people like that person, whose interest in me behaving according to his standards was apparently more than his desire for us to be friends.

        Don’t get me wrong: this was a person with good intentions, who really did want the best for me. But a lot of the advice came down to “be more like me, and you’ll be happy and healthy!”. While I doubt that’s what you mean to say, it sounds very similar when you mention how she’s “unmotivated” towards figuring out her own life. These were pretty much the same criticisms leveled at me, and the biggest reason I couldn’t follow the advice was that it made me constantly doubt myself to be told my someone I cared about that I wasn’t doing things right.

        So even though there’s a bit more to it than this, I’d still suggest letting her deal with things on her own terms, *even if* she’s asking for an instructional guide to live her life.

        Giant caveat that this advice is clearly biased by my own experiences, so take it with however many grains of salt you like.

      • sh said:

        In response to: “But I still don’t know how to approach her with saying hey I was reading this article and saw a lot of similarities would this help.”

        I would suggest just showing it to her. Let her figure out for herself if and how it would be of use to her. The simple sharing of a resource is not prescriptive. You don’t have to tell her how it’s going to apply to her life, because that’s something you don’t know. You can send the information her way, and she can do whatever she wants with it.

        I do hope she decides to get counselling.

      • Have you tried, “We can’t do that because, not being either You or Professionals trained in how not to get You wrong needlessly (and in how to recognize and handle it if we *do* get You wrong), we will probably screw it up if we try. But if you trust us enough to want us to settle for you what’s right for you, please trust us enough to allow us to proxy that trust over to the people we – the folks you’ve just said you trust to help you – think can do it better than we can (i.e. the professionals)?”

        Because it’s sounding like you and Husband need to drill into the No Professionals dictum on her part (which she’s allowed to say, but which is kinda internally inconsistent with saying “I trust you completely, so just tell me what I should do and I’ll do it,”) and figure out what about seeing the pros is so terrible that it overrides everything else about her wishes to get help for depression, her wishes to do what you and Husband tell her to, her wishes to resolve the frustration on Husband’s part which lead to ultimatums, etc. It’s possible all it is, is the fear of admitting to failure (as she interprets failure; certainly I donlt think so!), but I’m inclined to be skeptical that this alone would cause her to risk the utter breakdown of her marriage and family, especially when she’s spent 20 years people-pleasing in so many other ways.

      • the_apricot said:

        I realize I’m late to the party, but I’d like to offer one more perspective from a chronically depressed person:

        Sometimes *wanting things* feels like a foreign language that I was never fluent in and have mostly forgotten.

        I’m not especially a people pleaser and I don’t particularly have a lot of baggage around being allowed to want things for myself. But the absence of desire, motivation, and enjoyment is a common depression symptom so I’m not always very good at wanting. What I’m getting at here is that there’s more than one possible underlying issue that could be behind this behavior, and of course you can’t be expected to be able to look into her head and figure it out.

    • syrens said:

      Can I just co-sign all of this? Because yeah.

      I’m (also) a Fixer, and I routinely have to remind myself that Stuff that comes up between Partner and her Other Partners is really, REALLY not my privilege to get involved with.
      “Not my circus. Not my monkeys,” are actually really good words to live by.
      Yes, it sucks when someone you love is hurting. No kidding. But treating it like it’s your responsability/right to go in and corale the Monkeys who are running amok in their Circus is just… It’s not helpful. It’s presumptuous and it does more harm than good.

    • soukup said:

      Every part of this comment is gold. Thank you.

  5. sh said:

    I agree with a lot of what Captain Awkward said, except I think don’t share her pessimistic view on the matter. It is difficult being with somebody who has depression. If a person is unable or unwilling to seek treatment, it is understandable for a partner to put pressure on them to seek treatment. Honestly, I think only an uncaring partner would stand by and say “whatever” instead of trying to get the depressed person to some help. I don’t see the husband as being eager to leave his wife. I see him as hoping she will get the care she needs so that he won’t have to leave.

    I’ve been the person who’s partner was really far down in depression. He didn’t realize how far down he was. I had to insist that he get help. I had to explain to him that if he didn’t, our relationship was on the line. It took me saying that for him to understand how serious the issue was. I’m still with him. We are poly. I wasn’t trying to leave him for somebody else. I was trying to keep the relationship healthy so that I could be with him AND with somebody else.

    Also in regards to this:

    “One sign that she may indeed have uncomfortable people-pleasing tendencies is that she has not (to your knowledge) asked her husband that they close the marriage for a while”

    That would be considered unethical in some polyamorous relationships. If I have an issue with my partner, that’s between my partner and me. I don’t need to shut down his other relationships to address issues within ours.

    • soukup said:

      Also, whether or not that’s “considered unethical” in your circles, it’s a bit weird that CA seems to assume that it would help this woman and her husband resolve their stuff if they closed their marriage. I’ve seen several struggling relationships in which the presence of outside partners was a calming, helpful influence, not a source of angst or jealousy — other relationships can be a place to calm down from drama or get some distance and perspective from a difficult situation, to get some space from a thing which would otherwise feel claustrophobic and isolated and desperately frustrating. It seems like there’s an assumption built into CA’s suggestion that a closed marriage is more stable than an open one…when for a lot of folks that’s the opposite of how things work.

      Captain Awkward, I feel like such a crazy nitpicker for writing this comment, because I really admire that you’ve taken on such a challenging question. I agree that a lot about the dynamic was pretty unclear in the initial letter you posted, and I think that you’ve done a great job advising a difficult, complex situation. On a more personal note, it really matters to me that you post about poly stuff sometimes, and I kind of feel like it’s beside the point that you don’t always know absolutely everything under the sun about it, because we all get to read the comments and learn from each other. I love the things you have to say in the advice you give, and I also love that you inspire such productive discussions in the comments. Thanks for helping us all hone our social skills, I’m really really so glad that you run this blog.

  6. Even your best effort can’t save their relationship. You don’t have that power.

    Going “Yeeeeah, so we* googled your behaviour and you have this thing and here’s how we’ll help you fix it” can easily be read as “fix you, because you’re faulty. See, we both agree!” and it puts her at a disadvantage right from the start and it’ll just backfire. The whole “hey, you’re flawed and don’t know what’s best for you” thing seldom works,

    If I seem grumpy it’s because I’m irritated that the wife’s autonomy is being overlooked. You could have the best solution possible but I still wouldn’t listen to you since I’d be busy feeling betrayed by my husband and former friend.

    *worse, the husband goes “Hey, so my other partner did this thing that affects you, cool?”

    • Goat Lady said:

      Preach. It’s like they’ve teamed up against her and think this is totally ok.

    • muse142 said:

      “Going ‘Yeeeeah, so we googled your behaviour and you have this thing and here’s how we’ll help you fix it’ can easily be read as ‘fix you, because you’re faulty. See, we both agree!’ and it puts her at a disadvantage right from the start and it’ll just backfire.”

      QFT

      All of this. This this this this this. This X 1000000.

    • Especially if the wife is worried that the marriage is imploding. “Me and my other partner who is already established and here have decided these are the reasons you suck.”

      LW, I’m not saying that you are saying this. I’m saying it’s an easy thing to read into someone else’s words, especially if you’re already in a sad place.

  7. anon for this said:

    My alarm bells went off very, very loudly when I read this letter, even before hearing the Captain’s response. Being issued an ultimatum by a spouse of 20 years is devastating, even if it was later “rescinded,” even if the relationship has legitimately run its course. The LAST thing this woman needs to her is her husband’s partner coming in like they own the place and saying, “I know what’s wrong with you and how to fix you!”

    I’ve been in the LW’s shoes, the outside partner to an unhappy poly marriage. My been-there-done-that-advice: stay out of it. Really. If they do split, and you meddled (even with the purest of intentions), you’ll always wonder if you were subconsciously trying to speed them to their demise. And really, she’s been pulling away from you for the better part of a year? She’s communicating with you, in the kindest way she knows how, “Please stay away.” She is trying to set a boundary–against you. It looks like she does “KNOW what SHE wants” a little more than you give her credit for.

    It’s really, really, really obvious that you’re on the husband side here. That’s OK. It just makes it impossible for you to be any kind of counselor to the wife.

    • Amen to the she does know what she wants. It sounds to me like she’s very clear on what she wants and is being kind about it but still clear to you. The fact that she wants less of a relationship with LW does not actually toll the death knell for the marriage though. Love isn’t transitive, you don’t have to be besties with metamours.

  8. An Adult said:

    What I like most about Captain’s advice is that, if the wife *is* suffering due to being a people-pleaser, then it works. If the wife *isn’t* a people-pleaser, or if that isn’t the whole problem here, then the advice works, too.

    She’s an adult. A sad, probably depressed adult, but an adult nevertheless. You don’t tell adults what to do, unless asked very specifically by them without prompting, or unless you’re her doctor/therapist. Things are changing for her, it’s hard on her, and it’s hard on the husband too, by the sounds of it. Give them space to work it out, but do not fall into the temptation of treating them like idiots by telling either of them that you know more about their mental/relationship state than they themselves do. Encourage them to seek professionals instead, who aren’t personally involved in this whole situation.

    And maybe LW does know best. It can be hard to see certain things about ourselves, after all, and sometimes other people see them easier. But it is hardest to see *all* the relevant things about someone else rather than just the one or two things they don’t want to see. You can never know the whole story, and you shouldn’t act like they are so simple-minded that you’ve figured them all out, no matter how much it looks like you have.

  9. LW said:

    Just to clarify real quick.

    I was the one with the health issues. He was the one with employment issues. I was the one who created the distance and we all had a discussion as to why I needed to do so.

    He and I rarely discuss their relationship in that way usually only when it’s so overwhelming or fresh that it just comes out. There’s no chance of him taking any immediate action of leaving his wife expressing that was more so an expression of how frustrating the situation has become. When those moments do happen I can honestly say we advocate positively for each other.

    When we do discuss relationship things that affect all three of us we make a point to do it the three of us together.

    Yes we’ve all made the mistake of at times going thru each other at times but we’ve definitely learned and prioritize group discussions.

    I’m in the middle of breakfast but wanted to quickly clarify some stuff.

    We very much operate as a family. It’s not so much a poly/jealousy/he’ll leave me for her thing as, this person I really care about is hurting and we’ve tried so hard to be supportive and strong but our own mental health is starting to waiver. I don’t want to not be supportive I guess that’s why I was reaching out to hopefully see if there was a way in which to do so because I know it’s complicated and respecting her & her needs has always been important to me. But yeah I’m tired. And when I hear (with my own ears) her struggles and then I read about people pleasers and I see the similarities and I want nothing more to run to her and say wow look at this, is this how you feel? Do you identify with this? Could this help? But I don’t because I know she’s raw and tired and will more than likely get defensive. But I’d love others outside perspectives if they thought there would be a way to lovingly approach her. (We do still have love and affection for each other, but yes our dynamic had to change for my own mental health. I was experiencing a lot of my own triggers & starting to get to an unhealthy place partially because of her need to be needed in specific ways as opposed to a more organic this is how we naturally fit together way)

    Sorry rambled but I felt misunderstood.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m glad you clarified, because “we are all a family/this is a triad” and “I did the distancing” did NOT come through in your letter. Honestly, the vibe I got was a man trying to get his womenfolk to manage each other’s feelings so he didn’t have to, and you taking that bait.

      I know that when someone is suffering from a serious mental health issue it can really drag everyone in the family down, but you feel guilty when you’re not the primary sufferer, like, it’s so much worse for them, but it is affecting you, and there aren’t a lot of good solutions.
      I think you can say to someone close to you, you seem really Not Okay and would benefit from some therapy, is there anything I can do to help make that possible and easier for you – finding someone on the health plan, making calls, arranging a nice lunch/movie/self-care type reward after the appointments, helping you fill prescriptions, etc. And if they take you up on it, great, and if they don’t, you have to find a way to disengage. There are ways her husband can support this process that aren’t ultimatums. Perhaps y’all have tried them. Maybe it really is ultimatum time, maybe it really is leaving time.

      I still don’t think sharing articles about “what might be wrong with you” is gonna help, and I still don’t think this is for you to fix. If you distanced yourself from her to save your own sanity, you’re still not the right person to give her this info.

    • JenniferP said:

      P.S. I made an update to the OP to direct people to this comment.

    • Hi LW, I’m sorry for any hurt I caused you. Like the Cap I misread the situation. I have a story about when you want to help someone near and dear to you, if you want to read it.

      One of my closest friend has really high blood pressure. I found out their result and freaked and asked another friend who’s a nurse what they thought. No names given, but still kinda shitty of me. My nurse friend told me that people with that kind of blood pressure need to head to the ER stat. I asked my friend to see a doctor or go to the ER with me. They didn’t want to. They still haven’t.

      Do I worry at times? Yes. Is it my thing to fix? No. The worrying is worth the relationship for me. You may feel another way: you sound really frustrated and for good reasons. Please take care of your needs. It sucks when you only want to help. But they need to decide for themselves. Jedi hugs

      • Leonine said:

        I don’t think that was shitty of you. Shooting your mouth off without knowing what you were talking about would have been shitty. Checking the facts with an expert and then offering to help and then backing off when that help is declined is pretty much the definition of good lookin’ out. It sounds like you did just fine.

    • wordiest said:

      I like the advice the Captain gave to this comment. When juggling health issues (as you probably know) having someone help with it can be really useful, especially since you tend to need to do it when you’re not at your best. So, offering help with finding a therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist and making calls and such would be nice, and then she can say whether or not she’d find that helpful. As someone who did read your letter a bit more sympathetically, what else occurred to me was trying to just find ways to make her life better and show you care. The upside to that is that doing it respectfully goes really well with wanting to help her be less of a people-pleaser, so if your hypothesis is correct, then that works out quite well. Since you don’t want her going along with what you want, but asserting what she wants, why not just tell her you care, that you recognize that this is a hard time for her, and that you want to help, whether that’s with logistics or with doing fun things together. Tell her that if she wants to, you’ll make time for her and you’re open to what she wants, whether that’s listening to her vent or doing a fun outing or a relaxed time at home or whatever. Let her come up with the ideas for what she’d like from you. If she takes you up on it, great, that might help with depression, people-pleasing, or various other possible things that might be going on. If she doesn’t, then you communicated you cared, you treated her with respect, and by letting it go, you show her she can safely say no to things she doesn’t want, which also is beneficial.

      Also, a bit less relevantly, but it might give you might find it a helpful viewpoint. Speaking only for myself, when I went through some traumatic stuff, I found that the worst psychological consequences actually hit me well after it was done. It hit me once my life had settled down and was fairly safe and okay. It was like my brain had gone, well, we clearly can’t deal with this now, for a long time, and then when I finally had my life somewhat together, it suddenly went: time to cope with all the crap you put off!

      I don’t know if she’s dealing with the fallout of a toxic relationship or not, but I do know that that sort of thing can sometimes hit harder and take longer than people might think. That sometimes you do worse for a while when on the road to healing. So, she may have been coping, in some ways, better during it, but now paying for it. It doesn’t really matter whether or not that’s true, since either way she’d be best off getting professional help, and it isn’t the sort of thing you can guide her through. And that is exactly the same if it’s an unrelated depression or some other problem. But I think understanding that this can be fall-out from some pretty serious life crap might make you a bit more sympathetic. Since thinking it might be menopause is not a terrible thought or anything, but read as potentially trivializing. And it’s just so common to underestimate how hard these sorts of things are to recover from. She’s just still so recently past it that it seems like what she could really use is patience and acceptance that she’s going to be in pain for a while and that there probably isn’t a quick, easy fix. As someone who has also been chronically ill for a long time now, I can tell you that pressure from people to get better already really, really did not help at all. Whereas, people accepting that being ill was what I was going to be for a while, and then trying to find ways to make life easier for me while that was true was much better for me (so long as they listened, trying to force “help” that wasn’t helpful again goes in the no category).

    • Twitchy said:

      What’s your relationship with her like? And what did it used to be like before you distanced yourself? I think the answers to those questions impact how much you can be involved in this. If she talks to you about her feelings and her troubles, it’s not wrong to offer your perspective. If you’re unsure, you can say, “I read something I think might apply, if you’re interested.” Then if she doesn’t want to hear it, let it drop.

      As for what you can do to help her with her people pleasing tendencies, I think it helps people to really feel they’re being listened to. Like, ask her opinions on things, support her when she has a good idea, do what she wants sometimes if she expresses a preference, even if it’s something like staying in instead of going out because she’s feeling a little drained. Obviously this won’t fix problems that have been around for years, but it’s a good way to create an environment where she can start to fix them.

      You also mentioned her need to be needed. If she overextends herself trying to be useful to everyone to win their affection, that could seriously stretch her thin, and depression on top of that sounds really exhausting. Maybe you could pick one or two small things you can do for her consistently, like taking over a couple of her chores or setting a weekly movie night. Showing that you can give help as well as receive it can be powerful, and if you’re reliable about it, that could help her feel secure.

      You sound like a good person. I’ve been the partner struggling with mental health as well as the partner trying to support someone struggling with mental health, so I know it’s not easy. Good luck to all of you.

      • Twitchy said:

        Fffffff I think I replied to the wrong comment. This was directed at LW.

  10. BethB said:

    I’m going to really honest here LW. Reading your letter left me with the overwhelming feeling that I would hate for you to become this guy’s primary partner. You are very well intentioned but anyone who actively researches for mental illness/personality disorders in the person they are leaving needs serious examination. When he goes (I agree with the Captain that this seems likely) he will be dropping responsibility for the emotional and psychological damage an amateur diagnosis can do.

    • LW said:

      He never did that. I’m an avid reader. I’m always trying to gain perspective on myself and the world at large.

      I was the one who came across an article and had the overwhelming feeling that wow this sound so much like what she’s going thru.

      He has tried moving heaven and earth to help her. Yeah he’s not perfect. He has been angry and at times escalated emotions but I can honestly say when you confront him with something he does his best to change his behavior and do better. Just like with the ultimatum to go to counseling. He rescinded that because he said it when he was overwhelmed. Once he realized it was a dick move he told her honey I love you and want you to feel better but I can’t force you to do this. I just felt desperate. I still feel that way because I don’t want to lose you, but you have to understand some of your behaviors are affecting me in a very negative way and so if that continues I’ll have no choice but to take care of myself.

      That’s simple cause and affect.

      It’s not running out on someone when shit gets hard.

      • He didn’t really rescind the ultimatum. He softened the wording a bit. Because “honey, what you’re doing is affecting me so much I may not be able to take it forever” is the same ultimatum as before.

        • I wasn’t clear: ultimata are legitimate. Self care is legitimate. Wanting to remove yourself from a relationship that harms you- legitimate.

          Telling your partner that you will remove yourself, a completely legitimate ultimatum.

  11. duck-billed placelot said:

    Such side-eye to the husband who gives an ultimatum to a woman who has already been to actual doctors to try to suss out her health issues, and now SHE is trying to find counseling. If he really wants her to go to counseling, why hasn’t he, you know, found her counseling to go to? Offered to pay, if job/money were an issue during this period? Depression makes logistics harder – particularly the kind of depression that is at ‘crisis’ level.

    You know what else depression makes harder? Making/keeping friends. Building/maintaining a social life. Interests and/or hobbies. (I mean, breathing in and out, really, but let’s stick to what’s in the letter.) LW, Captain is a million percent right about butting out, but if you want to be supportive of someone with mental health issues, I’d recommend rethinking how you interpret ‘drive/motivation’ and personality ‘flaws’.

    • LW said:

      I don’t disagree. I’ve suffered from depression and know the struggles.

      The only reason she went to the doc is again at our insistence. We did not throw her to the wolves. We expressed our concern. Listened to her obstacles in doing so. Helped and supported her with those obstacles and got her to the docs.

      She’s afraid to go to counseling because she sees it as a failure and she’s a private person who doesn’t want to open up to a stranger.

      She wants us to be her fixers (she has said she should be able to just come to us) and we’ve set our boundaries because, well it’s not healthy.

      • Yeah, my husband before he was my husband wanted to act like I could be his counselor, rather than a trained pro. It’s definitely a bad place to be in. I shut that down hard, and it was a tough conversation to have.

        You mentioned there was an ultimatum given and rescinded. The thing about having a partner with mental health issues is that sometimes you gotta give the ultimatum and mean it. Telling someone “you’re too sad for me to be your partner” is a HARD thing to do and feels MEAN. But, you cannot repair someone’s depression (or other mental health issues) and it is straight up unreasonable to expect your partner to be your sole source of counseling (as I said to Mr Celette, “90% of your problems are going to be as a result of me, why would you go to me to complain about how I was making you feel? You gotta have outside support.”)

        What I ended up saying was less “Do this or I’m outta here” and more like “I cannot continue in this fashion, do you think there is a possible solution and how can we make that happen?” Sometimes people with depression (lots of times) need some help either brainstorming or making stuff happen because initiative gets stolen away. The key is to make it a collaborative effort that is kick-started by the other person. “I will HELP you to a certain extent but this is as far as my help can go [meds must be involved, professional counselor, certain topics only, limited time, fill in the blank] and you have to make the first step.”

        In an ideal world, everyone gets the love and support and health they need. In the real world, “You’re too sad to be my partner” is sometimes the truth.

        • mamacitaconpistoles said:

          Celette, you are a smart cookie.

        • JenniferP said:

          To build on this, the thing about ultimatums is that once you give a “do this or I will leave” ultimatum, the other partner might hear “you can do this to save this thing we have maybe” but they hear KLAXONS of “I AM GETTING DUMPED SOON.”

          Even if the ultimatum is totally reasonable and something that everyone wants everyone to do, that’s still a good time to be like “what’s in the bank account, I might be riding the rest of this one out alone.”

          • I think the line generally between “good” ultimatums and “bad” ultimatums is that the giver has to be 100% okay with the result of “I will leave” and by okay, I mean willing to do it (you can still be sad about it). there ARE points of no return, there ARE things that are just too much, sometimes people DO need to be apart to be their best selves.

            When you give an ultimatum and the person meets the changes and you stay, that’s an honest thing.
            When you give an ultimatum and the person doesn’t change and you leave, that’s a sad thing but still an honest thing.
            When you give an ultimatum and the person doesn’t change but you stay anyway, the person is stuck with this sword of Damocles hanging over their head of imminent break up and they’re never sure if you’re gonna raise the bar again, leave them, or pretend it never happened. That direction lies some abusive behaviors that I don’t think you/husband are engaging in, but people who DO follow that pattern. This is the type of ultimatum that puts all the power of the relationship in one person’s hand and that’s not how it should be. by sticking around without further discussion, you’re leaving the implicit message “I could choose to enforce our bargain at annnny time.”

            In other words, when you say “Do this or I’m gone” it’s time to be ready to be gone.

          • (Supposed to be a comment to celette482 but I can’t work out how to thread it right)
            This is kind of what bugs me about the rescinded ultimatum. If someone says “Unless you do this I am not willing to be in a relationship with you”, that can work as a statement of their own boundaries and the kind of relationship they need. But if they then stay in the relationship anyway … well people can change their minds and decide that actually that boundary wasn’t so important, but it makes the ultimatum sound like more of a threat to leave in order to control their behaviour. I had an ex who spent about five years hinting that he wanted to leave me every time we had a disagreement, and that was profound badness. If you don’t want to be in the relationship any more, leave. If you don’t want to leave, don’t say you will.

          • Anonchalance said:

            Reply to celette482 (max threading)

            I think the difference between a good and bad ultimatum is actually being interested in staying when you give the ultimatum. In fact, I would only call it a good ultimatum when the giver prefers to stay–basically, “I really want to be here with you, but X factors are unsustainable for me, and we need to make a change.” (Which still doesn’t mean that the ultimatum will be received well.)

            When you give an ultimatum and staying isn’t your honestly, strongly, preferred outcome, you were probably leaving anyway, whether you were prepared to admit that to yourself or not.

      • rydra_wong said:

        If you’ve already needed to create distance because your own mental health was being jeopardized, and there’s this unhealthy pattern of her wanting you to “fix” her, then doing “sooooo much reading” about things that might be wrong with her seems like a potentially very bad idea for both of you.

        I completely get how it can be, when you care about someone deeply and they’re leaning on you heavily for support and not yet getting the professional support they need (or they are, but it’s not helping yet, etc. etc. etc.).

        Some of us will tend to respond to that by going “How can I help? I KNOW, I WILL RESEARCH THE SHIT OUT OF THIS, and present my friend with an annotated list of the top ten books I think they should read!” And I say this because this is TOTALLY MY TENDENCY.

        And it’s … really not that helpful. It runs the risk of them feeling patronized and controlled, *and* you drowning in trying to fix their problems. It’s why annoying little terms like “co-dependency” got coined.

        (Co-dependency: once memorably described as “chasing someone round the house with the self-help book.”)

        I do think there’s sometimes room for saying things like “Hey, I found this book really helpful when I was depressed; I don’t know if it’d ring any bells for you, but do you maybe want to have a look?”

        But you have to be able to then step back, breathe, and not be invested in the answer.

        Your mental and emotional health is vulnerable here too (and of course, having experienced this stuff yourself is one of the things that can make it easy to over-identify and try to rescue other people).

        It might be time to temporarily ban yourself from reading up on her issues (or possible issues). And pay a lot of attention to making sure your own needs get met, and ensuring that you have good chunks of time that aren’t consumed in worrying about her and what might be up with her.

        • mamacitaconpistoles said:

          Ooh, I so know what you mean. I KNOW IT WILL INTELLECTUALIZE THIS PROBLEM AND KNOWLEDGE WILL SOLVE IT!! BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS.

          It’s a nice fantasy and it’s not true. If research solved all problems, academia would be full of many more functional people than it actually is.

          When I find myself going that route I remember:

          1)Finding information and analyzing and interpreting it to understand other people’s issues is something I do because it makes *me* feel better. If it would make anyone else feel better is not guaranteed.

          2) Information is a tool, not a solution. If it doesn’t get used, it’s not so useful. And my using the information may not do a darn thing for the person with the problem.

          3) It can be helpful for me, to adjust my own expectations or behavior. But that’s my issue to deal with, not the person with the problem’s.

      • sunshine said:

        LW, I have read all of your responses/comments and like others, appreciate all of your clarifications. However, There is so much “we” vs “her” in your every submission, that even though “you” are trying to help “her”, “you (singular)” really just need to let go of this mission. For both of your sakes.

  12. duck-billed placelot said:

    I wrote my comment before yours posted, and now I have a new question:

    Do you, in your heart of hearts, just not want to be in a triad w/ this lady anymore? I am not poly/you, so I have no idea how the logistics of that work, but you seem to not be into her style of relationshipping/life. You’ve already pulled back, but a lot of your letter is about what husband want/feels/thinks about his sad/damaged wife, who doesn’t even know what she wants. What do YOU want?

    • duck-billed placelot said:

      Argh, that was meant to be a reply to LW above.

    • JenniferP said:

      Good question.

    • Esti said:

      I think this is a particularly good question because it did not come across to me at all, from the original letter, that the LW considered herself to be in a relationship with this woman. The vibe was “I have a partner and he has a wife. She and I were incidentally friends, but aren’t really anymore. He and his wife have a bunch of relationship problems, and I want to help him out with them.”

      I’m still not sure I fully understand the mechanics of the relationships here, but if your setup has been that all three of you are in a relationship together, then I think you need to refocus your thoughts/efforts on YOUR relationship with her (do you still want one? What would it look like, in your ideal version? What do you need to do, and need her to do, to get to that?). From your letter it sounds like you are constructing this in your mind — intentionally or not — as a problem between your partner and his wife for which you’re on Team Him. If you have a relationship with her as well, then I think the way forward is to stop thinking of “we vs. her”, and instead start thinking of this as “me and my two partners have some stuff to deal with, not on teams we’ve constructed but as individuals all talking to one another.”

  13. Mir said:

    Captain, I’m really surprised that you changed the word the LW used to refer to this woman from “partner” to “my partner’s wife.” It seems like you read the letter, decided this woman was not *really* her partner, and relabeled it for her like a correction. I’ve been reading your site for years and I can’t recall you ever doing anything like that before. I found it shockingly disrespectful and disempowering. All sorts of people write to you all the time about relationships that are struggling in various ways but I have never seen you deny someone the right to choose the name for their own relationship.

    Disclaimer: I’m in a polyamorous triad where the three of us all consider each other partners completely irrespective of who is sleeping with whom, so this is definitely an issue that triggers feelings for me. It triggers those feelings in particular because other people who first meet us often mistakenly assume, when they find out who is sleeping with whom (and they always want to know!) that the relationship involving sexuality and legal marriage is the “real” one. It’s not–not for us. Sex can be a great road to intimacy but they are not the same thing, and a lifetime partnership does not have to be sexual or romantic in order to be real, life-enriching, or worthy of recognition.

    I’m not trying to guess at what sort of connection the LW has with this woman she cares about. Maybe her primary focus really is on “the husband” as you called him. I have no way of knowing. All I’m saying is that she chose to refer to the other woman as her partner and it was wrong to throw that aside.

    • JenniferP said:

      You’re absolutely right, with each comment it becomes clearer that I misread the situation. The “we/me/him/her/us” lines were very blurry to me and the body of the letter said “My partner has a wife of 20 years. Never again “my partner” just “her,” “her husband”, “her friends/his friends”, discussions he/they had had with her, differences in the way the husband interacted with the LW vs. the wife. etc. To me, every time the LW said “we” it meant “Me + husband.” Husband + wife = “they” and wife was not included in “we.” That’s how every “we” landed for me, every single one.

      • Dizzy said:

        This is something I really like about the community. You’ll post a letter and then the comments will be like “Hey, I really think you misread the situation” and you’re like “Yeah, it looks like I did, sorry everyone.” ❤ for you, Cap.

  14. Groovy Biscuit Intervention said:

    Leaving aside everything else, the wife in this situation has stated that she feels depressed, and identifies that as being what’s going on with her. As a person who is intermittently depressed, I can’t say in strong enough terms how much it wouldn’t help me to have my loved ones announce to me during a period of depression that they’ve internet diagnosed my personality and know how to ‘fix’ me. Just… no. Even if they were correct (which is possibly something of a stretch; one could diagnose onself or friends with pretty much anything if they spent enough time online), what would I do with that? I guarantee that I wouldn’t have a lightbulb moment of fixed-ness; I would basically just carry on being depressed, only now with a weird side order of paranoia about why my loved ones had been Googling my traits. Even if I did identify with something in it, how would that make me not depressed? It would be like having someone wave a piece of paper at me while while saying ‘Look! This is the problem! Now you can stop being depressed!’ which is clearly not how that works.

    LW, your responsibilities in this situation begin and end with signposting your partner’s wife towards assistance (actual assistance, not online cod-psychology), and seeking independent support for yourself if the situation is affecting you. You’ve said you want to draw boundaries and not be her fixer – but the course of action you’re proposing sounds a lot like an an attempt to fix her. Don’t do it.

    • LW said:

      This is helpful. I think sometimes my lines are blurred because she has asked for help and I know we don’t come from the perspective of here this is your problem tada your fixed but a is this something to consider, is this something you identify with AND it’s blurred with my own need to just feel like we’re moving forward.

      I don’t want to blur lines tho, I do very much want to do the right thing and I very much appreciate all of your perspectives, I know it will help me make good decisions.

      • Groovy Biscuit Intervention said:

        I think I just don’t see what difference it makes if it’s something she identifies with. It doesn’t change the fact that she’s trying to rely on you and her husband beyond your capacity to assist her. It is absolutely OK to tell someone who is asking you for help you can’t give that, well, you can’t give them that kind of help – more than OK, it’s often necessary if you’re going to maintain healthy and appropriate boundaries. You are not mental health professionals, and you are in a close personal relationship with her – there are many things you *can* do for her, but it’s important to recognise the ones you can’t (which it sounds like you do). But, that’s a very straightforward (not easy, mind, but straightforward) message – I am not the right person to help you in that way. That message is irretrievably muddied, however, if you’re simultaneously basically trying to offer that kind of help at the same time as you’re telling her you can’t. You won’t move forward, you’ll end up just as stuck.

        I also think that it sounds as though you have had a big revelatory moment in relation to her, and the feeling that brings is one of progress and moving forward and ‘yes, now I see!’. But, that’s your revelation, not hers. I think you would find that even if you did try to see if she identifies with it, you’d find the results underwhelming because she may very well not have anything like the same reaction. I don’t think you can transfer your lightbulb moment across to her; if she has one, it’ll come in her own time. More usefully, you could think about how best to approach someone with the traits you feel she has, but in relation to the wider problem (untreated depression and over-reliance on you and her husband in dealing with that). Your job here is not to get her to recognise those traits in herself; it’s to support her to seek help.

        • LW said:

          Thank you very much.

        • mamacitaconpistoles said:

          This is so useful and smart and I am bookmarking this because I know sometime in the future I will need to be reminded of this.

      • soukup said:

        Hi! Fellow people-pleaser, fellow intermittent depression sufferer, fellow poly person here. Wow, that sounds like such a tricky situation you’re in, and I think you’re right to tread cautiously with how you approach this. Here are some thoughts about this stuff which are based entirely on my own experience of similar situations. So, big grain of salt, k?

        I think that Groovy Biscuit Intervention is right on about how it’s rarely helpful to offer diagnoses. If this woman tenses up and feels ashamed at the prospect of going to see a doctor or therapist, then a diagnosis-type-conversation (“Look, I found this article, I think you have X Thing”) might also trigger feelings of shame/stigma. And also, as GBI points out, a diagnosis does not an action plan make! But I think that if you come at this conversation in a slightly different way you might have better results. What behaviours have you noticed in her which seem unhealthy or self-defeating or whatever? Could you have a talk with her where you describe the behaviours you’ve noticed in detail, explain why they worry you, and see what she has to say about all of that?

        For instance, if someone I loved said to me “I think you might have depression” I’d probably get defensive and feel very much like I’d been put under a microscope. I’d feel like I’d been googled and internet-diagnosed and labeled with something super stigmatized and I’d feel somewhat insulted about that, and also I’d feel like I had no idea how to respond to that diagnosis even if it was true.

        But if, on the other hand, someone I loved came to me and said “Hey, it seems like you don’t go out as much as you used to, you seem to stay home a bunch. Sometimes when I invite you out you kind of seem like you want to come, or something, like you say yes initially but then you cancel later, or you apologize a lot for saying no and it just sort of feels like you’re upset with yourself for declining, or something. Or sometimes you say stuff about how, like, you don’t think people want to see you? Which is so not true! I don’t know, what do you think is going on there? What do you think has changed? Do you miss going out and being more sociable?” That would be a way of starting the conversation which would not immediately freak me out and make me feel like I was being put on trial for something.

        Could you try saying something like, “Hey, sometimes there’s this thing that happens where someone suggests something and you go along with it right away, and I just get this feeling like you didn’t even really think about it, like you just went along with it because you wanted to make them happy. Or sometimes when I ask you about what you want, it seems like you’re more interested in figuring out what I want you to want than in actually asking yourself what you want and listening to what you hear back. I don’t know, am I totally imagining that?” (Obviously this is a script which you should write yourself, but my point is that it’s way less mental-health-stigma-y and way more useful to point out specific behaviours you’ve noticed.)

        If I were in her place, some important factors which would strongly influence how this would affect me would be

        1) the absence of a diagnosis-sounding noun (“I think you are a people-pleaser” or “I think you have X”)

        2) some specific examples of instances of behaviour which match what you’re describing (“Last week you said you really missed hanging out with Joel and Yuri, but when I said you should call them, you just said that they were probably busy.”)

        3) I want to get the sense that your goal here is not to help me achieve some weird bar of medical normalcy or neurotypicality or something — you just have noticed that I seem like I’m struggling with some stuff and like I could be happier, and you want to talk with me about how I’m feeling and help me think about why I’m not as happy as I could be. Health is not about normalcy, it is about happiness, and I need to feel sure that you understand that I don’t need to be fixed or corrected. (You can even make that distinction explicit if you worry that she’s getting defensive or feeling some mental-health-stigma stuff.)

        4) Questions! Lots of questions, and lots of listening and casually bouncing ideas around, and more questions. Your primary goal with this conversation is not to fix anything or come up with a plan of action. It is to describe to me in detail the things you’ve noticed about my recent behaviour which worry you, to communicate to me that you care about me, and to listen and hear what I have to say. You’re just initiating a conversation so we can think together about the stuff I’m struggling with. Speak your part, and then ask, and ask, and ask, and listen, and listen, and listen. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with just mulling some stuff over together and then letting me know that you’re glad we talked about stuff, you care about what’s going on with me, and if I want to talk more then I can come and find you again.* If you end the conversation there and end up having some thoughts later which you think I might find useful, you can always bring up the topic again with me later.

        5) If we do get into talking about an action plan or what I want to do next, we talk about it in a way which emphasizes that I am the person who is in charge of constructing that plan and making those choices. You don’t say things like “If you’re feeling that way then you really need to see a therapist” or “You should really talk about that with a psychiatrist because they have meds for that.” If you are worried about me, say “I think it would help you to see a therapist.” Say “I think there might be some medicines which could help you with that, if you want to you could see a psychiatrist and ask about that.” Remember, I am the expert on my own situation and on what is best for me. I am the agent, the one who decides to take action. You can help by being supportive and offering resources. *Offer* resources, don’t prescribe them. Observe behaviours and ask questions about how I feel, don’t diagnose.

        * You mentioned in your comment that you needed to take time away from her in order to preserve your own mental health. This is a thing which I heartily support — you cannot help someone else if you yourself are on shaky ground. If you are in a place now where you can offer your time and support, great; but if you cannot make this offer and feel good about it — if it feels like a stressor instead of like something which you can handle and are happy to do — then you should not be initiating this conversation with her in the first place.

  15. I will say this: people who are chronic people pleasers have usually been groomed to be that way by a parent or significant other. The message they got was, “the only way to receive love or stay safe is to go along with what others want.” I can tell you as a recovering people pleaser that such grooming is extremely difficult to get over. It takes years and a lot of safe support, especially in therapy. The urge to people-please can be so strong as to override any other preference, even when the person is totally miserable. If you’re going to see this woman get help, prepare for a long haul.

    • boutet said:

      I’ve recently (the last two or three years) had a close friend realizing and working on her tendency towards being a people pleaser. It is some seriously long haul stuff to deal with. She has only recently (the last month or so) been able to feel, acknowledge and express anger when someone walks all over her. And she still spends weeks after expressing anger wanting to and trying to resist going back to the person and “making it right” with them.

      The only thing that I’ve found to be helpful to her (and it won’t be universal since people are individuals and this is what works for my friend specifically) is to validate her. Also to check in with her a lot. Like, if she’s describing an incident with someone I’ll explicitly ask her if she was happy/upset/whatever. Did it go the way she wanted. What would she rather have had happen. It helps her rethink the situation from her own perspective rather than from the perspective of keeping the other person happy at her expense. And all of that is done with her understanding of what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and her desire that I keep doing it. I’m not sneaking in non-pro counseling on the sides.

      But I’m not sure if LW is in a position to be able to do that very much. Only in situations that don’t involve LW or the husband I suspect. So if she’s talking about experience with people outside of the relationship LW could try that and see if it helps, but if the wife is upset about the husband or LW then LW is probably too close to the situation.

      • LW said:

        I think this is more along the lines of what *I* need.

        I have suffered depression/anxiety/gross stuff but I’ve never been a people pleaser. So I know not to say things like what’s wrong with you? Just do it. Etc. I’m capable of being able to understand that perspective. Not the people pleasing perspective though, it’s alien to me. She will say so herself her mother absolutely had ways you had to be and in their family you got along to get along.

        I’m not trying to diagnose her per se but I do know she is absolutely the type to rarely have an opinion and just defers to whatever partner she’s with even though we try SO HARD to get her to express her opinions/ideas/thoughts. Especially but not only because it’s not unusual that after the fact she can get passive aggressive/martyrish.

        Like I said the three of us have been through a lot these last couple years, we’re all kinda fragile and raw. This has definitely made it harder. And the reason we’re not willing to give up is because without a doubt we love and respect her for her. She’s capable and creative and silly and sweet, kind hearted, open minded, intelligent, responsible, and fun. I get how depression can turn you into something else, angry, negative, selfish but I know I know her better.

        I want to find balance in setting my own boundaries in that but I also very much want to support her.

        I guess I feel like if I could (I won’t) say, hey we want to help and support you in healthy ways but I feel like this deferring to us (people pleasing) is getting in the way of that. We love you and genuinely want to know what YOUR needs are, can you please figure that out?

        We’ve had discussions in the past trying to focus on what her needs even are and she gets overwhelmed by the talks because she doesn’t have answers or the tools to begin to find answers.

        I very much appreciate the time y’all have taken to give your perspectives. It’s been very helpful. Even if it just means me coming to terms with my shit and keeping myself in check.

        And thankfully I do have a strong Team Me. We’re working to encourage and facilitate her having a strong Team Her (have been since October it has made progress, she had it there she just doesn’t like to use Team Her because it makes her look weak, her words) and he has a Team Him too. 🙂

        • boutet said:

          Maybe don’t try so hard to get her to express an opinion?

          “She will say so herself her mother absolutely had ways you had to be and in their family you got along to get along. ” This sounds very familiar to me. My mother was very much “my way is the only way” and she also thrived on drama. So I wasn’t allowed my own opinion but often she would push me to give my opinion… only so that she could treat me like shit for having an opinion. Before I was able to work through a lot of this junk it was extremely stressful for me whenever anyone asked for my opinion about anything, even down to something like do I want sugar in my tea. What if I gave the wrong answer? Would I be yelled at? Would I have things taken away from me? Would I be denied tea altogether? Being pushed for an opinion just made me more anxious.

          She might not have that particular experience, might have some other reason. But the push to give an opinion might be hitting up against some deep seated anxiety over having/sharing opinions. The push could be making the anxiety worse and making it harder to share an opinion rather than helping.

          Showing that you’re open to her opinions, giving her space to share opinions, accepting when she doesn’t want to share opinions, I think that might be something to consider. And making sure that opinions that she does share are not immediately questioned, debated, dismissed, whatever. I’m not saying that her expressed opinions become cast in gold. Just that if you’re asking her which movie to see and she picks a movie… go to that movie. If you already have a movie you want to see and you’re hoping she’ll pick the one you want, then just say which one you want to go to. Don’t ask her and then go with your choice anyway. (not saying that you’re doing this, just offering a way to encourage opinion sharing and not inadvertantly discourage it)

          Also, “I don’t know” is a full and complete answer. She may genuinely not have an answer. So responding with, “no we really want to know please tell us!” isn’t actually helpful. She’s told you, but it’s not the answer you want so you’re really just pushing her to give an answer that you like rather than the answer that she actually has.

          Just some thoughts.

          • olives said:

            Yes! This is what I was trying to get at upthread – if you *are* a people pleaser, there’s a lot more going down in your brain besides “I will not share my secret opinion, which is X.” It often looks more like: “Oh no, they want me to have an opinion. What if I don’t have one?? Isn’t that okay? Why can’t I just give them what they want??”

            Basically, there is no secret / “true” opinion inside. Not for someone who’s got this mentality fully ingrained. Mostly it means the person doesn’t even have opinions (really! because their brain just isn’t able to process that, as a self-protective mechanism!) except when they’re by themselves, or among people they trust on a fundamental level.

            The less stress you make around having and sharing opinions, the better.

        • firecatstef said:

          Of course she doesn’t have the answers. Depression is an illness of motivation, and an illness in which lack of desire figures prominently because lack of pleasure figures prominently. Expecting her to figure out what her needs are is the same exact thing as expecting her to figure out how to not be depressed.

          Deferring to other people isn’t necessarily people pleasing if depression is involved. It can be due (in part or in whole) to the lack of motivation and lack of desire—”might as well go along with what you want, because I have no access to any wants of mine.”

          Depression also often involves feeling like a failure and feeling detached from others. Having other people reinforce your feelings of failure by treating you as something that’s broken and needs fixed sometimes isn’t very helpful. I’m not her, but being around people who think I am broken and need fixed is a fucking nightmare when my depression is active.

          What I want when my depression is active (and at other times too although I have more resilience at other times) is for people either to leave me alone, or to be with me in a way that accepts the speed I’m capable of moving. Depression makes me slow (physically, emotionally, sometimes mentally) and makes me feel overwhelmed all the time, and being around people who are pushing advice, asking probing questions, or acting frustrated is awful.

          At the beginning of my relationship with my OH, zie didn’t understand any of this and kept trying to jolly me out of my depressed states, which made them worse. It so happened that a book called Care of the Soul (Thomas Moore) helped zir figure out how to deal with me better. I’m not recommending the book exactly because it’s kind of religious; my OH is not religious and he found it useful anyway, but YMMV. But it says some important things about how sometimes the best way to deal with difficult stuff is to let it be for a while and not try to fix it away.

        • As a people pleaser myself, I will say: Differentiate hard between altruism-for-her and selfishness-for-you. Yes, you want her to express her own opinions because you love her… but you ALSO want her to give you an indicator that you’re about to make a decision she will get retroactively pissed off about. Because that second reason, that selfish-for-you reason, is the reason that will drag an opinion out of her long before the altruistic-for-her reason. “You have needs of your own and I want to help meet them” may not actually make sense as words to her right now; “I am tired and making decisions takes effort, so you can help me by making this decision instead of me having to do it” is making the request for an opinion into a request for help, which she is comfortable and familiar with. Sometimes she might just need examples of times she made a choice and it went well to provide fodder for the idea that she can actually do it without catastrophe.

          • soukup said:

            This is *such a good strategy.* I am such a people-pleaser, and one of the things I can see now, looking back over past conversations I’ve had with people, is that when someone explains to me that I’m actually stressing them out by refusing to tell them what I want, I immediately snap into “Oh shit, I hate that I’m stressing you out! Sorry! Here, let me examine my feelings, decide what I want and communicate that RIGHT NOW.”

            My partner frequently employs this tactic. It’s a workaround, but an effective one, and it’s actually resulted in lots of situations where I told him what I wanted and then things were better and he seemed really happy that I’d been frank and blunt and clear. And now I have those data to look back on and when I catch myself trying to avoid wanting things or expressing that, I can now remind myself that telling him what I want has sometimes worked well in the past for us both.

          • JenniferP said:

            I’m really grateful for your comments in this thread, they are wonderful.

        • Jess said:

          Honestly, I know you’re coming from a good place trying to get her to express her opinions/ideas/thoughts, but likely what’s actually happening is you’re making her feel like to please you she has to come up with original thoughts on whatever the given topic is, whether she has any opinion or not.

          Relevant anecdote time – I also have people pleasing tendencies and varying levels of social anxiety. I’ve discussed these things quite a lot with a friend/partner as he deals with similar feelings and he’s been there for me through a few particularly bad episodes of anxiety. Both of us have also done a lot of work by ourselves on these issues and take pride in that. Anyway, he would do things in groups to try to help include me like asking me to suggest a song or what I thought about a particular issue. Honestly, I just felt like I was being tested – I wasn’t thinking ‘oh yes, I really want to listen to x song but haven’t had the opportunity to speak up’, I was thinking ‘oh fuck, I can’t think of anything, x isn’t good enough, y isn’t original enough, this is a sign of my lack of personality and general deficiency as a human being which is now abundantly clear to everyone’. Other times, I could see that he was picking up on my anxiety and trying to do things to make me comfortable – but that made it impossible for me to let the anxiety fade into the background and made me feel under pressure to extinguish it. I told him that I appreciated his concern, but that I was capable of managing my anxiety and did so without him in every other area of my life. He understood and took a step back from trying to actively manage my emotions. Instead, he just provides a supportive atmosphere for me to be anxious, not be anxious, express things or not express things as comes naturally, which is perfect.

        • It is totally frustrating when someone says over and over that they don’t have a preference, and then gets pissy afterwards when you make the choice for them, because you picked something they didn’t like. I get that, and I sympathize. But it’s just as frustrating from the inside to have no ability to imagine what will and won’t make you miserable, and only find it out after the fact when something *does* make you miserable, and it’s too late to change. So I just want to join the chorus of people asking you please to realize she’s probably not keeping her True Wishes a deep secret — she’s telling you as much as she knows. She just doesn’t know the information you are asking for. That’s a facet both of People-Pleasing *and* of depression. When I was depressed, I used to explain, “My Wanter is broken. I have no ability right now to Want anything. Please do not ask for Wants until I have managed to get it repaired; none are extant at this time.” It’s a lot easier, unfortunately, to tell after the fact what does and doesn’t please one than to identify beforehand what *will* please one, especially for depressives. (I was never a PP at all, but depression did plenty to shut down my Wanter for extended periods.) She likely just doesn’t know, at the time you’re asking her, what will please her — she finds out after the fact, and communicates it with you as soon as she knows, which is what you told her you wanted her to do.

          So the problem becomes how to get her to know it earlier.

          One answer I really like is Book of Jubilation’s idea of requesting her help in making a particular decision. Not in the sense of, “tell me what you want,” but in the sense of, “Could you decide what’s for dinner, please? I’m tired and can’t think of anything,” because it makes it a DECISION rather than a CHOICE, and sometimes decisions can be made by depressed people as a matter of intellectual procedure rather than personal preference. It’s still worth doing; any slender threads of personal preference she has will probably be factored in automatically, as she decides, without her having to think about it… and if not, she’s only got herself to be irritated with if the decision doesn’t turn out to please her.

          Another tool I’ve used to good effect during depression is the flipped coin. Not in the sense of doing whatever it said; in the sense of discovering from how I felt during the flip, and once it landed. Am I viscerally pleased or disappointed? Did I hope, while it was in the air? If I cover it without looking and don’t reveal it to myself, what do I hope it will show?

      • multicoastal said:

        “Also to check in with her a lot. Like, if she’s describing an incident with someone I’ll explicitly ask her if she was happy/upset/whatever. Did it go the way she wanted. What would she rather have had happen. It helps her rethink the situation from her own perspective rather than from the perspective of keeping the other person happy at her expense. And all of that is done with her understanding of what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and her desire that I keep doing it. I’m not sneaking in non-pro counseling on the sides.”

        This is helpful to me, a good friend of mine has tendencies to take care of other people’s emotional needs before his own in ways that leave him exhausted and these sound like useful questions to ask.

  16. LW, whether your female partner is dealing with depression alone or depression + something else, even if you are absolutely right that she is a people-pleaser, even if you are absolutely right that she is this thing to the extent that she requires help to “fix” her, your ability to help her is extremely limited. You can tell her that you care about her, that you support her, that you think she should find a professional to talk to, and there endeth your power. You cannot diagnose her, you cannot treat her, and you cannot be her therapist. Any attempts on your part to do so will be more harmful than helpful, no matter how good your intentions. Effective therapy, like any other form of medical treatment, requires a level of emotional distance that you do not have. Because you care about her, you have a vested interest in the outcome of your attempts to help her. She will feel the pressure of you *wanting* to have been helpful, *wanting* her to get better, *wanting* the lives and relationships of everyone in your family to improve, and while I can’t tell exactly what effect that will have over the internet, I can tell you it will not be good. Even worse, if she has asked you to be her therapist and you attempt to comply, all of that pressure will be reflected back to you as well.

    I know what a difficult position this is for you–we all want to be able to help the people we love, to slay their dragons and clear their paths of all obstacles. But she is asking for help that you cannot give, however much you might want to. For your health and happiness, for hers, and for your family’s, please take a step back. This is not your problem to fix.

    • sorcharei said:

      Just to be clear, professionally rrained and competent therapists do not treat family members and friends because it’s not possible to have the proper therapeutic relationship when you are friends or family with the client. When she asks you and her husband to help, she is asking for something that could not be possible, even if you were both trained professionals.

      The best and only thing you can do for her is to refuse her request that you two be her source of help. After that, you can provide support for her getting help that can actually be effective. Yes, going to a counselor is scary, But the one cool thing is that you can open up to a therapist in stages, so by the time you get to the hard stuff, the therapist is not “a stranger” anymore. She can start with the easy stuff like learning what sleep hygeine is and how adopting it can sometimes help with depression, and work up to the scarier stuff.

      Focus on drawing that line hard. You cannot be her counselor. She is not in a position to understand that, from what you say, so you have to understand it for her. And for you.

  17. Anyanka said:

    Oh my GOD this letter is disturbing.
    First of all, LW, your partner’s marriage is not yours to fix. Your partner’s wife is not an object for you to fix. People are not things and they are puzzles for you to figure out, corners for you to dust, or broken cars for you to fix! Stop fixing people!

    • “Disturbing” is a little harsh. In this letter, I didn’t see a person who wants everybody to be broken so that she (or he?) can assume the superior fixer role. I saw somebody who cares about someone who’s hurting. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to attempt to help. LW wanted advice on how to help in a healthy way.

    • Rattakin said:

      I completely agree. I don’t think one person can “fix” another. All you can do is offer support and show that you care. If the problem is a lack of support, or the belief that no one cares, then that may help. But it can be a much deeper issue, one that may not have a solution that can be easily grasped or solved, or one that doesn’t have a solution at all. In the course of grappling with demons, the knowledge that someone supports you, is available to you, and cares about you certainly couldn’t hurt. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily give you control over another person’s emotional well being or peace of mind. Help her if you can, but in the long run, you may have to just accept her for who she is and how she is. For better or worse, in sickness and in health.

  18. Rattakin said:

    This letter made me very sad. I’ve been seriously depressed for a few years now, and I know it’s difficult for my husband. But I just can’t imagine him threatening to leave me if I didn’t get better.

  19. argent said:

    It seemed to me that there was an anti-poly bias running through CA’s response and the particular way she ended up misunderstanding the letter. Polyamory is not “cheating, sort of” and romantic relationships are not a zero-sum game. The fact that CA brushed off LW’s description of Wife as LW’s partner, and saw “We typically work very well together” as meaning “LW and Husband” despite the context, seemed to come from a place of assuming that the LW-and-Husband relationship and Husband-and-Wife relationship /must somehow/ be competing against one another, despite LW’s stating that they are all poly.

    And this part: “One sign that she may indeed have uncomfortable people-pleasing tendencies is that she has not (to your knowledge) asked her husband that they close the marriage for a while or stop discussing the marriage with other partners until they work things out between themselves.” Telling your partner to cut off their (four-year!) relationships with other people when “the going gets tough” would not be an appropriate “failsafe” even if LW wasn’t very emotionally connected to Wife. Not just in a “this is a ridiculously inappropriate thing to tell someone” kind of way, but in a “why would you even think that cutting off part of someone’s support system and forcing upheaval into their other relationships would help the situation?” kind of way.

    I feel that CA assumed competition/animosity between LW and Wife where there wasn’t any, and therefore assumed that LW has a more patronizing view of Wife than ze actually does. Frankly, I am in the situation of Wife right now. I am a “people pleaser”, frequently find myself unable to even form a preference on things, much less assert it, and am depressed/anxious because of both the events that led to my “people pleasing” and the “people pleasing” itself. I could see this letter having been written about me.

    I really don’t think this letter isn’t about “how can we work around the inherently problematic situation of us being poly” or “LW needs to stop patronizing Wife and thinking ze can fix her”. It seems to be much more about the very understandable problem of “how can I support someone in crisis while also setting healthy boundaries?” I feel that this a time for the Captain’s standard advice of “be there as a friend, a lot, be there because you genuinely enjoy her company and her existence”. I don’t know what place you’re coming from, but “read up on ableism as much as you can so you don’t accidentally do patronizing or insulting things” is advice that has helped me in the past. And of course, ask, ask a lot what Wife actually wants from you, and decide on your own whether those are things you can actually provide. I’d suggest taking a look at answer #613 for more suggestions.

    • Vicki said:

      This didn’t feel like anti-poly bias to me: like you and LW, I wouldn’t think of, or accept, “we should close the relationship/break up with our other partners” as a fix if I or one of my partners was having problems in one of my/their relationships. But I do think “please stop discussing our problems with your other partner(s)” is a reasonable request. A person might say no, depending on exactly how those people do poly, but someone asking for that wouldn’t upset me.

      Also, given LW’s follow-up posts, I’m not sure they’re in a good place to “be there as a friend” for their partner’s wife: LW having distanced themself from Wife, however sound the reasons, doesn’t leave them well-situated to be that shape of support.

    • I think it’s understandable CA misread it given a lot of the phrasing that does come across as us-vs-them (perhaps written that way for clarity as to who’s who but the “partner’s wife” phrasing sounds rather distant), and she has changed her position and altered the post since clarification. (Also, mention of an “ultimatum” really makes the whole thing sound potentially awful.)

      But I also do kind of twitch at the idea that the takeaway multiple people had that what was happening here was the wife wanted monogamy/a period of monogamy. It’s sort of everything that can be wrong with the primary/secondary thing to me, because in one foul swoop it relegates the shorter length relationship to disposable, which seems completely unethical to me.

      I guess my point is I definitely agree that lack of understanding of poly has come through pretty clearly but I also don’t think that alone caused the Captain’s reaction because as it was written the whole situation sounded Not Good.

    • Twitchy said:

      Agreed. CA read a lot of hostility into the relationship that LW didn’t put in her letter. And changing ‘partner’ to ‘partner’s wife’ makes a huge difference. This is someone LW is in a serious long-term relationship with. She’s right to be concerned about her wellbeing, and she’s right to look for healthy ways to support her. It doesn’t sound like there’s any threat of LW’s male partner leaving her female partner for her.

  20. The Awe Ritual said:

    I dunno. It might be that the LW’s metamour is sensitive enough to her partners’ having a “diagnosis” that she senses that. It can be pretty unsettling when that happens. I might consider saying, “Hey, partner, I read this article and some of the things in it reminded me of you. WHether or not that’s you, I hope I haven’t been making you feel like I would love you less if you took time for self-care. What makes you so special and important to me [and I do get the vibe that she is special to LW] is who you are, not what you do.”

    Anecdote: severe ADD and the fact that I refused to throw out a closetful of crap led a roommate to diagnose me as a “hoarder” (and blog about it vociferously and gossip about it to mutual friends). Had she asked, she might have found out that I was being paid by a relative to store this while she was in Europe for six months and that one dish left in front of the computer a week was, yes, incredibly horribly unsanitary and awful and would probably bring the plague upon our area (she worked downtown in food service and worried about such things), but it was about 9000x better than I would have been before diagnosis, medication, and FlyLady (whom she compared to Hitler. She had control and messiah issues and ONLY SHE COULD FIX ME). Instead, this “secret” turned toxic between us, she decided that she wasn’t paying rent, and… it wasn’t fun for me.

    • Rattakin said:

      Sorry, COMPLETELY off topic (which is typical for me), but has FlyLady helped you? My mother-in-law is a big believer, so I tried subscribing to the newsletter. But I could never get past the first step which is to dress in something decent – because with my body type, I can’t even find jeans that fit me. So I generally wear sweats or jammies all day. I had a hard time imagining myself cleaning the house while constantly hucking up ill-fitting clothes that are tight in the ass and thigh, and too big in the waist, and that keep sliding down to uncomfortable lows, and envisioning this as a productive state which would help me get more housework done.

      And, yeah, we all know that no one can fix you.* You can only fix yourself.

      *Especially those who have a bizarre idea of what is “broken” in you. If I had a nickle for every lesbian who told me I was gay and didn’t know it….

      • I know a few people who just couldn’t work with FlyLady, but preferred the approach of HabitRPG or Unfuck Your Habitat.

        • The Awe Ritual said:

          Off-topic: Book of Jubilation is right: Flylady can be a little off-putting to some for all sorts of reasons, and UFYH really works wonders for some of my friends. HabitRPG is sort of new to me, but sounds pretty cool. In the other, less techie, direction, I like Marla Dee’s _Clear and Simple_ as an audiobook (available via many fine libraries, or every so often someone throws it up on Youtube, if you are cash-pinched. I hate piracy but understand sometimes it’s “food, meds, or books,” and I kind of think the author might, as well.)

          I came to Ms. Cilley sort of laterally and not in the prescribed manner, though— she has this one podcast, “Crisis cleaning,” basically forty-five minutes of guided cleaning (well, cramming stuff into closets in a manner which is actually sort of logical) which I found very helpful, plus another called “Focus Makes Me Fabulous,” (fifteen minutes of a warm southern voice being calm and supportive when you’ve got to get a start on something), plus another called “Weekly Home Blessing” (jumping off points for making clean spots that give one hope and forward momentum for the rest of the house) that really helped me, and I sort of dove in from there.

          As for the “dressing nicely” or “shoes” thing, it’s my feeling that a “suiting up for battle” montage/ ritual, complete with lacing stuff up, has a grand cultural cathexis that fortify one’s stock of spoons rather nicely.

          But Rattakin, clothing that makes you feel bad and uncomfortable is the OPPOSITE of nice. I think what she is getting at is more, “dress in the way that chases away the brainweasels that chatter at you and tell you you’re frumpy and undeserving of being to enjoy a peaceful environment.” I HATE jeans— not only do they turn clammy and horrible when you’re clumsy at washing dishes like me, not only is my butt a size x and my waist a size x-6, I have endocrine-based skin weirdness that makes my legs bleed at random if I wear denim on them. So I’m kind of the pope of no jeans, and hereby bless your most fabulous jammies (may you be ever blessed with fabulous jammies) as “suitable cleaning wear.”

          TL;DR: any road that gets you there without stepping in excessive horse dung is the right road, and anyone who tries to tell you, “My road is the only right road,” probably runs a toll booth on that road.

          • Anyone who tries to tell you, “My road is the only right road,” probably runs a toll booth on that road.

            I’ll be quoting that.

        • Angel said:

          I had never heard of HabitRPG until you posted this, and now I am in LOVE. Thank you!

      • Angel said:

        I actually hate FlyLady. My mom loves her, and I’ve taken some advice from the system, but I just felt really infantilized by her approach. Not to mention she tends to make my (self-diagnosed) depression worse? There are other systems out there that might work better for you, if you’re running into a roadblock with FlyLady.

        Although I feel confident in your ability to eventually find jeans or other pants that will suit your needs. I’m pretty small and slender, but the “tight in the thighs, enormous in the waist” description rings ALL THE TRUE for me. I had to wear boys’ jeans as a kid and now (I’m 20) I only fit in “curvy” skinny jeans that run to like $100 a pair (but last forever, so I call them worth it). So, although you are now rolling your eyes and saying “TRUST ME, TEENYBOPPER; I’VE LOOKED,” I sympathetically encourage you to look again. Somewhere, someone makes clothes that fit you.

        Or you could always wear a skirt?

  21. Alcor said:

    If there’s one thing anybody hates, it’s feeling ganged up on. If LW and Husband go talk to Wife, I’m almost entirely sure Wife is going to take this as an attack. It looks like she’s being cornered and outnumbered — and she is. This is the wrong way to go about helping anyone, with rare exception. People confronted with greater numbers will dig in their heels or hide, because it’s just a frightening experience.

    I’m also wondering if Husband has a history of using poly as a way to get away from his wife when she’s not happy and entertaining for him. There’s a not incredibly thick line between “I like spending time with different personality types and people” and “I’m conveniently going to someone more assertive and capable when you’re feeling weak so I can wait out your problems while you solve them without any effort from me.”

  22. hrovitnir said:

    If you’re still reading LW I second all the advice that you can’t fix her and trying won’t work out well for either of you, and that in terms of expressing opinions/people-pleasing/wanting you to “fix” her your best bet is to keep communicating clearly, empathise but don’t try and do things for her even when she really wants you to (this is easier said than done, I know!) and be patient/don’t pressure her when it comes to expressing opinions and needs. Basically just always giving her room for an opinion and actually following through/responding in an accepting manner should slowly help.

    My perspective is that based on the relationship I’m reading into your clarification I think you can bring up the people-pleasing, just really really don’t tell her that’s what she is or bring it up over and over. If you naturally are discussing issues anyway or just spending time together you could say that you encountered the concept recently and she might find it interesting. If she is interested you can offer her resources without forcing them on her/any actions in particular related to it on her.

    To me there’s a really fine line between what the Captain envisioned happening and actually offering something that may be useful, and it’s significantly around making it low-pressure and letting her lead. Basically giving her resources and if she has specific things she’d like to discuss with you/would like you to do and you’re happy doing them go with that.

    Not telling her your thoughts and trying to lead her into having the same revelation to avoid seeming controlling is also a terrible idea, everyone feels manipulated and crap when they realise that happened. I don’t think it’s bad at all that you’re researching stuff and it may be a helpful concept for her – but it may not, or it may not for a long time. All you can do is put it out there and let her do what works for her.

    I hope that made sense. 😛

  23. I have to admit, I haven’t read many of the other comments (other than the LW’s) to this post, since it seems like they’re mostly chasing a tangent. Sorry about that.

    The thing about a “people pleaser” getting “better”, LW, is that ironically? It’s ANNOYING. They stop trying to please you! They use the word “no”! The first time they stop taking your advice is actually cause for celebration! You start to get into fights, they start being okay with doing things that bug you… basically, you see all the reasons someone would go 20 years in a relationship with them without encouraging them to please people less. It’s like your relationship getting sandpapered back to the rough parts and that’s a good thing.

    It also involves facing the reality that people pleasers–and fixers–aren’t like that out of pure undiluted altruism; they’re both ways of gratifying oneself by avoiding conflict. They’re both forms of manipulation (and I say that as someone with strong tendencies of both.) I mean, to be charitable: they’re personality structures usually formed in response to shitty early trauma, and not the mark of a horrible person! But. Someone is a fixer, or a people pleaser, because they find the alternative deeply abhorrent. Someone who always goes with the flow, conforms, and does what everyone else wants them to do, would probably break out in stress hives about being greedy, selfish, vain, and unlovable the first time they changed the pattern. A fixer who’s not fixing, who allows themselves to be broken and stops providing help and demands help from others, is going to encounter strong feelings of worthlessness, fear of judgment, and being potentially dangerous and overwhelming. That’s the kind of shit you’re going to walk into if you pursue this; it’s the darkness you have to love in yourselves and each other if you want to go forward.

    But that’s why the amount to which you can stand back and be okay with her not being on the same page with her are important. You can say things like:

    “I trust that you can make your own decisions.”
    “It’s okay if we don’t always agree.”
    “I admire that you value [thing she has chosen to disagree with you about]”
    “As you get better, you might need to tell us about changes we need to make to support you.”
    “I don’t always know what will help you best, so it helps me when you tell me what you want/need.”

    If she goes into counselling and works on changing her relationship with people, she will probably uncover a LOT of anger, frustration, and resentment at the world, and most of it is probably going to fly at your partner and you, right as you’re running yourselves ragged to support her. And her anger will be a GOOD thing but you might even find yourselves wishing she’d go back to being “broken” because she was easier to live with, but if you love her, you’ll have to take really deep breaths and find ways to validate her emotions without backtracking on your boundaries.

    Both you and your partner should make sure you have supports in place for yourselves! Things will likely get worse before they get better, so you might want counselling, a support group, an active spiritual practice, or whatever gets you through, up and running before you really need them.

    • misspiggy said:

      Wow. This seems like an incredibly useful and insightful comment to me.

    • x, said:

      This is SUCH a good point. I have people pleasing tendencies and drawing clear boundaries is something that used to be a HUGELY negative experience for me.

      • One of the friendships that’s been best for me is a friend I made at therapist school, where we were BOTH very interpersonally-astute Fixer-Pleaser people, and both read this site. We could catch times we were trying to fix/please AT each other (because it takes one to know one) and when we tried something different we could say things like, “I’m going to disagree with you, so give me a moment to get over the wash of terror my body is throwing at me.” It was slow, careful work the whole way. Super hard! But so useful, for all that.

    • Alexia said:

      “It also involves facing the reality that people pleasers–and fixers–aren’t like that out of pure undiluted altruism; they’re both ways of gratifying oneself by avoiding conflict. They’re both forms of manipulation (and I say that as someone with strong tendencies of both.) I mean, to be charitable: they’re personality structures usually formed in response to shitty early trauma, and not the mark of a horrible person! But. Someone is a fixer, or a people pleaser, because they find the alternative deeply abhorrent. Someone who always goes with the flow, conforms, and does what everyone else wants them to do, would probably break out in stress hives about being greedy, selfish, vain, and unlovable the first time they changed the pattern. A fixer who’s not fixing, who allows themselves to be broken and stops providing help and demands help from others, is going to encounter strong feelings of worthlessness, fear of judgment, and being potentially dangerous and overwhelming. That’s the kind of shit you’re going to walk into if you pursue this; it’s the darkness you have to love in yourselves and each other if you want to go forward.”

      As someone who also has strong tendencies of both people-pleasing and fixing, YES X 1,000,000! It’s hard as he– to leave things as is, to let things BE AWKWARD. This site has been invaluable to me and I hope LW will realize that her pushing for solutions that will “fix” the Wife is just indulging in her own Fixer tendencies.

      • And meanwhile the partner here is going to have to change a lot TOO, since he’s going to see a lot of conflict and pushback that’s unexpected, and it’s hard to hear “this thing you’ve done for 20 years is something I’ve always secretly hated” without falling into a big pit of I Am An Awful Human Being, and doing that in front of his wife is exactly the outcome she’s kept silent for 20 years to avoid! So everybody there has to Embrace the Awkward and let it BE rough.

        Can I rec Brene Brown here? She’s just so so useful. “The Gifts of Imperfection” is literally a manual to this kind of thing.

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