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.
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.