#1024: “How do I avert these burgeoning unhealthy relationship dynamics?”

Dear Captain,

A few months ago, I met a cute new person and we clicked pretty well from the start. We both had another primary partner at the time and we often talked about those relationships as well as (of course) many other things. After a while, he and his primary broke up, and he was pretty devastated by it. I didn’t mind that he was a bit more “down” when we spent time together, and it seemed only natural to me that he talked about his break-up feelings sometimes. I still don’t mind those things.

Now here comes the difficult part: I feel like this relationship is getting more and more asymmetrical. I’m busy with a demanding job and an active social life (and I like it that way), and he has a lot of time on his hands. He has made it clear that he’d prefer to spend much more time together than we currently do (including weekend trips and the like), while from my perspective we’re close to “too much”. He is way ahead of me with things like “I love you” (WAY too early for me!). I feel like I have to be “on” at all times when we’re together, because he always seems worried that I’m not being enthusiastic enough and something must be wrong and don’t you like me anymore?

He’s had a bunch of personal issues come up lately, and he’s generally pretty unhappy right now. I find it really hard to find a balance between being kind to a person I like, and setting some “don’t make me responsible for your happiness!”-boundaries. I understand anxiety and sadness and insecurity, because I deal with plenty of that in my own life, but it feels like he’s subconsciously weaponizing these things to demand my time and attention. He often says things like:

  • “you’re the only good thing in my life right now”
  • “I feel like everyone is rejecting/leaving me lately”
  • “I’m not doing so well, , can I come by tonight? I need comfort”
  • “I’m dealing with so much shit that I can’t carry it on my own”
  • “You give me so much strength when we spend time together”

I really like this guy! We have a lot in common and we’ve had fun times together. I would love to see him once or twice a month for many moons to come, and for us to grow closer over time, but right now I feel like I’m under siege and I have to focus on setting boundaries and finding new ways to say “no” all the time and it’s starting to suck the joy out of what (I hope) could be a genuinely fun and rewarding relationship – through good times and bad.

Can I salvage this? How can I communicate with him in a way that does NOT say “I can’t handle people who have negative emotions ever”, but rather “it feels like you’re using your emotions against me and that’s not cool”?

Thank you!

You’re absolutely right to see a litany of “you’re the only good thing in my life” and “everyone else is rejecting me (so you won’t, won’t you?)” statements as being red flags of codependence. I’m not sure the end result of my advice is “fun new relationship is salvaged!” but I think you do have a good opening here to have an honest talk with him about getting help in handling hard life stuff and the reciprocity & seriousness of your relationship.

There are two separate conversations to be had here. I’m not sure in which order, so, use your judgment.

Conversation #1:

[Partner], I can see that you’re really suffering right now as you [grieve the loss of primary relationship][handle this recent raft of difficult life stuff]. I’m feeling overwhelmed by it all and I think it’s time to find some more support for this stuff. Maybe a trained sounding board – like a therapist or counselor – can help you process all of this.

There is a 99.99% chance he will feel insulted and hurt that you are fobbing him off on other people instead of investing deeply in his emotional well-being yourself. Get ready for some intenso responses involving “You are tired of me and you are going to reject me like everyone else” + 1,000 reasons that therapy/counseling is impossible/useless/too hard for him. This is because:

  • He is primed to feel rejected right now. Everything that isn’t “I love you come over right now and let me comfort you my dear boy” = rejection.
  • You are sending him to other people instead of wanting to deal with it yourself. (That’s okay! Just, acknowledge the truth of that so you don’t fall for the negging when it comes).
  • Mental health system is imperfect and it does take a lot of resources and energy to find a good fit and treatment that can work for you. It’s a hard thing to do when you’re feeling great, never mind when you’re feeling terrible. It’s okay to acknowledge the imperfections in the mental health system and also remind yourself that those difficulties don’t automatically make his emotional well-being your sole problem to deal with on demand in real time.

Follow-up script:

I know this sucks and that’s not what you wanted to hear. You’re right, I am telling you that you need to find other people besides me to lean on, and you’re right, the mental health system can be really difficult/annoying/expensive. But I am not comfortable or prepared to continue being your main sounding board about this stuff. I think your problems are real and serious and that taking them seriously might involve bringing in a trained listening person for a little while. Think of it as giving yourself the gift of a safe space to unload and process all of this that’s 100% focused on you, a little time in your week where you have permission to feel as sad and lost as you need to feel and get all the feelings out so you can start to heal and deal with them.

Get ready for a question like “So I guess I’m not allowed to talk about serious stuff or feelings with you anymore?” (It’s 99.99% coming)

Your script: “That’s not what I’m saying, but I am saying that I don’t want the time we spend together to be all about [Serious Feelings Stuff and Comfort]. I am asking you to find and take advantage of some alternate avenues for support and comfort, so things with us can be a little more balanced than they have been.

Chances are he will not like it. He likes his comfort to come with a side of romance/sexytimes and whyyyyy should he make an effort to find a therapist when he has youuuu? But you’re doing a kind thing by being honest about your limits and directing him toward something that actually has a chance of making him feel better.

Conversation #2 

Sometimes the answer to “I had a terrible day, can I come over and be comforted” is simply “Sorry, not tonight.” And then you put your phone away and focus on what you originally planned to do and he finds a way to self-soothe somehow. If he deals with that well, then maybe it can get better.

That doesn’t mean there is no big conversation to be had. He wants to say “I love you” and plan weekends away and remind you that you’re the only great thing in his life and it’s making you feel crowded and overwhelmed. Time to talk about that. Maybe time to also talk honestly about the way you do polyamory, like the fact that you have someone in your life that you consider to be a primary partner and that there is a hierarchy there maybe not of feelings but in terms of how you allocate time/vacation days/long-term relationship planning, etc. It seems like your relationship really worked when he had that in place too but now things have become unbalanced. This conversation might mean that y’all create something new together over time or it might mean that he and you find out that are unsuited to each other.

The thing where he wants you to be “on” and show that you are sufficiently enthusiastic seems to be the best entry point for this conversation, as in, the next time he makes you you feel that way it’s time to talk about what’s up: “Listen, I like you a lot, and I like you enough that I can make space for you to be sad and grieving right now but that also means that you make space for me being tired or having an off night or for not exactly mirroring your enthusiasm back to you. For example, we’ve only known each other a short time and I’m not ready for ‘I love you’ yet. I would love to get there someday but I need more time. When you say ‘I’m the only good thing in your life’ I know you mean it as a compliment but it feels like pressure. Also time we spend together is already about the maximum time I have to spend with you in a given week. Like of course it would be nice to spend ‘more time’ together, but I can’t do that without breaking other commitments that are pleasurable and important to me. I need you to understand that and focus on enjoying the time we do spend together.

Then, say the thing that’s the elephant in the room: “I feel like you want me to take the place of [Former Primary Partner] in your life, and that’s an okay thing for you to want on an emotional level, I get it, but it’s too much/not the right fit for me/not what I signed up for/making things unbalanced between us. I care about you a lot and I want to find a way to keep this going, so, how do we build something that is enjoyable and true and emotionally supportive without me feeling so pressured and you feeling so rejected?

He’s not going to like hearing this because it’s going to feed into the story he is telling himself about how everyone rejects him. Also there maybe is no balance between “Ideally we’d hang out once or twice a month, forever” and “LOVE ME!!!!!” But if you can’t talk honestly about this stuff and you keep feeling suffocated and overwhelmed, the thing is not going to work. “I’m at the limit of what I have to give you in terms of time and affection” isn’t what any romantic partner really wants to hear, but it’s important information if it’s the truth. The truth can hurt but it can also help us make good decisions about how to take care of ourselves. He may decide that what you have to offer is not enough for him. You may decide that what he wants is just not compatible with what you want and need. That would be painful, but I have to think that it’s better than letting him continue to build this fortress of need around you while you’re looking for the escape hatch.

Reminder for commenters: Spell out the whole word “polyamory” please.

129 thoughts on “#1024: “How do I avert these burgeoning unhealthy relationship dynamics?”

  1. I think there is a Reason #3 he will act insulted and hurt when you bring up him seeing a therapist – it’s easy for him right now the way it is.
    The emotional labor has to go both ways in this relationship or it will lead to resentment. At a minimum, you have to be allowed to have bad days and he has to have non-you ways of coping with his life. As the Captain has said before, a girlfriend is not a pacifier. (And a boyfriend is not a treatment plan. And dating a person of any gender is not therapy.)

    1. This! People can be rather miffed when denied the “easy way”. To give an example outside of dating and friendships, I’m a medical doctor in real life. Starting in MEDICAL SCHOOL, I had to start setting firm boundaries with my family not to try to use me in lieu of getting their own doctor. Why? Because it is easier (and quicker and cheaper) to just call your doctor relative/friend for advice than get an appointment a lot of the time. I let them know, on no uncertain terms, that I don’t mind giving occasional, quick advice, but I can’t be their personal Doc-In-A-Box.

      1. Not to mention the ethical considerations! I’ve run into this in the past too. If you want to cheat on your taxes, that’s your problem. Do NOT even breathe a word of it to or around me, and don’t ask me to help. I’ve got a license I’d like to keep, thanks.

      2. Lawyer-solidarity-high-five! I had to institute an “attorney at drankin’/attorney at law” policy, where either you’re hiring me as a lawyer in an area I am qualified to advise on, or you’re buying me drinks and getting a profanity-laced opinion on your problem that might involve conspiracy theories or advice to commit arson (kidding about the arson – sorta).

        1. I’m a 3L who’s trying to get into immigration/civil rights law, which is obviously a hot topic right now. Multiple times I’ve had to say something akin to, “What I am about to tell you is not advice about how to win a court case. This is advice about how to win an argument on Facebook.”

    2. This this this. The phrase EMOTIONAL LABOUR sprang to my mind while I was reading too. He used to get it from his ex primary partner, but they’re not around anymore, so now he wants to put the LW in that slot. Looks like LW is going to make it clear that they don’t want the job. How he reacts to that (when he’s had some time to process) will shine a light on whether he just needs a wake-up call because Sadfeels, or if he is a genuine emotional labour leech. Good luck LW!

        1. Yup, and my inner cynic is theorizing that both of these people are femininely gendered in some way. Even framing a question of “Why wouldn’t you want to just manage my emotional landscape for me?” is more emotional labor than it would occur to a lot of straight men to do.
          Ok, yup, the cynic is coming out. Dear LW, my point here is, it is not your job to be the Girlfriend Pacifier. Please only do it if you want to, feel appreciated, and get support in return. There are a lot of other people out there who would not expect that level of work from you.

          1. I mean, I don’t want to lead the thread straight to Derailment Central, but my Very! Definitely! Cis! Het! Male! ex was fond of using emotionally self-aware terminology to subtly make me feel like a soggy ass for not being able to emotionally support him in the way he (claimed he) needed, so I could see how LW’s partner could be similarly cisgendered with juuuuuuuust enough self-awareness to realize that he can’t depend solely on LW for support but not enough to (want to?) figure out how to get it elsewhere.

            Either way, yep, LW has every right to say, “I can’t do this (at least, not at this level) anymore,” and turn the phone on silent (or whatever is necessary to ignore Partner’s continued pleas) for the rest of the night.

          1. Yup. I had the same thought. I’ve been on the emotional laborer end of things before, and it just sucks.

      1. Yes, and that information is really valuable for LW, either way. Either she’ll know that this is a guy who needs time to deal with emotional issues, but that he can deal with them, and be a good friend and lover, or she’ll know that this is a guy who is not worth her time, and should be avoided.

        As painful as the second possibility is, it’s still very valuable to know, and the sooner you know it, the better.

  2. I like that the question and answer is framed not as a polyamory ‘problem’ but a boundary/relationship definition/mutual negotiation of needs problem because that’s what I think this is.

    I think the polyamory is not really as relevant as clearly defining and communicating your wants and needs in any relationship, and I have a non-romantic friendship that can use some of this.

    Great scripts!

      1. I have been the friend who did this, and while I did not enjoy hearing “I understand you’re going through some stuff right now, but if you keep leaning on me like this, we’re both going to crack under the strain,” I really did need to hear it.

        1. You’re awesome.

          My friend (tw for suicide) when told I couldn’t deal with talking about her suicidal thoughts, stopped talking to me completely and basically ended the friendship.

    1. Yes, definitely. I have more than one friend who struggles with serious chronic health issues, mental or physical, or struggling with poverty right now. The ones whom I’ve been able to stay close to are those who spread the requests around, instead of dumping them all on me and feeling hurt or resentful if i say no.

      So, for “I’m having a bad day, can I come over?” Or “Can I have $100, my lights got shut off?” I try to say yes when I can. But, if the answer is no, I know some of my friends will be able to ask someone else in their friend group or family, or meet their need on their own, and they won’t take my rejection personally. But others, who are less likely to ask other people in their life or pursue other resources and options, feel so deeply hurt or panicked by my saying “no” that I start avoiding them, because I don’t want to be around people who inadvertently make me feel guilty for setting boundaries.

    2. It didn’t fully occur to me that it was a polyamory situation until the note at the end. Really, gender and number of partners is almost startlingly irrelevant to the question. It all comes down to one person wanting more emotional labor and a deeper/more sudden commitment than the other wants, and not backing off when gently rebuffed.
      Rebuff them FIRMLY, LW!

  3. Good job seeing the warning signs for what they are and catching them early, LW.

    I’ve been in situations like this that were far more uh…entrenched which made the whole thing harder to get back into balance without very conscious effort.

    One thing that sticks out to me that might be relevant is that you wrote about him having a lot of time on his hands right now. Where did it go? Did he only have two good things in his life before he broke up with his primary partner? Are there clear possibilities for other good life things that he seems like he’d be willing to pursue? Are the good things in his life actively fleeing from him? Did the good things in his life mysteriously start falling away making it all the more convenient to hang out with you 15 days a week? Therapy may be a very good idea but he also might need a life within a reasonable timeframe.

    1. I agree, but it’s also not the LW’s problem to find him something to do with his free time that’s not hanging out with LW. If anything, involving theirself in operation “find friend a thing to do” would enforce this unbalanced dynamic.

      1. Personally I read their reply as tongue-in-cheek (see, e.g., “15 days a week”, “might need a life”), not an actual suggestion that LW do that emotional labor for the guy.

      2. I meant it not as a new to-do list for some other person’s emotional management.

        More like this can be helpful information to have a clearer picture of what LW is actually in for.

        For example, I was once in a similar situation with a good friend of many years and I knew he *could* have a life that involved things other than venting to me because I had previously seen him do just that. Had this been part of a pattern (e.g. if there was *never* anything else in his life, if the good in his life had actively *fled* or if he seemed to be *purposely* centering me in his life), I’d have probably bought him a violet and called it quits.

        Not sure how far back LW’s knowledge of her boyfriend’s background goes but if she has that kind of first hand info, it may be easier to gauge how realistic the changes he agrees to are (anybody can make promises or make short term changes that make them look less clingy for the moment) and how long she can expect to wait for any semblance of balance. That way LW can choose how much she wants to invest with more knowledge as to whether he’s just making repairs to his life, building from scratch or is intentionally keeping the lot vacant in the hopes of the two of them just building a cozy lovenest where his hobbies and support system should be.

        1. That’s a good point – a pattern of boyfriend having very little in his life besides a primary partner is a very different thing from feeling a little lost after the loss of a relationship that probably did take up a lot of his free time is also a very different thing from driving away everyone/everything good in his life. Some stuff can be fixed with a little time and boundary setting, some stuff is just going to drain you dry and you still won’t be able to fix it.

      3. Right. I agree that LW’s boyfriend needs a hobby, or some more friends, but that’s up to him to find. If anything, if LW helps him find those things, it may be hard for him to continue them if/when the two of them break up.

    2. Similarly, I feel like therapy is not necessarily the end-goal here, the goal is ‘find a healthy way to deal with your problems that’s not unloading them all on me’. Therapy is one way to do that, but if the LW gets major pushback (and/or if his options for accessing treatment are legitimately not great), I think it’s fine to say ‘Fine, talk it out with friends, journal, bike it out, do whatever works for you to take care of yourself so that I don’t have to do it for you when we should be enjoying time together’

      1. Yes, absolutely this. The partner may have very good reasons for not wanting to go to therapy. Cool! It’s still time to put in place some other resources for emotional coping that aren’t the Letter Writer.

        1. Yeah. . . in some ways I think it might be better to start with the “Hey, I’m not able to handle giving you this much emotional support.”

          I don’t think that there’s a perfect way to set this boundary so he feels 100% good about it, but I think there can be a particularly nasty chain of reactions that happens when you start out with “Hey, I really care about you and want you to get some help” and move to “Well, even if you don’t look for professional help, *I* cannot be your help any longer.” I suspect that it feels on the receiving end a bit like the first statement was made under false pretenses — like, if this was ~about~ how much you cared about me, then why aren’t you willing to be a source of support any longer?

          I dunno. Like I commented below, I just went through a similar situation, and I remain suspicious that I did it wrong. I think my friend felt like I was trying to dress up my own preferences as concern for her when I suggested therapy and, when she said she was not at all interested in looking into that, said that was great but I needed her to stop venting to me for a while.

          1. @Jane: Great point – and I would also add that ‘I think you should go to therapy and I’ve found you a list of resources’ are actually *playing into* this whole horrible unhealthy dynamic of the LW being expected to adopt responsibility for the boyfriend’s problems. I’d rephrase it more as ‘I care a lot about you and want to see you get this help, but realistically it is not what I can give you’ with therapy being offered as a possible example of what might help but not as I Have Made This Decision About How Your Needs Should Be Met.

            (Scripts otherwise *awesome*.)

      2. That’s what I was going to say! What it comes down to, I think, is that when you’re in a close, long-term, established relationship of course you expect your partner to give you a lot of emotional support during the rough times (and you expect to give a lot of emotional support when your partner has it rough.) This is appropriate for that kind of relationship (and to a certain extent for close, long-term friendships.) But, projecting that kind of commitment onto a relationship that is only a few months old is not good. (Additionally, in this case LW may never want the relationship to have that level of interdependence.) In some ways a major breakup is kind of like a health crisis or a parent dying — it’s a big deal, you need a lot of support. And it can put a *lot* of stress on a few-months-old relationship.

        I suppose someone is going to comment that having a one-person support system isn’t healthy in a well-established relationship either, and that’s fair. I guess what I’m saying is even if LW’s cute person wasn’t going all “you’re my only hope” at LW, this would still be a hard situation to deal with.

  4. Empathy and awkward fist bumps for the LW. I have not had to do this thing in a romantic situation, but I did recently have to a tell a long-time friend that I couldn’t be the sounding board for everything negative happening in her life. It SUCKED, no lie. She did not experience, “Would you consider talking to a therapist?” as an act of lovingkindness on my part. (And deep in my heart I’m still 99% sure that this is cosmic punishment for the time when a friend set a boundary against me and I reacted poorly.)

    The not-very-fun piece of advice I have for this situation is: you are very likely not going to feel good coming out of that first conversation with your dude, so do not use your emotional experience as a yardstick for whether the conversation was worth having. I bawled for a while after I told my friend I needed to not be on the receiving end of venting for a while, and I had to wonder: was it really worth hurting this person I care about just so my mental health would be a little bit better? In my case, the answer was a clear “yes,” but that didn’t mean I didn’t ask the question, or that I’m not still asking the question.

    Based on my friend’s reaction, and based on my own experience being that person: another person plopping down a boundary in front of you when you’re not expecting it feels a hell of a lot like a betrayal, or a selfish act of cruelty, on the part of the boundary-setter. It ISN’T, but I have a theory that relationships that survive hard boundary-setting tend to be between people who both have previous experience with setting boundaries and respecting them and how that feels on both sides. Again, in my experience, setting boundaries is like riding a bike — when you’re learning the process, there’s generally some pretty significant bruising involved.

    Best of luck, LW.

    1. Agreed! and I think a key aspect is in working to shift the underlying sense that boundaries are something set “against” another person, both on the giving and receiving ends – it’s helped me to really ground myself in knowing that the boundary is not against but actually FOR the relationship and in service to both people in it (i.e. without the boundary being stated, the other person and the relationship would end up suffering a great deal more, as things become unsustainable and come to a far messier end). For those of us conditioned to experience boundaries as acts of betrayal or cruelty, it can help a lot to spend some time shifting that internally first, and actually rooting down into a sense of love, honesty, and desire for yourself and the relationship to flourish, and then coming to the conversation from there (rather than a squirmy, uncomfortable, “sorry to be doing this horrible thing to you but I just have to say this” kind of place). It’s actually an act of courage and kindness, and it works better when it can be (at least partly) experienced as such by the person committing it. At least that’s been my experience:)

      1. This is an amazing and insightful comment! Thank you for articulating it, I want to keep reading it and let it sink in even more.

      2. I have a dear friend with whom I have discussed boundaries in general several times – not that I needed to set boundaries with this person, but it’s a thing that we happened to talk about. They recently asked me to do some emotional labor, and while I reflexively did it, I later realized that I was not comfortable with the request, and didn’t want to do it again. So I carefully explained the boundary, and included my thoughts about how important this person is to me and how much it mattered to me that the relationship continue. And it worked! They apologized for asking me to do the emotional labor, promised to try to remember not to ask me again, and clearly stated that they were not upset. We had a lovely couple of hours together a week or so later, and it was brought up only in passing as a thing we had been talking about recently.
        Now if only all of these conversations went that well. *sigh*

    2. ditto for me, i had a non-romantic friendship that needed a sudden-feeling boundary adjustment from me when it became Too. Much. yes, i care when a friend is upset, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting to have those emotions dumped at me. in my case she wasn’t really expecting me to make her feel better, she was just so overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do with the intensity of it. i needed to be able to opt out sometimes. i needed to not dread her emails or texts. it wasn’t an easy or pleasant discussion, and we ended up taking a bit of a break from each other, informally, just seeing each other much less often, because both our feelings were hurt. but the space was useful for us both. she found other people and other coping mechanisms; i could recover and actually miss her, and then we came back together, slowly and rebuilt a routine of actually enjoying time spent together.

      LW, i hope that you can negotiate the change in relationship balance with your partner and work something out!

    3. I think this is really wise and compassionate. I also went through a hard boundary-setting with a friend, and while neither of us enjoyed that conversation, our friendship became much more healthy once we settled into the boundary. Emotional experiences of difficult conversations can indeed be hard even if they are good, healthy, important conversations.

      1. i love this comment.

        Also two quick things:
        1) my husband chose therapy because he hated telling me about his emotional issues because I’m so empathetic and i’d end up crying.He didn’t want to hurt me, I wanted to support him but couldn’t turn off my emotions, so a therapist was a perfect option for us and has helped us immensely.
        2) just a mild warning – polyamory (kind of like the whole “male feminists” issue) can sometimes allow people to couch their emotional abuse in the language of communication and boundaries. Just keep an eye on that. Personal experience, etc.

    4. This is a great comment. Enjoying or feeling ‘good’ at the end of the conversation isn’t a good yardstick for how well it went.

    5. >> I have a theory that relationships that survive hard boundary-setting tend to be between people who both have previous experience with setting boundaries and respecting them and how that feels on both sides

      I’m pretty good at setting and receiving boundaries, and I still find that my overwhelming response to someone setting a boundary AT me is “Heybutthat’snotFAIR letmeruleslawyerwhyyou’rewrong”. I mostly have enough cop-on to stop myself talking whilst I’m experiencing that reaction and when I’ve thought about it a bit I usually realise they are right. But the fact that my first reaction is a sulky “OK FINE” doesn’t mean the other person is wrong to set boundaries, it just means I need to be vocal about saying, “Sorry, I was being a bit mardy, but you’re right” when I get to that point.

      1. The first few times I had that overwhelming emotional response to someone explicitly setting a boundary with me, I pretty much lost my shit. I didn’t have the context for “why is this person doing this to me,” and so I made up a context that matched my crappy, crappy feelings about that, and ended up spray-painting the relationship in flames and sorrow. (Shockingly, this ended said relationship.)

        For me it took a lot of practice to learn to *sit* with those crappy feelings about other people’s boundaries and not do something to explode the relationship in the meantime.

        I think I mostly just wanted to suggest to the LW that they keep their expectations about how this boundary-setting interaction is going to go fairly modest.

  5. This is a tough one, LW. I can relate to it a bit from the guy’s side because I’m currently seeing someone who has a wider and busier friend network than I do. Although I do my best to give him plenty of space and make it clear that when I invite him to things I’m giving him the option of joining me in something I’m already doing (ie a no is perfectly okay, I’m doing the thing anyway!) there’s been some tension about scheduling. That happens, not everyone has exactly the same level of busyness at all times! For me personally, having expectations (eg “LW and I will see each other every two weeks”) is really helpful in combating any anxiety that may arise.

    But as someone in kind of that position, I can also tell you that what he’s doing is not okay. Girl/boyfriend’s are not pacifiers or therapists, and him telling you things like “you’re the only good thing in my life” is a massive red flag to me. It’s okay to feel sad and anxious sometimes, but you don’t dump that on your partner to fix. That’s what therapists and self-work are for, and I think you should encourage him to seek out resources on his own. Good luck, LW!

    1. ^This yes this.

      To add another slightly different variation to this theme: I moved cities less than a month ago. I’m super-lucky that one of my close friends lives in this city, and they’ve been amazing with helping me move and it’s lovely for both of us to get to hang out more IRL. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a city where they have friends and close-family and activities and hobbies and a fulltime job, and I am still very much finding my feet.

      Which means that I’m spending more time than I’d like alone and having a lot of Lonely Feelings and all the complicated feels a person has when they’re sitting in a new city and their new office isn’t available yet and the NewHouse is oh-so-very-quiet-indeed and the social calendar is even more so.

      It would be REALLY EASY for me to call up GoodFriend every single day with a “hey wanna go for drinks/a walk/come over for dinner??” But GoodFriend is a Good Friend, not a pacifier. And I want them in my life ’cause I enjoy their company, not ’cause there’s a hole in my life and I want to use them to plug it up. And I want them to feel happy that I’m around more and for us to get to hang out more, but not to feel like I’ve moved to NewCity and want them to drop everything to be there for me 24/7.

      And long-term? Yeah, it sucks sometimes when I’m sitting on my own and things are Way Too Quiet. But six months from now I want to have a big, varied life here in NewCity and that won’t happen if I don’t accept a bit of discomfort here and now.

  6. This is such a great response. I think most people who’ve done non-monogamy have run into this person–the person who wants things that simply aren’t going to happen. (And honestly, it goes the other way, too–there are always situations where you want more than the other person in the situation does, and learning to negotiate that from both sides is so important for your time management if nothing else.)

    Boundaries are always easier if you define, communicate, and defend them from the very beginning. Is it awkward? Holy hell yes it is. Especially if there are other dynamics in play that are complicating the situation with unexamined assumptions about who does what in a relationship/friendship. But it’s the only way forward. Anything else is just asking for burnout.

    1. I have not done non-monogamy (not for want of trying), but I think this is a very common dynamic in many types of relationships, including friendships. Person A wants WAY MORE than Person B is willing to give, and even really honest communication is not always enough when there’s a fundamental mismatch.

      I’ve always been The One That Runs Away™, and whilst I’m sure it sucks to be constantly having to push for what you want, it also really sucks to be constantly having to say no, and to be vigilant about your boundaries because the other person is just waiting for the opportunity to step over them. Also, this is really often gendered; I don’t think the LW stated what gender they were, but I can’t be the only one who assumed it was a woman based on the situation described.

      1. Agreed. I think this issue has less to do with the type of relationship and more to do with the fact that these are two humans who have different ideas of what they want at this moment in time. I’ve never been in a non-monogamous romantic situation and I’ve had men and women try to step all over the boundaries I’ve put in place for myself. I am definitely a person who needs more space from the people in my life and have had friendships end because of this. I also have friends – super close, would do anything for them friends – who I haven’t spoken to in months but would drop everything for them right now if they called me with a problem. It’s because they respect the boundaries enough that when there is an issue I know it to be real and something that they want my input on, not just because they want the free bitch session.

      2. That’s very true, though I do think the syndrome presents a little differently in monogamous vs non- circumstances. There is, or at least was (I hope it has died), when and where I was non-mog, some assumptions about the role and obligations of a lady-shaped person in a polyamorous relationship that I haven’t encountered in that precise form as a person of monogamy. There are some overarching assumptions, of course (if you’ve ever encountered the phenomenon of someone incrementally breaking up with a partner by simply scheduling the relationship to death over the course of months or years rather than Using Their Words, that one applies equally and is a form of the community social fallacy that Breakups Must Be Mutual), but there are some very specific ones aimed at women that often end as an internalized “shit on me, I’m the Cool Girl”.

      3. I am also The One Who Runs Away, especially in the past few years, when I started delving into Captain Awkward, FOCA, raisedbynarcissists, and sites in a similar vein.

        I still have to fight off that internal voice that likes to light into me for not being a better friend/child/grandchild/etc., but I’ve gotten better about sternly reminding it, “Look, I have my limits. Those limits might be different/lower than most people’s, but they are MY limits. And since I am not a person who conceals my personal distress well, it’s best for me AND my friend(s)/parent(s)/Grandma if I am mindful of those limits and abide by them.”

        And I since I was raised and socialized as female and am, uhhh, not out as trans to most of my family yet, the expectation that I am to be 100% Giving and Gratefully So at all times still sneaks in via external sources from time to time, so it’s definitely been a struggle to say, “Nope! Can’t do it!” at times. Can’t say it hasn’t been worth it, though!

    2. FWIW, I honestly don’t think non-monogamy is really a factor here. I’ve run into this dude many times in my life as a romantic prospect, but even more as a friend. I ended a friendship because someone was “very depressed and Needed Our Help” and his endless well of need was starting to impact other relationships (because he would tag along to parties and happy hours and the like, and bring everyone down by letting us all know how miserable he was and he would get weirdly pissed that people were having fun around him and not putting his All Important Man Feels first).

      1. Indeed. My husband and I are non-monogamous, but the person who spent a long time giving my husband the “you’re my only friend, everyone else is out to get me” treatment was not only *not* interested in dating him, *and* was not only in a monogamous marriage, BUT would brag, in concert with her husband, over how “co-dependent” they were and how they’d never spent a night apart ever. (Which did not somehow extrapolate to them having any hesitance in *demanding* that he spend regular weekend overnights with them. But then I was one of the people she was convinced was out to get her. Which, unsurprisingly given the way she treated me, became a self-fulfilling prophecy right quick.)

        They may have used our polyamory status as an excuse to consider it no big deal to ask him for all that devotion and closeness and time spent with them away from me, but polyamory wasn’t relevant to the situation beyond that. They wanted to be the exclusive center of his universe in a totally non-sexual and non-romantic way.

  7. Hi LW! I think one of the paragraphs in your letter itself could actually work pretty well directed at this person: “I really like you! We have a lot in common and we’ve had fun times together. I would love to see you once or twice a month for many moons to come, and for us to grow closer over time, but right now I feel like I’m under siege and it’s starting to suck the joy out of what (I hope) could be a genuinely fun and rewarding relationship – through good times and bad.”

    Just an idea in case you find yourself agonizing over exactly what to say – you’ve already come up with something very kind and balanced right here. 🙂

    1. I think that’s true, but LW needs to leave out the part “and for us to grow closer over time” when talking to partner.

      Maybe I’m seeing this too much through the ‘Nice Guy (TM)’ trope, but if the LW hints at any ‘future’ commitment during this conversation, partner could very easily re-construe this as “all I need to do is wait, endure a few months of loneliness, and I will get the level of committed relationship I want from LW.”
      Nobody can know if relationship between LW and partner will deepen over time, but it will certainly fail if partner doesn’t change their patterns.

      1. Interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe it depends on if partner is approaching from a good faith perspective (hurting, but open to hearing what the LW envisions for the relationship) or from the Nice Guy kind of place you describe (looking for loopholes / manipulating the situation). Probably LW will have a sense of which is closer to the underlying dynamic.

        100% agreed on your last sentence, either way.

      2. Personally, I think either you trust the other person not to be that kind of Nice Guy, or you don’t date them. Like, if I thought I had to filter all my statements through the lens of “if I say X, will they think I’m promising Y and whine if I don’t deliver?” I would find that way too exhausting to bother with.

        1. I think I may have shot myself in the foot by using “Nice Guy (TM)” in the comment above. I’m NOT saying that LW’s partner is a “Nice Guy (TM),” or that LW should approach them as such during this conversation.

          What I meant was that, adding that “I’d like for us to grow closer over time,” or any other comment about how this relationship might change in the future, muddles the subject of the conversation. Personally, in the LW’s position, I would like to say something like this to reassure partner’s feelings. But my point is that, to someone who needs as much support as partner right now, this could be taken as “when our relationship has gone on longer, and deepened, LW will give me this level of support” instead of “I need to seek out other sources of support.”
          the LW should focus on making sure their partner understands that they “feel like [they are] under siege and it’s starting to suck the joy out of what could be a genuinely fun and rewarding relationship.”

          The crux of this conversation is that the LW wants to see partner “once or twice a month” and cannot offer more support than that. Partner will then need to decide if they can abide by the boundaries set out by LW, or end the relationship. Period.

      3. I think LW should say the things that feel true and authentic. If her boyfriend is hearing through a Nice Guy(tm) filter, editing herself won’t help LW.

  8. As a polyamorous person myself who has been on both sides of an enthusiasm imbalance from time to time, the answer to “I don’t wanna eat dinner by myself :c” cannot always be “so I’m gonna text $sex-friend.” It’s healthier for everyone if his social calendar includes many connections to others – not that this is a thing LW should say or manage for him, just a thing to remember.

  9. As someone who’s 100000% been here I think a danger of polyamory is becoming super reliant on having multiple people there to bear emotional weight. You get so used to it being spread out enough for everyone to handle it, and then suddenly when that partner base shrinks, the people left suddenly find themselves having to take on way more than they can handle because the person still has ALL that partner energy, but less people to give it to. Especially if you suddenly find yourself being their only partner. I definitely had to re-calibrate my expectations of my partner when we went from both being polyamorous to only being with each other. I was used to having someone somewhere to listen to my moaning or come round and amuse me basically every hour of the day, and I was also used to my partner spreading his emotional stuff around and being this chill guy who never came with any problems and suddenly I was the sounding board for ALL his issues.

    So I can speak from being on both sides of the equation and it can be so difficult to realise that you’ve gone from spreading your relationship butter (ew) on a whole loaf of delicious bread to loading it all on one slice and making it horrible. But it’s equally really difficult to be the metaphorical over-buttered bagel, and the Captain’s right; it’s not going to be an easy discussion but also if you don’t communicate this with him and deal with the discomfort now this will continue, probably get worse as you fail to give what he perceives as needing and you’ll ditch him because that behaviour is hella annoying.

    Worth looking at whether he has friends and family he can start building into a Team Me (I personally had an issue where I started having ‘enough’ partners to mean that friends and family stop being a resource for emotional support) and maybe, if it’s not too weird, try and spend time with him WITH some of his friends. That way you stop being an isolated mystical oasis in this awful sad everyone-hates-me desert he’s walking around in, and become a tangible part of his real life. And then if he’s hoisting his red flags you have lines like ‘Ok so if I’m the only good thing in your life, everyone who came to pizza night was just a figment of my imagination?’ and even ‘I’m busy tonight but why not see if sister is free?’ Like Captain said, it’s easy to get attached to the idea that emotional support and love always involves someone getting their genitals touched and that’s an awful mentality to fall into because then you’ll start seeing everyone who’ll put their hands down your pants (or engage in whatever your desired intimacy-activity is) as a source for the emotional support you need, when sometimes what you really need is someone who will go nowhere near that and nod at you over a clipboard and force you to look at what you’re saying without the immediate comfort blanket of intimacy to mask the discomfort.

    I feel like your guy has gotten himself stuff in a really ugly place but he also doesn’t sound unsaveable. He just has to clock that his behaviour isn’t healthy and resolve to work on it. Me and my partner managed to sort ourselves out after being really honest and accepting that we both had our own work to do, it’s definitely possible!

    Good luck LW!!

    1. I definitely want a bagel now 😀

      I also have encountered that combination bug/feature in polyamory — having more than one partner (who are individuals, so one may be really good at constructive brainstorming about difficult stuff, and another may be really nurturing and comforting, and the third is great at mood-boosting and distraction… but if one or more of those relationships ends, the ability to spread out emotional support and get some of those needs met will have to be reconfigured.)

      I’ve got a really good supportive friend network, so I’ve never leaned exclusively on my partners (also, *I’m* the person that many people, friends or partners, come to for help/support), but I’ve had *partners* (and friends) whose support system is less robust, and who have created similarly unbalanced situations like the LW’s sometimes.

      In polyamory, when your partner goes through a breakup and is feeling awful, it’s really natural to want to love the hurt away, reassure them that they aren’t alone, process your own feelings about the breakup, and to be a strong emotional pillar for them to lean on…

      …but that doesn’t automatically qualify you as a therapist, or mean that you can suddenly transfer all of your time, emotional labor, and energy to Sadfeels Partner, and depending on your relationship status (for example, LW has a primary partner), you also can’t/don’t want to necessarily take on the roles/commitments that Sadfeels’ Ex played in their life.

      I have loved and nurtured partners through breakups that were awful for them, and vice versa — but I can’t play the role of Lover, Only True Friend, Pacifier, and Therapist on an ongoing basis, when someone has needs that vastly exceed my capabilities, as it sounds like LW is saying here.

  10. Sharing a statement that has been very helpful for me lately:

    “You deserve more support than just me.”

  11. I haven’t really commented here before, and I did study the guidlelines beforehand, so I’m very sorry if I make any missteps!

    CNs for talk of PTSD/trauma

    I can say that I have (in my very early 20s–I’m now 29) been in the position of Guy (and lost a couple of friends/partners) over it. Even more often, though, I’ve been in the position of the LW and have had to flee, flee, flee the clutches of a cisman who was going to absolutely drown me with his expectations that I would Fall In Love Immediately and Take Care of Him Forever.

    I myself have PTSD from sexual assault, generalised anxiety, clinical depression, AND a panic disorder. It can be really intense, obviously! My husband is not disabled and is very kind and supportive, but while that means that the health problems in our marriage are basically entirely mine, it does NOT mean that he doesn’t suffer from burnout or have his own emotional needs/need space.

    So, that means that I consistently make sure (no matter how poorly I’m doing) I do the following things:

    – Check in with how he’s coping/feeling when I’m having a bad time of it and have been for awhile
    – Ask if there’s anything that HE’S struggling with that could use some support and attention
    – Support him when he needs it
    – Remind him that he can always come to me for support/tell me anything, even if I’ve been unwell
    – Ask if he needs any alone time and reiterate that I will not feel rejected if he does
    – Ask if he’s feeling overwhelmed (if I’ve been particularly unwell for awhile) and if he needs me to seek another primary supporter
    – Do my best to keep trying to get medical help, even if I lapse/postpone/freeze/cancel an appointment
    – Not get defensive when he gently encourages me to keep seeking help
    – Apologize when I lash out or lean on him too heavily

    If you are supporting a partner/friend/family member through their mental health issues or just an intense period of insecurity, it is my opinion that they MUST be giving you this type of respect and boundaries (obviously maybe not if they’re in the heart of a really terrible stage of their life, but in the long-term or even just after an initial short period they really need to be coaxed toward this), because anything else is just not fair on you and you simply cannot be expected to provide such an intense level of care for someone.

    1. Hey, I just want to say, I like your list, but don’t be too hard on yourself! You’ve got a lot of rules for yourself there. As a woman who struggles with disability and chronic illness myself, I understand how having a sort of mental checklist allows me to say, “okay, self, you know you’re not awful and burdensome because you successfully checked all the boxes.”

      For me, though, having that kind of list ended up being just another stick to beat myself up with. So, I dunno, your mileage may vary, but I feel like some basic respect and love for the people in my life is all I need. Thank people, let myself take no for an answer and have a plan B, and remember that my friends love me for who I am, notwhat I do for them.

      A funny friend of mine once said, “The definition of a sociopath is someone who sees people as things, objects from which to get things the sociopath wants [money, comfort, entertainment]. Now, what are the odds that ALL of your friends are sociopaths?”

      Which is to say, people help me because they care about me. I help my friends because I care about them. There’s no running tally, though. There’s no level of helpfulness I had to reach to be worthy of being cared for, and I hurt myself so much unnecessarily when I believed there was.

      1. Hi!

        I totally understand what you’re saying; I probably wasn’t clear enough. I basically meant to say that I *try* to meet these goals on a regular basis, so that when I actually *cannot* make them, I know I can ask for any kind of support (up to and including “I need you to call into work today because I can’t actually survive today without help”). I get your response and agree–I just meant, my guidelines are for me at least a type of baseline equal care thing in my marriage to make sure my husband is doing okay without caregiver burnout and so that I know if I am ever really in need of help I am not overstepping by asking for it.

        1. Maybe even “overstepping” isn’t the right term–I guess what I’m trying to say is I try really hard to remain cognizant of “what could I do for myself if I were on my own?” so I can reduce the number of times I have to tell my partner, “I really actually need you to disrupt your plans/life right now because I literally can’t do this on my own and I need you to cancel everything and stay in bed with me and just keep me alive for another 48 hours until this passes”. It keeps us in balance and limits the caregiver burnout on my husband.

          And again, thanks for the reminder that I can go easier on myself than I naturally would.

    2. My wife and I are both mentally ill and this list seems a lot like what we both try to do for each other, though of course as Indoor Cat says it’s important to be gentle with yourself and acknowledge that it’s ok to not be a Perfectly Supportive and Non-Burdensome Partner (and/or Friend) at all times. One other thing that we’ve both had to work on is knowing when the most supportive thing we can do is to say “hey, I love you, but right now I need to prioritise looking after myself”. Usually what that looks like in practice is just not taking on the other person’s emotional burdens for a while and it happens most often when we’re in mutually difficult places. If one or the other of us is struggling, the one who is doing better can often provide a grounding influence, but if we’re both depressed or anxious at the same time, it can be more helpful for us to practice self-soothing and self-care. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind – in a partnership, often taking care of yourself can be at least as helpful as taking care of the other person.

      It would be really great if the LW’s partner would recognise this and support the LW by taking care of himself. If he can’t or won’t, at least the LW can hopefully apply the same principle and set healthy boundaries and take care of themself.

      1. Exactly. I think LW needs to know it’s okay to say, “Hey! I need to be in a relationship where I don’t feel out of my depth.”

    3. I haven’t really commented here before, either. I just wanted to thank you (The Sassy Vulcan) for this.
      If you are going through rough periods where your partner needs a lot of support, I’ve found (from my very limited experience) that even when the overall situation improves, it’s easy for the relationship to get stuck in a rut where the supporting partner is concerned about raising their own issues and needs.

  12. Why do we spell out the whole word “polyamory”? (I’m not questioning that we should or arguing that we shouldn’t. I’m curious as to why we do it. I think I must have missed something, and it sounds important. If this isn’t the correct forum, let me know and I’ll delete this. I googled for it, but nothing relevant came up.)

      1. Hey Captain–could you add the explanation from 1011-1012 and the more info link to the FAQs?

      1. Yeah, I was just going to ask: can we use ‘Pol’ or something? Poli? I mean, if the Polynesians want dibs on Poly, fair enough*, but typing out ‘Polyamorous’ and ‘Polyamory’ all the time’s a pain.

        *- or at least, I’m gonna stay out of it and let the -amorists and -esians hash that one out for themselves.

        1. Do what you like in conversation or your own emails/texts, etc. On this site it’s easier to type the words out than to debate it!

  13. Yes, ugh, this is a little helpful to me. I’m a women but in my polyamorous relationship was the guy of the letter. My paramour had a marriage, three daughters, wanted to see other women, and STILL was willing to set aside time to see me twice a week, including a netflix-and-chill evening. And that STILL wasn’t enough for me, to the point I had to break up with him, and a few weeks later I’m STILL frustrated that I couldn’t be satisfied.

    I am getting out of an abusive marriage, and have lots of self-work to do, and frustrated that I lost a relatively healthy source of support. The Dear Dana post from September 12 has very much described my life – I’ve burned everything down in a forest fire, everything good and bad in my life has been swept away in a lahar flow (volcano eruption), and I’m walking through the desert, without knowing when it’ll get better.

    Ugh, this sort of situation that’s in the letter – it’s just so frustrating for everyone, I’m sure.

    1. Jedi Hugs if you want them! There is a terrifying place of hollowness and grief when big things end. I know the feeling well. Where you crave something from someone and you know they can’t give it all to you so you instead burn it to the ground. I hope you get to a place of stability and peace someday. Best of luck.

      1. Thank you! And to be clear, I was in a 12 year long relationship that turned emotionally abusive, separated (burned that to the ground, happily (in-house separated in February, I moved out mid-July), had a fling with a polyamorous guy (started end of July) and then we both wanted something more, and we tried that, and I just wasn’t in a good place so I burned that to the ground too (early September), but not as happily.

        And now that I’m looking at my timeline, I seen some similarities to the LW’s guy’s life events – it’s a lot all at once, but he really should be able to understand that he wants too much – he and LW haven’t been in each other’s lives for very long. But that initial intense energy can really give you ideas….

        Another tangent – I’ve read a little about intensity v. intimacy, but it really feels, from my recent experience, that you can easily turn intensity into a real intimacy, right? It’s just that the intimacy hasn’t been proven to last for the long term.

        1. It’s possible, but *hard*. Because you can’t sustain the intensity, and the intensity interferes with intimacy. It’s hard to discover the secret heart of the flower when you’re walking on lava. If nothing else, the adrenaline rush makes your hands shake and your eyes hard to focus.

          You can’t be happy with someone else until you are happy with yourself. Intensity is not happiness, it’s just more of whatever you’re actually feeling.

    2. *Jedi hugs if desired*

      I have also been sometimes struggling (after the end of a life-partnership primary relationship) with the fact that the friend I’m currently seeing is not going to be someone who is going to fulfill some of those needs for deep emotional connection, love, and time together.

      He is someone whose company I value and enjoy, but his schedule and other partners mean that our time together is very limited, and he’s been honest about the level of emotional intimacy he’s looking for.

      I adjusted my expectations accordingly and, again, value the fun and companionship and good times that we share — but I’m careful not to lean too hard or invest too much in a relationship that isn’t going to be the thing (a primary-level romantic and intimate partnership) I’m looking to find with someone in the future.

      I understand why you may have felt the need to end that connection, if you found yourself feeling like you were getting crumbs from a feast — not that anyone involved was a bad person or was deliberately denying you anything, but because sometimes it just hurts like hell to want something/someone so badly, with the knowledge that it’s not going to happen that way.

      1. Yes, thank you. Your experience is similar to mine, except my friend and I had a hard time articulating/figuring out what we wanted at first. And then, most of me was willing to adjust my expectations, but then this primal, abused, abandoned part of me would just freak out at the idea of him pulling away (creating a reasonable boundary).

        1. Jedi hugs to you… It’s good that you can see what pieces of you are feeling, and why. It helps a lot when you try to heal or change. Emotional abuse sucks, on so many levels, and the addiction is not the least suck to it. A dear friend of mine is coming out of two emotionally abusive relationships (back to back, almost 10 years), and has so much ‘but life is so blah without the adrenaline’ that it hurts.

        2. TW: mention of consent violation

          I wound up staying celibate for a year after my horrible, abusive breakup — the wounded and abandoned parts were just too damaged to try to build a connection with someone new, without being able to easily extend trust, or open up, or to feel safe with the idea of physical intimacy, after my former partner violated my consent at the end of the relationship.

          I was horribly lonely and WANTED to have affection and intimacy and love in my daily life (I have long-term, long-distance partners who are very dear to me and who I love, but they live on another continent and we went two years without seeing each other, due to finances, and it’s since been another year), but I was just not there yet.

          The whole Pushme-Pullyu nature of those conflicting drives has been really confusing and shitty — I made it to age 40 without experiencing sexual trauma, and then . . . yeah, it fucked me up. I hadn’t spent much time being functionally-single since 1999, and I’ve largely been in long-term relationships that overlapped, so I’m not used to being alone like this in terms of romantic/physical/emotional human contact. The whole thing is a new, weird, and largely unpleasant experience.

          So, yeah — I have had to exercise some serious self-discipline to keep the starving, needy, hurt, lonely, ferociously-loving creature from screwing up a friendship/relationship that has been largely positive, but that definitely requires expectation management and conscious choices about my level of attachment and investment.

          I’m glad that I have this person in my life, and I hope to continue the relationship as it stands for as long as it’s good for both of us, but I don’t think I could have been successful if I’d tried to do this a year ago, when everything was still so raw.

          Hoping that your journey takes you to healthy and happy places, and that you get to an emotional outcome where your needs are being met in a way that works for you. ❤

    3. Just wanted to comment on the “…STILL was willing to set aside time to see me twice a week, including a netflix-and-chill evening. And that STILL wasn’t enough for me, to the point I had to break up with him, and a few weeks later I’m STILL frustrated that I couldn’t be satisfied” thing.

      Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but it sorta sounds like you’re beating yourself up for wanting more than what he could offer. If so, don’t. He’s not wrong for not having more time/spoons available for you, but you’re not wrong for wanting more out of a relationship than a married guy with 3 kids and other paramours had to offer. That’s a very specific relationship dynamic that’s great for some, but not for a lot of people.

      1. I do beat myself up about wanting “too much” sometimes. But on the other hand, I feel like such a black hole that no one can offer me enough – or what they offer would just be camouflage – you know, they like me therefore I don’t have to worry about liking myself.

        Right now, I don’t even want a guy who would be interested in an intimate relationship that would be on the road to love and moving in and commitment – I thought I’d be happy with just a little bit of comfort and attention, where I can hold the guy off at arm’s length, and he has his own life to go back to – but somehow things got screwed up. I would definitely take advice on how to have a friend like this, where I’d be happy with small doses!

        1. Maybe polyamory’s just not for you and you need more commitment in your relationships. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  14. I have historically been that friend (and occasionally girlfriend) who people go to for support for all their problems. And I don’t even mind that anymore. Now that I know how to set healthy boundaries, I enjoy being in a nurturing role, including supporting people through hard times. But it really is liberating to understand that NONE of it is my responsibility. Not with anybody. Not even with a spouse or family member.

    Of course, with people I love and value, I want to be there for them. I will be kind and compassionate. And I will be emotionally present – to whatever degree I’m capable of. If I have available spoons, I’ll help with small but necessary tasks, like phone calls or searching resources. But, when I hit my limit, it is simply my limit. There’s no reason to feel like I should past my emotional and physical capabilities, any more than there would be a reason for me to feel like I should grow wings and fly. Even if a partner longed for me to grow wings, even if my growing wings would fulfill them on the deepest level, it will simply never happen.

    Women are taught to mold and contort themselves into all kinds of shapes to make other people (including other women) comfortable. What if we just didn’t? Life would be simpler. If emotional labor starts to feel like a game of hot potato, you can drop the potato. And you can leave the responsibility for figuring out where to put the potato on the person with the issues.

  15. A work fried of many years got to this point. Complained constantly about wife, kids, medical issues – you name it. This doesn’t solve the problem permanently but for a quick fix I found if my husband was with us, the complaining cut down to almost nothing. I could actually eat my lunch! For a long term solution, what the Captain said! But there isn’t always time and space to do those things now, so I offer my temp quick fix.

    1. The optics of taking your primary partner on a date with another partner are pretty unpleasant, though.

  16. I’ve been in situations like this, from both sides–not with polyamory per se, but with friendships. You’re able/willing to contribute X to the relationship; this guy wants Y. It happens. The question that really matters for whether your relationship can get past this is, can he take ‘no’ for an answer?

    The only way to find out is to try it, unfortunately. Figure out what you’re willing to do here, and tell him that. This might look something like: “Bob, lately I feel like our relationship is headed in a direction that I’m not comfortable with. I like you a lot, but I have other people and obligations in my life as well. I can spend 2 evenings a week hanging out with you, and chat sometimes, but I’m not going to do whole weekend trips or be on-call to handle rough days. I’m also really not comfortable being told that I’m the only good thing in your life right now–I know it’s well-meant, but it’s a lot of pressure! Going forward, I’d like to plan to spend time together once or twice a week, and I’d love to see you (pick up a new hobby/join a social group/whatever) during the other days, so you can have more good things in your life. What do you think?”

    Notice I didn’t mention therapy in there. I definitely approve of people going to therapy, but the reality is, a lot of people (especially guys, in my experience) are really sensitive to the suggestion that it might benefit them. It’s also not always accessible to people, for economic reasons, transportation reasons, insurance reasons, sheer ‘can’t find a good fit’ reasons, etc. If he responded to the above with something like “I can’t do that!! I’m soooo saddddd, life is sooooooo horribleeeeee, I need you available to me all the time to manage it, I can’t do anythingggg!”, then I would respond with something like “Wow, that sounds more intense than your average breakup sadness. I can’t fix that, but there are therapists who specialize in helping people through hard times like that; do you want help finding someone?” But I wouldn’t start with suggesting therapy, unless you know he’d be open to the idea.

    Anyways: Once you’ve told him this, it’s up to him how to react. Maybe he’ll accept it right off the bat, apologize for pressuring you, and work on enjoying his time with you without pushing for more–this would be ideal. Maybe he’ll be distressed and need some time to adjust, but will do his best to do what you’re asking–still good. And maybe he’ll refuse to do what you’re asking, guilt-trip you for having boundaries, and continue pressuring you for more. If this is the case, the relationship might not survive…but it would be because of how he chose to treat you, not because you didn’t give it a chance.

  17. Another polyamorous person here. I wonder if it might be helpful for LW to frame it to herself as doing the guy a kindness by encouraging him to recognize what he wants from polyamorous (or any other kind) relationships, and what assumptions he might be making about what it even means to be in a relationship. I’m someone who, it turns out, doesn’t really do casual romantic relationship (though I am perfectly happy with casual sexual ones, which has caused some confusion for people). Even in a polyamorous setting, I have to have a certain level of emotional connection and commitment with someone I consider to be a partner. I try to be mindful of this (and not overwhelming to partners, because I recognize that even if someone wants that, they probably don’t want it right away, and neither do I). Still, it took some work on my part to recognize this as something I want/need, and to be able to see it as a me-thing that other people may or may not also need, rather than as a “thing that should happen in any romantic relationship and why is it that you’re not living up to my unspoken assumptions?” Sounds like perhaps the guy needs a bit of a re-frame on that.

    1. ^I recognize a lot of myself in this. Wherein “serious” romantic connections doesn’t necessarily mean I SEE YOU FIVE DAYS A WEEK, but…it means certain specific things to me that work much better when I articulate them clearly, and hold the line for what I want. And the benefit of dating other polyamorous people (that is, not newbies just starting this new idea) is that when we have that conversation and they say “oh hmmmm…I don’t think that’s something I can offer right now” and I reply “okay, well, I do like you, I need to reshape my expectations and take a bit of a step back, but I would still like to see you” they…believe me instead of thinking I could ONLY be happy with Serious Romance. Live and learn! (Like you, casual sexual relationships for me are no biggie.)

      1. Exactly! I don’t need to see someone ALL THE TIME to feel like it’s a serious connection, but I do need to have regular contact between dates, etc. I have been so appreciative recently of being in the polyamorous world and around other people who are willing (and happy) to have these kinds of conversations without feeling like my relationship needs are somehow a judgement on theirs.

  18. This dude sounds exhausting. I was this dude. I was so oblivious to (or in denial about) the signs of my relationship ending that when it did end it felt sudden and confusing. Issue compounded by the fact that relationship ended by ghosting. I… did not take it well.

    It was an odd and complicated relationship that I didn’t feel like I’d be able to explain to a therapist or to anyone outside of our little subcultural niche, so I unloaded liberally on that niche. I had this Constant Codependent Interaction Gunk oozing out of my ears with noplace to put it. I tried taking it up and heaping it onto my other friends, but it wasn’t the same and they super didn’t want the burden. There was a lot of gunk. It was pretty heavy. After having several public breakdowns on social media and then deleting the social media out of shame and humiliation (yep. I was that guy too) I started trying to make new friends, but all of them soured and I can only think it happened because I pushed too hard too fast. (One conversation I still cringe about was like, Me: i just feel like everyone is leaving me Them: aw, well i’m here! Me: yeah…….. FOR NOW) (gagging noises) I am more mature and better medicated now, and now would never behave the way I did, but it’s not like I can go back and erase my behavior. I was an intense person who had a lot of growing up to do. I lost… probably like 90% of my friends in the ensuing breakup tornado.

    I regret to say that as heartbreaking and maddening as the whole thing was, losing all of those relationships was the only thing that worked. I had no one to vent to but myself. I got a job and had significantly less time to spend drowning in my excess gunk. I had no choice but to learn to deal with it and stop sucking the air out of what little relationships I still had. And eventually I grew up and moved on.

    What this dude is going through sucks. Breakups suck. Polyamorous or no, when you lose something you came to lean on and need like air, it’s like getting the wind knocked out of you. I am sure there are differences and nuances that I cannot possibly relate to unless I am polyamorous myself; but the gist, I think, is that you’re getting suffocated and crushed by this dude’s gunk and that’s not fair to you. He’s still producing the amount of gunk he was producing when he still had his primary around; but he produced less gunk before he met them and he can reduce his gunk now. Or he can meet someone else who would like to shoulder some of his gunk. It’s up to him; the bottom line is that he cannot unload 100% of it on you. I am not saying you should dump him, unless that is what you want. I am just saying that he is a grown person and he can figure this out. It just takes time and firm boundaries.

    Good luck.

  19. I’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship, but I have had the clingy friend and I’ve been the clingy friend, and saying straight out, “I am not able to be the only good thing in your life or your only sounding board. It’s not healthy and I won’t do it” has been often the best way to fix it. I love the scripts people have had here, and I love how you put it yourself in your letter.

    Rip the bandaid off. Dancing around it only prolongs the pain.

  20. I agree that this isn’t mostly a polyamory problem. It may be a flaw in her boyfriend’s primary/secondary relationship model–if the LW’s boyfriend is thinking of a primary relationship or partner as better than a secondary, rather than different and also good, he may subconsciously be thinking something like “but I offered her a more important role in my life, of course she wants it.” But once again, there are only so many hours in a week: whether he has said so or not, this guy is asking LW to give her primary partner less time, or to spend less time with her other friends, in order to suddenly give him a lot more of her time. (The flaw isn’t inherent in a primary/secondary model, and in fact has quite a bit to do with the idea of the Relationship Escalator and standardized “paths” for relationships to take.)

    If I were the boyfriend’s hypothetical other friend and confidante, I’d be asking him things like “do you expect LW to break up with her partner now that you’re otherwise unattached?” and “Maybe if you didn’t assume that all your time should be spent with romantic/sexual partners, you’d have more friends to hang out with.” But if that confidante existed, the problem wouldn’t be as bad, and LW isn’t obliged to do that emotional labor either.

    The Captain’s scripts are better than anything I’ve got, but one addendum: if he keeps pushing for “but can’t you just spend three nights a week with me/answer whenever I call/go away on weekend trips?” you might consider either saying “No, because I’m not breaking up with $Primary_Partner or cutting off my other friends” or asking him “Are you asking me to break up with $Primary?” Then either wait for him to answer or add “Because if you are, the answer is no. If you can’t enjoy the relatively casual secondary relationship we have right now, we should stop seeing each other.”

  21. Love this response. I think it may also be helpful to spell out your expectations for how much time you will have to devote to the relationship explicitly, rather than constantly fielding the “no, not tonight” requests…I think having a set “date night” that you’ve both agreed upon ahead of time and know that’s what it will be could be better than the constant barrage of you feeling over-requested and the boyfriend feeling rejected. So, if that’s once or twice a month, be really explicit about that and say — “I really like you, I enjoy hanging out, but the reality is that with my commitments to my primary partner and everything else I have going on in life, hanging out together once a month is going to be most realistic. Let’s set something up for this month and see how it goes” and then schedule going to a concert or movie or restaurant or whatever it is, and let that be your scheduled date night. If he’s asking for more via text or otherwise, direct him back to your conversation — “I’m sorry you’re having a rough night but I’m looking forward to seeing you at X event!”

    This also allows the boyfriend to realize that, hey, once a month is actually not enough for him, so he needs to end things. Which is okay — it’s fine for him to feel like he wants to be dating someone with a more available schedule who can see him more often than once every 2-4 weeks! I’m not polyamorous, so I’m dating in a different context, but honestly I see my good friends more than this, so I would definitely not be okay with it from a romantic partner. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have that limit — I think it’s totally fine if it’s what you are available for! But giving him the information that this is really all you are going to give him will allow him to make an informed decision about whether he’s ok with that or not.

    1. Oh, I think the date night idea is a super good one! I have two scheduled dates a week with my wife and a scheduled afternoon that I spend with a close friend each week, and it really helps those relationships feel strong and secure. With my friend, occasionally one of us will have to cancel but I don’t feel stressed about it because either we can reschedule for another time during the week or, if that doesn’t work, I know I’ll just see her again on our scheduled day the following week. It really takes away a lot of the stress of planning and trying to maintain a relationship because our hang outs just kind of happen automatically.

      I hope it can work the same way for the OP.

      1. I have a couple scheduled chat dates each week with friends who live on the other side of the country and it has worked marvelously for keeping in touch with people I love who live far away! Having regular, scheduled dates completely removed the stress/guilt of “are we connecting, do I call often enough, why haven’t I heard from them, am I smothering them, will they smother me” etc. It also means I don’t have to drop everything every time they call – if I’m not available that week, we just reschedule or talk next week and it’s fine because I know when I’m next talking to them and I’m not trying to store an extra “task” in my mental calendar! And I hear from those friends and talk with them regularly (even if it isn’t really every week in practice). It’s the best!

    2. I do this with my mom–neither of us are great at long-distance communication (and I have general anxiety issues with phones), so a scheduled call is the best way for us to keep in touch. I’ve done the same with long-distance friendships before and it’s fantastic to just know that the time is already figured out and no one has to plan it or feel bad about not reaching out or anything like that.

      That said, I’m not sure it would work for limiting time together as well as it does for increasing it. Having a set plan effectively sets a clear baseline minimum, which is great when you’re trying to keep in touch or struggling to juggle mutually difficult schedules. But in my experience, it doesn’t keep people from asking for more. I feel like it would lead to a similar result to just saying ‘no’ when you’re busy without creating a scheduled plan–you don’t commit as much, but you’re probably still annoyed at the requests, and the other person is probably still hurt at your refusal. Unless it came with a strict “Stop asking because the answer is always going to be no” clause? But frankly, I feel like by the time you’re at an ‘it’s always no, don’t even ask, I’m not even going to consider any other answer” point in the relationship, you should just break it off yourself–at that point, it sounds like you don’t want to be there.

      1. I think it can help to ease the concern of “If I don’t press for time NOW, will we ever see each other again?” Having a regularly scheduled event means that you’re guaranteed time, and sometimes guaranteed time later >> lots of no-guarantees time now.

        And I feel like “I can’t make it tonight but I’m looking forward to Friday!” is a nicer rejection than “Not tonight!” since it already has another standing plan attached.

  22. LW, I have often found that inventing a physical image for an emotional situation helps to clarify…

    ie Boyfriend, every time you say I’m your only or insist on spending more time or feelings dump or or or, it’s like dropping a feather on me. And feathers are not heavy one by one, but you’ve given me too many, and I’m suffocating. I can’t accept any more feathers for a while.

    ie Boyfriend, you’re having a tough time, and every difficult thing you’re doing is like lifting another pound of weights at the gym. You know what people do, when they lift heavy weights at the gym? They get a professional coach. Maybe you need a professional coach to help with the heavy lifting in your life. I’m not a pro. Find someone ELSE.

  23. One of the great things about polyamory is that because it is not a “mainstream” way of managing relationships, there’s more room to question default norms and actively create relationship structures that work for you. It might help to emphasise this if he takes your boundary setting as a rejection. You’re not asking him to back off because you don’t care for him, you’re describing how you’d ideally like to see this relationship work, how it can best meet your needs and be a fun and positive force in your life. If that’s not going to work for him, it’s possible you might be incompatible (which would be sad, but it’s good information for both of you to have and better to have the conversation now than down the track when he’s even more invested in the idea of a relationship that’s not working for you). But you and he can’t figure that out until you talk about it.

    1. Yes, so much this! I know I sometimes forget that the flipside to not having a whole lot of visible relationship role models is the freedom to create relationships that are specific to me and my partner(s). It’s lovely, but can only happen with open communication and a willingness to recognize and set boundaries.

  24. But you’re doing a kind thing by being honest about your limits and directing him toward something that actually has a chance of making him feel better.

    If there’s one thing I hope everyone who visits can learn from this blog, it’s recognizing that boundaries are a kindness to all involved.

    1. They really are! In fact, enforcing boundaries in just about any situation is a kindness to both parties, because it helps you, and it *teaches* them. They may not be happy in the moment, but it gives them the opportunity to learn how to treat others. They may not have the chance to show that to you, but if they are smart, they will learn the lesson and put it into use in their future relationships.

      Even the African Violet situations are a kindness to both, because it means that they won’t be saddled with an unhappy friend who just wants OUT, and in the future, when they have dealt with whatever made you African Violet them, in the firsts place, they may be able to have your friendship again, and it will be richer, sweeter, and much, much better than before.

      It’s like saying, “No,” to a child. In most cases, you’re doing it for their own good, even though it would be easier for you, in the moment, to just give them the Thing they want, to shut up the whining. Instead, you’re choosing even more whining and pouting, and “Nobody loves meeeee!” but you are shaping them into better people.

  25. Wow, LW, just what you always wanted – a man who is desperately in need with you.

    I definitely second the recommendation to send him to therapy. 1) Being an unpaid/unprofessional/on-demand therapist is not working for YOU, and 2) You’re not a professional, you don’t have all the tools a professional would have, and being as well-meaning as possible, you’re still more likely to screw up than a professional would. Mind you, professionals are human, and can screw up, too. But the odds are in his favor if he sees a certified professional, versus a complete amateur.

    So, the therapy recommendation is good for both of you.

    And if he refuses? DTMFA. Not because he’s a bad guy, but because he’s bad FOR YOU at this time. Currently, he’s being rather selfish, if that makes it any easier for you to dump him. It sometimes helps people feel better about a broken relationship to realize the other person’s faults. And remember, if he calls you selfish because you won’t devote more time/energy/love to him than you are currently comfortable doing, he’s single. You are not. He is only responsible for himself. You are responsible for yourself AND your relationship with your primary. So, keeping that balance is not being selfish. It is being true to your commitment to put your primary in primary position.

    Good luck, LW!

  26. Dear LW,

    you first asked whether you can salvage this relationship.

    If you put in tremendous amounts of emotional labour to manage the feelings of SadPerson, of course you can salvage the relationship. But it would come at a cost to you, and is it what YOU really want?

    You say that SadPerson has made it clear they want to spend more time with you, and from the quotes you include they are sending up many red flags.

    Have you made it equally clear to them what you are prepared to offer, and how much time & energy you have for them?

    Your needs matter and it’s not selfish to put yourself first, especially since this is a relatively new, non-primary partner. You have the right to say, ‘this isn’t working for me any more, we clearly want different things, so I wish you well but our time together is over.’

    I don’t think there’s any magic combination of words that will be received positively by SadPerson when you establish healthy boundaries, in answer to your second question.

    Honestly I would break up with SadPerson and chalk it up to experience and bad timing despite your initial click.

    They want too much from you and they need to handle their own stuff and learn to seek help in appropriate and balanced ways.
    You didn’t start out intending to be their teacher and therapist, so please don’t feel obligated to accept the roles that SadPerson is trying to pull you into.

    Good luck!

  27. I think the biggest red flag, for me, is in the first three words of the first sentence.
    “A few months ago…” This LW has only known this person for a few months and already he’s pushing this much? Too much, too soon!

  28. This is eerily similar to my current situation. Have been in a polyamorous relationship for about three years and for the last one my person has needed more and more energy put in to making him less sad. Funnily enough, it started right around the time he stopped taking antidepressants but he is adamant that he doesn’t have depression. He just has a low base mood and things are difficult right now /s.

    After a fun week of him sulking (that is how it is, he stops putting any effort into anything and doesn’t start again until I have spent time reassuring him and trying to cheer him up – exhausting) I told him I can’t keep doing all of the effort and he needs to do something to stop it being an endless cycle of him breaking down every time something goes wrong. This was after I tried just not responding to him giving off sad vibes and after two hours he broke sown crying that I didn’t want to be there with him, which at the time was accurate.
    So far there are good signs that putting up some boundaries worked. He went to the doctor yesterday (sign know how that went) but haven’t received his reply yet because he wanted to write a letter so a week later I am still waiting on the post.

  29. I literally yelled, “AAAAAHHHHH!” at the computer when I read this quote from the LW’s letter. “I feel like I have to be “on” at all times when we’re together, because he always seems worried that I’m not being enthusiastic enough and something must be wrong and don’t you like me anymore?”

    Suffocating dude is suffocating! Also, it sounds like he may be trying to replace LW’s primary partner. I hear Evil Bees buzzing all around…

  30. Dear LW,

    I really like the Captain’s framing of this as two separate conversations.

    I say this because I read your letter as wanting to keep your partner, while fearing it isn’t worth the effort.

    I suspect the two conversation route will allow you to avoid continue to perceive him as potentially joyous.

    Points to consider:
    – He wants a new primary partner. You don’t.
    – Don’t offer him an action plan.

    Everything you’ve described indicates a man looking to replace the primary partner he no longer has. He tells you all his troubles, he wants more of your time, he wants you to say you love him. (I note you don’t use that word, you say you care for him.)

    I don’t think you want that. You’ve said your life is full and you’re happy with it. I don’t think you are looking to change the time you spend with partners and friends. This is a conflict.

    You want him to reduce the demands he makes. I think Jane’s correct: rather than telling him to find a shrink, tell him you can no longer be his sole comfort. When he despairing asks what he should do reiterate:I don’t know. I’m not working through your unhappiness anymore. You’ll have to find another outlet.

  31. Apologies if this isn’t super helpful, but what I’m seeing from you letter is

    a) you’ve only been dating a few months
    b) he’s saying a LOT of concerning stuff about you and your relationship which you’ve correctly identified as concerning
    c) things have gotten pretty intense pretty quickly.

    I guess my question is…do you actually want to make it work with this guy? He seems like a lot of work to this stranger on the internet. Is someone you just want to hang out with once or twice a month worth that much work to you? Maybe he is! I don’t know your life. But I personally think it might be time to say, “Sorry, but no.”

    1. That’s what I was thinking too, so I’ll piggy back on your comment 🙂 This guy seems like an awful lot of work for somebody you’ve only been seeing for a few months, LW. Like a LOT of work. And things have gotten really intense over that short time too. Weekend trips together and “I love you”s? That’s way too much for me. I’m worried this guy is trying to slot you directly into the “primary partner” space in his life without really caring that that’s not what you want.

  32. I seem to be a lot more optimistic about this relationship than many other commenters. When it comes down to it, this guy got dumped by his primary partner… what, a couple of months ago? Less? *Of course* he’s still hurting, and of course he’s reaching out for affection in unhealthy ways.

    He needs time, and he needs distance, and his instinct to jump at LW for each and every emotional need is the *worst* idea right now.

    The Captain’s approach is spot on, I think– the guy’s needs are best met by something other than a romantic partner. Preferably a trained mental health professional, but even a fulfilling hobby to throw himself into would help.

    Hopefully the guy himself knows he’s being unreasonable, and will take that advice– albeit perhaps with some moaning and grumbling.

    Best of luck to the LW!

  33. I like what Mel Reams said: this guy is A LOT of work. And here’s the thing, when intensity rises too quickly in an relationship, it’s a red flag. What goes up quickly usually crashes quickly too 😦

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