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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.

Dear Captain,

This is a bit messy, please bear with me… One year ago, a long time acquaintance, “John”, figured out my interest in BDSM. It turned out him and his wife “Julia”, were a dominant and submissive couple in a polyamorus triad with another woman, who I will call “Katie”. Katie is not a sub, and told John he was free to look for another partner to suit his other needs. She gave him a list of requirements for this hypothetical new submissive and I happened to I fit the bill perfectly.

Unfortunately there was a complete breakdown in communication between John and Katie. Even though I met Katie’s every requirement in an additional partner, she essentially vetoed me from the relationship. She says she is not jealous, but she’s mean to me every time we meet, even though I’ve been nothing but nice to her. I’ve made several attempts to build bridges, and she’s burned them every time. At this point Katie has stopped talking to me altogether, which is kind of a relief, I guess. I know John finds Katie’s behaviour aggravating and nonsensical.

John and I never really got over our almost-relationship. The other day we finally acknowledged the elephant in the room: that we were still somehow having a D/s relationship, just not calling it that. To summarize, John said that he wants to have me as his sub ‘on the down low’. Essentially without Katie’s knowledge. I know John and Katie’s relationship has been rocky lately. I have no love for Katie, but I don’t want to hurt her and I don’t want to be responsible for a breakup… But I care deeply about John and want to be his submissive, even if it is in kind-of-secret… I’m in such a tangled web I have no idea what to do. Any advice?

Yours,
Lovelorn Sub

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Dear Captain,

For the past few years, I have been involved with an amazing man, “Robert”. Robert and I work closely at times; he was my boss for a short time until I moved into different branch of local government (we did not start dating until after I transferred). Robert is quite happily married to “Cora”, who has known about and approved of our relationship from the beginning. Cora and I get along—we aren’t close friends, but we are cordial and she seems happy that I am there for Robert. There is a lot about our respective relationships with Robert that complement each other–in terms of sex, companionship, some heavy psychology around Robert and my shared work–and we kind of have our own niches. It suits all three of us well.

So here is the problem keeping me up nights: Robert is a well-known, well-respected man in our smallish city in a very conservative area. People around here may have heard of polyamory, but certainly wouldn’t approve of it. Cora is also very known and active in the area’s society—she runs charities, throws parties, etc. And Robert’s position is highly political. I know for sure that if our relationship ever became public Robert would likely lose his job and he and Cora would become the subject of gossip and worse. He really loves his job, to the extent that if he lost it I don’t know how well he’d cope.

Am I being selfish for wanting to keep being with him? I really do love him a lot, and he loves me as well. But I keep being terrified that it will come out and I’ll be the reason he loses everything he has worked for in his life. We are very discreet when we get together and it would take some detective work to find out, but it’s not impossible. (And that’s not even getting into the complication that if I want kids, I should start within a few years…)
Part of me says that Robert and Cora are mature adults who can make decisions about their own lives, and I should allow that. But another part of me knows that Robert isn’t the sort of man who would dump me over other people’s opinions, even if he logically should, and that I need to step up and do what is right for him when he won’t do it himself. One of these parts is wrong, but I can’t figure out which one. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want to ruin him either.

-Jane the Housemaid

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m currently over 2 years into a poly relationship with a wonderful person. Our policy is that we’re both free to have casual sex, and we’ll treat dating people on a case by case basis. The majority of our relationship has been long distance, but I very recently moved to live a few blocks away from them.

Partner has a friend who was also known them for as long as I have. Over the course of our relationship, they’ve grown very close. Every time I heard about Friend from Partner for the first year or so, they kept assuring me they were “just friends” and that they’d never be interested in anything more with him, even though I didn’t ask for that assurance.

Then, Partner asked me if they could do nonsexual kink things with Friend, which I was okay with. This came with more assurances that they’d never be interested in doing sexual or romantic things with him, again without me asking for them.

Early this year, Partner asked to start dating Friend. I said I wasn’t comfortable with it right then. Partner asked again a month or so later because Friend’s partner decided to open up their relationship. I said I needed to wait until I lived near Partner and see if I felt more comfortable in our relationship.

Over the summer, Friend visited Partner and they had sex, even though I told Partner I was uncomfortable with that. They apologized for being inconsiderate of my feelings, saying that it just happened. A day before I moved, Friend’s new partner referred to Partner as their “metamour” in a place where I saw and Partner brushed it off as a misunderstanding. After that, I told them I wasn’t sure I’d ever be comfortable with them dating Friend while still dating me.

It’s now been two months since I moved and while my relationship with Partner is stronger than before, I’m still not comfortable with them dating Friend. They’ve given some hints that they want to talk about this sometime soon, but they haven’t brought it up yet.

Other than this issue, I am really in love with Partner, although I still don’t feel like I’m getting enough affection (school and health issues make fixing this hard).
I don’t know how to get over Partner giving specific boundaries for their relationship with Friend and then changing them suddenly.
Thinking about this situation makes me have anxiety attacks and cry. I’m working on finding a new therapist, but it’s hard having just moved and needing to find a bunch of new doctors.

Am I being ridiculous about this whole thing? What do I do when Partner brings up the subject again?

– Too Anxious, Too Needy

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Hurricane Joaquin…everybody ok so far? Be okay.

Greetings,

My wife (Carole) and I (Clark) have four children and share our home with a childless couple (John & Priscilla) who I met in college. We’ve done so for roughly two years now with surprisingly little friction.

Recently John talked to me about how he’s come to the realization over the past year that he is polyamorous. The rest of us are not.

John also confessed that he’s had a crush on someone outside the house for a few years and that there are other infidelities over the course of his marriage.

I am having a difficult time discerning if this is actual polyamory (which I am not terribly familiar with) or just rationalization of bad behavior and a desire to have shackles taken off so he can date other women without guilt.

John discussed the possibility of romances (plural his) going forward and not liking the idea of primary/secondary relationship – so in theory these other women would have the same status in his life as Priscilla.

Putting myself in Priscilla’s shoes – this would be hard to swallow. I fear that our happy home is about to be torn and I am hoping for some help with resources / tools I can use to help them both while maintaining healthy boundaries.

(I am not concerned about having random lady friends over with children about – before moving in we all signed a contract that included the right of any one of us to veto someone coming over if for any reason it made us uncomfortable. John will have to get any lady friends approved by his house-mates before they can come over or will have to leave.)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been married to my husband for five years, and in a relationship with him for fifteen years.  About four years ago, we became poly with a friend. At the time, she was our roommate and had just separated from her fiancé. He was deeply immature, and she has an abusive family background. She had also been through a sexual assault. While we were helping her get through the assault, we became quite close, and discovered that we were both attracted to her. When we found that the attraction was mutual, we formed a closed poly triad with her.

In the last year, she has twice demanded to have absolute relationship equality to my marriage with my husband, despite our 15 years of history together. She has also stated that she wishes to have children with my husband – a condition I cannot accept under any circumstances. Because of this, and some other issues, she and I are no longer partners. However, my husband has depression and PTSD, and he cannot make a decision about what he wants from this situation (his preferred situation, that we go back to being a triad or at least a V, cannot happen because of her demands). 

She still lives with us, and she continues to state her intention to convince my husband to have children with her. For me, the ideal situation would be for them to break up and for her to move out. My husband’s depression is so severe right now, however, that he cannot decide what he wants (and has said so). The ongoing situation is putting a strain on our marriage and destroying the peace of our home life. However, if she left, he would have a PTSD meltdown because his PTSD was caused by behavior of hers before we even became a triad. She knows this, and has used it several times in the past several years to get her way when she wants something, usually something I am not comfortable with.

I have to live with her and she is passive-aggressive and combative. There are times that, no matter what I say, she has to contradict it.  I promised my husband I would try to support his relationship with her, but she tells me that the things I do in that direction are suspicious and remind her of an abusive parent. She and I had a long discussion the other day and during that conversation she told me that she refuses to be second to anyone. I have talked with several poly people about her demands. No one thinks they are reasonable, but because my husband does not know what he wants, I am living with the situation. My main goal is for him not to be hurt, however unlikely or even impossible that may be at this point.  Her goal is to be equal to me in his life, apparently even if he gets hurt in the process. I have not demanded that he throw her out for two reasons:  1) I don’t want to hurt him and 2) I don’t want him to trigger when she leaves, again because it would hurt him. 

I want my husband to be happy, but this situation is killing me.  I want us all to be happy, but I don’t see how the V she and he want (even though he still doesn’t know if he wants to have children with her at all and she is openly working toward that) is even possible.

A friend of mine who knows about the situation said that it reminds them of King Solomon with the two women fighting over the baby – that one woman is putting her needs over the baby’s and the other is putting the baby’s needs over hers. My goal is for him not to get harmed. Her goal seems to be to get her way.

I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.  My main fear is that if I demand that she leave that he will trigger horribly when she does and that he will resent me and leave me.  He has told me that absolutely won’t happen, but I cannot keep myself from being so frightened of the prospect. And, of course, the idea of him triggering (and getting hurt) is not pleasant either.  I’m also afraid that if I demand that she go that I will be selfish in doing that.  A friend of mine asked me what I would do if I had a secondary partner that demanded to be a primary partner and the comparison stunned me.

If you have any suggestions for how to handle this situation, I need to hear them.

At The End Of My Rope

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A grumpy cat "there are two things I don't like: Change and the way things are."Hey Captain:

This has been a problem for a while but strangely it only occurred to me to write you about it after your recent post on polyamorous parents inviting their girlfriend to their kid’s wedding.  I had a lot of feels over that post because I’ve been having a similar concern. Namely, I hate my parents’ new wife. But I feel like the ship on which to mention it has long since sailed.

For the majority of my life I was happy living with the idea that my parents were monogamous and happy about it.  But then a couple years ago they approached me with the idea that now that I was grown up they were going to start dating around. I was confused and upset (Are you getting a divorce? But wait, aren’t we Catholic?  Why now? Am I supposed to do something about it?) but they were able to explain things for me.  I can’t say I’m the most thrilled panda on the planet because on some level I think I just don’t “get” it. I’ve never had the desire to date more than one person -anything else seems stressful and difficult- but I support anything that makes them happy. So I took a few weeks to think about things and decided that their lives were their own and it was not my place to judge.

When they got a new girlfriend I even tried really hard to be nice to her – we did the whole family dinners thing. The girlfriend – “Carol” – was nice enough and I feel like I might have genuinely liked her had we met under different circumstances.  We had a lot of “weather talk” conversations and were genuinely polite/pleasant to each other, but that was it. She and I never did anything alone, and her being Mommy and Daddy’s Close Friend seemed to work out for all of us.

But then they got married. Not legally of course, but there was a service and she moved into my parents house. Marriage changed everything. It seems like I can’t see my real parents alone any time, and whenever I want to see them Carol is always around. What’s worse, it seems like they expect my relationship with Carol to upgrade like theirs did. Carol wants that too – recently she’s been pushing for more “girl time” and keeps trying to talk about more personal things as though we’re good pals. The more she pushes the more I realize I actually loathe her. For a while I denied it and tried extra hard to be friends because that’s what noble, progressive, open-minded people would be. (at least, in my mind) But I never wanted to be friends, I was mostly being nice because she was important to my parents. But because I started out being more friendly than I felt I feel like I’m now locked into this permanent state of being cool with Carol. My parents are upset that I’m still keeping her at arm’s length (since we’re all one big happy family now!) and I know that if it came to her or me they’d choose me. Still though, I don’t want to force them to choose but I don’t want to be all buddy-buddy with her either. They feel like I’m rejecting her and their lifestyle, and I guess in a way I am? I’m just not ready for their lifestyle to become mine.  How can I tell my parents that I’ll never love Carol as much as them, and that while I value their relationship with her the less of a relationship *I* have with her the better? And is that even a cool thing to want?

Signed,

Not Down for Family Christmas Carols

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