Parallel Polyamory Sans Privilege

There are those who prefer little-to-no interaction with metamours, opting instead for what is known as parallel polyamory: a structuring of relationships in such a way that folks know of each other, but metamours don’t spend intentional time with one another. Parallel polyamory can look like anything from: “we can be in the same room, we just don’t care to interact outside of a polite ‘hello’ ” to: “I don’t want to know anything about your time with so-and-so because I just can’t stand them and I never want to see them.”

Sometimes our partners pick partners we simply don’t mesh with! As long as everyone can be civil, it stands to reason that no one needs to be excluded from anything. But there are situations in which that simply won’t work for one party or another.

This becomes sticky terrain when parallel polyamory is implemented in a long-term, heavily enmeshed relationship. 

My approach to partner mingling is this: invite everyone, and let whoever does not wish to interact, opt out. And yes, this means I will have partners who occupy little space in my life as a result, but that is their choice and I respect it. I could never in good conscience limit any of my partners’ opportunities to share life with me based on the preferences of someone else. I could also never require that my partners interact with each other if they do not want to. This approach also means I will likely be in future situations where I have to choose between sharing space with metamours I don’t particularly like, or skipping whatever event they will be showing up at. As long as I’m not making my partner pick between us, that’s all that matters to me.

Couple privilege in nonmonogamous relationships is something to actively be work against if you wish to mitigate its harmful effects on others, as with any inherent privilege. To do this in the case of parallel polyamory, it becomes necessary to view your desire, (or the desire of your partner), as a set of personal boundaries you, (or they), are responsible for.

To frame parallel polyamory as a set of boundaries, the person desiring the parallel situation would also need to accept that they will participate in less of the mutual partner’s life than would otherwise be available. It would be a leveraging of privilege to suggest that a partner exclude their other partners from important life events simply because one didn’t want to interact with them; it is an enforcement of a personal boundary to opt out of situations that result in an undesirable situation for you. 

I understand the implications here, but consider the alternative: insisting that no other partners ever get to participate in these important life events simply because you don’t want to interact with them means their relationship with your mutual partner is prescriptively limited and will not have an opportunity to grow into the shape it would naturally.

A special note to those of you who find yourself in toxic or abusive situations with a metamour: If your metamour is abusive to you, you of course have every right to distance yourself from them. In these cases, while it may be one of the most difficult high roads you’ll ever take, it still behooves all involved to focus on your boundaries rather than insisting your partner do anything different in their other relationships. If you had a close friend who chose to spend a ton of time with a complete asshole, your relationship with that friend would likely change – at least until they stopped being so intertwined with a jackass. When it’s your partner, and you share a life together, restructuring your relationship enough to keep you safe is exponentially harder to do. Ultimately, an abusive metamour can shine a light on your partner’s disregard for your safety and wellbeing, and that should be considered a fundamental incompatibility.

I’m a big fan of walking away from misery. It’s always worth the journey.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Your Metamour is Not the Problem

In online forums across teh interwebz, one question crops up more than daily: how do I get my metamour to stop doing xyz and negatively affecting my relationship?

Welp. You don’t.

Oh, and also, it’s probably not your metamour that’s the problem if there is a consistent pattern of Metamour Issues = Your Relationship Problems. That usually ends up being a case of the hinge partner being more invested in not rocking the boat than advocating for themselves, (and your relationship). 

Once upon a time, I was partnered with someone who at times felt that upsetting their other partner was too high a price to pay for advocating for our relationship with them. As a result, there were times when the insecurities of their other partner were prioritized over the development of the relationship we were in. It often felt as though because I was not the one with the power to make their life miserable, I was the one who lost. 

You’re likely familiar with the phrase “pick your battles.” You’re also likely familiar with the desire to not pick certain battles because just letting them slide is easier in the short term than addressing the issue head on. So that’s a thing we can have empathy for – yes?

In all reality… there is only one person who can choose a different outcome, and that’s the person making the decision. If that person is scapegoating their other partner in order to avoid being the target of your negative feelings, consider calling them out on that problematic behavior. Likewise, if you’re misdirecting your disappointment and anger towards your meta, perhaps look at what’s actually happening in that scenario. Regardless of the relationship you have with your meta, it’s in everyone’s best interests to tend to their own individual connections and not try to leverage things like insider information, duration of relationship, or ultimatums to get what they want.

But when you’re in the position I was in way back when, there’s a tendency to blame the metamour for being the proverbial squeaky wheel getting greased as opposed to your partner. It is difficult to accept that someone you care for deeply is unwilling to risk discomfort elsewhere to maintain harmony with you. It’s natural to want to blame someone besides your partner when it feels like issues in another relationship are being transferred to you to bear. Particularly when you know if this person weren’t behaving the way they were, none of this would be an issue. 

This can create a feeling of helplessness, but here are some things that are within your power to do:

  • Ask for what you want using clear language, and be willing to accept a no. I covered this topic some time ago in my blog The Big Ask. You can’t expect a partner to advocate for your relationship if you’re not advocating for yourself within it. 
  • Resist the urge to blame your meta for everything you don’t like about your relationship. It’s quite possible your meta struggles not to blame you from time to time as well – give each other the benefit of the doubt. You aren’t responsible for each other’s relationships anyway.
  • To that end, ask your partner not to communicate your meta’s insecurities as they relate to your relationship with them – it’s none of your business, and serves you in no positive fashion. Furthermore, you can be assured that if your partner is throwing your meta under the bus to you, they’re likely doing the same thing to you. Advocating for a healthy relationship sometimes requires asking someone to modify how they treat others in your presence as well.
  • Communicate your needs using clear language and don’t let a scarcity mindset convince you to settle for less than what you need. Your needs are valid, but not everyone will be able to meet them.
  • Consider that the reasons your needs or wants are not being met is because your partner has different priorities than you. Because being able to see these as mismatches in desire will help you frame this as a fundamental incompatibility and not a metamour issue.

Oftentimes it’s easier to choose the path of least resistance even when it hurts loved ones. There is an awful lot to be said for not being a doormat; when you insist on healthy boundaries, advocate for yourself with clear language, and don’t accept less than you need, the tides either turn or your alternative becomes clear. 

You do get to have boundaries regarding how you’re treated in relationships, and if your wants and needs are consistently sidelined in favor of someone else’s issues, you have the ability to opt out of that dynamic. And yes, I do mean you can break up. You can, and you should if you’re miserable and this is never going to change. 

I know from experience that it’s very possible to love someone with your whole heart, and still not be compatible or even good for each other as partners. I assure you, that’s okay. I also know that self advocacy and healthy boundaries go a long way toward shifting burdens from other relationships, back where they belong. They also inform future interactions by letting everyone involved know exactly how you expect to be treated. The good news is, when everyone is on the same page regarding the success of each relationship, progress is inevitable. And with progress, comes hope.

Image credit: Photo by Tom Crew on Unsplash

Rules vs. Boundaries

A long time ago in a galaxy right next door to the one I’m in, I learned an important lesson about setting and enforcing boundaries. As a poly person, I’ve had ample opportunities to practice all I’ve learned in that regard. So today I’m writing about boundaries and how they differ from rules in relationships.

To me, the concept is fairly simple to grasp but complicated to implement because while the concept is pretty rational, implementation involves FEELINGS.

Here is what I know:

Boundaries are created when you advocate for yourself. Rules are borne of wanting to control others.

Now, I’m a mom. I have a fair amount of rules because the job of parenting necessitates it. Rules keep the people I’m responsible for safe. But I am not responsible for my partners. I am responsible for myself, and responsible to them.

Huh?

I see it like this – I have expectations of my behavior when it comes to interacting with my partners. I’m honest, I mind my motivations, I own my personality flaws, and I honor their importance in my life to the best of my ability. These are the ways I feel responsible to them. I’m holding up my end of the bargain! But, in no way am I responsible for them. Not their behavior or their feelings or their Other Relationships.

So that means it’s not my job to make rules for them.

Boundaries? I have plenty!

And the really cool thing about taking the rule I want to make to appease my own insecurities and turning it into a boundary? Well… I usually realize just how silly it is. To illustrate I’ll address an issue I ran into with a partner about 20 years ago: the “I don’t want you to take your other partners to the places we go” conundrum. One of my boyfriends was upset I took another partner to his favorite restaurant. Here were the options available to him to address his concern:

Rule: “you’re not allowed to take other partners to the places we go together”

Boundary: “I don’t want to go to places you take your other partners”

I was unwilling to consider the rule, and he decided he didn’t want to limit himself.

So, instead of limiting the behavior of another person, boundaries limit what you’re willing to do. And in that process, you might discover you have no desire to limit yourself in that way. That’s usually how it shakes down for me. I dislike restrictions that stem from insecurity. I think rules that attempt to address insecurities tend to only be band aids for issues that need to be addressed, and in the end breed resentment.

Sometimes boundaries are necessary to keep us safe.

Safer sex is an oft-addressed topic in poly circles. Many couples choose to go barrier free, and as such, each of them is accepting some additional risk as their non-monogamous partners may engage in activities that could transmit STIs with others. The use of barriers between couples can look like rules or boundaries, also. In my own relationship, I’ve asked to be made aware of any mishaps with barriers or if a decision is made to go barrier free with another partner. That information will allow me to decide how I want to proceed with my body – if I want to continue to be barrier free, or if I want to choose to use barriers moving forward.

Rule: “you’re not allowed to go barrier free with other partners”

Boundary: “I want the ability to assess and address my own risks if you have other partners you go barrier free with”

Again, the boundary dictates my behavior while the rule is attempting to dictate the behavior of another.

So I’ll leave you with a parting exercise if this is something you’re interested in working on. Try taking a look at some of the rules you have in your partnerships and rephrasing them as boundaries for yourself instead to see if they still make sense. Caveat: beware the ultimatum – the “boundary” that includes a punishment for not getting your way. Those can be avoided by asking yourself what your motivations are – a thing that’s good to do all the time anyway.

Have a happy poly!

Photo by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash