This post is primarily aimed at people in open relationships. If you want more 101 information about the terms used and opening up relationships there are lots of resources out there. Take a look at ‘Opening Up’ or ‘More than Two’ for more information.
It struck me recently that a lot of posts in poly forums boil down to ‘I have a problem with my metamour’. Without exception, I take them with a pinch of salt. Not because I think there are never problems between metamours, but rather because they seem to place an awful lot of responsibility at the feet of someone that is outside of our relationship with another person. If you think that you have a metamour problem, I invite you to look closer to home at your feelings and expectations, your relationship and your partner. These are just a few thoughts, but when you feel like you have a ‘metamour problem’ check whether the metamour is a convenient way of ignoring a problem closer to home:
1) do you have a partner problem?
Is your partner being an asshat and you’re blaming your meta because it’s easier? I’ll admit, I’ve been very frustrated when my partner was on a date with me but constantly checking their messages from their other partner. It is irritating, and all too easy to blame someone that isn’t there. But is that fair? The other person isn’t sitting in front of you at a time that you’ve agreed to spend together. They might not even know you’re on a date. The problem is that you have an inconsiderate partner.
On a related note, if your partner has asked you to limit your relationship for your meta’s benefit, that is about your partner. They are making the choice to impose limits on your behaviour or your relationship (and you are making choices about whether or not to accept those limits). While your metamour may have made a request, the relationship is between you and your partner. If you feel the request is unreasonable that is something for you to negotiate in your relationship.
Other things that might indicate a partner problem:
* partner saying that they don’t have a choice and that they have to do xyz (Nope, you always have a choice)
* partner saying xyz wouldn’t be OK with meta (as above)
* partner consistently cancelling dates because meta feels uncomfortable (what about your discomfort and the inconvenience of dates being repeatedly cancelled?)
2) do you have a problem asking for what you want and need?
I have to cop for this one, too. I have found it easier to characterise a metamour as excessively demanding when my fear was really about my wants and needs not being met because I wasn’t able to express them clearly. We all have a learning curve, right? It is uncomfortably easy to see a metamour as demanding when they seem to effortlessly ask for what they want and we just can’t bring ourselves to do that. It’s ok to express needs and have them met. Better to follow their lead and learn to express your needs than to get grouchy with a meta for this. It can also be easy to be afraid that our partner might choose someone else if we express too many needs (lots of people see expressing needs as needy or clingy, which is isn’t). This fear can drive us to minimise our needs out of fear, which can then lead to envy when someone else expresses their needs and has them met. While it might drive some resentment, it is mostly about our own ability to advocate for ourselves and not what our meta is doing.
3) do you have a problem meeting your needs outside your relationship(s)?
While some needs may be relationship specific, lots aren’t. If you need a hand putting together a bookcase, need a gaming partner or someone to keep you company after a difficult day it doesn’t have to be someone you have sexy times with. All kinds of people can meet your needs, from professionals you see for therapy or a massage, to friends and family. Think about whether the need you’re having has to be met by a partner, or whether you can get what you need elsewhere.
4) do you have a compatibility problem in your relationship?
Sometimes what feels like a problem with a meta might actually be about unspoken expectations in your relationship. Getting to be on the same page about things like hierarchy, veto, expectations about time, etc., can reduce resentment or at least highlight underlying issues that are about your connection and not the meta. If one of you has the expectation that your relationship will look a lot like monogamy, but with casual sex partners added, while the other expects that you will each have more than one committed romantic and sexual relationship you are likely to end up with crossed wires and resentment. If one of you thinks that your relationship should always get priority, but the other operates along more egalitarian lines, it can be painful for everyone involved.
5) Are you having hot buttons or triggers pressed inadvertently?
Intention isn’t magic, but it is possible that you might be getting your buttons pressed inadvertently and by proxy. A former metamour insisted that my partner didn’t wear some of their favourite clothes when they met up. This was not part of a negotiated power exchange. It hit all my buttons around being controlled and proximity to someone that I felt was exerting coercive control. After expressing my concerns, I had to emotionally withdraw a little from our mutual partner to get some perspective. To say I was glad when my partner broke up with that metamour would be an understatement. But it wasn’t really about her; it was about my reaction to my buttons being pressed around coercive control.
6) Are you hitting an invisible landmine?
Sometimes, even in non-hierarchical relationships, people prioritise their time in consistent ways that can set up what feels like competition between different partners. Love is not limited, but time is. If, when someone has really constrained time or energy, they always commit it to partner A regardless of what is happening for partner B, that might very well make partner B feel like they are competing with partner A — and always losing. It may be that the choice is about a relationship agreement, but it might just as well be that someone has preferences about how they spend their time when it is in short supply. Either way, this is about the partner and not about the metamour, even when it feels like a competition.
7) Are you bringing some expectations from monogamy into your poly relationships?
You might feel like this is just about jealousy or being upset that other partners exist, but it is actually a lot bigger than that. Monogamy has a tonne of rules, and we are socialised in a culture that holds monogamy and coupledom up as the model for healthy relationships. The fact is, if you are in a poly relationship many of the expectations and rules that are common in monogamy aren’t well suited. Take, for example, the expectation that your partner will always be there when you need them. Because monogamy is founded on the idea that your partner is the person you should always go to when something is difficult and that they should be available to you when needed, it can be easy to expect the same thing in polyamory. But it isn’t realistic. Sometimes a partner will have made other plans, sometimes they will not be able to offer the support that you want and need. Similarly, you might have just seen an advert for an event that you really want to go to with your partner and it happens to be on the same day as your meta wants your partner to go with them to a party. If you always expect your partner to choose you (because in monogamy you can rely on that), it is very frustrating when they don’t. You get to have your emotions about these things, but blaming the other partner (or work commitment, or family commitment or whatever) that stops you getting what you want or need doesn’t work well.
Thanks to the many people who contributed ideas to this post, including several of my important people and members of the Solo Poly facebook group.
If you’d like to learn DBT skills to cope with difficult stuff that comes up in non-monogamous relationships you can sign up to my next course just for non monogamous people. Find out more here…