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I’ve been in a serious relationship with a guy who has recently started to identify as poly[am]. He still has strong feelings for two of his ex girlfriends, but when he and I started dating neither of them was available (and they still aren’t, one is in the States and they have agreed on not dating long-distance, while the other is in a committed monogamous relationship).

He also has recently moved to Melbourne for a year, where L, the ex that lives in the States, is going to visit him (I will too, but in a different month). The last time he saw her was before he and I started dating, and they were intimate; I have been told that usually when they see each other they tend to act like they are a couple and “take advantage” of the time they have together.

I feel extremely bothered by the idea that this might happen, but I also don’t think it is because he would “cheat” on me, rather because he and I have never discussed polyamory as something tangible (so far we didn’t have occasion/opportunity to be open anyway). I also think that I wouldn’t object so much if he actually had a relationship with someone committed and not someone who has badly hurt him before, someone, put plainly, that will not fuck him and then fuck off back to her country leaving him upset and in need of comfort. He also has mental health issues (depression, anxiety, triggers) that I feel would be made consequently worse by having her for a while and then having to pick himself up when she leaves.

My opinion of this may be biased by the fact that, despite not ever having met her, the other ex, his family and his friends all seem to think that L was manipulative, uncaring and generally not a good fit for him. He is already struggling with depression because he’s in Melbourne on his own, and not having ever lived abroad on his own, so I’m concerned. On the other hand, prohibiting him to do something physical with her doesn’t seem right and not something I should do.

I’m really confused and some advice would be really helpful.

There are a couple of things going on here that I want to address.

  • Moving from monogamy to polyamory
  • Problematic exes
  • Emotional support in relationships

Moving from monogamy to polyamory

One of the first big problems I see in this scenario is that your relationship seems like it’s moving into a polyamorous relationship without you really having much of a say in it. You never mention in your letter if you are actually interested in polyamory, just that he has “recently started to identify as poly[a]”. It’s all well and good if that’s how he wants to identify, but it seems very strange to bring this up without any idea as to how this will actually impact your relationship.

Polyamory is a huge umbrella for all sorts of different kinds of lifestyles. Changing from a culturally scripted monogamous relationship to a polyamorous relationship is a big deal. It’d be like him deciding he’s going to law school or that he wants to join a band and go on tour. It has a huge impact on your relationship and it’s not something one person can decide on. It’s something you both have to agree on.

And the timing of this seems particularly suspicious. He recently decides he identifies as polyamorous while also recently moving and recently getting to see an old ex again? Like it sounds almost too good to be true. And, as much as I’d like to believe that maybe he’s just happened to discover polyamory at this time, I’m wondering if what he wants is just the chance to have sex with his ex again. While that is sometimes people’s genuine entryway into polyamory… it’s a lot easier to think you’re cool with polyamory when you’re the one looking to have sex with someone else and not when your partner is having sex with someone else.

If polyamory is genuinely something you have interest in, I wonder if, after the dust settles with this ex he only has a short window to have sex with, if he’s going to feel quite so happy about you finding another person to have sex with. And I worry that him deciding polyamory isn’t for him exactly when you decide to go and sleep with someone else is going to create a load of resentment.

So what you need to do is ask yourself if polyamory is something you want. And he needs to clarify how he envisions polyamory working in your life. If he doesn’t have these answers, then I would think long and hard about whether this is a choice you want to make. I do think that, if he is genuinely polyamorous and wants to be polyamorous as opposed to just wanting to have sex with his ex, then he shouldn’t have a problem with boundaries you might set regarding his ex, which brings me to the next topic.

Problematic exes

Let’s say you have a genuine interest in polyamory and you want to pursue other relationships. You still have to contend with the fact that he has an interest in his exes. You’ve described the problem with this particular ex and the consequences that you’re foreseeing. But here’s the thing. If polyamory is what you’re going to go for in the future, then your partner could meet and date way worse people in the future. While it might seem like a good idea right now to make a rule that he can’t get involved with this ex, unfortunately, that rule is not going to actually do what you want it to do.

Overall, your boyfriend seems to struggle with recognising that this person exacerbates his mental health issues. You’re not the person that can help him recognise that and a rule forbidding him from doing anything with her will also not help him recognise that. Unfortunately, this is something that he has to accept and work through himself. You trying to control this might forestall this issue, but it ultimately won’t stop whatever is going on with him that causes him to get involved with or stay involved with people who will and have hurt him. You can’t set his boundaries for him.

That leads me to what you can do.

Emotional support in relationships

But what you can do is set your boundaries about L. You can tell him explicitly how you feel and you can also ask not to be involved in whatever they have going on. And by rights, you shouldn’t have to. He needs to manage his own relationships. And that means that you have a right, especially if you personally object to this person, to say that you don’t want to hear anything about or involving L. If he has problems, he needs to seek out his family, friends or pay for a therapist.

I know that seems harsh. I’ve said plenty of times that emotional support is part of relationships and I do honestly believe that, but I also believe that there’s only so much you can support one person, especially if that person is unwilling to help themselves. You shouldn’t be expected to pick up all of the pieces of everything else and you’re allowed to set a boundary to say you’re not going to be doing so. You can support him in other aspects of his life, but if he chooses to get involved with someone who has previously hurt him in the past, then you have every right to not want to have anything to do with that. Sometimes, unfortunately, people have to face consequences in order to see why their choices are poor.

I personally think that if he were genuinely interested in polyamory, he would see and hear your objections and concerns around L and be willing to wait on this occasion. I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last time in the world she visits the same continent he’s on. Why not wait? I get that it’s exciting to take advantage of the moment, but the pros in many ways don’t seem to outweigh the cons. Especially if he’s actually interested in dating other people — and not just sleeping with his ex, it doesn’t make any sense to choose what brief fun this ex might bring over the overall opportunity to explore other relationships in the long term. He has to be aware that, if he engages with L and the result is that it ends up creating problems for him, you’re going to also be frustrated by that. Is it really worth that? I personally wouldn’t think so… if polyamory is what he is interested in in the long term.

If polyamory is not what you want, then you’re going to have to really consider whether the pressure of trying a relationship style which doesn’t appeal to you on top of also having to deal with the complicated nature of his ex and what she brings is really going to work out for the best. It might be too much all at once for anyone to handle.

Overall, though, your first question is an honest question about whether or not polyamory is something that you genuinely want. Then you and your partner need to have a conversation about what this means for your relationship and how you foresee other relationships working with yours. What type of relationship do you see yourself wanting? What type of relationship does he see himself wanting? Is this a thoughtful decision or something he’s just wanting because of the opportunity presented in front of him? Do you feel confident that he is interested enough in polyamory that he is not going to turn around and change his mind when you date someone? And if you do want polyamory and you’re happy with that choice, are you going to feel comfortable with setting and keeping your boundaries around supporting the fallout from L?

Once you have some of those serious discussions, I think that you’ll find some clarity.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Comment from the therapist

I like the actions you recommend the writer take to work through the situation. It addresses the behavior I’m concerned about. Another thing that stood out to me though, is writer has a strong caregiver aspect to their commentary. Their focus is tightly aimed at their concerns about the partner and a burning desire to protect them from this ex. That mentality is toxic in any relationship style.

Note: I wrote this column in 2018, so it’s possible my perspective on this may have shifted or expanded. Please feel free to resubmit a similar question.

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