How much is too much to know about your partner’s other relationships? Where is the line?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic: Do you believe in first impressions?

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Episode 55 – How Much is Too Much

How much is too much to know about your partner’s other relationships? Where is the line? That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help. Find the full audio transcription of this episode on our website. Discussion Topic – Do you believe in first impressions?

 

This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Use our affiliate link for 10% off your first month.

Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

Letter:

I’ve started listening to your podcast on and off in the last few months.

One thing that I notice is a recurring theme in your advice is that you often say it’s none of their business to know all this stuff about any of the relationships that the letter writer is not involved in.

What I’m curious about is: where is the line? How much stuff is enough to know?

When I’m in a relationship with someone, it’s important to have *some* kind of understanding of each of our existing/potential relationships in order to navigate the dynamics that arise and even just from a logistical point of view when planning out time for each other.

When meeting someone new I want to know what kinds of relationship/s they have in their life so that I can see how they relate to their partner/s, what kinds of boundaries they may have in place, whether what they have to offer is something I am interested in. These are difficult things to figure out if there’s a cone of silence around all their other relationships.

One time my partner and I tried a mutual agreement of non-disclosure with our respective new relationships. In hindsight the complete lack of transparency was the biggest driver of it hurtling into disaster. Where we would normally give basic updates on how the relationship is progressing and how we feel about that person, there was absolute silence and we both projected our insecurities into that empty space. It was horrible. My partner and I learned the hard way that too little knowledge did not work, and had we been able to provide each other with the updates that we normally would, it would have headed off a lot of the insecurities that all of us were feeling.

So I guess I would like to know, in your opinion, what kind of stuff, and how much stuff, do you think is appropriate to know about the other relationship/s that your partner is in?

Response:

Okay, first of all, when I’ve said in my podcast or columns— when people have asked me questions and I’ve said “You know too much”, or “You’re too involved”, almost in every case, that isn’t what you’re talking about here. You’re talking about wanting to know about logistics, or things like that. There’s kind of an in-between between Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and knowing every single thing, beyond a point where it’s kind of like, is there any privacy in these relationships?

I’m not advocating for people to operate on a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell basis which is what it sounds like you were actually operating under. A very strict agreement of complete non -disclosure. That isn’t what I’m what I’m saying. That is pretty much Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, other than the fact that you may know that your partner is in this other relationship. It is kind of a don’t ask don’t tell setup. That’s not necessarily what I advocate. What I advocate is supposed to be contrary to the advice that or the instinct that people have to know everything about another relationship.

And I do kind of think that’s working in this situation that you’re describing. People tend to think that if they know everything about the other relationships that their partners are in, they can prevent something bad from happening in their relationship. The reason why I don’t think this is good is because, ultimately, there’s only so much you can control. You cannot control the relationships that your partner is in, and sometimes when you want to know about that relationship, it stems from a desire to want to counteract the anxiety by controlling everything, or wanting to know as if  that’s going to help you foresee something bad.

It’s a preventative measure, and what I’m saying is that, that can’t prevent it. When you are in a relationship with somebody and they’re in relationships with other people, those relationships that they have with other people should have a reasonable respect of privacy. It isn’t sometimes very fair when you know your partner is disclosing stuff about their other partners to you, to those other partners.

It’s a balance between the privacy of other people and also— sometimes I feel like people want to know those details because they don’t want to actually hold their partner accountable for their decisions. And it’s used way too much as an excuse. So for example, if you are dating Person B, and they are dating Person C, they could say to you that person C is getting really upset every single time this happens or that happens and what I feel like is going to happen is you’re going to blame Person C when Person B makes choices based on Person C’s actions, instead of going, “Okay, I get—“ You know your partner’s welcome to tell you that their other partner is getting upset yada yada.

But ultimately it’s them that’s making a decision based on that information. It’s them that is choosing— if they are choosing to change your relationship because of what’s happening in other relationships. The thing that I worry about with being like “This is what’s happening in this relationship and this is what’s happening in that relationship” is that rather than being used as a way to talk about dynamics, it’s being used as a way to blame other people, for what you are choosing to do. And that’s why I don’t particularly advocate it. I think that it’s— it tends to be a way that people use to try and avoid things, and sometimes I think it causes more problems.

Yes, you have filled this void of not knowing with your own insecurities, but knowing that isn’t going to solve the problem which is the insecurity. The problem really isn’t this void or what’s in it. It’s the fact that you feel like you need to have this information, and if it’s not there then you’ll put it there, in order for you to feel comfortable and safe and secure in your relationship. And I do genuinely feel like, regardless of whether you have no information and you’re putting information in there or you do have information, the initial problem is that you feel like you need to know this, to solve the fear and the insecurities and the doubt that you are experiencing, and that is the issue.

That is the real problem. Not whether or not that information is there. It’s the fact that you feel like there should be something there for you to feel safe and secure in your relationship but that is kind of what it boils down to. Now there’s different things that you mentioned along here. You said “It’s important to have some kind of an understanding of each of our existing potential relationships in order to navigate the dynamics that arise even just from a logistical point of view and planning out time for each other.” You can have a partnership with someone who communicates to you how they do relationships, without necessarily knowing tons about other people.

So for example if I had a new partnership and I would say, “Okay, this is how my life is organised. I have a partner that I live with. Generally speaking, that partner that I live with does tend to take up a lot of my time because we live together, and there’s logistical planning. However, in terms of how I do relationships, I am not a person who believes in prioritising anyone just because I’ve been with them longer”. So I would highlight to them that if they feel like I am not giving them the time that they need or if they feel like that I am prioritising my relationship with the person I live with over them, then they need to highlight that to me because that is not what I intended.

However, what I would say is that I do have a disability, I do have a condition which makes my energy levels low. I don’t always have access to the best transportation because I can’t drive, things like that. Like they have to — depending on where they live and where they are in their life — you know, if I if I had another partner that basically wanted me to be their primary, that wouldn’t work. I don’t have the time or energy for that. So it’s about figuring out what your individual preferences are, what your commitments are, what all of those things are.

I don’t need to tell them, intimate details about my partnership with the person that I live with in order for them to get a good understanding of what place they would have in my life, and I don’t even know what that would entail. Like what is it about my partner, and my relationship with the person that I live with that you would need to know in order to understand things? You need to be able to trust me when I say “This is the time I have. This is the place that you would occupy in my life. This is how I operate”. You would have to trust me in order for that to work.

Maybe you don’t immediately trust somebody’s word. You need to see it in action in order to get a good idea of it. So that is… that’s one thing I’d say about that. Somebody can pretend like they are and this is, this is actually— it’s quite funny that this comes up because for a very very long time I felt like relationship anarchy was just something that people who didn’t want to take responsibility used as a cover for, you know, to say I don’t have any priorities when actually they do. I have kind of since come to believe and understood relationship anarchy a little bit better and what it’s supposed to mean, even though I think that people don’t always use it to mean that in a similar way to anarchy in general.

People can lie about things you know. They can say, “Well, I don’t have any primaries. I don’t really…” you know, and then make decisions that counter that but the thing of it is, you can’t prevent everything. You can’t prevent yourself from getting in a relationship where your needs don’t match up, where somebody isn’t honest or maybe doesn’t even know. Like some people just aren’t self aware enough to know where they’re making their decisions and why. So that’s a possibility. And there’s nothing that you observing them in their other relationships or knowing any details about that, isn’t necessarily going to prevent that.

And you have to understand that part of entering into multiple relationships includes the risk that those relationships will end. That’s just part and parcel of the risk. So I still think that you wanting to know the dynamics of someone else’s relationship is partially a way to shield yourself from heartbreak, and you need to maybe— all of this is a very anxious response, which is understandable.

It’s totally understandable that you would want to try and protect yourself. That’s not a bad thing. But ultimately, this is creating a lot more problems than there needs to be. Now when you talk about you and your partner tried this mutual agreement of non-disclosure with your respective new relationships, the lack of transparency was the biggest driver of it hurtling into disaster,

Okay, you would normally give basic updates and how the relationship is progressing and how we feel about that person, but there was an absolute silence. We both projected our insecurities— how does another relationship increasing in terms of feeling and how you feel about that person how the relationship is progressing — progressing into what?

If you’re feeling this fear it’s because you haven’t talked about what relationship progression means. It means different things to different people. Are you on the relationship escalator? Is one of you expecting to marry someone else? Like, that’s the discussion that needs to happen. That’s what you need to work out with each other, is where you fall into each other’s lives and you have to trust each other to talk to each other if that changes.

But having regular updates. I mean, If someone asked me that like, “How is your relationship progressing? And how do you feel about that other person?” I would feel really… what do you mean progressing into what? I have no intentions upon getting married. I have no intentions of having children. I have no interest in purchasing property or any of the other sort of general milestones people have for “relationship progression”. So what does that mean to me?

You’re asking these questions because you’re afraid of your partner falling in love with somebody else and you being replaced. That’s what it feels like. And whether or not you have this information— I’m sure It felt great. I’m sure when your partner said “Well I don’t know if I love this person yet, but we’re seeing how things go”. I’m sure you felt very relieved by that. I don’t doubt that for a second, and I’m sure when you didn’t have that information, you started to panic.

But the issue is the panic. The issue isn’t the information being there. It’s the fact that you feel like you need this for some reason. Why? Why do you need that? Can you not work together to sort out your insecurities and figure out why you feel so anxious? How do you reestablish a relationship with each other that means that you don’t worry about things like that? You don’t need updates like that. You have to also accept that regardless of getting these general updates, at any point in time your partner could be like “No, I’m done. I’m done with our relationship”. These updates are not going to prevent that.

These updates are not going to shield you from that. It’s not  going to make it easier for you, even if you like— okay, your partner’s like “I just met this person,” next update, “I’m dating,” next update, “I’m starting to fall for this person,” next, update “I love this person”, next update, “I don’t want us to be together no more”. You really think that the progression of those updates is going to somehow prepare you mentally for losing that partner? It’s not going to.

Your brain is trying to help. It’s trying to do something with all of this fear, understandable fear that it has that you will lose your partner, but these updates aren’t going to— They will temporarily make you feel better, no doubt. No doubt. But you need to address the fact that you’re filling what you see is a void with insecurity— You need to address that and figure out how you counteract that insecurity, instead of just trying to feed the information in, because it’s, it’s not actually— it does make you feel better and temporary, but it’s a temporary solution.

It’s a band aid over gaping wound. It isn’t fixing the actual problem. And that’s why this situation devolved the way it did, because when you can’t— you know, you need that and you haven’t addressed the core issue. So when you don’t get that information for whatever reason and you might not. You might not get that information. You wouldn’t when you don’t get that information all of a sudden you’re filling it with insecurities and you’re scared so you need to figure out why it is that you and your partner— Either you know, if you felt insecurity on both sides which it sounds like that was the case.

You need to figure out how you build up more trust with each other, rather than trying to fill up with regular updates. You don’t tell me how long you’ve been with your partner so I’m not sure if this is necessarily new. And even if you have been with them for a long time, if you’ve just started trying out polyamory it makes sense as you would have all of these insecurities. But yeah, I can’t give you a hard and fast answer, of what kind of stuff and how much stuff is appropriate.

It’s not necessarily about what kind of stuff or how much stuff. It’s about what’s the purpose of it is? What is the point? To try and stave off fear and anxiety? Because if the point is trying to stave off fear and anxiety, I don’t think that’s useful, because in the long run, it won’t prevent anything, and sometimes knowing these details can trigger more anxiety. Sometimes if you’re, you know— if your next update is “I’m falling completely head over heels in love with this person”, then it might be your brain goes, “Wow. They fell in love faster with this person than they do with me. What’s going on?”

Sometimes more information is more for your anxiety to work with. Ultimately it comes down to what you and your partner are with comfortable with. If you’re comfortable with regular updates, then you know, who am I to tell you to stop doing that? If it’s not a violation of the privacy of the other person who is involved and you should always check that and you feel comfortable with that, then go ahead. But the one thing that I would just say is that it’s not necessarily about, you know, how much or what not to know.

It’s about whether or not it’s actually serving you to know. Is it actually solving the situation? Will it actually do what you are trying to prevent? Will it prevent what you’re what you’re trying to get it to prevent? Because usually I feel like people are sharing this kind of updates or sharing this kind of information in order to prevent something from happening that it cannot prevent. And that is why I tend to tell people that they’re too involved, because they’re trying to be too involved, to be able to stop their partner, leaving them, and ultimately they cannot do that through this method.

They can’t do it at all. If somebody decides to leave you, short of locking them in the tower, which isn’t really going to fix the situation, you can’t stop that. You can’t stop your partner from leaving you. You can’t stop your partner from falling out of love with you. None of that is a thing that you can control and temporarily as I said, if you haven’t already read it I wrote this article called “13 mistakes people make when trying Polyamory”. I suggest you check it out as well.  One thing that people tend to do is that their brain in these types of situations, says, “What can I do to keep this person in my life? Because I’m afraid of losing them. I know I’ll do X, Y Z”.

And it’s an easy solution. It’s much easier and nicer and less traumatic and less scary for your brain to think that if you do X, Y Z, then your partner won’t leave you. Now you can be a complete and total asshole, obviously, you know. The best thing you can do to keep your partner around is by being respectful person, treating them well, treating yourself well — all of those things. But outside of that there isn’t anything you can do and your brain will trick you into believing that you can do things in order to temporarily relieve some of that fear and anxiety.

But the problem with this is that in the long run, what this inevitably ends up meaning is that you lost that relationship because you didn’t do X, Y Z and other relationships that you’ve had, you’ve lost because you didn’t do X, Y Z. This mind kind of like temporarily anxiety relieving thing ends up really screwing you over in the long run because it blames you for the things that happen in other relationships that you could not control, and that’s the problem with that mindset. It doesn’t prevent the thing you want it to prevent and it ends up creating more blame for you.

So yeah, basically to sum up, there isn’t a hard fast rule, other than the privacy and respect for the third person and, or the other person or people that your partner is dating about what to disclose or how much to not know. The only thing you really need to consider yourself with is what will knowing this information do? What problem will this solve? And will it actually solve that problem? Because, in the example you gave, the problem is that, you know, you see this void. You’re filling this void with anxious thoughts and you think that replacing it with updates will fix it.

When the actual problem is that you feel like you need this information in order to feel secure in your relationship and that is the actual problem. And that is something that you should think about. How do we build security between each other? What is relationship progression? What does that mean? What is the end goal? What is the ideal situation for yourself and your partner? Do your ideals …. you know this is my ideal polyamorous situation and this is your partner’s — do they mesh up? Are you compatible? Because at the end of the day, you know, that’s kind of what you’re asking with a relationship progression.

You’re afraid of being replaced. You’re afraid of things changing. You can’t prevent that. You need to discuss with each other, what your situations are and if you want it to change and also respect that even discussing that and knowing that doesn’t mean it can’t change in the future. Shit happens. Life happens. The only thing that’s constant is change.

So, you can’t ultimately prevent it. You have to sit with that discomfort and be able to get used to it and trust your partner that if something were going to change in your relationship and change in your expectations that they would discuss it with you, and that they would be there to support you. Because if you don’t feel like that’s the case, then that is ultimately the bigger issue than knowing about what’s going on in other relationships.

I hope that helps and good luck.