I am 37, cis female, straight and polyamorous.
I have two current partners:
B (47, cis male, heteroflexible, polyamorous) — my wonderful boyfriend, best friend and dear lover of 1 year.
A (38, cis male, queer, polyamorous) — about whom I am writing.
A and I met 5 months ago and began a casual, BDSM and sex-based relationship. Our play is extremely emotional, intimate, passionate and creative. I have never played D/s before and he has never played D/s so intensely with anyone else before. Our sexual interests align in a way that feels to me like a kind of kinky kismet. A, B, and I have even played together in a mindblowing threesome and A and B get along well.
It was really no surprise that not-so-casual feelings eventually arose in both A and me. When I realized that my feelings for him were growing I knew that in order to feel comfortable continuing our play I would need to have a relationship in which the expression of any feelings is allowed. We connect in non-sexual ways too, and I would like the opportunity to explore that. When I brought these to him, he acknowledged that he felt the same way and wanted the same things.
The challenge is with his vanilla primary partner of 1.5 years. His primary partner is not monogamous, but does not identify as polyamorous. She has severe abandonment issues and I believe she has Borderline Personality Disorder or a similar condition (A will not disclose specifics in the interest of protecting her privacy, but he has described her moods as unsafe, her emotions as “labile”, mentioned an obsession with his whereabouts and what he is doing with whom at all times, and that there is a medical diagnosis behind all of this). He has always maintained that she is his relationship priority as long as he can keep her happy. He has said that she was not really comfortable with polyamory, but went along with it to ensure a relationship with him.
He has had relationships similar to ours in the past and they have ended disastrously because of the dynamic in his primary relationship. Maintaining those relationships and keeping his primary happy has caused him (and apparently everyone involved) significant stress — enough to have had a negative impact on careers, mental health, and other aspects of life. It is the emotional attachment that has been problematic, and, in my case, she would also find our physical proximity threatening: I live just down the street from him while she lives 60 miles away.
In order for me to decide whether this is a relationship I can continue, I have asked him to tell me what boundaries and limitations he has for our relationship and what, if any, rules he and his primary partner have. I prefer and am happiest in relationships that are not rule-limited (that is what I have with B and it is outstanding for both of us). I might be willing to agree to some rules (e.g. meeting family is not important to me, so a rule about that is one I can live with) but not others (e.g. primary partner has to be appeased at all costs). A has said that he would prefer relationships that are not rule-limited, but that is not feasible with his primary partner.
He said that this is a conversation that is a long time coming for them, and promised to speak with her to figure it out — that was two months ago. When I check in about the status, he usually apologizes and says something to the effect of “she’s been in a bad mood, It’s not safe, I need to wait for the right time” or says that he is working on making her feel secure and keeping her happy so that when they do talk, it will go better. Recently he finally admitted that he is terrified of any conversation with her going poorly because of how things have gone in the past. I don’t have any doubts about his sincerity in wanting a relationship with me. I believe that he is trying to do the best that he knows how and has the emotional bandwidth to manage.
I have asked not to see him in person until he has more information for me, but we do text and talk on the phone. We have seen each other once in person in those two months and it only reassured me of our sexual compatibility and affection for each other.
My thoughts and feelings are all over the place about the situation. I feel like I am waiting for a package that may never be delivered and that I might not like when I get it. Sometimes I feel like 2 months of no answer is answer enough, I know my boundaries and I can exercise my autonomy and leave. Other times, I feel like I should be more patient and understanding and figure out how to become comfortable with the uncertainty. Sometimes I am frustrated and think he is a cowardly idiot for getting himself in this position, sometimes I am more compassionate and think that he is likely co-dependent and experiencing emotional abuse. Mostly I think about what a great smile he has and how I love to make him laugh.
So, I know that I will need to decide for myself what I should do, but I find the thoughtful input of others to be helpful. Where is the line between being hopefully patient and being foolish? Is there any hope for a successful, stable relationship with healthy boundaries given his primary relationship dynamic? What reasonable steps can I take to make this a positive situation for everyone? At what point do I pull up stakes and say that this isn’t working for me?
There’s definitely a lot going on here.
I was going to start this column by giving you full disclosure that I am a child of a person who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), specifically untreated BPD, which in my mind makes all of the difference based on my friendships with people who have BPD. This informs a lot of my opinions about BPD and is a big reason why I probably couldn’t handle a romantic relationship with someone who has BPD.
How much should you know about your metamour
The fact of the matter is, the ins and outs of your partners relationship is, essentially, not your problem to deal with. And if it becomes your problem to deal with, that is less of your metamour’s fault and more of your partner’s fault.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. In terms of my relationships, the only rules that really matter are these: What you can do and what you can’t do. What happens with your partner’s other relationships is completely and utterly out of your control. And it’s not realistic or fair for anyone to expect you to manage that.
Let’s say we reframe this example in the context of day to day life. If you make a grocery order for bread and the grocery store agrees they will give you bread and then they show up one week with no bread, you would not be expected to investigate why there is no bread, what the relationship is between the grocery store and the baker, and address and repair any feelings or problems between the baker and the grocery store, would you? Now obviously there’s a difference between an exchange of a good for money and people and relationships, but basically you’re not required to be involved in the ins and outs of something that you have no reasonable expectation to control.
It is primarily your partner’s responsibility to not only be honest with you about his time capabilities and his commitment priorities, but also to not involve you in the emotional labour of his relationship. Now, he’s welcome to confide the difficulties he has with his other partner to you within reason, but it’s not up to you to fix. I feel like women in particular are socialised to take on additional emotional labour from people, often stretching beyond their own capacity while getting no emotional support themselves.
And sometimes that socialisation means women take on emotional labour almost without thinking about it, even when it’s not necessary. He may very well have a very trying relationship with this person. He may very well be stretched beyond his capacity. He may very well be struggling. But you are not his therapist or saviour. And he is ultimately the one who will have to decide whether he wants to continue in his relationship with this person or not. That’s not something you can help him with, nor should you be expected to.
Privacy, metamours and mental health
Nothing about what is happening in his other relationship is also necessarily your business, with all due respect. From a mental health perspective, people suffer challenges reconciling their mental illness with their relationships on a constant basis. I personally struggle with asking my domestic partner for the support I need. In certain situations, I am known to become passive aggressive and rude when I am not getting what I need, despite never have asked for it. I can be difficult. I’m also on the autistic spectrum which means I can have a breakdown.
I have literally had a loud, crying emotional reaction to plans changing all of a sudden on me when I could not cope. I am maybe perhaps not the ‘easiest’ person to have a relationship with. And while I would not fault anyone I date seeking for advice or help in our relationship, I most certainly would never, ever want any metamour approaching me about the ins and outs of my mental health struggles because it’s none of their business or concern. And I would likely feel somewhat of a sense of betrayal by my partner if they knew lots of details about my life and mental health I never disclosed to them.
I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing here. I just want you to be aware that, for as much as you sympathise with your partner, understand that if you know this much about all of the things going on in their relationship, that would give anyone, BPD or no, cause for feeling insecure and hesitant. Does she know as much about your mental health as you know about hers?
It can be really frightening and destabilising not only for your partner, especially if they are your only partner and you rely on them for emotional support, to get a brand new partner who, you admit, is a short distance away and likely doesn’t have the same mental health problems as you do. Put yourself a little bit in her shoes, even if you don’t necessarily understand BPD, try to understand what it might be like to be someone who struggles with mental health in a very intense way to face the reality that your partner might very well find someone who has much better mental health than you do.
Additionally, cursory research on BPD might give you a better idea of what it means to have BPD. I’ve actually found this animation most helpful in explaining it to people. The biggest sort of criteria for someone with BPD is fear of imagined or real abandonment, which polyamory as a practice is going to multiply. Of course, when you have a DSM criteria so wide and within each criteria there exists a spectrum of how this reflects in people, not all people with BPD are identical, but I’ve yet to meet a qualified therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist who believed that people with BPD can self-treat themselves or that BPD doesn’t at any time need some treatment or therapy.
As a child with a person with untreated BPD, there is a delicate balance that I have to consider in how I talk about BPD. As someone who has mental health problems, I’m also very aware of the stigma attached to people with mental health conditions. With BPD in particular, there are a lot of people with BPD, because of the way BPD affects them, who insist they are the victim in any scenario and will literally re-write history in their heads to suit that narrative. But then I have also left communities built for children of BPD parents because I felt there was a constant demonisation of people with BPD and zero attempt to humanise or understand the illness, on top of a lot of ableism about mental health in general. Point blank, no one is born with BPD. And no one asks for it.
I do sincerely believe the nature of BPD can make someone behave in ways that are abusive in a way they wouldn’t behave if they didn’t have BPD. I do believe BPD creates situations which cause challenging reactions to people with BPD and make it difficult for family, friends and significant others without BPD to know how to adequately manage it without making it worse. I do believe that all of us are capable of unhealthy behaviours and communication techniques which are abusive without us having the drive to actually abuse.
I refuse to characterise all people with BPD as abusive. And I would hesitate to automatically consider your partner to be in an abusive relationship, especially if his partner has been formally diagnosed with BPD. There is a difference to me between someone who is choosing to restrict or change their behaviour due to a partner’s reaction vs. someone who has no other choice but to do so and it’s a very difficult thing to suss out and it’s really up to your partner to ultimately decide if he is being abused and if he wants to leave. The best you can do is offer your support.
This isn’t to say of course people with BPD can’t be abusers either, but we need to avoid a demonisation of people with a single condition on an automatic basis, especially when it comes to BPD. I feel like demonisation discourages people with BPD from getting help similarly to how demonising addictive behaviours discourages addicts from seeking treatment. It’s a very rough mental illness to live with. And on top of dealing with all of this, she’s dealing with a partner who might not be actually stepping up to enforce boundaries as well as he should.
Boundaries and other relationships
Your partner holds the responsibility for managing his own relationships and also managing your expectations around that. If this other partner comes first, regardless of anyone’s beliefs about the ethics of it, that is the reality of the situation. She has a mental health condition which may logistically and theoretically require more emotional support than you would need in comparison. If he were dating someone with a physical disability who he needed to support in various situations, I don’t think you would necessarily demand he abandon those duties either.
He needs to be honest with you about how he prioritises his time. And it may be that you’re uncomfortable with being with someone who will not prioritise you in the way you want them to — and that’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to be okay with that. And not being okay with that does not mean you hate his metamour or you don’t respect people with mental health conditions. We all have wants and needs and it’s all about finding a balance.
Again, in many of the letters I get from women in partnerships with men who are struggling with their metamours, I notice a general trend of the men, who should actually be stepping up to the plate to manage the emotional labour of the relationship, not doing so and the women assuming it is their responsibility to ‘repair’ the relationship with their metamour and fix the situation. Luckily, you don’t seem to be taking it upon yourself to try and ‘help’ your boyfriend with his metamour, but you are way more involved than you need to be. It can be really frustrating to feel like you’re at the whim of another relationship, but really you are at the whim of his decision making, not your metamour.
I would honestly encourage your partner to set his boundaries and not waver them just because his partner may be feeling unhappy about something. While I’m not a therapist or an expert on treating BPD, I do know that when it comes to my own mental health, I encourage my partner to make plans and keep them, even if I feel unhappy or scared about them.
Barring an extreme emergency, I do not want him to cancel or move plans just because I am having a poor mental health day. There are compromises we make, like if I am really struggling he will take 5 minutes out of anything he’s doing and call me if I’m having a rough time, but it is completely unreasonable for him to be at my beckon call just because I have a mental health condition. Even my therapist would not be expected to be at my beckon call.
I feel like he doesn’t really have a reason, other than his own reluctance, to establish at least one evening he sees and dedicates to you, especially as the vast majority of his time is spent allocated to supporting her. I think he needs to be more insistent upon it, not cave in to her and not be afraid of some of her reactions. From your perspective, this might seem fairly obvious, but I can tell you as a child of someone with BPD, the complete guttural fear you have when you begin to set in boundaries… well, it’s hard to get rid of that fear.
Because if his metamour is affected by BPD, it’s very possible that being firm on his boundaries will cause a huge reaction, potentially even suicide threats. He needs to be prepared with the reality, which he probably already knows, that enforcing his boundaries will mean the end of the relationship. Enforcing my boundaries and demanding that my mother see a therapist to treat her BPD pretty much caused the end of our relationship. Splitting is something the video I linked talks about and it’s very possible that once he begins to assert his own independence, she will see him as a threat rather than a support, and that could collapse what they have. And it’s very possible that this is precisely why he has not done so.
Enforcing these boundaries with her though is something he needs to be managing with a relationship counsellor who specialises in BPD, not with you and preferably not alone. I can’t stress enough how BPD must be treated and that the dangers of not treating it are obvious in the high suicide rates of people with BPD. Living with BPD is without a doubt difficult, but that does not mean that he or you need shoulder the entire responsibility of managing someone else’s condition.
What you can’t do
As I said, the only rules that matter are what you can do and what you can’t do. You can ask your boyfriend to set boundaries and to give you specific amounts of time because this is what you honestly need from him in order to have a relationship which makes you happy. You are not out of line to ask for that. If he cannot meet that, then that is not your fault. I think it’s one thing to be understanding of the situation he is in, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your own needs and feelings for him or anyone else.
So I would ask yourself if you honestly can accept uncertainty. Can you accept the current situation as it stands? What needs to change? What does he need to do? Can you tell him this and mentally decide and agree with yourself a set amount of time he has to do it (avoiding saying this to him up front because it sounds a bit too much like an ultamatim)? And will you enforce your own boundaries with yourself, follow through, and ultimately make the hard decision later on to go if this relationship isn’t what you want?
What you definitely have to do is avoid at all costs taking the responsibility of his relationships onto your shoulders because they are his relationships and up to him to manage. And most of all try to remember that you cannot help people who categorically refuse to help themselves.
I hope this helps and good luck!
Advice from a therapist
My only caveat is that the OP specifically uses the phrase “not safe.” Based on my work professionally, that is a red flag word that makes me think his relationship probably is emotionally abusive. In healthy relationships, it might be difficult, uncomfortable or scary to have a hard conversation — “not safe” implies a real sense of fear. However, I do think the emphasis on not taking on emotional labor for his relationship is quite on point.
Note: I wrote this column in 2017 so it’s possible my perspective has changed or shifted. Please feel free to re-ask a similar question.
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