This post by the always-excellent Captain Awkward got me thinking. It’s about an adult daughter whose parents began a polyamorous relationship with a third woman, who now lives with them (the parents, not the daughter). The parents and new partner are all trying to get the adult daughter to develop a close relationship with the new partner, and the daughter is balking. I think the Captain’s advice is sound, and I appreciate that she mostly approaches it like any step-parent relationship, which in essence it is, while also giving a nod to the fact that the non-monogamy aspect is playing a role in the daughter’s reactions. I don’t want to talk about that situation in particular, but it got me thinking about the larger question of what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect when it comes to our families and our partners, especially when we have more than one.
Some people would argue that it makes no difference whether we have one partner or multiple partners; our families should treat them all the same way. I have sympathy for the argument but I think it omits a lot of complicating factors. Even setting aside families that flat-out disapprove of non-monogamy (which is its own can of worms to deal with), the reality is that our culture has some deeply engrained assumptions about what love and commitment and exclusivity mean. For most of us, it took a fair amount of mental and emotional work to overcome those in ourselves; it is unreasonable to expect our families to just dump all their engrained beliefs about non-monogamy and behave the way we want them to from the get-go. And especially if our relationship was monogamous or de facto monogamous for some years, they likely have a level of investment in our first partner, and are going to have weird, complicated feelings about the way a new partner fits in. So I think there needs to be some delicacy in how we handle our family’s relationships with poly partners.
I have also, for a long time, said that in-law relationships are the best analogue we have for metamour relationships, in a lot of cases. We’re connected to somebody primarily on the basis that we both love and are loved by the same person; beyond that, we may have a lot in common and be great friends, or we may grate on each other at every encounter. The tools for handling in-law and metamour relationships are often similar.
With all that in mind, I want to lay out what I feel like are a reasonable set of expectations for how we treat loved ones of loved ones, whether we’re connected to them by blood, romance, or just intimate friendship. I’m going to first lay out my outline of what I think we are and are not obligated to do with regard to our loved one’s loved ones. Then I’ll dig deeper into the thoughts and principles that back these obligations. This post is going to be very general in addressing relationships of all kinds, and in a following post, I’ll write about specific situations that add an extra layer of difficulty or complexity, such as jealousy and differing values or beliefs.
With loved ones of loved ones, I believe we are obligated to:
- acknowledge that person’s place in our loved one’s life
- make an initial effort to get to know and like them; if the relationships last for many years, make repeat efforts every few years or so if the first ones didn’t take
- do our best to understand the good things that that person brings to our loved one’s life, and even if we can’t understand it, accept that there must be some
- accept with grace their presence at events our loved one is hosting or that are in our loved one’s honor, such as birthdays
- show them basic courtesy and consideration whenever we are thrown together
- avoid speaking negatively about them to our mutual loved one, unless there is a specific problem that needs to be solved
- give our loved one room to speak happily about them from time to time
I believe we are not obligated to:
- actually like them or love them, or pretend that we do
- spend one-on-one time with them or interact deeply with them
- hear about them every day or every time we see our loved one
- accept their presence at events we are hosting or that are in our honor
Obviously, most of these are bare minimums, designed for situations when we and the other loved one don’t get along. For the most part, I think they apply even when the other loved one is not behaving well; when they’re openly hostile or passive-aggressive toward us. In those cases, the mutual loved one may have some responsibility to intervene or at least to avoid putting us in the position of having to see much of each other.
Relationships are not just between two people; most of our relationships exist in a communal context of some kind. We see our friends and families in groups at parties, holidays, vacations, weddings. There’s a particular joy in being surrounded by multiple people you love and like, whether it’s three people or thirty. Even my introverted self delights in the feeling of connection and support when I’m with people who all know different pieces of me, who are all there for me in different ways. When everybody in a room is getting to enjoy the same feeling — “Here I am, surrounded by people I love and like and who love and like me” — that’s real community, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. Just because I love Alex and Bryce doesn’t mean Alex and Bryce will like each other, or even be able to stand each other. When my loved ones don’t like each other, it means that for me to be surrounded by the people I love, at least some of those people have to be spending time with someone they dislike.The more intimate and prolonged the setting (and the greater the dislike), the harder a burden this is on them. So a balance needs to be struck.
In general I believe that we should do what we can to make our partners happy — but not to the extent of abandoning our own sense of self or making ourselves miserable. This is why I say that we should make an initial effort to get to know and like loved ones of loved ones, and should make repeated efforts over the years if the first one didn’t go well. People grow and change, and two people that clash horribly at 20 may able to be great friends at 35. If we can give our loved one the gift of liking the other people they love, we should do so. (Usually the reason we might resist this, and develop an antagonistic relationship with someone we would normally like, has to do with jealousy of some kind, which I’ll talk about in the follow-up post to this.)
However, I’m pretty ferociously in favor of people’s right to feel the way they feel, and not be pressured — by themselves of others — to fake or force feelings just for someone else’s convenience and happiness. If you don’t like someone, you don’t like them, and piling on guilt and obligation isn’t going to make those feelings go away. Your loved one’s love for someone shouldn’t compel you to spend massive amounts of time in their company.
In most cases, I think it’s fair that I should get to have the people I love most near me at important, celebratory occasions that are about me, and that they should all make the effort to make the experience as pleasant and free of strife as possible: thus the obligations to accept the presence of our loved one’s loved ones at such events, and to show them basic courtesy. (The possible exception to this is when there’s a deep history of hurt between the two outlying loved ones, such as a divorce or breakup. I’ll discuss that situation more in the follow-up post.)
At the same time, Alex and Bryce should get to celebrate their important events and milestones surrounded by people that they love and like, and it’s unkind for me to impose them on each other if they strongly dislike each other, especially if it’s a very small gathering where they’ll have a harder time avoiding each other.
In US culture, at least the part of it that I inhabit, there’s a very strong pattern of viewing people who are married, living together, or long-term monogamous partners as a social unit. If one person is invited to a thing, the other one is assumed to be invited as well. In many circles, in order to have a party or group event with one half of a couple and not the other, you have to designate it a “girls’ night” or “guys’ night” — which doesn’t work so well if the couple are the same sex, or if the friend group isn’t segregated into men and women. I have a whole host of thoughts on the social unit trope, which I’d like to write about separately, but in brief: I’d love to see the assumption that people have to travel in pairs loosened, for a whole host of reasons. It sucks for poly people, at least those not using a primary-secondary model, and it sucks for single people, and it sucks for loved-ones-of-loved-ones everywhere who don’t really want to spend an evening together but can’t let go of the assumption that an invitation to one person must include an invitation to their partner.
Going back to the the list of obligations: for many of us, part of having a close relationship with someone is sharing what’s on our mind, what’s exciting and interesting and important to us. And in many cases that involves talking about another person we care about — whether it’s “Jamie did the nicest thing the other day” or “Kim and I keep fighting about this one thing.” This is normally not an issue, but when the person we’re talking to hates Jamie or Kim, suddenly it’s a huge deal. Even if they want to be supportive, they’re going to have to be managing their own feelings about Jamie or Kim while listening. Again, a balance needs to be struck between “I can’t ever talk about Kim because Jamie hates hearing it” and “Every time I hang out with you it’s Kim this and Kim that!” Where exactly the balance falls is something that should perhaps be explicitly negotiated and discussed.
Another thing that makes these relationships fraught is the implicit value judgement in saying, “I dislike this person that you love.” Are we saying that we think their judgement and taste in friends is lacking? Even if we don’t mean that, are they going to think we do? Saying something like, “I don’t know how you can stand Dallas,” or “I don’t know what you see in Shelby,” can come awfully close to saying “What’s wrong with you that you like this person?” And “what’s wrong with you that you feel X?” is pretty nearly always damaging to hear from a loved one.
So while I think it’s important to own and acknowledge our feelings about our loved one’s loved ones, whether they’re positive or negative, I also think we need to be careful not to make the false jump from “I dislike Jamie” to “Jamie is a sucky person.” A key hallmark of maturity is being able to separate personal, subjective feelings from objective realities. To say that another person is unbearably annoying is true, as long as I’m only making a claim about their effect on me. I can find someone unbearably annoying, while someone else finds them funny and adorable, and neither of us has to be wrong. Even with more arguably objective traits, such as how self-centered or intelligent or polite a person is, we each have our own priority list of the things that make someone likeable and worth spending time with, and our lists will likely not match perfectly with our loved one’s lists.
This is why I say we should make an effort to understand and appreciate what our loved one values in the other person. If you’re like me, it’s really fun to spend time doing the, “Oh, I see, to YOU it’s really important that someone be self-aware and socially skilled, while I don’t really care about that as long as they’re kind and well-meaning” kinds of calculations with your loved ones. You get to figure out what qualities are important to you in your friendships and what’s important to your friends in their friendships, and how all those things dovetail and intersect. Even if dissecting personalities isn’t a hobby of yours, it’s worth taking the time and effort to notice at least a few positive qualities in the loved ones of people you love. It helps build a barrier against the resentment you might feel at the way this person hits your own personal buttons, it protects both you and your loved one from feeling like your dislike of that person is a negative pronouncement on your loved one, and — most importantly to me — it exercises your understanding that your loved one is a distinct person from you, with values and needs and interests that are different from yours, and that you need to be able to acknowledge and honor those things if you are going to love them effectively.