In an earlier post, I set about writing some basic guidelines for how we are and are not obligated to treat people to whom we’re linked by a mutual loved one: in-laws, metamours, close friends of lovers and lovers of close friends, etc. In a nearly unprecedented act of follow-through, I’m back as promised to discuss some situations that often complicate those relationships. These don’t erase or supplant the obligations I outlined in the first post; they provide extra considerations, and sometimes extra obligations for at least one person involved.
While we tend to think of jealousy as primarily a factor in metamour relationships, the truth is it can be involved in any of the others as well. It might not be specifically sexual jealousy, but the fear that a loved one’s other relationships will threaten our own, the fear of being supplanted, of becoming unnecessary, of being suddenly found lacking and cast aside — those can factor into any kind of close relationship. The role of jealousy in friendships is much bigger than usually gets acknowledged; quite recently I was having a conversation with a monogamous friend about some relationship tensions with his best friend and new boyfriend, and I found myself using a lot of poly-derived insight, as the feelings involved were very similar.
Jealousy is a common human emotion, and its presence doesn’t mean that anyone involved — the person feeling it, the person triggering it, or the mutual loved one — is a bad or inferior person. It just means that someone’s core insecurities and abandonment fears were triggered, and that needs to be dealt with. There are tons of resources on managing jealousy in the poly community, and a lot of them will be helpful in non-romantic contexts as well.
When we’re jealous of someone, the overwhelming urge is to want them out of the picture. We’ll be looking hard for any signs that they’re unlikeable, wrong for our loved one, gross and smelly and mean. We need to be aware that there’s a pretty strong cognitive bias in play. This is where expressing but not endorsing those feelings of jealousy becomes really important. Trying to sweep the jealousy under the rug, because we feel we should be better than that, is only ever going to backfire as the core insecurities are left unaddressed. But letting the feelings rule our rational assessments is going to result in some severely distorted judgement about the person we’re jealous of. In my experience it’s best when we can say, “I’m feeling a lot of jealousy toward this person right now, so I’m not able to assess them fairly. I’m going to work on coping with the jealousy before I actually decide whether I like them or not.” That might mean not meeting them or spending much time around them while you’re working on it. Or it might mean spending more time with them (sometimes this can help with jealousy), but recognizing that jealousy is a contributor to any feelings of dislike you may have toward them.
Sometimes you’re on the other side, aware that a loved one’s loved one is jealous of you. In these cases, the best thing to do is stay out of it unless you’re brought in. Although it doesn’t feel like it, jealousy is always about the two people in a relationship, not the third party that someone is jealous over. When we’re aware that someone is jealous of us, it’s common to feel some combination of guilt, anxiety, and resentment. Assuming we haven’t done anything wrong, it’s useful to remind ourselves that the presence of jealousy doesn’t mean anyone — ourselves or the person feeling it — is a bad person. It’s for our loved one and their loved one to work out between themselves.
We’re not obligated to efface ourselves or make ourselves scarce in order to accommodate someone else’s jealousy. If a loved one’s loved one is demanding accommodations that make us feel unloved, undervalued, or second-class, it’s okay to stand up for our own needs. That said, it’s helpful if we can show some compassion for the person feeling jealousy — if not for their sake, then for our loved one’s. I’ve had a partner express contempt and resentment for another partner’s jealousy, and it made the whole situation many times more emotionally stressful for me. Remember that your loved one cares about both of you, and likely feels some pain and distress about the pain that their jealous partner is feeling. Don’t make that worse by putting yourself in an adversarial stance.
Where there is a difference of beliefs and values
There’s a special kind of tension that comes in when one person disapproves of a loved one’s loved one on some kind of moral, religious, or philosophical ground. This often happens when adult children develop different beliefs and values than the ones they grew up with, and then have friends and lovers who come from one religion or value system, while their family of origin comes from a very different one. It also happens in other ways, such as my friend’s formerly liberal mother-in-law becoming an evangelical Christian, and newly having issues with her adult child’s queerness.
Obviously some people can get along just fine with big ideological differences between them. They can adopt a “live and let live, if it works for you, sing your own special song” kind of mindset, and it doesn’t cause a lot of relationship tension. For many people, though, their beliefs are a matter of what’s right and wrong, true and untrue about the world, and it’s not so easy — or even desirable — to just let things go. This can be true for liberals and conservatives, Christians and Muslims and pagans and atheists. At some point, it will come up, and in addition to any personality conflicts, the mutual loved one might find themselves in the middle of a fraught conflict of ideologies.
This can get especially sticky when the mutual loved one’s evolving values are attributed to the presence of other loved ones in their life. A young adult shifts religious beliefs around the same time they start dating somebody in their new belief system, and their family and friends feel that the new lover is responsible for the change in belief systems. The personality and character of the new partner (or close friend) are completely eclipsed by the fact that the older friends and family feel that their loved one is being somehow stolen from them and lured into a new value system. They react to the person from a place of threat and often anger, thinking that if they weren’t in their loved one’s life, their loved one would go back to sharing their values and beliefs.
Occasionally this is true. People do shift their beliefs and values in response to the people close to them, especially lovers but also friends and social groups. It does sometimes happen that someone shifts beliefs radically to match a new lover’s, and then on breaking up returns to their former beliefs. Much more often, though, a person’s beliefs and values start to shift, and then they find new friends and partners who match them; or a new person in their life shows them the way to a new identity that fits them much more comfortably than the old one. In other words, the new person’s presence in their life is more a result of their own changing values than a cause of them.
Regardless of the order of operations, little good usually comes of trying to separate a loved one from a new friend or lover because we disapprove of their values. In saying that the new person is responsible for the change, we are denying our loved one’s agency and responsibility for their own life. While we may not mean to, we are implying that they’re easily swayed and that their convictions aren’t sincere, and this implication is usually felt by our loved one. It’s a quick path to resentment and bitterness — even in the rare cases where our suspicions are correct.
The essential principle, then, is to separate your feelings about your loved one’s changing beliefs from your feelings about new people in their lives who share these beliefs. Assume your loved one came to be where they are for their own reasons. Get to know their new loved ones as people, not emblems of your loved one’s change.
Things get even harder when the relationship itself goes against the beliefs or values of the older family and friends, such as when someone from a conservative background is in a same-sex or non-monogamous relationship. The temptation for older family and friends to view the new partner as a symbol of their loved one’s new value system is even stronger when the very nature of the relationship goes against the old value system. If they want to maintain a positive relationship with their loved one, though, they will do their best to separate the idea from the person. I’ve known conservative parents of gay children who do fairly well at this; while they still have don’t believe that same-sex relationships are morally right, they get to know their child’s partners as people in their own right, and acknowledge the ways those partners bring happiness to their child. There’s still a lot of pain in that situation for everyone, but there are also positive connections and loving bonds.
People have a right to believe what they believe. They even have a right to believe wrong, untrue, and harmful things. They don’t have a right to have those beliefs go unquestioned or unchallenged, but in the context of a close relationship, questioning and challenging each other’s beliefs usually goes best when our beliefs are pretty closely aligned in the first place and we’re just working out the details. Arguments between a queer liberal agnostic and their conservative Protestant family members are rarely going to be productive (I have a fair amount of first- and second-hand experience to back this up.) Often, we have to make a choice: is it more important to bring our loved one around to our views, or to maintain a relationship that has space for our differing views? If we invest all our effort into trying to change them, rather than building the best relationship we can with them as they are, we’re likely to find that the relationship itself crumbles.
When the other relationship is troubled
It’s challenging when someone you love is in a troubled relationship with someone else, especially if you often play confidant or advisor to your loved one. Whether it’s a matter of a specific conflict that’s causing strife in an otherwise balmy relationship, a persistent discord that comes up repeatedly, or an ongoing pattern of unhealthy interactions, this can be a tough situation to navigate cleanly.
Some people make the mistake of rooting too hard for the relationship: “But you guys are so great together! I’m sure it’ll sort itself out. Just give them another chance.” Sometimes, a person needs to be able to really imagine ending a relationship, even if ultimately they’ll end up staying in it. (None of this is exclusive to romantic relationships; close friendships and even blood relationships sometimes need a hard look at whether they’re really serving the people on both sides.) Sticking with a relationship because the alternative is inconceivable is not a recipe for healthy relationship growth and change; it’s much better when both parties can honestly reassess and think, “On balance, is this person still someone I want to have this intimate relationship with?” But it’s hard enough to do this calculation on one’s own; being surrounded by friends who view the relationship as inviolable makes it that much harder.
On the flip side is the mistake of seizing on the trouble as a reason to advocate for ending the relationship. Obviously, this is going to be especially tempting if you generally dislike the other person, and even more so if there are the jealousy or value-difference issues discussed above. Raise your hand if you’ve never felt that little surge of glee when someone you love is talking about a conflict they have with someone you’re jealous over. Go on, I’ll wait.
Nobody? (I hope nobody, or very few people, or suddenly I’m going to feel like a much worse person.) It is very, very hard not to engage in some serious motivated reasoning at this point. Instead of listening openly to what our loved one is saying, we’ll seize on every negative thing they say as evidence that their relationship is terrible and the other person is terrible and clearly it will be best for everybody if they end it. Best for everybody, not just for you, although obviously it would be nice for you, but that’s not the point, because you’re just looking out for your loved one, and clearly they’re unhappy…
Yup, very tempting. So the first responsibility I believe we have is to be very aware of our own biases when we’re talking with a loved one about their conflicts in another relationship. And the stronger those biases are (whether positive or negative) the less we should say about the situation.
On the flip side, it can be hard to think positively about a loved one’s loved one if all we hear are complaints and struggles. There’s a pattern that can develop when friends complain to each other about their partners, looking for support and validation and commiseration, but rarely talk about the good things and happy times the partners bring. Over time, this can sour each person’s view of the other’s partner(s), even if they initially liked them. A lot of the responsibility here is on the person doing the complaining, but we can help by noticing when the dynamic is developing and calling it out. “Hey, I’ve noticed that lately all I’ve heard is bad stuff about Jordan. Do you think there’s a problem, or are you just venting when you’re upset and not bothering to mention when things are good?” Obviously, this is also helpful because if our loved one hasn’t been happy in the relationship for a while, explicitly acknowledging that is the first step towards actually changing something.
Being a good confidant for a loved one in their other relationships requires a lot of judgement, self-awareness, and emotional management. I don’t think it’s something we should ever feel obligated to do. If it’s making it too hard to think charitably of the other person, or if it’s causing stress because we’re invested in the success of the other relationship, or if we’re starting to feel that our relationship is being coopted by all the time spent troubleshooting the other one, it’s fine to draw boundaries around how much the other relationship gets talked about. Having other people as a sounding board is helpful when a relationship is troubled, but ultimately it’s something that needs to be worked out between those two people.
When there was a previous intimate relationship
For most of these two posts I’ve been talking about a situation where the mutual loved one brings two people together who had no previous connection. Things get even stickier when you have had an intimate relationship with someone else, that relationship is now broken or estranged, but you’re still bound together by the people who love you both. It’s probably most common with acrimonious divorces and breakups, but it can also happen when there’s a major falling-out or betrayal in a friend group, or when a child is disowned by their parents and some of the siblings try to maintain good relationships with both the parents and the disowned sibling.
In the other cases we’ve discussed, it’s natural for your relationship with the other person to center around your mutual loved one, at least in the beginning stages. In this case, though, your connection with the other person is independent from both your connections with the mutual loved one. The important thing to do is keep it that way, as much as possible. Sometimes this is hard, especially when the mutual loved one is the only thing keeping you in touch with someone you could otherwise write out of your life. But the history between you is still between you, and doesn’t involve them.
It’s easy to fall into a zero-sum mentality: the mutual loved one can’t possibly love and respect both of you, so any affection or positive feelings the mutual loved one expresses toward the other person must negatively reflect on you. At some level, hopefully, you know that’s not true, but it’s easy to feel that way. When that twinge comes up, name it: “I’m unhappy because our mutual loved one said something nice on Kim’s facebook wall, and because Kim and I have such a bad relationship I feel like that reflects on their love for me somehow.” And then remind yourself that that’s not true, that this is not some competition where your loved one has to pick sides, that their feelings toward Kim actually have nothing to do with their feelings toward you.
This is one case where graciously accepting the other person’s presence at your loved one’s special occasions may not be possible. While it’s good to make the best of being around each other if you can… sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it hurts too much. My general rule here is that you get to set, and express, your own boundaries for whether you will or won’t put yourself in the same space as somebody. You don’t get to tell your loved one who they can and can’t invite to something (or guilt-trip or coerce them into inviting or not inviting someone.)
“Hey, I’d really like to come to your party, but I can’t if Kim is going to be there” puts your loved one in an awkward and unhappy position, so only use it when being around Kim is really going to negatively impact your mental health. The more important and singular the occasion (weddings, graduations) the harder both people should try to suck it up and be there for their loved one, but even in those cases there are times when a person shouldn’t be blamed for saying “Sorry, I just can’t.” The important thing is to leave your loved one with a free choice about what to do in that situation: if you put it as a dilemma between inviting you or inviting the other person, they should get to make that decision without additional guilt or pressure from you (or, of course, the other person.)
You and your loved one also each need to set boundaries on how much you talk about the other person. In general, they are not the best person to complain about your ongoing issues with the other to, and you are not the best person for them to tell happy stories about the other to. If you want to make space in your relationship for some of that talk, you need to communicate very explicitly about what each of you can and can’t handle hearing.
In our individualistic culture, there’s a lot of writing and talk about relationship skills, where the focus is on the way two individuals connect. What I’ve been writing about here — and will probably continue writing about, because it’s becoming increasingly interesting to me — are community skills, where we’re dealing with larger networks of people and the ways all of their needs and feelings interact. I think there are ways to build stronger, healthier communities without sacrificing the individual freedom and autonomy of the people who make them up. Creating workable relationships with our loved one’s loved ones is a first step; whether we like them, tolerate them, love them or hate them, they’re part of our community, and we can improve the lives of everybody involved by treating them decently.