Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Let's Get On with Getting It On! (Dealing with an OSO's Reluctant Spouse, Part II)

Dear Viny,

I'm actually in a similar situation to Debacle Herein, from your last column. I'm married (with kids), and am dating a married woman (also with kids); let's call her L. My wife and I have been poly for years, while this is L's first poly experience.

In L's marriage, she has been the one pushing for polyamory, while her husband is not interested in it for himself. (Actually, he doesn't really like it for her, either.) But the fact is that, while she loves him dearly, she isn't really...*satisfied* in her marriage. She has made it clear that this is a requirement for her happiness and fulfillment. (Specifically, that the thought of never being...*satisfied*...is not something that she can really accept for the rest of her life.)

At the same time, she cares about his feelings and wants this to go as smoothly as possible. So it's been a *very* slow process. (We see each other about once a month, for a few hours, in a public place. She doesn't stay out late. We've kissed, but not much else. This has been going on for about six months now.)

That's been fine with me: I want to do the right thing by all parties involved. I even met him once. (I thought it went well enough, but I found out later that he wasn't comfortable with it.)

He has been as supportive as I think he's able. He loves her and wants her to be happy, and he understands her reasons. And yet...he is *really* struggling with jealousy.

I feel like he needs to figure out exactly where these feelings are coming from, but also like it's not my place to get involved in that conversation. From what L has said, he hasn't shown much interest in unpacking his feelings. He also hasn't shown any interest in getting to know me any better, or in dating anyone himself. He's told L that it would be easier for him if he just didn't know about it, if he'd never met me, etc. (I guess meeting me made it "more real".) I want to be open and honest (as does L), but there's this question of balancing 'honesty' with 'respecting his wishes'.

So here we are, six months later, and she's getting impatient for things to move forward. And then back just a bit, and then forward again...like when people are fucking. (Single entendre is all the entendre I need, thanks.) And, yeah, I'd like that, too. I'm not dying without it, but it would sure be nice. The problem remains, though: the husband is still struggling with this. So, what to do?

My feeling is that I've done my 'ethical due diligence' in this. He doesn't want to meet me again, doesn't want to talk to me. I guess I feel like this is between L and her husband now, and if she is ready, then so am I.

My wife, on the other hand, disagrees. She says L's husband clearly doesn't want anyone to sleep with his wife, so if I do, then *I* am hurting him, and am ethically accountable for that.

But how do you balance his needs with hers? And to what extent is it even my place to do that balancing? He wants her to be happy and fulfilled, and wants her to date if that's what she needs to be fulfilled...but also wants her not to, because it makes him miserable. She's been very clear that extramarital sex *will* happen (with someone, at some point), so it's just a question of when, and with whom. If he's not interested in processing this, how long does she have to wait? How long do *I* have to wait?

Is my wife right? Or have I done my due diligence?

- Holding Pattern


Dear Holding,

If there's one thing I really appreciate, it's being asked to come between a husband and his wife. (Entendre à trois! I win!)

Seriously, though: I am an advice columnist, not a judge or arbiter. I can drape myself in voluminous black robes and put on a goofy white wig, if you really need someone to rule in your favor, but let me state – for the record – that I am not establishing a legal precedent here. Relationships do not operate according to laws or set rules, no matter how reasonable, wise, or well-intentioned they might be.

I recently came across a fun slide show put together by Cunning Minx, 8 Things I Wish I'd Known about Polyamory (Before I Tried It and It Kicked My Ass). Item #3 was “Guidelines, Not Rules” – because “rules made out of fear are 99% ineffective” and “stuff changes”. Also, and more to the point here, no two people/relationships/situations are exactly alike. In other words, as George Bernard Shaw famously argued, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” (Yes! I covered Minx and Shaw in the same paragraph! I hope they are feeling cozy together under that blanket....)

I submit that there are at least as many different “right” ways of treating another person as there are people on the planet. To the extent that we know a particular person, we can attempt to customize our actions and interactions to respect his or her preferences. This is true for all living creatures, actually. Treating a dog right means honoring its doggy likes and dislikes, insofar as we are capable of understanding them. However, sometimes the divide between another's preferences and our own is simply too great: most dogs, for example, want to engage in a lot more crotch-sniffing than their human companions can tolerate. Also, very often – more often than not! – we just don't know enough about how another living creature, human or otherwise, might want to be treated. The only way we can hope to bridge that divide is honest communication. Absent that, we are back to our best guess.

Unfortunately, “Another Grey Zone Guideline” doesn't have quite the same ring to it as “The Golden Rule,” but here is a guideline that may work in your particular situation: Let the slowest member of the group set the pace.

I can already hear the protests beginning: “But...but...the slowest member of our group isn't moving! If we go his speed, we'll never get anywhere! We might as well rent ourselves out to the public park system as statues!”

I'm not saying you must all resign yourselves to verdigris and birdshit on your shoulders. If the slowest member of the group is refusing to budge, he is, in effect, separating himself from the group. Anyone who is unwilling to cooperate is choosing to behave as an individual rather than as part of a group, and has to accept that he may get left behind.

Here's the thing, though: everyone else in the group needs to agree that it is in the group's collective best interests to move forward, understanding and accepting the possibility that moving forward may mean leaving L's husband behind. If L's marriage unravels, there will be serious consequences for her – which means there will also be consequences for you, and, by extension, your family. That's quite the sequence of consequences.

Yes, I agree with you: you have done your due diligence as far as L's husband is concerned. He has been given the opportunity to communicate with you directly about his needs and wants, but he has chosen to stay behind a self-protective wall. You aren't a mind-reader; you are therefore not responsible for treating him as he wishes to be treated. Unless and until L's husband changes his mind about interacting with you directly, how best to treat him is L's concern, not yours.

However, this doesn't mean you are totally in the clear. To the extent that you are involved with L, her concerns concern you, and, by extension, your wife. Before moving forward (and then back, and then forward again) with L, more diligence is due for the doing. Are you reasonably sure L understands the risk she is taking, and what kind of support she can expect from you if things go south (as it were)? Do you clearly understand your wife's concerns? Has your wife been able to express her misgivings to L directly? Unless and until everyone in the group has been given the opportunity to speak and be heard by everyone else in the group, and unless and until you can all support one another in moving forward (and back, and forward again), it's probably best to keep your pants on and continue to sit tight.

Just remember: it's polyamory. You can't do it alone. QED.

Civil torts and apple tortes,


  1. Two things seem clear: (1) Lady L is going to take a lover and (2) the situation is going to be Fraught. If after all this going and coming and in-ing and out-ing things still haven't been resolved they're never going to be resolved. There's going to be an unhappy, feeling-put-upon husband. The key question isn't poly ethics: you've done everything you can do and whatever you do or don't do things are still going to be Fraught. The key question is whether you want this woman enough to accept all the drama that is going to accompany any possible relationship. If you want her badly enough, if you're sure you're not thinking entirely using the head without the brains, go ahead. If not, go away. Just don't think there is any possible fairy dust happy-poly-ending to this. It is going to be Fraught.

  2. Sorry but if L's husband isn't poly, then neither is she. Just like in any relationship, you can't just up and change the rules on a whim. They started a mono relationship, a contract was signed, vows were exchanged. The same would apply to any poly relation. If she's not happy about her marriage, she has 2 options: she can work on their relationship and test the waters later or she can divorce him. Doesn't matter how much you think you've done your due diligence, he's probably never going to be OK with this since it's not what he signed up for. And unless she disarms the situation on her end, I hope you have a spare bedroom and some damn good kevlar. On the other hand, I think you two deserve each other :3
    PS: if she can't take care of one relationship, how is she going to keep 2 going?

    1. It's true that it takes (at least) two to tango if you're going to have a polyamorous *relationship* -- however, L doesn't need her husband to identify as poly in order for her to be poly herself. There are many poly-mono couples out there. It's a challenging dynamic, but it can be done.
      As far as your second point goes, it isn't clear how much work L and her husband have done to address the problems in their marriage (which seem like they're due to sexual incompatibility, given that tongue-in-cheek "not...*satisfied*" in Holding Pattern's letter). If L had written me to ask my advice, I would have asked her if she and her husband had tried sex therapy.
      I don't think there's a long-term relationship out there in which one or both partners have not had to deal with some version of "this is not what I signed up for." People change, and relationships must change to accommodate them, or they will end. My husband once worked for a woman who had once been a man...until 10 years into his--->her marriage, when it became clear that she had always felt like she was a woman, and wanted her outer self to reflect who she was inside. Her wife had not signed up for any of that -- but she was doing her best to adjust to the change.