Dear Captain Awkward,
I’ve been married to my husband for five years, and in a relationship with him for fifteen years. About four years ago, we became poly with a friend. At the time, she was our roommate and had just separated from her fiancé. He was deeply immature, and she has an abusive family background. She had also been through a sexual assault. While we were helping her get through the assault, we became quite close, and discovered that we were both attracted to her. When we found that the attraction was mutual, we formed a closed poly triad with her.
In the last year, she has twice demanded to have absolute relationship equality to my marriage with my husband, despite our 15 years of history together. She has also stated that she wishes to have children with my husband – a condition I cannot accept under any circumstances. Because of this, and some other issues, she and I are no longer partners. However, my husband has depression and PTSD, and he cannot make a decision about what he wants from this situation (his preferred situation, that we go back to being a triad or at least a V, cannot happen because of her demands).
She still lives with us, and she continues to state her intention to convince my husband to have children with her. For me, the ideal situation would be for them to break up and for her to move out. My husband’s depression is so severe right now, however, that he cannot decide what he wants (and has said so). The ongoing situation is putting a strain on our marriage and destroying the peace of our home life. However, if she left, he would have a PTSD meltdown because his PTSD was caused by behavior of hers before we even became a triad. She knows this, and has used it several times in the past several years to get her way when she wants something, usually something I am not comfortable with.
I have to live with her and she is passive-aggressive and combative. There are times that, no matter what I say, she has to contradict it. I promised my husband I would try to support his relationship with her, but she tells me that the things I do in that direction are suspicious and remind her of an abusive parent. She and I had a long discussion the other day and during that conversation she told me that she refuses to be second to anyone. I have talked with several poly people about her demands. No one thinks they are reasonable, but because my husband does not know what he wants, I am living with the situation. My main goal is for him not to be hurt, however unlikely or even impossible that may be at this point. Her goal is to be equal to me in his life, apparently even if he gets hurt in the process. I have not demanded that he throw her out for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to hurt him and 2) I don’t want him to trigger when she leaves, again because it would hurt him.
I want my husband to be happy, but this situation is killing me. I want us all to be happy, but I don’t see how the V she and he want (even though he still doesn’t know if he wants to have children with her at all and she is openly working toward that) is even possible.
A friend of mine who knows about the situation said that it reminds them of King Solomon with the two women fighting over the baby – that one woman is putting her needs over the baby’s and the other is putting the baby’s needs over hers. My goal is for him not to get harmed. Her goal seems to be to get her way.
I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. My main fear is that if I demand that she leave that he will trigger horribly when she does and that he will resent me and leave me. He has told me that absolutely won’t happen, but I cannot keep myself from being so frightened of the prospect. And, of course, the idea of him triggering (and getting hurt) is not pleasant either. I’m also afraid that if I demand that she go that I will be selfish in doing that. A friend of mine asked me what I would do if I had a secondary partner that demanded to be a primary partner and the comparison stunned me.
If you have any suggestions for how to handle this situation, I need to hear them.
At The End Of My Rope
Dear At The End of Your Rope:
I’m not sure I understand all the nuances and history here, especially around sentences like this: “However, if she left, he would have a PTSD meltdown because his PTSD was caused by behavior of hers before we even became a triad.” (What…did she do to him?)
Only some poly relationships run on a primary/secondary model, but even those that do don’t work like law firms where if you just bill enough time as Relationship Associate you will eventually be promoted to Full Partner. Still, it’s not outrageous to me that your partner might want to re-evaluate y’all’s arrangement, especially if she badly wants to have children and if she badly wants to raise those children with you and Husband. You knew Husband first, and you have the legal status of wife, but I don’t think Ms. Partner did anything wrong by raising the issue of “I know I started out as a secondary partner here, but I’d like that to evolve now as I plan for the longer term.” It seems that her wishes really caught you off guard, and that you thought boundaries and expectations were well-established, but relationships do change and the initial ask is not out of bounds.
Where it falls apart is in refusing to acknowledge that one possible answer to “I want _____. Do you also want _____?” is “No, sorry, I don’t.” Her wishes deserve(d) real consideration and a discussion, but ultimately you each have decision-making power here and her wants don’t override yours. She didn’t write to me, so it’s not like I can say “Dear Partner, I’m so sorry that this isn’t working out as you planned, but once you speak from the heart about what you want and are told ‘no,’ and once you are resorting to threats and bullying to try to keep someone in a relationship with you, it’s time to GO. Free yourself up to find someone who wants to be your primary partner and who wants to raise a family with you, and trust that solitude is a better answer than holding others hostage to desires they don’t share.”
Your husband didn’t write to me, either, so I can’t tell him that a) depression sucks, and I’m sorry b) PTSD sucks, and I’m sorry c) when you indefinitely delay or defer making a difficult choice you are choosing the status quo. If the idea of having and raising children with
your his partner is totally off the table, he should tell her instead of stringing her along. If he is open to the idea of having children with her and trying to work out a long-term relationship, he should tell you “Partner isn’t going anywhere, I love her, and we are going to talk about having a baby.” No doubt mental health concerns are legitimately clouding his decision-making abilities, but I can’t help seeing a situation where he is abdicating in favor of the womenfolk reaching some agreement between them without him having to exert any effort or possibly be the “bad guy” who disappoints anyone. He is putting you in the position of having to constantly work things out with be subjected to constant friction from someone that you yourself broke up with because the threat of a possible PTSD reaction is constantly hanging over you.
Letter Writer, you are here with us. Let’s talk.
The King Solomon example is about a baby. The baby couldn’t make decisions, so Solomon had to. Your husband is not a baby. I think you should stop talking in terms of what he can do/can withstand and talk instead about what he is choosing or not choosing to do. Remind yourself that he has agency here, even if it feels limited. That’s not just for your husband. “I have to live with her…”Can you re-examine this “have to”? “Husband, I know you are still deciding what you want to do. I have decided that I can’t live like this, so I am going to stay with (friend/family) member while you decide (or while Partner moves out.)” You don’t have to do anything. Right now you are choosing to stay in the house. Partner is choosing not to move out and to keep pursuing motherhood. Husband is choosing not to decide yet. Keep adjusting your language to emphasize choice, and see where it leaves you.
Is your husband treating his depression and PTSD? If you want to help him, do what you can to point him toward mental health care. He could tell a therapist “I may be about to end an important relationship, and I’m worried about possible PTSD reactions” and that therapist can help him plan a self-care regimen to weather the storm. Avoiding something you need to do indefinitely because you’re worried about possible PTSD is a symptom of PTSD, not a strategy to treat or manage PTSD. Plus “I will probably have a PTSD meltdown if you don’t (do something that’s making you really uncomfortable and unhappy)” is just as manipulative to me as “I will *cause* x to have a PTSD meltdown if you don’t (do a thing that is making you really uncomfortable and unhappy).”
Are you getting counseling yourself? Do you have someone who can listen to you and support you and help you take care of your own interests here? Can you find a poly-friendly therapist near you, or educate your therapist about polyamory? I know accessing care is more easily said than done, but your husband 100% needs some and you could benefit from some.
What other self-care structures do you have in place for yourself right now? Could you and your wise friend with the King Solomon analogies go out of town for a few days, to give you some space from the situation and let you relax and worry about only yourself for a minute? Are others pulling their weight with household chores, cooking, caregiving, bill-paying or are you absorbing more and more of the burden of keeping everything “normal” for the sake of your husband?
Speaking of self-care, no more long talks with Partner. Y’all broke up. Talk about practical necessities and mundane pleasantries. Anything deeper than that gets a “You should check with Husband about that, I don’t feel comfortable discussing this anymore.” Your life will instantly get better if you can set this boundary. You are no longer trying to create a sustainable relationship with this person, so let go of the need to manage all the details, save one, which I will get to in my next point.
Partner is actively seeking to have a child. Is your husband currently sexually active with Partner? This whole situation is ripe for a contraception failure or “failure.” Are you comfortable asking your husband to agree to not do anything potentially baby-making with Partner until the whole question of the relationship is resolved? If he will not agree to that, then you might have an answer about what his “real” decision is.
Can you honestly say that even a V-shaped relationship, where your husband remains involved with someone who now seems to strongly dislike you, someone who calls you abusive and belittles your attempts to make things work, someone who threatens to leave your husband (and cause him massive distress) to resolve situations where you are uncomfortable in her favor is what you want from your romantic life going forward? To be frank, even if everyone were on their very best behavior I do not think a solution that makes everyone happy is possible. Things have changed. The cheese was moved. You need your husband to side with you on asking Partner to move out of your living space so that at minimum you are not in daily contact with her. She needs him to go along with her plans for a family and to affirm her status as a co-primary partner in his life. He needs y’all to get along so that nothing has to really change for him.
You’ve already told us what your scripts and your needs are:
- To Husband: “I think that Partner needs to move out and find a new place to live.”
- To Partner: “I’ve really valued your love and being with you, but I think the relationship has run its course and it’s time for all of us to move on, starting with you finding a new place to live.”
- To everyone: “I don’t see us becoming one big happy family.”
- To Husband: “I don’t want you to plan to have a child with her, and in fact, if you remain involved with her I’d like you to take immense precautions about contraception including refraining from anything that might cause pregnancy.”
- To everyone: “I want to be supportive of your relationship, but not at the expense of being treated like I don’t matter/threatened/told I’m abusive.”
- To Husband: “Now that Partner and I have ended things between us, I think I need a giant break from her to heal and recover my equilibrium.”
- To Husband: “I’ve really tried to make this work, but transitioning to a V-shaped thing isn’t working for me.”
- To everyone: “I don’t know what the answer is, but the status quo is really unlivable for me.”
- To everyone: “I think we need to be honest about how much things have changed since Partner made her request.”
What if you stated your needs as boldly as Partner is stating hers?
What if you didn’t try to solve the problem of everybody’s happiness and spoke up for your own?
What if your husband is ultimately responsible for his own happiness and his own choices? What if this is true even if he has struggles with mental health?
What if this all didn’t have to be worked out at your expense?
What if, when Partner makes threats, you looked at her with a level gaze and said “I wish you wouldn’t, but I can live with it if you do?”
The risk is the same risk everyone has in big, important talks about the future: You could say/ask, and as with Partner’s hopes, the answer could be “no”, and no amount of time invested in the relationship to date or polling the poly community for “what is done and reasonable” would solve it. I know you are terrified of ending up alone if you assert your needs, and that truly sucks to contemplate, especially after so much time with your husband and how much care and self-sacrifice you want to offer up for his happiness. The very sad, hard thing that I have to tell you is that while King Solomon may have been wise, there is actually no reward for being the most accommodating and silently-suffering partner. The prize for never really speaking up for your needs is that other people feel free to ignore or minimize your needs and act surprised and insulted when you turn out to have them after all. It seems pretty lonely where you are right now, walking on eggshells in your own house. Ms. Partner was brave in speaking up for the kind of relationship that she wanted, and I hope you can take a risk and speak up for what you really want. When you do, I hope the people who love you will grant you as much compassion and consideration as you’ve been granting them.