I’m a 38 year old White British cis pansexual woman. I met my partner B in January 2020. We are currently in a closed V dynamic. B has a long term, live in partner called J. We have had periods where we have both dated other people but that’s not on the cards in the near future. B and I started out having an affair. I ended my relationship with a long term partner shortly after meeting him (this was a planned break up – B was not the cause). B subsequently moved from cheating to opening up his relationship with J, provided he agreed to her two conditions -he is out of the house at least two nights a week to give her time to herself (ideally fixed nights, she likes routine) and she wants a strict ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ rule where he is not permitted to discuss any other partners with her. (I am sure you can spot the red flag here!!)
For fast forward to the present day... B and I have established an extremely close, loving, intimate relationship. I am very much in love with him and I think he feels the same way about me. He stays at my home 2-4 nights a week. He is contributing to my household financially. We are in the process of meeting each other’s friends and hope next year to meet our respective families. He refers to me as his girlfriend (although I prefer partner!) He is kind, patient, generous, thoughtful, loving, funny, outgoing, empathic, emotionally intelligent, supportive, an exceptional communicator, extremely flexible and open-minded (unlike me, who tends to be fairly rigid!). He allows me as much time and space as I need to talk about ‘issues’ (I need a lot of both!) He always tries to offer me reassurance when I am struggling. He is extremely honest and never shies away from saying hard things when they need saying, even when he knows I don’t want to hear them. He calls me out when I’m being a dick.
Whenever I present a problem or a barrier (which I do a lot being an anxiety -ridden overthinker!) he works with me to find a solution and compromise. Pretty much everything I ask of him, he will find a way to do. We have a lot of in common and we laugh so hard together. We talk about everything from feminist critiques of Disney to TERFS to art to pegging. My friends think he is wonderful. I honestly couldn’t ask for a more amazing man to share my life with. I absolutely adore him. In many ways, this relationship is working really well for me. I feel like my fundamental needs are being met. I am seeing him the perfect amount and we spend quality time together. Our sex life is amazing. I don’t have much interest in the relationship escalator, although I would like to cohabit again one day I think. So, what’s the problem I hear you ask?!?
The problem is that I am finding it nearly impossible to cope with the ‘V’ dynamic and it is seriously making me question whether poly[am] is right for me at this point in my life. I feel anxious, hurt, jealous, insecure, angry, resentful, worthless, expendable, vulnerable. I am acting out a lot – having emotional outbursts etc. And it is having a huge impact on my mental health and the happiness of the relationship. While he is extremely patient, I can see he is starting to find it draining to have the same cyclical conversation over and over again. Surely if poly[am] was right for me, it wouldn’t be this hard?! What I want, in my heart of hearts, is for him to leave her and be with me in a monogamous relationship (well, monogamish – I am interested in some degree of openness). We have spoken about it at length, including a very upsetting conversation where I asked him if he had to choose to keep only one of us, who would he choose.
And he said her- because of the longevity of their relationship and their bond. That has haunted me every single moment since he said it. That if it came to it, he wouldn’t choose me. He was furious that I asked him that and said the only reason that would happen is if I gave him an ultimatum and forced his hand. Wherever I turn there are reminders of their relationship and bond. He talks about her constantly and even when he doesn’t mention her directly, he says, “we” and “us”. I know there is no point asking him not to – it is second nature to him because they have been a unit for 14 years. Even if he doesn’t mention her name, she is still there, in everything. He does it without thinking. They have been together so long, how could he not. But this is exactly what I am jealous of and feel threatened by.
I feel like I am on the outside looking in with my nose pressed against the glass. His everyday language is bound up with the bond they share. And that bond is the reason he would choose her over me. They are literally two halves of a whole. Their lives and identities are so enmeshed – it feels like she is omnipresent in our relationship. And even this everyday language just reminds me that he would always put that bond first, including if it meant losing me. I can’t compete with this shared history. I feel like he is more invested in preserving that shared history and bond over investing in a future with me. It just plays on all my insecurities that I am not good enough, that I am easy to leave.
It hurts me that he would choose her over me – despite the unhappiness and loneliness I know he has felt with her, the lack of physical touch, sex and emotional intimacy between them, the fact she doesn’t want him in the house, her coldness and the horrible things she says to him. He would still choose her. While she is constantly in our relationship, he gets to compartmentalise me. He pretends I don’t exist when he is with her. They get to preserve the illusion of monogamy and retain their couple status.
I am so far away from compersion. I am seeing poly[am] as a problem and her as an issue to be managed and I am struggling to see their relationship as a source of joy or something positive. I know that monogamous structures don’t leave much room for compassion and empathy for a metamour but I am being barred from the benefit poly[am] offers in this area too. I feel so jealous and resentful of her. I am finding it hard not to see her as a problem to be overcome, as the enemy. I know I need to try to shift the negative feelings I have for her if I have any chance of accepting this situation. I have suggested to him that a way to help address my issues would be to re-negotiate DADT with her so she is at least aware of me.
He has refused to do this and became very defensive when I asked him whether he thought she was really ok with being poly[am] or just agreed so she didn’t lose him. I strongly suspect that if she was aware of the depth of our relationship, she would not be OK with it. He said he would revisit my request next year, and will consider telling her about me around June time, which I suspect is his way of making sure he has a safety net of an established relationship with me to fall back on if they break up. He has also said that at some point in the future, our bond may be strong enough that the ‘choice’ question will have a different answer. He has basically said that I need to be patient and consistent, keep focusing on building a strong, happy relationship and that will give me the best chance of having what I want.
But it is a chicken/egg situation – in order to have a chance of getting what I want, I have accept being second choice now (and possibly forever) and that makes me feel deeply insecure. In order to continue with the relationship, I need to feel secure. I know I have a commitment from him that he is invested in us and wants to build our bond, that he will find a way to meet my needs as much as possible, that he will support me and help me – none of it feels like enough for me to feel secure. Because ultimately, the fact remains that he will put her first.
I do think B is involved in poly[am] because he wants us both and this is a way to do that, not necessarily because he is totally wedded to the structure or even really gets it (not that I do either!) He told me he sought out an outside relationship to a) preserve his relationship with J and b) address an unmet need (rather than because poly[am] itself is enriching). And my concern is that should I stop meeting that need (e.g. for excitement and passion) or if I continue to pose a threat to their relationship, I will become redundant. I believe that had J not stopped having sex with him, he would not have sought out another relationship. He did so because something was missing, not because he really wanted to be poly[am].
I think this set up is a way of having his cake and eating it too. So when I try to negate the voices in my head that say I am not enough and that’s why he won’t leave her and I try to frame it as not being about me, but about his poly[am] identity, this falls down. I can’t see it as part of his identity, I see it as a convenient way to have what he wants. I am still left feeling like I am being used to help mend / preserve his relationship with J. I feel like he uses our relationship to escape the problems in theirs and to address unmet need. I worry that by bringing brought into an existing relationship that has problems, it will make things worse.
I feel like my position is unstable. And I run the risk of bearing the brunt of those problems if things go wrong between them. Although it is possible that this situation will expose the problems between them, they may become insurmountable and they will end. Even though he has told me he does not see me as being a ‘prop’ for his relationship with J, I struggle to see myself as anything but when he tells me he would seek to preserve what he has with her over me. And I think it is really clear that if I was exerting a direct threat to the relationship – e.g. if I told him to choose, he would choose to protect what he has with her.
He feels that I am unhealthily fixated on this ‘choice’ thing and it is sabotaging the relationship. Every time I highlight my lack of certainty that I can cope and dredge up the choice issue, I undermine our relationship and I move us further away from what I want us to be. I am making him feel less secure and safe and like he can trust me. And I think I am also making it easier for him to choose her because I am ruining the quality time we have with these cyclical discussions and probably annoying him. He is right to say that the only reason he would have to choose would be if I made him. So unless I decide that is really what I want, I know need to stop – I need to stop bringing it up and I need to stop obsessing about it.
Right now, he is choosing me – he chooses to come here every week, he chooses to spend time with me, he chooses to think about me and contact me, he chooses to buy me thoughtful gifts, he chooses to eat with me, he chooses to have sex with me, he chooses to introduce me to his friends. He keeps showing up and he keeps trying to show me that he loves me. Maybe all I need to do is let him and do the same. I can see this has become a vicious cycle – I fixate on it, that stops me seeing the positives in our relationship, I am less happy, I talk to him about it, it reaffirms the current situation, I am even less happy, he feels less secure as he is worried I can’t cope, our relationship can’t grow because we both feel insecure, the inequality persists. I have the power to break that cycle. I can choose to focus on what we do have between us.
I can choose to ensure the quality time we spend together is focused on doing things that increase our bond and intimacy. I can choose to accept the love he is offering and the tangible things he does to show me how he feels. I can choose to integrate him into my life and allow him to integrate me into his (without pushing him for more than he is able to offer). I can choose to continue to be open hearted and honest; share my worries and anxieties without continually re-visiting the ‘choice’ issue. I can let him do what he does best – flex around problems and knock down barriers. I can choose to ask for reassurance about what I mean to him and comfort when I am feeling hurt rather than talk about his relationship with J.
I can choose to stop comparing myself to J and stop comparing what we have built in a year with their 14 year relationship. It is like comparing an apple with a pineapple – they are both fruit but have completely different flavours, textures etc. One is not ‘better’ than the other – they are just different. I can choose to focus on the unique things that make our bond special and precious to him. I know that the only chance I have of being a ‘we’ and an ‘us’ is to persevere with the relationship and show him he can build a life with me. And to trust that over time, things will shift in my favour. To allow things to take shape naturally and to stop pushing and trying to control I have the power to do all these things. I have no power in their relationship. I can’t change the past and their shared history. I can’t change what they have now. I can’t change his feelings for her. I can’t push him into changing his relationship with her.
If there are going to be changes, they will happen naturally. I cannot push him to change their relationship. All I can do is work on ours. All I can do is love him the best way I know how. The only thing I need to do is fight for the relationship – but it is a gentle and quiet fight. It doesn’t require massive gestures or huge changes. All I need to do is keep showing up, keep loving him, keep opening my life up for him, keep building our foundations. I need to practice patience. I need to sit with the uncomfortable feelings. I also need to recognise that while being poly[am] throws up complications that wouldn’t be present in monogamy, the reality is that we are in a new relationship. And the things I want literally just take time. If J wasn’t a factor, I am unsure if I would be pushing for them. I am pushing for them because I feel jealous and insecure and I am pushing for ‘parity’ to help me manage those feelings.
But parity is impossible because I literally can’t have 14 years of a relationship in a year. I do think it is possible for me to become enmeshed in his life but this will take time. And it won’t happen as a result of me trying to pull him away from her or push him into actions he doesn’t want to take. It will happen because I am pulling him towards me and our love. It will happen as a result of me being consistent and patient and loving. And I need to remember – 6 months ago he made a massive change in their relationship, primarily for me. Although I did push that change, if he really hadn’t wanted to he wouldn’t have. He would have let me walk and he didn’t. So there is nothing to say that he won’t make other changes in the future. But I know that choice to make change has to come from him. I can plant seeds but ultimately, I cannot compel him into acting.
By continuing to push him and hurt him by focusing on the ‘choice’ issue, I am actively moving us away from having the relationship I want. I am actively making it less likely that our relationship will grow. I am focusing my energy on the wrong things and actually diminishing our relationship rather than allowing it to flourish. And I am hurting myself and the person I love in the process. All I need to do is let go of the things I cannot change and focus on the things I can. I know all these intellectually and logically but I cannot do it. I keep trying and trying and it is getting harder as my feelings for him grow. He asks me regularly – if I am so unhappy do I want to end things? Again this just highlights the crux of the issue for me – rather than agree to the actions that would make me happy, he would choose to let me walk away.
What I want, deep down is to feel like his priority and ‘first choice’. I want him to put me above her. I want to be his anchor and his everything. I want to be ‘his person’ – the person he calls first when he has amazing or awful news. The person he would call if he had ten minutes before he died in a plane crash. And I don’t feel I am his person because she is. But I also appreciate that this is part of the monogamous framework we are conditioned to believe in and uphold. And we are also conditioned to believe that unless we have the ties of commitment, you can’t be that person’s priority. In books I have read on poly[am], there is this concept of ‘game changers’ – people who come into your life and have such a profound impact on you, they force you to reassess your life and relationships. Often with the outcome being a major change takes place.
I want to be the person that shows him he can be happier, he can have a loving, sexual intimate relationship. I want to be the person who helps him see the world in a new light. I want to be his game changer. I know that in part, he sees me as that. He thinks that had I not introduced poly[am] to him that he would have been stuck repeating old patterns or got to the point of ending it with her. I know that one outcome for meeting a game changer is that they can make an existing relationship happier, which is what I think has happened here. Because of this arrangement, he has been able to preserve his relationship with J, while getting other needs met by me. And I know he is happier in many ways.
But I want my influence to go beyond that – I want him to realise that what we have, what I offer, our love and connection, are so amazing that it is untenable to stay in the relationship with her. And that has not happened and I don’t know that it ever will. I recognise that part of my desire for that is ego / pride and the want to be ‘the winner’. I think it comes from a place of inadequacy and low self esteem. And I don’t want my relationships or life to be determined by those things. Within all this is another thing I am torturing myself with. If I love him, why would I want him to end a relationship that makes him happy to serve my ego? If ending would make his life less positive? And would break his heart? I feel like a terrible, selfish human who has no business loving anyone.
So I feel I am left in an awful position – stay and compromise on what I want, tolerate feeling second best, invest in the relationship in the hope he will eventually see the light and choose me. Or walk away from this amazing man that I love deeply. Do you think that someone who is struggling so much with the basics of being poly[am][am] ever stands a chance of being happy in this dynamic? Is it worth the work and the pain? Or should I just cut my losses and leave him so I can find someone who is more aligned with the kind of relationship I want? Do you think it is the nature of the dynamic (the DADT, the fact we started out having an affair) is the issue rather than poly[am] itself? As this is my first real poly[am] experience and I have no close poly[am] friends, I am really struggling to find a way through this. I do plan to start attending a poly[am] support group (virtually for now!) and once my NHS psychotherapy has finished next year, I can pay for some poly[am] focused therapy.. I am just not sure its worth it....
In short, your boyfriend is right in some regards but he’s also very, very wrong on others. Here are some of the things I’m going to address about this situation.
- Cheating and choosing
- Being truly secondary
- Focusing on the good
- Changing your own game
Cheating and choosing
First let me say that it speaks volumes that you think the biggest red flag about this situation, or the one worth mentioning, is his wife wanting a DADT relationship and not him cheating on her to get his needs met. I do not blame her for wanting to not know what he’s getting up to or not want to know about you. If I were giving J advice, I would have told her to leave him and not stay in a DADT relationship because he’s not worth the struggle and pain she’s probably going through right now. She’s trying her best to insulate herself probably because, if there is a lack of sex in their relationship, she feels guilty about it. But she shouldn’t have to stay in a relationship she doesn’t want out of guilt.
If you start a relationship out of cheating, even if you as the “mistress”, for lack of a better term, get everything you want, you will have to deal with the reality of the situation which is that, not to repeat a cliche, you can lose them how you got them. He is someone, however wonderful you think he is, who, instead of facing the difficult consequences in life and facing a breakup, would rather cheat and be dishonest to a person he loves instead of telling them the truth. And that does not bode well for you. Because if he’s willing to lie to someone he’s been with for 14 years… then yeah. He’ll lie to you too.
The other issue here is you did sort of open Pandora’s box when you asked him to choose. And this is another opportunity he could have taken to realise that polyamory or at the very least a setup where you are secondary, and I’m not putting it in quotes because he’s literally told you that you’re there to fill the needs his main partner can’t, it’s not something you want. If someone asked me to choose, even hypothetically, between them and my partner, I would seriously consider ending the relationship because asking me to choose represents a fundamental problem in the relationship.
Being truly secondary
You are fixated on his answer to the question of who he would choose no doubt, but you only asked him that question because of the position he fully admits you have in his life. For some people, the titles of “primary” and “secondary” represent how much time a person can devote to certain people or how much expectation is involved in that relationship and these titles should be jointly agreed on. You have not and do not want to agree to being a secondary. And he willingly admits to you more than once that he has no plans to make you anything other than someone he can escape to.
You know far too much about his other relationship, especially given the DADT status of it. I’m pretty sure his wife, as you’ve mentioned, knows nothing about you. But you get to bear all of the emotional processing from his relationship while you will never get what he must know you want, which is being a primary partner. When he refused to leave his wife despite them not being compatible anymore he made the same choice as he’s making now. He will not leave you even if he knows that you are unhappy and aren’t going to get what you want because he’s getting exactly what he wants.
For some people, this arrangement wouldn’t be a problem, but for you it clearly is. And you’re giving him all of these kudos and back pats for being patient with your emotional outbursts when… he’s contributing to them by giving you way too much detail about his wife. You spent several paragraphs detailing how wonderful everything is, but the vast majority of your letter directly contradicts that. I have no doubt you have feelings for him, but sometimes we give people a little bit too much credit for what they should do in a relationship anyway, especially, and what I notice the most, when it’s a man.
Unless his wife dies in a freak accident, you’re not going to be his primary. He’s done everything but bite the bullet and break up with you since that’s not what you want. He has told you outright. You only asked the question about his choice because of his willingness to admit that he isn’t that interested in polyamory as a dynamic, he just didn’t want to break up with his wife. Polyamory isn’t about collecting a series of unfulfilling relationships until you reach a level of permissible stasis and that’s what he’s doing. You’re going to have to face that reality in order to make a choice.
Focusing on the good
Throughout my columns, I’ve talked a lot about sitting with discomfort because for a lot of people, polyamory will cause a lot of discomfort. A lot of people will have to work through basic fears and anxieties and rebuild the foundation of trust with their partners. But how can you tell the difference between you having discomfort because you’re doing something new or because polyamory isn’t what you want. Ultimately I think it comes down to your anchor.
I talk about anchors in my intro to polyamory article and I think it’s one of the crucial steps that are necessary in figuring things out when you’re starting out. Your anchor is the reason that you are invested in polyamory or interested in it and it cannot be to save a pre-existing relationship. Had your boyfriend worked out his anchor or been encouraged to, he would have realised that polyamory wasn’t for him. And throughout your letter it’s hard to spot whether or not you’re invested in the structure or if a good deal of your insecurity is being caused by a combination of the fact that your relationship was born from cheating and you literally have a partner who is telling you that your purpose is to keep him from having to leave his wife.
You choosing to focus on all of the good aspects of this person isn’t you finding an anchor, it’s you trying to blow air into a life raft with a massive hole in it. There’s always going to be upsides to a relationship. There’s always going to be positives you can focus on. Very few relationships are 100% terrible and if this one was, you wouldn’t be struggling so hard to stay in it. Focusing on the positives is the opposite of finding your anchor because it’s entire purpose is to preserve the relationship you have with him and the end result could mean sacrificing a positive relationship you have with yourself and your own mental health.
Be your own game changer
I won’t comment on Franklin Veaux other to say that I suggest you google his name and see what people who have been in relationships with him, even the people he wrote that book about, have to say about him.
All of your focus is on bettering his life with absolutely little attention paid to benefitting your own. I feel like you’ve been affected by some of the dominant polyamory advice in that you think that wanting to be his primary or his special person is somehow a vestige of insecurity or mono-centric culture you need to shed. Wanting monogamy does not make someone insecure. Monogamy is a valid life choice for a lot of people. Wanting exclusivity or to be special to one person and for them to be special to you is not a sign of insecurity or even a problem. It’s a perfectly valid want in the same way that wanting a child because you want part of your legacy to carry on doesn’t necessarily mean you’re terrified to an unhealthy level of death and dying.
It’s okay to want something for yourself. Your letter almost makes it sound like in order to be the perfect partner you should just be happy with everything, have no needs and give your partner no problems and… as someone with anxiety who feels constantly guilty about the way my anxiety impacts others… I can relate. The problem is not wanting to be this guy’s primary or to be special to this guy… it’s the fact that it’s extremely unlikely you’re not going to get it and your “emotional outburst” are your brain telling you that you’re on a path to destruction.
I can’t tell you if polyamory is ultimately right for you. It’s possible that you could thrive easily in another V style relationship where your partner chose you not because their relationship was going south but because they value you. It’s possible you could cohabitate with 3 other partners who have other partners themselves and spend nights out and feel comfortable and safe being alone because you’ve been able to work on the part of you that felt scared when they weren’t around.
But I can tell you one thing — you’re unlikely to figure out what works for you while you are waiting for a future that is unlikely to come. And furthermore, even if it DID come, you would still be in a relationship with someone who will lie to your face rather than break up with you even if your relationship is failing. Perhaps a part of you finds some security in that. I remember hearing a song that said “If you don’t love me, lie to me” and my mother telling me that she hoped that if her partner ever fell out of love with her, they’d lie to her and just stay with her. I can’t say that’s something I want personally but I can see why that would be safe for a lot of people.
Stop trying to change his game and be your own game changer. Accept the scarier parts of any relationship whether it be monogamy or polyamory which is recognising that, outside of being an asshole, you cannot force someone to love you or stay with you and that you’re capable of taking care of yourself even if you lose someone. Someone once told me that our anxieties quite often aren’t actually about the things we think they are. So if you’re afraid of losing your partner, what you’re afraid of isn’t actually losing your partner, but that you’d be unable to cope if it did happen.
You need to shift the focus from this guy onto yourself. Focus on making yourself happy. Focus on building your own resilience. Focus on trusting yourself and your gut and loving yourself and you will find it much easier to walk away from situations where you are not being as valued as you want to be. Put as much energy and effort into you and you are into this relationship and I think you’ll know then what you should do.
I hope this helps and good luck!