Episode 106: The Third Wheel

Dating two people who have a history together is going to trigger some anxiety within you. Maybe you’re not jealous — you’re just normal.

Dating two people who have a history together is going to trigger some anxiety within you. Maybe you’re not jealous — you’re just normal.

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic:

How do you manage emotional overwhelm?

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

I’m a guy and I have two boyfriends, and they're also dating each other. they actually asked me out august last year, but i only got to dating one of them that December. (and the other this July).

I love them both with my entire heart, but i can't help but feel so jealous whenever they hang out by themselves and don't seem to mind me not being there. In my mind I know i want them to be happy, but these feelings of jealousy just never go away and I end up distancing myself as to not make them feel bad.

I don't want to just say "only hang out when you're with me," because i literally play games with one of them by myself too. I just need therapy, i think. could you help?


I have to say at first I think you need to give yourself a little bit of a break here because — let's look at this from a different perspective. These two people, it sounds like, are dating each other. And they were both interested in you. You started dating one of them at one point and then a few months later you'd started dating the other person. So you're dating two people who have a history together and that is going to bring up a lot of very specific anxiety.

I would be surprised if you didn't feel a little bit scared sometimes about the fact that they both have a longer history with each other than they have with you. So it makes a lot of sense that them being together alone without you would trigger these kinds of fears and feelings and the stories you're telling to yourself about — and I'm assuming because you don't really go into detail about what it is that you're afraid of.

I think you kind of are just assuming you're jealous. I don't really feel like this is jealousy. I feel like this is a very understandable fear of you know, two people that you're dating who have a history together, perhaps deciding that they don't need you, losing their relationships and you have two relationships to lose here. So there's a lot of reason for you to feel anxious. So first and foremost, I think you should give yourself a break.

Give yourself a break and give yourself a little bit of credit for understanding why it is that you're fearing what you're fearing. And also maybe kind of examine this a little bit more. I always am a person who very much is particular about what jealousy is. And this is exactly why I'm very particular about it. To me jealousy is specifically wanting what someone else has.

And there's a good reason why people feel jealous sometimes and the discussion about jealousy within a lot of beginner non-monogamy resources is very damning, is very much like jealousy… equating jealousy as just a feeling with being a controlling person, equating jealousy as a feeling with wanting to be manipulative or or being angry even or all of that stuff. And it's not to say that people can't be jealous and be that stuff as well.

But I do feel like the way that jealousy is discussed in non-monogamy, beginner communities and advice and a lot of places I feel like creates this environment where any negative feeling you have about your partner being with somebody else is automatically clumped into the column of jealousy, and therefore it's something that you shouldn't have, therefore you're a bad person for having it. You secretly want to control your partners, yada yada, yada.

And that's not really the case. Now, obviously, you said that you have the feeling of like, you want to say “Hey, I only hang out when you're with me”, but that's not really you wanting to control people. That's kind of… this incident creates a trigger for you, creates a fear a source of fear for you, and realistically and logically you want that to stop. So I understand that and none of that means that you are jealous in my opinion. In this situation, I would say you're more afraid than you are jealous.

And I feel like there's a lot of reasons for that. So you’re dating these two people who have this relationship with each other, but it doesn't sound like any of you have really discussed how you fit into their relationship, if you do. Is this a triad? situation or are you parallel dating both of them? How does non-monogamy fit into your life? How do you fit into their life? What are your goals? Do you have goals? Are there ideals? Are there situations where maybe you want to move in with them or is that something you definitely don't want to do?

There's so much about the situation that is unknown, that it makes sense that your brain is kind of freaking out right now. Especially because if you kind of zoom back a little bit — unless you are in a completely different culture and one that I'm unfamiliar with monogamy is what you've been told your entire life that you should be and it is the only kind of model or plan that you've been given for how relationships work.

So now you're in a situation where you're doing something that you have no social script for, that you have no real guide for and you don't know necessarily how this is going to play out. With non-monogamy— or with monogamy. It's not to say that every single monogamous person is going to you know get married, have kids picket fence, blah, blah, blah.

But that kind of cultural script and the sort of experience of being in a relationship that your parents have been in, that everyone around you has been in, creates a kind of reinforcement that makes you feel secure in a way that you don't and I feel like if you're a gay man, then it's possible you can kind of understand this through the realm of heterosexuality and “homosexuality” — use the like medical terms, but whatever— like queer relationships used to, you know, we're changing that. Things are changing, which is great, but it used to be that there was no model for that.

So a lot of the queer people experienced a lot of fear. In their relationships, because it wasn't socially accepted. Also, that kind of has a specific social impact on your relationships. But also, if you don't know anyone who's gay, for example, and I don't think that you don't, I'm assuming that you do, obviously. But like imagine being a person who doesn't know anyone else who's gay. There is a a lot of pressure and a lot of fear in situations where you have no cultural script.

And I say this because you don't have a cultural script for non-monogamy. So that is going to in and of itself, even if you didn't have any fear when your partner was with somebody else, like it is a situation which will cause you anxiety, regardless of feelings about anything else. But specifically in this situation, you're dating to people who have a history together, and it doesn't sound like you've really talked about how you fit into either of their lives. What they want, because just because you're all non-monogamous doesn't make you compatible.

It doesn't mean that you want the same things in life just like two people being monogamous — one person could want to have a family one person could want to travel. Being non monogamous in and of itself doesn't necessarily mean that you're all compatible. So you're going into this situation with no real idea of what's going to happen and like, obviously, we all make plans. Some of us kind of have more of an idea of where we want to be in 10 years than other people do.

I'm not saying that. Both of these guys have to have a 10 year plan for you to feel safe, but having some idea of what is non-monogamy to them? Why are they non monogamous? What's their history? How do you fit into the life? Are they planning a life together? Like all of this can help reinforce like your position within like their relationship, your position in their lives, which can help you feel a little bit more secure and stable, and maybe might help address some of that anxiety.

Another thing that you don't really talk about in your letter is do you have scheduled time? So a lot of people— even in monogamy, people don't really schedule time with their partners and sometimes, especially if you live together, I don't know if you live with either of them. But especially if you live together, it can sometimes feel like you're even more unlikely to schedule specific time with people because you live together so you think that you're always hanging out and therefore you don't need that but actually it sounds like you have — like you game with one of them.

But do you have specific scheduled time with both of them? Like altogether all three and with each of them as individuals? Sometimes that can really really help. Just because it gives you a time when “Okay, I have my time with this person. This is their time.” Like some of that can make it just feel a little bit more stable. And you know, you may not be planners, I'm a super planner person. So I kind of liked that sort of thing.

And I understand if some people kind of feel like that takes away a mystery or whatnot. But I do think that it might be really, really helpful. Even if it's kind of, you know— it doesn't have to be a hardcore plan. It can be really flexible, but maybe see if there's a possibility of scheduling specific times with only them, specific times for all three of you to hang out, just to make sure that you're not actually— because there's so much unsaid in your letter.

It could be that you're feeling this way because they actually spend like 90% of their time with each other. But you actually only get to see one of them a little bit or the— so you know if you don't get enough time with either of them but they spend a lot of time together then it would make perfect sense that you would start to have anxiety every time they hang out because you're not getting that with them. And that would then might be jealousy because you want something that they have which is time with each other, but you're not getting it.

So are you getting time with both of them individually? Are you are you spending time together? See if there's some type of scheduling that can be done with time because sometimes that can also really help when it comes to managing anxiety. There's another part of this that I think would also help and that is really examining— instead of— a lot of times with people who have anxiety and I've done this too.

We have a really good tendency to turn the mirror on ourselves in terms of like examining ourselves in a really negative and kind of self attack-y way sometimes like “Why do I have this anxiety? Why am I like this? What's wrong with me?” But the thing that we often don't look at is “What am I telling myself and why?” in a more compassionate way. We don't actually have a curiosity about our own feelings. We have this sort of interrogating demanding thing about our own feelings.

When you said in your letter that you assumed that they— you said specifically that they hang out by themselves and don't seem to mind me not being there. And that's a really interesting thing to say because you don't know that they don't mind you not being there. Just because they don't call you while they're together and tell you to come over or ask you to come over doesn't mean that they don't mind you not being there.

So there's this aspect of you that's telling this story to yourself, that there's this risk, there's this fear that they will maybe get sick of you, that they like hanging out with each other more than they like hanging out with you. Be curious about the story that you're telling yourself be curious about why it is you're saying to the this to yourself — like how do you know like — there's a way to be curious and compassionate with yourself about this without being that intense investigator of like, “You shouldn't be feeling this way! Why you feel—“. Like it's more like, “Okay, that's interesting. I assume that they don't miss me. Why do I assume that? What is the logical conclusion of that fear? What am I trying to prevent?”

So most of the rules— like you have it right that you have this inclination to say to create a rule right? To say like, “only hang out when you're with me” and it's great that you haven't acted on that. It's really, really great. Give yourself a pat on the back. It's very difficult to not to act on things like that, especially when you're in the realm of non-monogamy and you don't have a guidebook. You don't have any kind of roadmap of where you should go a lot of people get these fears and then create rules. And create things that are designed to try to protect them from pain that don't end up working.

So it's understandable. You have this kind of, “okay, I'm going to create this rule to solve this problem”. But what is it trying to prevent? In the end, you could make a rule you could say “You're only allowed to hang out together when you're with me”. That in and of itself is not going to prevent either of them from dumping you. And that seems quite harsh. But that's the truth. Monogamy in and of itself as a rule doesn't prevent people from falling out of love with their partners and falling in love with other people and breaking up with their partners.

So why would this rule that you've created, suddenly make it so that they will not dump you or they will not decide they like each other better than you and dump you? Like there's nothing that you can do and nothing that you can create that's going to prevent that situation from happening and there's a part of my 101 article and definitely check it out. There's 101 and 102. Non-Monogamy help.com/101 and 102.

There's a lot in those articles about accepting that there isn't anything you can do to control whether or not somebody stays with you or not. And that is a really hard thing. Because a lot of our anxiety comes from a desire to prevent pain and want to protect you. Your brain is trying to protect you from pain, and in and of itself, it tries to scramble for control, and it's very understandable especially if you have grown up with that anxiety. Especially if you've grown up in environments where it was on you to protect yourself because you weren't protected by the people you should have been protected by.

So it makes a lot of sense that you might have this inclination to protect yourself. However, it's actually even though from the side of anxiety, it seems like “What are you talking about? Like I can't give up on this fight to protect myself”. Actually, when you decide “Okay, it's not— other than being the best person that I can be. Other than putting myself you know, in relationships with honesty and love and kindness. There isn't anything I can do to prevent somebody from leaving me. There isn't anything I can do because this relationship is conditional.”

“They're grown adults, they could leave” and if you want to get you know, super real, everybody will leave at some point either through death or by you know, breaking up. Like it's “till death do us part” is what people say when they're getting married. There will be a parting at some point. That is the reality of the situation. And that's that seems quite morbid, and quite difficult for people to grasp. But I think that there's a truth in the kind of Buddhist perspective of like attachment causes pain, and releasing attachment helps and it's not to say that you should stop loving your partners or stop caring.

But when you realize “Okay, there isn't anything I can do to prevent this person from leaving,” actually an enormous weight gets lifted from your shoulders because all of this scramble for control, all of this anxiety, all of this stress that's being created within yourself to like, “Okay, they're hanging out together. Oh my god, they're gonna leave me oh my god. They're gonna leave me”. Like that stops.

Not overnight. It's not magic, but like, once you learn to accept that, then it becomes less and less your responsibility to control that situation. And you can instead of trying to argue with your anxiety with rationality, like “Oh, no, they're not leaving you. They love you” — And that's what a lot of beginner non-monogamy advice advises. It kind of gives you tools to argue with your anxiety, but actually arguing with it is not going to work because your brain is trying to keep you alive. Right?

So your brain is like, “Oh my God, we've never been in this situation before. I don't know what's going on. I've never seen a relationship like this before. I know that I'm gonna get hurt if they go so I need to like save you. I need to protect—“. Like, your brain is designed to keep you alive. It's literally like a function of evolution. And it's been you know, over eons and eons of years and human beings are social creatures. And we have lived in extremely social societies. There's a reason— I've said this before — there is a reason why solitary confinement is torture.

Human beings need to be with each other. We need social interaction. We thrive in relationships. There's also a reason why being kicked out of your society or your tribe was a death sentence. We need each other because we have survived because we've been together and because we've helped each other. We're not this sort of macho man, like hunter gatherer or whatever, you know, like that kind of archetype.

We survive through relationships. And so it makes perfect sense that you're trying to stay in the relationship and your brain is trying to keep you there and not get kicked out of that relationship. So what you have to do is instead of trying to argue with your lizard brain, is you have to learn and understand why your lizard brain is behaving the way it is. And that also helps — learning about your nervous system, learning about fight or flight, learning about why it is that this situation triggers your immune system survival — not immune system — nervous system survival response, and why it is that you're feeling that way.

And then what you do then instead of arguing with your brain, instead of trying to argue with your survival instinct, is you learn to be compassionate with your survival instinct, because at the end of the day, you can't prevent anybody from leaving you. You can, however, always be there for yourself. You can control yourself. It seems like going like “Well, I can't control this. I can't control that” is kind of creating helplessness. But actually trying to control everything that you can't control is what creates the helplessness because you won't ever be able to control it.

Releasing the responsibility to control what you can't control and then accepting that there are things you can control. You can always be there for yourself. You can always comfort yourself. You can always fight for yourself, you can always leave situations that don't serve you. You do have a lot of power within yourself. You just don't have that power over other people. So when you instead embrace the power that you have within yourself, then it becomes easier to look at these situations. You're still going to freak out.

Because your brain is trying to keep you alive and trying to help you survive. It's naturally going to freak out when things happen and it is scared. So you learn how to go, “Okay. I know you're scared. I know you're afraid of the situation or you're afraid of people leaving you and it's okay to be afraid. I'm always going to be there for you. I'll always be there for you or you have friends and you have other people in your life who will be there for you. You're not alone.”

And instead of trying to argue with this anxiety, you learn how to kind of embrace it, be compassionate towards it. And then it— it rages and it rages and then it comes down again because it will come down again. You've survived all of this. Like you can look back and see like, “Oh, I've had all this intense jealousy and it’s—“  but you've literally survived every single one of those situations where you felt super intense.

You can definitely survive it. It will suck. It's definitely going to suck, but you can absolutely survive it. And part of that in my feeling is accepting these feelings. Accept that you have these intense emotions. Do you seek out a therapist because I think therapists can help you learn coping techniques for when you're kind of emotionally overwhelmed or you're like catastrophising, or you're imagining these things.

And I definitely — I've gotten much better with my anxiety but I definitely had situations where it was just like an— like a rolling snowball down the hill with my anxiety. Like one thought would start and then it would just keep growing and growing and growing and growing and I couldn't stop it. Therapy can help you learn how to stop those things.

Learn how to self regulate, learn how to recognize when you're triggered, and then learn how to step back, learn how to self soothe, things like that. I definitely think you should seek out a therapist. But I also think that some of this is just going to be learning how to re-approach your anxieties in a way that will help you manage them a little bit better.

So yeah, to sum up, I do think that you need to give yourself a little bit of a break here. I don't necessarily feel like what you're experiencing— It's hard to say because I don't know about how much time they're spending together versus how much time they're spending with you. So you could very well be jealous of that for an understandable reason. But it doesn't sound to me like what you're actually feeling is jealousy.

It sounds like what you're feeling is an understandable fear that you will be left behind by two people who have a history that you don't have with either of them. I think you should consider talking with them about what non-monogamy is to them what it is in their life, examining that within yourself. If you look at my one on one and 102 articles, and also in my book, The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy it will give you kind of an idea of like your anchor, how to deal with like physical arranging of things, things like that.

I think understanding where you fit into their lives, understanding how they fit into your life, and also scheduling time with either of them will probably make you feel a little bit more grounded and then you won’t— you might still feel anxious. Don't ever think that it's going to be like poof, it's gone. But having those things to remember and having an anchor, having all of that can really really help you kind of ground yourself a little bit whenever you start to have these sort of catastrophising feelings.

I also think that like accepting the fact that you can't control whether or not people leave you or not — all of the stuff that I discussed about accepting kind of — releasing yourself from the responsibility to keep people around you and accepting the controls that you do have over the situation with yourself.  And you know, the fact that you can't control other people will — even though it seems counterintuitive, helped you feel a lot less anxious in the future.

And I do think that you should seek out a therapist to help you with some of the coping techniques. Probably have a look at the account on Instagram Balancing Your Nervous System — There's an account. I've never done any of their trainings or anything like that, but a lot of the posts talk about the nervous system, and how it works and how it relates to anxiety. Those you might find really, really helpful. I personally find it more useful and helpful to learn about my nervous system than attachment theory.

But some people find attachment theory somewhat helpful, but all of that stuff can kind of help guide you a little bit when it comes to figuring out your anxiety, learning how to deal with those kinds of emotional overwhelm points. And also I think that you should be kinder to yourself, give yourself a little bit of a break. I already said that but I'm gonna say it again because it's a really, really hard thing to do. If you have anxiety because I know how overwhelming it can be and how frustrated you can feel with yourself about it. So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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