Episode 33: Stuck in the Middle

What happens when you feel stuck in the middle of your partner and their metamour?

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

Discussion Topic: What should a healthy relationship provide for the people who are in it?

Listen to Episode 33. You can also find the podcast on Spotify, Apple, and other providers.

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 am currently trying to work out if I should continue pursuing a relationship with one of my partners who has a complicated primary relationship (I am their secondary partner). Alex and I have been seeing each other for a couple of months and have developed an emotional connection. However, their primary partner, Sam, does not want to have a polyamorous relationship but an open one, with only sexual secondary relationships. Sam has said they are willing to try polyamory rather than stop Alex and I being together but, obviously, it is hard to make something work if it isn't what you really want.

Due to this situation and the fact that they only stopped being a monogamous couple at the start of this year, they have a very limited understanding of non-monogamy and how to treat people outside of their primary relationship fairly. Sam prefers a structure where they get to make the final decision on everything and Alex isn't very good at asserting themselves - by their own admission, they are too compliant.

This means that so far Sam and Alex have refused to incorporate any requests from me and have made decisions about our relationship structure that works entirely for them. I ended up setting a clear boundary with them both last week - by not accepting the terms they were trying to set and suggesting that neither one contact me till they were ready to incorporate my needs as well. I don't know if this will work but I am struggling to see another way to get them to realise that I don't just have to accept what they dictate.

They have also only spoken about each other in very negative ways to me and I find this quite horrible to be around. I am finding that I am struggling to not adopt their perspectives of each other - Alex feels Sam is too controlling and Sam feels Alex is quite pathetic.

My love for Alex means I am currently torn between a) hoping they will come around and in time develop a more ethical approach to non-primary partners for my own benefit and that we find a way to all communicate and make it work OR b) ending my relationship with Alex in the hope that we can have something more positive together in the future if they and Sam were to break up.

I don't want to be surrounded by such negativity and accept such poor treatment, but then I also don't want to be in the position where I'm left hoping another couple will break-up (because normally that shouldn't be necessary in polyamory). I would ideally put in the effort but fear that anything I have with Alex now will be forever tainted by my association with all of this negativity.

What would you suggest for someone in this situation?


So, the biggest thing here is that… I totally understand that people have different feelings about how involved they are with their metamours. There's a such thing as “kitchen table polyamory”, which is basically a situation where people get along with their partners and their metamours as they would, “family”. That phrasing, as I've said before on the podcast has always felt really awkward to me because it kind of assumes that your kitchen table growing up was a fun thing to be around.

That aside, that is sometimes a thing that people really shoot for. And I don't blame people for shooting for that. I understand why people shoot for that. The problem that I have is that I think it's, you know… family is one thing, but you don't get to choose your family. You were born with your family, and you kind of have to— or not, in some people's cases— get along with them, because you're kind of stuck with each other.

Whereas you choose your partners. You choose your romantic partners. And even though you don't choose your metamours, you don't have to choose to be around them. You don't have to deal with their stuff in the same way that you kind of do have to deal with your family stuff. And so it's fundamentally, in my opinion, a very different type of relationship. And sometimes I feel like people put a lot of pressure on themselves to get along with their metamours, because it's kind of idealized, even though people say “there's no one right way to do polyamory”…

a kind of setup where you like your metaphors or

you know, feel happy about them and don't hate them… is an ideal situation.

And that is a situation that a lot of people aim for, for very understandable reasons. It's not comfortable. And it certainly doesn't help matters when you're dealing with all kinds of other emotional stuff that can happen when you try polyamory. It doesn't help if you really, really hate the person that your partner is dating. However, I do sometimes feel like the big push to be this close and to be involved, sometimes ends up creating more problems than it actually serves.

Because in this situation, I don't know if you knew Sam, before you met Alex. If you didn't, then you're just way too involved in the situation. You're way too involved in their relationship. It can be quite difficult if you were friends with both of them before because then you kind of already have that friendship, but if you never really knew or talked to Sam rather before you met Alex, then you're in this really, really involved situation which just makes it worse for you.

Because what you're saying is they are making a decision about your relationship structure. They aren't making the decision. Alex is making the decision. And I feel like you're not really holding Alex accountable for what they're deciding to do. All due respect to Alex and I get that there's some criticism pointed towards Alex with regards to not being able to be assertive. But at the end of the day, you have a relationship with Alex. You don't have a relationship with Sam.

And, you know, it's hard to say if you were really close friends before, then this makes it a little bit more awkward. But I do think that there needs to be some separation there. And you need to realize that, you know, Sam has a relationship with Alex and that's their relationship and you don't need to know the ins and outs of what's going on in their relationship. You don't really need to know how it is that they prefer to do their relationship really. You don't really need to know that. What you need to know from Alex is whether or not Alex has the time to devote to you. Whether or not Alex can meet your needs. And instead of holding them both accountable as if they are one unit.

Because you're not dating a couple. You're dating Alex. And Alex is the person who is refusing to incorporate your requests. Whether that is because Sam is asking for it or not— it really doesn't matter, because Alex has to be responsible for Alex's decisions. Because at the end of the day, if Sam were to say, “Oh, I want to do this”, Alex still has the power to say “Actually, no, that's not how I want to do things”. And maybe they haven't come to an agreement about whether or not they want to be just open or polyamorous, but they need to come to that agreement. And that's not your responsibility to facilitate.

So you're kind of way, way, way too involved in what's going on in the ins and outs of their relationship. And part of that is this weird crosstalking that you're getting where they're speaking about— which is so so inappropriate, and I get it and that's why I wonder if maybe you were friends with Alex before— were friends with Sam (Sorry, I'm getting names confused) if you were friends with Sam before this started because it seems very, very odd for Sam to complain about their partner to you.

That just seems weird to me if you weren't already friends. And you know what, even if you were friends, it's just the same as if you were not dating any of them. Like, imagine if you weren't dating any of them. And they were just your friends and they started dating, and they started complaining to you about each other< That would still make you feel awkward. Or if they even if they weren't dating. If they just started bitching about each other, to you behind each other's back. That would make you feel really, really awkward. So that needs to stop. I don't see why this is acceptable. It's not acceptable if you're friends with them. It's not acceptable. If you're dating both of them.

It's not acceptable. If you're dating one of them. It's just not acceptable at all. It's not acceptable if it makes you feel uncomfortable, and it feels like it's affecting your relationships, you're allowed to say, “Listen, I get that you're having some frustrations in your relationship right now. But you really need to find someone else to talk to about this because I don't feel comfortable hearing this stuff about Sam or about Alex”. You're allowed to say that. You don't have to sit there and listen to

to all this. You know, it's putting you in a very, very weird position. And and even if you weren't dating any of them, it's just not appropriate. And and it's having an effect on you.

As you said, you don't want to be surrounded by that negativity and accept that poor treatment. I think you did a good job. With regards to setting a boundary with both of them. I wasn't sure what kind of terms they were suggesting or what you were objecting to. But clearly, you made it obvious that I'm not— this isn't acceptable for me. But I think the different thing that I think you should do is instead of treating them like they’re some kind of team and they both get to decide things, you need to— Alex needs to step up. Basically, Alex needs to take responsibility for their decisions.

And you need to speak to Alex about your relationship with Alex because you're not in a relationship with Sam unless I read this wrong. Or unless you forgot some part of this letter. You're not in a relationship with Sam. So it's really none of Sam's business right now. If you want to sit down and you want to have a conversation with Alex about your terms, that's a conversation with Alex. This has nothing to do with Sam. Sam may have an opinion about it. And that's, that's very well, whatever. But it's not really Sam's business. And it's not your responsibility to negotiate anything with your metamour.

It's absolutely not your responsibility. So you need to make, you know— you need to maybe go on further in the boundaries that you're establishing and stop involving Sam in these discussions, and Alex can discuss it with Sam. If that's how they want to operate. That's fine. You can't change what's going on in their relationship. You're not their therapist, and you're even though they're certainly treating you like you're the therapist, you're not the therapist.

It's not your job to fix what's going on between them. If they feel that way about each other. I mean, that's kind of terrible. That's that's quite discouraging. And I think from my perspective, if I was sitting there in the middle of it, I don't know if I want to date either one of them. Because here— like they're both talking about each other behind each other's backs. If people talk about

about somebody behind their back in front of you, the only logical conclusion you can draw from that is that they might be talking about you behind your back in front of somebody else.

I mean, maybe Sam, or sorry, maybe Alex is complaining to Sam about you behind your back. And it's just— it doesn't feel very good and I would feel not only odd about it, and it would affect my relationship with him, but I'd also feel just really grossed out by it. Like it's one thing like— occasionally we complain about people to people that we you know it's not enough to like or you're kind of fielding how you feel an engaging other people's responses, especially if you're in my position where sometimes like I don't trust my own feelings so sometimes I feel like it's easier for me to talk to somebody else about how I feel about somebody rather than you know, waiting until I go to them directly if I need to, or sometimes it just need to blow off steam and that's fine.

That's one thing, but you know, to say, you know that Alex— Sam feels Alex is quite pathetic, and like, these aren’t.. like…

“Oh, you know, Alex frickin won't pick up the fucking clothes”. You know? It's not like, you know, occasionally whingy shit that generally speaking somebody might have a problem with this is, this is a serious insult and a serious, you know, it's not a happy thing. So, you know, you can’t— you're sitting there and you're listening to some serious complaints, which is that one person is too controlling, and the other person is too pathetic, which is like horrible.

That's a horrible thing to say about your partner. That's absolutely horrible. So, yeah, I think that you really need to stop being so involved. I think that you know, you've got two options here. You're talking about, hoping that they come around, and that's not an option because it's not about them. It's not about them coming around. It really isn't. It's about Alex coming around. You have a relationship with Alex, not with Sam. And I think you need to readjust how you're approaching that.

And you may have to end your relationship with Alex. Because if Alex isn't willing to step up and say to Sam, “This is what I want” and deal with whatever goes on between them, then Alex is not the person that you should be with because clearly Alex can't meet your needs and is not willing at this point to make those needs known to Sam.

So yeah, it's not like the best situation to be in unfortunately, because, you know, it really sucks. A lot of people are in the situation, when they open a relationship. A lot of people are, you know, feel like they are beholden to their metamour, and they're beholden to people that they're partner is with. And, you know, it's just, it's sucky. It really is sucky and there isn't anything that you can necessarily do about people like that. If people are not willing to operate as individuals, if they aren't at a point in whatever kind of non-monogamy they're at, where they understand how to treat people. Then there isn't anything you can magically do to fix that. And I really don't think you should make yourself their test case in trying to help them fix that.

So yeah, I think I think what you need to do to kind of recap is establish very clearly that this isn't a joint decision between Sam and Alex. You're speaking to Alex, about your relationship with Alex. That's all you're doing. And, you know, you're gonna have to ask Alex to step up to the plate and and decide what it is that Alex is going to do. Because otherwise, there really isn't anything else that really— yeah, there really isn't anything else that can be done. You cannot force them both to speak to each other.

And also, regardless of what continues, like if you still friends with them, or whatnot, you need to not have people like talking about you behind— or talking about each other behind their backs in front of you. Even if you were just friends, that would be inappropriate, and it would— if it makes you feel uncomfortable, and that's perfectly valid and I think that you should definitely put a boundary down there and be like, you need to stop talking to me about this because it's not fair and it makes me feel uncomfortable. They need to find therapists or if they can't afford therapists, and they need to find another friend to speak to about this. So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

Subscribe to Non-Monogamy Help

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.