Your partner’s partner’s partner doesn’t seem like they’re good for your metamour, but what can you actually do?
That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.
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I'm a married, polymorous woman and have been dating a man for almost two years. Our relationship has always been moderately long distance as we live just over an hour apart across an international border — but since COVID, that border is now mostly closed and we see each other much less.
He has been married to his primary partner for 6 years and they’ve been polyamorous about half that long, each having had various shorter-term partnerships (he just with women, her with women and men). Let's call my partner Shawn and his primary partner Leah.
Leah has been in a relationship with another partner (let's say Sam) for a year and a half — they have a lot of shared interests and activities that Shawn doesn't like, so they spend several days and nights a week together. Sam is solo poly[am] and from the beginning has been awful at acknowledging and respecting Leah and Shawn's boundaries — it doesn't help that Shawn and Sam have very different interests and personalities, so they've never bonded as metamours. Sam has also burned bridges with Leah and Shawn's friends by being confrontational and aloof at gatherings, so they aren't interested in spending time with him either.
Despite Shawn's boundary that he does not want to spend time with Sam (either separately or with Leah) Sam continuously pushes to visit Shawn and Leah's home without warning, store things in their space and be invited to their social gatherings. He has been un (or under) employed for the length of his relationship with Leah and she pays part of his rent and for most of their date nights and agrees to drive him places because he doesn't have a car.
Sam has had a variety of short, dramatic relationships with younger women throughout their relationship, and nights out with Leah and other partners has ended in screaming fights, sometimes with the other [woman] partner or Leah literally out on the street on their own, intoxicated, because he has stormed off or locked them out.
Despite this, he is always successful in guilting Leah into continuing to date him and to spend more and more time with him. He has also managed to imply that he isn't the problem, but instead that Shawn is too controlling and should let Sam come to their home and to their social gatherings whenever Sam wants.
This has been incredibly toxic and upsetting both to Shawn and to me — Leah's a very smart woman, a feminist, and yet she continues to be dragged through drama after drama with Sam. Not only has she not broken up with him, whenever they've had a disagreement she's only worried that HE will break up with HER and always eagerly resumes their relationship after days of him freezing her out.
It's the latest development that worries me the most and has taken this from toxic to potentially abusive — Leah has recently met and gone on a few dates with another married, poly[am] woman (let's call her Susan) who was very stable and pleasant. Susan got along well with Shawn and Leah's friends and Shawn found her to be lovely to spend time with.
But the first time Leah invited Susan and a couple of Susan's female friends to hang out with Sam, Sam accused Susan of "yelling at him for just trying to get to know her friend better," which sounds to Shawn like he made an unwanted move on a friend and Susan told him to back off. Sam got so angry that he refused to speak with Leah for days over this, which was only made worse when Leah and Shawn hosted a very small, COVID friendly social gathering at their home this weekend, to which Sam was not invited.
He has now made Leah so guilty that she's been upset and crying for two days and the worst part is, Shawn tells me Leah has now called things off with Susan entirely.
We are at a total loss. Sam is succeeding in alienating Leah from her friends and other healthy partners and Leah will not listen to Shawn's concerns. I've felt just terrible over this all day — Shawn is stuck with this toxic person in his life, is worried sick about Leah and I can't be with him for support.
Is there anything we can do? Do you have any recommendations for resources that may help Leah more objectively (and not through the lens of Shawn's dislike for Sam) see that Sam's behaviour is hurtful and full of red flags? Shawn has asked me not to contact Leah at all about this and I will respect his request. But I'm hurting for both of these people that I care for.
Any advice would be appreciated, thanks!
The long and short of this, unfortunately, is that there is very very very little that you can actually do. The issue with this is it sounds more than toxic, especially if he's starting to basically tried to alienate her slowly from all of her relationships. That does sound abusive and it does sound unfortunate and very very difficult for everyone around.
Basically the gist of the situation is that the second that you as a person involved in this person's life began to demand them to leave people or demand that they stop seeing people — and I'm not saying that's what you would do but anything that seems that way — can easily be twisted and turned by the person who is abusing them exactly as you said, that he says now that Shawn is too controlling.
So it's going to be very very difficult for you or Shawn to really do anything about this situation. There is a really good book called “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. I recommend it all the time because it was really really helpful for me. It's just a really good breakdown of what goes through the mind of people who are abusive and the narratives that we're kind of given in society is that people do this and they can't help themselves and that it's not something that they are consciously doing.
But a lot of what Lundy Bancroft shows in his book is that it is very conscious. If you can get her to read that that'd be amazing. However, it is something that is going to be very very difficult for you to do because I'm pretty sure he's going to be furious about her reading that. There is another website that I also recommend called youarenotcrazy.com and it talks about verbal abuse specifically, and how people who are verbally abusive can twist things. So that might be something that she wants to look at.
I would just be careful. I would read “Why Does He Do That?” before you suggest anything to her, and just be careful about the way that you go about it because basically what she just needs is for somebody to be there for her and not abandon her. So against all odds, don't just abandon her to Sam's whims because that's what he's hoping that you'll do. And it's so so much easier for someone who is abusive to continue abusing someone, whilst they are isolated from everybody that they know.
The other thing that you can do and that Shawn can do is, he is absolutely able to set firm boundaries in the shared spaces he has with Leah, and it does sound like he's kind of doing that. They have gatherings without Sam being invited but that obviously causes a lot of stress, but I wouldn't encourage him to ease up on those boundaries. I would encourage him to keep them. I would encourage him to be more firm in them. The thing about it is, is that I don't think that Leah is going to be willing to execute those boundaries fully. As you've said throughout the letter that every time he kind of says jump she says how high.
I think that Shawn can just allow himself to be characterised that way by Sam. And for the sake of his own sanity, put down those boundaries and say like, “Look, I don't want you at my house, and I'm allowed to because it's my shared space. I don't want you to keep your stuff here”. And it's going to put more pressure on the situation, undoubtedly, but it's really, really important for him to maintain that, because if he starts just letting things happen. It's not going to make the situation any better.
As much as you might think, “Okay, well we'll just let him store his stuff here. We'll invite him so we'll stop causing all this ruckus”. It'll just be some other thing because that's kind of how the situation works. I don't really like calling it like the frog in the pot thing because I think that that's a misnomer. But it is very much a case of slowly and slowly turning up the pressure. And basically, someone does something, they flip out, they get mad, they cause a whole ruckus. It's very upsetting. And in order to avoid that the abused person and the people around them are going to try to avoid that.
But then something else is going to cause and then they'll just slowly and slowly and slowly back that person up into a corner. And I expect at some point there will be some escalation. I expect at some point that Sam will demand that Leah break up with Shawn. I would expect that. And I would be prepared for that eventuality, but I definitely think that Shawn should not ease up on his boundaries around their shared space. It's his home too. He doesn't have to put up with Sam.
Another thing that might be helpful, and I don't know if Leah is open to getting counselling on her own, but I would also, if there's a way to do that by maybe Shawn and Leah going to see a polyamory friendly couples therapist. That might be a gateway into her seeing a therapist on her own and realising that these are really horrible behaviours that Sam is engaging in, that they aren't helping her, and that she feels miserable. I think that that is a good gateway.
Someone who has the ability to help her objectively see the situation isn't really going to be you. Definitely. And isn't really going to be Shawn. It's going to have to be a professional because it's just not something that — and I wouldn't be surprised as well as Sam turned — you know said “Oh your therapist hates me” or “your therapist—“ like criticise her credentials — or them or they or he. I would not be surprised for a second if Sam does that. But, at least getting her on to that kind of attract might help but ultimately she has to make that decision.
She has to decide that she doesn't want to be with Sam anymore. And the thing of it is is that I believe, if I'm not mistaken, I believe it takes people an average of seven attempts to leave someone who is abusive. I believe that that is the average. The average is seven. So, it is very very hard for people who are stuck in the cycle to just break out of it. And as much as it might seem simple to you because you're seeing it from the position —I think that you get that.
You're not like most people who are in your situation or a lot of people that are in your situation where they would be like “oh well she just must want this, because she's tolerating it”. It's just so much more complicated than that when you're kind of in the middle of it. So yeah. To sum up, there isn't very much you can do. This stuff sounds pretty abusive. I'm not going to label Sam one way or another but clearly this isn't a relationship that is really suiting Leah. It doesn't really seem like overall the net benefit of this relationship weighs out all of the drama and difficulty it brings to her life.
However obviously she is the one who is experiencing it and, obviously, a lot of people who are this way can make really lovely partners when they're not being terrible so it's difficult, but it doesn't sound like a good situation that she's in. Unfortunately there's very very little that you or Shawn can really do about that. I suggest you read “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. If you can get Leah to read it, that would be really helpful.
I honestly read it, just before I was probably going to enter a really shitty relationship. I don't know if he was abusive but he definitely was… Gosh, how do I say it? He was definitely denigrating to me and I put up with it because I guess I just assumed that I was being sensitive. And I would never put up with that now, but at the time I did because, even if you are a feminist and strong and all those sorts of things, you're still encouraged by society to think negative things about yourself and you're also, you know — like I said he's probably not terrible all the time.
So, it's very difficult to when you have someone who's — especially because he has all these interests that, you know, Shawn isn't interested in, it's hard to just drop that. It's very hard. But, if she can read that read that book, it might help her out. If you can get her to visit youarenotcrazy.com (no longer active) that might be helpful, although don't be like “Your boyfriend is a horrible abusive person. Here's a site that will help convince you of that”. Work it into something else. Maybe if you watch a movie where there is an abusive relationship mention the site… like if there's a way you can get her to visit it without being like “This is what your boyfriend is”, that would be helpful.
Because any pressure you put on her isn't really going to help the situation. Absolutely remind Shawn that he is, and should continue to put down firm boundaries, around his shared living space. Obviously you can't tell Leah to not see Sam anymore, but he can absolutely put down boundaries around his shared living space, and around what things are around, who's in this house and who he sees, and he should not let up on those boundaries.
He should absolutely keep them going. And do not give up on them even if Sam continues to throw fit into these column names all this nonsense. And last but not least, if there's some way for Shawn to get Leah in with him in some polyamory friendly couples therapy that might help her begin some type of internal exploration about this relationship. And what it's doing to her. A therapist is going to be the person who will have the most objectivity, but also be fully, fully prepared for Sam to disregard the therapist, to trash talk the therapist, to encourage Leah not to see the therapist, etc and so forth to even see this leap to therapy as another sign that Shawn is controlling.
So, just expect all of that. That will happen. You just got to be there if you can for her. Don't give up on her. Don't allow her to be isolated, because she is going to need — when she finally realises that this isn't a good situation. If the entire time, you have been like “He's bad, he's bad, he's bad, he’s bad he’s bad, he’s bad,” and she's going to go “Well I don't want to go to that person who said that because they're going to say told you so”. If you can, be that person that is supportive to her and friendly to her and do the best you can, then that's really— that's going to help her out more in the long run. I hope that helps and good luck.