Episode 88: One Rule to Rule Them All

Sometimes making a rule causes the exact problem that the rule is designed to prevent.

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

Discussion Topic:

How do you feel about alcohol and uses of other drugs when it comes to consenting to sex?

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Non-Monogamy Help

Non-Monogamy Help is a relationship advice podcast for people in non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships. With the help of a therapist with over a decade of experience, your host Lola Phoenix, answers the questions your questions about rules, hierarchies, unicorns and more.

Non-Monogamy Help

Non-Monogamy Help is a relationship advice podcast for people in non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships. With the help of a therapist with over a decade of experience, your host Lola Phoenix, answers the questions your questions about rules, hierarchies, unicorns and more.

This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Use my affiliate link for 10% off your first month.

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 in an open relationship with my partner X of 4 years. Sometimes we hook up with other people but it’s been pretty rare and has so far been one-time things with people we aren’t very close to, and who live in different cities than us.  We’re very close and have good open communication, but we also don’t live together, live separate lives, and for the most part have separate groups of friends.

The big exception is this one friend who I’ll call Z. Z, X and me hang out all the time. We see each other a couple times a week, text our group thread throughout the day, got a crew tattoo, and are all really close. Z used to live with me, but then a year or two later ended up buying a house with X, which I was fully in favor of and even put some money towards the down payment. We all now spend a lot of time at that house together. Some people think it’s strange that my partner bought a house with my friend, but for us it makes sense.

This last week, I got COVID and so did my kid, and I ended up having to isolate for about two weeks. My partner X has been really lonely and having a hard time. So Z and X decide to hang out without me, which is totally normal, but then end up drinking and having sex, which is the first time.

I appreciate that they have been open with me about it right away and I’ve felt very cared about by both of them, who have said they will do “anything” to save their respective relationships with me, including moving out from the house they bought together.

Z has made advances to both me and X in the past, always when drinking, but I’ve always shut them down. I had also told X several years ago to “please not sleep with my roommate” (Z at the time) and X had agreed. This is the only request I’ve ever made of X’s sexual/romantic life, besides open communication.

So X, knowing this was the “one rule,” broke it, and Z, not knowing how I would feel or how it might change the dynamics, decided to sleep with my partner while I was sick with COVID.

I’ve been feeling really angry with Z, because it feels like what they did was inconsiderate. They explained to me that they had been feeling attraction to my partner for a long time but didn’t want to bring it up because they were respecting our space as partners. If that’s true then sleeping with my partner seems like a violation of an unspoken boundary that they were aware of just like I was. If they were interested in changing a dynamic that affects all three of us, we should have talked about it with the three of us. On the other hand, we are open and if the boundary was unspoken then how could I expect them to know.

I’m also troubled by my partner X having decided to break an agreement. But to be honest I’m not worried that we can’t overcome that. It feels more like if they promised to take my cat to the vet then decided to go out with a friend instead and my cat got sick. Maybe that’s a weird example but it feels more like “omg dude you said you would do this thing, come on I was counting on you!” rather than “you have betrayed my trust and I cannot forgive you.” For some reason it feels more like a betrayal from my friend Z.

I also don’t want to put more responsibility on Z than on X, even though my feelings have been stronger towards them. Even though Z initiated it, it obviously took both of them to make this thing happen.

I could go on about my feelings which range from shame, anger, hurt, love, curiosity, trust, but I’ll stop here and would welcome any and all advice you have for navigating this situation!

Response:

I feel like this rule that you’ve— this rule created the very situation that it was trying to prevent in a way. So let’s get back to why you made that request and the situation around what was involved in that. The first request you made to X your partner was “Please don’t sleep with my roommate”. Z is no longer your roommate. 

I assume that you made that request because it would be awkward for you —I don’t know what stage your friendship was at with Z when this happened. But I can understand asking someone like “Dude, it’s hard to find housing and I don’t really want to have things be weird with the person that I have to be around in my house. My house is my safe space. We don’t live together so please don’t sleep with my roommate just because it would be super awkward for me”. 

I can understand that. Especially if you live separate lives and you would much rather not get into a kind of unintended triad dynamic. I could understand that. However, the situation has obviously changed. Like the dynamic that you’re talking about in between the three of you is now a dynamic and I don’t feel like it was a dynamic at the time. 

And I don’t know for what reason you or X have declined Z when Z has kind of made the move on either one of you. And you know I understand Z not wanting to quote unquote come in between you as a couple are kind of shake that up. Because obviously, you know, there would be a worry for anyone in that situation. But the rule around that, what was it designed to control? 

Why did you make that request and are the situations around that the same as they were when you made that rule? I also feel like your comparison to the cat situation doesn’t really make sense because it makes sense to ask someone to take your cat to the vet because cats need to go to the vet but like not wanting— like there are some people who would be absolutely fine with their partner sleeping with their roommate. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal. 

And it’s fine if it’s a big deal for you, but I’m saying that it’s not a universally applicable situation. Most people’s pets do need to see a vet. So, you know there— I don’t see a situation where it would be a bad idea to take a cat to a vet. So it isn’t something that I think necessarily makes sense. I see what you’re getting at with it, but it doesn’t really make sense. I feel like a lot of the reasons why you feel the way you do about the situation with Z than you do with X is because you know that Z initiated it. And I don’t know why you knew that. 

Why did somebody tell you that? It’s not really important details for you to know about a situation which could be potentially upsetting. Maybe Z told you that because they you know felt extra bad and felt like “oh look, I made the move. So please don’t blame X and don’t break up”. I think it’s possible that Z feels maybe extra pressure to keep the couple together in some ways and a lot of people do in that situation, but you really didn’t need to know that. It doesn’t really matter who initiated it, but it’s possible that because you know that, there might be more feelings there. 

Also, if you have been in a relationship with X longer than Z, then you have more of a history with S and so it is sometimes a little bit easier, you know— I mean, it seems like you’ve been friends for as much… as long as you have, but it’s easier for you to displace your anger on to Z in a way because you aren’t close in that same way. But as I said, it feels like this rule was designed to like prevent awkwardness and now it’s just making things unnecessarily awkward. I think you all need to get back to basics here. What are your fears around this? 

Why does it have to change the dynamic if Z slept with X? Like what? Why do we assume that Z sleeping with X is any different than sleeping with someone random? It doesn’t have to be a continuous thing. Do they want to continue a sexual relationship? You need to— before you kind of decide to hyper focus on all of your feelings and why you’re feeling them, maybe you need to give yourself the ability to feel a little bit betrayed even if it doesn’t make quote unquote sense. 

And just get back to basics with all three of you like what is the dynamic you’re searching for? What is all of your ideals in terms of non-monogamy? How do you see your lives kind of melding together in the future? What is it that you’re hoping to…You know, what is it that you’re hoping to achieve by you know, Z and X living together? 

So, I think that you need to know what it is that you all want from the situation before you start to kind of judge yourself and be so like, “Why do I feel…” you know, by feeling the way you do about Z you’re not automatically putting any responsibility on Z in a way. You just have different feelings about it. And there could be any number of reasons why you have different feelings about it. I don’t know is that over analysing it and picking it apart is necessarily going to make that happen, you know, make those feelings go away. 

So I think that you need to kind of maybe give yourself a little bit of a break. Allow yourself to feel a little bit betrayed and maybe kind of get back to basics. Think about this rule. Why did you put it into place? What were you trying to control? Would this actually control that? I feel like there’s such a fear of changing the dynamic, but dynamics can change regardless of planning. Like even if you never made this rule, even if you said it was fine, you could still have had a negative reaction to it. 

You know, don’t see this as a failure on anybody’s part to prevent something. Life happens. And I feel like the way that you’re framing this… like you obviously have a lot of feelings because you had COVID and you were isolating and you felt— maybe you feel a little bit responsible for it, because you’re like, “Well, if I didn’t have COVID And I wasn’t isolated and then Z wouldn’t be so lonely and then they wouldn’t—“ you know, but the thing is, is that people can get lonely for all sorts of reasons. 

I feel like you’re kind of constructing this narrative of you being the sick and and I’m not saying you weren’t sick because let’s be real COVID is not okay to have. It’s, you know. But you’re constructing this narrative of you being second, these two kind of in a villainous way kind of engaging in something behind your back and like, I feel like you don’t have to necessarily look at it this way. I feel like you know, maybe it was something that happened and you know, it doesn’t have to be that anyone planned it and it doesn’t have to be that they, you know, selfishly didn’t think of you being all alone and being sick. 

You know, I think it’s just a little bit more complicated than that. And you kind of— your brain is maybe trying to melt things down in a little bit of an easier narrative. Because that makes it so that you can protect yourself. You know, you’re a little bit nervous about this. You’re a little bit scared about this. Maybe a little bit hurt because you know, obviously your partner was really lonely and you couldn’t do anything about it and it makes sense for you to feel like “Shit I wanted to do something and I couldn’t”. But your brain maybe might be taking this and making this narrative out of it because you want to prevent that from happening again. 

And maybe there’s some part of you even though you feel like “oh, things will work fine with me and X” but maybe there’s some part of you that kind of feels like you know worried about what this means the next time that X is lonely and you can’t be there. And that’s just something for you all to talk about. You know, I feel like just allow yourself to have these feelings and understand that maybe you might be feeling a way towards the Z because you don’t have a— that type of relationship with Z yet. 

So you haven’t built that foundation of trust. You may all be friends. But this has changed the dynamic a little bit and it’s a little new to you. So allow yourself to be a little bit confused and a little bit angry and a little bit resentful and give yourself a little bit of time to go through all of that and without judgment so much on yourself. You having feelings isn’t putting responsibility on anybody like— our feelings are weird, and they don’t always make sense. 

And you can be like — you can be real and be like “For some reason I feel a little bit more betrayed towards you. And I don’t know why”. It doesn’t have to make sense. And I think that you need to just allow yourself to have a little bit these feelings. Deconstruct this rule a little bit more because I feel like I don’t know— I can’t— I can understand why it was made when Z was your roommate. 

But after the situation change and they live together, I really don’t understand why that rule stuck. And that might be something to pick apart, might be something to talk about. So yeah, to sum up, I think that you just need to give yourself a little bit of a break. Allow yourself to feel a little bit. Maybe understand that you might have some more feelings towards Z for lots of different reasons. 

Try not to kind of pick everything apart. Just let yourself kind of go through it and talk about it with each other. Figure out what it is that all of you want in terms of non-monogamy. See if you’re all —your idea of a future all together is compatible. And you know, be a little bit easy on yourself. Get back to the basics. I think that this is totally salvageable. I just think you need to think a little bit more about these rules. 

Because this is the only rule you’ve ever had so it’s become the sacrosanct type of big deal and it doesn’t really have to be. When you kind of create a rule it does give that kind of power of like this is a big deal. I remember a situation with an ex that I had where he told me— he was going to visit a friend of his and he said “I’m not going to sleep with this friend”. And he made a very big deal about it. 

He’s like, “’Im definitely not going to sleep with her”. I really didn’t care either way. But he made a big deal out of it. And then when he came home, he was like, “Oh, I slept with her” and I actually had a really bad reaction to it and mostly because of the symbolism of it because he had said and he had promised and now he broke his promise. And it was— it meant something more than it would have if he would have just not made the rule. Sometimes you can make rules that make— that cause the situations that they’re trying to prevent. And that make problems where there doesn’t need to be problems. 

So, you know, this might not have to be that big of a deal. But because of this rule has existed, it’s becoming a big deal. So for me, that situation that I described between me and my ex, for me, it just triggered a lot of fears for me because if he tells me one thing, and then he goes back on his word, then that makes me worry that he is going to do that in the future. 

And so we had to do a little bit of trust building because he made a promise and then he broke it even if I didn’t really care about what the promise was about. The fact that he made it and broke. It was a big deal to me. So understand that because you’ve created this rule, it’s going to create all of these emotions because it’s because it’s been made a bigger deal than it necessarily has to be if that makes sense. So I hope that helps and good luck.

Now published!

If you’re looking to start exploring polyamory or you’ve been non-monogamous for awhile and struggle with anxiety, The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy may be for you. Even if you aren’t exactly struggling with anxiety, it could be a great book for beginners.

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