Episode 97: When to Say When

Your partner comes home from a date and needs reassurance, but you can’t give it in that moment. Is this something to overcome?

Non-monogamy is *not* about building a series of unfulfilling relationships until you reach a permissible stasis.

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

Discussion Topic:

How do you know when you’re unhappy in a relationship?

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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 have been non-monogamous for about 2 years now and currently have one partner. We began our relationship as non-monogamous and it's been an amazing rollercoaster. I've learned so much about myself and about others (obviously still so much to learn, but many of my past ideologies of what a relationship should look like have been altered in beautiful and welcoming ways).

Recently the relationship with this person has gotten more and more difficult. At this point in a monogamous relationship, I probably would have left them by now. But there is that feeling in non-monogamy that stops me from doing so, that no matter what, there is always ways to communicate and make things better; And ourselves better! Also, he's been with me through so much and I consider him one of my closest friends.

What I'm really wondering about is that infamous line. When and how do I know if things just aren't getting better? When no one is changing their ways and the confrontations are more damaging than helpful? I feel like I talk with my partner about all of my boundaries but it seems he still forgets them and then blames me for not being able to compromise with him. I guess this is a tough question to answer.

But I am truly at a loss and inevitably want to protect myself and save myself some time and energy. I've thought of taking a break from them but they think it's dumb because we're not in a 'girlfriend boyfriend' relationship. Even if they were just a friend, how can I navigate these emotions to figure out whether we are benefiting from our friendship or if we're hurting ourselves too much? I just don't want to be trapped in something that gets harder and harder to get out of.

Thank you for reading and I'm looking forward to hearing back!


I am really confused as to why the line of when you're unhappy in a relationship whether it's a friendship or a romantic relationship is different than non-monogamy. And that's something that you might want to explore because it doesn't make sense to me that in non-monogamy you kind of think that, “Oh we can always improve”. That's also true in monogamy.

In fact, that's more true sometimes for some people in monogamous situations, especially where they feel culturally obliged to stay together. So I'm really confused by your belief that the line should be different and that might be something that you want to explore. Because as I've said before, non-monogamy should not be a reason or an excuse to stay in multiple semi fulfilling relationships until you reach a level of permissible stasis.

The point of it is not to avoid breaking up with people or even avoid breaking up with friends. The point of it is to have multiple fulfilling romantic relationships or whatever types of relationships that you want depending on how you do non-monogamy. But the line isn't really different and shouldn't in my opinion be different for non-monogamy than it is for monogamy. You shouldn't tolerate somebody not respecting your needs or boundaries just because you're non-monogamous any more than you would if you were monogamous.

I kind of feel like you found the line and it's sad because it's like — you don't want to be trapped in something but you feel trapped. And obviously like I realise that we can struggle in non-monogamy in ways that we don't necessarily struggle in monogamy because of the cultural kind of default setting of monogamy. We don't have the same types of support. Sometimes when you're starting out in non-monogamy even there is a little bit of sitting in discomfort. But this isn't sitting in discomfort to me.

I mean the line is up to individuals and it's highly contextual and it won't be the same for each relationship. It won't be the same for each friendship. It won't be the same for every romantic relationship and it will be different depending on the person. I feel like if somebody has crossed a boundary and it depends on what that boundary is and how they've crossed it and whether or not they've apologised whether or not, if I knew the boundary was there, how I communicated that boundary— like there's so many different things.

But if there have been multiple infractions, and as you said “There is blame placed upon me every single time”. It's not so much that there is a line of a certain number of infractions that I will deal with but it's the fact that we can't get past a communication issue where I'm blamed for something. And that's on its own might be worth talking through with a therapist thinking about because maybe I am in some ways at fault, maybe there's a lack of communication, maybe there's a way of improving it. I totally don't think people should just ditch a relationship every time something's not working.

Because sometimes people have the expectation that relationships should fill all their needs all the time. And that's not what I'm saying. However, the fact that you've said two things here. One is that you said that your boundaries are getting crossed, essentially. And every time you're blamed for it. And then you're also being told that you might want to take a break, and then you're being told that “That's dumb”. And that is something that I would take huge issue with. Because it's one thing to say to me like, “I don't think that this makes sense”.

And I don't know if dumb is the specific word that your partner used. But if somebody said— if I said “I want to take a break” and somebody went, “That's dumb”, I feel like immediately I would not want to be in any kind of relationship with them. Regardless of how we defined it. What really makes me concerned about this situation is that you have a person who you are in whatever with and you are saying “I may need a break from this” and instead of inquiring about your feelings or figuring out how you can repair things, their first response is, “That's dumb”.

I don't have a lot of optimism for that attitude. Because you can't fix things for both of you. And there may not be a problem with both of you. And for whatever reason, regardless of how you define yourself, you can't navigate emotions for both of you. It doesn't really matter if you're both benefiting from your friendship or— I feel like your focus on this is way too broad. It's not your responsibility to ensure that your relationship is fully beneficial in every single way to your partner, as a whole.

Your partner has to be able to advocate for themselves. Your partner has to be able to figure out what makes them happy and you can help them with that. But your responsibility is not to make them happy all the time. And what worries me about how you're approaching this is that you're kind of assuming the responsibility for both of you to make this work. And not only is that not possible because you can only be responsible for what you do but you have a partner who seems very unwilling to communicate, unwilling to even be supportive or kind if they are saying that things are “dumb” like that is just so rude.

So rude to say, and I just don't know as that I have all that much confidence in repairing this issue if you're with someone who is showing a complete constant lack of respect for your boundaries and your feelings as a whole. So I think that the line is up to individuals, but I feel like if you're telling yourself “If I was in a monogamous relationship with this person, I would dump them”. I feel like that's the line. I feel like that’s… that's the moment when you should say, why is it that this is acceptable in non-monogamy?

And not like— there's a reason why you would dump them and I think that you should pay attention to that. And I think that you should honour that and listen to yourself a little bit more. I think also, you're a little bit stuck in the sunk cost fallacy, which might be worth looking up. A lot of people avoid ending relationships for this reason. A lot of people avoid doing lots of things in their lives because of the sunk cost fallacy and this idea that “Well I've already put so much effort into this. I can't leave it now”.

And this is where you end up in worse situations, in my opinion. You you need to learn to forgive yourself for the time you've already spent in in situations that didn't serve you. You're going to spend time in situations that don't serve you. You're going to spend time in relationships that aren't great for you. Everybody has that experience pretty much I would say. A good deal of people have that experience.

And it doesn't make you silly or you know— release the judgment on yourself if you're feeling that. Forgive yourself for staying longer than maybe you should and learn how to recognise the signs and I think you do recognise the signs because you said “If this were a monogamous relationship, it wouldn't be a relationship”. So I think that you know, in some part of you, that there is an issue, and so maybe learning to pay more attention to that over time will help you step away from situations but everything is a learning.

Every situation can be a lesson as cliche and as annoying as that sounds. I think I would also in the future, and in this situation, I definitely seek advice from therapists and friends. Because like I said in the beginning of the podcast, one of the ways that you know— when people are being abusive, they try to isolate the people that they're abusing so that the people that they're abusing can't get that advice. So ask people like— describe situations and see what their reaction is. Sometimes that's a very helpful indicator to us of what we should do.

Seeing the way other people respond is sometimes a super helpful indicator. So those are things that you can do, but overall like to sum up, I don't see why the line in of what you're willing to put up with is different in non-monogamy. And I really think you should question that. I really think that you shouldn't use non-monogamy as a way to avoid breaking up with people and you shouldn't tolerate a level of unhappiness in a relationship in non-monogamy that you wouldn’t tolerate a monogamy.

There's no reason for that. Everyone should have relationships that are satisfying, with the caveat obviously that your partner isn’t a need fulfilling machine. Your partner can't always meet every single one of your needs. But there are some basic things that partners can do such as being kind and being willing to work with you. And two things that you've pointed out one which is blaming you every single time if your boundaries are crossed, and then also calling you wanting a break “dumb”, if that was the specific word that was used.

Those are not signs of somebody who is willing to work with you. That's the sign of somebody who's super critical and not something that you can actually work with. So pay attention to that in the future. I think that the line is up to individuals and it's highly contextual and it depends upon a lot of things. But I do think that you should pay attention to your feelings and I definitely think you should learn to forgive yourself in situations like don't, you know— yes, you've been through a lot together. But that's a sunk cost fallacy. Don't get trapped in this idea that you have to stay with someone just because you have a history with them.

Because that means that you're avoiding building a history with somebody else. Just because you are staying with something that is familiar. That's partially you wanting to avoid pain in the future, which makes sense, but it doesn't seem like you are fully happy with this situation right now. And then last but not least, seek advice from therapists, from friends, other people who can give you feedback. It doesn't have to be about non-monogamy.

I think that there are some basic things that all of us regardless of what kind of relationships we're in, have in mind of how we should be treated. And sometimes it takes telling someone like, “Oh, I asked for a break and this person said that that's dumb”, and seeing other people react to that might help you have a little bit more perspective on it and give you the kind of step back from the situation that you need.

So yeah, and last but not least, this is a really difficult situation. I am not one to criticise somebody for staying in a relationship too long. I don't think I could criticise somebody because of my own experience. And it's not a bad thing to be a person who wants to try to fix things. It's not a bad thing to be a person who doesn't just want to give up a relationship. I think that that in some ways is quite good.

In some ways wanting to stay together and fix things— I think that that is sometimes a little bit underrated nowadays because we're very much like “dump him dump him” and I get it. And I'm not saying that that's always wrong, because I think it's good for us to let go of the idea that losing a relationship is a failure. Because sometimes relationships end. It's not always a representation of failure. But understand that it takes the effort of all of the people involved in a relationship to actually make that relationship work.

And that no matter how hard you are willing to work on something. You can't do the work for both of you. So release yourself from that responsibility and trust that the people you will meet in the future will be able to advocate for themselves. And make sure you advocate for yourself. And if somebody doesn't respect your boundaries, then maybe you need to think about like, what do I do in that case? And I feel like if you definitely know that you wouldn't put up with this and monogamy then you shouldn't put up with it in non-monogamy. So yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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