Hierarchies and emotional responsibility

I know your column deals more with non-monogamy in general, and your particular experience may not be with triads. But, that’s the topic of this question — I’ve got my fingers crossed you can give me some insight!
I’m in a polyfi triad with a married couple. We’ve been together for about two years, and have a prescriptive (not descriptive) hierarchy in place due to the marriage and the fact that they’ve been together much longer. We do all live together and have some shared entanglements.
I have some insecurities around being secondary, even if it’s not in a ‘descriptive hierarchy’ kind of way. When I bring this up, or make any references to couples privilege, one of my partners is always very adamant that it’s not up to them to change their marriage — rather, it’s my job to figure out how to fit. He does not want to do anything to help, and honestly seems bothered when I even bring it up. He says when we all entered the relationship, he had a vision in his mind of what he wanted it to be, and it feels like he’s upset with me that I don’t fit the pre-existing image he had. These seem like some basic unicorn hunting mistakes, but he refuses to even learn what unicorn hunting is.
While I do agree that my insecurities are my responsibility to get over, I also feel like it’s wrong to ask me to fit myself into their marriage. Shouldn’t the formation of a triad have required some kind of restructuring of the original relationship? Or am I just naive? How can I get my partner to take my concerns seriously? For the record, I do not have these issues with both my partners — just one half of the couple.

There’s a lot going on here that I’d like to address, specifically the issue of hierarchal polyamory, relationship anarchy, unicorns and emotional responsibility.

Unacknowledged hierarchies

One of the reasons why the concept of ‘relationship anarchy’ frustrates me is because life comes with hierarchies that are inevitable and sometimes I feel like people use ‘relationship anarchy’ as an excuse for ignoring those hierarchies while gladly operating within them. I spoke a bit about how this applies to asexual folks in my article on relationship hierarchies, but this is a clear example of another time when not acknowledging a hierarchy is a problem.

When you join a couple who has years of experience together, there’s always going to be an innate hierarchy, or what you describe as a prescriptive hierarchy. This isn’t even limited to romantic relationships. If you were to join a friendship group that had grown up together, you would be coming in with a different dynamic and you might be missing out on a lot because you don’t have that shared history. If you entered into a monogamous relationship with someone who has a child, you being the new person in that family would mean that there was a dynamic you missed out on.

It is totally normal to feel a bit like the third wheel in these scenarios. And sometimes, like all of the examples I’ve given, there are things people can do to eventually help this feeling fade and there are things they can do to not help. Ultimately, you cannot control the fact that this couple has all of this experience and shared history that you don’t have. If you were dwelling on that, then that would be my advice to you, but you’re not. You’re wanting people to acknowledge your feelings. Even if, to them, they don’t feel this gap between them and you, the important part is that you do. And when someone feels like the odd person out, it has to be acknowledged and worked through. Ignoring this does not help.

The fact that one of your partners refuses to acknowledge your feelings and the reality of the situation is a problem. Can either of them help you feeling left out? Absolutely not, but neither can you. Refusing to acknowledge a problem does not solve it, it only makes it worse. And that leads me to the failsafe that people who refuse to do emotional labour in relationships rely on: the idea that everyone’s emotions are their own responsibility.

Emotional responsibility

I’m not sure of the history of where this idea came from, but I imagine it started from a good place. In abusive relationships, very frequently abusers blame the people they abuse for their feelings. They will say things like, “You make me break things” or “You make me rage” and the empowering truth for survivors of all types of abuse is that they are not responsible for how other people feel. If you’ve grown up in an abusive home or with parents who were emotionally incestuous, then learning that you are not to blame for the way people behaved around you is crucial towards healing. Even today, I struggle with the idea that I should not have to moderate my behaviour to avoid people being angry at me.

Non-violent Communication also endorses this idea, but as a means of helping people. What NVC fails to do is use the right language. NVC almost promotes the idea that you can control your feelings when you can’t. Sometimes you can reframe your context and change your paradigm of how you look at a situation and you find that, as a result, your feelings may change, but it is no guarantee. No matter how many times I think about the possibility that someone might appreciate the extra five minutes to gather themselves when I’m running late to a meeting, I still have anxiety about it. But the crucial problem of NVC is that it assumes all people operating have positive intentions and they don’t as this article explains.

Now the idea that your emotions are your responsibility is frequently used, especially within polyamory, as a means for people who don’t want to do any emotional labour for leaving you to feel terrible and refusing to both acknowledge your emotions or do anything to address them. The approach I take to the whole idea is this: It doesn’t matter *whose* responsibility emotions are. They’re there. And they have to be dealt with and helped. What it comes down to is the resources people have to help and the appropriateness of their role.

You may need a therapist to help you deal with some of these emotions of processing being new to this relationship, and that’s legitimate. It’s not fair for you to expect a level of emotional labour from your partners that a therapist could give you, especially because they are involved in the process. Imagine applying this to the scenario of being a new step-parent. It’s acceptable for the person you’re dating to do their best to facilitate and make it easier for you to be apart of the family, but a lot of the raw emotions you can feel about feeling like the odd person out might be better to handle with a therapist because of the level of involvement that the partner has in the scenario. But that doesn’t mean the partner has zero responsibility to help.

For your partner to refuse to help in any situation… well, he is free to do so but he needs to be willing to accept the consequences of that. Whether your emotions are “his responsibility” or not, what’s clear is that you feel like your needs are not being met and over time, that is going to wear on you and create resentment. And he needs to decide if his dogmatic adherence to the idea that everything is for you to manage is worth actually losing the relationship.

Unicorns and metamours

What you identify in your partner is very clearly a unicorn type outlook. And this isn’t something that’s restricted to couples or even to polyamorous people. There are a lot of people who imagine this idea of what their romantic partner will be and become frustrated when someone doesn’t match up. In all honesty, this is something that happens in all kinds of relationships and you’re right to point it out.

But the thing about unicorn hunting is that it’s usually done by couples and that’s what’s making me wonder where is the other partner in all of this. I get that you’re dating these people as individuals, and that’s totally understandable and a good way to approach this but… imagine if you were dating two people who lived together and one of them was shouting at you and the other one was standing right next to them, would you expect them to not say anything?

This is where I think that polyamory endorsed philosophies of ‘your emotions are your responsibility’ and worrying so much about affecting other people’s relationships goes to an extreme that would never even happen among friendships or family relationships. It’s almost as if polyamorous people are *so worried* about not controlling their partner’s relationships, they’d sit by and watch their partner treat someone terribly or be treated terribly when they wouldn’t even think to do the same with their best friend or their family. It is okay to object to how someone you care about is being treated. That is not manipulative. So what’s the deal with your other partner?

Are they not saying anything? Do they make efforts to address you feeling like the odd person out? Have you spoken to them about their partner’s attitude? What do they have to say about that? Or are they also taking a laissez faire attitude to this wherein it’s none of their business or responsibility because them having any opinion about how you’re being treated is somehow manipulative? What’s going on there?

The only rules that matter

I’m not a relationship anarchist and I don’t really believe in RA. The reason being is that hierarchies are there and will be there. Power differentials exist in our society. We’re not all treated equally. We don’t all have the same capabilities and skills in life. The answer to that is not ignoring that these differentials exist. The answer is accepting and working with them. Relationship Anarchy feels like the equivalent of supposedly not seeing race, sexuality or any of the other marginalised identities that get discriminated against. Refusing to accept that there are hierarchies in the world does not mean you liberate yourself from them.

To me, what rules that matter in relationships are pretty much two simple ones: what you can do and what you can’t do.

Your partners can continue to ignore you feeling like the odd person out in this relationship. Your partners can continue to put the processing and acknowledgement of these feelings on your shoulders. But they can’t expect you to have the emotions that they want you to have. They can’t expect you to not have feelings. And they can’t expect your feelings to not ultimately impact your happiness and how you process this relationship and whether you want to agree with these terms or not.

The fact that your partners haven’t really done enough to make you feel more included when these feelings crop up is less worrying to me than their entire ideology about how to deal with your feelings. Understand that this is not going to be limited to just your feelings about being included in the relationship. Even if that problem is solved, even if they were to take steps to address these feelings, if they do not fix this ideology, it will continue to crop up in one way or another. Anytime you have an emotion which is difficult where you need reassurance and help from them, you will likely run into this roadblock if they do not change their ideology.

Actions and consequences

What I suggest is you address this head on with both of them. It seems like you want and need your feelings to be acknowledged by your partners. That is not negotiable. If you don’t have this need met, you will not be in positive, healthy relationships with people and will (hopefully) choose to leave them to find people who do acknowledge your feelings and work with you on them. I suggest you make it clear that the dogma of ‘your emotions are your responsibility’ and ‘it’s your job to fit into our marriage’ is no longer acceptable and will not be tolerated.

Think about what would make you feel included in this couple. Try to pick concrete, clear examples of steps they both can take as individuals to make you feel included. And even if these steps don’t seem like a big deal to you and in your head you might be telling yourself, questioning yourself about why these are included because they aren’t that big of a deal? Well, if it’s such a small thing then it shouldn’t take them that much effort to do it for you. A little goes a long way.

You might consider thinking about a time limit for yourself so you can be sure change is happening. You need to make suggestions for improvement and then at least be sure you’re having a look at the situation months down the line to see if it actually has improved. I find that a lot of people when confronted with a partner laying out their boundaries, happily agree to make a change but then don’t actually do it and the partner who laid down the boundaries feels awkward bringing it up again and frustrated that their needs are not being met when their partner agreed to do so readily. Sharing the time limit at the start may feel too much like an ultimatum and put unnecessary pressure on the situation.

Research a polyamory friendly therapist who is willing to do couples counselling with all three of you and suggesting that as an option to work these feelings out. The initial fact that these two people share a history you won’t have with them is unavoidable, but as I said before, I would expect feelings like this to eventually dissolve the more history you build with these people — but that will not happen so long as one of these people is refusing to even acknowledge that the problem exists and is expecting you to fix what is essentially a relationship problem all on your own.

Think what your consequences are going to be if one of these partners refuses to take part in therapy or continues to acknowledge your emotions. Commit real resources to thinking about how to disentangle yourself from these people as soon as possible, how to move out, what your options are outside of this relationship and create a backup plan that is an actual backup plan you can rely on. You can lay your boundaries down as firmly as possible but they will mean nothing if they are not enforced. Unfortunately, sometimes enforcing boundaries in a relationship means that you have to end or temporarily pause a relationship and that does hurt, but please understand that your needs continuing to be unmet in these relationships will eventually end it anyway, and likely in a much more painful way.

I hope this helps and good luck!

Therapist comments

“I do agree with what Lola wrote about the relationship ideology and the limitations of the emotional responsibility rhetoric. I like how Lola framed it in roles. Personally I talk about it like this — the person having the feeling is responsible for owning the feeling and the others in the relationship are responsible for adjusting the context so there are opportunities for positive and corrective experiences to occur. Otherwise healing those feelings just won’t happen.

I view RA slightly differently than Lola does. I think you can acknowledge what I call “innate” hierarchies and still practice RA, as long as you don’t use the existence of those hierarchies as a prescription for behaviour. Some RA followers disagree with me on that. I do think not acknowledging hierarchies is super problematic regardless.

I love Lola’s concrete advice to seek therapy and make a back-up plan. I do think it is probably risky to disclose a timeline for improvement with the couple. The original poster will likely be accused of making an ultimatum and create another excuse for avoidance. And yea, where is that other partner in all this?? Unicorn hunting for sure…”

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