When should you express love?

I’m a twenty something who has only ever been in polyam/non-monog relationships. I’m currently living with a partner who I have been with for a year, who I’ll call Poppy in this email. I have another partner, who I’ll call Lilly, who lives with one of their other partners and who I see once a week or so. And I have a dear friend who I’m in love with, who has romantic feelings for me, and who I’ve been somewhat intimate with who I’m not dating but am talking to on a daily basis. I will call that friend Daisy.
I’m having separate but sometimes overlapping issues with each of these relationships, which I will try to go through methodologically.
The issues with Lilly might be the easiest to explain. I dated her for 6 months a while ago and we broke up due to a combination of apathy on both of our parts and me being upset about some things she had said. Around 6 months after the break up, we repaired our friendship and a couple months after that we started dating again. It’s much healthier this time because we’re both in more stable places in terms of our mental health. She is in love with me and tells me that regularly, I tell her that I love her back, and I do. I’m just not in love with her.
I love her as a person and I value the time we spend together, I like kissing her because kissing is great, but I’ve never gotten fluttery about her the way that I have anyone I’ve been in love with. Saying I love you to her feels weird because I know that I’m not returning it in the way that she thinks that I am. The internal conflict I’m having is: should I tell her that saying I love you to her feels weird/should I tell her that I love her but am not in love with her/should I break up with her again?
The issues that I’m having with Daisy are more complicated. They have been my friend for multiple months and I developed a crush on them 2 months ago and told them shortly after that. After a while they expressed feelings for me and we made out a couple of times. Then there was an issue where I didn’t pick up on them being uncomfortable about me touching them on a night where we were both intoxicated, I’m autistic and they are autistic. They had previously stated that they didn’t need a lot of check ins about non-sexual touching so I didn’t check in and it was a miscommunication on both of our parts. I should have checked in and they should have clearly stated that they were uncomfortable.
They decided that we need to stop doing romantic activities until their mental health is in a better place/until they feel more comfortable with saying no. I support this decision because I want any relationship we have to be as healthy as possible. I’m dealing with some internal conflicts here because even though we’re communicating a lot, our relationship still feels uncertain and I don’t feel like I know how to act. Specifically, when we’re hanging out, sometimes I look at them and I feel this overwhelming sense of love. In my relationships with the people I’m actually dating, I would state that feeling out loud and it’s really hard to stop myself with Daisy.
I’ve been substituting it with vague words like “I’m gay for you” or “I’m feeling big feelings for you”. And in conversations where I would otherwise refer to loving them I replace it with things like “Hurting people I feel THIS way about is really upsetting”. I don’t know if I’m handling this right and it’s causing me a lot of anxiety. How do I stop feeling so many feelings? How do I stop feeling insecure about feeling more for them then they do for me? How do I not ruin everything that this could become?
The issues that I’m having with Poppy are the most complicated. This is the most emotionally and commitment heavy relationship I’ve ever had. They’re the first partner I’ve ever lived with and the first that I’ve wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Recently we talked through a lot of issues we’ve been having, I wrote down all of the feelings I was having and we talked through them and talked through negative feelings they’ve been having and then we wrote down concrete things that we are going to do to make our relationship more stable/make the other.
A lot of the issues they have been having with me stem from trauma responses due to a multiyear abusive relationship with a person who I also dated, who I’ll call X. X and I broke up shortly after Poppy and I started dating and X and Poppy broke up shortly after that. X ignored explicit boundaries that I had set and I know that they did the same with Poppy. Because of the longer duration and depth of their relationship, X had spent a lot of time manipulating Poppy and making them feel bad. X and I don’t talk but X and Poppy still talk a couple times a month, I know from that that X is seeking treatment for their mental health conditions and seems to be making progress.
The day after Poppy and I talked about our relationship problems, they told me that they were going to a concert in a different city next month with X. I got upset and told them that that was a bad idea and that I wasn’t happy about it, they told me that they felt like they couldn’t tell me anything because I got upset. I told them that I would rather be momentarily upset from them telling me the truth than feel betrayed by finding out later. During our longer talk, they also said that me expressing that I’m upset felt manipulative. I don’t want to manipulate them and I don’t want them to feel like they shouldn’t tell me things. But I also feel like I should be able to express when I’m upset about things. Do you think that there is a balance that can be found? Do you have any advice about this situation?

There are quite a few things going on here but I can see some commonalities between some of these situations that I’ll address here:

  • Love and expectations
  • Manipulation and feelings

Love and expectations

With two of your partners, Lilly and Daisy, you seem to have not only an expectation of the way feelings should feel but also how those feelings should be acted upon which is causing you a lot of strife in both of these relationships.

Your relationship with Lilly is still being built, even though you’ve had these periods of connecting and disconnection. It’s hard for me to say, not knowing what she’s said that specifically caused your breakup, but I think that for you to not feel in a place where you feel comfortable saying you love her is totally valid. But the thing that strikes me here is that you’ve actually never had these feelings in your relationship at all, but it’s hard to say whether that’s because, despite you knowing each other for awhile, that it’s still actually so new and you’re still building up your friendship again or whether it’s because you just don’t have any feelings for her and you won’t ever.

The question to really ask yourself is what are your expectations when you say ‘I love you’ to someone. There might be a bit of yourself that’s lying to yourself when you’re saying ‘I love you’ if you don’t actually feel love in the same sense with Lilly as you do with other people. But equally, I do think that that discomfort and conflict you feel is likely from a worry that you’re leading Lilly on in some way. And that’s totally legitimate. But the thing you need to ask yourself is what exactly are you meant to be leading Lilly toward even if you did have these feelings?

Do you have any expectation as to what this relationship will eventually go into? What do you expect to happen when someone does love you. Which leads me to your problems with Daisy. You have all of these feelings and a need to communicate them, but you’re very fixated on expressing them in a specific way and you should have a think about why it is that you need to use the word “love” in this case. You cannot stop feeling your feelings and I don’t think you should ever attempt to do that. But I do think your uncertainty in both of these cases is lying within your own expectations of what a relationship means and what saying “I love you” means.

And this makes total sense, by the way. Both of your relationships with Daisy and Lilly exist outside of the relationship escalator. You’re not forming domestic connections with either of these people (presumably) and so you might be still in this mindset that a big step like saying you love someone is supposed to come with x, y, or z, when really that is completely up to you to decide. I’d have a think about what role Lilly and Daisy are going to play in your life. I don’t see any reason why you can’t be honest with them both.

You may want to tell Lilly that you don’t feel an overwhelming amount of emotion for her and saying, “I love you” actually makes you feel uncomfortable. You might have a discussion with her about what she is expecting out of your relationship and what role you play in her life, once you have a better understanding of the role you’d like other people outside of your domestic situation to exist in your life. In terms of Daisy, I understand you had this miscommunication, but I don’t see why discussing your feelings is necessarily a ‘romantic activity’. It might be worth it to have this discussion with Daisy. It might very well be that you have more feelings for Daisy than they have for you in the same way that Lilly may have more feelings for you than you have for her.

But when you have an idea of where all of these feelings are meant to lead or what role these relationships will play in your life, it becomes a lot easier for you to feel relaxed by having feelings or not having feelings. Think about it this way. When it comes to monogamous-centric culture, we’re told that when you start to have these feelings for someone, you date, you live together, you marry, you have kids and there’s the whole structure of how these feelings eventually get acted upon — but you’re acting now without a script because this is, even if you were to live with all of your partners, going to be fundamentally different. But just because you’re not working from a script doesn’t mean you’re totally lost. You just need to think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you want out of it.

Manipulation and feelings

Your situation with Poppy is complicated in one way but I do think it involves you having to face up to some things that you can’t control. The first thing that has to stop happening is that people need to not accuse people of being manipulative just because they have feelings. I see this happen all of the time in polyamory. One person does one thing, another person has feelings about it and does what polyamory advice constantly says and communicates that they have feelings and then the first person accuses that person of attempting to manipulate them.

I don’t think Poppy is trying to be antagonistic about this, but I do think what’s happening with Poppy is that you are expressing these legitimate feelings about them being with X and they don’t know how to reconcile this with their actions. They are being faced with the very real result of their actions which is that the more that they hang out with X, the more uncomfortable you will feel and the result of that may be that they sacrifice their relationship with you for a relationship with X. No one wants to explicitly say this of course, but it’s implied in a way that Poppy feels ‘manipulated’ by.

Having feelings about things your partner does is not manipulation. Expressing those feelings can be manipulative, but it really comes down to your boundaries and the way you are expressing these feelings. The way you describe expressing your feelings does not feel manipulative to me because you were being honest about how you feel and not in an attempt to punish Poppy from making their own choices.

For as much that polyamory advice may want to make every single person into their own island who is responsible for their own emotions and all of that rubbish, the things that other people do do have an impact on us and it is ridiculous to suggest otherwise. If any of my partners were to date someone who was abusive towards me, I would have feelings about that. And in some cases, it might make me want to break up with my partner. Not because I want to control what they do, but because I can’t justifiably stay with them if they care so little about my experience that they value getting laid or having a relationship over that. It’s less about controlling them and more about having my own boundaries.

But, if I were to stay with them, I can definitely tell them how I feel about this person and make my feelings known. I can make it clear to them that when they decide to hang out with this person, it hurts my feelings and we can make an agreement about that. I think it becomes manipulative when I bring up their friendship or hanging out with this person as a way to make them feel bad, if I constantly complain about it to the point where I am using it as a punishment — that is manipulative.

You expressing your discomfort about X is not manipulative. But you both have to come to an understanding when it comes to your boundaries around this person. My partner and I have similar boundaries because he will have friends who I explicitly don’t like and who it irritates me to hear about. He knows that I don’t want to hear about this person, so if he wants to talk about this person, he will find someone else to talk to them about. But I am not trying to control who he decides to have friends with. He can make that decision, but he certainly can’t expect me to not be irritated when I hear about this person.

Equally, Poppy cannot expect you to be happy about their friendship with X. It’s ridiculous for them to expect that of you. And likewise, you have to accept that Poppy wants to continue to maintain a friendship with X and you don’t have a right to tell Poppy who to be friends with and who not to be friends with. The next steps depend on each of your boundaries. Poppy may not feel comfortable lying to you about meeting up with X or trying to hide it, but Poppy also has to accept that bringing up X will make you unhappy and may cause some friction in your relationship. You can definitely ask not to hear about X as much as possible without being directly lied to, but you can’t expect Poppy to just stop being friends with X and you have to decide, depending on how things go, whether or not Poppy’s friendship with X bothers you so much that it is impacting on how you feel about Polly as a whole.

The balance doesn’t necessarily come down to each of you compromising but what you’re going to feel comfortable with. You should be allowed to express when you feel upset, but I think the thing you have to do is ask yourself what the goal of expressing your upset is meant to achieve. I think that Polly now knows you find the subject of X discomforting. If you need to vent to someone about it, that’s understandable, but doing it to Polly isn’t likely to be productive or helpful. Because equally Polly may begin to feel distant from you, not necessarily because of X, but because they might begin to feel like any time they do something you don’t particularly like, you’re going to be so vocal about your upset feelings that you’re more focused on your feelings than theirs.

Sit down and have a think about what you’re willing to accept with regards to this friendship. It’s fine for you to not want to be around X, but you have to accept that Polly makes their own decisions about friendships. And you can have feelings about that and Polly can’t expect you to feel happy about it but you need to decide what is more valuable — expressing those feelings in that moment or holding back for the sake of Polly’s feelings when you know expressing those feelings won’t do anything to change Polly.

And you might decide that Polly’s willingness to be friends with X is something that you don’t want to be around — and that’s valid too. But you need to try and think about this and your boundaries before you have another conversation. And Polly needs to stop assuming that any expression of feeling by you means that they have to take an action. Polly can accept that spending time with X is going to make you unhappy and that’s how it is and make their own decision about what they are going to do with that information because expecting you to show happiness so that Polly doesn’t have to confront this difficulty isn’t fair either.

Overall, I think that you need to think more about what your relationships outside of your domestic and lifelong partnership looks like and what it means to you outside of a monogamous-centric framework. You need to think about where your boundaries lie with regards to the friends that your partner has and how you’re going to navigate it.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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