Talking about Relationship Problems with Potential Lovers

…so now I am actually seeking advice. Here’s a question for polyamorous / non-monogamous readers: How do folks deal with the issue of talking about problems in your primary relationship with other people? Specifically, is it okay for you to talk to your other lovers about problems you’re having with your primary partner? What about potential lovers, people you’re attracted to or have flirted with? Why or why not? Does it depend on the nature of the problems?

This is a really tricky issue I’ve been thinking about recently, and I’m torn. On the one hand, it’s devastating to think about my partner talking to someone he’s interested in about problems he’s having with me; on the other, if that person also happens to be a good friend of his, someone he’s specifically gone to because he thinks she can give him good advice, it doesn’t seem fair to deny him that outlet. But can that advice ever really be impartial if the friend is already a lover, or if the attraction is mutual? And how do you draw the line between “friend I’m attracted to” and “potential lover”? That is, I can’t realistically expect my partner to never talk about relationship problems to any female friend he’s attracted to…right?

Thinking about it for myself, too: any other person I would likely become involved with is going to be first a friend, because that’s just how I like to form my relationships (I’m really not into “dating,” per se). So it just makes sense that if I’m having problems with my partner, if I’m obviously feeling down, this friend might notice and ask me what’s wrong — and then what? After thinking about this a lot, I think an ethical answer (for me) would have to be “I really appreciate your concern, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.” Here’s why: while I’m sure I would be tempted to confide in this other person, I know that such confidence, especially when it comes to relationship problems, often fuels a particular intimacy. It would thus become more tempting, I think, to talk about problems like these with people I wanted to become intimate with, to consciously or unconsciously choose them as confidants rather than other friends. In past relationships gone sour, I have definitely found myself talking about problems with my partner to other friends I was attracted to, far more often than I talked about those problems to any of my other friends. And I instinctively knew that it was a bad idea, that I was doing it not because those friends could give me better advice than others but because talking about my relationship problems with them would bring us closer. It’s fucked up, but true.

This is why I feel especially jealous when my partner talks to friends he’s attracted to about problems they’re having with their boyfriends, when he consoles a potential lover about a breakup she’s going through — and it’s just worse, somehow, when he’s talking to her about our problems, when he confides in someone he wants to sleep with that we might be breaking up. No matter how sincerely he believes that such conversations occur purely because of friendship and aren’t influenced by his sexual or romantic attraction to her, I can’t make myself believe it, because that hasn’t been my experience.

Of course, there are some aspects of our current relationship problems that are absolutely necessary to talk about with potential lovers — for example, it makes sense that my partner should let the other person know that I’m struggling with all of this, so she’ll know that at least at first, there will have to be a lot of restrictions on what they can do together because of my insecurities around non-monogamy. But then…it still hurts. This is a person I’m already jealous of, a person I already realize embodies certain characteristics my partner desires that I can’t fulfill — identifying as non-monogamous is one of those things. When he tells her that I’m having a hard time with all of this, and she tells him that in her experience, trying to have a relationship with someone who isn’t earnestly interested in being non-monogamous is a bad idea, I can’t help but worry about what that means.

So…what do you think? Can you separate sexual attraction to a friend from conversations with that friend about relationship or romantic problems? Is this a common issue in polyamorous relationships, and can anyone direct me to existing resources discussing it?

6 comments so far

  1. d on

    First of all, no advice is impartial. Parents, potential lovers, friends, coworkers, random strangers, etc all have biases and could potentially be biased against a relationship.

    This lack of impartiality doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m sure my partner has asked a bunch of different people for advice about our relationship and gotten a bunch of different responses; they are not held to following any or all of that advice.

    I think a huge part of non-monogomy is accepting emotional non-monogomy in addition to sexual non-monogomy and trusting that your partner is doing what they need to do to meet their needs (which might mean going to other people or flying solo sometimes). I’m excited when my partner meets people who match up with their needs and desires – often needs or desires that I can’t or don’t want to match up with.

    I don’t think you can separate sexual attraction to a friend from conversations with that friend about relationship or romantic problems, but I think that’s OK.

    I still think ‘The Ethical Slut’ is the best book on the subject, though I don’t know chapters/page numbers off-hand that are about this specific issue.

  2. spokewench on

    I feel like a person always has the right to talk abotu what’s going on with themselves personally. So like, “Geeze I am feeling really frustrated in my relationship lately. I am on a totally different page from him. I wanted to ____ but he had other ideas.” So there the speaker expressed their feelings without actually identifying what’s going on with their partner. Does that make sense?

    I think generally a person has the right to request how much sharing can go on outside the relationship. Usually you want to agree on certain people who are OK to be privy to information, so you can still talk about stuff with someone else. But it’s fair to request limitations on this.

    When you are talking to your boyfriend you don’t need to be thinking “Oh should I tell him this? If I do, he is going to tell suchandsuch, what will she think?” That is not a reasonable demand for him to make, especially if you are new to poly and somewhat uncomfortable.

    I have had lovers who have talked both very openly about their other relationships and also hardly at all. I like it a bit more towards the “not so much” side, at least when it comes down to nitty gritty… I don’t need to know about all the insecurities and difficulties of this other person, it is an invasion of their intimacy.


  3. redsirenn on

    ummm. I have mixed viewpoints on this.
    There is a threshold and different circumstances apply to everything… There are many things that should be kept between a couple and are meant for them to work out on their own. Talking to others could actually inhibit problem solving at times. Then there are things on needs advice on with regards to relationships that can be discussed with close friends (platonic friends). These things should never be negative in nature, unless there is abuse, etc. And finally, I think all discussions with potential or current lovers should be kept to their relationship UNLESS it is a POSITIVE comment about another person, or if it involves that third person DIRECTLY. Examples of this could include safe sex, rules and boundaries, etc. Some things are too personal, I think.

  4. Dw3t-Hthr on

    My liege is a ranter. One of the things I established fairly early in our relationship was that if he was going on too much about issues with his other partner, I would ask him, “Is this helping?” and if it was just feeding his urge to rant, he would shut up. I was happy to support him, but I didn’t want to be dragged into their problems.

    I think that’s a useful boundary to think of – the actual issues are between the people involved, and not trying to resolve the issues through third parties or drag in the third parties to engagement with those issues strikes me as the most sustainably ethical route for me.

    I expect my partners to respect our privacy and not share personal information. At the same time, my lion asked me the other day what was up the previous night (I had been crying) and I told him, more or less, that my liege had knocked me down into subspace because I was being unhealthily control-freaky about my emotional state. Or I also told him, today, that I’d spent some time talking out some issues my liege was having and snuggling and that that was why he was in a better mood today than yesterday. Basic data (made more relevant by the fact that we’re all in the same house at the moment and thus have to deal with each other all the time).

    I generally talk about major relationship issues with people who I think can either actually give me good perspective on them or give me the best emotional support. (Ideally, both.) This means I tend not to talk to my partners when I want to work things out in my head rather than when I want emotional support – I’m more likely to talk to my sister, to friends who have similar relationships or similar relationship issues, or, interestingly enough, my ex.

    Finding the line between what’s nobody’s business outside the relationship and what’s reasonable “this is what’s going on in my life” can be hard. I can’t say that I’ve always been good at it, though the times I think of as a failure on that front was when I was in deep denial about a five-plus year relationship being dead and was thus howling my pain about it sort of indiscriminately. (That would be about the relevant ex, even.)

  5. Lilianne on

    I realize that I’m giving an incredibly idealistic answer to this question, but I think that when you enter the kind of non-monogamous relationship that includes forming important emotional ties (friendly or romantic) with other partners, you kind of implicitly accept the possibility that you might come up as a topic of discussion.

    I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic when I say that. The idea of being discussed by a partner to one of their partners makes me uncomfortable, too. But I feel more uncomfortable about the idea of trying to put limits on what my partners can talk about with the people who are important to them. (This is 100% personal opinion, not intended to pass judgment on people who feel differently.)

    I agree with Dw3t-Hthr about ranting not always being productive. Outside of a rant, though, it feels really important to me to be able to talk about things in my life to the people who care about me. Some of the people who care about me are likely to be lovers, play partners, etc., when I’m in a non-monogamous relationship.

    As someone who places a very high value on being able to talk to those people when I need to, and someone who likes equality in those aspects of my non-monogamous relationships, the answer for me is clear. But I’m sure that my answer isn’t everyone’s answer, and it’s been interesting to hear what everyone else has to say!

  6. blackdove on

    Personally, I say no way. The people outside your relationship cannot be impartial, and whie it’s true that “no one is impartial,” they do not benefit from the outcome of the relationship in question. Plus, it’s not healthy for your partner and his girlfriend to bond over your relationship woes.

    Another thing that has been brought up in my relationship is discussing intimate or sexual acts. That’s a fine line for me – telling my partner what’s going on sexually with my boyfriend, or respecting my boyfriend’s privacy? That’s probably a couple to couple issue, but I’ve found that keeping private things private is the best way to do this. I’ve found it really helpful to explain this to my partner, so he doesn’t think I’m hiding anything. There may be SOME bending of these rules, like if your partner wants to know if anything “crazy” happened, but that can also be answered by, “that’s something I’d like to not share with you to protect XX’s privacy.”

    I’ve only had one issue with this way of doing it, and that’s when I broke this rule.

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