The Overstressed Hinge: Stuck in the Middle & Playing Tom-Toms

a large array of tom-tom drums in various colors
Image by Dave Kobrehel / CC BY

Hello Page,

First of all, I want to thank you so much for your blog! I take a lot of support and encouragement from your writing. I especially enjoy your strictly non-dogmatic, personal and individual approach. You have the rare gift of being rational and emotional at the same time. Maybe, when we’re able to combine the two rather neatly, that means we’re on the right track…

I just read today’s post – and I fear I might sometimes be in Tom’s position. It’s not the easiest thing to rein in the (rational or irrational, understandable or irritating) demands of your long-time partner (in my case we have more than over a decade of shared life, many of them as a married couple). I do try to give her all the security in the world, but sometimes it just isn’t enough, there is some crisis (usually more wrath than tears). And what do I do? I come running. Even if it means, for example, that I have to cancel a date with one of my secondary partners.

I do feel this responsibility to my wife – and it doesn’t have anything to do with the vows that go with that official bond.

But on the other hand, that means disappointing someone who has absolutely nothing to do with that. And it can be heartbreaking.

I hate myself for it. Why can’t I put up a fight for my other partners? Or perhaps I don’t want to?

Am I really poly or do I just enjoy having easy access to a different warm body when I feel like it?

Wouldn’t it be more fair to go back to monogamy and just have the occasional one-night stand, like my wife does?

This is what I keep thinking about… How should I address that fogginess in my head?

-“Tom 1” 

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And in a rare treat, I received a letter from another reader regarding the same article:

Hi Page, 

I’m writing to you in response to the letter posted under “The Tyranny of Takebacksies and When Hierarchy Goes Mean.” I’m in a fairly similar situation, but I’m the “Tom” in the situation. I’ve been dating someone for several months now and my wife/primary partner makes every effort to pull rank and tells me to tell my partner things that she isn’t allowed to do. For example, texting me only when I’m working even if I’m not around my wife/primary partner or what days I’m allowed to see her or that I’m not allowed to go out of town with her, etc.

My conflict between Independence/autonomy and being an honest person has been stretched to the limits and I find myself breaking all of these restrictions and it feels like I’m cheating. I’ve been told that all of these restrictions are temporary, but this is my fourth relationship since we’ve opened up our marriage and this is following the same script as each of the previous and I’m not willing to let this one end because of my wife’s influence.

I honestly feel awful about things that I’ve done because it goes against my values as a person, but I feel that I can’t allow my wife/primary partner to dictate every aspect of my other relationships and denying her that leads to arguments, tantrums, yelling, and crying.

I’m getting to the end of my rope and I want to keep both relationships, but I starting to wonder if that is possible. Any advice would be wonderful and appreciated.

-“Tom 2”

Both letter writers are responding to a recent article in which a reader wrote in distressed that her boyfriend had broken things off with her after his wife insisted he end their relationship, seeking my advice. Please see this post for that letter.

Dear Tom-Toms

Okay, Tom-Toms, this isn’t an easy situation, being caught in the middle. I’ve been there before myself, an overstressed hinge, in the “Tom” role, caught between a demanding partner and other non-demanding (or at least less demanding) ones. And everything I’m going to say in this article comes from a place of deep understanding and appreciation of this circumstance.

Here are my first impressions:

Tom 1, you’re feeling guilty for kowtowing to your wife for a reason. It’s not a nice way to treat your other partners. But you know this, otherwise you wouldn’t hate yourself. What you’ve opted for in your circumstance is to take the ball of stress your wife is throwing at you and propel it into your other partners’ faces. Not great.

Tom 2, it seems like you’ve taken a different approach. You’re simply pretending to abide by your wife’s restrictions. In some ways, this is more merciful to your other partners, but there’s a reason you feel bad about it. You’re sneaking around and breaking the rules. Your partner thinks you’re being honest, but you’re not. In the ball of stress metaphor, this is a bit like puncturing the ball, squishing it up, and eating the thing to destroy the evidence. Might work okay in the short term, but you’re always risking it coming out in a painful way later. And until it does, you’re riddled with stress and guilt (and an upset stomach).

Dear Tom 1

You wrote the following, Tom 1:

Why can’t I put up a fight for my other partners? Or perhaps I don’t want to?

Am I really poly or do I just enjoy having easy access to a different warm body when I feel like it?

Wouldn’t it be more fair to go back to monogamy and just have the occasional one-night stand, like my wife does?

This is what I keep thinking about… How should I address that fogginess in my head?

These are good questions to be asking yourself, Tom 1. Here are some more questions to chew on:

  • Are you afraid to be alone?
  • You say you aren’t hung up on wedding vows, but is there another belief you have? For example, does your sense of hierarchy default to considering the person who was “there first” as being more important? That the older relationship in effect has dibs? I’ve known people who operate that way. I don’t. Relationship age is usually one factor for me, but it’s not the only one. In fact, I’m a person who started polyamory with a different marriage than she has now (and my ex has changed primary partners as well — essentially, our radical openness to change led to our realizing we weren’t as compatible as we thought and both finding other people who suited us better).
  • Do you get something different out of polyamory that you wouldn’t get out of having one-night stands?
  • If so, are those additional benefits something that are worth risking upsetting your wife? Worth losing that relationship? Or at least trying to push back?

I find it interesting that your wife doesn’t have full-fledged additional relationships of her own and mostly just has one-night stands. I can’t help but wonder if this is by choice or by chance.

If by chance, it’s possible that her wrath stems from envy and a sense of frustration that she isn’t able to find relationships of her own.

If by choice, it’s possible that your wife might be limiting her  level of entanglement with others out of a sense of loyalty towards you (likely based on internalized beliefs about what should and shouldn’t be exclusive) and getting angry that you’re not doing the same.

Honestly, without more information, it’s difficult to tell what’s going on here. And because of that, it’s difficult to give you specific advice.

It sounds like you have to ask yourself a lot of questions. Ones that only you know the answers to.

If at the end of the day you’re not willing to stick up for the other people you’re dating from time to time, especially at times when your wife is being inappropriate, then I’d say, no, you probably shouldn’t be dating other people.

However, you don’t say in your letter how long your relationship with your wife has been open. And that’s an important indicator of how good the long-term prognosis is, even given your current difficulties. I do find that most people have about a 2-year-period (on average) when they’re adjusting to consensual non-monogamy where things are rockier. People who are newly polyamorous often have some adjustment stress. If it’s been longer than that, then maybe you’re right. Maybe this isn’t something you should be doing.

But hold on a second and read on, Tom 1. I’m going to give Tom 2 some advice here. He seems to be in a bit of a different emotional place, but you might benefit from it as well.

Dear Tom 2

You can’t keep on doing this. And from the sound of your letter, I get the sense that you don’t want to.

I think it’s time to put your foot down. To be honest about what you’re unwilling to do. To openly say no if you think something is unfair, even if it makes waves.

Some people say it’s unfair to ask for changes to a relationship agreement after you’ve written one. But I’m not one of them. It’s very common to find that your relationship agreement works out differently in practice than it did in theory. You’re right: One would expect improvement by the fourth time around (especially if it’s been a couple years).

Besides, everything in the entire galaxy (quite literally) moves and changes, even “fixed stars” in the night sky. Relationships and personal growth aren’t any different. So consider advocating for a renegotiation. Here’s a piece about how to renegotiate your relationship agreement that may come in handy.

Fair warning: Pushing back on unreasonable demands is probably going to suck (for everyone involved). Even if you can get to the point where your partner agrees and understands that things need to change (which isn’t guaranteed), it can be very difficult and painful seeing the jealousy that you cause in the short term. Here’s a post I wrote on tolerating that particular kind of distress.

In the worst situations, pushing back might unsettle or rile your partner to the point where they want to veto your other relationships. Essentially issuing an “it’s them or me” style ultimatum.

This isn’t an easy strategy either, but to me it’s 100% a red flag when someone issues an ultimatum or veto. When I’m forced to choose, I always pick the person who isn’t asking me to choose between them. It can be a stressful decision short term, but long term I have zero regrets (as I write this, I’m in an amazing partnership with the person who didn’t make me choose, a person who supports me and my autonomy, and I, theirs).

As I wrote in an earlier piece:

Solomon and the Baby

There’s a story from the Old Testament that’s long been one of my favorites. King Solomon is confronted by two mothers who live in the same house. Both women recently had one of their children die and are fighting over a remaining child, a son. Each claims they are the mother of this surviving child. Of course one of them is lying. But both seem so sincere.

So King Solomon orders that the only fair judgement in this case can be to cut the baby in half. He calls for a sword to do this.

One of the mothers is quite fine with this arrangement. She states that if she doesn’t have the baby, it’s all the same to her that neither of them does.

The other begs Solomon not to cut the baby in half. She tells him he can give the baby to the other woman so long as the king does not kill the child.

And from this, the king declares the second woman the real child’s mother — because she would give up her own son to save his life.

When Someone Is Good with Both People Losing So Long As the Other Person Doesn’t Win

It’s an old story but a good one.

Now, sharing time, loyalties, and friendship is a bit different than sharing an actual human being. Most of the time you can stay fairly friendly with both people without too much difficulty, provided neither friend objects. In a lot of instances, splitting your friendship in half isn’t like killing a baby at all.

But what I’ve taken from the story of Solomon and the baby is that it’s always a bad sign when one person wants you to choose. When they would rather no one have you in their life than the other person. They’re good with both people losing so long as the other person doesn’t win.

If a friend tells me that they’ll no longer be my friend because I’m friends with someone they’re breaking up with, then that’s a sign that we aren’t meant to be friends.

If a lover says “it’s them or me,” then that’s an eye-opening moment, too.

Except for instances where basic safety is at risk and there’s a potential for abuse (which unfortunately has happened to me; I wrote about the one understandable poly ultimatum I’ve ever had issued to me in this post), “it’s them or me” is the worst kind of red flag.

And I find it helpful to be prepared to walk completely away from the whole thing when I go into a renegotiation. It helps me to stick to my guns and not crumple in on myself out of fear.

Now, all that said, you could easily ignore all of this advice. I don’t know what all you (or Tom 1) have for extenuating or complicating factors in your life. But I hope that you give it some thought at the very least.

Both Tom-Toms Together Again

You both really have the same options:

  • Stop being polyamorous (whether this means you only have physical flings, as Tom 1 suggested, or that you’re 100% monogamous). This is an especially brutal route of change if you have ongoing relationships, since it entails breaking up with a bunch of people who probably haven’t done anything wrong. Still, it’s an option.
  • Do whatever your wife wants you to, even if it inconveniences, distresses, or harms your other partners.
  • Push back on your wife, challenging her when the compromises are unreasonable and/or burdensome to your other partners and if possible renegotiate your agreement (what I typically prefer that people do, in a measured balanced way, establishing healthy boundaries and honoring theirs, good fences make good neighbors and good lovers for that matter, etc.)
  •  Pretend you’re making concessions when you aren’t (which is what you’re doing right now, Tom 2, and I bet it sucks).
  • Throw your hands into the air and quit everyone. Run off to a mountaintop or the woods or something. Embrace the hermit life. (This one is harder than it sounds. Lots of logistics involved. And apparently you do get lonely. But it’s one I fantasized a lot about when I was in your situation and at the end of my rope.)
  • Some mix of all of the above strategies, albeit to a lesser degree, blended and mixed together to form a custom hybrid approach.

It isn’t an easy situation. We don’t get a lot of practice in our culture at harmoniously balancing time, attention, and loyalties between multiple parties. From personal experience, I find that some people are better than others at it (on both sides, one, or the other). It’s probably going to take a ton of courage and personal growth on both your own part and your wife’s to figure it out.

To be fair to your wives, I personally sucked at sharing when I started. I was a bit of a jealous hose-beast when in the non-hinge role. It took me about six months of brutal self-honesty and a lot of soul-searching (work that no one could have forced me to do, that I had to do for myself) to really start being decent at becoming secure. So it wasn’t easy, but it’s possible that your wives will turn around, too.

But there are no guarantees.

And I’d hate to see you hurt a bunch of innocent bystanders waiting for something that may not ever happen.

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(Preemptive note to commenters: Yes, I know that a tom-tom is a single drum and not two separate drums. Let me have this one, pretty please. Girls just wanna have puns.)

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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