PQ 21.7 — Do I let problems in the relationships around me affect me? How do I assert boundaries around problems that aren’t mine?

3 red buckets hanging in a row on a red rack with metal hooks
Image by Tim Green / CC BY

PQ 21.7 — Do I let problems in the relationships around me affect me? How do I assert boundaries around problems that aren’t mine?

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In a piece I wrote earlier in this series on managing boundaries in polyamorous relationship systems, I wrote that one of the trickiest parts of polyamory is determining whether or not what you’re doing affects someone else.

I wrote that over a year and a half. And damn if it still isn’t true.

In that post, I briefly covered the basics of boundaries and how to set them. And then I headed on to my main point: That it’s one thing to set boundaries on your direct interactions with people. It’s another altogether to set boundaries on their interactions with others. It’s where things truly get messy.

Because in this life, you really only control one thing: Yourself. Hopefully. Some people do struggle with self-control (although it’s a skill that can be developed and worked on).

That leaves the rest of life in two other buckets: Things you can’t control at all. And things you can influence.

There are certain things that are absolutely in the no control bucket — the weather, for example. Whether there’s a traffic accident. Whether a distant relative that you have little contact with gets gravely ill.

But with people who are close to you and who care how you feel about things, you are usually able to influence things somewhat. How much really depends on their temperament, how much of a stake they have in you, and what other conflicting interests they’re dealing with.

Being Mindful of Problem Degree

If your partner is having a rough time with a metamour, what you opt to do really depends on what the exact situation is. How much you personally have going on in your own life. Their personalities and social histories with you. And everyone’s temperament.

Metamour relations can be exceedingly complicated (so much so that I wrote an entire book to help people learn to troubleshoot them effectively, due out in the next few months, Dealing with Difficult Metamours, more on that soon) — or breathtakingly simple. It all depends.

But what I’ve found helpful in setting boundaries around problems that aren’t mine is remembering which degree I’m working in:

Okay, now that we have a basic intro to boundaries, we’re all set to tackle polyamory with them, right?

Hold on there.

We have officially arrived at the tricky part.

Traditional boundary-setting tackles first-degree boundaries, that is, your direct interactions with another person.

What about second-degree boundaries? Your metamour’s interactions with your partner? It’s easy when they don’t affect you at all. But what if they do? How about beyond the second degree — your telemour (your meta’s partner)?

What’s particularly difficult about polyamory is not only figuring out how to set boundaries that keep you emotionally healthy. It’s doing that in a multi-person system where things still affect you. But without meddling in stuff that has little or nothing to do with you. Many people seek out polyamory as a relationship style because they connect easily with others.

And while this can be great, poor boundaries aren’t just about letting people walk all over you. They can also involve succumbing to your Inner Buttinski.

You Don’t Always Get a Choice Whether Another Relationship Affects Yours

What’s been critical for me: Reminding myself and others that it isn’t my relationship even when it affects me. Because that’s the thing — this question talks about letting problems in relationships affect you… I don’t think it’s always that simple. I don’t think you always get a choice on whether another relationship affects yours. Sometimes there are direct impacts:

  • Your metamour might be late and it messes up scheduling.
  • Or your partner is emotionally affected in a way that is turning your life together on its head. And while you might wish you could just snap your fingers and change someone else’s emotions, you’re not a genie. That’s not how it works.

You don’t have control over those things. But what you do have control over is how you communicate your own feelings to others… and how you talk to yourself about what’s going on (mentally, or if you’re one of those self-talking aloud people, you can do it aloud, no shame, I’ve done it, it can work). You also have control over what you do in response to what’s going on outside of you (again, ideally, so long as you have a modicum of self-control or are working on developing some).

And if, for example, you don’t want to act as your partner’s confidant over the problems in their other relationship (see this post for some issues related to confidant stress when people have multiple roles in a polyamorous relationship system), you can set that first-degree boundary with your partner.

And if they’re a mature person who is somewhat reasonable, they’ll understand.

But it’s possible, even so, that the problems will still affect you somewhat. And I think that’s okay. I think we mostly get a hand in how much those problems affect us. Not whether they do at all. At least not at first, while we’re still figuring out how to manage our emotions and navigate social situations we never saw modeled anywhere.

Be careful not to “should” all over yourself while you’re figuring it out.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.

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