What boundaries should I set around problems within my partners’ other relationships?
The specific boundaries I’ve set at any given time in relationship systems (whether they pertain to my partners’ relationships with metamours or something else altogether) have covered quite a wide range. I could go into great detail outlining this history, the circumstances, how things played out.
But today I’d like to focus on something a bit more general — another tool that can go right into your polyamory toolbox.
In previous installments of Polyamory Toolbox, we covered:
- Good Roommate Standard. A self-check for those with nesting partners where you can ask yourself either “Am I being a good roommate to my partner by doing this?” OR “Is this behavior I’d tolerate from a roommate?”
- Wearing the Friend Hat. A technique for figuring out how to act in metamour situations where you ask yourself “What would I do if we weren’t sharing a lover but a best friend?”
- “What Am I Not Seeing?” A simple cognitive reframe to help you check yourself before you wreck yourself.
- 3 Strategies for When Your Nesting Partner Has a Date & You Don’t
Today I would like to talk about something I call Mother-In-Law Boundaries.
A Lack of Cultural Models… Kinda
Part of what can feel daunting when trying to navigate polyamorous relationships is how few cultural models we have for a lot of what happens.
If your partner has a difficult relationship with your metamour, how do you even begin trying to figure out if you need to set boundaries? And if so, which ones?
If you set too many, it’s possible to set up an extremely acrimonious relationship (with your partner, your metamour, and even both). But set too few, and you may find yourself swimming in secondhand problems.
Like a lot of people, I learned a lot about social behavior — i.e., how people were supposed to act — from watching TV and reading books. And yes, by watching people around me (parents, friends’ parents, etc.). For good and for bad. Seeing as I’d never had polyamory modeled for me, when I was new to it all, I often felt like I was venturing off into a strange land where I barely knew a few words in the native language, let alone the local customs.
And then one day it occurred to me: I did have good cultural models. They just weren’t romantic.
Just like its predecessors, The Friend Hat and The Good Roommate Standard, I found it helpful to look to nonromantic, nonsexual social models in order to find useful strategies for managing the novel social situations I was encountering.
And just like that, Mother-In-Law Boundaries were born.
My mother is an extremely difficult person. She’s mellowed out considerably in recent years, as she’s aged, but for the vast majority of my life, she’s been a constant critic of me and everything I do. And complicating matters, she was not only nasty and adversarial but clingy and overbearing to the point of stifling. Classic “I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me” patterns of behavior.
There were periods of my life when she and I didn’t see each other at all. Really had no relationship to speak of. But after my family staged an intervention and she began to seek professional help to work on her issues, I tentatively decided to have some contact with her and build some kind of mother-daughter connection.
To say it was rocky would have been putting it lightly.
Even with a professional in the picture helping her develop coping strategies and to understand healthy boundaries, she was still extremely difficult to deal with. Even though she began to show improvement, she would still say things that were deeply hurtful (though less often and not as atrociously). And occasionally do something completely inappropriate — like stopping by my apartment uninvited at midnight because she felt “lonely” (while my boyfriend waited awkwardly half-naked in the bedroom for me to get rid of her, my husband out on a date with his girlfriend).
Individual incidents were very stressful for me, to be sure. But I also found her overall pattern of behavior extremely encouraging — because this was a huge improvement. And I had that context.
In many ways, it was much more stressful for my husband. He hated the way she treated me. Couldn’t stand her. But he knew that I was trying to have a relationship with her and that we had a long and complicated history together that he’d never really understand.
So he picked his battles. Stayed mostly out of it. And if it got too difficult for him to hear about, he’d set that boundary: “I support you, but I don’t want to hear about this anymore.”
And when I’ve been in a situation where my partner has a difficult or stressful relationship with a metamour, and I’m not sure what to do, I have found it helpful to remember how he set those boundaries with his mother-in-law. And I’ll stop and ask myself:
What would I do if my partner were having this issue not with their other partner but with their parent?
Limitations to Mother-In-Law Boundaries
This one works pretty well most of the time. Really, the only time it doesn’t seem to be very helpful is if I’m considering matters of sexual risk factors. Something where it poses more of a direct potential logistical impact on my physical health and less of a nebulous potential strain on my emotional well-being or level of burnout or compassion fatigue.
But for the rest of it: It works pretty well.
For more reframes and tools to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds, please see Dealing with Difficult Metamours, a guide to troubleshooting challenging polyamorous dynamics as well as guidance on how to not create them in the first place.