Looking Over My Shoulder for the Long Shadow of Cruella de Vil

a woman cosplaying as 101 Dalmatians Villain Cruella de Vil
Image by Myrna Litt / CC BY

“You know what my ultimate polyamorous nightmare would be?” I say to him.

“What’s that?” he replies.

“That you’d be dating this woman who you are just crazy about. And who is nice to me when you’re around, but the moment you turn your back, she starts being actively terrible to me. And not only that, but you decide to move her into the house to live with us.”

“I’d never do that,” he says. “No unilateral new roommate decisions. You’d always get a say on people moving in. No matter the circumstances. Whether I’m dating them or not.”

“I know that,” I say. “But what if it were an emergency situation? One in which someone you cared about were about to be homeless? I think I’d feel like I had to say yes. Having been in binds like that myself in the past, having been saved by people who said yes when it was inconvenient for them, how could I say no?”

“I don’t think you’d say yes if she were actively terrible to you,” he says.

“But what if I didn’t know until after she moved in?”

Why the Hypothetical?

He shakes his head. Sighs. Seems to study me carefully. As though he’s not sure why I’m diving so deeply into this bothersome hypothetical.

To be fair, I’m not sure why I’m going there either. Only that it’s occurred to me at moments when I’m exploring the limits of my graciousness regarding my partners’ other relationships. Where I’m searching for sore spots that still exist. Places where I’d need to set firm boundaries. Scenarios that would still bother me, after all of these years of working on becoming a person who can deal with anything.

Are these thoughts based on some history that’s important to address? Is it some kind of bargain with the devil?

He can see parallels between this cooked up nightmare and my childhood: A mother who was cruel to us the moment my father turned his back. And a father who turned his back a lot, frequently away on work trips, focused on the practical side of making his family’s life better, trusting his spouse to hold down the fort in his absence.

As a kid watching cartoons, I always felt a deep identification with characters who were oppressed by villains. The story of Snow White and her wicked stepmother always rang true. As did the struggle of the poor couple being tormented by Cruella de Vil.

The Fear of Ending Up Stuck in a Situation Where I’m Suffering and No One Is Listening To Me

These days my life is great. I’m surrounded by wonderful people, and things are stable and loving in a way that never seemed possible when I was growing up.

But part of me knows that all of that could change. That I could once again be in a situation where I’m held captive by the whims of someone not properly managing their own emotions. Someone who I can see right through in an instant but others close to me keep making excuses for.

I know it’s possible to be stuck in a situation where I’m suffering and feel like no one will listen to me.

I suppose it didn’t help that I spent a decade with a former partner who so lacked fluency in the nuances of women’s aggression that his other girlfriend could be actively cruel to me in front of him and he’d never notice. And if I did manage to work up the courage to point out the troubling behavior, he’d accuse me of concern trolling, inventing concerns in order to not have to claim my own jealousy or insecurity.

I’m in a completely different situation now. Talking to a partner who is much more savvy about social graces in general and also when it comes to the special ways that women tend to be mean to one another.

But a part of me keeps looking over my shoulder for the long shadow of Cruella de Vil.

An Understandable Fear, But One I Won’t Let Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

As I find myself talking more with others about this weird fear, a few patterns begin to emerge.

The distaste for it is understandable, reasonable. As one person put it, “Pretty much everyone would feel bad in that scenario. It’s about as universal of a polyamorous nightmare as I’ve heard. The metamour who is horrific but whose bad deeds escape detection by everyone else somehow.”

The important thing, however, is to keep this fear from creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. To not let fear project negative images onto other people. To not be so scared of Cruella de Vil that I begin to see her in people that are doing nothing untoward.

And to continue to lead with graciousness and give everyone the benefit of a few doubts, knowing that I’ve dealt with difficult people in the past and did just fine. That I’m more than capable of doing it again.

And that I’ve cultivated relationships with people who deeply respect my opinion, know that I hate to complain about other people, and that if I have something negative to say about someone else, it’s founded in something more than my own fear.

It’s taken some time, persistence, and patience to earn that kind of trust. But it’s there.

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My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).

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