“My Partner Won’t Leave a Toxic Marriage”

a vase of dying roses with a petal that's fallen onto the stand beside them
Image by Cliff Ammons / CC BY

Hi Page, 

About a year and a half ago, I found myself in a poly relationship. I didn’t get into it under the best circumstances, though.

I had found out that my husband had been exploiting me for a decade and he was really turned on by the idea of me sleeping around, and I just hated him and wanted to get away, but it was a last ditch effort to stay together and find something that worked for both of us. In the end, his narcissistic abuse continued and threatening behavior escalated, so I left. I continued dating the married man I had met while married though. His wife had boyfriends and she approved of me and we all got together many times.

I noticed, as I grew as a person and learned things about myself in the separation and divorce process, I started seeing huge red flags in my partner’s marriage. She was never there for him emotionally. She ordered him around with an irritated tone constantly. She never worked but rarely did any housework or was there for him at dinner or when he got home from work. She spent money constantly, compulsively shopping and gambling and traveling (she has had boyfriends on three continents), but then would complain when he spent money. He would tell me that he only felt happy when with me, that he never felt supported like how he felt with me. His wife was almost never home, out with one of her boyfriend all the time and he said he liked it better that way. He said they stopped sleeping together and that he really only wanted me. When I talked about dating other people, he got upset and says he wanted us to be a couple. He never really wanted the poly thing to begin with, it seemed, but his wife pushed it.

From all that, I started getting frustrated. He would say all this, but would still go do things for her as she demanded. It felt like we were a long distance monogamous couple with this dark clouds hanging over our heads. He didn’t want to upset her and she was extremely controlling.

I finally one day said I wanted us to either be mono or poly, but I wouldn’t sit and wait monogamously while he was still living with and married to his wife. He chose to stay with her. I felt really hurt. Was everything he said a lie? Didn’t he see what she was doing to him?

I know I broke a Cardinal rule in poly relationships by encouraging him to leave a marriage, but I couldn’t stand seeing him miserable and I really love him. I also, though, can’t stand being in a long distance relationship that is basically ruled by someone who I feel is narcissistic and controlling.

Right now, we are mostly just friends and I’m working on myself and he’s in therapy. I don’t know if you have any advice. I still really hope we will end up together someday. I hope at very least he finds the strength to walk away from a hurtful marriage.

Polyamory Has a Way of Shedding Light on Incompatibility

Thank you for writing in. Regarding your rough entry into polyamory, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote a while back called “The Scariest Thing About Polyamory Is Also One of the Best”:

“Polyamory has a way of demonstrating who you should really be with,” she says. “And it’s not always who you think you should be with going in.”

I nod. “We’ve both been in poly circles for a long time. Seen so many relationships open up to new partners. And you never know, for sure, whether any one couple will make it.”

“Mmhmm,” she says. “But you do know that they’ll likely end up with partners that are really good for them. Whether that’s the person they start out dating. Or if they meet other people that make more sense for them to be with.”

I smile. “You’re really on to something. We all have this big fear of the game changer relationship. The partner who comes into our life and turns everything upside down. But it’s funny. When it happens, it’s usually for the better.”

“It is,” she says. “At least in the long run.”

I nod. “I think you can run into problems in the short term when one person runs into a game changer and the other person doesn’t. Then that other person is just stuck. I look at my ex-husband. It was devastating for him to see that other people were so much more compatible with me than he was.”

She nods.

“But another 6 months later, he was with someone who was the same way for him. Much more compatible with him than I ever was. And even he says now that we were right to get divorced. That we just didn’t make sense. Neither of us can believe we were ever married now. We should have been secondaries at most.”

She smiles.“But yeah, maybe you should write about that. How the scariest thing about polyamory is also the best: It has a way of shedding light on compatibility.”

“Or incompatibility.”

It sounds like you lived through this particular lesson yourself. You were able to leave that relationship and find a connection that from the sound of it is much more healthy and rewarding for you.

The Hostage Situation

It also sounds like through your divorce you learned a lot about yourself and how healthy interdependence should operate that has fundamentally altered your views on relationships. As you’re now living through it, this increased knowledge is fantastic when it comes to matters that are completely within your control.

But as you so well note in your letter, it can be agony when it comes to your views of relationships that aren’t yours to control. This predicament you describe is what I refer to as the hostage situation:

In a hostage situation, you’re watching what amounts to an emotional stand-off from a relatively short distance as a frustrated bystander, or perhaps you’re acting as mediator for the parties trying to talk them out of whatever crisis they’ve ended up in. In either case, there’s tension, and the stakes are high. In the first case, you’re powerless, doomed to watch what happens without having a hand in the outcome. In the second, you carry the additional pressure of being part of the process, and consequently, part of the failure should things go terribly awry.

These are the times when polyamory simply is not fun.

I’m sorry to say that there’s no easy answer here. It’s your partner’s decision to make, whether or not to leave that relationship. As you’ve noted, even if you tell them what to do, you don’t have control over whether they follow your advice.

Now, you have control over whether you stay in a relationship with him. And that’s always an option, to completely move on (even not conducting a friendship) if you feel like this is more than you want to suffer through. (But only you can make that determination, whether the pain and stress are worth what you get out of it.)

It sounds like at the very least you’ve taken a big step back for your own sanity, something I’d completely support in this scenario.

The Emotional Complexities of Being an Overstressed Hinge

“Was everything he said a lie? Didn’t he see what she was doing to him?”

No, I don’t think his handling (or non-handling/slow handling) of the situation means that he necessarily lied to anyone or that he completely has blinders on. I believe that these kinds of conflicts can be incredibly complicated and paralyze a person caught in the middle of them.

For what it’s worth, I did write another advice column in the past to two readers who wrote in who were in a similar position to your partner. And those letters and answers are worth a read if you want some insight into the conflict from the angle of overstressed hinge.

Even though those letter writers aren’t dealing with the same exact situation (from all accounts, they don’t seem like they’re being exploited/abused by their wives), I think some of the way that they talk about divided loyalties and feeling torn might be interesting/insightful.

I’m not going to give you grief for encouraging him to leave his marriage. I’m not saying it’s what I would have done (although I have no way of knowing for sure without being closer to the situation), but I suspect it was not something you did lightly. And I’m sure you’ve given yourself enough grief about it already.

But you’re ultimately going to have to accept that this is his decision.

This Is Something He’s Going to Have to Figure Out on his Own

I’m glad that he’s in therapy. Going solely by your letter (which of course doesn’t give me his impressions directly from the source), my suspicion here is that he has some big forces working against him actually leaving the marriage if indeed the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

Beyond the obvious legal entanglement (which I’m sure you’re well acquainted with having been divorced yourself), for some folks, there’s also a large sense of shame and failure surrounding divorce to contend with. In spite of any financial abuses, it’s also possible that he feels like leaving his wife would be abandoning her (financially or otherwise). Or that other people whose opinions he respects would think so.

It’s hard to tell. In any event, if it’s the right decision for him, he’ll likely come to it on his own over time and with the guidance of a skilled therapist (who won’t tell him what to do but will help him ask himself questions that he can answer and figure out what he actually wants, absent of his wife’s influence or yours).

The point here is that even though he could have gotten that wake-up call, that this relationship is not healthy for him — hearing the wake-up call and actually getting up out bed and getting ready are two different matters.

I’ve Seen This Before, With an Unconventional Happy Ending

I have actually seen this scenario unfold in the wild before (so to speak). Where a person was being pretty badly used by his wife in a polyamorous context initiated by her, could see what she was doing to him but had no intention of leaving her. What happened next was interesting.

Eventually, she found another lover who was an even better mark than he was and left him for that new lover. Then she proceeded to cut off every social connection other than this new mark and essentially disappeared.

To this day, we have no idea where this woman went.

My male friend, while completely crushed when his wife left him, has moved on and is having really healthy and fulfilling relationships. His life has never been better.

I’m not saying that this is what’s going to happen in this case. There are several possible outcomes here.

Keep Living, Don’t Put Your Life on Hold

But I’m glad that you’ve taken a step back. I would advise for the time being that you focus on yourself and do your best to enjoy your life in the interim. Don’t put your life on hold while he figures it out.

If things fall into place in the future, if you end up together, fine. If not, I’m sure that you can put the lessons you learned to good use in a connection that will suit you better.

That’s the funny thing — you could meet someone new tomorrow who fulfills you in a myriad of ways and isn’t part of a hostage situation.

You never know. Great relationships seem impossible before they happen — and then later, they feel inevitable.

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And finally, if you haven’t already — I’d recommend you read my book Dealing with Difficult Metamours and complete the reflection questions. Seriously. I think there are a lot of insights about this difficult metamour, your shared partner, and even yourself that you will uncover in the process that’ll not only help you cope better with whatever the outcome is here but help prepare you with new lessons for any future relationships (whether difficult or not).

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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.

Your letter and my answer might be featured in Advice Friend. I regularly change identifying details and/or completely rewrite letters to preserve anonymity.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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