I am not sure if kids still play this game – it very well may have been obliterated along with Chinese jump rope and other games deemed not fit in our new world of political correctness and avoidance of anything resembling bullying. For those of you who don't know, it is a game usually with three players. Two of them are playing catch with a ball or something, and the third unfortunate soul occupies the space between the two playing catch, trying to grab the item being tossed overhead. Even though I was usually tall enough to grab the ball out of the sky while it was being tossed, thus earning myself a turn out of the middle, I never liked the game. Turns out I still don't.
One of my relationships is as the frequent lover of a man who is married/poly/open. His wife is also poly and open but she is straight, so the sexual part of the relationship is limited just to him. Let's call them Bob and Brenda. They are not new to the lifestyle; each has had close relationships and played separately. I am the one who is new to the lifestyle and therefore, obviously to this configuration. What I learned quickly was that it was better to have Brenda as a friend than not. So while I don't count her as one of my best girl friends, yet, it is a relationship that requires a certain about of care and feeding. Very careful care and feeding.
What I did not count on was how often I would be pulled into conversations and conflicts that made me uncomfortable. If I had handled this relationship the way I handle most new things I explore, I would have done some research first, but I didn't do that. Although, I am not so sure that I would have been able to find much good advice on this topic but I don't know since I haven't looked. So I have been developing coping strategies as I go. Some have been much more successful than others.
The first thing that was surprising to me was when I asked Bob for some time – Could we see each other on Sunday night? His response was that I should ask Brenda. Huh? Wait – don't you own the relationship with your wife? Shouldn't you be negotiating the time you want to spend with me with her? But I am new to this and certainly new to what works in their relationship, so OK. Maybe it is a respect thing? She is the primary, the queen, and I need to ask for permission. And although it occasionally sets my teeth on edge for a moment, it is a hoop I am willing to jump through to maintain my relationship with Bob. I will continue to do it as long as necessary. I ask – “Would you like to do X on Y?” and the usual response is “OK, but please ask Brenda.”
What I learned the hard way was not to divert from that sequence. I made the “mistake” of asking her first and when I asked him, I said, “Would you like to do X on Y? I already talked to Brenda and she says it is OK with her.” He was upset that I didn't ask him first. At first, I didn't see the nuance; and I am still not sure that I see it clearly, but I am nothing if not teachable, so now I follow the protocol.
Lesson #1: Figure out what works in time management and communication and try not to deviate from it.
Establish and maintain boundaries
I have young children. Bob and Brenda are also parents. Like many parents, including my husband and me, they are not always on the same page as far as parenting styles are concerned. Fair enough. What stunned me was the first time that they were having a disagreement about how to handle a particular issue while I was at their home. And Bob pulled me into the conflict to ask for my view. My first reaction was – “No, this is none of my business, my opinion doesn't matter.” Bob got quite exasperated with me that I would not weigh in. I held my ground. His argument was that as a parent, my opinion was useful. Mine was that it was not my place to offer an opinion on other people's parenting. Over time I have softened on this slightly but only after having made certain that Bob understood that just because he and I were involved, I was not going to automatically support his position when he and Brenda had a difference of opinion. When I am asked for an opinion, I may offer it, but not in the heat of an argument. And there have only been a very few times where I have felt compelled to offer an opinion. The way I have done that is to ask, “May I make an observation about …?” When I do, I choose my words very carefully, use statements that begin with “I…” not “You…” and try very hard to avoid the word should.
Lesson#2: Offer advice when asked only if you are comfortable and in as constructive a manner as possible.
Stay out of spousal conflicts
This next one has been very difficult. I am not Brenda. Brenda is not me. We are not interchangeable. Of course Bob knows this, but, when he and his wife are in the midst of a conflict about something, it is not unusual for him to ask me, “Why do you understand this when she doesn't?” This has happened often enough that it doesn't come as a surprise when I answer as follows, “I can't say. It is not that I know and I am refusing to tell you, it is that I don't know the answer. You need to talk to your wife.” Likewise, Brenda may ask me, “Why does he do this/not do this with me? He does it with you.” My response is the same. Except it ends in, “You need to talk to your husband.” And while I have been willing to offer an occasional opinion on parenting issues, weighing in on spousal conflicts is a minefield I will not enter. I have stood firm on this and intend to remain so. My opinion on what one or the other of them is or is not doing will not be shared with either of them. Sometimes I need to bite my tongue, but I see no upside to saying anything other than that they need to talk to each other. If pressed for more, I reiterate the need for them to speak to each other. I remind them that I am not a therapist and that I am not comfortable getting in the middle of any of their issues with each other. So far, so good.
Lesson #3: Think of yourself as Switzerland. Totally neutral. Completely nonjudgmental.
Just because a couple is married, you cannot assume that they tell each other the same things they tell you. I said something to Brenda about something I assumed she knew. She did not. I betrayed a confidence that I was unaware was a confidence. This mistake resulted in several hours of tearful arguing during which I feared for the longevity of my relationship with Bob. I am now vigilant answer is “No,” I revert to the “You need to talk to your husband/wife.” I will also follow up a day or so later, and ask, “Have you talked to Bob/Brenda about …?” If they have not, I communicate my being uncomfortable and again ask that the information be shared. I continue until it has been. I have also asked them to try to limit the confidences shared only with me. I never want to be in the position of having one of them asking me if I knew about something when s/he did not. I also never want to lose or damage a relationship because I unintentionally “let something slip.' Insisting on not keeping secrets has so far been the most difficult. In a long term, intimate relationship, there are bound to be very personal conversations, and there will be a part of you who feels honored that something has been shared with you. It may make you feel closer, more connected, to your lover. I understand. I have been there. But it's dangerous. Remember the “open” part of the relationship's description.
The corollary is equally thorny. If I share something with Bob, I should have no expectation that the information will not be shared with Brenda. But there is that problematic word, “should.” Again, in intimate conversations, my first thought may be that this is between Bob and me, but, with trying to maintain that “openness,” secrets are not welcome. And I am working on being OK with that.
Lesson #4: Avoid keeping secrets.
I expect that I will learn additional hard lessons over time with Bob and Brenda and with other couples that I meet on my journey. I will share my mistakes and learnings as I go. Hopefully my battle scars will lessen those of others. Fingers crossed.