Tangled writes: Let's say, hypothetically, that I was in a relationship with someone who was also in a relationship with someone else. Let's call my partner Brook and Brook's partner Chris. And let's say that I knew Chris but we weren't close. I think it would likely be in my best interest to support Brook and Chris' relationship and accommodate it as much as possible while still maintaining my happiness with my relationship.
This question is about morality though. What level of responsibility do I have to Chris and their relationship? Is it immoral if I don't actively engage with Chris so I know what Chris wants and needs? Is it immoral to ask for things from Brook that I want but know will hurt the other relationship? What if I don't need them but they would be nice? Most importantly, is it wrong to consider my feelings more important than Chris' feelings?
As a pragmatist, this is what I’ve observed: when people start taking unbidden responsibility for other peoples’ relationships, good things rarely happen. I’m inclined to believe that the impulse to do so is misplaced and shows a lack of respect for the people whose relationship it actually is, while breeding resentment in the heart of the responsibility-taker who probably has enough to deal with in his or her own relationships.
However, you do have a relationship with Brook, and Brook does have a relationship with Chris, and there is a certain kind of emotional transitive property operating there that puts you on the hook for taking care of Chris. But it has to come through Brook.
Since polyamorous relationships aren’t as common as monogamous ones, there isn’t a standard cultural contract that can be assumed to be in place. In a monogamous relationship, certain things are taken for granted (no sleeping with other people) that don’t even need to be explicitly addressed; they are the default and everyone in this culture more or less understands that, whether or not they uphold them. A poly relationship has fewer default settings in that regard, so the burden is on the participants to carefully delineate what, exactly, they expect from each other with regard to other partners.
How much moral responsibility you have for Brook and Chris’s relationship depends very much on two things: the contract that exists between Brook and Chris, and the contract that exists between you and Brook. You are only responsible for upholding the latter, but Brook needs to insist on drawing up your contract such that it honors the former. (Or, if that isn’t possible, Brook needs to alter the former such that it honors the latter. This isn’t a simple process; it involves time and back-and-forths; it is worth everybody’s patience to find agreement, or one of the relationships will give.)
So: What level of responsibility do you have to C&B’s relationship? You have exactly as much responsibility to Chris as your contract with Brook states. There is no absolute, objective moral requirement for what goes into that contract except that you and Brook agree on it; and I would say the moral burden is on Brook for ensuring that the two contracts are not mutually exclusive. Of course, you can and should help with that, and engaging with Chris directly is a great idea that will probably make everyone's lives easier, but it isn’t your job (unless your contract with Brook asks for that.)
Is it immoral to ask for what you want, knowing it may hurt the other party? No. It is never, never immoral to ask for what you want. It is Brook’s responsibility to behave in a manner consistent with both contracts (which may involve saying ‘no’ to you), or, if that is impossible, to attempt to change the contracts. It’s your job to be patient and understanding with that process, which may be full of missteps and take a while to figure out; this shit is complicated and emotional and there’s no handy cultural blueprint for how to do it.
This is important: the worst thing you can do, ever, is say that you approve of some aspect of your contract that you are not okay with. If it feels unbalanced or bad or is something that doesn’t feel right to you, you have not just the right, but the obligation to say no. It’s very tempting to say okay when it isn’t, for a variety of reasons; to seem strong & cool, or because of feeling bad for having caused pain, or having pushed too far on another point, or… I’m here to say that signing up for things that don’t feel good is cruelty to both yourself & your partner, and it’ll getcha in the end if you do.
This is also important: If you break the previous rule, which is sometimes hard to keep, you need to forgive yourself and try again. Not everyone knows what they want right away, and being in a poly relationship can involve occasionally finding out what you don’t want in somewhat painful ways. That’s ok. Take a deep breath, shed some tears, try to figure out what you learned and communicate it. If you can do this together in a positive way, you’ll be stronger for the mistakes.
Your last question: is it wrong to consider your feelings more important than Chris’s? That’s one that I would try to rephrase. Objectively, your feelings are not any more important than Chris’s, and Chris’s feelings are not any more important than yours. But because you are stuck inside your brain, with your heart and your perceptions and your knowledge of your relationship, you are only ABLE to deal with yours. Trying to take Chris’s feelings on is a disastrous idea, because you have NO IDEA what’s going on in there. It would be rude of you to try. It’s like being the general manager of QFC and making decisions for the neighboring Safeway. What are you doing in there? You don’t know shit about Safeway. Take your pricing gun and your spreadsheets back home and talk to your own damn employees.
Right? Good luck, Tangled.
How’d I do? Leave your additions, complaints, and/or expletives in the comments. And please, for the love of God, write me a question! So far I have answered 100% of the questions I have received! firstname.lastname@example.org