Eating vegetables would kill my boyfriend. He can’t eat them, because he has an autoimmune disease which prevents him digesting them. So all the five-a-day advice from do-gooders is irrelevant, unhelpful and comes from a place of judgement and blanket assumption. Assumption that fruit and vegetables are good for everyone. Judgement that he is doing the wrong thing and that they know better than he does, what is good for him.
Similarly there seems to be plenty of advice circulating in polyamorous circles that if we own our shit, if we do the work, if we grow, then every single person would be able to get along with anyone, especially our partners’ partners - our metamours. Over the years I’ve come to believe that this simply isn’t true. We all have our sensitivities, allergies and intolerances, some of them too deep to change in the short term - or even the medium term - to anyone's satisfaction. Whilst having such 'intolerances' is not an excuse to avoid self work and owning your shit, it is the reality. Some people are incompatible for you, at this stage of your life, maybe for always. Not because they are evil, nor because you are, but just like certain explosive chemicals, because of how you both react together.
We all have wounds, it's a part of the human condition. And there’s a big bag of self examination to unpack when your partner meets someone who opens wounds in you that you would be far happier leaving well alone. Initially, simply by the position metamours occupy they may be the trigger for your fears and insecurities. So unpack the bag you must, so that you can sort through what you can both further own, heal and manage and what truly might mean you and your metamour are better off keeping your distance. Keeping your distance, by the way, is an absolutely acceptable and ethical option if it isn't used with the intent to veto, blackmail or otherwise manipulate.
What Does Incompatability Mean?
It’s not above all about jealousy. Jealousy - although it feels uncomfortable - gives you the chance to look at your underlying insecurities in your own identity. It's not about different likes, dislikes or preferences. In this article, it's also not about abusive situations. Run from those, don't walk.
Deep incompatibilities exist between people when ingrained strategies they each follow to meet their fundamental needs1 conflict with one another so badly, that they polarize and risk explosion. If not managed from the outset, the situation becomes infected and toxic. It's why, when entering any relationship, you should do so slowly. Polyamory is not just about you, so keep checking in. With your metamours, with your partners and above all with yourself.
Person A grew up with a narcissistic parent and thus has prioritised a fundamental need for freedom. In order to satisfy this need, they resist reject coercion or control (perceived or real) even when a certain course of action might be in their best interests. Person B was abused as a child, and has a prioritised fundamental need for acceptance. Due to their past trauma the strategy they have developed to meet that need is to engage in relationships only if they contain the condition of unquestioned loyalty; without it they feel unsupported and threatened.
Person A and Person B are fundamentally incompatible at this moment in time. A's need for utter freedom, characterised by a strategy which involves a condition of no control, cannot coexist closely or peacefully with a strategy which necessitates a condition of unquestioned loyalty. These two people feel the other to be, right now at least, a threat to each other's survival.
Fundamental needs can change in prioritisation over time, but in my experience rarely do. They have been developed as a result of nature and nurture intertwined, over many years. The strategies you use to meet them, on the other hand, can be modified - but slowly, compassionately in a safe environment. Knowing the strategies you use, and why you use them is essential (and that usually requires a lot of time and a lot of self-awareness). Could these two people get past this? Maybe. If both do extensive self-work. But you cannot oblige a person to change just because you want them to. And life is short. That amount of work - even with the willingness and ability to change - can take years. It might just not be worth it.
Person A is a polyamorous activist out of the closet all over Facebook, and in real life. Being polyamorous up front is part of their identity, and an expression of a fundamental need - authenticity. Without this expression, Person A feels like half a person - unseen, unhappy and unaccepted. Person B privately believes in polyamory but has grown up in a tight muslim community upon which they have based their whole life. Association with polyamorous activists threatens their inclusion in this community through ridicule, ostracisation and at worse (if their own inclination is discovered), loss of their entire family support system and perhaps even violent 'honour' repercussions. Person B has a fundamental need for connection through community and meets it by disguising socially unacceptable connections/preferences. Person B views A's activism, as a threat and shuts out Person A as a danger to their survival whilst Person A feels shunned and rejected.
Person A and Person B are deeply incompatible at this time. And just like the earlier example, there is no blame which can be attributed to either party. They are both simply trying their best to survive (and thrive) in their environments.
It looks like stalemate for these two people. Unless person B intends to leave the community they grew up in then an association to person A will continue to be a very real threat to their survival, whilst for person A being around someone who continually shuns their 'identity' - although not personal - is highly unpleasant. They are better off not interacting whist trying without blame to understand why this is so.
So How Can You Proceed?
If you have done the work, and analysed why and how it is that you cannot intimately be part of the same groupings, or the same community as your metamour, then your mutual partner(s), are more likely to understand why you must set a 'very little interaction' boundary. You cannot ethically decide on their relationships. You can - and must - still strive to be civil in limited interaction if there is any possible, because otherwise the situation can degrade into toxicity with victimization and bullying. It will be easier for others' to accept the boundary if you can explain the motivators. In order to do so,
- Identify your fundamental needs, if you can.
- Identify the strategies you have developed to meet them.
- Identify why they seem to clash with your metamours' strategies
- See whether you might (both) be able to meet your needs with a different strategy
- Rinse and repeat...
"People seek out relationships for many reasons, but it is unlikely that someone falls in love with someone else on purpose with the sole intent of pissing you off. "But even so, you don’t owe anyone an explanation to keep yourself safe. Simply, you may not know yourself well enough the reasons why. And that's not a crime. If you're wondering why your partner has fallen in love with someone you just cannot be around, you only have to remember one thing. It has nothing to do with you. It is not an act of revenge, an act of sabotage or purposely designed to impact you. It is about them. What is incompatible with one person, may be highly fruitful to another. People seek out relationships for many reasons, but it is unlikely that someone falls in love with someone else on purpose with the sole intent of pissing you off. Similarly, if your partner cannot bear your other partner, remember - compassionately - that they are only trying to survive themselves. Don't blame, it's counterproductive.
Alas, even if emotionally, the metamours can accept and understand why very little interaction is possible the repercussions of metamour incompatibility might affect time management as both relationships must be conducted, even if in full knowledge and consent of the other, separately. It will affect mutual friendships and can spark a whole host of other problems. It is up to the individual to decide whether that situation is acceptable for them. There is always the choice to transition or leave the relationship... (no one said it was easy though). Yet personally, I see metamours as the ultimate gift in polyamory, especially ones where the relationship has the potential to become toxic. Because when you find someone who is toxic to you, it is an immense opportunity to examine why. Truly, you will never know yourself as well, as when you meet someone who pulls your every trigger (and much of the time, triggers you didn’t even know you had).