Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I’m in a Polyamorous Marriage and I’m Anxious About My Boyfriend’s Abusive Ex”

My husband and I are in an ethical and consensual non-monogamous marriage and have been for the last four years. We both identify as polyamorous. He has several other long-term partners that I have close platonic friendships with as well. However, my question is not about our relationship — I just wanted to give some context.

In addition to my husband, I have a boyfriend, B, I have been dating for the past 11 months. B identifies as monogamous. He knew the deal completely when we started dating. I do not practice prescribed hierarchy, so I do my best to prioritize my marriage and my relationship with B as best as I can. I love B very, very much. It’s a charged, passionate, fun relationship, unlike any other I have ever been in. I see a long-term future with him and my husband concurrently.

However, we have a small issue.

His ex, the woman he has dated off and on since he was 15 (so roughly over a decade) is moving to our city. He has no clue what he wants with her, if anything at all. They have had minimal contact the last two years or so. I am anxious because what I know from their relationship is she was emotionally abusive. Some examples include she got married behind his back without telling him, she made him listen on the phone while she attempted suicide several times, she would withhold communication, she would tear him down verbally, etc., etc.

Now I would have no issue whatsoever with him dating someone else, but I have a boundary that I will not date someone who is in an abusive relationship. He is aware of my boundary. I do not believe in ultimatums or rules, and we have talked extensively about this. It’s causing me huge anxiety because he says things like “I don’t know what will happen when she moves here” and “I’m worried about having her back in my life” as if he has no control over his feelings/desire to date her. I agree that we do have little control over our emotions, but our thoughts and actions are all ours. He also reiterates that he is madly in love with me and wants to be with me.

My anxiety is at an all-time high. I am the kind of person who once I break up with someone, I cut off all contact. I cannot for the life of me figure out why he is even entertaining the idea of speaking to her at all. I also feel he is very anxious and I want to be there for him and reassure him that I am willing to work through this, but not at the expense of my own mental health. I do not want to lose him, but I also can’t be with someone who is in an abusive relationship, full stop.

Any ideas/suggestions? — Anxious and Poly

PS: My husband, myself, and all of our partners are intentionally child-free and plan on staying that way; IUDs, birth control, condoms, vasectomies are all used, as well as frequent STI/STD screening.

I would be anxious, too! B is someone who spent ten years on and off with someone who did not prioritize his feelings or their relationship, who took advantage of his trust and his vulnerability, and to whom he has not completely severed ties. And now he is in a relationship with you that, even despite your open communication and your obvious love and concern for him, is not wholly balanced or equal. You are polyamorous and married while he is monogamous and committed only to you. Even without his history, I might worry that eventually he would tire of not being your sole love while you are his. Of course, every relationship carries risk of pain and hurt feelings though, right? And if there aren’t red flags, most of us proceed with that understanding and decide to cross the bridge of potential pain if and when we get to it, hoping that the joy the relationship brings is worth that risk.

But with B, his history and his present suggest a potential pattern — and it’s a pattern that waves a red flag you can’t ignore. His two major relationships — or at least the only two you mention, which span 11 of the past 12 years — have been with women who, for different reasons and through different means, have not been monogamous with him while he identifies as monogamous himself. And there have been signs in both relationships that he isn’t 100% satisfied with the arrangement (the “off and on” nature of his past relationship and now the fact that he’s entertaining thoughts of his ex while with you). Of course, you have been nothing but honest and open about your polyamorous status. With you, he knows exactly what he’s getting, and… maybe that’s the draw for him. Maybe pursuing a relationship with you is a direct response to his relationship with his ex.

I would not necessarily jump to this conclusion if it weren’t for his continued contact with this woman and now his wishy-washy stance on her move to your town, saying he doesn’t know what will happen when she moves there and feeling worried about having her back in his life. Obviously, he never shut the door on their relationship or he wouldn’t have these feelings now. And if he never completely shut the door on their relationship, it makes the pattern of women he chooses to date even more significant. It makes his choice in dating YOU, specifically, very significant. And that is what would particularly worry me if I were you — that at least on some subconscious level he chose you specifically because of your lifestyle and because of the kinds of unique relationship boundaries you offer.

The unique relationship boundaries you offer give him the permission to pursue something with someone else, and so the freedom to reconnect with an ex, for example, is inherent. The unique relationship boundaries you offer also give him the kind of knowledge that he lacked with his ex: he knows the score with you. There are no surprises. He isn’t going to be caught off-guard if you marry someone else behind his back… because he already knows you’re married. There is safety and security in being with you in a way he did not have with his ex. The flip of that though, as you are experiencing, is that you aren’t getting the same sense of security in return.

Whether monogamous or polyamorous, serious or casual — we all deserve to feel the same sense of security and commitment in a relationship that we are able to offer in return. That doesn’t mean that the identities of two partners have to match. I’m sure there are plenty of relationship success stories between people who differ in terms of being monogamous and polyamorous – we’ll hear more about them in a Women Discuss post I am currently working on! — but I would imagine the thing they all have in common is that all partners’ needs are equally met a majority of the time. Right now your need to feel secure in your relationship is not being met, and there’s a glaring red flag that is directly related to the anxiety you’re feeling.

I know you don’t believe in ultimatums, but that shouldn’t preclude you from ending a relationship that continues to leave you feeling anxious if there’s no end in sight to the anxiety. So my advice is if your boyfriend cannot give you answers that satisfy you — if he can’t close the door on his abusive ex once and for all, it’s probably time to MOA.


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.

12 comments… add one
  • Northern Star February 4, 2019, 11:23 am

    Your life sounds exhausting.

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    • Allornone February 4, 2019, 12:10 pm

      I know, right? I have nothing against polyamory because to each their own (as long as everyone involved understands what’s up and is cool with it), but dang. Dealing with one relationship is hard enough for me; I can’t imagine dealing with two. Kudos, OP, for your ability to deal (and for your responsible safe sex practices). I wish I had some better advice for you. Right now, I think it’s best to just wait and see. When she moves back, if you see him get wrapped in her abusive web, then leave. If he rises above, then good for him and you. You’ve made your very reasonable bounaries clear. It might be heartbreaking to walk away, but don’t let his bad choices affect your mental health.

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    • OP (Anxious and Poly) February 4, 2019, 3:07 pm

      I don’t think it is any more so than anyone else’s? No one in this equation has kids, which helps a lot.

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      • Allornone February 5, 2019, 8:29 am

        I don’t know. I don’t have kids, and I still don’t think I could take on more emotional weight than my single relationship. This is not a critique on you. If anything, it’s a critique on my own limitations. I commend those who can take on more. The more love, the more fulfilling a life usually, so power to you. But it does pave the way for more potential drama, which is where I think my limitations stem from (having a short tolerance for complications).

  • csp February 4, 2019, 12:29 pm

    LW – I wonder if him bringing up this other relationship was a way to feel more powerful. He knows you are with someone else and he is bringing up the on and off relationship to feel that you are equal. my guess is that he cares about you but isn’t as comfortable with the openess that you are.

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    Skyblossom February 4, 2019, 4:00 pm

    Does B understand that you consider his ex abusive?

    I’d tell him one last time that if he gets into a relationship with his ex you will have to break up with him because you emotionally can’t be in a relationship with someone who is in an abusive relationship. Tell him it takes too much from you. That isn’t an ultimatum. It is just explaining the facts. He will make his own decision. You won’t be telling him what he should do or demanding that he choose you.

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  • wobster109 February 4, 2019, 4:02 pm

    LW, you may be a polyamorist but your question sounds straightforward to me. You said, “I won’t get involved with any part of an abusive relationship.” He presumably heard and understood you. So if he gets back together with the ex, then you say, “I’m sorry, this is a dealbreaker for me.” And then you break up.

    I know I sound unsympathetic. I understand why you feel so conflicted, really. You love B, and you don’t want him to suffer. And he says sweet and romantic things to you like saying he’s “madly in love” with you, which is all fine, but actions speak louder than words. If he makes this choice, knowing that it’s a dealbreaker for you, then he’s showing you his priorities. To me, it looks a lot like dating an alcoholic.

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  • anonymousse February 4, 2019, 5:15 pm

    I think this is a situation where you actually need to hold tight and see what happens. They’ve had minimal contact.
    Just state your boundaries. Ask for the honest truth and stick to it.

    Have you talked about what he means by he wants to be with you? I know he knows the situation, but he still identifies as monogamous.

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    • anonymousse February 4, 2019, 6:43 pm

      Also, she’s married, right? And he’s just assuming she’ll want to start right up again?

      Why don’t you believe in ultimatums? They’re an extension of boundaries. It’s okay to make a rule that if he starts seeing her, you’re done.

      Assuming you care about him…have you asked him why he’d go back to that clearly unhealthy and unhappy situation? I agree his wording is him pretending like he has no control over his behavior, which is ludicrous. He could block her number right now if he wanted to. If he thinks and acts like it’s inevitable that he’ll date her, he’s already made that choice.

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  • CET February 4, 2019, 6:26 pm

    Geez. He acts like he has no control over his own decisions in life. I really hate this quality…this is how people don’t take responsibility for their own problems in life. Anyway my advice is to remind him: if you get back into a relationship with her, this is a dealbreaker for me and our relationship is over. This is your choice. You have control over whether or not you talk to her or see her…it’s not out of your control. So, keep me in the loop with what you decide. Just be super up front about it and remind him this…if he chooses to start seeing her again then his relationship with you is over. It’s hard, but you have to stick to your rule. Remind him also that once you break up with someone it is for good.

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  • Another Jen February 6, 2019, 10:00 am

    I think the fact of your polyamory is less relevant than the fact that your boyfriend seems wishy-washy. His passive approach to the abusive ex is a real red flag…of course he can control whether he allows this person into his life. I’m also puzzled at his approach to relationships. He defines himself as monogamous…so is he planning to embrace polyamory, too? Have you and he talked about what this means for your relationship? You’ve been very straightforward about your marriage and relationship expectations and deliberate about how that works…but he seems pretty muddled. Is he just opportunistically monogamous, because it seems like if he was truly interested in a non-monogamous situation the smarter thing would be to try to find someone new to date…not hop back into a fraught relationship with an abusive ex. That would be more considerate of your relationship anyway. In any case, I’d consider his dabbling with an abusive ex much like any other deal-breaker: explain where you stand, then let him be responsible for making his decision.

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    Bittergaymark February 6, 2019, 1:28 pm

    I’d find another boyfriend. Some people simply seem to dig and crave abuse. Don’t get involved. He’ll always choose her. They ALWAYS do,

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