Slowing Down in Meta Relationships

In polyamory, it’s not just about your multiple partners. Inevitably, if your partners also have other partners, you’re going to have metamours. “Metamour” or “meta” is the term for your partners’ other partners. Metamour relationships can end up being one of the most challenging parts of polyamory. After all, you didn’t choose your metamours but, even if you never meet, you’re sharing someone who’s important to both of you.

One of the make-or-break factors in creating good meta relationships is making sure they grow healthily at a pace that fits who you each are and what you need from your meta experience. When these relationships go well, though, they can also be incredibly rewarding.

Creating meta relationships means some level of interaction, so this article might not apply to you if you practice DADT or very strict parallel poly. If you practice looser parallel poly, kitchen table polyamory, or other styles that allow for or include interaction, though, please read on!

No normal

Meta relationships are just like every other interpersonal relationship, but we usually don’t have representation of this relationship type in media or in our larger (non-poly) communities to show us how it’s supposed to work. (Thanks, mono culture.) The lack of a societal norm for them means that the major issues in most meta relationships would be easily recognized as unhealthy in other relationships but go unseen in these.

We know what healthy looks like when:

  • Two divorced parents share raising a child.
  • Two siblings share a parent.
  • Two people both have the same best friend.

In all of those scenarios, two people are brought together because they care about a third person who cares about them both. Those two people might be extremely close themselves or they might just be polite from a distance but, for the most part, we understand how those relationships work… and metamour relationships work the exact same way using the same behaviors. We just have to make sure we’re emulating the real-life healthy versions of those scenarios and not the zany sitcom episodes where someone gets jealous and everything goes haywire.

So what’s a good meta relationship look like?

Every single meta relationship you’ll have will be different, and one person’s perfect meta scenario might be another’s nightmare. Some of us want a shopping buddy and some of us want to be left alone. At the end of the day, the best meta relationships are ones that work for everyone’s needs, preserve good boundaries, and support everyone’s (healthy) relationships, whatever that means for the individual relationship.

In a close-knit kitchen table polycule, two metas might get together for coffee sometimes, cook dinner together for their polycule, reach out to eachother for emotional support, and conspire together to find their shared partner the perfect Christmas gift.

In another polycule with looser ties, two metas might be Facebook friends, share memes occasionally, send a “get well soon” text when one is sick, and be flexible when their shared partner adjusts plans for the other’s birthday.

Really, it all boils down to being good to each other and respecting each other. In either of those scenarios, though, you wouldn’t jump into that kind of relationship on day one. Think about it: someone you just started dating introduces you to someone you don’t know, you immediately start seeing eachother every week and sharing all your deepest secrets before you even know if you want to? No! But a lot of us do it with our metas for all different kinds of reasons.

Jumping past boundaries and growth to be deeply invested before you get to know eachother is what some folks call “forced intimacy.”

Some people may meet and naturally fall into that close of a relationship, and that is absolutely amazing, but that’s not what this is about… this is about the times when you’re both jumping in without even checking whether there’s friend-chemistry there.

Forced intimacy

Forced intimacy can come in a lot of forms, but it usually ends in boundary violations, control issues, and, sometimes worst of all, the loss of friendships and a polycule dynamic that might have been amazing for everyone if it had grown organically. Meta relationships don’t just impact the metas involved: when a meta relationship goes south, the shared partner and the polycule as a whole get hit too.

Forced intimacy usually starts from the early days of a relationship, and you can prevent a lot of its problems, maybe even get the relationship back on the right track, if you look for the red flags.

Keep an eye out for:

  • Oversharing, especially on things related to other relationships or metas.
  • Treating one or both relationships with the shared partner as a group project.
  • Seeking excessive private details about metas through social media, the shared partner, or others.
  • Increasing the amount of intimacy they act out with you according to their growing intimacy with the shared partner instead of their actual level of closeness to you.
  • Pushing to spend a lot of time together.
  • Acting like asking for or seeking space is wrong.

Basically, if it’s not appropriate to the amount of time you’ve known each other and the level of intimacy you’ve already established between just the two of you stop and think for a second. Would you be going that fast with a new friend you didn’t share a partner with? With a new partner themselves?

Make sure to check in with yourself on the reverse, too. Are you forcing intimacy on your new meta?

Many times, the person forcing intimacy has no intent to do so, and many times both metas are contributing. There are lots of reason for this, and they’d probably be helped with some boundary work with a therapist, but it’s important to remember that this doesn’t automatically mean ill intent.

What happens once these red flags appear can vary… maybe it will be perfectly fine, or maybe everything will blow up. Personal experience has shown that it can lead to issues with control, manipulation, and boundary violations. In some cases, metas can end up treating eachother like extensions of the shared partner instead of separate human beings, with little respect for eachother’s relationships. That might mean drama and breakups or it might just mean frustration and flimsy boundaries, but either way that’s not what you want or need in a polycule.

How to slow it down

In all relationships, one of the best things you can do is to start slow from the very beginning. You can always speed up once you guage things, but moving away from someone in your polycule after getting too close easily creates bad feelings. The need for speed seems especially common in kitchen table poly dynamics, with people rushing to get to that big happy family feeling. Remember, though, that you can be deliberate in creating your relationships, enjoy every step on the ladder between “hi, I’m Sarah” and “best friends forever”, and still find your way to that big happy family (or wherever you want your polycule and meta relationships to end up). You can also still enjoy those big polycule game nights and zoo trips and everything without artificially creating intimacy with your metas: you don’t have to be attached at the hip to enjoy an afternoon with the group.

If you start seeing forced intimacy red flags, take some time to think things through and determine where your comfort level and boundaries are. If you’re comfortable and your boundaries are intact, it might just be something to stay aware of. If you’re uncomfortable or you see boundary violations, though, even little ones, you might want to take a few steps.

Set Boundaries

First, decide what you would be comfortable with. Maybe that weekly coffee date should be a monthly coffee date, or maybe you just can’t do coffee right now. Maybe you just need to step away from them socially entirely. This is you setting your boundaries, so the only right answer is what’s healthy for you. You aren’t doing kitchen table wrong by setting boundaries and taking space: it’s pretty common to prefer kitchen table and still not be close to all of your metas. Remember, too, that how you set boundaries does not have to be the same across all metas: do what’s right for you in each individual case.

Talk to Shared Partners

If it suits your relationship agreements, talk to your shared partner, too. “Here’s how much you can disclose to other partners about me” is always a good conversation to have, even without a forced intimacy issue. There are some things you can’t ethically ask your partner not to disclose, like basic information for everyone’s sexual health, and you shouldn’t ask your partner to lie, but “please don’t tell your other partners about my past trauma” is fair game. If it’s about you but isn’t about your shared partner or metas, it’s almost always reasonable to keep private.

Go Analog

One more thing that can help almost every new meta relationship: get to know eachother in real life before you get heavily involved in eachother’s social media. Social media makes it easy to fast-track into an intimacy level that isn’t really there, and it makes it easy to misinterpret or lose context on high-sensitivity issues. Get coffee with your new meta before you hit the Friend button, spend time one-on-one before you start sharing deep secrets, and let your partners know that if their other partners want to know you, they’re encouraged to do it in the analog world.

Read more

This article has a lot of terms in it, so make sure to check out An Incomplete Guide to Polyam Terms if you aren’t familiar with any of them.

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