Our Throuple Fell Apart. What Are the Rules of the Breakup?

Nearly a year ago, I began dating two friends — I’ll call them Rachel and Dave — who were already themselves in a relationship. We all had no experience with polyamory. The throuple ended fairly quickly, with no one being at fault; the other two continued to date but broke up not too long afterward. Since then, Rachel and Dave have dated on and off, Rachel and I were casually together and Dave and I have been close friends who sleep together occasionally. There have also been relationships with others outside this group. At times, we have all behaved badly, sleeping together behind the other’s back, knowing the knowledge would hurt the other. Strong emotions, love and pain have arisen on all sides.

Throughout the past year, as multiple complex situations arose, we have all wished for a model of behavior. Monogamy-centered media suggests that one should avoid dating a friend’s ex-partner. Is this correct? And if so, can this concept be universalized? Do Rachel and Dave get “priority,” in that they should be together and I should not pursue either, because they dated first? What do we owe to our romantic partners and friends when the situations are complex? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

In love and sex, as in other matters, the patterns that work for the many may not work for the few. Even if there were established rules about whether it’s OK to date a friend’s ex-lover or an ex-lover’s friend, it wouldn’t be obvious how to apply them when your ex-lover’s friend was also your friend’s ex-lover. I doubt “bro code” logic will help you sort out these arrangements.

Instead of universalizing norms like these, try to understand their rationale. When it comes to dating someone your friend has recently broken up with, the norm was always a yellow light, not a red light. And there are plausible rationales for exercising caution. There could well be unresolved feelings between the two (witness Rachel and David’s on-again-off-again relationship), or a friend could feel, awkwardly, that the ex is comparing them with you, especially when you’re all having brunch together. What’s universally applicable isn’t a specific rule; it’s the idea of giving consideration to people’s vulnerabilities.

Among tight-knit friends, things can get messy even when only two are involved at a time. When friends and lovers are the same, things get more complicated still. The English artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group — who, in the old line, “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles” — included some math whizzes, and they, too, struggled with the geometry of their loves and loyalties. As you’ve found, when two of you try to keep a liaison from a third, hurt feelings can still ensue. And feeling deceived, or protected from the truth, is itself one reason for hurt feelings. Often, the secrecy we resort to in order to spare someone’s feelings is exactly what bruises them most.

What we owe to other people in these circumstances is giving proper weight to their interests and to our commitments, and not just doing what pleases us at the moment. A polyamorous arrangement without explicit zones of exclusivity and clear conventions can leave things perilously murky. You would be better off if you all discussed your situation together, set ground rules and arrived at some shared understanding about pairing up with people inside and outside your group. Making love is not always best in the dark.

Readers Respond

The previous column’s letter was from a reader who had recently changed jobs and moved to a new company for a better opportunity. A partner at her old firm took her to lunch to thank her for all her work; he was also hoping to leave the company himself and wanted her help. She wrote: “While we were eating, I mentioned that most of my new team, including my boss, are women, and that both the dynamic and work-life balance were better than the former firm. He responded with ‘This may sound sexist, but … ’ and continued on to make a disparaging remark about women. My question: He’s hounding me for my headhunter contacts. I feel I do not owe him anything, but do not want a confrontation. What should I do?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward way to avoid his request without causing offense. Ignoring him might simply prompt him to pester you further, and your aim is apparently to get him out of your life, not to have him buzzing around you like a nettled wasp. You could give him what he wants in order to keep the peace, but that might gnaw at your conscience. Your final option is to provide him your contacts, while letting the headhunters know of your concerns about him. If you do so, you should find a way to let your ex-colleague know, too, that you found his commentary unsettling.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

Seeking a new job is this colleague’s own responsibility, and he’s perfectly capable of finding a headhunter himself. Besides, when somebody asks for a favor, they know that “no” is one of the possible answers. If the letter writer really doesn’t want the confrontation, she should just ignore his messages. No answer is also an answer. Marjorie

One good way to respond to abhorrent comments is to use a friendly, interested voice and say: “Wow. I’m curious about how you came to this view.” Ask questions as the person explains, and after you’ve listened closely, relay how you came to your own view. Hopefully, at the very least, your patience and respectful exchange will give this person food for thought. Jill

A reasonable option could be to provide this colleague with the contacts and let him know that you think his sexist comments are a problem. This might keep him on your side in the future (or at least not make an enemy of him) and also hold him somewhat accountable for his harmful views. Mike

Helping a sexist man advance in his career by sharing professional contacts would be a betrayal of loyalty to women in your profession. But telling him what you think of him or warning other firms about hiring him will most likely come back to haunt you. It’s perfectly fine to say, “Gee, I don’t think any contacts I have would be helpful to you” and then drop it. Janet

If this man is called out for his remarks, the probability of him disparaging his female colleague is nearly 100 percent. He has already disparaged other women in the letter writer’s presence, and he will certainly do so to her. This puts women in a lose-lose position in sexist situations. The “called out” will double down to defend their honor and their worldview. As a mentor to younger women, I honestly don’t know how to advise them. I have routinely spoken up, but have paid mightily. Pat

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