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Balancing Needs and Keeping Agreements – Psychology Today

Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.
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Posted April 5, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
Polyamorous relationships are a crucible for personal and relational growth. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the most significant is that managing multiple romantic relationships at once calls for a significantly higher degree of clarity, honesty, and interpersonal integrity.
Why is that? If you’re a hinge partner (that’s a term for someone who’s at the center of multiple polyamorous relationships), it’s a fact that there will be times when your partners’ desires conflict with each another. For one common example, consider a situation in which you made plans with one partner, but then you find out that another has had a truly terrible day and really wants your support. Whose preferences do you prioritize? How do you make that decision? How do you communicate about this difficult choice in a way that is honest and warm and doesn’t throw either partner under the bus?
I can’t tell you how to prioritize your relationship commitments, but I can tell you about the key relationship skill that underlies the ability to make and communicate these decisions. The core skill that supports the ability to manage multiple relationships—even when they conflict with one another—is differentiation of self. I define differentiation of self as having these four abilities:
As you read the rest of this article, keep this key concept in mind and think about how it applies to the situations I’ll describe.
I see it often: a hinge partner who’s running themselves completely ragged, trying to be everywhere at once, and desperate to avoid ever disappointing anyone. This pattern is very common, and it’s also completely unsustainable. The truth is, you can’t make everyone happy all the time. And more often than not, trying to keep everyone happy will result in hurt feelings all around, in addition to some combination of exhaustion and unhappiness for you.
Love is infinite, but time is not. Being a partner to multiple people means that sometimes you’re going to have to make difficult decisions. Sometimes this is because you need to honor your own values and preferences as circumstances change over time or tough times come around. An example is breaking a date with one partner to visit another in the hospital or make soup for someone who is ill. Other times these shifts come about because someone has a bad day and wants support, and you choose to provide that for them, with the result that someone else experiences disappointment.
If you want any of these changes in plan to go well, you need to get clear about why you are doing what you are doing and own your own decisions. It can be a real challenge to bring yourself to say “no” to someone you care about when you know they will be unhappy about it. But it’s often a necessary aspect of managing multiple commitments.
Scapegoating is another very common issue that I see with hinge partners. This form of scapegoating can be very subtle. Let’s imagine a polyamorous person, Noor, with two partners, Celine and Suzie. Consider the difference between these sentences:
Suzie’s having a hard time and she wants me to cancel our trip.
I know we discussed going out of town, but I’ve decided that I really want to prioritize spending some time with Suzie right now.
It might seem like quite a small difference, but the first sentence places the onus on Suzie for the change in the plans, while, in the second, Noor owns their own role in the decision. Framing the change in plans as Suzie’s fault can be tempting, because it can help reduce the discomfort of delivering bad news in the moment. But, in the long term, it stirs up bad feelings between Celine and Suzie, completely unnecessarily. Besides, Celine will probably notice Noor’s tendency to throw Suzie under the bus, and she’ll probably intuit that if she ever asks Noor to cancel a date with Suzie, Noor will be just as likely to frame the situation in a way that places Celine at fault.
I recommend that people who are balancing the needs of multiple different partners get really clear in their heads that they’re the one making the decisions and prioritizing between their connections, preferences, and perceived obligations. That might mean a more difficult conversation right now, but it’s worth it to avoid the pitfall of playing your partners against each other, which will certainly create tension and is likely to sour them on each other. Plus, even if your partner might not be happy about the canceled plans in the moment, the roles will be reversed soon enough, and they’ll appreciate that they can trust you not to scapegoat them.
Handling these situations effectively comes down to differentiation of self: Can you get grounded and look inside yourself in order to decide how you want to prioritize your (and also your partners’) conflicting desires? Can you express the decision you’ve made to your partners, avoiding the urge to massage the truth or place blame somewhere, even if you’re sure they’re not going to be happy to hear what you have to say? Can you stay calm and steady in your choice, even when faced with disappointment or anger?
Differentiation can be challenging. It can go against our instincts to avoid conflict and smooth things over, or even to tell a lie in an attempt to conceal an unpopular decision. But it’s worth the effort to figure out what you want and how you want to handle the situation. In the moment, it might mean more conflict, but in the long run, your partners will be glad that they can count on you to express your beliefs and preferences honestly, to take on realistic amounts of commitment, and to stay strongly within your values as a person and a partner. If you want your partners to know they can count on you, this is the skill to build.
Martha Kauppi, LMFT, CST-S, is a therapist, author, and educator specializing in complex relational therapy, sex issues, and alternative family structures.
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Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.


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