Buckle up, this might get long.
So first, what I’ve said about this in the past:
A long time ago (late 80s/early 90s), I would have said the answer to a situation where you're dating two or more people who absolutely positively cannot get along is veto. You create a situation where if your “primary” partner has an issue, you have a mechanism where your primary partner can put the brakes on, say “I cannot be happy if you’re dating so-and-so,” and that’s it. This mechanism is simple, it protects your existing relationships, it’s clear, and it’s easy to understand.
It’s also, as I learned through bitter experience, tremendously destructive.
For one thing, it doesn’t acknowledge basic human nature. People fall in love. If you are in love with someone and you lose that relationship, you end up with a broken heart. Giving someone the authority to say “I require you to break up with this person you love because I say so” is pretty much guaranteed to end in a broken heart, and breaking your lover’s heart—even if your lover agreed to give you the power to do so, is not a good long-term strategy for the health of your relationship.
Some non-monogamous folks try to deal with this by adding the hilariously wrongheaded idea “you aren’t allowed to fall in love.” As if emotions could obey rules… If that worked, you could simply say “let’s pass a rule forbidding feeling jealous” or “let’s pass a rule forbidding feeling angry” and be done with it.
It’s obvious why that won’t work, yet people think a rule forbidding falling in love will? Really? Ooooookay, then.
What’s worse is veto intrinsically rewards bad behavior. If I don’t want you dating so-and-so, for whatever reason, then I can pick fights with so-and-so, antagonize so-and-so, and then say “We can’t get along, I veto so-and-so.” See, the thing is, sometimes the problem is the “primary” partner. When that happens, a veto in a literal sense rewards poor behavior.
So if not veto, what then?
After my now-ex-wife vetoed someone I was deeply in love with many years ago—a veto that directly caused the chain of events that ultimately led to divorce—I went the other way. My new policy became “All models over 18.”
That means, basically, all the people I’m involved with are fully grown adults. Fully grown adults are capable of working out between themselves how they interact. For me to try to tell two other human beings that they have to get along or that they should be friends is controlling, intrusive, creepy, and gross.
And, like veto, it ultimately doesn’t work. You cannot tell Bob and Jane they have to like each other. Bob and Jane are human beings—real, actual people—not lifestyle accessories. They have their own desires, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, internal awareness, history…it’s not my place to tell them what kind of relationship they must have with each other. That’s for them to work out. I can’t control them.
That works right up until it doesn’t.
My most recent ex didn’t get along with my other partners, to the point she was actively abusive to my partner Zaiah. She did some incredibly toxic shit, up to and including writing Zaiah a letter—an actual pen and paper letter—shortly after my ex and I started dating telling Zaiah she didn’t like her, didn’t want to be in the same room with her, and henceforth they would have separate relationships with me.
And this wasn’t in response to anything Zaiah said and did. My ex simply reacted that way from the moment they met.
The fact they weren’t talking to each other, however, didn’t prevent my ex from buying self-help books and giving them to Zaiah, telling her “I think you need this”—which was itself controlling, intrusive, creepy, and gross. And also weird. Really, really weird.
That ex ended up being controlling in general, eventually micromanaging my life to the point she controlled the food I ate and the shoes I wore. She was also prone to violence, starting about six months after we began dating, at first confined to smashing my stuff or hitting the wall next to me, though of course that escalated over time until finally she hit me. Looking back, her reaction to Zaiah should have been a red flag. (And it wasn’t just Zaiah. She spent hours telling me that my other partners weren’t good enough for me, even saying I didn’t really love my wife and wanted to leave her but was too afraid to. I archived tons of text and FB Messenger messages where she would complain about my other partners, about how they didn’t treat me right, about how I shouldn’t be with them.)
So veto isn’t the answer, and telling your lovers they have to get along isn’t the answer, and focusing on your own relationships with the assumption that your lovers are all grown adults who should be able to sort things out themselves isn’t the answer.
Talking assumes everyone is coming from a place of objective rationality, not emotion. Have you seen people? It also assumes everyone is acting 100% in good faith 100% of the time, so the solution to problems is simply more information, and again, have you seen people? If the problem is not “they simply lack information,” then “if we talk about it and provide the missing information, everything will be okay” won’t work.
Yes, I know poly people say “communicate, communicate, communicate.” Yeah. Here’s the thing: solutions to complex problems that are short enough to fit on a bumper sticker almost never work.
So what is the solution?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Fuck if I know. I’ve been doing a lot of re-assessment of my own behavior and the things I believe in the time since I left my abusive ex. This is, as it turns out, precisely one of the questions I’ve been focusing a ton of attention on.
Fact: You can’t tell grown adults what to do, and you can’t tell grown adults they have to like each other, or even get along.
Fact: Saying “I demand you get rid of this partner I don’t like” is harmful not just to that person, not just to your lover, but to you and your relationship.
Fact: Problems between people are often rooted in a complex snarl of emotions, jealousy, envy, personality conflicts, differing values, differing motivations, differing upbringing, different assumptions, and maybe even good old-fashioned pheromones, so pithy bumper-sticker solutions like “communicate, communicate, communicate” aren’t likely to succeed. They’re just deepitudes—platitudes that sound all nice and shit, but aren’t nearly as profound as they seem.
Fact: You can say “I won’t be with people who don’t get along with my other lovers,” but that opens the door to sufficiently skilled manipulators to exercise indirect control over your other partners. My ex had me three-quarters convinced my other partners didn’t treat me right and didn’t love me like she did, because she’s the most skilled manipulator I’ve ever met.
Fact: Prioritizing existing relationships over new can reward bad behavior and can prevent new partners or potential partners from saying “hey, there is legit something unhealthy going on in your current relationship.”
Fact: You can set boundaries like “if you argue with each other in my presence I will leave the room,” which might help protect your own mental health, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Fact: Saying “not my circus, not my monkeys, you folks sort this out” and taking a step back and lead to you becoming a non-player character in your own relationships, something that happened to me (and that, after I left my toxic ex, my current partners rightly called me on).
Fact: Saying you won’t involve yourself in relationships that have too much arguing or fighting leaves you open to what I call Veto By Drama: Even if you don’t have a veto, don’t like veto, don’t ever want to be involved with veto, one partner can do a Veto By Drama simply by making another relationship so volatile and drama-filled you throw up your ands and say “that’s it, I’m done.” And if you have one or more manipulative partners, it can be pretty tough to identify the source of the drama!
Fact: You can say “One of my selection criteria is that I’ll only date people who fit well with my existing partners,” but again if your existing relationships are unhealthy that simply rewards bad behavior, cuts you off from people who might legit be able to point out the unhealthy dynamic, and it becomes mathematically untenable for n>3 or 4 or so.
Where does that leave us?
Beats me. I don’t have a solution, but I sure do admire the problem.