What are the red flags for a toxic poly relationship?

Question

When should you back out of a poly relationship, no matter how awesome it appears to be right now? What are the key ingredients that, if found missing, make it so that it is better to just move on and save everyone the heartbreak? Are there any red flags?

Received via Contact Form (name withheld)

Answer

There are a million different ways to have a polyamorous relationship, and a billion different ways for polyamorous relationships to go sour. As I am fond of saying on the podcast, there is no "right way" to do polyamory, but there are many, many wrong ways.

Without knowing the details of your relationship, the personalities involved, and the nature of your relationship agreements, it's difficult to point to any extremely specific warning signs or red flags that might indicate your relationship is too damaged to save. It's also difficult to give someone else solid advice on when it is no longer worthwhile to participate in any given relationship, as that is a very personal decision. What might not be tolerable for me might be a cost of admission you are more than happy to pay in order to be with someone, and vice versa, so take everything I say with that grain of salt in mind.

With those disclaimers out of the way, I'd like to address your question a bit more generally. When polyamorous relationship fail, they tend to do so for a few different reasons. If you think your relationship is moving towards any of these outcomes, that might constitute a red flag.

One of the most common ways for poly relationships to fail is for envy and jealousy to creep into the relationship in an unhealthy way, poisoning the relationship from the inside as trust is compromised and resentment builds. Some amount of jealousy and envy is healthy (and unavoidable, as both are natural human emotions). Jealousy and envy become unhealthy in a polyamorous relationship when they prevent the participants in the relationship from being able to trust each other and/or assume good faith in each other's actions. If you find that a partner no longers trusts you through no fault of your own and is constantly suspicious of your actions and motivations, that could be a red flag. A partner constantly accusing you of taking hurtful actions intentionally could be another.

Another common way for poly relationships to fail is through infidelity. The issue of cheating can be a bit murky when dealing with a polyamorous relationship, as relationship terms tend to be much more permissive in terms of allowing sexual and emotional entanglements with others. However, as discussed in a recent advice column, cheating is essentially any action someone takes that violates a relationship agreement. Infidelity is often the more visible product of the first situation I described; partners who become very envious or jealous frequently act out by cheating in a misguided effort to even the score.

Now, I don't think that any single instance of cheating necessarily needs to be the end of an otherwise healthy and happy relationship. Sometimes, people violate relationship agreements by accident, for example, by forgetting the exact terms of a relationship agreement, or by lowering their inhibitions further than they intended through use of drugs or alcohol. If a mate cheats, instantly regrets doing so, and comes clean to you about it, you might consider forgiving him or her, working to rebuild trust, and moving on with your relationship.

However, if instead infidelity becomes a pattern of behavior (your mate cheats whenever you're out of town, your mate cheats whenever you're on a date with another mate, your mate cheats whenever he or she is at a furcon), that usually means that something is fundamentally broken about your relationship. If this is the case, the infidelity is indeed a red flag, and you need to identify the root cause of the infidelity and address it, assuming you can forgive your mate for the infidelity to begin with. if you cannot address the underlying problem to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved, the relationship likely is beyond saving.

A third common way for poly relationships to fail is through sheer impracticality. If you and your mates are long distance with each other, and there is no way for your relationship to become local in the foreseeable future, it may be too impractical to succeed in the long term. The relationship might not fail right away, but remaining long distance over an extended period with no chance of being local tends to breed the types of jealousy, envy, FOMO, and resentment that can poison romantic relationships, especially if some mates in the poly relationship are long distance while others are local to each other. If you think you are in this situation, consider it a red flag and have an open and honest discussion with your mates about the direction of the relationship and whether all of you are serious enough about it to work towards becoming local to each other. It is certainly possible for a poly relationship to survive over the long term (years) without becoming local, but this is the exception, not the rule.

A fourth way for a polyamorous relationship to fail is, I think, somewhat unique to polyamory, in a way that infidelity, jealousy, and impracticality are not; polyamorous relationships can be destroyed by an insidious thought process I like to call "Relationship broken, add more people." When people allow themselves to think this way, they tend to use new relationship partners as bandaids to mask the fault lines present in their existing relationships. By embracing new relationship energy with a fresh partner, you might be able to distract yourself from the problems in your existing relationship(s), at least for a while. However, when that NRE wears off, you'll be left with an even more complicated relationship and even more people who you will need to be able to please with any solutions you might be able to come up with.

If the mate you are having issues with is long distance, it's also easy to throw yourself into a new relationship and simply ignore the long distance mate. Technically you haven't broken up with your long distance mate — and because you're polyamorous, you don't really need to end that relationship before starting a new one — but now you are investing so little in the relationship that for all intents and purposes, you may as well have ended it.

If you think you're in this kind of moribund relationship, with a partner who neglects you in favor of someone new, consider it a red flag. Talk to the mate who you feel is ignoring or neglecting you, and use non-violent communication to get the idea across that you are not happy with the situation: "I feel hurt, ignored, and neglected when you spend much of your time with your newer partners and you don't spend much time doing the things with me that made our relationship special." Give your mate a chance to make things right with you; after all, it's incredibly easy to get lost in new relationship energy and neglect existing relationships without meaning to do so. However, if nothing improves, then it may be time to end the relationship.

Conversely, if you think you're the partner neglecting a long distance mate in favor of a new partner, the kinder thing to do is to break up with the long distance mate so that he or she might be able to move on to a more fulfilling relationship without wasting time and emotional bandwidth on a relationship that has become one-sided. Don't let a relationship remain on life support indefinitely if you are no longer invested in it, as leading someone on in this way does more harm than good in the long run.

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Hope that helps! Remember, these scenarios are only a sampling of situations that might spell doom for a poly relationship, and, your mileage may vary substantially given the specifics of your particular relationship.

At the end of the day, a relationship is no longer healthy or worth maintaining if it makes you feel more negative emotions than positive emotions over a protracted period of time for reasons that are intrinsic to the relationship. In other words, if you feel sad, angry, jealous, hurt, distrustful, and/or lonely more often than you feel happy, loved, cared for, and connected, it may mean that it is time to end the relationship.

Now, if there is a good, temporary reason for why the relationship is rocky, you might want to wait it out. This is what I mean when I talk about the problem needing to be intrinsic to the relationship. If one of your mates just suffered the loss of a loved one, or he or she is defending a PhD dissertation, or just started a new job, it may be wise to wait for the situation to normalize before assessing the overall health of the relationship. Use your best judgement, as only you can determine what kind of relationship is healthy for you.

As always, feel free to ask follow up questions or to share your thoughts by using the comment form at the bottom of the page or by contacting us using any of the methods we describe on our contact page

Viro the Science Collie

Viro Science Collie is a PhD virologist and medical writer, experienced in teaching, technical communication, and writing for the public. He has been active in the furry community since 2012 and has been happily and ethically non-monogamous for much of that time. His interests include non-traditional relationship structures, technology, biological science, and tennis.