I want to avoid having an emotional (or sexual) affair without ending a friendship. I have a friend who I really like, and am attracted to, but he’s married. I’ve known him for a couple of years, and we always hang out with his wife, who I don’t click with. I’m polyamorous and have other partners, but I respect that he and his wife are monogamous.
Recently he’s said and done a handful of things that feel potentially flirtatious, and I feel like maybe I should shut these flirtations down. While it may be his job to refrain from crossing the boundaries of his own marriage, it’s making me uncomfortable to just sit around and assume that his actions are not going to harm his marriage. I don’t want to be complicit in that.
It’s important to me to be able to share some level of friend intimacy with him, but I’m not sure how much is too much. I don’t want to be unnecessarily distant, either, because I really like our closeness.
I’ve thought about asking him to clarify what the boundaries of his relationship are, but I’m afraid that’ll make it obvious that my boundaries are looser than his and his wife’s. Which is true. I would want to have sex with him if they had an open marriage. But, I don’t want to have an affair with him. So, my boundary is dependent on his relationship’s boundaries.
How can I figure out the correct level of friend intimacy to have with him so as not to harm his marriage while still making the most of our connection?
The Other Woman
Dear Other Woman,
Relational boundaries are simultaneously important, ongoing, and oftentimes, subjective. Which is to say, you likely don’t have “looser” boundaries than your friend and his wife, but rather “different” boundaries. You even asking this question shows me that you’re actually quite aware of keeping your boundaries firmly intact — so, don’t undermine yourself.
Oftentimes (not always), folks in monogamous relationships don’t think about relationship boundaries as explicitly as non-monogamous folks do. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just that societally speaking, many things are taken for granted as universally understood in regards to monogamy such as what “counts” as cheating, fidelity, and intimacy. Furthermore, we’ve also got socially sanctioned boundaries around what constitutes a “friend,” “lover,” and “partner” in terms of intimacy, resources shared, time spent, etc.
But, relationships of all kinds exist and you’re right that this can feel extra precarious when your personal understanding of relationship boundaries clash with a friend’s — especially when that friend is a flirt and you wanna bang them.
If you think your friend is flirting with you in a way that violates his relationship agreements, then he likely is. But is it your job to step in? If clarifying boundaries between the two of you is the difference between your feeling ethically connected to this friend or not, then my answer is “Yes.”
If he knows you’re polyamorous, you can frame this conversation around your inherent differences in relationship practices rather than accusing him of being an affair-seeking sneak. There’s a qualitative difference here in how you present this conversation though, so be mindful of how you proceed.
For example, following him into a dimly lit bar bathroom to whisper in his ear “Yknow, if you and your wife were open, I’d totally **** your **** until your *** couldn’t even ***** anymore” is a much different scenario than presenting things matter-of-factly over coffee in the light of day; “I’ve noticed some flirtatious tension between us lately that I really enjoy. I’m also feeling acutely aware of how that might be pushing up on the boundaries of your relationship with your wife. As you know, I’m poly so I have different relationship boundaries. I’d like some clarity from you about what is within bounds for you, for your wife, and for us so that I know how to proceed”.
A good test of how to structure this conversation is to think about his wife as a fly on the wall. Which version of the conversation do you think she would feel more respected by if she were to watch it happen? Err on the side of whichever that one is. Good luck!
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, http://www.yanatallonhicks.com.