The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - First, Do No Harm?
December 13th, 2012
10:04 am

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First, Do No Harm?

You know what I hardly see anyone ever talking about in polyamory?  What responsibilities we have, if any, to our lovers’ other partners.

’cause I know if I wrote an essay on “Here’s how poly people abuse their lovers,” I’d get a zillion fist-pumps and a hundred inbound links and a hundred comments going, “SO TRUE!  Polyamory is all about being good to the one you love.”

But if I wrote an essay about “Here’s how poly people abuse their lovers’ partners,” I suspect I’d get a faceful of awkward silence, followed by a round of defensive, “Well, it’s not my problem.  I don’t need to worry what happens over there.”

Yet that shit happens.  You and I both know there are so-called “poly people” who start dating with the idea of chipping away at all the other lovers, edging them out like this was some sort of battle in the arena.  You and I both know that there are folks who don’t ask, “Hey, is this cool with your other partners?” when they’re both caught up in NRE and spiralling out of control.  You and I both know that for every case of polydickery, there’s another eager poly person going, “Well, every time I kiss him it’s like tin foil on her teeth, but I don’t care if she’s hurting as long as I’m satiated!”

You’ve got a lot of folks who are basically saying, “Well, if those other people get hurt, that’s awesome, as long as I get what I want.”

And I dunno.  I treat poly like I’m going camping in the woods; leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.  (Lots and lots of pictures.)  When I’m operating in someone else’s ecosystem, I try to be respectful of not just them, but the people they supposedly love.  And if I sense they’re acting in a way that might potentially hurt those people, I take a full stop and go, “Wait, is this  okay?”

Which leads to some really awkward and painful fucking conversations.  It’s killed some chances at sex, because some folks get really upset when you double-check their motivations.  But my whole goal is to leave this relationship as I left it; when I walk away, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that even if things are dysfunctional, at least I didn’t function it more.

…which is not to say that I’m a slave to the poly web.  If I think my lover’s dating someone who’s doing something bad or irrational, I’ll discuss that with them, encourage them to bring those awful habits up for discussion.  In doing so, I make some more room for myself.  But I always try to treat the guy (or girl) on the other side of me with respect, so at least if I’m pushing an agreement they know why.

Yet that’s also an aspect of privilege.  I’ve got my primary, and I’m always going home to snuggle up in a warm bed with someone I love.  If I was in the all-secondary, all-the-time club, would I be so magnanimous?  There’s a good chance I wouldn’t.  It’d be harder to walk away when the alternative is masturbation in an empty apartment.

I think the reason why the polyamorous really hate having these discussions is because getting to the partners on the other side is fuckin’ hard, yo.  You’re not dating them.  In many cases, you may not like them enough to want to sit down for long couch sessions to determine what they want.  In some cases you may see them as actively toxic.  You’re seeking out the company of people you don’t want to have conversations you hate to have that may lead to a breakup.

As noted, my insistence on “…and is this okay with the collective?” has torpedoed a couple of relationships.  It’s caused some intense fights I would have preferred to avoid, leading to premature shakeouts.  It’d be a lot easier just to shrug my shoulders and go, “Fuck it, that’s their issue” – and maybe that’s the correct thing to do.  You can’t save everyone from their own desires, and if they’ve got a problem, then they should have the guts to walk away.

And you get more sex and love.  For you.

Still, personally?  I can’t counsel a polyamory where you’re okay with protecting your lovers, and okay with watching the people your lover supposedly cares about get brutalized.  To me, that has the unpleasant stink of psychopathy about it, in that those “in the circle” are deserving of protection and those “outside” can eat a dick.

Plus, there’s also the aspect that I’m going to be an occasional inconvenience; that’s just how it is.  If my lover is callously disregarding her other partners’ feelings when I’m the new hotness in town, how can I trust that she won’t do the same to me when the new star rises in the east?

I dunno.  If my partner is dating people I can’t fucking stand on any level, perhaps that’s a valid approach; shes got me.  Dating all people like me might be too redundant, and so she finds people with wildly varying personalities to fulfill all the various needs in her life.  But if they’re so opposed that I can’t sit down with them for an evening and have pleasant conversation, that’s a dealbreaker for me.  I don’t want to have to tiptoe that much.

Thing is, if people weigh in, I’m sure they’ll weigh in as though there are clear and easy moral answers to this.  There aren’t.  Which maybe is why you don’t see a lot of ramblings like this hitting Kinky and Popular on FetLife; it’s really easy to thunder, “DON’T FUCK OVER PEOPLE YOU LOVE!”  Because if you did that, you were 100% wrong.

Yet it’s a lot less morally satisfying to say, “Don’t fuck over people you don’t really care about.”  Because you probably have, on some level.  And knowing how to avoid that is tough, yo.  Tough.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/270905.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

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(77 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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From:particle_man6
Date:December 13th, 2012 03:47 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if some of that bad behaviour is bleedover from the stereotype of monogamous people's acrimonious relationship with "the in-laws" and somehow it being "ok" to have that acrimonious relationship and then someone one's partners other partners becoming labelled like those stereotyped "in-laws".

(I mean media depictions of in=laws more than real ones. I am monogamous and I like my in-laws and my wife likes her in=laws too).
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From:aiela
Date:December 13th, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
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I think you're really close. It's like dating someone with kids for the first time. Suddenly you realize you are not the most important person in someone's life, and that there is someone outside the relationship who is going to exert a lot of control over your relationship.

Even if you don't practice heirarchal poly, if your partner has other partners, their needs are going to influence what happens in your relationship, and that's a tough adjustment to a lot of people, because we are generally raised to believe that the relationship between lovers comes before all other relationships. There's a bump in this when kids come along, even when both parents are the bioparents, and it's even more pronounced when a parent starts dating a non-parent, and then when you have poly people with other partners, this rears its head again.

You have to adjust to the thinking that the two people in any given relationship are not the only two people calling the shots, and I think that's super hard for a lot of people.
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From:rialian
Date:December 13th, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
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===(Chuckles) yep, pretty much that. Well said.
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From:funwithrage
Date:December 13th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
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Because you probably have, on some level. And knowing how to avoid that is tough, yo. Tough.

Tough bordering on impossible for everyone, I'd say, not just poly people. The world's kind of unpleasant that way; each of us can change some parts of it and not others and burnout and picking battles and so forth.

I tend to take the position that anyone I sleep with is responsible for any other relationships they have, but that I'm responsible for not pressuring my lovers to make things more serious with me, for respecting whatever level of discretion is necessary, and for not pulling crazy jealous stunts.* And also for being calm and understanding if whoever I'm sleeping with needs to end things.

Anything more than that might be extra-good of me, but...well, I also shop at Wal-Mart sometimes. Life is full of moral compromises: you find the line that lets you sleep okay at night and go from there.

*Reading the Petraeus scandal and specifically the bit about the hostile emails to the...other other woman? I don't even...all I could think was: pfft. Learn to play, n00b.
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From:gretchen_marie
Date:December 13th, 2012 04:20 pm (UTC)
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There's also the complication of... if your primary partner and your secondary partner are friends and primary vents to secondary, and secondary decides to yell at you and tell you you're a complete asshole for what was vented about, completely refusing to hear your side...

Just, yuck. Relationship issues need to be addressed by the parties IN the relationship, at least to start.

Math Poly is hard!
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From:grenacia
Date:December 13th, 2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
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I bet that between me, my husband, my boyfriend (who is friends with my husband), and his wife (who is dating my husband and is my friend), ever single one of us has vented to every other one of us at some point about every other one of us. It happens. But it has never resulted in anyone calling anyone an asshole and refusing to hear their side of the story. Sure, sometimes communication doesn't help. but healthy communication is good, it can help get extra perspective from someone else who knows the person.
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From:stacymckenna
Date:December 13th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
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Hear, hear!
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From:daphne24
Date:December 13th, 2012 04:48 pm (UTC)
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The only complication I can see if when you aren't acquainted with your lover's other lovers. I usually have been but I know it's not always that way. I think in that case you still have to be respectful but I can see where it would be more difficult when you don't really know the other person and you just have the *idea* of them.

But I've done this - I've dated married men when I was already friends with the wives and made sure that I stayed friendly with the wives. There was one time when I ended up with a date with the husband on his wife's birthday and I hadn't realized it until fairly late. I talked to her immediately and she said they had celebrated on a day that was more convenient for them anyway - it ended up not being a problem but I had to be sure.

So yeah - Dan Savage's campground rule is in effect here for reals. Leave things as close to how you found them as you can :)
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From:fallconsmate
Date:December 13th, 2012 06:33 pm (UTC)
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oh my gosh, yes. the ex was involved with a woman whose birthday fell on the same date as our anniversary! now, this wasnt such a big deal on one hand because we normally were flexible on when we celebrated (when the paycheck fell, you understand) but when the idea of him spending the anniversary night at another house was presented to me as a done deal, with no discussion expected about it? i was not happy.

i was expected to just give up special days to make things easier for his outside relationships. that was not good for my emotional health. i like your way better!

then again, i knew and tried to get along with his outside partners, and he preferred to pretend to himself that mine did not exist at all. so that wasnt the healthiest relationship at all (between him and me).
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From:kilbia
Date:December 13th, 2012 05:16 pm (UTC)
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Yet it’s a lot less morally satisfying to say, “Don’t fuck over people you don’t really care about.” Because you probably have, on some level.
---
That last sentiment is also what I use to explain things to myself when I see folks who are ostensibly against rape and the rape culture, but then still end up as apologists in certain scenarios.

I really think that's one reason some guys tangle themselves up in the whole notion of "only forcible rape is legitimate rape". If they concede that maybe sex that was only granted after hours of whining and badgering and guilt-tripping *isn't* entirely consensual, they then have to face the possibility that they have engaged in the activity they're condemning.

(To be fair, I am probably doing that in my own mind with something. I wouldn't be able to tell you *what* at this point, but I would guess race-related stereotypes are the top contender. I've had a few such occasions that were bad enough to notice, so I wouldn't be surprised if I've got some that are slipping under my own radar.)
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From:kilbia
Date:December 13th, 2012 05:27 pm (UTC)
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More directly to what you're talking about: I'm just abso-freaking paranoid about guys claiming to be poly when the truth is their SOs are not inclined to share. I will confess that I've smooched on a guy who told me he had a girlfriend, but I refused to let it go any further than that without meeting her. (It never did go anywhere, because she and I were never in the same space.)

I know a big chunk of that is my experience with folks who maybe kind of confused "your feelings = your responsibility" with "your feelings = your problem". After feeling like it didn't matter what I said, I became meticulous about making sure the other girl was at ease with me.

Heck, thanks to timing, that even spilled into one totally non-romantic relationship I had: a few weeks into my first HERO campaign with a new DM, I wrote a thank-you card to his wife for being willing to let him spend all this time away from his home to game with us.
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From:tylik
Date:December 13th, 2012 05:51 pm (UTC)
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One note on the all secondary all the time bit -

If people aren't in the kind of relationship they want, it's going to be a problem. To the extent that I date at all these days (which is not much) I prefer people who have strong primary relationships if that's the kind of relationship they generally want. Because I'm not going to provide that for them, and that never goes well. I'm happy single. When in a relationship I'm pretty damned reliable - to the things I've actually agreed to. (And I'm generally pretty good at predicting my responses, and keeping people informed of changes.)
My partner's other partners? I have a vested interest in their relationship going well. I am specifically not on a campaign for more time and more attention. (But then I'm probably more likely to enter a monastery than, say, get married again. Not that I'm ruling marriage out, but the monastery is pretty likely.)

Oh, and the thing that drives me really nuts, for friends, and even more for lovers? Is when they're treating their partner badly and trying to tell me about it or involve me in it. Serious, serious ick. I refuse to be complicit in that kind of nonsense. A sympathetic ear I can do, if someone is trying to get their head straight. If they want to bitch about how much they are no longer attracted to their partner, and how they are planning to leave? Don't tell me, tell them. Bah.
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From:elenbarathi
Date:December 13th, 2012 11:14 pm (UTC)
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Word. I don't want to be anyone's primary; I definitely don't want someone else in my bed every night, or even once a week. One or two weekends a month is about as much as I'm willing to spend 'having a relationship', and it would have to be an extremely satisfying relationship to command even that much of my time. I don't want to live with my lovers, nor to have them hanging around all the time, nor to be half of a 'social couple', holidays and birthdays and all that. I like having housemates with whom there is no question of sex between us ever happening; it makes everything so much less complicated.

Most of my lovers have been friends who were between 'primary' relationships at the time - we warmed each others' beds for a few weekends, or for a couple of years of a few weekends a season, and that was fine; we remained friends after the bed-warming had run its course. I wouldn't have been best-pleased if any of them had expected more of me than what they got, and they wouldn't likely have gotten it.

Anyone married, anyone with a live-in bed-partner, anyone with a declared or implied fiancee: off-limits to me. I won't go there, because in my experience, most of the men who say their partners are 'okay with this' are lying. I have also observed that many partners who claim to be 'okay with their man doing this'' are lying - what they really mean is that he's going to fuck around whether they agree or not, and they'd rather have it in their faces than behind their backs. That's demeaning, and I won't be a party to it.

I also don't go with former partners of close friends, or close friends of former partners, because that just gets too emotionally incestuous, even when there's no residual longing or resentment (which can't easily be determined in advance.) Drahmah happens enough, without deliberately setting things up to ensure that it happens.
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From:snippy
Date:December 13th, 2012 06:15 pm (UTC)
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You mean not everybody negotiates and discloses all this stuff in advance, before the relationship starts? I mean, my OSO and his primary have CONTRACT they use (between themselves only) that they share with potential partners (e.g., after flirting and saying "maybe we could be in a relationship?" but before real attachment/intimacy/commitment happens) and it is pretty detailed. One of the non-negotiable items for new partners is "must treat all other partners with respect."

The thing about respecting the other partners is that any claims they make on my behavior are really being made by the mutual partner. I.e., when my partner Greg tells me his other partner Andy doesn't want me and Greg to see the new superhero movie, it's because Greg consented to Andy's request. And Greg better not be the kind of person to make Andy out as the bad guy, or he won't be my partner for long. And likewise, I can't make Andy out as the bad guy, because it's really my partner, Greg (who is Andy's partner, too), who is making the demand. It doesn't matter whether Greg came up with the demand because one of his other partners asked for it, or whether it's his own idea, from my perspective. (All names changed to protect my ability to make up situations for the sake of discussion.)

Additionally, if you care unselfishly about your partners' happiness, of course you want to treat their other partners with respect! Your partner cares about those other partners, and if the other partners are angry, frustrated, or unhappy, then the person you care about will be dealing with that stress.
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From:mariadkins
Date:December 13th, 2012 09:57 pm (UTC)
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"must treat all other partners with respect."

that's first and foremost in our set of "relationship rules".
From:serakit
Date:December 13th, 2012 06:34 pm (UTC)
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I've encountered an interesting subset of this concept, which is when you know the other partner well and you're not sure said partner would actually *say* anything. I keep thinking about my partner's other partner "either she's an alien or she's not actually as easygoing as she seems to be, because no human can *possibly* be this easygoing." Which results in waiting for her to snap and murder me, not because I've treated her badly, but because she hasn't objected to much of anything in years, despite repeated checking to make sure things are okay with her.
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From:daphne24
Date:December 13th, 2012 07:09 pm (UTC)
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She might just be that easygoing - I keep waiting for my girlfriend to snap too because I have watched other people just cast her aside and I've watched her do no more than shrug when they do it. I've also met her father who seems to be at least as laid back as she is. It's weird.

Or they're all aliens. We may never know.
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From:grenacia
Date:December 13th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
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When someone I'm dating has a primary partner, I consider it vitally important to be on good terms with that person and not piss them off, because this is someone who has veto power on my relationship regardless of how happy me and the person I'm dating actually are. And so far I think I've done fine with that. Serious secondary relationships of someone I'm dating have some of that same don't-piss-them-off status, just a bit less strong. And usually I like knowing and hanging out with anyone who loves someone I also love.
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From:palmer1984
Date:December 13th, 2012 06:48 pm (UTC)
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this is someone who has veto power on my relationship

Hmmm, I would be unhappy if a primary person had veto power on my relationship.
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From:phillipalden
Date:December 13th, 2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Erik and I have a sexually open relationship, but I would never do anything to hurt him, (just as he wouldn't do anything to hurt me.) And that goes for anyone I have sex with. But I also want to know the person, just a little. Nameless, emotionless sex is for robots.

And my spiritual path is; "Don't fuck over anyone."

Happy Holidays to you both.
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From:theferrett
Date:December 14th, 2012 01:48 am (UTC)
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Happy Holidays, chief. Glad to know you.
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From:cislyn
Date:December 13th, 2012 08:05 pm (UTC)
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I've been told that I am a really, really good and supportive person to have on the other side of the partner relationship, and I consider that a major compliment, one of the best I've ever gotten. I think most of it comes down to a kind of fundamental respect - I trust his and his and her judgement (that's why I'm involved with them, after all), and so if they're involved with other folks, I tend to err on the side of "those folks are probably awesome. If not awesome, at least really neat" and treat them that way. All of my partners, including my primary, have other long-standing relationships. Some of them pre-date me, and some don't. I try to learn what these folks are like, what they enjoy doing, their birthdays, stuff like that. I spend time brainstorming presents for my husband with his girlfriend, help her with her problems, and generally try to be supportive. I figure my goal is to make my partners' lives better and happier, and if their partners are doing well, then so are they. It's a little different with long-distance relationships, but the principles are still the same - I want to increase the net happiness that's going around, and if that means lending an ear and giving advice about how to deal with an argument or just knowing when someone is flying out for a visit to see a different lover, then I try to do it.

So basically, yeah, it's good. Like you said. And I tend to get back the kindness I spread around, and it seems to make all the relationships around me more stable, which makes me a very happy person, too.
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From:theferrett
Date:December 14th, 2012 01:50 am (UTC)
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Well, that's part of why I think you're so darned nifty.
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From:silverrose
Date:December 13th, 2012 09:18 pm (UTC)
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Damn this poly thing sounds complicated the way y'all describe it. My husband and I just kind of ... live our life. Work the Google Calendar thing. Check in with each other on stuff.

::knocks on wood my life stays simple and drama-free::
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From:aiela
Date:December 13th, 2012 09:56 pm (UTC)
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For me, it's complicated in _theory_, but not in practice, because we have had these thoughts and conversations and agreements. Knowing where everyone stands, what the rules are, etc, means that we're free to just go about doing it, and there isn't a lot of "Well, you hurt me when you did that thing". I mean, there's some, obviously, because humans aren't perfect. But knowing that my partner's primary partner's feelings are to be considered at all times, even if it means that I might not get to do something I want to do, well, I know that, so it influences my actions.

When you break it down and discuss it, sure, it seems complicated. But eventually, it comes naturally.

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From:alexmegami
Date:December 14th, 2012 03:15 am (UTC)
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I've seen that mentality in people who weren't cheaters, themselves, but (knowingly) in relationships with cheaters. I was GOBSMACKED that someone could justify that to themselves with "well, it's not MY relationship".

SO?
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From:mealesbia
Date:December 14th, 2012 08:10 am (UTC)
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It's interesting how much this made me think 'your poly is not my poly'. I love the all-secondary club, because somebody with a primary is somebody who doesn't have to turn to me for emotional heavy-lifting. Even my primary has a partner who is more primary than me! (Our relationship is perfect, we go on the most adorable dates in the world and love each other deeply, but we get our orgasms elsewhere. And then she has another primary partner, with whom she does have sex.)

Dating is something I do for fun. Happy people are more fun to spend time with! I feel like, as a secondary, my first responsibility is to myself-- I need to take care of my own shit and make my life a happy one so I am more fun to spend time with. My partners' other relationships are a blend of 'none of my business' and 'something I have a vested interest in maintaining'. Yeah, I wish my favourite guy could sleep over, but (A), I'm not part of the emotional negotiation that makes his primary want him home every night, and, (B), I like him and want him to be happy. They have a rule, I can either follow it or stop seeing this guy. It's not an unreasonable rule and I adore fucking him, so it's not worth talking about.

I basically get to do all the fun parts of dating (outings, conversations, fucking) with none of the messy, potentially-painful bits, and all I have to do is show some basic respect towards my partners' relationships. It's exactly what I want right now.
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From:theferrett
Date:December 14th, 2012 05:11 pm (UTC)
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And I think there's a joy in that for some. I may have been shaded by an essay on FetLife from a secondary who doesn't like the lifestyle, and talked about how hard it was to be alone and never primary.
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From:naath
Date:December 14th, 2012 10:27 am (UTC)
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I think if someone asks me "and is $partner OK with this" then that means "I don't trust you". Because my responsibility to not violate my me-$partner relationship boundaries lies with *me*, not you; and when you actually come out and say "is this OK with $partner" there's an implied "I don't trust you to hold to your agreements without prompting".

Trust me, or don't; that's clearly up to you. But if you don't trust me to honour the boundaries of my relationships myself there is no way I'm getting into a relationship with you because would you trust me to keep my relationship agreements with you? or would you be the creepy stalker guy following me to see if "I'm going to dinner with my colleagues" really meant "date with the hot guy from the post room".
From:anonymousalex
Date:December 14th, 2012 04:45 pm (UTC)
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That feels overly absolutist to me. I mean, yes, I see that asking the question calls into question, at least, the trustworthiness of the person's statement or (planned) action, but that can mean a lot of things, depending on context.

It can mean that I think you're an untrustworthy person. It can mean that I don't yet known you well enough to know (or be certain in my assessment) whether you are a trustworthy person. It can mean that, while I have determined you to be a trustworthy person, I recognize that people are fallible and sometimes either make mistakes or don't pay sufficient attention, and I'm confirming that you aren't doing that in this instance. It can mean that I think you're trustworthy, but I've been burned in the past and learned to mistrust my own assessment in this regard. Probably some other things that aren't coming to mind at the moment.

I'm not sure what, if any, significance this distinction has.

-Alex
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From:Iris Rainbow
Date:December 14th, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)

Boundaries

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This is related to what Naath is saying, but a little different I think:
No one has mentioned the situation I'm in, which is that my lover's primary doesn't want to talk to me about their relationship. We know each other, we're casual friends, she'll talk to me about stuff if I bring it up, but their relationship is their business. If something I'm doing is giving her tinfoil teeth, I have to trust she'll talk to him about it and they'll work out whether it's something he'll broach with me or not. And I can really trust them which is awesome, and makes me feel more happy and safe.

If I tried to go around him and have a summit with her like you seem to be talking about: "long couch sessions": then I'd be breaking boundaries that have been clearly set, and my being able to respect her boundaries is probably the most important thing I can do to demonstrate I'm safe to her. So again, everyone's different. In our way, my lover is the ambassador to the land of Their Relationship and my operating outside of diplomatic channels wouldn't be right.
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From:naath
Date:December 14th, 2012 08:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Boundaries

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I'm not sure that's quite the same; I mean I think ferrett's point is less "ask Alice if she's OK with me dating her husband Bob" and more "ask Bob if Alice is OK with me dating him; and then check a couple more times".

Phoning up Alice for a heart-to-heart about Bob after Alice and/or Bob have told you that Alice Does Not Want That is clearly breaching Alice's boundaries. (If you can't cope with dating Bob and not being super-good-friends with Alice I guess you have to Not Date Bob).
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From:sezjasaneh
Date:December 14th, 2012 07:33 pm (UTC)
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its a lot less satisfying to say 'dont fuck over the people you dont really care about'..and yet, you bring up the very valid point that if your partner is treating THEIR partner in such a fashion, it speaks as to how they might treat you. Which is why I now pay close attention to such things (how potential partners treat their current loves).

And yeah, it is an awkward conversation to have...particularly when (in one instance I had) you have to force the point of 'i'm pretty sure we just did something she's going to be very unhappy with, but no, you cannot cover it up and not say anything, I expect you to tell her when you get home or I will'. BUT...what could have been terribly drama filled ended up resolving as peacefully as it could be, and knowing I was looking out for her, the other partner gave me new respect and didnt try to stir the pot amongst our friends. So, very much worth it. Treat others with respect, seems pretty obvious :)
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