How to be a good friend to those in open relationships?
July 25, 2009 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Help me navigate the perils of being a friend to people in an open relationship.

I have two friends, let's call them Andrew and Beth, who are in an open relationship. I've been friends with Andrew longer, but consider myself friends with both individually.

Beth and I talk more often, and in more depth, than Andrew and I. We can probably chalk that up to the usual gender stuff, I'm a guy and don't often talk to other guys about our emotions and whatnot (it happens, but much more rarely).

Lately Beth has been talking to me about her relationship with Charlie (who I don't know). As I said, Andrew and Beth have an open relationship, and as far as I know Andrew's fully aware of Charlie and doesn't have a problem with it.

I don't know if Andrew knows that I'm giving Beth relationship advice, though. And I'm worried about it coming back to bite me, that I could find myself linked to any drama between the two of them.

If I tell Beth I don't feel comfortable giving her relationship advice, I'm not being a very supportive friend. It also contradicts the precedent of me giving her advice on non-romantic but personal matters in the past. Furthermore, not having a third party outlet or a sounding board might end up leading her into more drama with Andrew than she would otherwise (I'm not sure if she has any close friends who aren't also friends with Andrew). Finally, it might send the message that I think of her and Andrew as a couple-unit rather than as individual friends.

If I continue giving Beth advice, Andrew might feel betrayed if he finds out I was supportive of (or suggested) something that he feels was damaging to their relationship.

If I try to give Beth advice that guides her more towards Andrew and away from Charlie, that's super arrogant on my part to try to impose my vision of her love life when I was asked for impartial support as a third (uh, fourth I guess) party.

If I ask Andrew whether he's comfortable with me giving Beth advice, Beth may take that as a betrayal of her trust and/or be offended by the idea that I need permission from my "real" friend before I can play friend to her.

This all seems like a big dramatic minefield and I'm not sure how to navigate it. Does anyone have any history or precedent dealing with friends in open relationships? Any speculation on how I should proceed?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
If that was a truly open relationship, Beth would have no problems discussing these things with Andrew. I suspect things aren't as open as they profess.

Trust your gut and and stop giving relationship advice. Just tell her you are uncomfortable with the situation. Do it before you get dragged into the relationship yourself.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:22 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Don't necessarily tell her you're not comfortable, just skirt the issue like you would any you're not comfortable talking about. Just be like, "Gosh, wow, that's intense!" and try to be a supportive listener. I think sometimes want to be truly listened to as much as they want advice, really. Anyway, I think it's not always best give relationship advice, per se. Nearly every time I've been like, "Oh he sucks, DTMF," the MF doesn't get D and then it' awkward. It seems like you might be a too invested in this relationship, or in Beth specifically. This is always when it's most tempting for me to give advice and also usually when it's the worst idea. Don't be a Mary Worth.
posted by lalalana at 6:35 AM on July 25, 2009


One does not navigate big dramatic minefields unless one wishes to lose a limb. You are being a good friend by telling Beth how you truly feel: uncomfortable offering advice to one party when you feel a strong allegiance to both.

"Beth, I cherish your friendship as well as my friendship with Andrew. I'm ill equipped to offer dating advice when there is the added wrinkle of an open relationship. I hope you'll understand."

And I almost guarantee she will.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:38 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


If I tell Beth I don't feel comfortable giving her relationship advice, I'm not being a very supportive friend. It also contradicts the precedent of me giving her advice on non-romantic but personal matters in the past.

I don't think it contradicts the precedent at all. Every friend doesn't give the same type of advice, and if you don't feel comfortable giving relationship advice (whether Beth is in an open relationship, closed relationship, or exclusive relationship with her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ), just let her know that this isn't an area in which you want to be an advisor.

If you do feel strongly that you want to give advice on this matter, be upfront and honest from the get-go. Tell Beth that you're not sure how to balance two friends in an open relationship, and that you don't want to overstep, or create more drama.
posted by xingcat at 6:48 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


In an open relationship myself. You seem to be operating under the assumption that open relationships are huge swirling vortices of drama that swallow everyone in the near vicinity. With strong, healthy open relationships, ones built on communication and trust between the primary (and indeed secondary or tertiary) partners, that is not actually the case. My open relationship is notoriously low-drama, and my partner and I feel comfortable discussing other partners with each other and our friends.

As I said, Andrew and Beth have an open relationship, and as far as I know Andrew's fully aware of Charlie and doesn't have a problem with it.

If this truly the case, it's a non-issue. However, it seems like the real issue (for you, at least, possibly for them) is not Charlie, but the open relationship itself. I'd suggest talking to Beth and Andrew, maybe just Beth since you seem more comfortable talking to her about such matters, about the openness of the relationship. Ask her if Andrew knows how she feels about Charlie, and how she thinks he'd react if he found out. If you get strange/cornered looks from Beth, try and remain as non-committal as possible while still supporting Beth - this isn't a healthy open relationship, and you may indeed be compromising your friendship with Andrew by advising her.

I don't know if Andrew knows that I'm giving Beth relationship advice, though. And I'm worried about it coming back to bite me, that I could find myself linked to any drama between the two of them ... If I continue giving Beth advice, Andrew might feel betrayed if he finds out I was supportive of (or suggested) something that he feels was damaging to their relationship.

If Andrew feels like Beth's relationship with Charlie is truly damaging to their relationship, they're not cut out for an open relationship.

I have to wonder if the advice Beth's asking you for is "Charlie or Andrew" ... If that's the case, you're well within your rights to say "Not taking sides on this, I value you and Andrew too much as friends to lose either one!" But if it's more like "Oooh Charlie makes me feel all tingly should I call him back now or wait a little while," I'd rank it fairly harmless stuff, and feel free to answer.

I applaud your consideration in taking into account the fact that Beth would probably be hurt if you acted like you thought of her and Andrew as a package deal and weren't friends with her on her own merits. It sounds like you do care about both of them, and I hope all you crazy kids manage to work things out.
posted by Devika at 7:03 AM on July 25, 2009


If I tell Beth I don't feel comfortable giving her relationship advice, I'm not being a very supportive friend. It also contradicts the precedent of me giving her advice on non-romantic but personal matters in the past. Furthermore, not having a third party outlet or a sounding board might end up leading her into more drama with Andrew than she would otherwise (I'm not sure if she has any close friends who aren't also friends with Andrew). Finally, it might send the message that I think of her and Andrew as a couple-unit rather than as individual friends.

I don't think you're giving her enough credit. Considering the openness and communication in her own relationships, do you really think she'll be surprised or hurt by your concerns? If anything, she's probably already anticipated them. Tell her what you've been feeling. Maybe she'll lay your fears to rest, maybe she'll agree with you -- either way the way you communicate together will evolve and become more comfortable.
posted by hermitosis at 7:06 AM on July 25, 2009


I am in a marriage that is open and has been since before we were married many years ago.

It's very distasteful to discuss other relationships with mutual friends of both parties, so Beth has put you in an awkward situation. She needs to find people who are friends with her primarily with whom to discuss this. I reiterate: she's being inconsiderate to you and there's no reason why you should be in this situation except that she's a bit callous.

But I can see that there's a precedent of you dispensing advice to her, so you really have two options here. You can say "I feel awkward discussing this with you, and let's talk about something else." However, it's apparent from your explanation that you don't want to do that.

The other option is to continue to discuss it, but to subtly just move into the position of listener, rather than offer up suggestions. If your input is requested, make it bland. Deal in generalities. Here's why I feel that this is a good idea: she may really only WANT to talk through it with you as a soundboard to help her verbalize her thoughts. If this isn't the case, she'll either realize that you're uncomfortable (most likely without offense), or she'll just find someone else she can discuss her problems with.
posted by Willy Wombat at 7:25 AM on July 25, 2009


This is all beyond me, I believe, but why not simply say that you do not want to discuss whatever it is you choose not to, and that your choice is simply a way of preserving your valued friendship as it now is.
posted by Postroad at 7:29 AM on July 25, 2009


You don't mention whether or not Beth is actually -asking- for your advice. People assume that if someone is venting that a response must be given. No. My take is, treat everything as just venting unless specifically asked for advice or opinions.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:58 AM on July 25, 2009


This advice may or may not be applicable based on their various relationships, so take it with a grain of salt:

This is not monogamy. She is not cheating. You are not giving her advice about cheating. She does not need to be steered towards someone at the expense of someone else. She can maintain intimate relationships with both of them. She knows you are friends with Andrew and wouldn't be telling you about this stuff if she didn't feel comfortable with it getting back to Andrew.

If you feel like your advice is going to bite you in the ass, don't give advice, but that might be a bit of paranoia on your part.

If it makes you uncomfortable for you to give advice, just say so. But know that you are approaching it from the point of view of monogamy, which doesn't apply.

If you want more resources or to know more about this, try googling for "polyamory", you'll get more pertinent information than for "open relationship" because polyamory is more relationship focused.


It's very distasteful to discuss other relationships with mutual friends of both parties, so Beth has put you in an awkward situation. She needs to find people who are friends with her primarily with whom to discuss this. I reiterate: she's being inconsiderate to you and there's no reason why you should be in this situation except that she's a bit callous.

Different relationships are different!
posted by kathrineg at 8:06 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


If that was a truly open relationship, Beth would have no problems discussing these things with Andrew.

That's not actually true, in my experience. "Open relationship" doesn't necessarily mean "discussing issues with one partner with another partner" at all. I know a lot of people who have been in decades-long open relationships and even live-in polyamorous triads and quads and what-not who have explicit rules against coming to one partner for relationship advice with another partner.

On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying to Beth "I don't feel comfortable giving you relationship advice about your relationship with Charlie, seeing that I'm friends with you and Andrew." That's not being a bad friend at all--that's just asserting your own boundary.

And to be quite honest, I think there would be nothing wrong with saying to Beth, "I don't feel comfortable giving you relationship advice" full stop, if you don't feel comfortable with it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:09 AM on July 25, 2009


Your written description demonstrates that you are a very compassionate person. That's awesome. You mention that you are uncomfortable and want to set some limits. That's really the core issue here, what you are comfortable with in sharing insights. You have a right to set limits, and also be compassionate. It's very important for compassionate people to learn their own limits, and ask others to respect them. That way, you get to keep your loving heart and not eventually end up closing down to the multitude of offers that others will present to you.
posted by effluvia at 8:28 AM on July 25, 2009


What Devika said. Except I'm not in an open relationship, just friends with people who are.

Some people are high-drama about it, some aren't, just like life in general. If your friends are low drama people, then it's unlikely anything will blow up, but regardless voice your concerns about keeping your own friendships, or become listener instead of advice giver. People in open relationships are used to dealing with such concerns.
posted by nat at 8:43 AM on July 25, 2009


Words to live by (a friend said them to me once when I was being an idiot):

"It's a wise an noble struggle to remain aloof from other people's soap operas."
posted by philip-random at 9:54 AM on July 25, 2009


This all seems like a big dramatic minefield and I'm not sure how to navigate it.

The big dramatic minefield is currently in your head, where your imagination has run rampant. Lots of "ifs," most of which sort of assume binary relationships. That's natural, it's the model that you're used to, but it's not what's going on here.

You skipped the option that would be obvious to me: What if you tell Beth that you're unsure of how this works, this thing where you giving her relationship advice in the context of her open relationship? What if you ask her what Andrew knows about Charlie and how she and Andrew manage their other relationships?

(She's probably expecting this conversation, by the way.)
posted by desuetude at 11:58 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the correction, Sidhedevil. I was thinking in the context of how my partner and I operate, but I should've realized that there are many other ways of doing things.

I guess the trick here is to reconcile your desire to be a supportive friend with your comfort level. Cat Pie Hurts has some good advice - friends often need a sympathetic ear more than they need a problem solver. It's fair for you to worry that giving advice could be messy business, but even if it's not, do you feel comfortable talking to Beth about her relationship with someone that's not Andrew?

If I tell Beth I don't feel comfortable giving her relationship advice, I'm not being a very supportive friend.


Not necessarily. I think part of a supportive friendship is mutual respect for comfort levels. One of my friends would prefer I skip over the intimate details when updating her on my life, the other would feel offended if I left them out - and I respect both their boundaries while keeping track of my own.

You can very definitely be supportive without providing advice. That's what active listening is about, and as hokey as it may sound, some of the strategies (lots of nodding, actually shutting up and listening [harder than it sounds], mirroring language) work wonders. Really all people want sometimes is a sympathetic ear.
posted by Devika at 12:09 PM on July 25, 2009


i am in a similar situation. i listen to both parties about it, but i don't talk to them about what the other has said. i'm not sure they both know they talk to me about it, but i would guess they do. i actually give them pretty parallel advice, so there's no weirdness in that area, really. it does feel strange to listen sometimes, i'll give you that.

do what you feel most comfortable with. if you don't want to give her advice, just listen, as others have said. if you don't feel comfortable listening, set your boundaries. it may not feel like a good friend kind of thing to do, but it's for your own well-being and that should be understood.
posted by itsacover at 12:43 PM on July 25, 2009


You are under no obligation as a friend to be comfortable with an open relationship. Just tell her you would rather not discuss that aspect of her love life, and leave it at that.
posted by BobbyDigital at 4:39 PM on July 25, 2009


I've been in a similar situation very recently, although I didn't have the additional confusion of knowing either of the boyfriends, so I didn't have that factor of having to consider another friend. But I still didn't want to give her advice, because I had no experience in these matters. I told her exactly that.

"Listen, I can't give you advice on this. I don't have any first hand experience in this kind of thing, so I really don't know. But I am happy to listen if you just need someone to talk to."

She understood.
posted by Diag at 6:19 PM on July 25, 2009


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