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The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain

June 21, 2016

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Alex is in a relationship with Kris, who’s in a relationship with Kate. Kris is devoted to both Alex and Kate. Alex is considerate of Kris’ feelings, responsive to Kris’ needs, and has worked to build a healthy, reciprocal relationship with Kris. Kate…well, Kate is happy enough to have Kris in her life, so long as Kris is the one to put the effort in. Kate shows up when she feels like it. Kris rarely knows where they stand with Kate.

Alex has spent countless hours processing with Kris about the relationship with Kate. Alex has held Kris while they cried, given advice, helped distract Kris from all the complicated feels about Kate.

In other words, Alex provides most of the emotional support for both Alex’s relationship with Kris and Kate’s relationship with Kris.

But it doesn’t stop there. Alex has another partner, Jordan, whom Alex turns to when they need support for their relationship with Kris. Because Alex is doing work on behalf of the Kris-Kate relationship, and in truth, all the energy Kris puts into the relationship with Kate means that a lot of the time, Kris doesn’t have much left over for Alex. So it’s a good thing for everyone that Alex has Jordan to lean on. (Depending, of course, on how Jordan feels about it.)

Welcome to the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain.

Emotional labour, if you’re late to the party, refers to all forms of effort involved in caring for another person’s feelings, from remembering birthdays or food allergies to listening to a friend vent to holding someone’s hand while they’re suffering or grieving. There’s a lot of it. And it’s not inherently a problem: it’s the glue that holds society together. The major problems that arise with it—and the reasons so many people are talking about it—are twofold: societally, the expectations for most emotional labour fall on women, and it is chronically undervalued as a form of work.

The polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain occurs any time there’s a problem in one relationship that spills over into the other relationships in a network. The emotional labour pours inward, from person to person, toward the source of the problem—as each person in turn leans outward, toward a partner who has emotional labour to give. (This happens in friend groups, too. But often the expectations are higher in romantic relationships—and boundaries can be harder to set.)

I have been part of polyamorous emotional labour daisy chains more times than I can count. I have lost friends and nearly lost partners by leaning out too hard and taking the availability of emotional labour for granted. I have also been the one to process with my partners, over and over, about their hurtful relationships; I’ve been the shoulder they cry on.

Sometimes the problem is an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s a dysfunctional pairing of an anxious-attached partner with an avoidant-attached one. Sometimes it’s a chronic or acute illness, addiction, financial stress, a new baby, grief, or some other crisis or major life event. Sometimes someone is just being a jerk.

Not all instances of the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain are actually dysfunctional. At its best, it’s really just a special case of the ring theory of caring for people in a crisis. This is how families, communities, and societies work—when they are working well. People take care of each other. People give when they have it in them to give, and they receive when they are in need. When that happens in a poly network and it works well, for everyone involved that’s awesome.

And so I don’t want you to read this piece and think there’s anything wrong with seeking support from your partners. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you find yourself the focal point of the chain because something stressful or awful is going on in your life. You deserve love and support. And I definitely don’t want you to use this piece as a weapon for shaming partners for having needs.

However, if you do recognize an emotional labour daisy chain that you’re a part of, it never hurts to check in with everyone else to make sure everything that’s going on is consensual and is working for everyone involved. A lot of times, these things work right up until they don’t—and people need to know it’s okay to express when it stops working for them, before resentment starts to build.


Sometimes things get set up in such a way that certain people are expected—or even required—to consistently provide emotional labour, while others are consistently exempted from it. Case in point: As mentioned above, the first major discussions of emotional labour centred on the ways in which women are socialized (and expected) to provide emotional labour to men. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that often you see similar patterns play out in poly relationships. But that’s not always the case: I’ve seen—and been in—plenty of situations where one or several men form crucial links in the daisy chain.

One specific example of a structural imbalance in emotional labour is the unicorn-hunting couple. If you look closely at what they say they’re looking for, often it becomes clear that what they want is a woman to provide emotional labour for the two of them, while expecting little to none in return. What makes this particular situation especially messed up, though, is that often they’ll say that they don’t want her to have other partners—in essence, denying her the ability to seek out emotional care from others.

And you know what? Taking care of each other, supporting each other and helping each other out is cool. But setting up structures whereby certain people are consistently excused from performing emotional labour and certain people are expected to always provide it is not cool. It’s not cool in society, and it’s not cool in a polyamorous network.

And those structures are really just a special case of the general case of entitlement to emotional labour. Like all forms of entitlement in relationships, the moment you start feeling like someone owes you emotional labour, things will get fucked up.

Another place the polyamorous emotional labour daisy chain causes problems is when there’s someone who has a hard time setting boundaries and consistently accepts poor treatment from partners. Often it’s these kinds of people who have a chronic tendency to be at the centre of the circle. They may consistently give more to certain relationships than they get back, and they may feel like hey, it’s okay, they have that to give.

Except that sometimes the reason they have so much to give is that there’s another partner in the background (or more than one)—people like Alex in our story—performing the emotional labour for both their own relationship and the other, lousy one(s). I think sometimes such a setup can even provide a kind of backup energy source for shitty relationships that really ought to end. I think sometimes they can make it so that even though they hurt, it never hurts quite enough to leave. So if you’re that person who can’t leave the bad relationships, think on that—because often what it means is that there’s another person absorbing your pain.

I don’t know what the solution to this is. But I know one thing: Taking care of your partners means taking care of yourself, too. And that means setting boundaries with people who treat you badly—no matter how much you love them. And it means limiting what you give to relationships that don’t give back. You may think that love conquers all; you may think that you can endlessly pour your love into someone in the hope that they’ll return it someday; you may think these are your decisions. And they are. But understand these decisions are not just about you. People you love will feel it. They will pick up the pieces.


For those of you waiting for Part 3 in my hierarchy series…I’m still working on it. I’ve hit an unexpected logical puzzle that I need to work through, and that’s taking some time. I hope to have it up in the next couple of days. This post was the one I needed to write today.

  1. June 21, 2016 8:05 pm

    Also be aware that when you are saying to your partner “I know you are upset with me, but I want you to go and process it with someone else, and come back to me when you can state the issue in one or two sentences,” you are effectively asking to outsource the emotional labor from the impact of your actions onto an unrelated third party.

    • Eve permalink
      June 21, 2016 8:08 pm

      Whoa. This is a thing that people do?

      • Ethan permalink
        June 24, 2016 1:50 pm

        That is *definitely* something a lot of people do when they are trying to deal with issues. The mistake is going to and expecting the “third person” to be someone else in your life (other relationship, or even a friend)

        There’s a correct and very productive place to take this sort of “outsourcing”. It’s called a therapist/counselor or psychologist. In fact, that is one of the primary roles of such professionals – to listen to a patient/client’s issues, help them break complicated life issues into managable chunks and tasks that can be communicated to he people in your life, and effectively acted upon.

        That is what an effective therapist does – they are a professional *paid* to listen to your problems so that the important people in your life doesn’t have to shoulder all of the emotional labor.

        My best advice to anyone is, the best reason to seek out a counselor is not really for you – it’s something you do for your friends and loved ones so they don’t have to shoulder the emotional burden of problems that are really your responsibility.

      • kevin ohara permalink
        June 24, 2016 10:24 pm

        agree wholeheartedly, Ethan – also in a suddenly stressful situation, its worth remembering that any issues popping out were there all the time, dormant, un-triggered. Knowing this, it makes sense to go seek them out and deal with them when the sun is shining and you have time, rather than wait for the thunder storms

  2. John Button permalink
    June 22, 2016 12:23 am

    A thought-provoking piece, Eve, but it did leave me wondering about the emphasis on the ‘negative’ high-process-input side of poly relationships, when it’s the enormous rewards of multiple significant others that makes all the effort so worthwhile.
    Very telling to me is your comment on ‘setting boundaries with people who treat you badly’, but why put any effort at all into people who ‘treat you badly’ (if that’s objectively true)? You say ‘it means limiting what you give to relationships that don’t give back’, and I couldn’t agree more — no good poly relationship can develop without real reciprocation. My experience is that you can mostly tell from the outset which connections are likely to be rewardingly reciprocal and which not, so why continue the non-reciprocal ones beyond the initial exploration?
    My take is that the issues arising between two people in a poly setup are much best dealt with between those two people, though reflection from trusted (and non-side-taking) others can sometimes give welcome perspective. If you need professional help to resolve particularly difficult issues, the appropriate place to go is an experienced poly-friendly relationship counsellor. The most important ’emotional labour’ involved in developing truly rewarding poly connections really must be done one-to-one by the people involved — nobody else can do it for them. And the key element to this is a commitment to working through even the hardest issues in a non-blame, personally-owning, caring, mutually-listening, communicating-as-clearly-as-possible way, in the clear understanding that the only way to honest and fulfilling relationship (if there is a way, and there may not be) is through.
    If someone is ‘treating you badly’ you have a clear choice — work with that person to get to a place where you can ‘treat each other nicely’, or stop having the relationship. I know stopping isn’t always easy or comfortable, but we all owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that we have that choice. Surely the whole point of poly is to break out of limiting power relationships.

    • António Freitas permalink
      June 22, 2016 9:25 am

      I believe pointing out the bads along the goods of anything is important, more so in the case of polyamory, lets we slip into the realm of magical cure-alls and fairy-tale romance that so poison the relationships society expects (getting married, finding the love of your life, getting kids, living happily ever after, while conveniently omitting the effort it takes to make a relationship work and raise a kid and that not everyone wants the same things).
      Showcasing the negative in this chain process sends out the message of “look, we know we aren’t perfect, there are screw ups on poly-relationships just the same as mono-, and it really is ok, because we are real people having real relationships with all the hard-work it entails.”

    • kevin ohara permalink
      June 22, 2016 10:07 pm

      yup – i agree with John – its what ive been banging on about really (as a noob) – and im reassured by this exchange that the poly scene at best is essentially about personal growth through very intimate and possibly long term relationships rather than trying to shag ones way around the county !
      My only real experience of this kind of thing is a 40 year monogamous to a woman older than myself (she died 2 years ago) and it has left me wanting more of the same – like deep intimacy, commitment (to one or more) and the inevitable hard emotional graft
      but i am much reassured and looking forward to the future!

  3. kevin ohara permalink
    June 22, 2016 1:36 am

    I do so understand the situations you are describing, Eve.
    I look at it from a “personal development” point of view
    The stresses that inevitably surface in any regressive relationship (where the nature of the relationship tends towards the Adult getting left behind for a while) —particularly romantic relationships —mean that the person with the “problem” – the one who needs “support” has 3 options

    1 Manipulate the situation to get the outcome they want
    2 Collapse in a heap having made sure someone has phoned for the ambulance
    3 Take responsibility for their feelings and seek experienced guidance (dont look for “professional” “help” !)

    in my experience the only long term fix is No 3 but it takes blood sweat and tears as the man said

  4. Jamie permalink
    June 22, 2016 6:51 am

    Thanks for this post. It’s part of why building a robust support network is important. A really important part of my network is my therapist. In hard times, I try to be aware of not wearing out my loved ones with my troubles, and having someone I pay to listen to me is key.

    • Eve permalink
      June 22, 2016 9:09 am

      Thanks Jamie! I can’t believe I forgot to include the “Don’t try to make your partner(s) your therapist” angle!

  5. Emma permalink
    June 22, 2016 9:47 am

    I think the difficulty comes when your partner is not treating you badly, but have (not unreasonable) emotional needs or desires that exceed your capacity (or desire) to fulfill them. Setting boundaries is hard in this case, especially when the partner feels entitled to your care (reasonably or unreasonably entitled). It is hard to tease out “What is appropriate give-and-take in relationships?” vs “What is depleting my resources beyond reasonableness in this situation?” before you are entangled.

    • Eve permalink
      June 22, 2016 10:13 am

      I think it can be either.

    • Barbara permalink
      August 26, 2017 7:52 am

      This REALLY resonates with me. Setting these boundaries is such a challenge when I really want to “be there”. But this is just the encouragement that I need to do it.

  6. Chris H. permalink
    June 23, 2016 9:22 am

    I’m in that exact situation right now so this post was very timely…thank you!

  7. September 10, 2016 8:27 pm

    Isn’t it funny how something that can be so great in small doses (i.e., providing emotional support to others) can be so easily weaponized when taken for granted or not reciprocated?

    It reminds me a lot of compassion fatigue — long-term caregivers get it when supporting people who are chronically ill, whether it’s a relative or a patient. It’s a huge source of stress.

    I never expected that when I became poly that I’d have days where I understood the plight of hospice workers, but ooooo boy.

  8. Alex permalink
    September 12, 2016 10:10 am

    As a newb to a polyamorous relationship, I really appreciate reading these insightful articles and comments. The maturity, respect, and care that you all (strangers) show for each other in the poly community warms my heart and makes me feel like this is a safe and welcoming space where I can grow and learn and be myself. XD

  9. Jamey permalink
    September 29, 2016 7:24 am

    What about when your husband is so excited by a new love that they forget to love you completely? then get angry when you ask for what you need?

  10. Jess permalink
    November 4, 2016 1:41 am

    So I am fairly new to the polyamourous relationship, 1 year in . I was the “Unicorn” but now I consider myself more than that. My partner and his wife have been married for 18 years now. He and I are madly in love with each other. Things started out very well, but now, I am constantly being pushed to the side by his wife, almost to the point of alienation. She wont allow he and I to have alone time, but yet expects to have alone time with him. There is constant battle. He trys to stick up for me, but she is very controlling and demanding. SHe verbally abuses him constantly . How do you overcome these jealous fits , tantrums so to speak. She is only happy when he is ignoring me. I know that she was his wife first, but don’t I , shouldn’t I have a right as well since we all decided to be in this relationship. How does she have the right to just turn me off , when she gets tired of me , depriving both her husband and myself of our needs and desires and wants?

  11. Jess permalink
    November 4, 2016 1:45 am

    What happens when the “new” wears off by the wife, but the husband is still very much in love and into the “unicorn” that has lived with them for the last year? What right does the wife have to just turn everything off?

    • August 6, 2017 10:24 am

      I think the point in the article was that these relationships are often unbalanced… and probably will not end well. It’s not a matter of “rights”. The reality is the wife is no longer okay with the open relationship or she is abusive. In either case, it may be time to get out. I know you still have feelings for the husband, but if he is not instilling his own boundaries and spending time with you anyway and tending that relationship, then he is as guilty as she is. In the end, you’re not getting what you need from that relationship. Relationship counselling can work… but you should be prepared to step away, as well. (Former Unicorn myself)

  12. Dawn permalink
    December 9, 2016 5:16 am

    I have been married to my wife for 5 years. She just came to me and said that she now has feelings for men and wants have more that one relationship. She has said that she does not want our relationship to end and that she loves me very much. I love her very much. I am trying to understand all of this and I need help. I am trying to not make this personal. I am struggling so hard. Please direct me where to go for advice and help.

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