I have two partners—one is a cis, mostly het dude ("Dan") and the other is a trans woman of color ("Layla"). As my relationship with Dan has started to get more serious, Layla has begun to complain that he "asserts" himself towards her the ways that cis dudes relate with each other (the hard handshake, the "you gotta take care of her", talk, he once tried to playfully shadowbox her, etc) and it's made her really uncomfortable. I don't notice it (obviously), and I'm afraid there's no way I can bring it up with Dan without it just creating more animosity between them. I worry Dan feels that in time I will just phase Layla out of our lives? I see him more often and we might move in together, but this isn't a dating show. How do I present this to him in a way that doesn't invite more jealousy between them, doesn't make him feel like my girlfriend is hyper analyzing his behavior, and doesn't jeopardize my ability to one day have a roommate who won't flip out if I make breakfast naked?
Nala in Berlin
Greetings, international poly friend! Glad to hear the non-monogamy lifestyle is thriving abroad.
Let’s start off addressing your quandary by giving Dan the benefit of the doubt. There’s a chance—slim, but plausible—that his macho attempts to relate to Layla are actually a show of increased camaraderie, not alienation or dismissal. Keep in mind that there is no “Metamour Handbook” out there for partners-of-partners in multi-tiered poly arrangements to follow; no college class to take, no volume to check out of the local library.
We tend to socialize cis men in a fashion that trains them to feel shameful about authentically expressing emotions lest they be labeled “feminine” and teased or shunned (Yay, misogyny!). It’s why we’ve created all these ridiculous terms like “bromance”—men feel like they need to designate a separate, “more masculine” category to facilitate their displays of intimacy towards one another. Boo hiss.
Now, here comes the problematic part: even if Dan has the best intentions and is reaching out to Layla to connect “the only way he knows how”, his methods are still illustrating that he relates to her in a masculine way, instead of acknowledging, respecting and validating her feminine (and uniquely individual) identity. He may not realize that his “bro code” hurts, but fortunately that’s where you can step in. You mention that you hesitate to intervene for fear of “creating more animosity between them”, but do you have any other evidence of animosity aside from Dan’s awkward attempts at camaraderie to give you pause?
To be honest, Dan’s actions seem vaguely transphobic in their ignorance as well as vaguely perverse in a paternal “take care of her” way, but I’m not getting any vibes of conscious animosity from him.
The issue still bears addressing, however, since Layla is the one being hurt by these microaggressions. You may not want to talk to Dan about this since you anticipate it being uncomfortable, but being a “common denominator” partner obligates you in these situations.
It’s your job to assist in facilitating clearer and calmer channels of communication between your partners, and if they’re in it for the long haul, they’ll thank you for it.
I’d recommend sitting Dan down for a casual chat. First, emphasize how much you care about him and how happy you are with the trajectory of your relationship (the impending move-in, etc). Then tell him that you’ve noticed the ways in which he’s tried connecting with Layla, and how much you appreciate his efforts since she’s also a very important person in your life. This reinforces Layla’s role as your other partner in Dan’s mind, and also tunes him into your perceptiveness around how he treats her (Yes, I know you mentioned that you hadn’t personally observed any of the microaggressions she mentioned—just go with it).
Next, gently suggest to him that the ways in which he’s been trying to forge this connection, however well-intentioned, may be getting received in a more patronizing and dismissive way than intended. Bring up the specific examples, and then wait to see what he says. Hopefully he’s receptive and not an asshole, and doesn’t try and gaslight you by telling you you’re “imagining” all of it, or, even worse, let a much more overtly transphobic flag fly.
But hey, if he is an asshole, at least you dodged that bullet before you both signed a lease together.
The most important thing here is that Layla feels supported by you—like you have her back enough to be willing to address your other partner about increasing the quality of their interactions.