THE BLOG
02/27/2013 10:59 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

My Sister Is in a Three-Person Relationship; What Should I Do?

Dear John,

First, I want to thank you for doing what you do. I've been reading your books, blogs, facebook, etc. for a while now. I've had friends who just don't think God wants them the way they are, and I've pointed them to your writings many, many times. I know that your encouragement has helped thousands of people find God's acceptance.

Now, I'm finding myself in a crisis.

It seems that when it's all just theology and talk, I am quite open minded. I believe in LGBT rights in the church, and I have repeated it countless times to many people. But now it has hit home, and I find myself acting quite differently -- the very picture of the bigotry and hate I have come to condemn from the churches in which I grew up.

Here's the situation: My sister has come to me and told me that she has decided to be in a three-person relationship. My husband and I met the guy in the relationship last week (at the time she just told us he was her boyfriend). But now she has told us the truth, and is asking us to meet the woman this week. We are supposed to keep this a secret from our parents.

I don't want to meet her. My husband doesn't want to meet her. I don't think this is right for my sister, and I want to find a way to tell her. The back-story on this is that my sister has just come out of an awful divorce. She got married too young (she was 21, and had never lived as an adult on her own). Since her divorce, she has not taken any time to be alone. She has searched out sexual experiences of all spectrums. So although this is different -- it seems to be a loving committed relationship -- to me it just feels like an extension of her sexual freedom spree.

I hate the way that I feel about this. I feel like I am spewing out the very same sort of hate and bigotry that I condemn. Yet on the same time I feel on a gut level that this is wrong. Mostly just wrong for her, but also wrong. And I can't sort out my feelings; I can't tell if they're a remnant from my upbringing, or if it's my conscience telling me to take responsibility for my kid sister (which I can't, of course; she's an adult). I've been praying for God to guide me in this and help me be loving toward my sister in any way that I need to. If that includes accepting this relationship in her life, then I seriously need God's help to change my attitude. But so far I just have a big ball of anxiety in my stomach, because all I feel is the need to tell her to get out of this relationship. Please help me understand how I should react. Thank you so much.

Thank you for the kind words about my work. I appreciate that.

The first thing I'd recommend is to read this interview, which I did with a woman in a polyamorous (meaning more than two people) relationship: 1 Man, 2 Women in a Polyamorous Relationship. I can't imagine you not finding it helpful.

Secondly, it's touching that you care so much about your younger sister's well-being. Sometimes, though, older siblings tend to take a little more responsibility for the feelings of their younger siblings than is altogether healthy or helpful; in that sense they sort of assume the role of a proxy parent. It feels to me maybe you're doing a little of that here. Which is certainly understandable; clearly, you love your sister. But the bottom line is that she's going to do what she's going to do. You can and should, of course, gently share with her your own thoughts and concerns. Just remember, for your own peace of mind if nothing else, that her feelings are not your responsibility.

I don't understand why you and your husband are so against meeting the other woman. What do you have to lose? Meeting her means having a lot more information about what your sister's getting involved in. How could that be bad? At any rate, by refusing to meet her you pretty much forfeit your right to have an opinion about your sister's relationship with her. You wouldn't care what someone who's never met him thinks about your husband -- much less your relationship to him -- would you? Go meet the woman. Be honest with her about your concerns. There's no way she doesn't know how weird most people find the idea of a polyamorous relationship. So talk to her about that. See what she says. For all you know, she's freaked out to find herself loving the way she now is. You never know. So go. Find out. Learn.

Here's the thing: Your sister is either going through a phase that will pass, or she's really in love with these two people, and they really love her, and the three of them are going to live happily ever after. Either way, your job remains the same: to love and support your sister. You can't change your sister; you can't make your sister see truths you wish she would; it's unlikely that you can influence your sister at all. All you can do is make sure that she knows you love her, that you'll always listen to her, and that if she needs you for anything, you're there. That's the best. That's all anyone wants to know about anyone they love.

Let her drive for a while. Take a back seat. Trust her a little. That's really all you can do. If you shun your sister now, or constantly make clear how wrong you think what she's doing is, she'll only recoil from you. And if her love-love-love affair doesn't end up working out, she'll be a lot less likely to come to you for solace than she would if you'd been there for her all along. And if it does work out, then it would have done so in spite of you. No good. You just cannot win by condemning it now. And neither can she.

Bottom line: You can, and should, share with your sister your concerns, thoughts, fears, prejudices -- all of it. You get to talk about you. But you don't get to talk about her: you don't get to tell her who she is, or who she should be. You can share with her, for instance, that you genuinely can't understand how a person can love two people in the way that most people love one. But you can't say that no one can love two people in the way most people love one. The former is about you, which is fine. The latter is about her and everyone else, which is beyond your rightful purview.

Bottom line redux: Love is a strange, wild animal. I tend to think people were designed to love, mate-for-life wise, only one other person. But who am I to say what romantic/committed love should or must look like? The woman I interviewed above seems perfectly content in her polyamorouos relationship; if anything, she seems more sane than most people. Since publishing that interview I've received a great many emails from people in polyamorous relationships, and to a person they've seemed sane, kind and... rather disappointingly normal. They're not freaks. They're not immoral. They don't have subpar values. They don't seem any less dedicated to either of their mates than I am to my wife. They're just... in love with two people.

Who am I to say that such a love indicates the presence of... faulty wiring, or whatever? As long as no one's getting hurt in such a relationship, who am I to say it's inherently wrong or harmful? For all I know polyamorous relationships are better than the regular kind. I mean, it's not like any of us are surrounded by nothing but happy normal marriages.

I don't know about polyamorous relationships. I also don't care about them. Again: if no one's getting hurt, I can't find a hook to hang my caring hat on. I've got my own life to worry about, my own relationship to tend to. Of all the problems in the world, I can't see getting upset over the fact that someone is loving two people instead of one.

So I say relax. If your sister's polyamorous relationship is real, you'll know it. If it's not, she'll know it -- and then you'll know it. Either way, you'll still be sisters. And that's a love that should never change at all.