In polyamory, relationships sometimes end. But one of the great things about poly is that they don’t have to, and when they do, it doesn’t have to be as painful.
In the book “More Than Two” by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, an entire chapter is devoted to “relationship transitions”, including breaking up. I highly recommend the book, especially since I cannot hope to encompass the issue in a single article like this one. One quote is particularly powerful:
“A fundamental premise of ethical relationships is that they are consensual. That means people are free to enter relationships without coercion, and free to end relationships that are not meeting their needs. An ethical relationship is one where nobody feels compelled to stay against their will… It’s okay to end relationships. It has to be okay to end relationships without feeling that our support will be kicked out from under us, or that our lovers will withdraw their love from us. When it’s not okay to end a relationship, consent has left the building.” (Page 427)
Can We Still Be Friends?
Several years ago, I arrived at a restaurant a few minutes early to meet up with my girlfriend. She was in town for the weekend to visit family and had asked me to meet her somewhere for dinner, which was unusual since one of us usually just picked up the other. I had a feeling I knew what was coming. For several months, we had been living in separate states and the long-distance nature of the relationship simply wasn’t working out for either of us.
We had our dinner and chatted casually for a while. As we finished our entrees, she finally broached the subject and told me that she thought we should no longer be together in the way we were, but that she really valued me and wanted to remain friends.
Remain friends. Yeah. Lot’s of people have heard that, right? In monogamous relationships, discomfort can overwhelm your time together after a breakup or an ex can be viewed as a threat by your new partners. So usually these offers of friendship only last as long as your single status, if that long.
In poly relationships, though, that doesn’t have to be true. In fact, the whole concept of “Breaking Up” is entirely different in a world where exclusivity is not assumed and being non-traditional is the norm. Also, since the poly community is still relatively small (moreso if you cross-over into the kink community, as well), it can be very difficult to avoid the other person entirely. So there is often an expectation that when people break up, they at least be able to be friendly with one another in public.
I did, by the way, remain friends with her. We still exchange communication to this day, many years later.
In another case, a longtime friend of mine has moved, over the years, from friend, to partner, to friend, to partner of my partner (partner-in-law? metamore?), and back again. I have actually lost track of all of the different shapes and labels our relationship has had. For months or years, we will barely speak at all, even while she goes on dates with one of my partners, then things will change and we will spend lots of time together, sometimes crossing the line into physical interaction and mutual expectations, then returning eventually to more casual and platonic.
It is this wonderful fluidity that I love most about poly. Instead of having breakup as the only remedy to a relationship that isn’t serving our needs, poly people have the option of simply changing the current relationship to make room for others that may serve us better, even with that same person. It is possible to shift temporarily, while the circumstances allow it, then go back to the way things were before without hard feelings or damage.
I lived together with two of my partners at the same time for about two years. We shared finances and functioned as a single unit. The three of us did well together and found a good balance. However, each of them has other partners who did not live in the house, as do I.
Late last year, we decided to make a change. We each now live with our respective “other” partners. I still see each of them often. In fact, one is only a two minute walk away. We still share several financial burdens, but our bank accounts have been separated. Our relationships are still close, but now each of us has enough room, both literally and figuratively, to accommodate all of our partners.
So we no longer live together, but we are still very much in love and very much committed to one-another. In most circles, moving out would be considered the first sign of a failing relationship, but for us, it’s a sign of just how strong our relationship is, that it can endure a change like this without dying.
Since houses simply aren’t built for big poly families with half a dozen adults or more, finding a living situation that works well for everyone can be difficult, and may need to change regularly. Remember that your relationship does not have to be defined by who you share a kitchen with. Make the choices that work best for you and don’t worry so much about the cultural implications of “moving out” or any other logistical adjustment you need to make. It’s your life.
It is a wonderful fact of poly that relationships can change more freely. A person who is a “primary” partner today, might simply be a good friend next year. And that’s ok.
Sometimes, though, the relationships do simply end. There could be an irresolvable conflict. There could be an unforgivable betrayal. There could be any number of circumstances which do not allow a positive relationship, even as friends, to continue on.
The end of any relationship can certainly be painful, and being poly doesn’t inherently soften that pain. It is still normal to feel hurt and to miss what you had with that person. Sometimes, poly may even make things harder. For instance, your other partners might be friends with the person you are breaking up with, or even partners with that person themselves. This can lead to complications that traditional relationship training simply doesn’t prepare us for.
However, even while poly can make breakups more complicated, they can also make them easier to weather. Having other partners, as well as a supportive community of friends or family that are aware of your situation, can help in many ways. For one thing, breaking up with a partner doesn’t necessarily mean you are now alone. You may still have someone to be physically close and to work through your feelings with.
Additionally, unlike with long term monogamous relationships, these “relationship transitions” are likely to happen somewhat more often. While I have been with one of my partners for nearly ten years, other relationships have not lasted as long. So you get more practice and build up a better personal tool box for getting through it and knowing what you need to do for yourself. After a while, you become as talented at negotiating the end of a relationship as you are with the beginning of one.
Filling the Void
Often, when a very close relationship ends or transitions, poly people feel compelled or expected to make up the difference by scaling up their relationships with other partners.
When my partners each moved in with their respective other partners, there was a whole series of conversations about what that meant for our relationships, as well as similar conversations with other partners. Would my suddenly vacant space mean, for instance, that one of my other girlfriends would be eligible for “promotion” to live-in status?
The answer is absolutely not.
Some relationships are casual and relatively free of expectations and entwinement because that’s what works best for that particular relationship. One of the things I like best about these more casual relationships with her is that we have no shared baggage. Our social calendars are separate, our finances are separate, our lives are separate. We are available to support each other and have fun and be a positive, happy element of each other’s lives. And neither of us is interested in putting that at risk by “getting serious” and adding a bunch of complicated entanglement to it. Could that change in the future? Very possibly. But available square footage in the residence will not be what prompts that shift.
Resist the temptation to make significant changes to your remaining relationships immediately after changes with another. Many times, you will later regret choices made during this emotional period and may not be able to reverse them.
Poly offers us the opportunity to expand the way we think about relationships. This opportunity is just as beneficial when it comes time to transition a relationship from one shape to another, or to end it altogether.
I encourage you to embrace the idea that relationships never truly end, they only change. And so when a relationship isn’t working for you, consider what you want it to change TO, instead of just focusing on what it is that you are trying to escape FROM. Look forward, look for opportunities to keep these important people in your life, but perhaps in a different way. You may need time apart to cope with the end of a close committed relationships, but it is possible to truly still be friends or more, often for the rest of your lives, so don’t pass up that opportunity.
If someone truly does need to be removed from your life completely, don’t burn down the metaphorical (or literal) house with it. Posting angrily on social networks may induce comforting words from your friends, but remember that your next potential partner may be among them, and may form an opinion of you based on how you handle this break up. If they see you posting vindictive jabs at your past partners insecurities, they may not be willing to be vulnerable with you themselves. Handle your private business privately, and do everything possible to remain civil if you encounter them again in the world.
An exception to this, of course, is any relationship which is abusive, violent, or otherwise psychologically damaging in some way. In those cases, it is perfectly reasonable to take steps to ensure that such encounters will not happen and to make sure your friends understand why.
Finally, remember that your next partner is not your previous partner. Increased reluctance or cynicism can prevent a new relationship from forming and growing. As the authors of More Than Two put it, “When you make pain a part of your identity, it’s harder to move on from it without suspicion and bitterness. But good relationships require loving as though you had never been hurt before. A guarded heart is a closed heart.”
So whatever the circumstances of your breakup, approach it with the goal of being able to keep your heart open and to move forward, rather than to remain chained to your past. Poly is about not being defined by a single relationship or a single person, so you shouldn’t let yourself be defined by a single breakup, either.
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