by Mx Ruby-Rouge
Relationships between people are not stagnant or fixed, they are flexible, changeable, they evolve. Two people meet as strangers, become friends for twenty years, then fall out over something and become enemies. Two people meet, become lovers, get married and live happily for many years before divorcing amicably. A parent has a baby that becomes a child, an adult, a friend, an equal. Nothing in life is set in stone, and the same goes for our relationships with people. The general view of relationships seems to be that they have a set pattern to follow with a beginning, a middle and an end, but polyamory means preconceptions of relationship are rejected, and we find our own paths. If we can embrace flexible and evolving relationships in all aspects of our lives, we can truly find happiness and security, by not becoming attached and dependent on people or connections. If we can learn to embrace change, adapt to situations and accept the new, we can find our lifestyle a lot easier to manage.
Being polyamorous means having multiple relationships, in all its aspects. Whilst a lot of the poly literature available might talk at length about how to add relationships, negotiation and dealing with ongoing relationship issues, relationship breakdowns are less spoken of. The simple fact of the matter is that if you have more relationships, you are likely to have more break-ups. The important thing that is different for polyamorous people is how we view a break up, how we deal with it, and how we move on from it.
There are similarities and differences between monogamous and polyamorous breakups. In terms of similarities we can look at the three situations that result from a break up: the mutual break up, where both parties agree to end the relationship, and the opposite situations of dumper and dumpee, when one person wants the relationship to end, and the other person wants it to continue. All three can occur in poly or mono relationships, and they all have the ability to hurt like fuck when they occur.
Relationships break down over a variety of things, for both poly and mono people. Some reasons are shared, some are very specific to monogamy, or to polyamory. A prime cause of a monogamous break up is that one partner has “fallen out of love” which can be code for “I have fallen for someone else”. Generally this leads to the decision by the love-struck party whether to continue the existing relationship and ignore the new fancy, to cheat, or to end the existing relationship and pursue the new one. This is the exact opposite for polyamorous relationships: a relationship doesn’t necessarily need to end just because one person met a new amour, unless a logistical reason makes it so.
The general relationship pattern for monogamy can result in a lot of break ups. A partner may decide their amour isn’t quite what they want for life, to settle down with, to have kids with. The never ending search for “the one” leads to break ups, often fruitless, in the search for one person who can keep you happy in all things for the rest of your life. Cue polyamorous eye-rolling. For poly folks, many of whom work under a hierarchical system, already have a primary or life partner. All their other relationships are secondary in time or life involvement, and so are never seeking “the one”. Either they don’t believe in forever, or they already feel they’ve met them. Some poly folks don’t have a hierarchy, some have structures that mimic a family and provide for things like housing, home-running, children, financial needs for the poly group or family.
Another leading cause for relationship break-ups in both worlds is a serious breach of trust. In both it may be cheating, which is so horrendous a breach of trust for both that the relationship can no longer continue. In both cases it is unacceptable, in monogamy, open and clear communication about desires could lead to either negotiating open relationships, or to end the relationship. In polyamory, a situation of cheating is similarly unnecessary given the freedoms in our relationships. Other polyamorous rules or agreements may result in a relationship breakdown if they are breached, or repeatedly breached, such as safer sex precautions, or getting involved with a person who causes problems in the connected relationships. In any case, a serious breach of agreed rules or boundaries is a prime cause for the irreversible breakdown of a relationship.
Sometimes a relationship just isn’t working out. The people involved aren’t getting their needs met, perhaps they are vastly different people, or one of them is emotionally unstable or immature, unable to deal with a relationship. There can be a huge number of reasons why relationships fail to flourish, to evolve, and get stuck in an unsatisfying rut. It can be so easy for both poly and mono people to settle for ok, to live with mediocrity, to make do. Part of this is because ending a relationship is so hard, especially if you care for that person, especially if it was great at some point and then lost its sparkle. Sometimes there is a difficulty in ending relationships without a “big reason”, a mass indiscretion, a thing you can tell people the other person did that “made” you end it. This can be as much as problem for poly people as monogamous, and ultimately it is about being strong, facing the issues and being totally honest that things aren’t working for you. If you and your partner can’t improve, reach a compromise or agree to work on things, it’s best to agree to part ways, hard as that can be.
Some relationship break downs are about a person’s relationship with people. In monogamy this can manifest with a partner’s bad relationship with the other partner’s friends or family, in polyamory this can be in bad relationships with the metamours, which can turn things very sour very quickly indeed. It could be a simple case of partner A thinks partner B’s friend is a cheating scumbag, and doesn’t want to hang out with them, or wants to restrict partner B going out drinking with them. This attempt at control can quickly cause bad relations between all parties. It could be a case of Partner D’s primary hating partner R, and making every possible attempt to train-wreck their relationship. In such cases, if the problems cannot be dealt with, they can eventually cause the partners themselves to have arguments, for one or both of them to walk away, and the relationship break down.
Breakups can be dealt with well, or badly. Both monogamous and poly folk have the ability to deal with a break up fairly, responsibly and maturely, or act like children, spitefully and melodramatically causing huge rifts in their respective circles. A lot of this depends on how and why the relationship ended. If the relationship ended mutually, without a betrayal, it can generally mean a mature handling of things where both parties take some time to reflect what happened, give each other space and can be at the very least civil in the future if not friends. Where the relationship was ended by one party without the consent of the other, or where a major breach has occurred, things are different. The dumpee or betrayed will feel a variety of feelings: anger, grief, loss, fear, shame and have so many questions they want answered. The dumper may feel guilty, angry or self-loathing. Both can be in a bad place, and will need support.
This is where the differences between mono and poly can really show. A monogamous person who has been cheated on, or unceremoniously dumped for a new lover, can expect the full support of their family and friends. Tears can be shed onto comforting shoulders, drinks had to soothe the pain and endless dissection of what a bad person the ex was. For the poly person, the situation can be quite different. Family and friends can be somewhat baffled by the grief of a poly relationship ending, because the other relationships still remain. They can be unsympathetic as you have “caused the situation yourself”. For a poly breakup, we generally turn to the poly community, often the anonymous community online for support in dealing with our feelings. Another great difference is that the poly community is small, and we inter-date. Whilst your monogamous counterpart can avoid the ex like the plague, we are likely to see them at events, or within our wider circle of friends. Worse still, we may see them openly displaying love for current partners, or seeking new ones, even dating our partners whilst we grieve. This can be very difficult to deal with, and ending things amicably, and on good terms can assist. Open communication between the former partners about feelings, and giving space and consideration to each other can be a great help, and in time, you can feel compersion seeing your former love with a new partner.
Sometimes a break up is truly horrific. A relationship has ended on such bad terms, and a partner may have experienced such awful behaviour that ending things amicably is impossible. If someone has been a total douche, cheated, been violent, exposed someone to an STI, or been emotionally manipulative can mean the former lovers are unlikely to evolve into friends. In these situations it is best to avoid where you can, be as civil as you can, and to try and work through the issues the relationship raised on your own terms and with your own support network.
A big fallacy is that a relationship ending is a sign of failure. Sometimes relationships break down irretrievably – friends fall out, lovers are betrayed, children reject their parents. Usually these breakdowns have a reason for being so severe and could have been stopped had the behaviour been talked about and worked on. Generally, even emotional breakups heal and lessen over time, and former lovers can evolve into friends, acquaintances, metamours. A break-up of a romantic relationship does not mean they failed, it meant the relationship wasn’t making them happy any more.
When I ended my first poly relationship 18 months ago, I was heart-broken at how things had turned out. Angry at how I had been treated. Grief-stricken at my loss of an old friend. Sorrow for my wasted hopes and investment in something that didn’t work. I closed off contact and blocked anything to do with him or his partner on every possible way I could think he would try and contact me. Time passed, I moved on, and loved again. I experienced more relationships, I got better at communicating, I learned to spot red flags and I started figuring out what my own needs were. My wounds healed. I thought of him. I missed talking to him. I didn’t want him back as a lover. And then he found a chink in my blocking armour. A site I’d forgotten to block him on. He viewed my profile and I wrote him an angry message, demanding why he was spying on me. Little by little, we talked. We opened up. We were honest, like we should have been two years ago. He apologised, profusely. My negative feelings melted away. I realised I still missed him being in my life. I hope we’ve now begun evolving back from enemies to friends.
Having gone through a series of breakups recently, I know I handled some better than others. Some of my partners had behaved badly, and deserved to be dumped. Some of the relationships had run their course, and were mutually ended with sadness and mutual respect. Some ended after a massive breach of trust. Some of these connections with former lovers I hope, in time, will evolve to friendship again. Some I wish I could go back and handle better. Some of them I hope never to speak to again.
Break-ups are painful, but also necessary when a relationship has evolved to something different, or when it isn’t serving the needs of the people within it. Break-ups need not be the end of a connection with a person, but a beginning of a new chapter with them. Break-ups can turn warring lovers into loving friends, by re-defining the boundaries and rules of the relationship and allowing the connection between the two people to be natural and without constraint. If you can adapt in your relationships, if you can change to meet your needs and the needs of the people you love, if you can allow things to evolve naturally, you may find a deeper connection with people, one not clouded by pre-set pattern or presumptive course. You may find a deeper sense of security within yourself and your relationships, knowing that lovers may be transient, but connections can remain, people are seldom lost unless you wish to lose them, and that whilst nothing is forever, treasuring what you have, while you have it, is key.