A conversation recently came up amongst a group of poly folks I know: what happens when a couple starts traveling down the road to polyamory, and then problems come up?

At first, I didn’t really understand the question. After all, what do we do when problems come up in any aspect of our lives? We deal with them. We attempt to solve them, the best way we know how. And, somehow, we muddle through. After all, that’s life, right? Doing the best we can with what we know, learning to treat one another with care…in the end, none of us is perfect, and none of us will have perfect lives.

Some of the answers the other folks have didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I heard people say things like, “Well, if we were to have problems, we would pull away from our other partners to focus on ourselves.” That left me thinking, “…but what about those other partners? How would they feel about that? Do they know you might pull away from them on a moment’s notice? Would they feel safe opening their hearts to you if they did?”

As we muddle our way through life, one of the first lessons we learn is that we don’t get do-overs. Sometimes, we get things wrong. Sometimes, the best we can with what we have isn’t enough. We fall down. We hurt people. Some of the choices we make have consequences that reach far into our lives and change our internal landscapes. Some of the choices we make can’t easily be unmade. It happens. We learn, we try to set right the things we do wrong, and we practice compassion.

It seems to me that this is a lesson that can get lost in polyamory.

We know, intuitively, that sometimes we face things that change our lives, steer us into turbulent waters, stress our relationships. Some of those things are choices: having a baby, say, or moving to a distant town. Some of those things aren’t choices: losing a job (I’ve seen relationship experts claim that financial stress can be more damaging to  relationships than infidelity!), a sick family member, even a new pet.

Most of us would probably be horrified if someone told us, “My husband and I are having a baby. If things get stressful, we’ll put it up for adoption and focus on ourselves.” We’d probably be just as horrified if someone told us, “My mother-in-law has had a stroke, so my wife is taking care of her. But don’t worry, if it starts to affect our relationship, we’ll pull back from her to concentrate on ourselves.”

When it comes to the rest of life, we get that there may be times when we feel stressed and our relationships may encounter rough water. We fortify ourselves with love and trust in our partners, we build tools of communication and resilience, and we do the best we can.

Why is this different with polyamory? Why do we intuitively understand that it’s not OK to pull away from those who love and need us just because the road is rough…until the moment when the people who love and need us are our lovers, and then suddenly it becomes okay to say, “We will pull back from you if things get tough?”

Things get tough. It happens. Those are not the times to pull away; when the water is choppy, those are the times to reach out, to be at our most compassionate. Compassion matters most when it is difficult to do, not when it is easy to do. Of all the ways we can deal with stress, pulling away from our lovers–from those people we have invited into our hearts–seems to me the least productive of all.


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