One of the rewards for the More Than Two crowdfunding campaign is that, at $500 and above, we’ll answer a question on the blog (or write a post on the topic of your choice). This post presents our first backer question–and naturally it’s a doozy, with no easy answers. It also happens to be a topic we’re planning to cover in much more depth in the book.
How do poly relationships tend to end and what are best practices for dealing with that? I feel like that’s where both architecture and garden metaphor break down. Relationships grow, but how do they “ungrow”?
There’s a trope in some parts of the poly community that being poly means staying friends with all of your exes. I’m going to buck poly convention and say that’s not always the best approach, or even possible.
It’s the ideal I strive for personally, but it isn’t always going to happen, and sometimes that’s okay. What happens after a relationship ends depends a great deal about what kind of relationship it was, what course it took, how it developed, and how and why it ended. (I will say “ended” to mean that it’s no longer a romantic relationship. I’ve heard some folks say no relationship ever really ends, they simply change, though if two people who were once romantic partners aren’t anymore, I think it’s reasonable to say the romantic relationship has ended.)
I’ve had relationships end in just about every way you can imagine. I’ve broken up with partners, I’ve had partners break up with me, I’ve had breakups go smoothly and transition into awesome friendships, I have former partners I will probably never see or talk to again, I’ve had breakups that went really badly… you name it.
The most basic lesson I’ve learned from it all is there is no “breakup roadmap.” I no longer try to carry a set of expectations with me about what might happen if and when a relationship should end. Instead, what I try (not always perfectly) to do is to approach relationship endings with the same tools I use to approach relationships themselves: compassion, integrity and kindness.
It’s a tall order. When a relationship ends, especially if it’s the other person ending it, it’s really tough to reach for compassion and kindness through pain and loss. In some cases, it might be appropriate to take enough space to be able to mourn the loss of the relationship and work through the emotions attached to that before trying to go ahead with a friendship; it’s perfectly reasonable to say it might take some time to get there.
For me, expectation management plays a big part, both before and after the relationship ends.
There is, I think, a natural progression that we’re taught to expect with a relationship. It’s part of the standard story our culture teaches us about relationships: we meet someone, we feel a connection, we date, we fall in love, we move in together, get married, and then we’ve reached the top of the ladder. Even though poly relationships don’t necessarily take that same route, we can still bring some of those expectations with us, expectations like “if we love each other, we should be romantic partners” or “if a romanic relationship ends, it’s because someone did something wrong.”
I try to cultivate the traits of flexibility and detachment from expectation in my life. I know that sounds dangerously close to Buddhist thought, though I certainly don’t self-identify as Buddhist. What that means to me is I don’t have a roadmap of what “should” happen when I meet and connect with someone. I’m open to that connection taking a lot of different forms, and more important, I’m open to the form it takes changing, if that seems like what’s most natural. I can, and will, feel a sense of loss if a romantic relationship ends, certainly, but I’m not locked to the idea that it has to continue, or that it can’t change.
And perhaps most importantly of all, I don’t feel like a person owes me a relationship. I don’t believe that if I am involved with someone and she wants to end the relationship, that means she has done something wrong, or taken away something that is rightfully mine. I value consent in relationships of any kind; I don’t want a relationship with someone who feels she has no choice but to be with me (if you can’t say “no” to something, then consent becomes meaningless), and I don’t want her to feel obligated to stay with me if that’s not what makes her happy. If I love someone, part of that love, to me, is valuing that person’s happiness at least as much as I value my own. If being in a romantic relationship with me no longer makes her happy, I don’t need or expect her to stay with me.
Even if it hurts.
So there is, I think, an important part of expectation management after the end of a relationship, because every breakup is different, we can’t expect them to follow any particular template. But there’s also an important part during the relationship: I do not have the right to expect someone to be involved with me if it isn’t making her happy, and I am not entitled to a continuing relationship in the future simply because someone has consented to be in a relationship with me in the present.
Keeping that in mind has, for me, helped prevent the blame and acrimony that often seems to go along with the end of relationships in the wider world. There can be a bit of a balancing act there: it’s absolutely possible that a relationship ends because someone has legitimately done something wrong, and it’s certainly appropriate to want to hold someone accountable for a violation of trust or an unwillingness to live up to some mutually agreed commitment. But it’s important to separate that from blaming someone for choosing to end the relationship. Choosing to end a relationship is something we all have the right to do.
Those are the tools that can help prepare for the end of a relationship. Actually dealing with a former partner, though, is often going to be tricky, especially if there’s a high probability of meeting your ex in social situations.
The poly community is small, and it can be difficult to avoid a person entirely–even a person you’ve broken up with on bad terms. Sometimes, there’s nothing for it but putting on your grownup pants, gritting your teeth, and reminding yourself that if being a decent adult human being were easy we’d see more decent adult human beings. Behaving with civility to someone who’s hurt us (or to someone we’ve hurt!) is an art form. Part of that means recognizing that we, particularly in the poly community, are likely to have a lot of overlap in our social orbits, so playing the “run to our friends and talk about what a monster our ex is” game is likely to have unfortunate results. There is a fine line here, too, in that it’s reasonable to ask for support and sanity-checking from mutual friends, but doing that without attempting to set our friends against an ex can be a bit tricky. Part of the trick there, I think, is to recognize the difference between seeking validation and seeking retribution.
Assuming that things ended at least reasonably well, and you’re still on speaking terms with the ex, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the lines of communication open. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, sometimes it’s helpful to say “hey, look, I know we aren’t partners anymore, and I’m not sure what the best way to interact with you is. I still think you’re an awesome person, though. Do you have any thoughts about what things between us might look like going forward?” Ask the question without expectations or a hidden agenda, find the possibilities that you and your ex have in common, and build a roadmap from that.
The relationship endings I’ve had that have gone most smoothly have had several things in common. They have ended because of factors unrelated to a breach in trust or communication; there’s been genuine warmth and a lack of acrimony on both sides, even during the end of the relationship; there’s been communication afterward; and there’s been a real commitment to one another’s happiness. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I’m still close friends with those people, and in a couple of cases we’re still “snogging friends,” even though we’re not in active romantic relationships any more. These have usually been relationships that have ended primarily because of factors that aren’t connected to problems between us, but rather to situations outside us–one or the other of us moving, for example.
With relationships that have ended because of incompatibilities between us, the path has been a bit different. Generally, a strategy I have used in these kinds of situations is to look to my former partner for cues about how much contact she wants; I will try to leave the door open to as much or as little as she wants, without front-loading it with expectations or covert ideas about how much contact I might want.
This assumes that I am open to continuing contact, of course. If I’m not, I think the best course is to say so.
So that’s the long answer. The short answer is: It depends, and there probably isn’t a single approach that works in every situation. Dealing with former partners is… emotionally complicated.