Dealing with the end of a relationship
This essay started out as an answer on Quora.
Are poly breakups easier because you have more partners?
The thing I have learned from my relationships, and especially my breakups, is that there is no “how to handle breakups.” Every breakup is as unique as a fingerprint. No one-size-fits-all approach to breakup works, or can work.
On top of that, you can’t necessarily tell in advance how a breakup will go. A person who seems reasonable, mature, and emotionally solid can lash out, or even become abusive, during a breakup. This has happened to me. On the other hand, some breakups are like “Oh. Yeah, we are better as friends, aren’t we?”
Indeed, I’ve made out with a partner who broke up with me after the breakup. We both realized that we were awesome as friends and had great fun as lovers, but weren’t really aligned well as romantic partners. It happens.
A lot of folks who aren’t polyamorous ask questions like “Isn’t it easier to break up when you’re poly, because at least you still have other lovers?” Really, the question shows a mindset of treating people like things1, because it denies the genuine emotional connection between partners. It’s as insensitive as asking a mother whose child has just died, “It can’t be that hard, right? I mean, at least you have two other children!”
Even when it’s not overtly objectifying, there is often still a sense that polyamorous people must have it easier after a breakup than monogamous people do, because after all, you’re not alone, right?
One of the hardest, and most important, lessons we can learn on this trip through life is that being alone is preferable to being in a bad relationship. Whether polyamorous or monogamous, being able to be complete in yourself when you’re alone makes a breakup much easier.
People aren’t interchangeable commodities. Losing someone you love hurts. Even when you’re surrounded by love.
Now, that said, being surrounded by love does make a painful breakup easier to handle. It’s not because you have more partners, though; a monogamous person going through a breakup will find it easier if they’re supported by friends and family.
It’s because love and support make any kind of adversity easier to handle. Yes, you’re still hurting, but you have people to talk to about it. You have people around you who can help distract you, who can make you lunch during those times when all you can manage to do is curl up beneath the covers and cry, and who can tell you that the night will pass and the dawn will come.
Which it will, but even when you know that, sometimes it’s nice to hear.
So yes, a support network is always nice to have when the wheels come off, and going through a breakup (or the loss of a child, or any other heartbreak) is no exception.
No two breakups are alike, which means no approach to handling breakups will ever fit every breakup. That said, there are some tools that help in most breakups.
These aren’t poly-person tools; they’re general tools. They’re things like not holding on to bitterness, not externalizing blame, leaning on friends and family, and remembering that the dawn will come.
They’re things like being honest with yourself about the ways you contributed to the breakup, so you can avoid doing that in the future.
They’re things like allowing yourself to feel what you feel, without trying to suppress your feelings but also without hanging on to them.
They’re things like investing your time and energy into doing things you love, especially when you find yourself getting sucked back into the pit. If all else fails, go for a walk. Walks help. I’m serious.
And, of course, they’re things like not stalking your ex on social media and driving yourself batty because they don’t seem to be suffering as much as you are.
These are things that apply to all breakups. Poly breakups aren’t special or unique. They’re breakups. When you’re polyamorous, your heart breaks the same way anyone else’s does.
There is a special circumstance, and that is a breakup with an abusive partner. When abuse enters the picture, things change.
Abusive relationships can be very difficult to get over on your own, because abuse creates “trauma bonding”—a subversion of the normal human attachment process where an abuser creates a dangerous situation that facilitates particularly intense attachment, then holds out himself or herself as an attachment figure.
I am not usually a fan of the conventional “wisdom” of cutting off all contact with an ex. I think that if you have a breakup with someone who’s reasonably emotionally mature, it’s often not necessary, and can in fact escalate drama, to cut off all contact with that person.
But that is absolutely, positively not the case with abuse. With abusive relationships, cutting off contact with the other person is absolutely reasonable. So is talking to a qualified therapist or counselor with experience in abuse—getting over an abusive relationship is not something most folks can do on their own, and there’s no shame in getting help from a qualified professional.
But again, that’s not a poly thing, that’s a relationship thing. The only difference is that with poly relationships, the mechanism for abuse can be different (though that’s a whole topic of its own).
“And that’s what your holy men discuss, is it?”
“Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin. for example.”
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things.”
—Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum
Last updated: Thu May 7, 2020