One of the things that people often cite as something they love about polyamory is the freedom from monogamous scripts about relationships - including the ends of relationships. But this lack of ‘script’ can be really disconcerting when emotions are high, such as during and after a breakup. It can be really tempting to fall into patterns where we just want to do things ‘the way they’re done’ or ‘the way we know how.’ The patterns and habits that our culture has largely fed us over the years (like not seeing exes ever again after relationships end; like extreme coping mechanisms to our emotions in the first pain after a breakup; like not communicating with people as relationships fall apart, because they’re falling apart anyway) are largely not compatible with the goals of reimagining our relationship landscapes to include more expansive ideas of what love can be, redefining relationships when possible rather than ending them, and generally avoiding doing things just ‘because it’s the next step.’
Like so many things in relationships, polyamory asks us to reimagine our approach to breakups, and why we take that approach. We can examine our wants and needs and find that we’re still too hurt and still need the same kind of space that made us ask our exes for no contact after monogamous relationships, even if we want to eventually try for a friendship with our polyam exes. The key when this is the case is to build as much of a new relationship with these people as possible, and negotiate a new friendship, not a “downgrade” of our romantic relationship. Seeing a friendship as a consolation prize will only lead to resentment over time. The reset time can help some people - although for others it can heighten anxiety, so negotiating together what you both need is important.
But part of that reimagining can be tossing out the typical rulebook - can be immediately moving to a different style of relating than a typical romance or than the romance you had together. The more different you want it to be from what you had been doing, the more I advocate for explicitness and outright conversation about what you do and don’t want. It’s not particularly clear to say “let’s be friends.” It’s much clearer to say “I want to be able to go to the same group events, even if it feels a little awkward at first, in the hope that it won’t, later, because I care about you as a person even if we aren’t romantic so we’re breaking up, and I’d like us to stay connected on social media and keep attending our shared hobby of game night. If we’re comfortable I’d be down for coffee or dinner alone. But I’m not good with activities with a sexual overtone like kink events, so can we give each other a heads up to kind of ‘divide’ those in our local scene? And hugs are ok with me if they are with you but no kissing or overt sexuality for at least a while as we get our footing.” The exact content will of course differ person to person and breakup to breakup - I’ve had times where the transition was so smooth that a quick conversation about not having sex anymore was all that really changed, and times when we’ve had to check back in weekly for two months because we were heavily integrated in the same friend group and had different ideas about how that was going to continue to work - but the basis being in open communication, conversations about actions, feelings, and intentions (because as much as intention doesn’t erase harm, it does help clarify what folks want and need when they can’t pinpoint a feeling word yet), and mutual respect makes the entire situation better.
If either or both of you have passed the point where you’re no longer behaving in mutual respect most of the time, acknowledging that and that you need space to get back to that is essential. It’s a sad side effect of folks trying to make polyamorous relationships work when they don’t “to prove to the monogamous that they work” or out of sunk cost fallacy that sometimes we’re deep in conflict and far enough on the side of disrespect and misbehavior that we aren’t seeing our former partners clearly enough to make those kinds of deescalation agreements. This is awkward. There’s no getting around that it’s a difficult situation, and more difficult if the two people breaking up are still connected by some other polycule element - whether they were formerly a triad and are now in a V, or are telemours in a larger network, or it’s just a small city or large town with a relatively small polyamorous community so there’s no real avoiding having later “six degrees of polyamorous Kevin Bacon” connections. Taking real space, respecting each others’ boundaries, and getting support from partners (especially mutual partners or shared polycule members) in managing things like having more than one event on a holiday to not overlap while taking space, (or if you make exceptions for big events, for help managing emotions around that, assuming that everyone remains civil to the best of their ability) can make a real difference to having space to not just emotionally heal from a difficult breakup but getting back to a place of respectful interaction with this person eventually. You don’t ever owe anyone closure, nor do you owe anyone specific interactions - but it generally feels better as a human to have taken space to heal and be able to deal with an issue or person from neutral instead of from a place of constant reminders of the negatives in that previous relationship. That’s been my experience and the experience of my friends and coaching clients who have gone through similar.
Polyamory talks big talk about reinventing relationships, but does it reinvent breakups in so doing? Not really; and sometimes, because we are able to have more relationships, we have more breakups and more heartache. Come at your breakups from a place of honesty - try to identify they need to happen before they’re a festering wound of disrespect between you and your ex, but take the space you each need before rebuilding any relationship if it’s gone there - and identify everyone’s needs and wants when trying to build a new relationship with a former partner, whether as a friend, an acquaintance, a polycule member, or something that gets its own fantastic label.
New Class Announcement: Registration is open for two digital classes in January! On January 9, 2023, at 3pm Eastern, join me for a Polyamory 101 class. Find detailed class info and registration link here. On January 23, 2023, I'm running my most popular class, Beyond the Kitchen Table, an examination of metamour relationships, boundaries, and healthy parallel polyamory, also at 3pm Eastern. You can find more information and the registration link here. Each class is $15 or you can get a bundle ticket to both for $20 here.
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