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Breakups in Polyamory

We’ve been talking quite a bit about avoiding breakups and fights and misunderstandings lately. Or at least, just sort of touching the edges of mentioning that breakups happen and you can choose to initiate one. In case I haven’t said this recently, a reminder: breakups can be a unilateral decision and you don’t get to demand to not get broken up with - or at least your demand has no force- “I don’t want us to see each other anymore” is a complete breakup; you don’t need to justify it or argue your point through a million ways. This is true for both polyamorous and monogamous people.

The reason I’m going to write a post focused on breakups, and the things that can go wrong around them, today, is that I saw somebody say something about it on Twitter - they pretty much said, “How do breakups work when you’re polyamorous that seems complicated?” My gut reaction was “no, they aren’t!” and then I remembered a few examples of complicated breakups, and so I’ll go on the record saying “it’s as complicated as you make it.”

Most things about breakups are identical in monogamy and polyamory. They’re largely between the people directly involved in the breakup - the worst things that can happen are long-running resentment or making an ass of yourself in wallowing in the end of the relationship with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Think of the time you or a friend tried to drink someone away, overspent trying to comfort yourself after a breakup, or ran through a massive string of flings where you hurt a bunch of people who misunderstood your intentions just after a relationship. Those can happen to anyone. They aren’t uniquely polyamorous problems, but they’re pretty common breakup problems that might come up, and might make us feel a bit sheepish in hindsight.

There are uniquely polyamorous possible “breakup problems.” One is before a breakup - having other relationships can make you inclined to avoid examining problems in a particular one that has become unhealthy for you, or even just unsatisfying without being at all toxic. Being really happy in another relationship, or relationships, can soften the blow of unhappiness in one that isn’t going well to the point where you don’t examine that unhappiness; or you can continue ‘spreading NRE around’ over and over to patch over problems you’re having and extend the expiration date on a relationship that should have ended. Alternatively, you can feel like a breakup will “rock the boat” of other dynamics in your polycule too much and feel badly about wanting a breakup, and so try to stuff down dissatisfaction for much longer than you might if the relationship were monogamous. This alternative is especially common in close Kitchen Table networks, where metamours are friends and you don’t want to make your partners feel they might have to “choose,” or in triads or quads where ending one relationship would dramatically change the dynamic. Ideally, everyone would feel completely free to stay friendly with everyone and ending one relationship wouldn’t interfere in any or all of the others in a network, but it’s an easy worry to have, and therefore a reason polyamorous people might delay a breakup they want to initiate.

Once a breakup happens, there are also a couple particularly polyamorous problems that don’t really exist in monogamous breakups. There’s the flip side of the benefit of having remaining partners to help comfort you: trying to make a remaining relationship into something it isn’t to fill a void left by a recently ended one. This “scope creep” could take a relationship somewhere good if it’s something both parties actually want, but if it’s not negotiated, or expected to be short term by one party and forever by the other, it can be really damaging. It can build resentments, or it can trigger relationship changes spread out along a network that eventually hit a wall where someone can’t or won’t or doesn’t want to change, and the wave comes reverberating back. Having the conversation at first about whether you’re temporarily or permanently changing the parameters of a relationship in light of your other relationships changing so your partners can consent and let their partners know is way easier than a wave of “Frank feels neglected because I’m picking up time with Dolores because you’re spending so much more energy on Bob since the breakup with Alice, and Dolores doesn’t think it’s ENOUGH anyway” coming at you just as you hit a new stride.

Another negative coping mechanism uniquely available to polyamorous people after a breakup is lashing out at partners who are getting needs met elsewhere when we no longer are. Monogamous people have their own version of this - getting kind of mad at their friends in happy relationships and not wanting to spend time with them while still in the fragile/bruised ego phase of a breakup. Just as in monogamous people this is understandable but not healthy, the polyamorous equivalent is an understandable impulse - it’s a kind of jealousy, which as we’ve said many times is totally human and reasonable - it’s not great for the relationship it’s getting applied to. High enough levels of FOMO, weaponized through this lashing out, can strain your relationships. People don’t like being resented for carrying on as they had been doing when it wasn’t a problem before and the only difference is that now you aren’t. Especially if it feels like scorekeeping, or if they wouldn’t do the same to you. It can feel like double standards, and sometimes a strong enough feeling of resentment, double standards, or “dumb fights” exerted in the direction of your remaining partners can cause the phenomenon me and one of my friends used to call “poly dominoes.” It’s when an entire polycule collapses out of a destabilizing breakup because people’s reactions are to throw their pain outward at their remaining partners, as if the remaining partners were the cause of the previous relationship’s issues. While, as I said, this can happen in monogamy too - we all have the friend who is kind of a shit person to be around (especially to friends who are happy with someone right now) during the aftermath of a breakup- it doesn’t tend to lead to the destruction of a string of relationships when that breakup coping mechanism happens in monogamy. That’s a pretty specifically polyamorous problem.

The last complicating coping mechanism I’ve seen over the last 13 years in polyamorous relationships and breakups is the person who starts trying to “job interview” for the exact same partner to keep a polycule’s dynamics the same. This same person is almost always upset when people’s interpersonal relationships are different anyway, because they’re different people, even if you try to pick them to fill the same “gap” in your dating life. Dating in a “Job interview” model tends to have worse results than just dating for connection - because who really wants to feel like they’re auditioning for the role of “Secondary really into hobby x”? - and on top of that, even if you mesh great, that’s no guarantee they’ll have similar friendships with your other partners (or boundaries regarding lack thereof) as your ex.

So, now I’ve explained a bunch of exceptions, the edge cases, the weird situations in which a polyamorous breakup can be made more complicated than a monogamous one. But note the through-line in all of them - it’s choice. Choice to complicate the situation, to cope badly, to not discuss your decisions as they happen so that everyone else has to deal with them as you go forward. A little of that just happens with any tough situation, but doing it to excess is avoidable, and the excess looks a little different in polyamorous rather than monogamous breakups. That’s probably what the person on Twitter meant when they asked “How does it even work?” - we have a pretty good idea from media what the script is for monogamous breakups, including what the excess looks like. I hope this has given you a bit of one for polyamory as well.

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