The polyamorous community at large (this blog included) talks a fair bit about de-escalating relationships and how the option to change your relationship into a different form if it isn't working in its present incarnation is one of the strengths of polyam relating. I think this is true. But - it's true because in relating polyamorously, in being within a larger network and taking the time to look at the inter-relationship of our connections and how they affect us and one another, and in actually addressing our needs, wants, and boundaries in the commitments we make, we're taking apart normative assumptions about relationships. So, if you're choosing to engage in a couple of very relationship-escalator-driven relationships at once and the only norm you've questioned is that more than one is allowed, de-escalation may not be something that feels reasonable or natural for you. (Even if you've questioned all the assumptions, it might not feel natural - it might just feel like another thing you're questioning, and that's OK.)
So what is a de-escalation?
There are as many answers to this as there are relationships, because a de-escalation is when you stay in relationship or contact with someone who you previously had one form of intimate relationship with, but remove some aspect of that relationship. The most common form we see in polyam networks is moving from lovers to friends, but you could also have:
Partners to co-parents
Partners to roommates
Romantic and sexual partners to only sexual / fwb partners
No longer having a kink dynamic on top of a friendship or a sexual or romantic relationship, and redefining the boundaries there
Living together to not living together, maintaining the emotional and sexual relationship but changing logistics
Other logistical changes that feel like a significant downshift to the people involved
A divorce, whether or not the people involved stay emotionally or physically involved (some people divorce to 'uncouple' and gain greater autonomy/reduce couple's privilege, for example)
Removing the sexual aspect of a relationship but maintaining the emotional aspects
And more - remember the key is just "you downshift one or more areas but not all"
This is sometimes necessary, as children of divorce (or polyam co-parents who aren't with all their parenting partners) will tell you - some life situations require staying in contact with people after a romantic or sexual aspect of a relationship ends. Or if you have entangled friend groups, sometimes it's just a reality that you will be in contact in ways that involve not having a drawn out period of no contact or a typical mono-script period of "everybody hates each other" for a while. And sometimes, you consciously choose to avoid that because it's just that one part of a relationship isn't working and you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Making that conscious choice is the one polyamorous people most often tout as an "evolved" or "mature" way to behave and that monogamy really doesn't have a script for. (Mono culture doesn't like but understands needing to get along with your kid's other parent - even if it equally makes room for or encourages hating their guts as opposed to being on a team - and sometimes managing to hang out in a group instead of forcing your friends to "pick" in a breakup is picking up steam all over, it seems like - but choosing to stay 1-1 friends? Choosing to remain emotionally close? Or roommates? Or to decide that being sexually incompatible doesn't end your marriage? Monogamy doesn't really have scripts for any of those.)
Why do scripts matter?
The reason I keep talking about these scripts, the reason they matter, is because we don't just default to them when we don't know what to do, but often we build our sense of "what to do" and our list of wants around them without noticing. Cultural messages around "how relationships are" and "how relationships end" are something we have to decide if we buy into or not, within a polyam context. In a monogamous context, the basic assumption is that you will try to ride the relationship escalator all the way up with your partner, and when/if you don't, if the relationship "fails" that, you will cut that person completely out of your life. We see this in the way folks talk about people who are friends with their exes with an implication that they must still be involved or trying to get back together, or when people suggest that at any difficulty in re-evaluating boundaries with an ex, you should just stop seeing them. While (as I've mentioned in previous posts) I think some people can use a little bit of distance before trying to determine the boundaries of a new friendship after the end of a romance, in particular, I don't think any of these are requirements - just cultural assumptions.
If we're ditching the scripts, we're building relationships where we customize our commitments with and boundaries regarding individuals. We allow each of our friendships, loves, and connections to be as unique as the people we're in them with. This requires more communication than checking a box marked "friend" and only doing friend things as we expect others around us perceive them, or riding up the escalator together.
Why is polyamory good at de-escalations?
Polyam relationships, especially nonhierarchical polyam relationships and relationship-anarchist driven relationships, already question these paradigms, don't ride the whole escalator typically, have included questions about the 'why's behind relationship choices, and in being pick-and-choose about commitments, can often have space for flexibility. So, if we're already saying we're girlfriends who love each other deeply and have sex, but don't intend to move in together, adding or removing a kink dynamic might be a very significant change that requires serious negotiation and feels like a Big Step up or down an escalator or stairway - but we're pretty well-equipped for those negotiations. Or, if we've already had massive relationship change by opening up a formerly monogamous relationship - we know what these skills are. We have co-created a new relationship and determined our boundaries in a new space with new conditions and additional circumstances.
But, just like with opening up, de-escalating can be very vulnerable and difficult. It's not a walk in the park or intellectual decision of "I want to do this and now my emotions, guts, and nervous system are all completely on board with my brain." The regulation lag of knowing you want to do something and having it still be hard, because determining where your new boundaries are often involves overstepping them unintentionally (on your part and your partner's!), is very real and the feeling of grief that accompanies a breakup can sometimes seem misplaced in a de-escalation - so we beat ourselves up for "still being so upset" about someone who is still in our life when we aren't grieving the person, we're grieving a role or a thing we imagined about that relationship.
What can we do about it?
Unfortunately, we're human and these are relationships, so mostly, we can do the following:
Be thoughtful about what we want to keep from our relationships and pro-active about positive interactions that lead to that.
Have a care for our own and our partners' boundaries and where they come from - how does our trauma play together in conflict? Have we de-escalated to avoid an area where our responses to stimuli were triggering for one another? What can we do to support each other in our new relationship?
Be gentle with ourselves if it's still hard - because sometimes it will be.
Remember that picking the off-escalator, off-script option is always available and should always be considered before making a decision, but is not always better. We can decide that a particular de-escalation is too hard and we need to peel more layers away or stop seeing each other.
Personally, I try to de-escalate to a place of friendship, because I'm not good at going from "all the romance and sex and entanglement" to nothing, but also not good at landing in a place in the middle. Saying "let's keep everything the same except we won't have sex anymore" sounds awful to me - but I know many people for whom that kind of deescalation was exactly what their relationship needed. I will say that de-escalating from partners to roommates and co-parents, and then later to co-parenting in different households with my kids' dad remains one of the harder but more worth it series of relationship transitions I've ever gone through, and while I would not underestimate the difficulty of these major life changes, I also would not understate the benefit of getting to a place where everyone is relating as authentically as possible.