PQ 22.2 — If a relationship ends, what does that mean for my other partners? Will I try to promote one of them to primary?
The Pros & Pitfalls of a Modular Approach to Polyamory
I had a polyamorous friend back in the day who I call Pete that really did seem to take a very modular approach to polyamory.
There are a couple of common ways that polyamorous people tend to talk about their relationship availability. One is via a terrible pun (so of course I love it): Polysaturation. For example, “I’m not polysaturated right now.” or “I tend to polysaturate at three relationships.”
The other one I run into a lot is the dance card. For example, “I have a full dance card at the moment.” or “There’s room on my dance card for about three relationships.”
My friend Pete loved the dance card analogy and used it a lot. I had a few other friends who also did, but Pete always sticks out in my mind, since it wasn’t just a shortcut for him. He seemed to have a really clear picture of what his dance card looked like. For him, the analogy was less abstract and more concrete.
On certain days at certain times, Pete’s dance card seemed more like a bingo card. A bucket list. Or a very specific scavenger hunt. He needed X, Y, and Z and then he was good. But no more, no less. And he was more likely to try to alter the relationships themselves than to try to alter his expectations of them. To shape the square peg to fit it into the round hole rather than modifying the board he was putting it into.
It was wacky, but it seemed to work for Pete. He rarely had problems with confusing polysaturation with oversaturation, as I’d seen so many others have (self included). Pete had calculated his space, he fit the modules where they went. And nothing was allowed to grow bigger or smaller than he’d allotted room for.
But the problem for Pete was that he wasn’t existing in isolation. He wasn’t on an island talking to a volleyball he’d painted a face on. No, Pete was part of civilization. Dating multiple other people. And while they knew of Pete’s way of doing things, they predictably had their own way of viewing their time and available bandwidth. Their own way of managing relationships.
And Pete had the hardest time really grasping this, that other people didn’t view things in such a modular manner. And sometimes this really bit him in the ass:
“What’s wrong, Pete?” I ask.
He’s staring at his phone with a far-away look. Like it’s done something to him. “Just a second,” he says. He gets up, grabs a beer from the fridge. “You want anything?”
“Sure,” I say.
He hands me one of those sissy flavored malt things that I love, opened.
“You’re the best,” I say. “What’s up?”
He sighs. “I’m gonna have to break up with Kathy.”
“Seriously? What gives? I thought you were all NRE googly eyes for her.”
“I am,” Pete says. “But she broke up with her boyfriend.”
“Is she leaning on you a lot or something? Or being mean?”
“No, she seems to be taking it really well. It’s just the long distance factor. Initiated by her, but mutually, mostly,” Pete says.
“No drama then?” I ask.
“Nope,” Pete says.
“Um,” I say, “I don’t want to be rude here. But what does Kathy breaking up with her boyfriend have to do with you?
“I can’t be someone’s only relationship,” Pete says.
“You can’t?” I say. “Why?”
“Because she’s gonna want more from me than I can give. I’ve got Megan, too.”
“Sure,” I say. “But Megan’s busy, too. And pretty good at letting you know what she needs.” In the years that I’ve known Megan (as a friend, dating her myself briefly, and later as a metamour through Seth), I’ve never known her to need a lot of time or attention. Or to suffer in silence. Megan is self-sufficient and direct. The opposite of needy.
“That’s true,” he says.
“So Kathy’s asking for more time?” I ask.
“No, but without her boyfriend in the picture, she will,” Pete says.
“Do you really know that?”
“She’s going to need something to fill that space,” he says.
“Well, one, who says she needs a partner to fill it? She does have friends. And she might be missing time to herself.”
“And two?” Pete asks.
“If she does want or need another partner, she can find one. It’s not like you and this other dude are the only two in the world.”
“I get what you’re saying,” Pete says. “But it’s a rule I made for myself. I’m not going to be someone’s only relationship.”
Pete’s a mess after they break up. I come over more often, bearing video games and snacks.
Pete watches everything Kathy does online, scrutinizing each and every move, trying to discern her mood. The shape of her love life. And Kathy’s hidden feelings or un-feelings for Pete — within minutes, his projections swing from Kathy loving to hating him. Thinking of him constantly to never.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” his wife Megan says to me as Pete moans on the living room couch. Slayed by Kathy’s latest online micro-movement.
I echo the sentiment.
After 3 weeks, Pete gets drunk and finally cracks. Emails her a long apologia. Within an hour, Kathy and Pete are back together. It turns out that Kathy wants no extra time. Never did.
Pete is laughing about it a week later. “I guess she didn’t even spend that much time with the guy, being long distance at all,” he says.
Megan punches him in the arm.
“That’ll learn you,” I say.
Poor Kathy. The whole thing was rather painful when it was going on (though it’s funny now in hindsight).
I Am Not Modular. I Prefer Relationship Evolution to Be Natural
To answer the question, no, I don’t find that the end of one relationship automatically causes my other ones to change in level of entanglement. It can happen that way (and I’ve seen it play out that way for myself and others), but in my own life, I prefer for such evolution to be natural and not forced promotion.
And it’s worth mentioning another notable difference I had versus my old friends: I believe in co-primacy. I think it’s possible to have more than one primary relationship at a time.
This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions and answers, please see this indexed list.