“It’s funny,” she says. “One thing I really like about polyamory is that relationships just aren’t under the same amount of pressure. Love this person but you’d make terrible roommates? Okay, you don’t move in together. You both live with the people who are better nesting partners for you.”
“Or if one partner has really bland taste in food, you can hit all the exciting restaurants with the adventuresome one,” I say.
“Mm,” she agrees. “There’s only one downside to this.”
“I’ve also seen people drag out relationships far longer than they maybe should, when the compatibility doesn’t make sense for any kind of relationship, really. And both people are having a completely awful time but not wanting to be the person to end things.” She offers an example involving people whom we both know.
And while you never really know for sure what’s going on in any particular relationship from the outside, I get what she means. I’ve talked to both halves of the couple in question and what they’ve told me isn’t pretty. In fact, they share some of the ugliest details I’ve heard in a while. Maybe ever.
But yet, the relationship persists, even though they both seem completely miserable. And have both told me that they really want to end it but just can’t bring themselves to.
Sometimes You Need to Let Go of the Rope
When I was new to polyamory, I had a number of naive views. One of these was the belief that when you were polyamorous, you never had to break up with someone.
This was because I had an internalized relationship script that the only reason someone broke up with someone else was to trade one relationship for another they like better (maybe I learned this from game shows, it’s a bit like choosing between doors on Let’s Make a Deal).
Going by this reasoning, allowing a person to have as many relationships as they want would eliminate this need to break up for the new shiny.
But the reality is that there are plenty of reasons that a relationship can end that have nothing to do with the sudden appearance of “someone better” (whatever that means). People’s situations change. People’s feelings change. Sometimes a connection feels vastly different in theory than it does in practice. And people can grow and change in incompatible directions.
Experience helped me quickly come to realize that polyamory’s premise of more love could easily lead to more breakups. And I also realized that one of my chief tasks as a newly polyamorous person would be to learn how to break up well. A large part of this was changing the way I thought about breakups in general. I found it crucial to stop thinking of them as inherently competitive (i.e., to stop buying into the idea that there had to be a good person and a bad person in every breakup, both privately and in the court of public opinion). And I also stopped thinking of breakups as always being a bad thing.
Does this mean they’re always easy? That they aren’t painful? No and no. But if someone wants to leave me, I want them to go. It can hurt to learn that someone doesn’t feel the same way about me as I do about them. But at the end of the day, I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me.
And the alternative of staying together when you’re unhappy can be equally miserable. Without breakups, you could end up indefinitely prolonging non-viable partnerships that are making both halves miserable. Like a water skier who has fallen down but won’t let go of the rope and is being violently dragged behind the boat. Trying to stand up over and over again but failing. The whole time, water being driven up their nostrils.
Sometimes you need to let go of the rope. (Or stop the boat.)
Breaking Up Isn’t Failure, It Can Be Its Own Form of Success
Sometimes people talk about breaking up as “taking the easy way out.” But I’ve never really seen it that way. Ending something is rarely, if ever, easy. And frankly, in some circumstances, it’s the right move.
As I wrote shortly after my latest breakup (in which I was broken up with), breaking up isn’t failure. Some things aren’t meant to last. That doesn’t mean they’re failures.
It’s been one of the most radical premises I’ve accepted in the past decade: It just doesn’t work sometimes. Maybe that’s frustrating on one or both sides, but it’s totally valid.
And recognizing and accepting that isn’t any kind of failure. In fact, it can be its own form of success. Even if it’s difficult to really emotionally recognize that in the short term when the wounds are raw.
People dread breakups — and with good reason — but I wouldn’t want to date without them.