Ask Page: Is the Grieving Process Different for Polyamorous Breakups, and If So, How?

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Hi Page,

My nesting partner and I opened up our relationship about a year and a half ago. For both of us, this was our first experience with polyamory. For a few reasons, including the fact that poly wasn’t a good fit for her, we decided to end our three-year relationship.

Even though I suspected the day was coming, it still hurts a ton, and I’m grieving the loss of this incredibly important relationship.

Then an interesting thing happened.

I had a date planned with my other partner the very next day after the breakup discussion. I really wasn’t feeling up to the date, but decided to do it anyway, even though I suspected I’d spend the whole time crying.

But I was surprised to find that from the time my other partner walked into the room, I wasn’t sad at all. I was just joyful to be with her as I usually was. Melancholy feelings started as we were wrapping up our date, and afterwards I went right back into grieving.

In the past, whenever I experienced the loss of a relationship, I’d usually withdraw for a few months, and not date at all. That doesn’t make sense given that I still very much want to see my other partner.

Is the relationship grieving process different while in poly relationships, and if so, how?

P.S. I love your blog posts and am a daily reader. Thank you so much!

Grief Is Incredibly Individual

This is a tricky question to answer because grief is incredibly individual. Rather than being predictable, grief is instead one of the most idiosyncratic emotional processes that a person can experience. Everyone grieves differently. And furthermore, a person may very well find that they grieve differently from event to event. And sometimes it doesn’t even follow any logical sense. Strangely, the death of a celebrity might hit them harder than that of a relative or close friend.

The end of a brief not-even-official relationship might hit them harder than a divorce.

When I’m working with clients that are experiencing grief, I’ve found that worry about how they should be feeling is often one of their major concerns.

Those who are grieving hard about something small will worry that they’re being inappropriate. “I barely knew them [or didn’t know them at all], why am I taking this so hard?” Or, “We were only together a few months, why am I still not over the breakup?”

And others who don’t feel like they’re taking a death or a divorce hard enough will often worry about that and wonder if it means that they’re still in denial or not really processing the event. Or, in the case of breakups or divorce, I’ve had clients worry that their quick turnaround means that they didn’t really love the person in question. (Which often doesn’t seem to be true, they seem to have cared very much and often still do.)

There’s no should when it comes to feelings. Feelings aren’t right or wrong. You feel how you feel. This is true in general but especially so when it comes to grief. I know you didn’t express those kinds of beliefs in your letter, but I wanted to make sure I addressed it in this post in case other readers are struggling with that very common problem.

A big part of helping another person through grief first involves validating that the way that they’re feeling is okay and isn’t indicative of their being an emotionally defective person — that they’re not over-grieving or under-grieving. This need for validation is present with a lot of emotional processing, but I find it basically every time when it comes to grief: Clients will measure themselves against some imagined standard of “normal” and worry that they vary from it. That they aren’t feeling what they should feel. Or that they’re feeling something they shouldn’t.

Uh Oh. The Most Popular Model of Grief Isn’t Supported by Empirical Evidence…

Part of the issue, I think, stems from the fact that people really do think there’s a normal way to grieve. There isn’t.  But somewhere along the way people came to believe that. The most likely explanation for this is the incredible popularity of  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model. According to the model, grief moves through five distinct stages:

  1. denial
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance

And even though the model had been originally developed from her work with a small number of terminally ill patients coming to terms with their mortality, Kübler-Ross later expanded the claims surrounding her model by arguing that it could be be applied to any form of personal loss, including losing one’s job, grieving the death of another person, romantic breakups or divorce, rejection, etc.

Her idea spread like wildfire. It is referenced widely and has reached broad acceptance, appearing regularly in pop culture. A lot of people believe it.

There’s only one problem with that: There’s no empirical evidence that it’s true.

In fact, studies (for example, this one from JAMA as well as this one) have largely debunked the idea that grief is predictable and moves through all of these stages in this order. Instead, grief is incredibly individual. From person to person. And yes, it doesn’t even always obey a clear pattern throughout an individual’s life. Certain losses will hit us harder than others in a way that’s hard to explain, especially while we’re going through it.

Optimism and Confidence Help

That said, researchers studying grief have found some patterns. The strongest finding is hardly surprising: Being high in personal resilience can help a person cope with grief events of all kinds more effectively. And researchers studying grief and resilience have found that optimism can play a large part in this. As Bonnabo writes:

There is an advantage, the research shows us, in being op­timistic. People who cope well tend to have an indelible belief that things will somehow turn out OK. They also tend to be confident.

They believe that they will be able to exert at least some control over the outcome of even the most difficult life events. This is not to say that optimistic people believe they can undo the past or stop certain things from happening. Sometimes, even the hardiest of individuals are initially stunned after a tragedy. Nonetheless, fueled by their deep-rooted sense that they can and should be able to move on, they manage to gather their strength, regroup, and work toward restoring the balance in their lives.

Three Main Outcomes in Polyamorous Interrelationship Emotional Transfer Post Breakup

Overall, when it comes to breakups for polyamorous people who still have other partners, I’ve observed three main outcomes:

  1. Exactly what you described in your letter. Where they do experience sadness from one breakup but are nonetheless able to enjoy their other relationships rather seamlessly while they’re with those partners.  For whatever reason, sometimes it’s quite easy to shift gears (for those who have trouble not carrying the energy of one relationship into another, here’s a post that talks about some techniques that can help with that).
  2. In other cases, I’ve known polyamorous people who do have a bit of sad or grieving energy cross over into their remaining relationships. But while they do get sad, they find that it has no negative impact at all on that relationship. And in fact, many I’ve known have found that expression of emotion and their partner’s meeting that with support to enhance those other relationships.
  3. A person grieves hard from a breakup, brings that energy into their other relationships, and ends up doing negative damage.

Despite most people’s fears, the third scenario is exceedingly rare. Honestly, looking at all the polyamorous folks I’ve worked with and known, I can really only think of one instance in which a person was grieving hard from a breakup, brought that energy into their other relationships, and damaged their surviving relationships. And to be frank, this individual was an incredibly negative and pessimistic person. Not resilient at all. Would complain about not receiving help (without asking for it), reject help when offered, and then complain nobody was helping them. One of the most difficult personalities I’ve ever known. They acted in a shockingly destructive manner. It was like they wanted to sabotage their other relationships (maybe they did).

Any readers who are worried about sad carryover to another relationship and would like to be in category 1 or 2 instead of 3 should please see “The Delicate Art of Dating Someone New While Still Grieving From a Breakup.”

I’ve Been Mostly Category #1, Occasionally #2, Never #3

On a personal level, the breakups I’ve experienced in the past few years all fall squarely into the first category. I found I was able to easily switch gears.

I did have one scenario that fell into the second category, however. That’s basically how it went when my former partner and I divorced (we’d been together 10 years, all told). I think part of the issue was that I was stressed from legal proceedings, division of property, and various logistical outcomes in a way that didn’t really let me shift gears the way I normally would, frequently mired in some annoying obstacle. As much as I tried to keep that away from my other partner at the time, they picked up on it. But they were freaking wonderful. Not only in helping to manage some of the day-to-day stuff that was overwhelming me, but also just being there.

While I don’t think it’s wise to seek out other people solely as a confidence boost (to them or to you, everyone deserves better than to effectively be a vanity mirror), healthy relationships nonetheless often do have the wonderful side effect of boosting your confidence. And I think this can be particularly noticeable at times when your confidence may very well have been shot, for example, after a painful breakup.

When I was dating monogamously, I also found that I feared post breakup I would never find someone I wanted to date again. Having someone right there being that wonderful person I want to date also helped to alleviate that fear, that I’d never find someone else to love. Because I already had someone else to love. Like, they existed. And they were right there. Talk about your good evidence!

Is This Really All That Different Than Monogamous Dating?

However, getting down to the meat of your question: Is this really all that different than how grieving a breakup works in monogamous dating?

That’s honestly hard to tell. Again, it doesn’t help that there are a number of popular beliefs that just aren’t as clear cut as we’re led to believe. For example, it’s commonly believed that you should steer clear of rebound relationships at all cost. That you need to take some space and work on yourself after a breakup. (A belief which I suspect is at the heart of a lot of polyamorous people’s worry about managing their emotions from a breakup while still in another relationship.)

But the available empirical evidence actually points away from that (again). For example, one study found that people who have rebound relationships get over their ex-partner more quickly and feel more confident (as did this one). Not only that but the study also found that folks who tended to be emotionally stable were actually more likely to have a shorter time between one relationship’s end and another’s beginning. Surprisingly, research has suggested that when it comes to moving on that focusing on something new actually helps.

And perhaps most surprisingly of all, research has found that “rebounds” don’t seem to be any more prone to relationship instability than relationships started after a long break from dating…despite the very popular advice to take a break and work on yourself.

So it’s possible that what polyamorists experience isn’t at all different than what monogamous folks would. We’re just forced into these situations where the time between our relationships is at zero and get to notice the effects (or lack thereof) firsthand.

Whatever Your Grieving Process Is, Be Kind to Yourself

I’m glad to hear that you’re able to be present and enjoy time with your partner, and your grief hasn’t nonconsensually butted into that other relationship.

If you do find down the road that your sadness does spill over a little bit, try not to beat yourself up about it. It happens sometimes. It’s mostly about doing what you can to not let it have a negative impact. Typically this involves being honest with your partner about what’s going on with you emotionally, accepting the support that they offer, and respecting any boundaries they set around your talking about your grief (for example, one partner of mine loved to be a supportive listener but found certain topics too painful, so for those I found another outlet, which for me is usually writing or occasionally a friend).

Great question though!

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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