I’ve written about opening an existing relationship extensively over the past four years that I’ve maintained this daily site. (My second book was basically a quickstart guide to ethically opening relationships, specifically tailored for those that might be going about it the wrong way but full of useful advice for anyone.)
It occurred to me the other day that I hadn’t written very much at all about the opposite: Closing a relationship.
Combing my mind, I realized I hadn’t really read many resources on the topic at all, save those that were targeted towards individuals who felt that a monogamous relationship was the only valuable kind to have. In that case, yes, there are a wealth of articles mostly targeted towards women — with headlines like “how to get him to commit.” And by commitment they mean having a monogamous relationship.
(Note: I’ve found that exclusivity in general is a poor indicator of commitment. Regardless of your relationship structure, follow-through seems to be more important re: quality of relationship life. This is why both monogamous relationships and polyamorous relationship systems can be extremely healthy and committed, or not — depending on who is involved and how they behave.)
But as a person who is ambiamorous, meaning that I’m about equally as happy being in a monogamous relationship as I am in a polyamorous relationship system (it all depends on the people involved and how we treat one another), I have personally experienced many shifts in relationship structure over the years.
This means I have opened up previously closed relationships multiple times — and yes, that I’ve been part of relationship systems that closed down (multiple times). Sometimes this meant I was retained as a partner; sometimes I wasn’t.
Through my work as a relationship coach, I have also advised people going through all of these status changes.
The Difference Between Actively & Passively Closing a Relationship
One major thing I’ve learned is that there’s a huge difference between actively and passively closing a relationship. Actively closing a relationship means that the individuals involved break up all of their other romantic and/or sexual connections but one. And once they’ve broken up with everyone else, they continue to date just one person monogamously.
A passive closing, conversely, doesn’t involve any breakups. In this scenario, two people who either had been dating other people but aren’t anymore (or were open in theory but never actually dated anyone) simply stop seeking new partners and decide that their remaining relationship is closed. It’s possible that they didn’t have any luck dating others — or had a string of disastrous relationships and breakups pre-dating the situation. Whatever the case, their decision to close their relationship doesn’t directly affect anyone else or change what’s currently going on. This kind of closing only affects future expectations.
These two situations, actively versus passively closing a relationship, are night and day.
Active Closings Typically Cause A Lot More Collateral Damage
Of the two, active closings typically cause a lot more collateral damage.
Full disclosure: I’ve never actively closed a relationship I was in. All of the closings I was involved in were passive ones — where things didn’t work out and I didn’t feel like dating anyone new again (and neither did my final remaining relationships). In those situations, I half-expected my remaining relationship to end as well (I got into a dark place and really did worry I was fundamentally un-date-able) and was shocked when that didn’t happen.
I have for the record been on the other side of an active closing, however. A couple I was seeing abruptly decided they weren’t going to see other people anymore — and yes, I got broken up with because of it. It certainly hurt at the time, but I lived (clearly). And I went on to have better, more fulfilling relationships once I healed from it.
I have also watched many couples open a preexisting relationship and then hurt third parties (much the way I was hurt myself) when they decide it’s not for them after trying it and break up with new partners. It’s frankly one of the big reasons a lot of people won’t date individuals who are newer to polyamory (that and sneakiarchy).
I do know people who screen potential partners by asking them about this exact situation — whether they would ever actively close a relationship. While it’s a good thing to know, I will say that I suspect a lot of people who would actively close a relationship also wouldn’t admit they would beforehand. Some would but not all (again, it’s same issue you run into with sneakiarchy — people say the right things but then do something else).
There Are No Easy Answers Here
Anyway, I think there’s a reason that polyamorists and ambiamorists typically don’t talk frankly about relationship closings (although they certainly do happen — both actively and passively — and most people I know have been on one or both sides of them if they’ve been in polyamorous relationship systems and/or social circles for long enough).
And the reason is that there are no easy answers here.
Clearly, it’s not good to toy with people’s emotions. I can say that as someone who has been on the receiving end of that. But I also have some sympathy for the reality that people often don’t know how they’re going to feel about something until it happens. They can guess, but many times their guess isn’t going to square with the reality. And sometimes the disconnect between what they had expected — what they had hoped — and what actually happens… well, it can cause damage to other people.
I think what’s ultimately important is that we’re able to have frank conversations about the fact that these things do happen. Sometimes closing a relationship is fine, natural, and entirely uncontroversial, and other times it’s downright ugly.
But it happens. I think it’s important to acknowledge that. And in that spirit, I submit today’s post to you, readers. It’s an uncomfortable discussion to be sure, but it’s one that’s a long time coming.