In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.
It’s hardest part, really. Liminality. The awkward part where you’re about to step from one place to another.
Stretching the anthropological definition to its absolute limits, I see liminal states a lot when talking to people who are about to change something huge. Yes, it’s present in those who decide that they would like to convert a previously monogamous relationship to a non-monogamous one (colloquially often known as “opening up,” as much as some folks hate the term).
There’s this awkward bit where you really don’t know what you’re doing. You have no way to go about it. You don’t even know if the new way of doing relationships is going to fit you.
There’s a reason that one of the most common questions I get is “how do I know if I’m polyamorous?” The answer is that theory and practice are different. A better question might be, “How do if I know if I’ll be happier having in polyamorous relationship systems than in monogamous relationships?” and I know a lot of people have answers that sound good. A few examples: “Do you desire multiple relationships?” “Do you still find yourself wanting to form new connections with others even when in a happy monogamous relationship?” “Does the idea of having multiple relationships appeal to you?”
Yeah, those sound good. But here’s the thing: They are all basically “you are polyamorous if you want to be.”
And while, at a certain point, this is 100% true, it’s not actually the helpful information it’s often framed as being. You can want polyamorous relationships but find the realities make you miserable. Miserable at first until you adjust (common) and sometimes even miserable long term (less common but still happens to some folks and depends on your emotional temperament and what you frankly need out of relationships).
Unfortunately, human beings are terrible at predicting how we’re going to feel in hypothetical situations (it’s a HUGE theme in large bodies of psychological research). So you don’t really know until you try something.
For example, I was convinced that I’d hate polyamorous relationships — but I gave it a try, and I found a lot that I really love about them. (I particularly adore having metamours and found that polyamory basically forced me to become more realistic and develop some self-compassion.)
And I’ll tell you… stepping over the threshold? My liminal phase? Awkward AF.
Liminality is the hardest part. Whenever you make a big change, there will be a time when you don’t know what you’re doing and if you should be doing it.
Look, I know it’s not what anyone wants to hear. But I try my hardest to always be honest with you, readers. And we don’t talk about this nearly enough.