What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted – Break-ups in the Poly Community

“I’m writing a song all about you

A true song as real as my tears

But you’ve no need to fear it, ’cause no one will hear it

Sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year…

–Willie Nelson, “Sad Songs and Waltzes”

So, before I go any further, I do want to say “Thank You” again to all my supporters. As I type this, TheBrattyCat.com has hit over 1,000 page views. Sadly, the website hasn’t taken off as quickly as the Facebook page has, however, a) apparently the Internet runs on memes and b) people only visit your site when you post content, so that last part is totally on me.

I think one reason polyamorous relationships don’t get the same level of respect from society that monogamous ones do is that they’re seen akin to “dating”, and as we’re all aware, not every dating relationship was meant to last. If it was, we would date one person, who we would eventually marry, and that would be the end of it. Sadly, for the polyam community, this isn’t too far from the truth.

it’s very romantic to hear about a couple who date, get married, and then stay together for the next fifty years. We’d like to think poly couples have the same chance. The truth is, they do, just not with each one of their partners.

I remember I was on my third date with Vixen (I recall it was our third because on our second date I told her I loved her) when I mentioned the underlying bitter-sweetness that comes with being poly. While monogamous couples live with the fear that they may break-up someday, poly couples live with the knowledge that the end of their relationship is a near certainty.

It’s not that poly couples love each other less than monogamous ones. I would make a strong argument that being poly requires a stronger level of commitment due to the time and energy involved. Rather, the more people you involve in your life, the exponentially more complicated it becomes to keep that circle together. If all five of my partners were to wake up tomorrow and decide to move to five different corners of the country, realistically, I wouldn’t be able to maintain all of those relationships. While long-distance relationships (LDRs) can work, they’re not for everybody. I can say personally, being in an LDR myself, the big reason Foxy and I have been able to keep it together is that they’re “only” two and a half hours away, which means I still get to see them in person every couple of months, and we’re both not big communicators in the first place. A couple of texts a week, a check-in on Facebook, and our weekly D&D session over Discord is all we need to keep it going. The reason Panda and Vixen get the majority of my in-person time is because they’ve both communicated to me that they need that in-person face-time to feel satisfied in our relationships.

So, now that we’ve established that poly people break-up just like monogamous people, how is that different in the poly community and what’s the experience like? Being poly for the last five years, I was fortunate enough to only have to deal with one poly break-up, which happened in October of 2020. I will tell you that a poly break-up functions just like a mono break-up in the one or more parties decide that they no longer want to engage in the relationship. That part should come as no surprise. What makes a poly-break different is the “fallout” from the end of that relationship.

If you think of a monogamous relationship, at least all the ones I’ve been in over the years, when a couple parts ways, there’s the inevitable “taking sides” in which your circle of friends decide which one of you they want to hang out with on a Saturday night. This doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to have mutual friends, but you discover that, as you socialize less with your ex, there may be friends that you socialize with less as well simply because they’re not hanging out with you and your ex at the same time. You have one set of plans, your ex has another, and friends can’t be in both places at once. People that you met through your ex may fall off your social radar altogether as the only reason you hung out with them in the first place is because they were friends with your ex.

In the monogamous world, it’s very easy to part ways with someone and basically never have to deal with them again. Unless you work together (which is another great reason never to date a coworker), nothing is tying you to that person socially. The concept of a polycule turns that whole concept on its head.

As a refresher, a polycule is a group of people who have some sort of shared relationship. It could be as simple as a closed triad (three people all dating each other and no one else), or a wide-ranging net that can cover numerous people. There’s no clear definition of where a polycule starts or ends and that’s really left up to the individual to define it. For instance, my D&D party consists of myself, Foxy, four of Foxy’s partners, and another friend. That by no means is the extent of my personal polycule, rather only a portion of it. My polycule is so extensive, I refer to it as “the spiderweb”. I have five partners, over a dozen metas (some of which I don’t even know about), and partners of metas who are also dating other metas. The point is, much like a spiderweb, it’s so wide and complicated that any time someone experiences a change in their relationship status, everyone feels it. Poly is not for those who have a hard time dealing with empathy.

So, when a poly break-up happens, because of this concept of the polycule, it’s rarely, if ever, a clean break. My situation was very unique in that my partner didn’t just break up with me, but rather all of her partners and completely left the poly community. Most polyam people who get dumped aren’t that… fortunate. Rather, just because your partner breaks up with you, that doesn’t mean they break up with other members of the polycule. I remember having a conversation in a Facebook group several years back with a gentleman who just didn’t grasp this concept. “So, do you all vote on whether or not she keeps the rest of you as partners?” “No”, I replied. “It doesn’t work that way at all…”

Anyone who’s had to run into their ex at the grocery store or post office knows it can be awkward. Imagine running into them on a weekly, or even daily basis because they’re still dating one of your partners, or living with one of your former metas that you’ve become close to. Needless to say, the idea of being civil towards someone you’re uncomfortable around, especially if it was a really nasty break-up, is a skill that you learn to develop early.

It’s more than just the emotional aspect, however. There’s also a practical one that can cause real problems in your pre-existing relationships. Any polyam person will tell you that their Google calendar is more balanced and tightly packed than the back seat of Penguin’s crossover vehicle. Everything’s perfectly held in place for a long weekend at a burn as long as you don’t touch anything. One tent rod out of place and it’s like a clown car exploding. When a break-up happens, you now have some free-time in your schedule, which theoretically should be a good thing. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and soon there can be a competition for that free space between yourself and your other partners. Maybe that partner you only see once a week wants more time with you while your nesting partner is glad to have you home. Maybe you want to carve out time for a hobby, but your LDR partner wants to make some sort of long-distance date night. The point is, change isn’t necessarily bad, however it can be disruptive.

While I’ve made it sound like a poly-breakup has ten times the downside of a mono-breakup and absolutely zero upside, the truth of the matter is, as difficult as it can be navigating pre-existing relationships once you and your partner have chosen to part ways, there’s a lot of good that comes from it as well. While I don’t want to make a blanket statement that polyam people are less petty than “the monos”, I will say we have a vested interested in maintaining relationships even after one goes sour.

Because we, as a group, try to endorse the concept of autonomy and downplay the concept of “ranking” your relationships, there’s less of a sense of “loyalty” that needs to be maintained after a friend dumps/get dumps by their partner. In the mono world, if you stop hanging out with your partner’s best friend, it’s no big deal. Chances are you were only hanging out with them because they were your partner’s friend in the first place. In the poly world, however, we tend to treat each relationship (romantic, platonic, or familial) on it’s own merits. Relationships aren’t conditional. It’s not “I’m your friend because you’re dating my friend”, but rather “I’m your friend” and that’s it. I can only assume that, because the poly community is so small and tight-knit, some of this may be out of necessity. Nobody wants to burn a bridge if they don’t have to. I will say that, despite a lost relationship, through my ex I met a whole new group of friends that I never would have encountered otherwise. Over a year after our break-up, we’re still close today, and it’s a gift I never saw coming.

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