Breaking Up With Finesse; How to break-up within a polyamory community
By Cherie L. Ve Ard
July 6, 2006

Anytime a romantic relationship breaks up, it can affect the community that the people were involved with. Especially if it's a nasty break-up, or has drama involved. And it affects the way in which the people in the relationship interact with that community afterwards as well. I think this is especially true within a polyamory community.

Within a poly community, there tends to be a lot of dating going on. Whether it be between existing participants of that community, pre-existing relationships prior to finding the poly community or bringing new partners into the community. Break-ups are quite a common occurrence within a poly community. After all, it's a community based around people who are open to multiple loving relationships, and where else are you going to encounter such a density of poly minded people, and thus, potential mates? More relationship potentials equates to a higher probability of more relationships ending. A poly community endures a lot of transitioning of relationships. It's difficult to keep up with who's seeing who, and who's on the outs with whom on any given day.

Because the poly community is so small and incestuous, and there are so many cross-over interests (such as BDSM, pagan, SCA, sci-fi, etc.) chances are pretty high, that unless one or more of you moves away or you were in a long distance relationship, you will be encountering your exes socially in the future. Not only will you be encountering them, you will likely be encountering them while they are exploring new relationships. Heck, you'll probably encounter them exploring new relationships with other exes of yours. How's that for a wake-up call and need for some pretty strong rationality to counteract your emotional reactions? If you want to stay involved in your pre-existing lifestyles and social circles (and few poly people I know are willing not to), one of the essential poly skills is learning to break-up with finesse.

As someone who has been involved poly communities for years, I often get asked about how to break up with someone and still co-exist in the poly community afterwards. I have certainly seen my share of break-ups (the good and the poorly handled ones), and I've certainly experienced my fair share of them myself. Since I just spent a recent evening 'counseling' more people on this very topic and it's fresh on my mind, I present to you the advice I usually give. Note, I'm not giving advice on how to initiate the break-up, you're on your own there. This is focused on setting up your relationships to end on friendly terms, and ways in which people have successfully been able to co-exist in a community after a break-up.

I intend to be your friendly-ex

I am proud to say, that every former partner of mine that I've broken up with since being involved in the poly community I do indeed not only co-exist with, but usually am still affectionately friendly with (ie. I can at least share a genuine hug with them). This is of high importance to me, and I make it clear at the beginning of my new relationships that remaining friends after the relationship ends (not if... when) is my intention.

I encourage people when exploring new relationships, especially within a community, to make this a priority. Talk it over with your potential partners. Observe how they talk about their exes. Observe them WITH their exes if you can. Do they still talk to them? Are they on friendly terms? Are they disappointed about the ones they haven't been able to part with on friendly terms? Of course, there are some exes that you just can't be on friendly terms with.. and shouldn't be. Such as people who may have abused you, taken advantage of you or were just outright asshats. There are allowances for that. But look for signs that your new potential sweetie intends to end things on friendly terms with you, bonus if they have a track record for it.

Also bring up dialogue about how important the community is for you, and that you intend to be able to co-exist after the relationship is over in the same community. It's not fair to put your friends and social circles in the position of having to choose between you because you're not getting along. And in my experience, most poly communities won't make that choice anyway.

Short Term Relationships: Flaming Break-Ups

It's been my observation, that people who break-up after short intense relationships have far more dramatic and emotionally charged break-ups than those in long lasting relationships. The reason is easy to see why. If you break-up while still in the throes of limerence, there are some pretty high chemically enhanced emotions being tossed about. The loss of a new sweetie during limerence (or even NRE - new relationship energy) can sometimes seem more dramatic and life altering when not under those chemical conditions. I've seen folks breaking up after a 2 month relationship not being able to be in the same room with each other for a year... but yet folks coming out of a multi-year relationship being able to still live together comfortably. It's not a hard and fast generalization. But something to be aware of.

So my advice, don't have short term relationships full of limerence. Failing that...

... cut yourself some slack and awareness, and recognize the brain chemistry you're playing around with. Sometimes, some awareness can help ease the pain. (However, sometimes that awareness just makes it more frustrating.) If you're coming out of a longer term relationship, try to use the communication skills you developed and leveled out brain chemistry to help ease the transition to becoming co-community members again.

A Reason, A Season or a Lifetime

There's a saying that is often passed around... 'People come into your life for a Reason, a Season or a Lifetime'. I like to append that with 'And usually it's not for a lifetime.' However, it seems that at the start of a brand new and shiny relationship, it's common to want to assume that this is one of those 'Lifetime' ones.

I know it may sound morbid to assume that relationships will end. I don't tend to look at it this way. It's reality. Your relationship with your current partners will end at some point. More than likely, it will not be death that ends the relationship (and as if the fairy tale of 'to death do us part' isn't morbid...). Sure, when the human lifespan was 40 or 50 years, a 'to death do us part' commitment wasn't a big deal, but as the human lifespan continues to increase and nearly double what it was a century ago, lifelong relationships become more and more of a rarity. I strongly feel that setting up expectations in a relationship that it will happily last forever is setting yourself up for a potentially disastrous and drama filled break-up when things do fall apart. I have found a great amount of success in having very healthy and worthwhile relationships by being realistic that they are not intended to be forever. Breaking up is already hard enough to do, why have it saddled with all these expectations being broken around this forever concept? And what a pleasant surprise if they do actually last until someone dies?

Nothing is forever. I've personally found that the more I embrace the temporary nature of things, the better I am able to appreciate the people in my life NOW and not take them for granted. And when the relationship has lived out its reason, or the season has changed... it becomes obvious to both that it's time to move on. This has made my break-ups remarkably easy and mutual. Of course, some may disagree and just say that I have commitment issues.

After the Break-Up

So, the inevitable happens. The limerence wears off, and his ferrets stank too much to put up with. She set your car on fire. His other sweetie just can't handle your relationship. You're both Leos. She hooked up with Darth Vader at DragonCon. Whatever the reason.. you decide to mutually break-up, you get dumped or you do the dumping.

If you've followed my advice thus far, then perhaps the break-up is less dramatic than otherwise. If you ignored my advice; perhaps some plates got smashed, some name-calling occurred or you can't think of your mother in the same way anymore.

Give yourself the time you need to heal, forgive or in some cases, obtain restraining orders. It's ok. No one in the community is expecting you to immediately be best buds again with your exes. Getting over a break-up is a process. If you did break-up on friendly terms (kudos), I recommend casual socializing with your exes in atmospheres that will be comfortable. Some folks find that having post-relationship 'dates' are helpful.. maybe getting together for coffee, dinner or a vacation to Hawaii. Maybe exchanging some e-mails.. whatever you need to bring closure to the relationship itself. It's very helpful to make sure that everyone involved understands why the break-up is happening, and offer apologies and forgiveness if appropriate. Perhaps one-on-one dates aren't comfortable, but instead socializing in group situations is. But don't rush into any of this, it may take a while to get to forgiveness and comfort. Sometimes you may need a few weeks or months to get past it. Some find they're ok just jumping right back into attending poly meetings and events with their ex in the same room.

But don't expect it to be that easy. If the break-up was harsh, being in the same room with your ex may be more difficult than you want it to be. Start small, and don't rush it. It's perfectly ok to back away from your ex, and the community, if you need to for a while. You may not be ready to see your ex moving on and dating new people so quickly. You may not be ready for your ex to be dating another one of your exes, and knowing that they both have intimate perspectives on you. Or maybe you need the schadenfreude of seeing your ex not moving on to help you get past it. Or perhaps, you find you can truly be happy seeing your ex happy in life and relationships.. true compersion.

I generally recommend that folks make the effort to start coming out to social events as soon as they feel they're ready. Some folks may even coordinate with their exes to avoid going to the same events as each other as to give each other space for a while. But don't avoid your ex or social events forever. Set up a reasonable goal, 'I will attend a social event within __ months'. Otherwise, you can easily put yourself in a place of not dealing with your emotions by not facing up to them. If getting to a place where you can co-exist in the community again is important to you, make it a priority.

Those first couple of social events may be hard. Cut yourself some slack, and allow yourself time and space afterwards to deal with any emotional reaction that might come up. Choose your social events wisely. If you can, picks ones where being with your ex won't be a focus for you - events with distractions, and hopefully, other people you like to hang out with. It may take a couple or few social interactions to get to a place where it's comfortable. And you may have set backs along the way.

Don't be ego-centric

A common fear I hear from people going through a break-up is that they feel 'all eyes' are on them an their actions. That people in the community are judging them and assuming that they did something to cause the break-up. Perhaps they fear causing drama within the community itself it they stay involved, or get more involved after a break-up.

In these cases, it's important to remember that while the ending of your relationship may be taking YOUR focus, more than likely, most members of the community aren't even aware of what is going on. There may be the couple of trusted confidants you confided in who know the story, but that's it. It's very easy when you're going through something traumatic like a break-up to have your world close in very small. And it's difficult to remember that the world goes on, with or without you. When you're breaking up with your sweetie(s).. I may catch word of it through the grapevine. But I'm not staying up nights trying to figure out who done it. And I've found this to be true of most poly community members.

Yes, there are the few immature folks who go around spreading rumours and gossip. But by and large, people in a poly community, especially long time community members, just see your break-up as another one this month.

And don't worry, the stability of the poly community is not resting on you (not even if you're the coordinator of it.)