In the immediate aftermath of my last breakup over one year ago, I was overflowing with feelings and words around my experiences, to the point where I was so suffocated by them that I felt like I could barely form a sentence. (Instead I managed to form many. I don’t know if I’ve ever spent as much time processing a breakup before. There just wasn’t as much to say about my past breakups. They were often mutual, ill-fitting, sometimes defined by a clumsy but normal mistake. I had to fight for this one, and I think that’s why the aftereffects lingered.) Nowadays I feel more tight-lipped about it, reticent to reflect too much lest it seem like a sign that I haven’t moved on, or else something which would exhaust others to keep hearing about. But there was a unique aspect to moving on from the breakup that I have never experienced before, something which I’d never read or heard about from friends or anyone else. After a recent conversation of a newly polyamorous friend I felt like it would help to put all of it into words.
Break-ups have a familiar pattern to them, narratives that we tell each other over and over again in literature, whether dumper or dumpee. You’re freed. You spend time mourning what was lost, processing everything that happened, and depending on your dedication to rom-com tropes you eat a lot of ice cream, then you reconnect with your friends and/or get a haircut and move on, sometimes to be single for a while, sometimes on to a new relationship.
Within polyamory, that model breaks down. The pattern is similar, but shifts beneath you in unforeseen ways. People warn you about jealousy in polyamory as if it was the only problem to ever navigate, the root of all sins, but there’s so much more to get your head around than that.
The lessons I learnt here are not cleanly laid out, but moving on is not a clean experience. It’s messy, and you just take what you can and run with it.
Sorting Through Your Mistakes
Bad relationships stretch themselves out – through time, long past their expiration date, and through your mind, lacing their fingers through your emotions. No matter how perfectly you try to dance through them, by the time they end you are undoubtedly trodding on the other dancer’s toes as much as they trod on yours. And you start stepping on the toes of others, too, whenever you change places in the dance. So long as you continue dealing with that other dancer you have this excuse lingering for why that is. I’m sorry, you may say. It’s just that my feet are so bruised by that person over there that my own feet are clumsy too, and I am so tired that I have forgotten the next steps of this dance.
When that ends, and you keep stepping on other people’s toes, you can’t point at the dancer who’s been kicked out anymore. You have to own up to your errors. I never tried to not own my own errors, but – well, my feet were oh so tired. I had never before had a supportive relationship at the same time as a destructive one, didn’t know how to deal with the ways those two dynamics pushed and pulled at me. I was so focussed on keeping up with the dance and never miss a beat, that I learned some bad techniques along the way and I had to unlearn them or risk hurt further down the track.
That takes practice. That takes new mistakes. You have to allow yourself to feel shame, to fall down, and then you have to swallow it and your pride and get back up again. And then, with time, you get better.
Outside of polyamory, this feels easier. You can hide your mistakes more easily. But you can’t distance partners for this – if you want to be close, you have to let them see you and all you’re going through. If you get things wrong as you recover, they’re the ones who cop it.
It can feel unfair, because normally when you enter into a new relationship, you can lay your baggage all out before them and allow them to decide whether or not they’re willing to take that on. When you acquire new baggage in another relationship while you’re dating, and you bring that back to them, it feels like they’re getting something they didn’t sign up for.
Luckily for me, my partner endured all of this with me, all of the ways that I stepped on them as I tried to keep up with everything, and the ways that my ex had stepped on them and hurt them, too. They did not have to be there, they were free to walk away at any point. Instead, they gave me incredible levels of support and loyalty that I tried my best not to take for granted, and they helped me a great deal in recovering myself and getting my life back on track. Speaking of which…
As someone who’s definitely been guilty of wallowing before, moving on while still being within another relationship really called me to task on that. I couldn’t languish in my bed wailing that I would never fall in love again because I was already in the process of romantic love elsewhere in my life. Entertaining that narrative would have been rude and self-indulgent at best; and at worst, incredibly damaging to my ongoing relationship.
Aside from encouraging me to discard childish wallowing, I had access to more intimate sources of comfort than I have had in prior times. I didn’t need a shoulder to cry on so much in this instance; but I did have companionship, someone who had seen everything that I had gone through and knew how much it had all meant to me, how much I had tried, how much they had tried in their role as a metamour, too.
I still had to process some things alone, but even in moments of solitude, it made a difference. It’s a very immediate reminder that though one experience of love is over, more are everywhere around you, different, and vibrant and empowering.
Being Careful Not to Transfer Too Much
There was an awkward challenge here amongst the positivity. It seems common enough for monogamous people to shift expectations, habits and hopes from one relationship straight into a new one. As unhealthy as it is there, it feels even worse to do it within polyamory.
Polyamory, and the sub-brand of it known as Relationship Anarchy (RA) which myself and my partner subscribe to, is often guided by the understanding that you will often need and/or want different things from different people throughout your life. RA especially rejects expectations for those needs that have not previously been agreed upon. I don’t think I betrayed that completely, but I certainly stopped doing as much justice to it as I wished to.
In the woundedness and messiness of recovery, I found myself flinging out hands for things that were not there and putting pressure on my partner in the process. I felt needier. I had to readjust to stretches of silence in my life – I had craved and missed that silence, but it was harsh to me nonetheless, like tinnitus after a loud and very bad concert. The support structures that used to be in those places had been hollowed out and destabilised by my ex, and rebuilding them was a slow process. My partner has always caught me where they can, but for some things they can’t, or won’t, and that’s okay with me and always has been, because respect for that was coded into the very foundation of our relationship.
It was hard to keep that framing in mind throughout everything. In order to rediscover your own healthy boundaries after they’ve been eroded, to remember what you do and don’t want in your life, sometimes you have to trace over the maps of the boundaries of others (even though you had known the shape of them for years) before your sense of normalcy can return. I did this the hard way, by bumping up against their boundaries and having to be rejected many times, and that was sharp and painful.
It was a growing pain. I continue to be thankful that my partner had so much patience with me throughout that. And I am thankful for the little rejections they had to give me even if they hated doing it at the time, even though I gave them more than enough grief for it. Our relationship wouldn’t be so whole and healthy without them.
Rediscovering Yourself As Your Partner Does, Too
This was the aspect that shook me up the most. I am sure that there are aspects of this in other recounts of relationships around the world and across history, but I did not know how to look for them, find and decode them, and the stories I knew that sounded the same all ended in breakups, so this threw uncertainty into my path.
To set more of a scene for all of this: I had started dating two people at the same time. (Not together/a triad; the timing simply worked out that way.) That meant that, though the people I was dating saw different sides to me, what they saw was always being influenced by the other.
In the year following the breakup, my partner has witnessed me rediscover myself as I was before that other relationship began, and saw me start new relationships, too. That meant that they started witnessing parts of me that they’d never seen before, parts that didn’t quite fit into what they’d grown used to expect.
I went out to parties more, flirted with others. The ex had forced on me a pattern of closed-offness from friends and new relationships, a pattern I was eager to destroy. I was used to the narrative of fresh starts after breakups, desperately sought it, didn’t know how to slow down my grief. At the same time as I was resettling into my old social life, with occasional overkill to make up for lost time, my partner was keen on moving towards something quieter and more reserved. It did create a divide between us and our needs that neither of us had really considered we would ever have to navigate.
While my partner felt out of place in the face of my life’s new fast pace, I had to navigate the echoes of resentment brewing in myself as I wondered whether my current partner preferred me when I was in a toxic relationship. That is and was not the case, but external circumstances narrowed our opportunities to debrief about our emotions and how things were changing, and this has been unexplored territory for both of us. There was no script to follow to work it out, so we fumbled along in the dark, each afraid that the other would not accept us as we were.
Their surprise at how I had changed (or reversed changes, as I saw it) and in what surfaced within me frustrated me almost more than the challenges of adjusting. It was so easy for me to tell myself that if they truly understood me, they wouldn’t be surprised, and so I wallowed in hurt, because being understood is what I treasure the most, and I did not want to lose that prize. And I did not want to be more difficult to support and understand outside of a bad relationship rather than within one.
Lucky for me and my relationship somewhere along the line I remembered that I’m an adult and other people are entitled to emotional responses such as surprise. (Emphasis on the irrationality for comical effect, pause for laughs, hope that I was never quite as bad as that might actually imply…) Importantly, my partner’s desire for understanding and acceptance matches mine. Even though our bandwidth for time in each other’s lives has shrunk in the last year, our bandwidths for emotional honesty in our quests for understanding has remained, so we opened up the hard conversations, and awkwardly put our feelings out before each other. As we talk more, the new divides look less new and less divisive.
Navigating changes in our lives and ourselves can be scary when it seems like you might have to renegotiate a relationship that you don’t really want to renegotiate. But when you found a relationship off of fluid expectations and rulesets based wholly around supporting each other’s paths and not forcing each other onto an artificial path someone doesn’t want to walk on, it turns out that renegotiation isn’t what’s needed.
Sometimes you just need a bit of extra time to get used to the changes in yourself as well as the other so that you finally know how to put those fears and changes into words, and to let the other person get used to them and find the words for them too, and then you have what you need to touch base with the love and desire for closeness that flows back and forth like the tides.
Then, at last, everything is at peace. You get to make your own ripples across the water, deliberately, artfully, rather than just thrashing wildly at the surface while trying not to drown.
This latter part of the journey crosses far beyond the old grieving period and into new territory, but it seems relevant to include, because moving on from one old relationship is always about more than just what happened then. Though it would be nice to never be affected by bad events, you are, and you craft narratives revolving around them and moving from then into now. Whether in consecutive relationships or concurrent ones, you pattern-match your problems and mistakes, you outline your fears and underline them and sometimes you let them guide you and spiral downwards, until either you pack yourself and others into little boxes to hide from everything, or else something inspires you to wake from your frenzy.
I hope, throughout every single one of my current and future relationships and every one of yours, too, that we may all be inspired.