Break-ups are hard — especially in open relationships.
While non-monogamy is more common than ever, very few people will understand exactly what you’re going through. Close friends and family may not know how to help you and might not even try. Or worse — their judgment will make the healing process more difficult.
There is no simple road map for getting from heartbreak to happiness. However, there is a lot you can do to get through it and gradually recover your equilibrium and joy.
Here are some tips to help you accelerate the healing process.
Self-Care is the first step!
“Self-care” covers a lot of territories. It can mean reaching out to friends and family for support, joining a support group, or going to counselling, making art or music, playing sports, spending time in nature or taking a vacation. For some people, taking a class or learning a new skill is healing, while others may find comfort in a massage, a nice dinner out, a new haircut, a weekend ski trip, or a new carpentry tool. Just keep asking yourself, “What would make me feel better right now until I get through this?”
One therapist offered this advice: “Reach out to friends for support, ask them to include you in social activities, lunches, going out to clubs, and parties. Try not to rely too heavily on your other lovers. They are probably really tired of hearing about this bastard that dumped you, and they probably don’t particularly want to spend their dates with you holding your hand while you cry about this other guy who has done you wrong.”
Take it slow
Some poly people make the mistake of jumping back into dating new people when they are not really in any condition to start a new relationship. A few casual dates can be a lot of fun and help you feel desirable again when you are feeling rejected. However, you may not be thinking clearly and it can be challenging to make good choices about who to date and what kind of relationship to have with them. And no one wants to feel like they are being used as a crutch while you are “on the rebound,” only to be dropped once you have recovered from the break-up. Be honest about what you can offer someone right now so they will have realistic expectations.
Don’t forget about your other partner(s)
The majority of polyamorous people going through a break-up have at least one other partner, and this can be very comforting during this hellish time. It can also be very difficult because other relationships require your energy and attention at a time when you are at your worst. When you have multiple partners, and one of them leaves you, it can be extremely challenging to maintain the remaining relationship. It is very difficult to mourn the ending of a relationship, and at the same time remain present and available for your remaining partner.
Think about it from their P.O.V.
One break-up victim, Lennie, said, “In my past, I was in a monogamous marriage, and when my wife dumped me, I went to work on autopilot every day. I went from work to a sports bar every night and drank beer and watched football. But now, I was in an open marriage and when my other partner broke up with me, my wife really didn’t want to console me every night about how much I missed Stacy, and yeah, I get that. And I couldn’t go to the sports bar and zone out every night, because my wife expected and deserved my attention.”
Another long-suffering partner said, “I’ve been so loyal and stood by you through all the shenanigans with your girlfriend! I stayed with you through the ups and downs with this crazy chick for over five years. And now she ends it for good, and you’re crying over her and totally ignoring my existence.”
Talk about it
You need to communicate MORE with your remaining partner, rather than less when you are going through a poly break-up. Many people are reluctant to talk to their remaining partner about what they are going through, out of fear that they won’t be able to provide what their partner needs from them, and that they will feel even worse for having “failed.” However, most people are relieved that both parties have gotten their feelings and resentments out in the open, and usually, this leads to feeling closer and more emotionally connected. And often some simple but useful problem-solving ideas come out of the discussion which can make both partners feel much better.
Handling the “public relations” of a poly break-up
Many people going through the end of an open relationship have been unpleasantly surprised by the negative reactions of friends and family. Because monogamy is the culturally-approved norm, most people have lived their polyamorous lives with a “siege mentality,” constantly having to justify themselves and their relationships to everyone around them. Being in an open relationship usually provokes some disapproval. Since many people around you will not understand or accept your poly relationships while they are thriving, they are likely to have even more judgement about a relationship’s demise.
Don’t expect everyone to be understanding
One swinger named Justin explained, “I had previously been in two strictly monogamous marriages, and no one ever blamed either of those divorces on monogamy. Everyone was so sympathetic, asking me out to dinner, and calling to see how I’m doing, even trying to set me up on dates with new women. Then I had an open relationship that lasted twice as long as either of my marriages and when we split up, everyone blamed that on the fact that we were swingers. No one was supportive, and a few friends even told me I got what I deserved for ‘trying to have your cake and eat it, too.’”
While no one enjoys facing hostile judgment from loved ones for their relationship choices, it is especially difficult during such a painful experience of loss and grief. Managing the “public relations” aspect of a poly break-up can be difficult. Many poly people have described feeling alone and isolated from family and friends, right when they need them the most. Because most people around them have never seen an open relationship before, it’s very challenging to explain these relationships even when everything is going great, and even more difficult to talk about the demise of a relationship.
Is there a better way to break-up?
Is there a way to end an open relationship without such pain and acrimony? Does a poly break-up really need to be so horrible?
As with monogamous relationships that come to an end, there are some factors that will significantly increase the likelihood that the suffering can be minimized. It certainly helps if both people have demonstrated reasonable levels of honesty and kindness throughout the relationship, and remained civil. Another important variable is whether both people made efforts to solve the problems in the relationship, before making the decision to end it.
Look for red flags early on
Break-ups also tend to be less painful when both people are able to see that there are areas of incompatibility creating conflict in the relationship. Couples that get past the “honeymoon period” are able to see each other and the relationship realistically. If one person is still in the grip of passion and romance, believing this partner is the perfect love of their life, they’re going to fight like hell against ending it.
Many couples have reported that being in a polyamorous relationship gave them insight into their problems and helped them transition into happier and healthier relationships. Drew explains, “Some poly relationships SHOULD end. That’s one of the great things about open relationships: You can get involved with people who are really great people and have fantastic love affairs with them. But they don’t have to be totally compatible with you, because you aren’t expecting them to meet all your needs or to marry you.”
One person said bluntly: “Don’t drag it out until the bitter end, disembowelling each other along the way. Split up while you can still be friends before anybody does something they will regret later.”
Break-Ups in Open Relationships
Most polyamorous people who have created successful and healthy relationships will humbly acknowledge that they have had a few disastrous and painful break-ups along the way. Luckily, they learn from their mistakes and eventually develop a skill set that helps them select appropriate partners and be good partners themselves. This steep learning curve helps them figure out the model of open relationships they want, improves their communication with partners, and gives them enough practice to develop the strong interpersonal skills required for sustaining poly relationships.
Kathy Labriola is a nurse, counsellor, and hypnotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, California, providing affordable mental health services to alternative communities including the poly, kink, LGBTQ communities and political activists. Kathy is author of two books, Love in Abundance, and The Jealousy Workbook, published by Greenery Press. She has been a card-carrying bisexual and polyamorist for 45 years. She is political activist and community organizer. She is extra crunchy, lives in a housing cooperative, rides a bike, and raises chickens and organic vegetables. Please visit Kathy Labriola to learn more.