By Sarah Sloane
This month, my column isn’t an answer to a single email. It’s a response to a number of people who contacted me in various ways to ask if I could give them some input on how to handle breakups involving our partners and their other partners, or within a poly group. I couldn’t find a way to aggregate their letters to me, so I wanted to just talk briefly about how we handle ourselves, and how we support and protect our partners when relationships end.
Sadly, all relationships will eventually come to an end – it’s the nature of relationships to change over time, and sometimes those changes take us in a direction that we may not have anticipated. And when a relationship ends, it affects everyone around – especially the people with an emotional investment in the relationship, whether through other partners or through chosen family.
There is, however, no easy etiquette guide to explain how to deal with it in a way that isn’t harmful to anyone else, allows us to support our loved ones, and shows respect to everyone involved. I can, however, offer a few tried-and-true ways to get through it…
-Remember that in most situations, a break up is not the fault of just one person. There are a few cases when one person decides to end the relationship unilaterally, but in the majority of situations, the break up is the end of a path of working through problems and finding that the best solution (or the only solution remaining) is to end the relationship. Seeing a relationship ending as a black and white, winner and loser proposition is usually inaccurate – and often very unfair to everyone involved.
-We can offer our support without taking sides, or blaming, or trying to undermine our partners. Asking how we can help, letting them vent or cry, telling them that we are sorry that they’re hurting, and even giving them privacy when needed to work through their feelings are all great ways to give them support.
-It can be painful to watch someone that we love in pain. Our pain may express itself as anger directed at the other person (or even towards our beloved), or it may come out as guilt, frustration, or depression. These are all normal, natural feelings; giving ourselves permission to feel them and to use our own support system is important. I do, however, recommend that we don’t process our own feelings with our partner, if at all possible; adding more to their plate of things to deal with can make their healing process even more challenging.
-Acknowledging that the breakup will likely change the lives of the rest of the poly group is important, too. Everyone may feel a bit of chaos, confusion, and grief over the change; when we love someone, the people that they love become a part of our lives. Honor your own needs to grieve for the change in your family or poly group, and take care of yourself as well as your partner.
-Remember that you have the right to maintain a friendship or relationship with your partner’s ex-partner. The “old school” way of dealing with breakups is that we automatically shun anyone who’s broken up with our friends, and that isn’t so healthy when we’re working with a concept of family that encourages us to expand our definition of love and relationship. Give it some time, and don’t rub your partner’s nose in it… but if the person is important to you, then don’t give it up. Just as your lover had the right to determine their relationship status with their ex, so do you.
-Avoid gossip (especially in email or online forums) about the relationship. While your partner may very well have been wronged, saying so in a public or semi-public way creates even more drama, and makes it harder for our lovers to heal a broken heart. Emotional pain should be as private as the people who are experiencing it wish to be; honor their feelings, and don’t add to the public face of a breakup. The community is, in actuality, very small – and we can help it be healthier as a whole if we encourage respect instead of gossip.
-Life does, eventually, move on – and so must you all. Staying stuck in the pain of the breakup for a long time isn’t healthy for anyone; make sure you know the difference between mourning and refusing to move forward. We may have to encourage our partners to pick up the rest of their life – including the parts of our relationship that we may have had to put on hold while they were grieving. Treat them as you would a dear friend – encourage them to do what they need to do, but remind them that the rest of the world cares about them and wants them to be involved, too.
My heart goes out to everyone involved, when breakups like this happen – but knowing how to offer the needed support to our partners and the rest of our poly family can help us not only survive, but grow as a result of the challenge.