What It's Like to Go Through a Polyamorous Breakup
A sex and relationship therapist shares her first experience with a polyam breakup—and all the important lessons she learned along the way
On my very first date with my now-husband, we talked about what kind of relationship we wanted. We tossed around the idea of non-monogamy and what the concept of having an 'open relationship' and would mean for both of us. As time went on, we checked back in on how we each felt about potentially "opening up." It just wasn't the "right" time to explore it…until it was.
I think it's important to note that relationships are relationships are relationships—and what I mean by that is, human connection is human connection and whether you're in a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, they all have the potential for experiencing challenge, conflict, joy, pain, and every other emotion under the sun.
The way that I experience polyamory is the same way I experience my sexuality—it's how my brain is wired. Just as much as I am queer/bi, I am polyamorous. I can and want to love more than one person at once, in a romantic and/or sexual way. (Related: Here's What a Polyamorous Relationship Actually Is—and What It Isn't)
In September of 2019, my husband and I decided to honor this feeling and started practicing ethical non-monogamy (aka consensually opening up our relationship while maintaining respect for all partners involved).
After being together with my husband for seven years and married for three, I forgot what it felt like to go through a breakup, period—let alone a polyamorous breakup, in which I was crying and mourning my relationship with my now ex-partner while my husband sat next to me making sure I was okay.
Navigating this breakup taught me so much and whether you're polyamorous or not, these takeaways will either help you navigate your next breakup with a bit more peace, give you some insight into polyam life, or at least just help you feel seen. (Here are other Things Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)
1. The combination of feelings is bizarre and wonderful.
Over the almost six months that I dated this person, I felt the most bizarre and wonderful combination of feelings. So, when grieving the relationship, it made sense that a similar buffet of feelings would present itself. I felt so grateful to have all the experiences I did with this person, sad that the relationship was over, and at the same time, felt only love for them even after parting ways. (Related: How to Get Over a Breakup the Buddhist Way)
Here's what made it wonderful, though: When practicing ethical non-monogamy, you need an incredibly high level of communication with your partners. You need to be responsible for not only identifying your own emotions and communicating them, but also knowing how to listen and receive what your partners are expressing to you as well. Because my now ex-partner and I were both able to do each of these things, we could meet each other with love, respect, and high levels of emotional communication. Typical breakup feelings of confusion, anger, and exasperation were replaced with peace, sadness, and love. My heart was fully a kaleidoscope, as Sara Bareilles so beautifully says, "we're all sort of in pieces and broken bits on the inside, but somehow, when you look through them, you still see something beautiful and magical."
2. Communication is still the most important thing.
Most breakups in my life have left me feeling guilty, perplexed, and sometimes even irate. I've often walked away from conversations with a lot of questions and a general lack of understanding of how the other person felt, what they were thinking, and what happened. My breakup talk with my now-ex was tough, but it was also one of the most honest, loving, and compassionate conversations I've ever had—there was no anger, no blaming, no harsh words, no criticism, no contempt—and I largely credit that to the epic, honest communication that occurred.
You probably hear it all the time (heck, as a couples therapist I say it all the time): "Communication is the most important part of any relationship." I can't stress this enough for monogamous relationships and polyamorous relationships. Because of the nuance in polyam, the various relationship dynamics, and the ripple effect that a breakup has the other partners and people in their lives, it's even more important to communicate effectively and honestly.
3. Your village is everything.
The old saying "it takes a village," is usually used in reference to raising a child, but it truly applied to this breakup in a way I never would have imagined. Because I'd been honest and transparent about being polyamorous, practicing ethical non-monogamy, and the depth of feelings I had for this person, everyone in my inner circle was there for me when we broke up. I was afraid that people would discount the importance of this relationship because it wasn't my husband. I was afraid that I'd be told to "just get over it" and "at least I was still married." No one did that. Everyone respected my feelings and my process and asked how they could support me because I had been so honest with them along the way.
My husband knew I was in love with this person because I shared that with him. So, when the breakup talk happened, he was able to be there for me and understand (as best as he could) the emotional experience I was having. (See: How to Have a Healthy Polyamorous Relationship)
4. Grieving what could have been happens in polyam breakups, too.
I remember going through a breakup with my college boyfriend and being devastated because I truly thought I was going to marry him. Getting into a relationship with someone while married somehow seemed safer, as though I wouldn't develop hopes for the future with this other person. I was so wrong.
I may have not envisioned marrying this person, having kids with them, or even living with them, but I did think about having picnics in Central Park in the springtime, taking them to my favorite restaurants, and helping them turn their dreams into reality. When our relationship ended, I had to mourn the possibility of those experiences just as much as the things that had already happened (and that I already missed).
One of the unique (and really neat) things about polyam relationships is that they don't have an "end goal," as some monogamous relationships do. When I first started seeing my now-husband, people would ask me questions like, "Is he the one?" or "When are you going to move in together?" There were relationship milestones that somehow dictated how well our relationship was going. With polyam relationships, those don't exist. You get to define them for each relationship. While my now-ex and I had many conversations about what we wanted in our relationship, it doesn't have the same societal guidebook to follow. Yet, even if our breakup didn't mean losing the hope of these traditional monogamous relationships markers, it still hurts to watch all of those future plans disappear both literally and figuratively off of your calendar. And no matter what kind of relationship you're in, grieving these loses is OK.
5. Someone can love and care about you—but it's still most important to put themselves first.
Our breakup wasn't about our incompatibility, conflict, or anything untoward. Our breakup happened because this person needed some time not dating anyone else. I don't want to expand on this too much, because I want to respect this person's privacy and I still love them very much. But, the point is, relationships add another obligation into your life. Yes, you can decide what that relationship looks like. Yes, you can decide the boundaries of that relationship, Yes, you can decide how much time, energy, and effort you want to put into something. But, at the end of the day, you only have so much time. And sometimes that time needs to be spent pursuing your passions and working on yourself.
Of course, upon hearing this, my heart hurt, but I knew that this had nothing to do about a lack of care. In fact, what would have been a lack of love would have been staying in a romantic relationship while really not wanting to be there, feeling guilty, or not giving me the partnership that I had come to expect. Whether it's a polyam or monogamous relationship, you (and your partner(s) need to keep yourself at the top of your priority ladders. You need to fill your cup up first and let the overflow trickle down to the people you love. It doesn't mean someone loves you less because they're prioritizing themselves.
6. The other relationships in your life will be affected by the breakup, too.
My husband isn't getting the typical fun-loving, joyous, funny, passionate me right now. He's getting a sad, grateful, more quiet, tired, and hurting version of me—and the same can be said for my friends and family. If I had other partners (which I currently don't), they would also be affected by this breakup. I'm not in the mood to have sex, because I'm mourning someone I was having lots of great sex with. I'm not in the mood to go to certain places, because I'm mourning having gone there with this person. When you go through a breakup, your loved ones are affected—and when it's a polyam breakup, it's a bit more confusing.
My husband has made it abundantly clear that he wants me to take the time I need and there's no rush or pressure to be or do anything. He's continued to encourage me to navigate my emotions that have been present since this uncoupling process began. In fact, in the days since the breakup, I feel even closer to my husband. It's increased our emotional intimacy and prompted us to share emotions we hadn't previously as we navigated uncharted territory together.
7. It's okay to miss someone (and even still love them) after you break up.
I miss this person so much. I miss our dates, our conversations, and the looks that we used to share over lunch, coffee, or as one of us walked up to the other on the street. Whether you're monogamous or ethically non-monogamous, it is okay to miss someone, and even still love them after you break up (especially when no one did anything wrong or outside of the relationship agreement).
If you're missing someone after a breakup, you can do things to cope with those feelings besides reaching out to the person. Journaling, reaching out to friends, watching a cathartic movie, taking a bath, going on a walk or hike, reading a book, or going out to dinner to a restaurant you love or have been wanting to try.
It also feels important to note that maintaining a re-defined relationship with an ex (ex: "staying friends") is absolutely possible. It's usually just a good idea to take some time without them to feel through the grief process and mourn the relationship that was before jumping into what could be.
At the end of this, I don't regret a thing. I feel so much love and gratitude towards this person, our relationship, and the experiences that we shared. I'm sad, too. And that's okay. As Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, "'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
I agree, Alfred, I agree.