When I broke up with my second partner (ever), Theia, I was devastated, not only because of the heartbreak of the situation in general, and not only because it became swiftly clear that she had mainly been with me (either intentionally or unintentionally) so that she could mostly be with my primary partner, but also for another reason.
It was one that was swiftly articulated to me soon after the break by my primary partner’s mother:
Well, I hate to be the one to have to say this, but I told you these sort of relationships never work out.
I cringed but said nothing, at the time I was too emotionally drained from both the break-up and my ongoing abusive relationship with my primary to muster up a counterargument but I knew what it meant:
I had become the example, in her mind, that polyamory just doesn’t work.
Ever since this time I have made the break with my emotionally abusive partner, sought help, and am in a much better place. People still routinely bring up my poly relationship, and their general focus is still on how it just doesn’t work, to which I am now able to reply. Typically, my response is a polite, but clear ‘Polyamory can be amazing, functional, and just as fulfilling as monogamy. But my partners and I all entered it for the wrong reasons and it was a toxic situation all around. That doesn’t mean polyamory is bad, or that it’s something I discredit, but it does mean that, in that instance, the relationship didn’t work for me’.
I try to be clear but, deep down, I know, when people see a poly relationship fail they don’t just see it as a bad relationship – they see it as an example that the entire system is flawed.
And how crazy is that when you think about it?
If two monogamous people broke up most people don’t go straight to ‘when I told you this whole monogamy thing was bullshit. They should look for at least two partners next time around’.
Just the thought sounds ridiculous, right?
In most instances (the average case) it is and this is the sad reality of majority groups vs. the minority.
It’s the same reason that whenever a vegan gets a cold a carnist (average meat-eater) is so keen to point out how they thought ‘veganism was supposed to make you healthier’ but wouldn’t bat an eyelid if the many carnists around them got illnesses all year round.
Majority groups don’t like the idea, or, more aptly, their ideas, being challenged and when a minority group tries to exist and provides an example of success outside of the average then there is extra scrutiny and skepticism aimed at the minority which can cross over to cynicism or even aggression.
But, on the other side of the spectrum there actually does seem to be a sub-set of polyamory, or polyamorist thinking that actually does try to aggressively dismantle notions of monogamy as a valid relationship model, and increasingly monogamous people actually feel attacked or threatened not just by the thought of monogamy (it’s somewhat psychologically expected that a majority will feel attacked when challenged with an opposing paradigm, even if that’s not the other thought-processes’ primary intention, because an opposing view is, by it’s very nature, conflicting). Some people have been actively criticized for preferring monogamy, having marriage and relationship facts flung at them with a sense of superiority, and, when this happens, it does damage polyamory.
I’m not a fan of extremes in any case, and every social group will have people who take it to the extreme with disregard for empathy or how it makes their movement or social framework seem as a whole to the outside perspective. Sadly, these people often get taken as the norm, too, rather than the exception – because those who are the angriest often shout the loudest, as opposed to those who just exist with a belief and happily get on with their lives. Plus, let’s face it, they also make for better click-bait news stories.
All of this swirled through my head amidst my own failed relationship and, honestly, just prior to making the break too.
Come the end of my relationship (just before making the call to end it) I was miserable: emotionally drained, and completely ill-equipped to deal with the world but I was trying to stick it out. I loved Theia, I wanted to try and be with her, but everything was too much, and part of me knew, always knew, that if this relationship did fail then it meant that we would become that conversation piece -‘I had some friends who tried that whole poly thing. It didn’t work out. Never does’ – and it probably played a part in me lingering in an unhealthy situation longer than I should have, which was unfair on me and on Theia.
And, looking back on that it makes me wonder just how many others are staying in an incompatible relationship, hurting themselves and those they care about, just because they don’t want to be that failed example?
Ultimately, Theia and I were both victims of the same emotionally manipulative partner, her thankfully nowhere near as long as I, but this is also still something that we both have to reconcile in our own ways. And, again, I think: How many people stay in an unhealthy and abusive poly relationship, putting on that front of happiness, trying to convince themselves as well as others that they’re okay, just because they feel the burden of the poly representative. Is this ever used against them by their abusive partner? Does this ever stop them from being able to break free? I really hope not.
But, here’s the thing: We, as poly individuals, do not hold the burden of the entire premise of polyamory on our shoulders by default.
We don’t have to take that on.
We are simply people in relationships.
Of course, because we are a small group in terms of socially accepted actions, we do tend to cluster together, we create groups, seek solidarity, and rightly so. But our personal and relationship failures never reflect the overall ‘community’ as a whole, and we should never feel obligated to place that on ourselves.
Granted, others will do so and that’s unfortunate, but it’s not our problem. We can’t control what others think. Even if we present the best argument in the world all we can do is provide resources, it’s up to that person what they think of it, so never stress yourself about what someone thinks and/or changing someone’s mind – it’s not achievable.
If you got to someone for relationship support and their primary concern is the fundamental viability of your relationship then end that line of conversation there and move on. They are not the support system for you and that’s all you need to know.
This is especially important to remember if you’re struggling or have just gone through a break up.
Sure, in time, you may feel equipped to defend you beliefs, but when you’re so emotionally drained that self-care feels like a struggle then you need to conserve your energy for recovery. The rest can come later.
I don’t think I’ll ever get over that niggle of knowing that my first experience with polyamory didn’t work out, and what that will mean to some people, but there is no failure in life – only success or lessons – and I like to think that there’s a lot I can learn from and use take my pain and grow moving forward.
And, if ever someone tries to make me the example of failed polyamory I’m sure to correct them, as kindly and calmly as I can. I had a bad relationship experience, nothing more, nothing less, and that is more than enough to unpack for me.