#PolyamoryProblems: How Do I Know When It’s Time To Break Up?

Q:

Dear DaemonumX,

I’m polyamorous and have been with a partner for three years. The first few years were great but lately I’ve been more and more confused about my feelings. I’m learning a lot about myself from getting more into BDSM, while my partner is vanilla. I’m in therapy and actively working on myself, while they aren’t. They consistently ask for more of my time and attention than I want to give. I have so much love for them and I feel awful thinking about throwing away our three year relationship or hurting them in any way. I also feel like I don’t really have a reason to break up with them. Do I keep dating them and try to shift to a more casual relationship? How do I know when it’s time to break up for good?

Sincerely,
Stuck


A:

Dear Stuck,

If time is a strange thing, then queer time is The Upside Down. In queer relationships three months can feel like three years, and then three years feels like a decade. It makes so much sense that you’re weighing how long you’ve been together as a reason you don’t want to end your romantic relationship. Time breeds intimacy, familiarity, and comfort. I’m sure you’ve built a ton of great memories in those years and feel comfort and even pride in staying partnered with your person for this long. I think a lot about those sneaky relics of straight time that permeate our queer realities. The idea of breaking up, and/or transitioning your relationship to platonic as somehow a failure or throwing something away is one of those pesky ideas we need to unlearn. We see breaking up as failure because straight society tells us that we’re worth more if we find someone to monogamously partner with for life (and serious bonus points for getting married and having kids). Guess what? You’re already failing straightness by being queer, by being polyamorous, and by being into freaky shit. Just like we can resist straight time, we can resist straight notions of failed relationships.

I think of the Death card in the Tarot deck. To a Tarot novice, drawing the Death card is frightening and ominous, but in reality Death means change and transformation. It reminds us that change comes for us all, and whether we want it or not it’s always better to embrace it. My first advice to you is to release the idea that relationships ending or transitioning means that they have failed. This isn’t death. Instead, think of your past as being in service to your future. Loving and being loved, learning and growing in experience — these are all generative takeaways from relationships that hopefully leave you both in better places than when you first met. That is the best possible scenario for a breakup.

Another thing I think we feel more intensely in queer time is sentimentality. We all latch onto cultural markers like coming out stories, first queer love, first queer sex. Sentimentality is especially pertinent in the pandemic times we’re all living through. Right now everyone is fondly remembering the past and yearning for things that we miss even if we’ve outgrown them —bumping into drunken dykes at extremely overcrowded Brooklyn dance parties is top of mind for me, sob! Sentimentality, and it’s friend obligation, can ultimately keep you stuck in a place you no longer belong by making you think that because your partner was there for you in these really significant ways, and you spent all these years together in love, therefore you are tied to them and owe them your future. People often shift their boundaries to prioritize this sense of obligation to others, which in extreme cases can be wildly harmful and at a severe detriment to themself. You can honor your past while releasing it and recognizing that now you’re a different person with a different path.

If we’re lucky, we’re not the same version of ourselves that we were three years ago, or even last week, and that’s wonderful! Congrats on deciding to work on yourself with a therapist and explore new interests like BDSM! Learning and growing and changing are what life is all about. What’s that saying? A snake who doesn’t shed dies. You’re becoming a (hopefully) better version of yourself and you’re stretching farther towards what nourishes you. The hard truth of this is that you will grow away from people you’ve been close to, including your romantic partner. You may start to attract others into your life who you relate to more, who you can talk about your kinks with, or swap stories about your latest therapy breakthroughs. Spending more time with new people who are feeding these parts of you might highlight just how far you’ve grown apart from your partner.

For relationships to last long-term I truly believe that people have to continue to grow together and reach towards similar things. It just isn’t realistic to expect that every relationship will have two people growing in the same direction, or even at the same speed, until they die. My friend recently congratulated someone when she found out they just got a divorce. Sure, this sentiment might be hurtful to someone with an open wound, but if you think about change and transition as positive it’s easier to accept a divorce as a fresh new start. Apologies to all the romantics who are reading this, but I’m someone who believes that relationships are doomed from the jump. Statistically, we will probably break up and understanding this as a fact helps me detach from all outcomes and be more present in my relationships. Remember, by queering the notion of “failure” we can unlearn breaking up as necessarily A Bad Thing. This doesn’t mean I don’t try hard, or want to keep people in my life for as long as I can, it just makes it easier to let go or transition the relationship when it’s time. Celebrate it, even! So, now to answer your question: Is it time?

A super common theme with my polyamory coaching clients is this: Polyamory means we don’t have to break up, right? I can just have stricter boundaries and shift my relationship to be less serious, right? Yes, this is absolutely right! A wonderful aspect of polyamory is that you don’t have to break up. Because you don’t have to choose just one partner at a time, you can ebb and flow relationships to fit a rhythm that works for you considering the myriad factors that contribute to making a relationship work. You can turn the hose on full blast, or you can turn it down to a sprinkle. You can also just turn the hose off! But this reasoning is often used as an excuse to continue giving energy to people and relationships that we simply shouldn’t. Trust me, I’ve been there!! Just because you’re polyamorous doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice discernment. Shifting your relationship to a more casual romantic relationship when you’re really just not feeling it anymore is not fair to your partner (it’s lying), and it’s not fair to you either.

You also mentioned that your partner wants to spend more time with you than you want to spend with them, that you don’t want to hurt their feelings, and that you don’t really have a reason to break up. This reads to me like you’re definitely not on the same page overall. Not telling someone how you feel, other truths, or not breaking up because you don’t want to hurt them is actually cruel and codependent behavior. The simple fact that your fire has fizzled out is a perfectly valid reason to break up. Wanting to shift your limited amount of time and energy into new connections that make you want to be sprayed in the face with that hose is also a valid reason to break up. Transitioning from romantic partners to friends (if that’s what you both want) might be the best way to honor the past three years you spent together. Truly loving someone means supporting their growth and wishing the best for them even if it doesn’t include you. I’d argue that this is one of the foundations of polyamory as well.

Now, in case I haven’t been explicit enough — I am coming out as Team Break Up. Breaking up might be the best thing you can do for your relationship, and to honor the love you have for each other and your history together. I hope that you can have an honest conversation about where your personal growth is taking you, and hopefully transition your relationship into something that feels more fulfilling for you both.


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DaemonumX

Daemonum X is a femme dyke, Polyamory Coach, and BDSM Educator. She is the founder and Editrix of FIST, a zine for leatherdykes.

DaemonumX has written 1 article for us.

1 Comment

  1. I think this is really thoughtful and sound advice. I strongly agree that changes and/or endings in relationships should be viewed as a natural part of growth rather than failures, and I try to approach mine with that awareness from the beginning.

    It occurred to me while reading this that the OP seems to be approaching “serious” vs “casual” as discrete categories that need to be decided, and then acted upon. I don’t think this is always the most useful way to frame things. If you have a genuine interest in continuing some kind of relationship with this person, it seems to me that the best approach would be to identify specifically what your needs are and what boundaries you have if those needs can’t be met (which could include significant changes to how your relationship operates), and then express these to your partner. This gives them the opportunity to negotiate these issues with you if they want to, and take an active role in the direction your relationship takes, rather than being surprised and hurt by a unilateral rupture.

    On the other hand, if this all sounds like more work than you want to put in with this person, or if you know deep down they can’t meet your needs anymore and all this processing would just be drawing out the inevitable, then yes, you are probably ready to move on and you should just break up.

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