All breakups are complicated and difficult in their own way, but as someone going through her first serious polyamorous breakup, I can tell you this feels even more complex. When you step back to evaluate what went wrong, you might find yourself wondering whether you broke up because you were poly, or just incompatible. And if being poly didn’t work for you with this person, it begs the question: Should you be monogamous, or would a poly relationship model work with someone else?
I spoke with author and poly counselor Kathy Labriola to find out more. Labriola (who already wrote the best book about jealousy in open relationships I’ve found) has also just finished a new book on this very topic, “The Polyamory Break-up Book: Causes, Prevention, and Survival,” coming out in the summer of 2019. Here’s what she had to say about why poly breakups are often more complicated.
1. It’s assumed you broke up because you were poly.
You can almost hear the thoughts and judgments in people’s heads; if you were out as poly, it can feel like everyone assumes that that has to be the reason you broke up. Many also seem to take it as confirmation that nonmonogamous relationships “never work.”
“When monogamous relationships end, no one seems to blame those breakups on monogamy,” Labriola tells me. “Polyamory can be a convenient scapegoat, even when some other incompatibility or problem was actually much more influential in ending the relationship.”
Labriola says that, according to her research and decades of experience as a poly counselor, about half of poly couples break up for reasons related to polyamory, but the other half break up for all the same reasons monogamous couples do. Some of the main culprits she has identified are sexual incompatibilities, financial issues, and “domestic issues” that arise from living together as a couple. Also on the list: incompatible needs for intimacy and autonomy (for example, one person needs more space and independence); or pre-existing problems into the relationship (such as addiction or untreated mental health conditions).
2. …But sometimes, polyamory is why you broke up.
Of course, sometimes polyamory is absolutely a main — or the main — reason for a breakup. According to Labriola, when polyamory is the primary cause of breakups, by far the most common cause is picking the wrong partners. “This usually involves either a polyamorous person falling in love with a monogamist or two poly people falling in love who want incompatible models of an open relationship,” she says.
In the first scenario, a person who needs multiple partners may spend years struggling in a relationship where their partner needs sexual and romantic exclusivity. The poly partner tries their best to be monogamous but repeatedly fails, or the monogamous partner tries to accept their partner having other partners, but is so miserable they eventually leave the relationship.
In the second common scenario, Labriola says, “one person usually wants a primary relationship such as marriage or living together, with any outside relationships being limited to casual or secondary status, while their partner wants to have more freedom to allow outside relationships to become as important and primary as the preexisting relationship.” While she says that compromise is possible, these models are usually incompatible and lead to the demise of the relationship. Poor time management balancing multiple relationships is another common culprit in a poly breakup, as is jealousy.
3. Poly breakups come with few legal rights.
While it’s too complicated a topic to get into in full here, it is also important to note that poly breakups can be especially complicated because they aren’t really recognized under the law. If a “triad” (a three-person relationship) dissolves, for example, it can be tough to litigate property or custody rights. One partner might find themselves royally screwed, especially if they were the only one not married or parenting “on paper.”
4. You might have other partners who you also have to process the breakup with.
In certain ways, a poly breakup can be easier if you have other partners you’re already dating who can help comfort you. Easier, perhaps, but definitely more complicated.
“One of the most challenging aspects of a poly breakup is that while you are devastated by the ending of a valued relationship, you must find the energy and capacity to continue being present and loving in any remaining relationships,” Labriola says. While it’s nice to have someone besides friends to give you support and affection, you have to be careful not to make that partner feel like your mind is always somewhere else.
“It can be very hard to stop obsessing about your ex-lover long enough to really give your existing partner your full attention,” Labriola says. “You would be wise to minimize the time spent crying and complaining to your partner about the breakup, as they probably are sick of hearing about it. It is important to be honest with your partner that you are not at your best right now, and they will need to cut you some slack, and that very soon, you will return to being that fabulous lover and delightful friend they fell in love with in the first place.”
5. You might be left extra confused about what you want moving forward.
While being poly was not the sole reason behind my breakup, it was arguably the main one. Ultimately, the way my partner and I wanted to be in an open relationship seemed too different. I know that his version of poly didn’t work for me, but I also sense that monogamy isn’t for me, either. That’s given me even more to think about and digest post-breakup, because I’m left wondering what kind of relationship model might be best moving forward.
While I’m taking a little break from online dating to recover, it’s hard to know what I would say I want moving forward, or even how I would identify when I return. I know the model we had didn’t work for me, but sometimes wonder how much of that was because of differences in how we experienced jealousy and love, and whether with a different partner, I might feel completely different being poly. There is no way to know but to try and approach each future relationship uniquely and honestly, and so that it what I plan to do.