I was sitting waiting for class last week when I got the text no person in a polyamorous relationship, even one as low level as a poly friendship with feelings, wants to get. The dreaded “my main relationship takes priority over you” message. I had been expecting it for a few days and while I wasn’t surprised, it still hurt.
This is not the first time I’ve been told this in one way or another. Hell, I doubt it will be the last time I receive it either. In fact, I’ve noticed that the last four poly relationships I’ve been in or around in one way or another fail. I could very easily take it personally and feel like I’ve somehow contributed to that, but I’ve decided to take a different approach to how I perceive what’s going on. I may be wrong and way off base, but I feel like even if there’s a nugget of truth in what I say, I’m obligated to point it out.
I’ve noticed several common denominators to all these failed, failing or unstable poly (and even monogamous) relationships around me. I will point them out and discuss them in turn.
1. Communication. I think when it comes right down to it, there is a lack of communication in relationships. Startling revelation, right? I know, it’s probably something that every relationship guru in the last 25 years has preached, but I really feel it’s true, especially in the context of poly relationships. When you are involved with someone else, whether that’s one person or twenty people, there needs to be very open, honest and thorough lines of communication. Everybody needs to be on the same page, whether they agree or not. When more than two people are involved in a relationship, it seems very easy for one person to swallow their feelings or what is going on in their head and eventually it just leads to a blowup or blow out. Define the goals of the relationship, define life goals, define personal goals. Say what you want out of the relationship and what can be done to accomplish all that. In the modern age of constantly being connected, it’s easy to look surface level at a situation and say that we are communicating, but take a harder look and really assess if that is the case.
A corollary to this statement is that communication should not only be done in the bad times. When things are going well, it’s easy to sit back and become complacent with progress or good times, leaving the difficult talks to when things get rough. The problem is that doing that can sometimes ignore little problems that can be easily addressed and headed off when they are small. Not discussing things when they come up, even minor ones when things are good, often times leads to those problems festering. We push them to the back of the pile and then out of the blue, what was a small problem seems to be a big problem that just came up. Constant communication between and among all partners can and does lead to better, long lasting, and more fulfilling relationships.
2. Multiple partners does not save a failing relationship. I think this is the hardest issue I’ve struggled with and only recently come to accept. These relationships I become involve with fail for a reason and by the time I come into the picture, often times the relationship is already doomed. I just get to be around for the implosion. I’ve seen this in swingers, poly people and in the monogamous context of cheating. “Oh, I’ll just bring someone in and they can fix all our problems.” Oh boy, that statement is full of loaded implications and problems. The only people that can ultimately fix a relationship are the people in it. No outside person, no matter how skilled or knowledgeable can do that. It’s a matter of committing to change and making those changes necessary. There are any number of reasons people look outside of a relationship for friendship, physical or emotional comfort or support. The one I’ve seen most often is that they are not getting from the relationship (primary or otherwise) what they need and want out of it. That can often be through no fault of any of the parties. We want people to fulfill our every desire and need, but it doesn’t always happen. We can try as hard as we want to look for those solutions, but from what I have seen if you’re not getting them from within the relationship, you’re going to go elsewhere.
3. Lack of personal accountability. I’ll be honest here. I’m guilty of this one. Quite a bit actually. It’s the whole “it’s not my fault, it’s your fault” argument that couples get into. I’ve had the opportunity to sit through a number of break up talks, whether it’s as a participant or as an observer. Often times I hear more “you”s in the conversation than I do “I”s. It’s the “you didn’t do (fill in the blank)” instead of “I lack in this regard.” Naturally when things go bad, humans do this as a defense mechanism. We overlook what we have done or haven’t done and instead look outside ourselves to find and place blame. While it is a completely natural reaction to a stressor of a relationship breaking up, it also serves to place us on opposite sides from the person with whom we have the relationship. It sets up a adversarial fight instead of a “let’s work together to solve this” situation. I wish I could say there is some easy fix to this and that simply taking more personal responsibility for the relationship will do this, it is the most difficult thing I’ve found. While this kind of reaction is common to every relationship, I find it more prevalent in poly relationships because there are simply more people to blame. Inevitably there is that one easy target that ends up having the weight of the breakup on their shoulders for being the horrible, evil person when in reality it’s probably more like a combined set of factors spread across multiple people that have contributed to the downfall of the relationship.
4. Lack of time spent on individual relationships within the poly relationship. I find this a lot and it’s something I want to address. You don’t have to spend every waking and sleeping moment as a group. It’s simple not feasible. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you should not spend all your time with a “primary” partner for lack of a better word. I’ve always had issues with certain forms of poly relationships, mainly that of the V style. Whoever is the common denominator between the two relationships feels torn and spread too thin. Ultimately it will lead to tearing of the relationship and the common person spending more time with one partner than the other. I’ve always felt the optimal relationship shape should be more like a triangle, square or circle depending on the number of partners. Everybody should be involved with everybody. Having any inequalities will just end poorly. The point I’m trying to make here is that you do need to take time away from the group relationship though to tend to your relationships with a singular person. This is where the communication needs to come in. It needs to be made clear that you’re doing this for the good of the whole relationship, not to show favoritism for one partner or that you love one partner more than the other(s). Keeping the individual components strong will keep the whole strong. Like many other things, relationships are only as strong as the weakest link. Keeping those links strong and taking time to maintain those links will keep the whole of the relationship strong and on a strong and healthy path.
This list is by no means a complete and exhaustive list of the things I often find wrong in polyamorous relationships. As I live more and experience more poly relationships myself, I’m sure that I’ll find more things that need to specifically addressed when in a poly relationship. But for right now, I really wanted to get this out there to help people who do find themselves in a failing poly relationship and hope that I’ve offered a little insight into what is wrong and what can be done to fix it. You only get out of a relationship what you put in it. There’s no easy answers when it comes to relationships and nothing easy about them in general. They are work, like anything else in life. It’s committing to that work and committing to making that relationship better that will ultimately lead to being in more fulfilling and more pleasing relationships.