I was sitting around with some co-worker friends yesterday eating lunch, just chatting about nothing in particular. (Yes, I am out to all of my work friends.) One of them was talking about a family friend of hers when she said with amazement, “He’s still really good friends with his ex-wife. Isn’t that WEIRD?!”
“No,” I say simply.
“But–I mean–it’s his EX-wife! I’ve never seen that before. It’s just bizarre, right?”
“Nope, not really. Why should it be? Maybe it just didn’t work out as a marriage, but there was still a good friendship there they wanted to hang on to.”
She just stared at me in astonishment. Then everyone else laughed, did their oh-Caroline’s-so-poly eye roll, and then admitted they agreed with me.
To be fair, I can’t blame her for thinking like that–it is the social script we live in and gets reinforced throughout our culture. The story goes that to get a divorce or end any serious romantic relationship, things must be so bad that you are throwing things out the window and punching holes in the wall while you fight, that the thought of seeing that person who was once your significant other must be so painful that no friendship could blossom out of that, that when things end, they have to end for good. But why? Why do relationships have to end like that for people to feel it’s a legitimate end?
I am not saying that polyamorous folks don’t have their horrific break ups, and that there aren’t relationships that need space when they end, but I would say that permanent displacement and refusal to have a friendship might be the exception rather than the rule. I’ve heard poly folks call it “transitioning” a relationship instead of “breaking up”, which I think is rather elegant. It speaks to the fact that relationships are always changing and being re-negotiated, and often two people feel the need to change the nature of the relationship while still maintaining the foundation of why they initiated the relationship in the first place. Maybe a girlfriend becomes just a friend without commitment, maybe a non-sexual friend gets labeled as a partner, maybe a lover becomes an acquaintance. And, yes, there are often tears and discomfort, but there is also a beauty in the fact that people don’t have to find a reason to fight or hate each other in order to change things to better suit their needs. There was always a reason you started the relationship in the first place, and chances are pretty good that those reasons are still totally legitimate for maintaining some connection. It’s definitely how I personally prefer to think of things. It makes me comfortable in a way it may make few people, and some people will always need to cut communication off completely in order to feel comfortable about having broken it off, no matter how insignificant the relationship was in the grand scheme of things.
There are probably a dozen reasons why transitioning happens so often in the world of poly, some of them being things we pride ourselves on like communication skills and an open concept of relationships, but a large part of it is admittedly that we live in a relatively small community and you can’t really get away with breaking up with someone badly unless you want your social life to get really awkward. Chances are they are dating, once dated, or will one day date someone you know, are dating, once dated, or will date. They will end up at your social events. It’s inevitable.
I realize I do a disservice to some non-polys by thinking of this as “poly” thinking. As was evident in that conversation with my work friends, clearly people are capably of it who are (presumably) monogamous, and I’ve definitely seen polyamorous people who have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But as was also evident from that conversation, monogamous couples who do this are seen as an anomaly by society, and my personal experience has witnessed the “normal” break up paradigm being challenged in the poly world far more than in the broader world.