In the serially monogamous society of a majority of Americans it is necessary to end one romantic relationship before another can begin–at least in the case of “serious” relationships. Most people living this lovestyle will accept casual dating of more than one person, sometimes even a casual fling going on at the same time as a more serious relationship. A business man cheating on his wife during an out of town trip gets no more than tsk, tsk from any but the most enthusiastic subscribers to “monogamy”.
Among the polyamorous it is possible to begin a new romantic relationship without ending an on going one. Both such relationships may be committed and meaningful, even if one is considered primary and the other secondary. Does this mean break ups never happen in polyamory? Hardly.
True, members of our community have developed more tools for coping with such things than the average monogamous person and we do have an added protection in that some of our needs can be met by another partner if a primary partner doesn’t fulfill them or can’t do so at the moment. We also aren’t going to break up because we find hubby in bed with his girl friend.
However, relationships break up for many reasons having nothing to do with another entering the life of either partner. Polyamorous relationships are still vulnerable to break ups caused by moving apart in life goals, lack of communication, falling out of love, etc. There is also the question of how many serious romantic relationships one has time for. A relationship may be ended simply for this very practical reason unless the time crunched person can combine activities with more than one lover at once or take an efficiency course.
Ultimately, while polyamory provides more flexibility and wider choices, some form of discrimination must be practiced in order to devote the attention, the quality time needed to form and maintain deep, intimate relationships. When your dance card is full (at least for now) it may be necessary to say no to new people or, if a new person seems irresistible, to end or down size (for example from once a week to once a month) a present relationship to make room for the new one. Many people find it difficult to maintain two primary relationships at one time–particularly if the two others involved either don’t get along at all or don’t get along well enough to live together.
Time permitting, the possibility of having a heady affair with a new love become a steady secondary relationship is a good one and is a big advantage of living this lifestyle. It works if the new lovers take care to be considerate of any primary partners or pre existing secondary partners of either of them and maintain the joy in those relationships.
If a decision is made to end a romantic relationship for whatever reason, it can be handled in a number of different ways. You can have a nasty fight and never speak to each other again, cutting his or her picture out of family albums. You can persuade your friends to choose up sides and never talk to your X either. This is a little hard to manage if both of you are going to stay in the (rather small) poly community, attending the same conventions, etc. My X-husband managed it by completely dropping out of that community. He also crosses hotel lobbies and public streets to avoid me at SF conventions. His wife has to sneak off behind his back to have lunch with me. He’s extreme enough to be funny (unintentionally), but this kind of break up makes others forced to be around it pretty uncomfortable.
Traumatic break-ups can be equally negative when the participants are close friends who never have been lovers. Such break ups are best handled with courtesy and as much grace as one can muster when meeting at the gatherings you both attend, since becoming friend is not an option here.
The option of becoming friends does exist in a romantic relationship even if you choose to be lovers no more. This is much more comfortable for everyone (especially any children involved). You could even go on being lovers, but see less of each other, stop living together, etc. A member of our expanded family who lives with us (Carl) has a great open relationship with one X wife which is sexual as well as loving. He also has a warm, close relationship with another X wife of the friendship variety. The one who he’s friends with flew him out to Northern California to priest (Pagan style) a coming of age ceremony for her nephew. This occurred several years after the break up of their marriage. Carl broke up with me, as a lover, more than two years ago and did it in a way so gentle and caring that it did not damage our friendship or even make living together difficult. The fact that my loving husband, Paul, also lives with me helped of course…
Most of my romances over the years have remained close as friends and water brothers (family-by-choice concept from Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein) whether our relationship extended to the bedroom at present or not. I have relationships which have transitioned back and forth from the romantic to the platonic more than once (some over periods of twenty+ years) and have been relatively undamaged by the changes. This has been rough in situations in which I was so in love with someone that it hurt to be “just friends” after having experienced the delights and special intimacy of shared sexuality. Maintaining those relationships has been important enough to me that I’ve found ways to make it work anyhow–sometimes after a bit of a cooling off period. I shared with my first water brother (who remains my closest friend) in 1969. He and most of my other water brothers (yes, this includes sisters) are part of an intimate network of friends who get together for parties, weddings, funerals and holidays. Like any close family, we’re together for the long haul.