Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

August 3, 2013

"Failure or Transition? Redefining the 'End' of Polyamorous Relationships"

One of the things you find in the poly world is that "breaking up" doesn't necessarily carry the all-or-nothing heavy freight that most people assume it has to. Stepping back and becoming "just friends" is not only actually possible, but rather common (sometimes after a cooling-off interval of no contact). And people often "transition" from one degree of depth and involvement in a relationship to another by mutual discussion and agreement.

So, here's more from poly researcher Elisabeth Sheff. This is from a chapter she wrote for the collection Selves, Symbols and Sexualities: Contemporary Readings, edited by Staci Newmahr and Thomas Weinberg.

Failure or Transition? Redefining the “End” of Polyamorous Relationships

By Elisabeth Sheff

Relationships in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century exist in a uniquely schizophrenic state in which couples routinely promise to stay together “until death do we part” in their marriage vows, even though most people are painfully aware that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce (Cherlin 2010, 405).... Cultural norms define “successful” relationships as monogamous and permanent in that the two people involved remain together at all costs....

Polyamorists, in contrast, define the ends of their relationships in a number of ways in addition to success or failure.... Following the polyamorous community habit of making up words to describe things that conventional English does not contain (Ritchie and Barker 2006), I coined the term polyaffective to describe non-sexual or affectionate relationships among people in poly families.

Respondents in my research emphasized the importance of choice as a guiding principle for their lives and relationships. Focusing on the utility and health of their relationships, respondents reported that if their relationships became intolerable, violated boundaries, or no longer met the participants’ needs, then the correct response was to modify or end the relationship....

This consciously engaged choice means that polyamorous people acknowledge their own responsibility for their relationships, with little or no social pressure (from the polyamorous paradigm at least) to either stay together or break up. As a result, poly people ultimately define their relationships as both voluntary and utilitarian, in that they are designed to meet participants’ needs. Clearly this self-responsibility is easier to espouse when the people in question are financially self-supporting and do not have children whose lives would be affected by parental separation. Given the framework of those familial and macrosocial constraints, poly people attach diverse meanings to the ends or transitional points of relationships. In this post I first detail the research methods I used in the study and then discuss those meanings poly people apply to the ends of their relationships. I conclude by examining the social implications of redefining the ends of or transitions in relationships....


Respondents’ held three primary definitions of the ends of their relationships: success or failure, shifting interests and needs, and change or transition. While each category is distinct, they are not mutually exclusive in that they often overlap, and respondents’ categorization of the same relationship often changed over time. Fewer respondents defined their relationship ends in terms of failure, and many more emphasized their shifting needs and interests, and especially the fluid nature of relationships over time.

It is Really Over: Success and Failure

Some polyamorous relationships last until one of the partners dies, and in that sense they meet the conventional definition of “success” because the family members did not separate from each other during life.

...Although poly community norms encourage people to remain friends with former lovers, some relationships end with such acrimony that remaining friends is neither desirable nor feasible. Respondents in this category were more likely to see the end of the relationship as a failure, both in the conventional sense of ending sexual and intimate relations, and as a poly failure in that they broke community norms dictating continued friendly contact with former lovers as friends....

Moving Apart: Divergent Interests and Needs

Some respondents like Angela, a 32-year old white woman in the IT industry, emphasized the idea that they were no longer relating to former partners the same way (or possibly at all), but rather:

…moving apart without blame – people change over time and what worked before no longer does, or what was once interesting to everyone is now boring to some of us who are now interested in this new thing. Like [my ex-husband] Mike with his whole anime thing, that holds no interest for me, absolutely none … and he has no interest in crafting, which has become really important to me and takes up a lot of my time. There is no judgment or shame for changing from the people we were when we met at SCA[i] all those years ago, we are just not who we used to be and don’t fit together as well anymore....

Not Really the End: Changes and Continuity

For some respondents, simply no longer having sex did not signal the end of a relationship, but rather a shift to a new phase. In these cases, the emphasis of the relationship changed to a non-sexual interaction but the emotional and social connections remained continuous....

True to form in poly communities who shape language to reflect their relationships (Ritchie and Barker 2006), some polys reject or redefine the concept of the “ex.”...

While Goddess of Java, a white woman in her mid 40s, was clear that “I am not best buddies with all of my exes, not by any stretch” she nonetheless asserted that:

I have other former lovers that I suppose ex would be *a* term for. But, I don’t think of them as exes. We were lovers and now we’re friends, and ex just seems kind of a weird way to think of someone I’m close to and care about. The real difference here, I think, is that the changes in relationship tended to have a much more gentle evolution rather than “official” breakups.

...Key to this redefiniton is dethroning sexuality as the hallmark of “real” intimacy.

...This does not mean that no one in poly relationships gets hurt or mistreated in a breakup – poly people lie, betray, and cheat each other like everyone else. But the existence of alternative meanings provide a way for relationships to end in one phase and begin in another, or continue across many iterations that may or may not include sexuality....

Read Sheff's whole 5,000-word piece including references.



Blogger agahran said...

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August 05, 2013 6:10 PM  
Anonymous Aggie Sez said...

When that article first came out, it struck me that Dr. Sheff may have overlooked an important and common way that relationships end in polyamory: when a non-primary partner gets vetoed.

It's exceedingly common for solo poly folk and other non-primary partners to end up on the losing end of this painful dynamic. I consider this the dark ethical underbelly of polyamory.

I asked Sheff about this, and she responded that she chose to overlook vetoes in her article. A decision I disagree strongly with and am disappointed about, since it implies that the only poly breakups that matter are when primary-style relationships dissolve

Here's our exchange in the comments to her article:


January 3, 2013 at 11:42 pm01
Great work

I’m wondering, did you research address the situation of a partner getting vetoed, directly or indirectly? That’s awfully common when you’re in a relationship with someone who’s part of a poly primary couple.

Sometimes when you’re in a relationship with someone who’s married or otherwise has a primary partner, at some point their spouse gets insecure or otherwise freaks out, sometimes even years after the non-primary relationship has been established. At that point, rather than everyone negotiating together to work out the issue, one or both spouses will basically “pull rank” to summarily end the non-primary relationship, explicitly or through acting out or increasing stress/pressure (rather than negotiating)

I’ve seen these situations happen many times in poly relationships, and they’re heartbreaking. I recently blogged one such example: http://solopoly.net/2013/01/02/solo-poly-experience-of-couple-privilege-love-and-losts-story/

It’s very common, and often it happens without much consideration, respect, or support for the non-primary partner — and sometimes with no warning.

I was curious why I didn’t see such a common situation addressed in your research on poly breakups?


Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD
January 5, 2013 at 11:42 pm01

Thanks for your comment!

I agree that it is very common for new poly relationships to rely on a veto or even an indirect veto to “deal with” a partner’s partner (or date, or sweetie, or whatever term they use) whom the primary finds unpalatable. I did not include it in this piece for a few practical reasons.

First and foremost, it did not fit in the word limit the publishers had given me, and I had to cut some things to make the chapter come out to the right number of words. The flow of the piece includes everything I could reasonably squeeze in there, but I could not provide an exhaustive list of the reasons for breaking up and the ways people do it so I focused more on the most common themes from my data. While people in my study definitely talk about the veto, they do so in a somewhat disdainful manner — I am paraphrasing here “Some foolish people use a veto but in our relationship we are far too enlightened to saddle ourselves with that kind of booby-trap.”

Second, it did not fit into the categories I had found emerging from the data, and it would have required reworking the entire framework of the piece to include it.

Third, I talk about it in my upcoming book in chapter four, issues facing poly relationships. Unfortunately, that chapter is growing exponentially and I am not sure how much room it will get there either because there are SO MANY things that need to go in that chapter, it is already overflowing. I agree that it is important and that the veto influences not only people new to poly relationships, but the long-time poly folks either don’t do it, claim they don’t do it, or cloak it and pretend it is something else. So it is a complex issue that I need to figure out how to present in a brief, short-nugget encapsulated kind of way.

Thanks for your interest in the piece, and keep watching this space in case I decide the veto needs a blog of its own :) In the mean time, I will read your post and see if that points me in a succinct direction.

Cheers, Elisabeth

August 07, 2013 10:49 AM  

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