Where things end
Sometimes it can be tough to decide on a lifestyle of ethical multiple relationships. Especially when we have largely internalized this way of life for ourselves at some point – and then start to consistently clean up the rest of our lives accordingly:
No more shamefully hiding additional loved ones from the family at auntie’s coffee table, no more keeping quiet when friends make a joke at the expense of non-normative ways of life, no more compromising on dating offers that promise heaven on earth right in the second sentence if…, yes, if you would simply commit to just one lifetime companion.
At some point, we’ll be past all that. We’ve been ashamed of ourselves long enough for our double standards and our lukewarm compromises “for the sake of peace”. We have repeatedly turned our philosophy of life over and over in our minds and hearts and finally freed ourselves, at the latest when we realized how much our way of comprehending intimate relationships has to do with our innermost self.
At some point, we begin to accept that we probably belong to a minority (so far) and start to come to terms with the fact. However, we no longer allow ourselves to be driven back into the broom closet and hold our heads up nonetheless.
Instead, we now sometimes interrupt some of our colleagues at work when they gossip about who is allowed to live with whom these days and whether someone should be allowed to choose their gender depending on their mood – and so we are now sometimes considered “weird”, “difficult” or even “annoying”.
We no longer travel to some members of our birth family because we no longer submit to their recurring dictate that our deviation from a “proper middle-class relationship” would surely damage our reputation and a future career.
And our number of friends is decreasing, because for some of them we now seem downright indecent with our commitment to multiple relationships – or at least appear like a ticking hormone bomb that will probably soon burst with concrete sexual desire where there were previously just amicable ties…
So sometimes an almost peculiar effect sets in. Our coming out into a world of ethical multiple relationships such as Oligo- or Polyamory means that instead of having more relationships in our lives – as we might have assumed – we actually end up with less: The phone stays increasingly silent, the email inbox is becoming increasingly sparse, the messaging service and the dating app on the mobile are chirping less and less – and some invitations to the usual social get-togethers are noticeably dwindling.
A somewhat strange feeling of emptiness instead of fulfilment and acceptance begins to emerge…
“You have successfully logged off.” it says – and you think: “Obviously more complete than I had suspected…”
This is my Entry for November, a month that often carries a distinct note of farewell with its ghostly Halloween figures, All Saints’ Day candles on graves, thick fog and bare trees.
That is why I would like to dedicate this entry to farewells and parting (and some of the grief that goes with it), especially to parting from relationships – which, strictly speaking, is a parting from familiar ideas and cherished projections, as I will try to outline in a minute.
At the beginning of this Entry, I wrote that choosing a lifestyle and philosophy of ethical multiple relationships can be tough. Because if we have not been raised and socialized with its values from an early age, we are indeed embarking on a path of many small farewells. And for our inner sensitivities, it makes no difference whether we part from specific people – or from other familiar terrain.
In a way, there is no difference for our mind, as it is initially confronted with an experience of frustration every time.
As already mentioned in my “Steep Ground”-Entry 22, frustration is “an experience of (actual or perceived) disadvantage or refusal that is perceived as an emotional response to an unfulfilled or unfulfillable expectation (disappointment), e.g. due to the failure of a personal plan or to the complete or partial lack of satisfaction of primary and secondary needs. On the one hand, frustration can lead to a constructive change in behaviour, but often triggers regressive, aggressive or depressive patterns of behaviour.“
The US-American psychologist Pauline Boss has also intensively researched farewell and loss. In the specialist publication “Family Relations” ¹ she writes that partings and separations, whether in friendly or romantic relationships, often seem like an “ambiguous loss”. This means that sometimes, in our frustration and pain, we are not quite sure what it is exactly that we have lost.
Psychologist Eva Siem, who is one of the co-designers of the German meditation app “7Mind”², explains on the corresponding website:
»It is often not just the loss of a person, but also the loss of dreams, emotional support and an identity that is closely linked to that person.
Interpersonal relationships can be closely linked to our own self-image. For example, someone in a friendship can take on the role of the empathetic adviser. When the friendship ends, the loss of this role can lead to a conflict of identity and raise the question: “Who am I without this role?” Shared dreams and plans, such as travelling or raising a family, can also be shattered. Whether we leave or are left, when we break up, it can feel like a part of ourselves is lost.«
The extent to which we experience or are able to process such losses is related to a topic that I have already discussed in Entry 14 – and which is emphasized once again in the most recent book publication on the subject of Polyamory, which is titled “Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Non-Monogamy” by Jessica Fern (Thornapple Press 2020): The attachment styles we experienced and cultivated while growing up³.
I quote again from the 7Mind article because of the concise explanation concerning the most common kinds of “anxious-preoccupied” and ” dismissive-avoidant” style:
»For example, people with an anxious attachment style often rely heavily on the reassurance and closeness of their partner [or their surrounding environment] and are afraid of losing the relationship(s), which makes it difficult to let go. They may prefer to stay in an unhappy relationship for fear of being alone.
Similarly, avoidant people often find it difficult to let go because they have learned to maintain emotional distance and avoid intimacy. For them, an unfulfilling relationship may seem better than the vulnerability and fear of closeness in a potentially deeper connection.«
Thus, when we actually step out of certain circumstances or relationships at some point, it is not at all unlikely that we may initially feel a guilty conscience, remorse or even loneliness and fear.
Which is why even the 7Mind app recommends taking the time to reflect on what has actually been lost – but also possibly gained:
After all, in many cases, letting go not only means saying goodbye to a part of our past, but also to an imagined future (which could at least perhaps have been realized if we had left everything as it was).
In their thesis paper “Who am ‘I’ without ‘you’? – The Influence of Romantic Breakup on the Self-Concept”, researchers Slotter, E. B., Gardner, W. L., and Finkel, E. J. (2010) explain that such a transition passes through three phases, namely the departure from a previous self-concept (“This is who I think I am”) – a mourning phase, which is accompanied by an unravelling of this self-concept and therefore disintegrating certainty, which leads to emotional stress (“So who am I now anyway?”) – and finally an adaptation with the integration of a new self-concept (“This is who I am now”).
So for us, who accordingly have to let go of cherished/familiar attachments or even certain people from our past on our journey into ethical multiple relationships, it is important to consciously release a part of our previous identity – an outdated identity that we frankly no longer want to realize.
What’s more, a loss of relationship always means first and foremost a loss of emotional or perhaps even economic support.
This habitual “support” is likely to be lost if, for example, we confess to being part of a minority in our relationship life – because we no longer join in the unanimous round of collegial gossip, we no longer appear at the coffee table with just one selected favourite person and play “perfect family” – and because we have re-evaluated the concept of “friendship” (and what can be part of it?).
Above, the 7Mind app termed the resulting question “Who am I without this role?” – and in my opinion, that seems to point in the right direction:
Because if we transform our (love-) life with regard to our feelings and actions into an approach of ethical multiple relationships, then we will hopefully leave a role that we have merely “assumed”, but about which we were probably unquestioningly convinced for a very long time that it was the only one that seemed feasible.
In the English language, the word “role” is wonderfully connected to the word “evolve”. We may therefore find ourselves in a traditional “role” – but we can and may e-volve out of it.
On many pages of my bLog here I have tried to explain that I consider it a conscious and courageous decision to evolve towards one’s own true core self when we realize that we have uncovered our capacity for committing to “more than two” (or strictly speaking “more than one”) love(s).
The experts cited in this Entry emphasize that our interpersonal relationships are closely linked to our own self-image. Thus, if our developing self-image takes us closer and closer to the core of our being, this will always have a constructive influence on the type of relationship we enter into – and how we want to pursue them.
Opting for ethical multiple relationships will therefore most likely also mean going through a personal “consolidation phase” first. But consolidation also means reinforcing, strengthening or stabilizing something in order to create something that is more meaningful, committed and sustainable.
For my Oligoamory, I have always emphasized that, as far as I am concerned, quality should always take precedence over quantity. It is not the quantity of our potential (romantic) connections that counts, but their quality – no matter how few they may be.
Engaging in committed, sustainable (multiple) relationships can therefore actually mean successfully disconnecting from certain outdated aspects of our lives in order to become more true to ourselves.
Or as psychologist Eva Siem from the 7Mind team puts it – and in order to avoid getting too November-like (especially when there doesn’t seem to be another exciting relationship opportunity on the cloudy and overcast horizon yet…):
»You are not alone in the challenge of letting go. Grief and change are an essential part of life that all people have to face sooner or later.
Whatever the process looks like for you personally, consider it with kindness and remember that letting go can also be an opportunity to get to know yourself and your needs better.«
¹ Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous Loss Theory: Challenges for Scholars and Practitioners. Family Relations, 56(2), 105-110.
² The main page of 7Mind HERE
The article on loss and farewell by Eva Siem HERE
³ The attachment theory was influenced in particular by the British psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist John Bowlby; e.g.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991), An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 331-341.