Just a couple of days ago, I got the news that the husband of a woman I know was killed in an accident. I’ve been having really mixed feelings about the whole thing because, well, he wasn’t a nice guy. In fact I didn’t much like him at all. Would I ever have wished him dead? No, not by a long shot, but I certainly didn’t want to spend any time around the guy, and I must say I was extremely relieved when I heard that, a few months ago, the pair had split up. He’d cheated on her. I don’t know why it took a cheat to finally spur her to call it quits, but I almost wanted to thank him for having done it. If that was the impetus she needed to boot him out, I wish he’d cheated on her years ago.
But what brings me to write about this all now is what I learned about what she did once she found out he’d died. She called up his new girlfriend to see if she was okay. The two women apparently spent some time together on the day following the accident. From what I understand, the woman I know felt that she’d already let go of the idea of having a future with him, whereas she realized that this new girlfriend was just starting to envision that future, and so in a sense she had lost as much or more in his death.
For some reason this little piece of the story of his passing has been sitting in my head, and I’ve been turning it over absently for a few days, the way you might play with a smooth rock in your pocket.
It feels, to me, like it connects to polyamory somehow. Not that any of these people have ever identified as polyamorous, to my knowledge. No, it’s more like that somehow, these two women were able to connect and be supportive to one another despite the weirdness of one being “the ex-wife” and one being “the other woman,” and despite the pain of a sudden and tragic loss. For some reason, they were able to see their common ground and reach out in kindness, rather than seeing the many (very valid) reasons why they might choose instead to avoid one another – with full approval from most of society, to boot. Instead of paying attention to the “she’s your competition” or “that bitch stole your man” messages that our culture so readily provides, they each chose to create connection instead of distance, to put love out into the world instead of resentment or anger, to open up instead of lashing out. They chose to ignore the boundaries of convention and instead turn to simple human compassion.
I’ve seen other stories like this, though perhaps none quite so immediate or dramatic. I felt a similar sort of choice at play when my ex-partner, T, helped me load all my furniture into a moving van for my move to Toronto to share a home with Boi M. I felt it when a friend of mine, upon hearing that two of her exes were now dating one another, exclaimed “I should have thought to set them up, they’re perfect for each other!” I noticed something like it when my friend D’s ex-mother-in-law met D’s new partner, post-divorce, and invited the new couple out to dinner.
We don’t talk much about break-ups and exes in poly circles. The focus of discussion tends to be on how to manage your jealousy, how to manage your time, how (or whether, or when) to come out as poly, or how to find partners who “get it.” But the principles of poly don’t just get thrown out the window when a break-up occurs. In fact I think sometimes that’s when they’re most relevant. How do you handle a split with grace? How do you relate to someone who’s still in your community, still in your life, and quite likely still attached to other people in your circles?
A lot of the “common sense” monogamous-minded wisdom simply doesn’t apply. It’s really hard – and possibly not even desirable – to cut off all contact with your ex in order to heal, when they’re still sleeping with your primary partner. It’s not necessarily a good thing to take a break and “be single for a while” when one relationship ends, if that would mean ending two more relationships too and then coping with multiple break-ups minus your habitual support network. And if your best friend’s ex is still part of your community and takes care of your cats when you leave town for a weekend, what good is served by giving them the cold shoulder after a split? Really, polyamorous lives require polyamorous solutions to social situations that might otherwise become painful and awkward. They demand generosity, they necessitate creativity. They cannot be navigated without a certain degree of flexibility and kindness. Or, at the very least, taking a rigid approach is likely to create far more drama and pain than it relieves.
And yet, many of the situations I’m talking about aren’t even polyamorous ones per se. They’re more just situations in which people have simply looked at the standard coping mechanisms for painful change and thought, “Meh. That’s silly. Let’s come up with something else.”
This isn’t to say that taking some space is a bad thing, or that you should keep up the appearance of friendship with someone if you really don’t trust them anymore, or that polyamory requires some sort of superior emotional constitution that means you’re not allowed to stay away from people who have hurt you or broken your trust. All I’m getting at is that sometimes, polyamorous or no, it’s worth taking a moment to think about whether or not the approaches we’ve been taught when it comes to handling the endings of relationships really make sense, whether conventional wisdom is actually all that wise, and whether there’s room for growth and love even in the midst of sadness.