We aim to survive and recover from them but can we do better? Can we deal with these transitions in ways that actually bring us closer together? I believe we can. We can, that is, if we can value people over relationships. For me, doing so is based on three principles and three commitments.
- Feelings don’t require getting. It’s okay to want.
- Compatibility is complex. Don’t take it personally even though it is.
- Relationships are a team sport. By definition, they can’t be more than any one person desires.
It is painfully obvious that feelings aren’t facts. Yet, when it comes to love we believe that our feelings require of us certain actions and necessitate certain outcomes. If I’m “in love” I must express that love romantically. And, the subject of my ardor must reciprocate my feelings with similar intensity to validate that they are real. Your feelings are real. They don’t require anyone else to feel, do, or be anything. Loving someone who does not return that love with similar intensity and focus is only a tragedy if you insist on making it so. Loving friendships are real relationships too. I choose to feel no less intensely for my friends than I do for my lovers. I can love them fully, intensely without needing them to fill a specific role. Nor do I need them to return my feelings in kind. My loving friendships frequently reflect romantic feelings, acts of care, and other expressions of deep affection.
Compatibility is complex and the ways in which you mesh and don’t are hard to predict. De-personalizing attraction and compatibility helps us move past those moments when things don’t go as we wish. Yes, it is personal in that it is about you. But, it is also not about you because there’s a whole history of life shaping other’s wants, desires, and needs. Those are in no way specifically about you. How your unique combination of attributes does or does not mesh with their unique combination of attributes is as much a quirk of fate as whether it was a full moon when you first met. Unless you’re an asshole, of course. Indeed, you can get feedback that compatibility isn’t so much the problem as some habits that hurt others. Those are worthy of taking personally and seeking personal growth. If you’re an asshole, take it personally. Otherwise, it’s not just about you.
Relationships are a team sport. Any relationship of any kind is as much an ongoing agreement as it is a set of mutual feelings. By definition then, it can’t hold unless there’s mutual agreement on what it is. This goes well beyond feelings into a shared view of who you are when together. And, what is the best version of that “together” involves identity, goals, and practical realities like available time. It follows that relationships can only take the forms wherein mutual agreement exists. Pressuring someone to stay in a relationship with you is a particularly well-accepted form of consent violation. It is viewed as romantic, a true sign of deep commitment. It isn’t. In the vast majority of situations, it’s a desire to avoid pain. This is just as unjustifiable as pressuring someone to form a relationship because of the intensity of your feelings. Everyone has exclusive, non-transferable, and irrevocable rights to enter, exit, or seek to renegotiate any aspect of their relationships, at any time. None of your relationships can be more than any one person desires it to be. Don’t forget this when you’re in pain (or in NRE). Relationships are a team sport. Don’t be an asshole when someone exercises the right to quit the field with integrity and care.
Three commitments are the principles in action…
- Truly respect other people’s choices and feelings
- Seek deep connection. Re-invent the conduit for that connection as needed.
- Accept the emotional complexity of maintaining deep connection. That means pain isn’t a problem to avoid but a path to what’s possible.
A few years ago, an ex-girlfriend once told me that I was cold. She was upset that I seemed to have just “moved on” after she ended our romantic relationship. She assumed that I didn’t grieve our breakup because I didn’t try to win her back. I cried when we broke up. I cried both in front of her and in the car driving home. I cried a few months later during and after lunch with her. I cried a lot and wrote poems. She couldn’t have missed my distress over the breakup. Yet, that visible and unrestrained distress was less meaningful without pleas for her to take me back. I firmly hold that I cannot convince anyone to be my romantic partner. Neither can I convince anyone to stay as my romantic partner. They must be convinced of it themselves. My commitment is that I’ll respect your choices and feelings. My feelings don’t require anything of you. My pain is not an excuse to ignore your feelings and decisions. I won’t use my emotional pain to hold you hostage. Beautiful possibilities exist when you love people so that letting go can mean staying connected.
I start relationships with the intent to value people over relationships. So, I tell people that I don’t date. Dating is a terrible way to make and keep deep connections. Dating tends to build relationships that are explicitly disposable when they don’t meet the criteria for the next step. The people I invite into my life aren’t disposable. I refuse to treat them as such. Instead, I seek deep connections with people, some of those deep connections become romantic, and some of those romantic connections become physically intimate. Some of those connections follow other paths across that spectrum. I seek those people committed to fluidity in relationships, who understand that a change in relationship form does not mean an end to a loving connection. I’m experiencing this change right now. After a hard but loving conversation, one of my relationships very recently transitioned from girlfriend to good friend. I would’ve preferred a different outcome but that wasn’t what was right for us, right now. My commitment to her has not changed. My commitment is that I value my connection with her more than the specific form that it takes. We both recommitted to growing our connection. Call it a friendship, a romantic friendship, or call it something else. It doesn’t really matter. I call it the true face of love.
The breakup was not without pain. We cried. We talked and acknowledged feelings, unmet needs, and possibilities. We held hands and cried some more. All that pain is unavoidable in a breakup. Yet, I’m not afraid of the heartache. Heartaches aren’t the problem. Attempting to avoid pain by clinging would be a bigger problem. It prolongs and deepens heartache. The biggest problem of all is needing to toss someone out of your life because of an unwillingness to sit with and feel that pain. So, I have tried to walk a different path. I have committed myself to accept the emotional complexity of maintaining deep connection. I have to be willing to experience the pain of loss simultaneously with the joy of a connection still in flight. That joy does not invalidate the pain. Neither is there a need to allow the pain to mask the joy. On the other end of the spectrum, I must also be willing to experience the pangs of unmet desire or “the romance that cannot be” while simultaneously experiencing the love of friendship. My commitment is to staying open to emotionally complex and intense moments as a path to growing deep connections irrespective of form. Isn’t that the real goal after all? Feelings of deep connection and love? It is for me.
So many wonderful people have taught me these lessons on friendship and love and commitment. I have tried to capture here a small slice of how my experiences loving them have shaped me. It is a reflection of my heart commitment to them over whatever label currently describes our relationship. Bone deep security flows from experiencing loving connections that stay strong and deepen despite those relationships changing in form in ways I cannot predict. I am committed to you. I am deeply grateful for your commitment to me.
This article really resonated with me. Thank you.
You are welcome! Thanks for stopping by my corner of the internet.
The font you use is so difficult to read on a phone but the article was soooooooo good that I struggled through to the end! I’m glad I did. Thank you for posting this – it is a nearly perfect description of how I feel and couldn’t find words for. I have some people in my life I’m gonna sit down and read it with to help them better understand me. Thank you!
You’re welcome. And thank you for your kind words.
Thank you for this. You so eloquently said how I feel in this article.
You are very welcome. Thanks!
This has brought me so much peace in a difficult time. Thank you so much.
I am glad that it resonated with you.
Wow, this article resonated very deeply with me, and I thank you for writing it. It made me tear up, and it made me feel ‘seen.’ As someone who has used poetry to grapple with situations when it’s clear that, as you put it, there is an unequal desire to increase intimacy, I really appreciated that you included poetry in it too.
Thank you. It warms my heart to know that it has touched you. I write poetry to help express and allow difficult emotions to move through me. Thank you for your kind words.
I never comment. But had to thank you. I too feel seen, and heard.
You are most welcome ❤️
Dear Mind Crush
I really rarely write comments on articles, but I am so grateful to you for the clarity your words bring me.The article was posted in the Facebook Relationship Anarchy group.
A few thoughts about it.. You beautifully describe the complexity of feelings and simultaneities when you are the one who either wants to increase intimacy or experiences that the other wants to decrease intimacy (unsatisfied desire, break-up).
After reading the article three times in the last three days, I realized something else. It also takes courage and integrity from those who “go” and still stay. For two reasons.
1. expressing one’s own needs before too much has accumulated, before attack or flight.
2. clearly draw your own boundaries and still stay in friendship.
To the needs.
I used to think it was a very deep love to do everything for the other person. To be as “uncomplicated” as possible, always available. I didn’t give others a chance to change their bad habits because I didn’t want to expect anything from them, because I thought it was bad to have expectations of others. Sometimes it is, but here too a subjoining between people, behaviour and form of relationship helps.
The pressure had become so great to be unable to express what I really need, that I no longer separated these three levels.
This is a dangerous and toxic circle. In the end there is not much love left. It is precisely this difference between people and relationships that you describe so beautifully. If I cannot communicate my needs clearly and openly in relationships, I will suffer sooner or later. Just like the other person. It’s not about changing circumstances or people, but behavior can be hurtful. And in the long run, missing or only apparent compatibility, even if so strongly desired, is not a basis. If I still don’t solve my need, all I could do in the past was escape, throwing the other one away, going out.
With aggressive anger, in which everything I have never said breaks out like an all-destructive tornado. Or in sudden silence that doesn’t explain anything and leaves endless, agonizing questions to the other. Both are very violent and I am ashamed that I used to think it was love if I did everything for the other until I was so exhausted that I could only walk.
I “loved” this person so much that I lost myself in it. In the end, the supposed “love” that adapts “unconditionally” became violent pain mixed with hate. To express needs and expectations, to ask for change, to show oneself and to leave the field lovingly is not a sign of too little love. For me it is now one of the most beautiful honest expressions of love that I can give and experience. Because it is so difficult to convey this in the right measure and with loving clarity. And then we come to the next challenge.
To boundaries and still stay in touch.
It probably depends on your personality how you draw boundaries and distance. It is not at all easy for me to be in friendship mode with someone I set clear limits for at the same time. So if I have managed to formulate that a connection, however changed, does not meet my deepest needs and I consider it necessary and healthy to change something, then I tend to flee, to break off contact. That is unfair. I love the other person so much that in my very first relationships before RA it was easier to go all the way and forget everything that was beautiful and special so that I manage to keep my boundaries clear. It is exactly this sensitive phase of showing oneself, of changes like… No, there is no kiss of welcome. No, I am not yet clear enough to feel all your anger. A little, yes gladly, the rest please only in four weeks. Then it works. Please don’t call me every day anymore, but let’s talk for three hours every two weeks. I am there, I see your pain, I am also full of pain, I believe in the peculiarity of our encounter. I’m not kicking you out of my life, I’m changing the form of relationship so that we can stay together as human beings.
For me, relationship anarchy is the absolutely right honest, wonderful way. And yet we remain learners and beginners. I have experienced relationships where I was the part that wanted more intimacy in a friendship or in changing a relationship and I was the part that wanted less. Both require courage and integrity and love. But if it succeeds, there are two people who are sincere and with all commitment, as Erich Fromm means.
Thank you very much for your words! They are a real gift and inspiration.
Thank you V, for sharing yourself here as well. I certainly agree with the courage and care it takes to express one’s needs and draw appropriate boundaries. Staying deeply connected can be so challenging not only because of the hurtle it takes to be clear something has to change but also the guilt we feel about the pain that results (both their pain and our own). Pushing people away can be the simpler, less emotionally messy route. Yet, so much of what makes life glorious can be found in the mess of it. Easier to see in retrospect than in real time.
Thank you for posting this. I’m not sure how I found myself, but I grateful to have read this. It reflects much of my own ethic in a really eloquent way that I have never bothered putting into writin or sharing with others. Though I know you wrote it for self it made me feel heard; almost like something else out there was transcribing my own thoughts via another. Anyway thanks for unintentionally making me feel heard and not quite so alone. It was nice to feel understood for a moment.
I certainly hear you now. ❤️
I really love this article!
I love it so much, that I would share these words as much as I can with other people.
I live in Italy, and I would like to translate it into italian, and share the translation in an italian facebook group about poliamory.
Do you agree?
Thank you for writing this and putting into words so eloquently a philosophy and approach that I’ve come to resonate deeply with. As a person who is relatively new to poly and with an embarrassment of brilliant, kind, interesting people in my life, this has helped me (already) through the letting go of a 20+ year mostly monogamous romantic partnership and transitioning to friends and co-parents, accepting the change in an intimate romantic relationship to non-sexual best friends, embracing a person I am in love with who is unavailable for any kind of real relationship currently, meeting kindred spirits and accepting the energy between us for what it is.
I reread this post regularly, share it with partners and friends and lovers, and check in with myself when change is underway (hint = all the time) about the approach to love you share here. Thank you.