Ethical Nonmonogamy | Polyamory, Loss and Grieving, Love & Relationships

Move the Goal Post: On relationship “failures”

Lots of people would consider the ending of a relationship its failure, unless the relationship ends with “death do us part.”

Hello. My name is Phi, and as a widow, I want to give everyone permission to set the goal post somewhere else. Either that, or reframe the concept of “failure” to mean something else, because not getting to claim your relationship is a success until somebody dies is really just too much.

And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I wouldn’t say that my marriage was an unqualified success because it lasted all the way until the end. There was a lot of love in that relationship, but it wasn’t a particularly healthy kind of love, and we weren’t living in a particularly healthy environment despite having the means to do so.

Now, I can’t define what “success” should look like for you, I think that’s actually a deeply personal judgement call; but, I can suggest that one fairly broad achievement that can come out of any relationship, whether it is ongoing or ending, is to recognize what you’ve learned from it – especially if you can determine what you’ve learned about yourself that will fuel your own personal growth.

In a recent post, a woman shared her feelings of failure for reaching the conclusion that despite deeply loving her husband, she just couldn’t come around to the acceptance of his being polyamorous. She’d put in a significant amount of time trying to be okay with it, doing all the reading and reaching out for support where she could find it, and in the end…she just wasn’t happy.

But she said something else, too. She said that she wouldn’t dream of asking him to stop being true to himself and confining himself to a single relationship.

My heart ached for her. Imagine thinking that you failed at accepting polyamory in one sentence, and in the next being so fully accepting of his polyamorous identity that you’re willing to end the relationship rather than try to force him to change.

I don’t see any evidence of failure in that. If the goal was to accept her partner as polyamorous, then I see a huge success.

I see more than one success, because when faced with this revelation that her husband was polyamorous, she didn’t go running. She didn’t file for immediate divorce or try to force him to lock his desires away never to be spoken of again.

She tried. She leaned into the very difficult and very foreign world of polyamory. She read books and blogs and sought support. She gave it time and she experienced the pain, and in the end, she learned something about herself. She learned that she couldn’t be happy in a relationship that was not romantically and sexually exclusive.

And that’s okay.

I think this is the big difference between how I approach this incompatibility and how many other (but not all) other folks who write or talk about polyamory approach this. I see the preference to have one partner and the preference to have exclusivity with that partner as two very different approaches to relationships….

…and I don’t think either one of them is wrong.

I’m going to try a metaphor on for size.

In a recent post, I shared about how much I have struggled my whole life to find a form of exercise that I don’t hate. I know exercise is healthy and my health does actually matter to me, but I hate running, and I hate cycling, and swimming is only fun in hot weather.

I tried yoga, and I thought I’d found something I liked there. I at least didn’t dislike it after that first class.

But I went to a few more, with different instructors, and as it turns out – unless there is a yoga class out there that has an instructor who is well versed in working with my body type, yoga feels very unwelcoming to me.

Downward dog puts way too much strain on my wrists, and all the blood rushes to my head and when I come back up again the whole room is spinning.

“But yoga is healthy!”

Yeah, and polyamory is healthy too, but it just doesn’t feel good to some people, and that’s OKAY.

(If you haven’t read the other post, I did eventually find a form of exercise that I enjoy in crossfit, and I’ve been doing it consistently for 9 weeks).

Anyway, so back to the idea of relationship failures not being tied to relationships ending. Sometimes, a relationship ending is actually a sign of great success – as in the case of an abusive relationship or when the partners have lost their love for each other and agree to move on amicably.

But if we can move the goal post to some other location, you might notice that a lot of your relationships that ended – even those that ended poorly – served a purpose in your life.

I know I’ve shared this example before, but a few months after my husband passed away, I reconnected with the BDSM community that had been part of my lifestyle before I’d met him. I was still a bit of a mess, as one would expect; and I connected with a dominant who lived half a world away.

We eventually entered into a long distance 24/7 D/s power dynamic, during which I gladly handed over control because, to be honest, it was a period of time when everything felt very out of control for me.

He would basically make me take care of myself. Doing it “for him” made me prioritize my self care in a way that doing it for myself wouldn’t. And, yeah, adding sexy little twists to making me do my chores (like watching me via webcam while I folded laundry naked, clamped, and stuffed) made it a little more enjoyable for my exhibitionistic heart.

Because of him I stopped being late for work, I started getting regular oil changes, I cut back on smoking, and I was eating appropriately. Eventually he came out to stay with me, and…

…well, that’s when a lot of unrelated shit started to go wrong.

What really started happening was that I began to heal – and wasn’t that the point? The more I healed the less I needed or wanted someone else to make all my decisions for me. I wanted to choose my own outfits, and I wanted to come and go from my house as I pleased without having to report to someone what time I was leaving, where I was going, and what time I arrived. I wanted to be able to walk on whichever side of him felt more comfortable, and I wanted to be in control of where and how I was going to live.

And that wasn’t compatible with a dominant who’s primary need was to have this (consenual) level of control over someone else.

Was that relationship a failure because I stopped needing or wanting a 24/7 dynamic with anybody, or was it a success because his ultimate goal of helping me was achieved despite all the unrelated bullshit that we endured?

I want to share another relationship ending that I view as a success. My very first boyfriend. I met him when I was 16, and we dated for about a year and change. He wasn’t the first person I’d had sex with, but he was the first person I enjoyed sex with. I definitely learned a lot about my desires and my body during that time; but while I was away on a vacation with my family, one of my friends saw him out with another woman.

When I asked him, he admitted he’d cheated on me.

And here’s why this was a huge success in my book: I ended it right away.

I did not remotely consider forgiving him or hearing him out or making him apologize and promise never to do it again. I told him to return the leather jacket I’d just bought him for his birthday the week prior and to never speak to me again.

I view this as a success because I know that I was raised to think that being in a relationship with a man was my highest possible achievement as a woman. I was supposed to get married and birth children, because that is how I could prove my value to my family and society. So, when I look back, the fact that my reaction to being lied to was to value myself more than my relationship status is a HUGE win in my book.

But that’s me. Many people are able to overcome an infidelity and make their relationship work long term. My parents did. More than once. They’re still married, and while I wouldn’t say that what they have are my relationship goals – it is apparently working for them and making them happy (as far as I know).

Of course, in the moment – when a relationship is dissolving, it’s terribly painful. It absolutely is, and every breakup I’ve ever gone through has devastated me for a time, even when I was the one instigating the ending.

But what I’ve come to realize is that if I didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt. And since I don’t make a habit of getting involved with people I don’t care about, then the pain is something that I’ve come to appreciate as evidence that what we had did matter, at least at one point.

I don’t try to make the pain go away. Instead, I accept it and I let it run its course, because attempting to connect with other people is the most risk aware thing we can possibly do. There are no guarantees that any relationship we’ll ever be in will last all the way to the end…

In fact, it’s far more likely that it won’t.

So don’t see every ending as a failure. Move that goal post somewhere else, so that you can see the successes that were hiding underneath the surface.

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