I am leading a read-through of The Ethical Slut, 2nd edition. If you’d like to catch up on past installments, check the list at the bottom of the series introduction. Comments on the topics in this discussion are welcome anytime, even from people who aren’t following along in the book.
This week, the read-along continues with a discussion based on Chapter 20, “The Ebb and Flow of Relationships.”
“Forever.” It’s a myth which pervades our culture — especially the idea that we might find a single person so perfect for us that we’d live with them “happily ever after.” Of course, this leads to a very skewed concept of what makes a successful relationship, i.e. that a relationship is a failure unless it ends when one of the members dies instead of when they break up. Realistically though, all things come to an end and many of them do so more cleanly and with less stress when we acknowledge that openly — with conscious choices and open communication — instead of fighting against it.
“When a traditional marriage breaks up, nobody takes that as evidence that monogamy doesn’t work — so why do people feel compelled to take a slut’s breakup as evidence that free love is impossible?” — from The Ethical Slut, Second Edition
This chapter of The Ethical Slut, 2nd edition is about breaking up and polyamory. This combination — the end of relationships and a nontraditional choice about how to practice those relationships — seems to really get people’s attention and draw their blame. Close-minded, older relationship columnists smugly state “we tried that in the sixties” as if such a blanket assessment of failure is possible or merited, even if hippie relationships now over four decades gone have any bearing on the ones we’re forming in the present.
This chapter does not elaborate on any of the ways polyamorous relationships and their breakups might differ from monogamous ones. These differences can be significant — for example, if a person is in one relationship in the throes of NRE (New Relationship Energy) while their other is undergoing difficulties, they might be more tempted to abandon the relationship having difficulties. These differences are not value judgments though — all relationship styles present their own challenges, but acknowledging them does not automatically make that style of relationship flawed.
Though The Ethical Slut doesn’t address it, I think the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ is worth considering when it comes to relationships. David McRaney wrote about the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Farmville, but the lessons from silly (but profitable) farming simulators can apply in our lives. The core of this fallacy is that humans place too much weight in past investment. Even when it is clear that there is no longer any possible profit, or when a relationship is causing nothing but pain, we try to prolong it anyway out of deference to the past. In my life when it became clear that my relationship of almost 5 years was growing destructive to everyone involved, we all fought to keep it sometimes simply because we’d already been doing it for so long and we were afraid of what might come after.
Some relationships end with a lot of passion and fury, but as always Hardy and Easton recommend making conscious choices and using open, blame-free communication wherever possible. The decision to end a relationship ultimately lies with the participants, of course. Whether polyamorous or monogamous, participants can choose to ignore outside temptations and continue to work on a troubled relationship, or they can decide it is time to bring things to an end. When that time does come, the authors urge us to try to do so as ethically as possible and to handle issues like shared friends with maturity.
This week I spent some time talking to the host of a sex party, and she told me how when she broke up with the party’s cofounder they agreed, like reasonable adults, that she’d be better off continuing ‘custody’ of the social event. These kinds of issues can end in such a way that everyone can feel as good as possible about the outcome. Though sometimes everyone involved will decide it is time to end it at the same time, a “good” breakup does not mean that everyone is equally happy that the relationship is over. Rather, it means that they have all acknowledged that it must end, whatever their individual desires, and have agreed to bring about that ending with the least grief possible.
I recently broke up with a member of my polyfamily — not Honey J or Pet but another I had mentioned here before. It was an interesting situation because we had both seen the end coming; after a year together certain aspects of our relationship had never connected in the ways we wanted. While I did not want to hasten that ending before its time, she had become emotionally attached to a couple who wanted polyfidelity — a group relationship without outside partners. Though the circumstances were not ideal — it happened over the phone after a stressful week — when we both acknowledged that the relationship was holding her back from something she felt she needed to explore, we both had to recognize, in an amicable way, that it was time to call it quits.
The Ethical Slut points out that wonderful friendships can form after a break up. When one relationship ends, a new one can form. While many people today pride themselves on remaining friends with their ex-partners, it is important to note — as the book does — that a break where people are relatively distant is often necessary. It has been great to see my friend Gyesika Safety form a warm platonic friendship with the man she calls her “Wasband,” but this only became possible after many months of avoiding each other while the hurt faded and healed.
Tell us about one of your breakups — do you have breakups which you look back on now and realize you could have handled better? Share some of your hindsight. Or tell us the story of a breakup that was “good” — handled with maturity, open communication, and a minimum of blame.
In our next installment we’ll look at Chapter 21, “Sex and Pleasure,” which is about embracing sexual ecstasy in sluttiest ways possible. If you’re interested in guest blogging about polyamory and sex, please get in touch!