Ending Metamour Relationships Can Be Awkward

“I don’t want to be ‘metamours’ anymore. Let’s just be friends.”

I’ve heard this numerous times in my life from people with whom I shared a romantic or sexual partner. Typically, it happens when the fact that we’re dating the same person has created some kind of emotional strain on our interactions with each other. “Let’s not be metamours” usually means something like, “Processing about the person we’re both intimate with, and how our relationships with that person affect each other, has gotten too stressful. Let’s not talk about that stuff anymore. Let’s just focus on other things we have in common. Normal things. Friend things.”

I get it. Navigating metamour dynamics can be tough; it’s a kind of relationship we’re not raised with any models for. But I’m not sure if they realize they’re breaking up with me when they say it. That the “let’s just be friends” at the end of a metamourship sounds as hopeful and hollow as the “just be friends” of lovers who part ways. It’s sort of a nice idea. I always want to give it a chance. Sometimes a friendship ends up working out. Often, it doesn’t. And I grieve the end of a meaningful relationship, regardless. A metamourship, a relationship built on the explicit acknowledgement of a shared love, is a unique kind of intimacy and I’m sad whenever one ends.

Each time, I ask myself, “What’s wrong with me?” Why are they giving up? Is it because a relationship that triangulates through a third person is almost impossible to maintain in our dyad-obsessed culture? Or is there something that makes me, personally, a particularly challenging metamour to have? It’s probably a combination of both those things. It’s also a simple issue of resource priorities: Triangulated relationships are extremely important and fulfilling for me. More than almost anything else in life, I want to collaborate on love. So, I’m willing to pour a lot of time, energy, and emotional processing power into relationships that afford me the opportunity to do that. But for many others, I think the idea of collaborative intimacy feels a bit alien; even if it sounds nice in theory (which it doesn’t to everybody), it’s hard to be invested in for its own sake, especially given the lack of wider social support for doing so.

In normative polyamorous culture, especially, people are often pressured to be close to their metamours for utilitarian reasons — “getting to know your metamours will help you feel less jealous!” —  but not supported in valuing that relationship simply for its own sake. People who are interested in emotional intimacy with their metamours are told to “Just Do It.” They are rarely given any guidance, much less encouraged toward the kind of active self-awareness and self-care any challenging relationship requires. This trivializing of the difficulties makes metamourships even more difficult and makes the polynormative pressures around them feel even more aggravating. Ultimately, many metamourships end up feeling like a “necessary evil,” — second-order and perfunctory — rather than living, breathing, independent intimacies with joys and challenges of their own.

This is, I suspect, why people often don’t understand that I feel legitimately heartbroken when a close metamourship breaks down, even if the impact of the shift is net-positive on other relationships in the intimate network.

I’m sure you’ve known a couple or two who’ve broken up but, for logistical reasons, kept living together for a while — maybe even continued to share a bed. That’s a bit like how metamour breakups feel to me. I once continued to share a partner (and a house) with an ex-metamour for a year after our “just friends” talk. It was rough. As long as I continue to have a partner or partners in common with someone, a structural metamoric relationship between us still exists. We may agree not to make that commonality a focal point of how we interact with one another, but our other relationships still aren’t happening in hermetically sealed boxes. And so, depending on the degrees of intimacy involved, sometimes it feels like we’re living in a house together but trying not to make eye-contact in the kitchen.

It’s cope-able. But it can be awkward as hell.

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