It was the third time I’d sent her a text: “Hey, I’m free this weekend. Did you wanna get together?” And it was the third time she’d said, “Lemme see,” and then never got back to me.
Her unresponsiveness was not, in her defense, entirely malicious. She lived three hours away, had an erratic work schedule, and was thrashing overtime to make her rent money. She found herself exhausted and frequently collapsed at the end of the day. Still, I didn’t have a lot of free weekends either. And if I found myself with a free weekend, I gave her first option at seeing me, and kept it open until she got back to me… Which meant that sometimes, I got to the weekend and found myself with no plans.
But I hadn’t seen her in six months. I’d complained, and gotten apologies but no real change. And I faced an ugly question that really only polyamorous relationships face:
Do I break up with her, or do I downgrade the relationship?
Because that’s one of the strengths of polyamory: unlike monogamy, you don’t have to go all-in. If I’d relied on her for all my emotional and sexual needs, that lack of physical contact would be a detail, but poly relationships don’t have to be as load-bearing.
So I could stop thinking of her as “a core relationship” and instead quietly downgrade the relationship to a comet – the sort of thing that happens when our schedules happen to line up, but I don’t actively seek out.
Comet relationships are fabulous, by the way. I have several of them – people I talk to regularly, and am absolutely thrilled to cuddle when I’m in their neighborhood, but can go merrily dormant with for years at a time. (I once went seven years without seeing one of my comet-relationships in the flesh, and picked up that physicality effortlessly when we reconnected.)
But change is painful. Particularly change that’s seen to be going as backwards. And people would often prefer to just break it off entirely than try to live with an unfulfilling change.
But you don’t have to break up. You can just…. adjust.
That’s tricky, though, because you have to do it without resentment – and if you can’t, you might as well break up. Because stiffly telling someone, “Well, you’ve been insufficient for my needs, so I’m going to ignore you in the way that you have ignored me and see how you like it!” will rarely go well. Nor will downgrading someone because you’re afraid to vent your complaints, sniffling as you avoid confrontation without giving someone an option to change their behavior.
But…. life happens. Sometimes someone gets sick, or entangled in a more intense primary relationship than they’d like, or the intensity you once wanted each other with fades. You may not transition all the way down to a comet – but maybe you go from two dates a week to two dates a month. Or it’s an emotional downgrade where you realize that you love them dearly, but asking them to talk you out of a panic attack will get you snarled in an argument.
In any case, you quietly decide that this relationship can’t do everything you thought it would when you met. You quietly take certain elements off the table because you can’t have them with this person.
And that sucks, particularly if you still feel that longing, but then you have to weigh whether what you currently have left is still good enough on its own, or whether the ache for what you’ve lost will obliterate the joy out of anything that you could have today.
Worse, there’s no right or wrong on this. It all depends on your comfort – whether you can deal with getting less than you thought you were going to get (even if what’s left is still good). Whether you’re certain this is a one-time downgrade that will be stable, or if you’re setting yourself up for an endless string of recalibrations. Whether you perceive their inability to provide what you’d wanted as being maliciously abusive, or whether it’s just you misreading their commitment and talent.
Yet recalibrating is an option, and a valid one. There’s many relationships that started hot and full of promises and then got reduced down to comfortably blanket-warm, with two partners wiser about what comforts they can actually provide to each other without breaking down.
As it is, I wound up seeing her about once every ten months. We still loved each other, and when our schedules coincided, we had a wonderful weekend. But she didn’t have first choice of my schedule any more. She’d become a comet.
It was less than I thought I’d have when we started dating. But it was still pretty good. Good enough to bring joy to my life.
That was really all I needed.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.