Just like any healthy ecology, a relationship landscape will naturally shift and transform through the passage of time: trees grow and blossom in spring, fruit through summer, some shed their leaves in autumn. Smaller plants come, and go. Perennial relationships are never static or stagnant. Grief is a natural companion to the seasonal rhythms of change.
It’s possible to embrace the rhythm of change in consensual non-monogamy, much like we embrace the change of seasons, but growing our capacity for, and resilience with grief is a specific kind of relational work that doesn’t get talked about enough in polyamorous and poly-adjacent circles.
Grief is a fundamental aspect of relating, but the dominant Colonial cultures most of us exist within don’t navigate the time of loss well, if at all. With little to no rituals for grief (beyond funeral services for the departed), grief festers in our nervous systems and we seek out ways of processing it.
Unprocessed grief becomes dissociation, just as un-integrated experiences become trauma.
What is Grief?
You may know of grief as a feeling that comes up when a loved one dies, or a relationship ends. I invite you to see grief as a nervous system response to the loss of something or someone that participated (even if it was in a seemingly small way) in your network of attachment — the core people, places, and relationships around us that help us to feel safe, secure, and stable.
Even if you haven’t named it as grief, you may know that feeling: the emotional pin-balling and pretzelling as you wrestle with loss, the sensation of tightness in your chest when you are reminded of something painful from the past, the dizzying dreams that loop memories and moments over and over, and the paralysing emptiness that comes with realising that what was will never be again.
Grief doesn’t just happen in response to death; in relationships we may feel grief again and again. In any kind of relationship there is grief with break ups, discovering a partner has broken an agreement (or other acts of infidelity), the loss of a beloved animal, the loss of a child, disappointment upon discovering an incompatibility. In the arc of a romantic relationship, grief comes alongside differentiation, that phase where, having been besotted with New Relationship Energy (which helps us see all the ways in which we are compatible with our partner and build a fantasy to aspire to) we slowly come to reclaim our self identity and begin to experience all the ways in which we are different and seek out the grounded reality of the relationship potential. Sometimes that process is gentle, sometimes it is sudden. But, with the shattering of a fantasy there is also the grief of its loss.
There is a fundamental grief that comes with the territory of exploring non-monogamy. It is a mourning of the promises that Patriarchal Monogamy had made to us, and the dreams we had built on those promises.
In open relationships we might be confronted with differentiation sooner, as we begin to see the contrast between our relationship with someone and their relationships with others. And, there are additional forms of grief: the grief of saying goodbye to the monogamous fantasy when opening a relationship up, the vicarious grief of supporting a partner through a breakup, the grief of loosing a metamor when your partner breaks up with them, the grief of realising that a hoped for polyamorous configuration may just not be possible, the compounded grief of losing multiple partners when a polycule breaks up.
And there may be many more. Sometimes grief is more obvious because of the immediate emotions we express or because the circumstances are commonly recognized as bringing grief. But grief can also be subtle and more nuanced. And, in relational spaces where we may not have many (if any) role models for navigating unconventional forms of grief, grief might go unrecognised.
Grief can be multi layered.
Over a decade ago I experienced a loss that pushed open the door to a compartment of grief I had been carrying about my marriage. As I began to feel that grief, I began to experience grief about the life I “could have had,” which led me to get in touch with grief about how my sexuality had been repressed in adolescence. It took many years to move through those layers of grief, and I found more nuances in it still. What began as grief about a specific loss led me to uncovering so much more — and that journey with grief is still ongoing.
Grief feels exhausting.
Sudden loss — in the form of a breakup, a sudden change in relationship dynamics, or other unexpected shifts in the relationship landscape — can throw the nervous system out of balance, and it takes time for us to find balance again. During times of grieving, the nervous system is attempting to recalibrate, reconfiguring its map of the external world. This takes an incredible amount of energy, and can generate a great deal of stress. When we are in spaces of grief, we may experience all kinds of physiological symptoms: fatigue, increased appetite, loss of appetite, irritability, confusion, memory challenges, comprehension difficulty, blurred vision, weight gain, weight loss, sudden bursts of euphoria, insomnia, even nightmares.
Sometimes grief feels like it’s going to swallow you whole.
The Stages of Grief
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was one of the first mental health professionals to describe grief as having stages. These stages don’t progress from one to another in a linear fashion, they are more like different melodies in a symphony of experience. The journey of grief is a spiraled one, and not one where you can expect one stage to end and another one start. Very often, they overlap.
Maybe there’s an incompatibility in the relationship that necessitates the need for a change, but instead of addressing it, you dissociate from it.
We are very skilled at being in spaces of toleration (sometimes more so when we’ve become accustomed to compromise as a love language). Whilst flexibility is healthy, long term toleration can lead to dissociation, where the discomfort of a situation literally becomes so painful or overwhelming we completely tune out from it.
Another way denial might show up is through avoidance. Rather than addressing the issues in one relationship, we dive into another. The breaking of a fantasy about what we hope a relationship was going to be can feel remedied by diving into the fantasy of a new relationship. I have seen many couples try to open up their relationship before (or even instead of) addressing the challenges they are having.
In denial we weave fantasies of what we wish were true, and then we start believing in them. We might believe in them so much that we share them with others. A common example of denial that I’ve seen in non-monogamous relationships is when one partner gives endless reassurance to another, without recognising their own capacity limitations due to their unprocessed grief. Oftentimes this shows up as words that strive to affirm and strengthen a relationship whose foundation has been shaken. Rather than addressing the cracks in the relationship through actions that would involve confronting the loss, the denial comes in the form of affirming words that try to plaster the edifice of the relationship back together.
Grief struggles to be processed whilst the denial of loss still holds us.
Triangulation in non-monogamy is not uncommon.
Sometimes triangulation can be healthy, for example: bringing in a third party, such as a therapist or trusted friend, to create stability by offering support to both people in the relationship. But where it becomes unhealthy is when we begin to cast blame on others in our poly-icular constellation. Ever catch yourself casting someone else as the villain and yourself the victim? Perhaps you blame your metamor and unload your anger on to them, rather than examining the responsibility that might sit with your mutual partner — or even, with yourself? What if the metamor who is angry at you is sitting with grief generated by how your mutual partner has treated them?
The unresolved anger that comes with grief can, in non-monogamous situations, grow into resentment (either quiet or volatile) towards our partners, and also towards their loves ones. In the case of a break-up, you might even find yourself feeling resentment towards the people they date after your breakup, or resentment towards the partners they continue to be with, even when they are no longer with you.
We convince ourselves that things are different. We tell ourselves our partner or metamor might change. Or if we could reconfigure the polyamorous dynamic, everything would be different. Bargaining is a form of denial we do to ourselves, and very often shows up alongside the denial that we exhibit in our relationships.
We might make deals with ourselves that things will change if only. In a relationship we may negotiate with our partners and metamors, but with ourselves we might be bargaining and bartering. This painful thing I’m enduring will be worth it because one day I’ll wake up feeling all the compersion!
I’ve also seen folks engage in poly-filler relationships as part of the bargaining phase of grief. Feeling the loss of what was familiar in one connection, they may distract themselves or dissociate into other relationships, or even begin to form new ones rather than facing the grief. Pokemoning — that is, dating a multitude of people in an effort to ‘catch them all’ — can also be a sign of someone bargaining with their grief.
Pulled in by the gravity of the black hole marking the absence of something we loved (or a potential we longed for), this is where grief swallows us. We might feel the pain of the real-life loss, and we might also feel the sorrow of the loss of the potential within a connection. Our nervous system literally becomes ‘depressed’ when there is a sudden absence of someone we have been accustomed to having close to us, or the change of a routine that was familiar. Even when opening up, the shift of dynamic can spur these feelings of depression, an experience of loneliness, the thought of, ‘what if my partner leaves me for another partner’, and even the loss of intimate desire or sense of one’s own intimate desirability.
This takes time. The people I have encountered in the worlds of consensual non monogamy who have become friends with their grief are the ones who have found acceptance.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that the grief stops hurting, or that you don’t ever experience any of the other phases of grief again. Acceptance represents a maturity in our dance with grief, a space where we consciously recognise both the dream and the reality that shatters the dream, and sit with the dichotomies represented therein.
If grief has been long suppressed, finding the space of Acceptance could be a lifelong journey of exploring interpersonal differentiation and conflict intimacy. But consensually non-monogamous individuals who are able to access that space of acceptance find that their relationships begin to feel lighter, more joyful, and move with more courage and authenticity.
There are real life consequences when grief isn’t given the space and time it needs.
- Maladapted trauma responses become ingrained as part of our everyday behaviour and personality.
- Core needs may go unaddressed and unmet.
- Our connection to empathy shuts down, making connecting with others more challenging.
- A nervous system stuck in grief might begin to manifest psychosomatic conditions: a dysfunctional nervous system has been seen to affect the functioning of vital organs, and may contribute to experiences of fatigue, body pain, and more.
- Ignored or suppressed grief can lead to emotional suppression. This might feel like a sensation of rigidity around the heart, of emotional distance, or even a fear of allowing others to get emotionally close.
- Unprocessed grief leads to an experience of relational instability, and could lead to triangulation, for example, a couple with unprocessed grief about incompatibilities in their relationship who choose to open up and seek out a third to invite in.
- In non monogamy, unaddressed grief about the changes in a partnership can lead to resentment of a metamor (the partner of your partner).
- Grief reduces our bandwidth and capacity with partners, which in some cases, can lead to a person functioning on ‘autopilot’ and/or experiencing variations from routine as heavily disregulating.
- Dissociation — a primarily mental experience of ‘checking out’, wherein a person might feel disconnected from their body, events around them, or even their memories — is more likely to happen when there is a lack of support for the shock of grief. Sudden extreme dissociation can lead to changes in how someone’s personality is expressed, whilst more subtle forms of dissociation might show up as a general disinterest in things that used to hold interest, forgetfulness, and a difficulty comprehending events and circumstances.
- In Consensual Non Monogamy, grief can sometimes overpower the experience of compersion, as the shared relational landscape (and our vision of it) has the potential to shift every time a new person becomes involved.
In my own navigation of grief, I witnessed how my longing to reclaim something I had lost became transposed into an unspoken longing in my intimate relationships that was not always healthy or welcomed. Unmet and unresolved needs stemming from unprocessed grief led me into relationships where I surrendered pieces of agency to my partners, and fell out of integrity with myself. I also experienced depression, and chronic physical pain. It took time for me to recognise what I was experiencing and how I was acting in my relationships, and to realise its origins in grief and a longing for an experience that was not possible to have again. It has been an even longer journey to give that grief the space it has needed. Thankfully, as I have worked on the grief, and given space to my grieving process, the symptoms of bottled up grief have eased.
Grief work is tender stuff. Very often in relationships we find ourselves grieving whilst still being in the relationship connected to the grief, flowing between separation/disentwinement and re-connection. And that can be emotionally overwhelming work to do.
A powerful way of working with your own nervous system is to create rituals. A one-off ritual could be a longer, epic exploration of all the facets of grief and giving them space for expression and possible catharsis. But the fullness of some rituals can be overwhelming for the nervous system and need a lot of integration time afterwards. You may find it easier to explore smaller, more regular rituals for yourself as you navigate your way through grief.
Repetition of ritual creates familiarity and grounding for the nervous system. Working with your senses, with movement, and with symbolism that has meaning for you, you can further support the nourishment of your nervous system.
Here are some things you can consider in creating grief ritual(s) for yourself:
- How can you invite in elements of nature: plants, water, scent? Do you want to burn something, or have a candle lit?
- Do you want to bathe your body or some part of your body? Water has a potent soothing power for the nervous system, and can be symbolic of ‘washing away’ that which you are letting go of.
- What emotions need to have expression, and what might support you with that? Anger: consider a large pillow to hit and/or scream into if there is anger to release. Is there something you can (responsibly) destroy? Consider breaking pottery, or burning a copy of relationship agreements to mark the end of a relationship.
- Longing: writing poetry or making art, or engaging in self pleasure. You may want to have some paper and coloring pencils, or canvases and paint nearby. Explore what it’s like to paint using your hands, and let your emotions flow out into the canvas this way.
- Sadness: what helps you feel safe enough to let your sadness out?
- You might want to think about whether this is something you’d like to do solo, or if you’d like a friend or someone else there to witness your ceremony?
- If plant medicine is something you work with, do you want to include this as part of your ritual, and if so how? (In my experience, plant medicines can be useful for longer grief rituals)
- Aftercare: how will you integrate this experience afterwards? What might comfort your nervous system? Are there foods or drinks that make sense for you to include as aftercare? Calorie and mineral dense foods, such as chocolate or bananas, can be supportive of helping the body to soothe and relax without altering the brain’s chemistry as something like alcohol might do.
Caring for Yourself While Grieving
Aftercare is vital; integrating an experience is part of what allows us to move through it and take the lessons while honoring the grief. It’s important to give yourself lots of time to integrate the grief and any expressions of grief you have accessed through ritual.
Things that help our nervous system integrate include movement, and immersing our bodies in water (eg taking a shower, having a bath, going for a swim, a sensory depravation float, or similar).
Practice becoming present to your grief. You might name the feelings that arise, eg “I feel sad right now”, or give voice to your state of being, eg “I don’t know what happens next.” You may find it useful to give your grief a name, “The Relationship Grief is really present right now.”
As it becomes more familiar to name and sit with your grief, you may find yourself drawn to creating boundaries to hold you with kindness and care as you grieve. It might make sense to you to hold off on beginning any new relationships or making big changes in others. You may want to set a time boundary for this (eg, six months), or you might want to think about some criteria for what would indicate you’re ready to make other changes. During the process of grieving your nervous system is working to adapt to sudden and often unexpected changes in the attachment network of your relationship landscape, so don’t give your nervous system more to deal with, if possible.
While navigating grief, make sure to take more time for your self-relationship. Go on self-dates. Do things that bring you joy. You may want to learn a new skill or revisit an old one, such as music, gardening, working out, sword fighting, or something else that inspires you!
Explore what it feels like to move or change something around in your home: refreshing your home space in some way that feels good to you can help communicate to the nervous system that you can have agency over at least some of the changes that happen in your life.
Consciously put aside time to spend with your core friendships and doing things that are uplifting and nourishing for you.
Grief is a spiral journey, and its possible that you may need to return to rituals for your grief at different points in that journey. As you move closer to integration, you’ll find yourself cultivating more compassion for yourself, and possibly for the other people involved too.
The Role Of Compassion
Compersion (vicarious joy at witnessing or knowing about the joy of others) is often touted as the pinnacle of the polyamorous experience. But there’s little compersion without compassion, the capacity to remain sensitive and responsive to the ways adverse experiences impact us and others.
Fostering compassion through learning to see all our harmful actions and inactions as consequences of individual, systemic, and intergenerational traumas — and a quest for safety — is transformative. Compassion creates a space where we no longer have to bind ourselves to an identity dictated by our grief experience. Compassion also helps us to be gentle with ourselves, and others, during the exhaustion that grief can bring.
Cultivating compassion is one of the top skills to develop for healthy relationships. It creates spaces of softness when things get hard, helping us lead with kindness so we’re able to get through the tough, grindy chapters without losing connection. Compassion opens the door to greater compersion.
Cultivating compassion is a trauma-informed strategy for kinder relationships.
Compassion becomes the fertile soil in which we can plant new seeds of hope and empowered relating that can grow out of the decomposing shadow of grief.
Grief is an exhausting rollercoaster of feelings, emotions, thoughts, memories, dreams and loss all wrapped up into an unpredictable ride. During these times where we are experiencing grief in so many parts of our lives — the loss of lives to Covid, the loss of friendships and social connections to differing political values, the loss of intimate connections, the loss of livelihoods, and the loss of the earth — I invite you to hold your grief tenderly, with compassion, and give yourself all the space and time you need to fully grieve.
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