Navigating the perfect shit-storm: the politics of heartbreak
Last year, Meg-John Barker and I co-facilitated a PILSAR session about the ethics and politics of heartbreak. Here is a zine-sized taster of some things that came up. In an order that, like heartbreak, will not always make sense:
Just like love intersects with multiple aspects of our inner world, external contexts and power structures, so does heartbreak. Exploring this subject together with the group we were specifically interested in heartbreak and not just break-ups/transitioning, because of how it strips you of power and forces you to confront your ethical choices and question them.
- Losing someone we’ve cared deeply about destabilises us. One day someone is your perfect storm and the next you’re in the perfect shit-storm. There’s a very clear mainstream narrative to both breakup and to heartbreak. When we try to challenge that narrative while experiencing heartbreak, we may discover that it’s harder to stand by our commitment to alternative ethics. Not just ‘obvious’ frameworks like poly or relationship anarchy – any diversion from the mainstream. Among other reasons, because while you may think you’ve forsaken ‘the myth of the one’, when losing someone important it’s almost impossible for that myth not to come back to life a little, at least on an emotional level. Because they were your ‘one’ on some level. Because love may be abundant, but it is also be endlessly unique.
- Reaching out for support we find that some people, mainstream or alternative-minded, well meaning as they may be, might blame our ethics and how we do relationships, or us: ‘it’s because you’re non-monogamous’, ‘because RA doesn’t work’, ‘you still need to grow’, ‘you’re so used to being privileged’, ‘it’s natural for you to feel victimised’…
- We may find it hard to stand by our values. We know The Other doesn’t owe us anything, we don’t want to act privileged, we want to let the relationship change, we care about their freedom… Only life isn’t a queer utopia and just like poly people can struggle with jealousy or other forms of programming, so can we.
- The Other may not share our values. The way we ‘do breakups’ could be different just as our way of ‘doing relationships’ was. Only this time we often don’t get the chance to work together. Maybe they even cut us off.
- During heartbreak we question our own narrative ourselves. (Why did we break up? Could we have done anything different? What was real and what wasn’t? Am I a different person with and without them?…). We might find ourselves judged painfully while at our most vulnerable, doubtful, grief-stricken and guilt-ridden – by others or by ourselves.
- Or maybe our well meaning friends want to say ‘that arsehole!’, while we’re trying to maintain a more nuanced, appreciative, ethical, view of that person.
- Another way that the loss of heartbreak destabilises our narratives is that we feel like we lose both the past (‘all of our moments have become ailments’ as we question everything), as well as the future we’ve imagined with that person. The present is likely to feel pretty shitty.
- Then there’s ‘The Secret’ – that feeling that The Other holds on to a secret explanation (or to parts of one) to the question ‘Why did you break up with me?’. Implicitly, there’s an alternative reality where things are different. They hold the key. This ‘Secret’ is likely a fantasy. A dream of a world where things can make perfect sense and where things aren’t so compounded and sticky and hard to tell apart. But life isn’t a cohesive story. Life’s a fucking mess.
- Between you, The Other, your friends, society – a whirlwind of competing narratives and forces pulling and pushing.
- A breakup can become an identity crisis. Even the solo-est of solo-polys, when truly invested in someone, are giving up some measure of their (emotional) autonomy. The state of togetherness becomes a part of your identity. The things you get, give, take, from the relationship a part of the power dynamics of your life.
- In heartbreak, you’re stripped of much of the power love gave you. Potentially, also of social privilege. Because couples are embraced by society. And it’s not that you can’t ask a friend to be your plus-1, or have fun on your own, it’s the fact that all those situations are suddenly underlined. You might feel strangely disenfranchised.
- Thus you question yourself, and it goes beyond the story of the relationship and the breakup. You question your own reasoning, your own ethics (possibly feeling guilty you’re not good enough at letting go as your politics tell you to). You question who you are really. And are you different with or without them?
- Your other relationships are still intact. How does it impact them? How much support should you expect? How can you protect your other relationships? If you ‘get back out there’, can you be both heartbroken and experience NRE at the same time?
Just like our dreams of utopia tell us about ourselves, our ethics and politics – so do our nightmares.
In heartbreak, it feels like our dream has turned into a nightmare. The dichotomy is a fallacy, naturally, but it’s also an opportunity to shed light on unexpected and less visited parts of us.
(P.S. It’s fucked, basically)