Love kintsugi: how polyamory is making me better at dealing with heartbreaks

Kintsugi is a Japanese technique for repairing broken pottery with seams of gold. Kintsugi-repaired objects are often achingly beautiful. The break is not only made visible, but, in a sort of reversal, becomes the most precious part of the formerly broken object, ennobled by the precious material. As a practice, it implies embracing imperfection and mutability, a commitment to keep on cherishing the object after it lost its pristine-ness.

We all carry a precious item in our earthly journey: our own heart. And almost all of us have had it broken at least once. Polyamorous folks, perhaps, more than most. To me, that’s inevitable: polyamory amplifies everything, the good and the bad, the peaks and the slumps, the joys and the struggles. The good much more than compensates for the bad, which is why many of us are happy with being poly. But that does leave us with the problem of dealing with heartbreaks. Picking up the pieces. Shaking off the dust. Licking your wounds. And moving on.

The question is how to do it. You could aim for perfect healing (“I’m totally over her”), or even immunization (“that was a mistake. I will never repeat it”). You could attempt a cleanup and removal (“get her out of my system”, “out of sight, out of mind”).

I don’t want to do any of that. I don’t want to get over the people I love, or ever be immune to what, in them, made me fall in love in the first place. And certainly I do not want them out of my life. I want an arrangement where each one of us can still have feelings for the other (if that is what she or he wants), without anyone getting hurt.

Which leaves me with a Kintsugi-like approach. This always felt the most natural one for me. As I progressed through my love experience – which was fairly troubled, as you might expect from someone who is trying to live monogamously, while tending to fall in love with more than one person at a time – I noticed that I kept very good relationships with my ex girlfriends. It made sense: below the layer of grief, they were still amazing women. The fact that it had not worked between us did not make them any less amazing. And yes, some of them might have not done everything super right by me – but so what? I, too, am very far from perfect. Any wrongdoing seemed small and unimportant compared to what we had shared. We could go on and be friends, and generally we did.

As I became aware of polyamory, I learned that poly people like to say that “relationship don’t end, they just change”. Maybe so, but recasting a romantic partner as a friend is a deep change, one that contains many ends. Many thing you will never more share. Every polyamorist I know can testify that “change” can break your heart as bad as  “end”.

But here’s the interesting thing: the polyamory framework taught me that romantic relationships are not necessarily a package deal. Human connection has many dimensions, from romance to friendship, from sex to living together, from co-parenting to shared finances. You can connect with your partner in all these dimensions, but you can just as well connect only in some of them. What was going on with my former lovers, I realized, is that my romantic feelings for them had unbundled from those other practical dimensions of coupledom, except friendship. But they were still there: I still loved them.

This has not changed, and by now I don’t think it ever will. As I consider these wonderful women I have had the good fortune to be in relationships with, I can, still now, see exactly why I fell in love with them. Whatever it was (and it is different for different people), they still have it, even if we have changed so much. So, it makes perfect sense that I still love them, even though I can no longer be with them. Some of them I have loved for twenty years after the actual breakup. I will love them until the day I die. There is admiration for them in there, and some longing too, a sort of sweet ache in the place they once occupied in my heart.

This means my heart is no longer broken, but neither is it whole. It got broken by our breakup, and then it healed,  but not perfectly. I will always wear the scar. I want to wear the scar. It is a way to honor what we had, and honor the breakup itself as a step towards a new life, and keep both in my heart going forward. And if she is happy now, that helps – it means the breakup was for the better, it brought good things to her.

I expect that my heart will get broken again. Polyamory is difficult to get exactly right, and there is no book to do it by. It would be foolish to expect a 100% success rate going forward. But I am no longer afraid of breakups. I know they will feel awful, of course. But I will be ready. Like a Kintsugi master, I will pour molten gold in the fissures in my heart. This way, I honor the relationship that was, and accept and embrace its new phase. The heart itself – it won’t be whole, ever again. But it will shine.

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