This past year has led me to discover the philosophy of minimalism and fall in love with it. It started initially with some basic spring cleaning, which led to a friend recommending The Minimalists podcast, then a 30-day minimalism challenge where I got rid of over 400 items, and it has continued from there, creating more and more freedom and flexibility in my life. In addition to physical possessions, the philosophy can apply to everything in life from money and career to health and scheduling.
As someone who hosts a podcast about polyamory, it didn’t take long before I started thinking about how to apply minimalism to relationships. My first thought was, “Oh no! Doesn’t having multiple partners seem very anti-minimalist?” but as I looked closer I found that neither monogamy nor polyamory are inherently minimalist or anti-minimalist, but each relationship structure is capable of adhering to minimalist principles.
The Stuff in the Way
One of my favorite definitions of minimalism is, “getting rid of the stuff that gets in the way so you can focus on the stuff that really matters.” What I like about this definition is that it uses the word “stuff” instead of “things,” because stuff can apply to more than just material possessions. Getting rid of stuff can apply to excess time commitments, expenses, bad habits, or anything else that isn’t actively bringing joy to your life. In terms of romantic relationships, there are many types of stuff that can get in the way of having happy and healthy relationships.
The most common one that we talk about on the Multiamory podcast is letting go of rules and restrictive labels. This one is particularly hard for people transitioning from monogamy to polyamory (which is most of us in our society). The default model of monogamy has a lot of rules, whether they are from religious teachings or unspoken rules we’ve been socialized to believe are mandatory. Because of this, it’s logical that most people would think polyamory should also have many rules, just different ones.
The fundamental problem with rules in a relationship is that they are based on the underlying belief that if your partner truly had free will and freedom of choice that they would make selfish choices and hurt you. This belief is seen in both monogamy and polyamory. It may seem like semantics to some but there is a world of difference between two people agreeing to practice monogamy with each other and two people creating and enforcing rules that prohibit each other from sleeping with or loving anyone else.
My polyamorous journey started off with rules and hierarchy, just like most people, but through examining and deconstructing some of these default systems, I’ve come to a radically different way of thinking. Many polyamorous people find this hard to believe but all of my relationships now have exactly zero rules. That’s right. Not a single rule is ever made by myself or any partners to control the other. The best part is that the more I’ve moved away from rules, the kinder and more considerate my partners and myself have become to each other, whether in a new relationship or an existing one. Each of us want to make each other happy or else we wouldn’t be in a relationship so we can make commitments to each other without a need to enforce anything on the other.
Just like with our possessions, many people hold onto stuff because they are afraid to let it go. What if I need it some day? What if I regret letting go of this thing? What if? What if? What if? A minimalist would encourage us to conquer our fear and instead to focus on the things that really matter and let go of things we’re holding onto “just because.” There are a few different ways we can apply this to relationships but the one I want to focus on today is about breakups.
How many times have you heard a friend (or even yourself) say something like, “I’m not really happy in this relationship but I don’t feel like I have enough of a reason to break up.” I know I’ve heard this from many friends, especially when I was younger. As we get older we may word it a little differently but there is still a strong urge to continue a relationship well past the point where it’s bringing anyone any joy. When our culture teaches us to believe in things like soulmates and “the one” we inherit the belief that any relationship that matters will last forever. When we meet someone who’s been married for 50 years we say, “That’s amazing! Wow true love exists…” instead of asking, “Are you happy and fulfilled in your relationship?” By default we’re taught to value longer relationships, regardless of whether or not those people are actually happy.
I see this especially often in christian marriage advice, where we’re told the most important thing is to continue the relationship forever, no matter how unhappy you might be or how much you have to compromise on the life you want to have. There are so many techniques and tools for extending a relationship simply for the sake of extending it, at times even contributing to people staying in abusive relationships much longer than they would otherwise. The end of a relationship is seen as a failure and any relationship that ends (except through a death) is seen as a failed relationship.
Now to apply some minimalist philosophy! In Marie Kondo’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she suggests that you take every single item in your home, hold it in your hands and ask, “Does it spark joy?” If not, you take a moment to thank that item for the joy it did bring you and the purpose that it served in your life, and then you let it go and remove it from your life. I’ve thought a lot about this question lately; about work, about stuff, about my apartment. Through that process I’ve discovered that a lot of things I thought I wanted to keep were actually not causing me joy. As a simple example, I’ve held on to so many adapters and power cords from various devices over the years on the off chance that it might someday be useful. Or a number of sentimental items that didn’t actually bring me joy but I felt guilty about giving away. If we can look critically at our relationships like this, we may be surprised at what we find.
If a relationship truly isn’t bringing you joy, the short-term pain of saying goodbye is a small price to pay for a happier life that leaves room for the stuff that really matters, whether that is another relationship or more personal time. I do want to clarify that there is a difference between going through a hard time and a relationship becoming unhappy and unhealthy. While there is no cookie cutter way to determine which one your relationship might be, the difference is in whether the negative things have become inherent, recurring and unlikely to change or whether there truly is a short-term circumstance that is making things harder. At the end of the day, you are the only one who can determine what brings you joy. For one person certain types of relationships might be a chore and for others they are a source of fulfillment. Take the time to “hold” each of your relationships and ask if they spark joy for you. If not, you don’t need anybody’s permission but your own to let go of it.
The last takeaway I would like you to have from this article is that nobody can tell you what makes you happy. I’ve recently found that minimalism has created far more joy in my life than I ever expected, the incredible lightness of being that comes from having less stuff weighing me down. But that might not have been true for me 5 years ago. We are constantly changing and evolving and we each find fulfillment in different ways.
What I hope, though, is that you take the time to consider some of these less-common ways of looking at your values and see if that brings you any new insights. If minimalism or polyamory appeals to you, try learning more and incorporating it into your life. If it doesn’t, then hopefully you gained some knowledge that will strengthen your life in whatever way you choose to live it.
What has your experience with minimalism been like? Love it? Hate it? Leave your comments for other readers in the comment section below.
Jase is an educator about ethical non-monogamy, a relationship coach, sex-positive advocate, and podcast host at TheBetaMan.com and Multiamory.com