This is an area I’m often asked about; how do people with ‘multiple personalities‘ have relationships? (if you need a refresher on common terms, that link will take you to a relevant brochure) Well, there’s not one answer! Different people adopt different approaches to relationships that suit them. Non-romantic relationships, friendships, family, co-workers, may be a bond between one part or many or all parts in a system. Friends may be aware of the multiplicity or may think they are always interacting with one person. If they only ever meet one part, this would be quite an accurate perception, although they might be surprised by some of the ‘out of character’ seeming hobbies or activities their mate gets up to at other times, or a bit confused by mutual friends who seem to be describing someone quite different. On the other hand, friends may already be meeting and spending time with many different parts, but unaware of this. A pretty common conversation when a multiple discloses their multiplicity is for the friend to to expect to see them switch to someone totally different, and be pretty surprised to hear that they’ve already been meeting 5 different parts without knowing it.
Roles that require specific skill sets are often taken on by parts most suited to them, so for some people only one part ever goes to work, for example. In other cases, parts share roles for example 10 parts may all be involved in different aspects of parenting; organising, nurturing, downtime, play, deep-and-meaningful conversations etc. There’s tremendous variation from person to person about how this works out.
Romance is the area that people can be confused about. I’ve observed a few different basic models about ‘multiple romance’. A common one is that only part has romantic feelings and inclinations, they are the part that forms the romantic relationship, or the only part allowed to form a romantic relationship. So for example, lets say Roxy who has a team of 4 other parts is in love with Justin. One of the other parts sees Justin as a friend, one of the other parts is very young and sees him as more of a father-figure, one of the parts doesn’t particularly like him and prefers not to spend time with him, and one of the parts is rather maternal and protective towards him. Roxy is the only part who spends time with Justin in a romantic way. This is in many ways not that different to relationships between non-multiples – some of the time is spent romantically, some of it as companions, some of it apart etc.
Another model I’ve seen is more than one part having a romantic attachment to the same person. In this example, let’s say Cassandra, Tayla, and Michelle are all parts of one system who are romantically involved with Olivia, but the other 10 parts in their system are not. Olivia has a romantic, girlfriend relationship with all 3 of those parts that is different and distinct to each of them; their tastes, personal interests, and personalities.
Another model involves more than one part with romantic feelings, but creates certain boundaries to maintain a monogamous relationship. For example, Samuel is married to Beth, but other parts Sam, John, and Sally are not in a romantic relationship with Beth. Samuel, Beth, and the rest of the parts have decided that Sam and Sally can express romantic feelings for other people, provided the other people know Samuel and Beth are married and that no physical contact takes place. John is not interested in romantic relationships.
I’ve also seen a model closer to poly-amorous relationships (having a romantic relationship with more than one person at the same time), where more than one part has romantic feelings for different people, and separate romantic relationships are pursued. For example, Stacey, Kelly and Cindy are all parts in the same system. Stacey and Kelly are both in long term relationships, Stacey with Paul and Kelly with Shane, and Cindy enjoys a night out with a new casual partner now and then.
Some multiples have no parts with romantic interests and are contentedly asexual, others choose a celibate lifestyle for many reasons such as reducing internal conflict or healing from past abuse. The complexity of multiple relationships can make it challenging to develop good communication and team functioning whilst trying to maintain everyone’s connection with outside people. Sometimes not engaging romantic relationships is a good option, certainly it’s one I’ve found very necessary for resting and recharging.
Some multiples choose not to develop long term relationships but have casual partners instead. Some multiples have truly poly-amorous parts that have relationships with more than one other person at the same time.
There are also multiples who get into relationships with other multiples. In this case, there can be a very complex web of relationships as every part can have their own unique relationship to every other part. If neither person is aware of the multiplicity that can add an extra layer of confusion to communication. This type of relationship is not as uncommon as you might think, most multiples have felt very ‘different’ without being able to describe exactly how or why, meeting another multiple can be the first time they have functioned similarly to someone else and felt like another person. This sense of kinship can be a strong bond. I have noticed that often the both multiple systems will create pairs or teams that often spend time together and get along – eg a parental adult part of one person’s system may often come out around the child parts of the other’s system, and vice versa. These teams can be asexual, as in the parent-child dynamic, or romantic relationships, and they may be based on similarity; eg both the party girls going out together; or on complimentary pairs, eg a skilled teacher and a keen student. This may not work harmoniously, for example a parental part and a teenage part may fight constantly, or two highly traumatised distressed parts may set each off badly. Not all the parts may ever meet all the other parts, and if some parts go away for a long time, or one or both systems are polyfragmented – that is, having groups of parts that operate completely separately from other groups of parts, then chaos and distress can be caused when relationships are suddenly disrupted or severed. If some parts hate parts of the other multiple the relationship can be fractious or abusive, even if other parts are loving and invested. I have noticed that often one person’s system will ‘lead’ by doing the switching, and the other person’s system will generally ‘follow’ by adapting to those switches, this can be an organic dance between them or can create a power imbalance between them.
Having parts with different senses of their own gender or sexuality is not universal to all multiples, but it is also not uncommon. Sometimes the minority gender or sexuality in a system can feel very isolated and get ‘outvoted’ on being allowed to openly identify or act on any of their feelings. Because multiplicity is often overlooked as a possibility, many people have spent a long time suppressing parts that are very different to them, or being confused by co-conscious switching where sometimes they ‘feel female’ and other times they ‘feel male’. It can be a great help to not have to ‘choose’ one identity but to respect the diversity internally and find ways to reduce shame, stigma, loneliness and misery for all parts. It is particularly helpful, given this, if queer and transsexual support services are sensitive to the needs of multiples and able to provide friendly support.
Sometimes too, parts have formed with a strong sense of identity that has developed in reaction to trauma or distress, for example a frightened abused girl may split and form a part who is a big strong adult man. Later in life that man may conclude that his sense of masculinity was a reaction to a terrible situation rather than an integral part of who they all are. Sometimes parts change their sense of identity and their roles over time. In other cases they don’t. Sometimes parts become more alike, systems with straight and gay parts become bisexual, or an all male system with one female part integrates and considers that part to be his ‘feminine side’. There is more than one way that multiplicity can form, and there is more than one way that people heal, grow, and have relationships. What’s more, people change over time, and models that worked really well at one stage of life can feel restrictive or exhausting or depressing later on.
However unusual or complex these models of relationships may seem, the goal is still the same as any other human being – to love and be loved. To find a place and a way of being in the world that is not lonely, painful, or causing any harm to anyone else. It might be a bit more complicated at times, or involve conversations, decisions, and compromises with other parts to get there, but it’s a good worthwhile goal. It might also help to remember that everyone brings all their parts into their relationships too, their competent adult parts or cheeky teen parts or hurting, selfish child parts. All relationships have to navigate the whole complexity of who a person is, has been, could be, to love them as they are and find ways to create space for growth. All love is complex, mysterious, amazing, and takes lots of work. It is certainly possible to love and be loved by a multiple.
For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.
2 thoughts on “Multiplicity and relationships”
Hi, I just wanted to inform you that your websites and blogs have been sooo helpful and informative. My boyfriend has OSDD and multiplicity has become my special interest. He isn’t too comfortable with people knowing so he hasn’t been able to get diagnosed yet so I have been doing a lot of research to help him and myself understand what he is going through as it doesn’t fit with some of the usual symptoms. Your website has really helped enlighten that there is a lot of variety between systems. I have one question that I haven’t been able to find the answer to anywhere: Can you have alters without trauma?
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Hey Hannah, glad to hear it. That’s a great question, you’ll find a lot of literature and experts who say no, that’s not possible. In their frameworks trauma is always the necessary trigger that multiplicity is the response to.
However in the community there are folks who identity as multiple and haven’t found any kind of trauma to explain that experience. Which suggests two possibilities- trauma was the mechanism but they don’t recall it, or that multiplicity is a capacity and trauma is the most common circumstance in which is used, but not the only one.
One of my personal ethical principles is never to use experiences/symptoms/diagnoses to retroactively diagnose trauma. They might suggest the possibility but should never be used as conclusive evidence that a person must have experienced trauma. It’s dangerous and leads to trying to find or recall memories to fit that belief.
Those who don’t identity as being multiple due to trauma sometimes call their experiences endogenous multiplicity or endogenous plurality. If you google that term you should find some info.
It’s impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, so I find the claims that multiplicity is always only ever turned in the presence of trauma a little grandiose. However it’s worth keeping a couple of things in mind: 1. It’s absolutely normal to put certain types of trauma out of mind and not be able to recall them. So it’s possible to think there was no trauma then later have memories resurface or discover memories are held in other parts.
2. We tend to think of trauma as the presence of something bad, an awful experience. It’s easy to forget a great deal of trauma doesn’t have a specific memory because it is the absence of things we need. Poverty and isolation are excellent examples of circumstances known to be traumatic and have a measurable impact on people that may not have any particular bad memories to recall.
3. Getting locked onto beliefs and frameworks is completely normal in the face of uncertainty and complexity. Both people with lived experience and doctors do it. Being able to hold ideas lightly gives a better chance of the ideas not shaping your experiences and memories, being able to explore things from a range of perspectives (pretty invaluable for multiples!), And being able to transition between beliefs and frameworks in response to new experiences or learnings. The understanding of the presence or absence of trauma, different ways of conceptualising and understand trauma may all change over time and that’s okay. Your boyfriend is experiencing things that are somewhat awkward to fit into language.
I hope that helps.