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.