LESSONS IN NON-MONOGAMY
"WHEN I ENROLLED MYSELF IN NON-MONOGAMY 101, I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS GETTING MYSELF INTO. HAVING HAD LONG-TERM BOYFRIENDS FOR MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE, I FOUND MYSELF IN MY MID-TWENTIES, HAVING BEEN DISTINCTLY SINGLE FOR SEVERAL YEARS, AND HAVING RECENTLY ESCAPED A DEMANDING CORPORATE CAREER THAT HAD COMPLETELY DEVOURED MY LIFE AND SENSE OF SELF. THIS NEW SPACE I WAS SUDDENLY INHABITING - ASKING MYSELF WHAT I LIKED, WHAT I WANTED, AND ACTUALLY LISTENING TO MY OWN RESPONSE - BROUGHT WITH IT A CURIOUS AND UNEXPECTED REALISATION. I WANTED TO DATE WOMEN.
I was hesitant to use a real, feeling human as a science experiment, though. What if this only felt good in my head? Until, there she was. Laura. A beautiful, curvaceous artist crowned with the shiny blue star of a Tinder superlike. She was also in a newly polyamorous marriage. Perfect. What an unequivocally excellent opportunity to explore my interest in a totally casual and risk-free way with some inbuilt boundaries and emotional distance!!
Clearly, I had not read the unit outline.
Laura and I were involved for half a year. We texted frenetically back and forth all day most days, volleying poetry and art and feelings; we saw each other at least weekly; and, depending on Laura’s interest, we occasionally made out or slept together, alone or with other people. It was an intense and dizzying rollercoaster of exploration, adoration, confusion, rejection, self-righteous fury, shame, love, anger, joy, despair, and a push-pull dynamic so extreme it left me with a near-constant case of vertigo. It was, in summary, a bit of a shitshow. But, this wasn’t a necessary result of the non-monogamy, and my other experiences support that.
Despite going in wildly underprepared, I have always been an over-eager student. Over that time, I read voraciously, took copious notes, and bumbled through the experiments with a few singed hairs from unexpected explosions. I graduated Non-Monogamy 101 (I mean, Ps get degrees) and have now dated several polyamorous or otherwise consensually non-monogamous people. The result is this: unlike some people I have dated, I don't consider non-monogamy to be an essential part of my identity. I do think that, for me, ethical non-monogamy can definitely work provided everyone involved cares about and agrees on what those ethics should look like, at least most of the time.
Here is a very abridged version of my field notes.
LESSON 1: FEAR AND EXPECTATION
This is probably my greatest lesson: you really don’t know what you don’t know. Philosophy, theory, and talking it out will all scaffold the experience in an incredibly helpful way, but so much it really comes down to ‘suck it and see’. In my relationship with Laura, many of the things that caused me the most distress to think about turned out to be completely fine or even wonderful when I let myself experience them. When I met Laura, I assumed that this ‘open’ boyfriend of hers lived in a separate house, and led a pretty separate life, possibly overseas. That was the only version of open I had ever known. When she told me she had not only a husband, but also a child, I felt the emotional brakes screech on so hard it gave me whiplash. Not too long after that, after some cajoling, I met her delightful husband, and her delightful baby, and the whole thing really was very pleasant from day one. One of the loveliest things I remember from that relationship was the morning of my birthday, when Laura and her husband called me on speakerphone to sing happy birthday to me in harmony and I melted into a puddle of all-encompassing love.
When you care deeply about another person, seeing them fulfilled and cared for by another person you respect can be really lovely - the same way you might feel when a platonic friend you love dearly and feel incredibly connected to finally finds a spiritual counterpart in a romantic partner. It’s a hard thing to imagine, but the only way to know whether you are capable of that feeling is to see what happens when you try.
LESSON 2: OWNERSHIP
For most people, the experience of a romantic partner wanting to be with other people can bring up a whole lot of *feelings*, which you can either swallow or express. There is a lot said in the non-monogamy community about the importance of “owning your feelings”. How we respond to issues around love, sex, intimacy, freedom, and control is a complicated and individual mess of our own genes and life experience. We bring all of this to our relationships with other people, and often we are not really aware of how, say, the real reason we are so wild and wounded that he didn’t call to say he would be late home from guys’ night is because we were already feeling vulnerable and lonely after a confusing conflict with a friend, and perhaps we had also been latently simmering in our own ennui for months about our disappointingly ordinary life, and also maybe daddy was emotionally absent and we subconsciously fear inevitable abandonment from those we love. You know, FOR EXAMPLE. When you engage in non-monogamy, you will not only bring all of that to table, you will probably find you have to dump it all onto the table and stare at it while it stares right back.
So, what does it mean to ‘own your feelings’? To me, it means to understand that your reality doesn’t necessarily negate another person’s. It means putting some serious thought and reflection into how the emotional burden of your feelings should be shared between you and another person, and how you let your feelings affect the kinds of concessions you demand of other people. Monitor your own pain response. Monitor your addictions and compulsions. Bear witness to what you do when you feel vulnerable and abandoned. Understand how you respond when you feel a power exchange that is not in your favour. If nothing else, you will meet yourself.
‘Owning your feelings’ doesn’t, to me, mean the other person gets to disavow any kind of causal connection between their actions and your feelings, as if the two things always exist completely independently of one another. The flip side of ownership is how your account for your actions, including their impact on other people.
LESSON 3: JEALOUSY, HONESTY & COMMUNICATION
Seeing someone you want to want you lighting up at the thought of someone else can be really hard, especially if you are not completely secure in how that person feels about you. Sometimes that ‘someone else’ seems taller, thinner, and less complicated; better in all the ways that hurt you most; or worse in ways that make you question what your lover values. It might feel like your special someone has been lost to the dopamine carousel of an endlessly vibrating iPhone screen, their bright eyes and wry smiles your only ingress to what’s going on in their head. Maybe you’ll have nothing but ingress into what’s going on in their head and that constant and unfiltered disclosure can feel like being stuck in breaking waves, with barely enough time to catch a breath before the next one bears down. Point is: most people are not able to be a blissful ball of jealousy-free compassion and self-possession from day one. Even if the end-goal is suspension of ego, radical personal responsibility, and unrestrained honesty, it doesn’t mean these things will be accessible right away.
Laura spent a good portion of our first few dates pointing out people she would sleep with, showing off her Tinder matches, detailing her recent dates, and grilling me on my willingness to engage in group sex. In text messages and on the phone, she was intense, attentive and enamoured. In person, she was frequently checked out, her head whirling with the endless possibilities contained in people who were not me. Often, I felt like my relationship with her barely passed the Bechdel test (unless, of course, she was dating other women). This was all well before I had the chance to develop any sense of security in her physical attraction to me (which, incidentally, waxed and waned in near-perfect lockstep with her alcohol consumption. We live and learn).
Sometimes I was able to hold her joy or despair about her dating experiences as though it were my own. Sometimes I was bored, exhausted, and hurt, and I wished we could just focus on building on our own fledgling connection before I was expected to be a disinterested sounding board for her feelings about her very active dating life. On date three, when she asked me if there was anything she could do to help me feel secure, I brought up my complex feelings about her behaviour. She listened, apologised, and said she understood. The next morning, after some processing, she had decided that she should not have to censor her ‘flirty and sassy self’.
Honesty is essential, but it has many faces. Tact, sensitivity, empathy and intuitiveness are all essential tools in working out what that honesty should look like. How much you disclose to your partner/s about the other people you see is a big thing that might need to be negotiated and refined. Jealousy is inextricably linked to security, and I am of the opinion that building security is a mutual responsibility. Personally, I think it’s okay to move slowly, to sometimes prioritise kindness over momentum, and to allow time for your higher self to catch up to where you might like to be. Tinder isn’t going anywhere.
A potentially disappointing thing: you may find that successful non-monogamy is just as much about talking as it is about sexual freedom. The goal of communication is communion. Trying to get there can be infuriating and terrifying, but the joy of being seen and understood by a compassionate and open-hearted person who is determined to love you anyway – well, I’m not sure there is any greater reward.
When I started dating Laura, I quickly realised it would be confronting. Sometimes pain is an important signal that you need to take action to protect yourself. But, sometimes things that aren’t pleasurable or comfortable are good for you, like cod liver oil. Sorting out which is which takes self-knowledge and experience. Non-monogamy can be a powerful catalyst for both. It might also be a cost you need to bear to get what you want, if what you want is a relationship of unconditional love and acceptance with the freedom to fuck around.
When you are trying to renegotiate your personal boundaries beyond things you previously considered possible, trying to understand the difference between self-respect and ego-protection; between self-awareness and self-erasure; between investigating your motivations and ignoring your intuition; between loving another person expansively and unconditionally and accepting treatment far less than what you deserve because you don’t demand better can be, well, a bit of a headfuck. Particularly if the person you are on that journey with doesn’t yet have the skills or the willingness to push into their own discomfort or deal with the consequences of yours. In the end, though, the fact that my relationship with Laura was so confronting and so difficult was really useful. The constant trampling of my boundaries and wilful ignorance of my needs enabled me to recognise what those boundaries and needs looked like, to fight for them, and to walk away with love and compassion when it became clear they could not be respected. I learned to practice vulnerability and open-hearted love in a way I could never have imaged. And, it’s prepared me to engage with other people in a way that is more honest, open, and authentic, and with a better awareness of myself and what I actually need from a relationship.
For the past couple of months, I have been seeing an incredible woman who is in a secure and loving non-monogamous relationship. Non-Monogamy 102. It’s quite new, but it’s also wonderful, and has been a source of extraordinary joy, passion, and pleasure from day one. To get to know this beautiful, intelligent, powerhouse of a woman is an absolute gift, whatever shape that takes. It’s something I could have never imagined for myself a year ago, and I’m grateful to have done the pre-reqs."