I’d been talking to a friend off and on about polyamory, and she got in touch again a little while ago. We no longer live in the same city since I’ve moved to SF, but I think we’ll keep in touch. We have a lot in common. She’s married, too. Now she has a young child. She and her husband are young and going through a lot of life changes.
About a year ago, we had lunch and she confessed to being interested in, and perhaps even jealous of, my open marriage. This was almost funny to me because I always admired her and thought she had everything in her life so well put together, that it hadn’t occurred to me that she might think anything similar of me. (Sidenote: Everyone has a wish list and a list of questions and worries, everyone, always.) We talked about marriage and relationships in general, the level of commitment that being open requires, the difference between “open” vs “swinging” vs “polyamory” vs “polyfidelity” etc. There are a lot of definitions to play around with and learn about. It was a lively lunch discussion. It seemed like she was yearning for more freedom and more time to explore, but with her young family, it was just a wish, put on the back burner for a while.
So, when she reached out to me again to ask me more about this topic, I was not surprised. She had just asked her husband to consider an open marriage, to give his consent to her dating. She seemed relieved and pleased that he had given that consent, but also worried because of the way that he gave it. It also worried me.
He said, basically, “Do what you have to do, but I don’t want to hear about it.”
What does that really mean? she wondered. Does that mean he doesn’t feel he has a choice, that he feels forced in to something he doesn’t want? That would be the opposite of her intention, which she said was to expand their relationship within the bounds of honesty, love and mutual respect. And, polyamory is what she wanted, not just a special dispensation to hook up with people at parties. She sought the ability to explore additional relationships, build more connections, and allow for the possibility of multiple loves.
What if she found someone else who was special? What if she fell in love? How would he react to this possibility? she asked him.
His response was, again, not what she hoped to hear. He’d be unhappy but he would find a way to “move on.”
Hardly the response of a person open to the idea of “multiple loves” existing simultaneously.
My advice to her was very basic, but the best I could come up with (and still is): Don’t rush. Give him time. Don’t rush. Communicate a lot. Check in with him a lot and ask a lot of questions and take an interest in his feelings and fears. If he’s anything like my husband (and it sounds like he is), he won’t be the most forthcoming with his vulnerabilities and emotions, so sometimes one must really work to discover them.
I thought about this a lot over the next few days, as it turned out that, she and Boyfriend, both back in the city I left, discovered a connection between…themselves.
Boyfriend then came to discuss it with me and, essentially, make sure he had my permission to see her.
I was taken completely by surprise. It’s been a while since I’ve been so surprised. I’d had no idea. Neither had they, he insisted. I had some very hard days as I obsessively wrestled with a cold wave of emotions and questions.
Over and over, I asked myself: Had she asked me for advice but hidden her real motive? Why would she do such a thing when she could just talk to me honestly? This just didn’t sound like her. I couldn’t see a reason for her to do this and I couldn’t see her, the person I knew, doing such a weird thing. It was a creeping suspicion, the fear of betrayal, yet I couldn’t square it with reality. I also briefly touched, but nearly immediately rejected, the idea that they were already involved, and were coming forward now to mend the mistake. Knowing them both, I knew this just didn’t make any sense.
Then, there are all the fears lurking just below the surface of my life, things like, What if he doesn’t come to join us here? Our plan had been that he would also move and we would continue to plan our future together. Was he seeking a new relationship as a way of anchoring himself there, seeking reasons not to move? This really scared me; the thought of Boyfriend calling me one day to say he’d changed his mind and wouldn’t be moving really shook me and my whole concept of what the next few years would be. It scared me even more because I hadn’t really considered it – I’d started to take for granted that he’d come, and now I was forced to admit I wasn’t sure of anything. This uncertainty was monumental in my mind.
Finally, there was the battle in my heart over the concept of poly itself. I reasoned with myself that there was nothing to fear, that I knew both of them and could trust them. That the beauty of poly was the ability to pursue surprises and romantic experiences just like this. But I was afraid.
Fear takes lots of forms. My fear was jealous, worried and deeply vulnerable and raw.
After a few emotional emails and a long phone call, Boyfriend and I came to a place of understanding, and I was able to make a step that was very hard for me.
My epiphany came, as they often do, while I was in the shower. I wondered, What would happen if I accepted that I may not be able to perfectly trust anyone, and that is ok? What if I accepted that, yet decided to act with perfect trust anyway? Would that allow me to open my heart more? If the real problem in this situation is not whether he dates someone new (because that’s never been a problem in the past), or who he dates (in this case, someone I really like) – the problem is my fear that he will not move, that he somehow does not want our own relationship to continue.
In the end, I wrote my friend a short letter, telling her that at first I felt foolish for not knowing, but realized she would never do anything to hurt me. I told her that whatever happened next, I was her friend, and they had my blessings.
I’d never written a letter like that before. Sending it felt a little like jumping off a cliff. All of the voices of a dominant culture of monogamy whispered to me that perhaps she’d laugh at me, perhaps I was wrong to trust her, or Boyfriend, or anyone, ever.
What happened instead was that she wrote back a longer, heartfelt letter, expressing her gratitude and reaffirming friendship. We talked again that day and I felt as though I could breathe for the first time in days. Of course, who knows what will happen; first she needs to work more with her husband, to see if this will work for him at all, surely a way more formidable task than talking to me! Just shows that humans are so good at building huge towers in our minds, no matter what has actually happened or will happen. We torture ourselves with not knowing, trying to know.
The real source of my epiphany about trust, of course, is Husband. He has been patient and trusting through everything between us for over a decade. Lots of it has been, frankly, ugly and difficult. My own experience has proven to me that falling in love with a new person won’t take away my love for him. I would be far less successful in learning to grow beyond my own immediate reactions of fear and jealousy without his example.
So, back to advice for new polyamorists.
Today, I’d give this advice to new polyamorists. It’s not just for polyamorists; it’s some of what I have learned from polyamory that applies to everyone in every relationship:
Respect and value what you have. Never take anyone for granted.
The person you’ve been with for years still has things to teach you, if you are able to pay the right kind of attention.
Do not torment yourself by assigning negative intentions to people in your mind – ask them and trust them. When in doubt, try to choose the good intention, the positive solution.
Everything can change in a moment, so live fully in each moment. Be real. Don’t lie. Face up. And move ahead.
Invite love. When given the choice, even if it’s complicated, say yes to life.
It won’t be simple or worry-free. But it will be interesting and, probably, completely worth the trouble.