The In-between: An Opening
The first time I heard the word polyamory was in a dive bar in Downtown Los Angeles in the fall of 2012. I was catching up with one of my girlfriends from grad school over some whiskey and a couple slices of cheap pizza, when our conversation turned toward the curious young man who had lived with her and her husband for a few months the previous year. After a brief moment of hesitation, she revealed to me that they were polyamorous, and, responding to the blank look on my face, kindly began explaining to me the basics of this term and the philosophies surrounding it.
Up until this point, I had known almost nothing about the world of non-monogamy, save for the few random passes I occasionally received from interested couples back when I was a stripper. Never having been curious enough to accept (or perhaps just not yet brave enough to do so), non-monogamy had remained on the periphery of my worldview, largely invisible outside of the media, where shows like Big Love (2006-2011) and vague references to swingers served only to sensationalize and further marginalize it. In fact, this approach to relationships had seemed so far beyond anything I had pictured for myself that, even after her thoughtful and generous explanation, I continued to see all forms of non-monogamy as options only for other people but never for myself.
Despite this self-imposed limitation, as the years passed, I continued to bear witness to and celebrate in the maturation of my friend’s polyamorous relationships. I remember meeting her husband’s boyfriend when the two men first started dating, and also meeting hers a year or two later when we three finally managed to be in the same city together at the same time. I recall the challenging periods, like when her parents were first struggling with the news of her relationship preferences, and also how happy it has made everyone to see their acceptance surrounding it grow beyond that initial barrier. Throughout this process, I continued to ask questions and pay attention, which further expanded my own understanding and appreciation of non-monogamy and polyamory.
Meanwhile, however, I myself was still very, very single. After a string of long and serious (and failed) monogamous relationships in my twenties, I had taken some time off from my search for romance to get in touch with myself. The first year was great—I traveled, and studied and slept sprawled out on my king-sized bed like a starfish every night just because I could, but after a while I began to long for connection and so I turned to the world of online dating. My experiences there were sometimes exciting, sometimes funny and oftentimes disheartening, all of which I promise to discuss in greater detail in a future column. For now, however, let’s just say that there always seemed to be some kind of disconnect in feelings or expectations, such that at some point we would inevitably end things and then limp off in our separate directions.
Last October, I was in the process of recovering from one such encounter when I received a refreshingly thoughtful note from a man who seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. We exchanged a few messages on OkCupid and then via text, before we spoke on the phone and subsequently agreed to meet in person for lunch. After our date, on his suggestion, I went back through his profile and found a link to a BDSM quiz that I had missed near the bottom. Upon clicking it I was able to see his scores from the quiz, which revealed a relatively high proclivity for non-monogamy. Based on the context of the quiz I started to see how this might make sense in a relationship for me, so I decided to set aside my self-imposed limitations and just be open to the possibilities.
A few weeks into our budding romance, I asked him directly about the other people he was dating, which led us into the most honest conversation I had ever had up to that point about love and sex and relationships. I was encouraged by his candid answers and thus responded in kind, which emboldened him to be more fearless and open up to me even further. In this manner, over time we came to understand each other in ways I had not experienced before, including how, although he had been non-monogamous for many years, he was then still struggling to embrace himself as a polyamorous person. Although I myself still felt uncertain as to whether or not any form of non-monogamy could work for me, we talked it over and shortly thereafter decided that we would both continue to be open, together.
Over the next several months we worked on our relationship, continuing to communicate with acceptance and honesty, and to create space in our lives for quality time together. During this quality time, he told me all about himself, his dreams, his fears, and his past relationships, and in return I did my best to also stay vulnerable and show him all I could of who I really was. Although I knew this type of exchange was not exclusive to polyamory, I also came to recognize this emphasis on connection and communication as one of its core components, which I became increasingly reliant on and addicted to. After a while of growing comfortable with each other and confident in our relationship, we both got back onto OkCupid, connected our accounts, and separately started pursuing new romantic relationships again.
Almost immediately, the world of poly dating struck me as pleasantly distinct from that of monogamy. Whereas previously my inbox had been mostly occupied by one word messages and requests for naked pictures, I was happy to find that these were soon replaced by thoughtful notes from people who actually wanted to get to know me. And because no one was expecting to get everything they needed from a single person, it felt a lot easier for me to actually relax and just be myself.
Don’t get me wrong, my experiences of poly dating have still been far from perfect. After only three dates I met an amazing man with whom I had an immediate connection; however, after a few weeks he had to break things off so that he and his wife could work on some major issues in their marriage. This news was particularly disappointing to me because our schedules had been so well aligned, which, I was also beginning to learn, can be a major hurdle to success with multiple relationships. Meanwhile, my boyfriend and I also encountered moments of jealousy and insecurity, which has been partly due to the fact that our dating successes have rarely occurred at the same time. And of course, like my friend whose parents first struggled to understand her relationship choices, both my boyfriend and I have also had to deal with other people’s judgements, misperceptions and/or outright disapproval.
Ultimately, however, I am still determined to simply keep myself open. Since first dipping my toe in the polyamorous pool, I have learned a lot about myself and my relationships with others. Firstly, I have learned that I can indeed have romantic feelings for more than one person at a time, and that engaging in multiple romantic relationships helps me feel more, rather than less, connected. Through this process I have also gained a far better understanding of my wants and needs, as well as how to communicate them more clearly with all of those around me. At the same time, I have also learned how to be a better listener and a more compassionate partner, which has ultimately put me on the path toward being more kind and loving with myself. While I am still not entirely sure where all of this growth and awareness will take me, I know that, at least for now, I want to continue occupying this middle space, where all of the doors—to both monogamy and non-monogamy—are open to me.