How I came to be in an open marriage (and, no, I’m not talking about sex here)
Also see https://tabootalkdotblog.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/tt-version-nonmono.pdf from my Resources page for an incredibly helpful review I wrote on non-monogamous relationships! It covers historical, cultural, comparative/animal, psychological, biological, and other perspectives and aspects of non-monogamy.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
My husband Mark* and I became friends 15 years ago, began dating 7 years ago, and we have bought a house, got engaged, got married, and had a baby since then (although the baby isn’t ours. See future post on my surrogacy for more on that). We have been living the romance dream, the “happily ever after”. However, a fact about our relationship that not everyone knows: it is an open relationship. And it has been that way for 6.5 out of those 7 romantically involved years we’ve been together. Something even fewer people know is how we came to be in an open relationship and how it turned out to be the best thing either of us could have done for our lives.
An important term to understand going forward is “polyamory”: from the roots “poly” meaning many, and “amor” meaning love. Though definitions vary, for the sake of this post polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, intimate friendship or romantic relationships where individuals may have more than one partner, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. Often described as “consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy”. And this is the kind of open relationship my husband and I have. We aren’t swingers, we aren’t polygamists like Big Love, we aren’t cheaters. We are both individual polyamorists. We also practice many of the principles shared in “relationship anarchy”: We don’t prioritize romantic and physical relationships over non-sexual or non-romantic relationships; platonic friendships are just as valuable as romantic relationships. Relationships are not bound by rules, they are unique and evolve as is fitting for each partner, and there are no formal distinctions between ‘just friends’/platonic, ‘in a relationship’/romantic, or ‘play partners’/sexual. They may be many or none of those things at once, overlapping, or fluidly ebbing and flowing through them.
Not everyone starts out monogamous and slowly introduces polyamorous philosophies into their relationship like Mark and I did, some begin the relationship with that understanding from the start. Opposed to a common misconception about open couples, we were enjoying an incredibly happy and successful relationship all along, we did not resort to opening up as some kind of last ditch effort to “fix” a problem. It was an enhancement upon an already great thing.
We were about 5-6 months into monogamous dating, having another fun weekend together when Mark’s parents asked him to stop by and help them with a home project that hit a snag. I came along as we had plans after. It was the middle of summer and incredibly hot out. So while Mark worked with his father outside, I was invited to come in and relax in Mark’s old bedroom in the nice, cold basement. When I flopped down onto the bed, I bumped into an opened Amazon mailing box. When I picked it up to move it onto the floor, I saw a couple books inside. One was a nerdy science book, as was typical for Mark’s interests, and the other…
‘The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures’
My heart immediately tripled in pace. I started reading the back of the cover: “The essential guide for singles and couples who want to explore polyamory in ways that are ethically and emotionally sustainable. For anyone who has ever dreamed of love, sex, and companionship beyond the limits of traditional monogamy, this groundbreaking guide navigates the infinite possibilities that open relationships can offer.” This did not help to slow my pounding heart, which was beating so fiercely now that I could feel it in my ears and I was sure they would soon be able to hear it all the way upstairs and outside.
My mind was spinning faster than I could keep up with. I thought we were happy! Why would he want a book like this? Was I that boring to him already? What the hell is “polyamory”? He wants to be some freaky swinger couple? Was he cheating on me? I felt like the man I loved and gave my heart to so completely was a stranger. I felt like he didn’t want me anymore, that he was lying to me each and every day that we spent together. I felt like such a fool.
I heard the door open upstairs. I threw the book back into the box and set it on the floor in a way that appeared untampered. I tried to calm down, to get the heat out of my face so that the red of my quickly pumping blood didn’t give me away when Mark came down. What was I going to do? I couldn’t pretend I had never seen it. I heard his footsteps as he came down the stairs and into his old room.
“Hey! I’m all set. You ready to go?” He said with his charming smile.
“Yeah…” I responded a bit hazily. I felt like I was miles away from my body. “Yeah. Let’s go grab some lunch somewhere?”
“Sure, I’m starving! There’s that new place across the street. If you don’t mind sitting across the table from a sweaty, stinky ass.” There was that smile again. How could someone this sweet be into something so weird? I agreed to the pub across the street. Talking in public would keep me calm, I wouldn’t want to cry or yell in front of others.
After we got there and ordered, we engaged in small talk about his parents’ house work while we waited. At least I think that’s what it was about, I wasn’t really hearing anything he said. I was entirely inside my own head, trying to figure out how to bring it up. Finally, I just went for it. I couldn’t stand the weight of it any longer. I interrupted him.
“So I was in your old room and there was a package on your bed. I saw what was in it. There was a book… a book about… open relationships?” I started the sentence out strong and bold, determined to stand my ground. But by the end of it, I could barely even hear myself speak, the words came out like a timid whisper. Maybe I didn’t want to know what his explanation was. Maybe we were better off pretending like before. He paused, each passing second felt like an hour. I wanted to fire off question after question after question but I wanted to wait and give him the benefit of the doubt. Surely nothing could be as bad as my imagination was making up, getting worse with every moment.
He finally spoke. He explained that he was curious about open relationships, he had been for as long as he could remember. But he had never tried anything remotely like that before, he had never met the right person that he thought would understand his need to learn more, who wouldn’t judge him for being interested… until he met me. He never felt so open to be himself and to speak honestly about his feelings until now. But he didn’t want to bring it up until he had even half a clue of what he was talking about. Buying that book was his way of reaching out to get the kind of information he knew he would need to answer my questions and explain why he was interested in it when he came to me. He apologized for how I found out, he never intended to be hiding anything. He just didn’t understand any of it yet himself so he didn’t know how to even bring it up. He was hoping the book would have some advice.
My mind did not slow with this information. So what did this mean for us? Would we break up if I wasn’t into the idea too? Were we supposed to just go back to how things were and wait for him to drop some decision bomb on me? Would I wait around until he decided if I was enough for him or not? How was I ever supposed to feel secure again? He let me ask all the questions on my mind as we barely picked at our food. Unfortunately, most of his answers were variations of “I don’t know. I don’t know anything just yet. I’m hoping to understand it and myself better as I learn.” That did nothing to soothe my fears that this relationship had come to a crashing halt, stuck in some kind of limbo until he figured it out. It felt so unfair, I had no control over anything. We were both incredibly frustrated with a lack of information to process, he felt horrible that he had nothing further to give at the moment and I had nothing further to work with. Any kind of understanding, solution, or closure was put on a tense stand still. And while I was glad he was being honest with me and felt like I was the one person he could talk to about anything, I almost wished he could shove it back down to wherever it had been before.
I tried to give him space and carry on over the next couple weeks as we normally would have, but it was always in the back of my mind, gnawing at me. When was he going to bring it up again? When would he know what he wanted to do next? One night while getting ready for bed he finally had an update.
“I know you are trying to be patient while I figure this out. The book is interesting but what has really been helping is talking to other poly people online, trying to get some personal stories on how they got started. I have been talking to this girl Jane* and she told me about these things called ‘munches’. They are super relaxed meetups with other non-traditional and poly folk, people interested in it, or at least welcoming and open minded about it. There is one coming up next week at her friend Nadine’s* house.” He said this all very quickly as if he had practiced it many times in his head and wanted to get the whole thing out before it was my turn to speak. But this next part he said very slowly. “Would you… want to… go with me?”
Flash forward to the day of the munch. We were on our way, driving in the car together in near-silence. I felt so on edge. I had no idea what to expect, what we would be doing there, what kind of people I would meet, or if I was making a huge mistake. I felt like my attempt at being supportive and open minded was going to take us to a place we could never come back from. Which is exactly what happened. But not in the way I had thought.
We pulled up to Nadine’s house and parked along the curb. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I wouldn’t be able to force my body to move and leave the car. I looked over at Mark, he wasn’t reflecting the fear in his eyes that I surely was.
“I’m scared.” I said.
“I am a little too a little. But in an excited way. These people aren’t anything to be scared of. Jane is super nice and she says they all are too.” Mark replied.
“But what if they are creepy? What if they try to touch me or something? What if they are all old and weird and gross? Maybe I shouldn’t have come.” I said in a defeated tone.
“There isn’t any touching or anything, it isn’t like that. It’s just a BBQ kind of thing, just people sitting around and talking and introducing themselves. I will be there with you the whole time and we can leave whenever you want. But I think we should at least see what it’s about, give it a try.” He assured me, taking my hand.
“I just…” I tried to fight back tears as they came burning into my eyes. “I finally just found you. For the first time in my life, I feel more normal, I found someone who understands me for what I’ve been through and doesn’t make me feel broken.” (to understand further, see previous posts) “I don’t want to lose you, lose us.” I admitted, the tears coming in fuller force now. “What if this ruins everything?”
“I don’t ever want to lose you either. Regardless of what happens today, I won’t let that happen. I’m not sure what to expect here either. But if it’s not something we would both benefit from, if we’re not both happy, we will figure something else out. Together.” He leaned across the car and hugged me for a long time. “Thank you for even coming this far.”
“Okay.” I said, pulling away from the hug finally and sitting up with forced confidence. “Let me fix my makeup now that I ruined it.” I laughed, pulling down the mirror visor.
When we walked inside, Nadine was there to greet us at the front door. She was the most inviting and friendly person I had ever met. She had a beaming smile and a cheerfulness to her voice that wasn’t fake like most people’s. She seemed genuinely pleased to meet us and incredibly happy to be hosting a house bustling with chatter and laughter. She was younger, our age, and seemed in no way different from us “normal” people. I looked around and saw a handful of other people scattered throughout the living room and kitchen beyond it, talking and laughing in small, relaxed groups. No one here was “old” or “creepy” or “gross”. No one was engaging in or propositioning anything but platonic mingling. Everyone was young 20’s and 30’s, attractive and cool, giving off a similar brightness as our hostess (but not in an over-the-top, cultish kind of way). Everyone just looked so alive, enjoying the socializing. I looked at Mark with a smile, which he returned. We didn’t have to say anything out loud to communicate that we were pleasantly surprised with our first impressions.
Mark and I came inside and met some of Nadine’s other partners and friends. Some people there had been living alternative relationship styles their whole life or at least many years, others were much newer to the idea like we were. No one asked tactless, inappropriate questions or made rude or offensive comments. It wasn’t anything all that different from a normal summer BBQ shindig, people eating and drinking out on the sunny porch or sitting around inside chatting. But there was something different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I met and spoke with enough people: everyone was open-minded and accepting in a way I had never felt in my life so far. There were no judgments or expectations or pressure, everyone was there because they, too, were challenging the status quo.
Hearing their stories on how they came to be there and their differing life philosophies, I could almost feel my brain growing, learning to look at things differently. They weren’t just approaching dating in unique ways, but all aspects of how they wanted to live their life. It made sense that the kinds of people who would question one way of life would be the kind to question others as well. I felt like I was being invited into a rebellion on societal expectations. I felt like I finally found the space to question why we should force ourselves into roles that didn’t fit at the expense of our own happiness. I felt like everyone in that house was trying to evolve beyond the bare minimum of living life.
Through this group and the community we subsequently met through it, I felt like I found something I never knew I was looking for. Something clicked into place. I found a culture I fit into so much more comfortably, I could be myself more fully than I was ever allowed to be before. There were no questions or contemplations or feelings off limits from exploration, there was no shame or embarrassment in honesty, there was no need to limit your intellect or expression. As long as it was respectful and well-meaning, you were encouraged to be your most happy and free self, whatever that meant for you. I was exposed to variation and acceptance beyond what I had previously seen growing up in the same local circle my whole life. People of different races, ages, shapes, religions, sexual identities, gender identity, interests, education, backgrounds, and experiences. They didn’t all ascribe to polyamory specifically but were brought together by some kind of alternative lifestyle that needed a safe space for expression.
I was sad to see the night come to an end. I felt like I could talk to any of the people I met there for weeks on end without slowing. We all made connections via various social media to keep in touch and made promises to see each other at future munches, discussion groups, and parties. We gave hugs and thanks to the hostess and reluctantly got back in our car to go home. We were buzzing with excitement, our energy filled the car so completely that it felt like we might not be able to close the doors against it. We went back and forth sharing our stories from the night, highlighting the most impactful or entertaining moments. We talked about the new friendships we made and the excitement for all the possibilities to come. It felt wonderful to have something so powerful to share together, to feel like we were charting new territory, exploring and growing together. Like we were forging our own path and the path was limitless.
I laughed, thinking about how polar opposite I felt before we entered the party and when we left it. I was so worried before we went in that Mark would leave me behind, when I ended up embracing it almost more than he did. Maybe it was because it was so new and novel to me and he had had years to think on it. I never even thought something besides serial monogamy existed, the kind ending in only one of two ways: monogamous marriage (with a high threat of infidelity and loss of personhood) or loneliness, rejection, and failure. Here we had in front of us the tools and the opportunity to examine what we wanted, start from scratch, and make our own rules as they would best fit us, not others. It was as if the formula to build and maintain interpersonal relationships could be rewritten into a language I finally understood.
I always thought something in me was broken when it came to relationships. I couldn’t figure out why, despite finding someone with good chemistry that I cared for, it eventually felt like something didn’t fit, something was missing, or it was no longer appealing. Relationship after relationship, I would begin to get this trapped feeling and sense of suffocation seeping in. And once I noticed it beginning, I couldn’t help but fixate on it. I would search for anything and everything that might need “fixing” with either of us, trying to find the cause of the feelings I was having. I would still care deeply for the person and not want to lose them, but I couldn’t continue dragging on something that felt stifling when we both deserved better. After spending years and years blaming failed relationships on bad choices and bad taste in who I chose to go after, or blaming it on bad timing or life circumstances getting in the way, I started to come to terms with the fact that I may never “settle down and marry”. And despite all the pressures from every direction telling me that this is the worst possible outcome anyone might end up in, I wasn’t scared of it. It sounded kind of appealing to me actually. How relaxing and empowering it would be for me to maintain my strong sense of independence and not have anyone telling me what I can or can’t do or what I should change about myself to make them happy. No more walking on eggshells and pretending to be perfect in fear that they would reject me. But alone I would be denying the incredible pull I’ve always had towards connecting and growing with others. They say you can’t have it all, have your cake and eat it too. But, for me, an open relationship turned out to be a way to do exactly that.
Mark and I both dove in headfirst after that first dip of our toes, exhilarated to explore what this underrepresented community had to offer. We joined online meetup groups that hosted bigger munches at bars and coffee shops, we created online profiles, we attended group discussions, went to book clubs and presentations, and read up on relevant literature. We formed so many amazing friendships with similarly open-minded, intelligent, and funny people. When some of the friendships started to take a more romantic turn, we would check in with each other’s comfort levels before proceeding. In the beginning that was always a little scary, not knowing how it would make us feel. Insecurities and jealousy are an incredibly natural response and we did have our fair share of navigating through that, we still do sometimes all these years and relationships later. We would be open to feeling it and expressing it and would have a lot of communication to get to the root of insecurities and amend how we did things until they were better understood and addressed.
We began by having a lot of agreed upon rules at first, preferred ways of going about things to avoid doing something we knew would hurt the other, avoiding extreme discomfort while we figured out what worked for us or not. It brought us together in a way I don’t think would have been possible otherwise. The teamwork needed, the absolute honesty, the deepening levels of communication- it helped us to understand each other better, to learn about each other in entirely new ways, and to work with each other’s weaknesses and strengths. We found a unique kind of joy in seeing each other experience such happiness with someone new (often referred to in polyamory as “compersion”), similar to that of seeing your best friend happy in a new relationship. We would act like excited teenagers when the other came home “How was your date?! How did it go, was she/he nice? Were they cute? They sound awesome, are they going to the next munch so I can meet them too?!”
Making new friends and partners gave us the opportunity to engage in new hobbies and learn new knowledge and perspectives we wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes we would bring aspects of these back to each other so we could enjoy new activities and ideas together, and other times it was refreshing to keep things of our own. Having time and hobbies to ourselves helped to maintain our individuality and it gave us a chance to miss each other and better opportunities to appreciate each other’s’ uniqueness even more. It kept our relationship exciting and passionate. We didn’t have to give up parts of ourselves or sacrifice any dreams, as we had in the past to conform to one partner’s limitations. The crushing pressure to be perfect, to provide and fulfill a partner’s every need, was relieved. We weren’t someone’s “one and only” and therefore didn’t have the unrealistic expectations that often comes with that. We realized that seeing each other grow, watching the other embrace every facet of who they were and every opportunity of who they could be, brought us greater satisfaction than we thought possible. We felt more secure in who we were separately and together that we were able to reexamine what love meant to us. It wasn’t meant to be ownership, controlling, conditional, reliant, obligatory, or a means for validation or perfection. It was inspiration, honesty, encouragement, support, working together, consideration, adventure, and it was ever-changing.
With time we gained a better footing in polyamory, constantly learning and adjusting and tinkering what worked for us. We found we didn’t need all the rules we once did. One by one they fell away as our trust and confidence in the other’s decisions and respect for autonomy grew. We each traversed many successful and many failed outside relationships. Through them all, friendship or romantic or somewhere in between, we learned to follow our hearts where ever they took us. Just as love is not finite between family members or friends, love between partners was not like pieces of a pie, it did not run out (though time management was a skill that did require considerable more effort than before).
Without rules and limitations, friendships took on a beautiful fluidity. I found that titles and definitions came with crushing expectations and stagnation. I enjoyed seeing my partnerships ebb and flow naturally to where ever they felt they were meant to. I found that this was also the case with my sexual identity and sexuality. Though a very small proportion of the focus or experience is physical, I was able to embrace the fact that I am pansexual (not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity) and demisexual (do not experience attraction unless I form a strong emotional connection with someone, from the orientation being halfway between sexual and asexual). This lifestyle and this community gave me permission to be myself. It told me it is okay to be so open minded, okay to be so addicted to adventure and variation, okay to be different, okay to deviate. And it told me that I wasn’t alone in that. It gave me the platform to be and to express who I always was and explore who I want to be. They welcomed me and were glad for my unique contributions, unlike most social groups that size you up and decide if they will allow you in, if you fit the bill enough, with the threat of constant scrutiny and possible banishment if you strayed from the ideal.
I was so empowered by the happiness and support I had found, so proud of the me-ness I came to embrace, that I slowly began coming out to family, friends, and others I met. Living alternatively had become something so entwined with every part of my identity and how I chose to live my life that it felt wrong to hide or lie about that to those I cared about and cared about me. To me, family and friendship are about sharing and supporting the best and the worst in each other. And as more and more of my experiences involved my lifestyle and my relationships, it meant I would have to carefully sensor and omit a huge percentage of my life if I wanted to continue hiding it. I knew it wasn’t a fad or a phase for me, it was lifelong. Though coming out is difficult and comes with its consequences and discriminations, being true to who I am and sharing that with those I care for is worth that price. Doing what others would prefer for me in order to fit in is not worth the cost of my happiness. Luckily for me, I have some amazing people in my life who support me and love me all the more for being different.
Sharing my story lets people in my life in and it also allows me to be a better advocate for others out there experiencing something similar. As the community and lifestyle welcomed and helped me, I hope to do the same for others as well. Though it is not for everyone, it certainly turned out to be the best thing for me, for Mark, and for us as partners.