feature image photo by Cavan Images / Pippa Samaya via Getty Images
Like most people, I had the misfortune of being raised with monogamy as the default option. I only discovered the vibrant alternatives during my first serious relationship at age 21. Since then, ethical non-monogamy has been my default.
I turned 29 this year, and my love for a non-monogamous existence remains constant. With my third decade on the horizon, I’d love to share some of my mistakes and lessons for happier polyamory. I want to have it on record so I can come back and grimace at myself a few years from now.
Non-Monogamy Lesson One: Labels Should Serve the Telationship
Ethical non-monogamy wasn’t as popular when I began taking part in 2015. The language around diverse relationships and sexualities wasn’t as developed. I raised eyebrows and procured questions when I mentioned my open relationship. Or was it a non-monogamous pairing? Maybe it was a polyamorous thing. I wasn’t sure what to call it.
I wanted to transgress the monogamous norm without raising too many eyebrows. Maybe raise a few in piqued interest but not all of them in unfettered gawking. I wanted my casual partners to feel secure in seeing me — like it wasn’t cheating. I wanted my “person” to be comfortable in what we were — beyond the “what are we” conversation. I skipped between labels in search of the perfect mix of trendy, comfortable, and unremarkable. I only found uncertainty.
Being able to label ourselves is an expression of personhood and agency. It’s taking the world by the short-hairs and finding our own corner. We’re homo-romantic and poly and ace and gay and so many vibrant possibilities. But those labels are only good to us when they serve our enjoyment of the world. Not the other way around. This doubles in importance when we introduce new ways to love into the complex web of our personhood.
I’m just in an open relationship now.
Non-Monogamy Lesson Two: Be on the Same Team
My first attempt at non-monogamy began when my then-girlfriend “opened up” our relationship. More specifically, I was unhappy with monogamy and wanted an open relationship. You can see where this is going. She pointed out repeatedly that she wanted monogamy, but acceded because she didn’t want to lose the relationship.
My behavior was impulsive and heedless. I failed one of the most basic tenets of good relationships: mutuality. I changed our relationship against her wishes. We were no longer a team.
Opening up that relationship strained it. She felt like I wasn’t in love with her anymore. I sensed her discontentment whenever we argued. Her interests weren’t being respected, but I was seeing new people. A few months later, we ended a two-year relationship. All the talk of marriage and becoming each other’s special person didn’t matter in the end. It only would have counted if everyone involved was heard and respected.
Years later, we reconnected and became best friends. She’s in a tight coupling with a man. They share a roof with three cats, two dogs, and one raucous bird.
Non-Monogamy Lesson Three: We All Reach Readiness at Our Own Pace
My current relationship began with the crucial “what are we” talk. I explained to Lucy that ethical non-monogamy was my preferred state. This was a lot for her to take in, since I’m both older and her first serious partner. That relationship did happen and remains our happy place after five years. She’s behind me right now. Being gay with that vampire fellow.
In the first years, there was still tension. When we made it official, I had a pretty specific idea of what our relationship would look like. I pictured trysts with new people on Tinder, Maybe Lucy and would break off for dates with interesting people and chat about it afterward. I saw other people when I could, but she didn’t. I thought the issue was her lack of experience, so I always encouraged her to explore and meet new people. She found an occasional coffee date but nothing further.
The truth was that she wasn’t ready to explore outside of her relationship yet. She’s not me. Nor is she the fantastical person I conjured in the early months of our relationship. Lucy is quiet, reserved, and slow to trust. She’ll do things precisely when she’s ready.
She found readiness this year when she explored outside of our relationship for the first time. One person quickly became two. She’s now helping herself to the perks of an open relationship. Not because of my encouragement, but because she’s ready.
I’ve dated freely for eight years now. It’s not for everyone, but freedom fits me in a way monogamy can’t. My experience of love has been marked by learning, mistakes, and lost relationships. Nothing ever met my expectations, but it’s almost more satisfying to miss my expectations and learn about myself than reach a goal thoughtlessly.
May we all find the care and love we need.