Remember the documentary March of the Penguins? It’s about the emperor penguins’ annual journey across Antarctica. The movie is a beautiful story, full of tender moments. As we watch a courtship between penguins unfold, the father selflessly protects their egg and the chick struggles to survive infancy.
It’s been over ten years since I first saw the movie, but there was one part that always stood out for me. When the penguins began their courtship, I heard Morgan Freeman explain that emperor penguins are monogamous – sort of. They pair together for a season to create an egg, protect it, and feed and raise their chick before going their separate ways until next winter, when they will court and then couple with a new partner.
I can identify with the emperor penguin as “monogamous – sort of.” Or as I prefer to call it, monogamish. Not quite in the same way as the emperor penguin; I’m not what some would call a “serial monogamist,” moving from serious partner to serious partner every few months or years. I just mean that, for the most part, I enjoy monogamy and desire to be with only one person, but there are times when I am tempted to stray.
There are times when monogamy feels a little suffocating and a part of me longs for a temporary reprieve. I have intense crushes on people that are not my partner, and according to strict monogamy, that’s not okay. Furthermore, as a divorced woman in a new relationship, I’m clearly much more like an emperor penguin than say, the shingleback skink which can enjoy harmonious monogamy for upwards of 20 years. Still, despite these moments when I struggle for freedom, I am, for the most part, wired to be monogamous. I am monogamish.
I have friends who are wired differently, and at least in my more recent enlightened years, I have learned to respect that. I see various forms of love as entirely viable and legitimate, and I would encourage anyone to pursue whatever route makes them happy and causes no harm. When it comes to polyamory or open relationships or swinging or whatever kind of non-monogamous relationship you can think of, I can see how it could work for some people. I can understand the need some people have for multiple relationships and the discomfort they feel being confined to one, sometimes suffocating, relationship. Over the past couple of years, I became extremely comfortable with the idea of open relationships for anyone who wanted one.
What I wasn’t prepared for was to end up in one myself.
He’d mentioned it before, when we were just friends trading notes on past relationships, so it shouldn’t have been any surprise to me. But hearing it now, in this place at this time under these circumstances was, frankly, unbearable. I could feel myself swiftly and recklessly falling for this man, but I couldn’t take this. No, it was a deal breaker. It had to be. There was no way I could be okay with this. I turned away so he wouldn’t see the tears spill down my cheeks.
We’d only been seeing other for a couple of weeks, but as we quickly began to realize that this could become more than just a fling, he knew he had to make something very clear. He told me that he could not be in a monogamous, exclusive relationship – not with me, not with anyone. It wasn’t in his nature, and it wasn’t something that he could honestly promise me – not now, not later.
I said no. No, I couldn’t be okay with this. No. No matter how amazing the past few weeks had been, this just wasn’t going to be okay. If this is how he felt, then this had to end. I couldn’t hide my crying at this point. I heaved an audible sob, and he wrapped his arms around me. We were silent for a while, feeling incredibly sad that this amazing connection between us had been so fleeting.
The very first day we met, he made a comment about being non-monogamous. It wasn’t a big deal to me at the time, but that was before we discovered we were attracted to each other. Two weeks after our first kiss is when he brought it back up, in that room where my heart got turned inside out. In full disclosure he wanted me to understand he was non-monogamous.
He explained in beautiful language how he felt about non-monogamy and how the freedom of open relationships brought him happiness – no, joy. That was the word he used. Even though his words were breaking my heart, I could tell how important this was to him. I knew instantly that I would never want to take that away from him. But I couldn’t imagine myself being in a relationship that was anything short of, well, monogamish. So there was no other solution; this newfound romance would have to end.
Except – I didn’t want it to. And neither did he. But we’d both said where we stood and neither of us were willing to back down to make the other person happy. We’d been doing that for too long in past relationships, and we’d both promised ourselves to care more for our own needs in the future. The afternoon stretched into evening as we wrestled with the impossible situation we were in. We decided it was too soon to be talking about the future anyway. At this point we were barely even dating and had no expectations of exclusivity yet anyway. I went home that night after promising we’d talk later, once I’d had time to think.
I thought about it endlessly for the next two weeks. Theoretically, I could appreciate the concept of non-monogamy. I’d already spent a significant amount of time after my deconversion from Christianity deconstructing my preprogrammed aversion to a variety of ideas, non-monogamy included. I could understand, even empathize to an extent, why someone would find monogamy too constricting and suffocating. I had already accepted that I, like the penguins, was only monogamous “sort of.” But when it comes down to it, monogamy, for the most part, still works just fine for me.
So why couldn’t it work for him? What was so wrong with me that I could never be enough for him?
I imagined he must be a very shallow person. A promiscuous person. Someone who didn’t have the capacity to be satisfied or really love someone. This isn’t how I’d ever thought of anyone else in non-monogamous relationships, but now that it was affecting me, I began to believe all the stereotypes that non-monogamous people were just cheaters and liars in disguise.
But that description didn’t seem to fit with the person I was coming to know. He didn’t seem shallow or incapable of love. Quite the opposite. But even giving him all the credit in the world, even if he really was the sweetest, most loving person in the world, how could we ever work out as a couple?
I spent those weeks thinking and reading a lot about open relationships, and I sought advice from friends in open relationships. He and I talked frequently, though awkwardly, about the subject. I learned there was no one right way a relationship like this had to be. I realized that if I wanted this person to continue being in my life, it would require a significant compromise on my part, but that I also had the right to set my own boundaries and expect them to be respected. I deeply considered whether or not it was possible for both of us to be happy in this relationship, for both of us to have our different needs met, and what degree of compromise I was willing to accept.
I made a list of things that, at the time, I felt were necessary for me to feel safe and secure in an open relationship. Then, with the best intentions, I presented the demands – I mean list – to him for discussion.
Even though it would’ve been much easier to simply avoid the subject, especially considering how new the romance was, I told him we needed to talk about this before our relationship went any further. I conducted the conversation as if we were in a business meeting; I literally had a written agenda prepared for us to follow. I was nervous – I had no idea how he’d respond to my requests. Would he flat out say no? And if he said no, could I be strong enough to walk away? Could we go back to being friends with no harm done?I guess in a way I’m lucky that he was only marginally more experienced when it comes to talking openly and honestly about these things, because my “requests” were perfectly acceptable to him, and with that we found ourselves officially starting a mutually-agreed upon open relationship.
From Hypothetical to Reality
Making that decision was hard, but that was only the beginning of this journey of unchartered territory for me. The first obstacle was when the openness went from theoretical to actual. I knew it was only a matter of time, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would actually make me feel to know he was with someone else who wasn’t me.
I felt sick to my stomach. I felt like the walls were crashing down on me. I have never been “the jealous type,” but for the first time, I felt jealous. Really icky, greenly jealous. Not only did the knowledge that he’d been with someone else make me feel ugly, insecure, and devalued, I also felt ashamed, weak, and hypocritical for feeling jealous. I wanted to be a supporter of open relationships, but when faced with the reality of it, I seriously questioned my ability to be a participant.
I wasn’t mad at him in any way. Not even a little bit. I found that part promising. We had talked about this several times since the initial “business meeting.” I was fully on board, and he had done nothing wrong. I didn’t feel like he’d cheated on me or broken any promises, I just wished I could be “enough” for him. I wished he didn’t need anything more than me, like I didn’t need anything more than him. I didn’t feel betrayed, just lousy.
I didn’t particularly want him to know how bad this made me feel. I didn’t want to come across as fickle (at best) or emotionally manipulative (at worst). But we had promised each other upon entering this arrangement that this relationship would be built upon total honesty and full communication. There would be no sweeping emotions under the rug; we were to hang all feelings out to dry. So I told him the truth – that his sleeping with someone else made me feel like shit. I wasn’t mad, but god, I felt shitty.
He hated feeling like he was hurting me, and I hated feeling like I was hurting him. Once again, we asked the questions: Can we really do this? Is this going to work?
And to my surprise, without any real hesitation, I realized the answer to these questions was still yes. Yes, we can do this. Yes, this is okay. Because it really was.
That was a huge realization for me. By sharing my feelings of insecurity and self-doubt with him, he was given the opportunity to assuage my fears and assure me of his care for me. Had I kept them to myself, I’d have driven myself mad creating all kinds of alternate realities about how he actually felt about me.
I also discovered some remarkable truths about my own strength and resiliency. I realized that I could experience insecurity and jealousy, but the feelings were fleeting. They weren’t pleasant, but they weren’t the end of the world either. And our relationship truly didn’t suffer – if anything it felt stronger than before. I found I had no pent-up resentment or anger, no underlying feelings of being cheated on or betrayed. In fact, when it was all said and done, I wasn’t actually that bothered by the actual incident in and of itself, once he’d assured me his care for me hadn’t changed. As it turned out, that’s what I was actually afraid of – losing my place in his heart.
The Choice Is Mine
Don’t get me wrong – I still have my moments. Every time our relationship takes a new step towards deeper intimacy, I panic. I revert to fear and insecurity. I imagine that other people are going to steal him from me, that he’ll meet someone prettier or funnier or more successful or smarter. But I don’t think that’s all that different from every monogamous relationship I’ve been in either.
Technically, every friendship, or even new acquaintance, could be a “threat” to any relationship, monogamous or not. So we just keep talking things through, and the more I release the ingrained notion of trying to tie him down, the less I fear him flying away. (Yes, I’m referring to whatever that saying is about if you love someone, let them go …)
Furthermore, as I learn and read and talk more about open relationships, the more I wonder: Could I open myself up too? I say I’m monogamous. Despite the intense crushes I get on people, I still do monogamy pretty well. But perhaps I might enjoy a little freedom from monogamy myself?
I have several friends who are non-monogamous or polyamorous who have expressed interest in me. I’m not uninterested back. But without fail, when we start to talk about something happening in real life, I instantly recoil. I just don’t feel the need. It even repels me a little. I really am satisfied being a one-guy gal and don’t have the time, energy, or even desire to get involved in something else. Not even something casual.
Maybe I really am just wired to be monogamous. Regardless, the knowledge that, should I decide someday that I’d like to act on a crush or explore the freedom of our open relationship, I can, and it’ll be okay, is indescribably freeing. The usual freak-outs about a suffocating future are a little less intense when you know you have breathing room. My fears of ruining everything because I crushed too hard on someone or felt a little lust for someone else are no longer a concern a when we have this mutual understanding that the occasional dalliances are perfectly within our realm of acceptability. Maybe one day I’ll want to explore love down a three-way street, and maybe I won’t. It doesn’t really matter either way. It’s the freedom to do so that gives me, well… joy.
At the end of the day, that’s what gives me the most peace now about being in an open relationship. It’s that we both still, and always will, own our own bodies. Yet this bodily and emotional autonomy does not take away from our commitment to each other in the slightest. We won’t be forced to guiltily stifle our crushes or gaze wistfully (or resentfully) at greener pastures we aren’t allowed to visit.
We are free to express love and affection with whomever we want without sacrificing the life we are building with each other. He is free to be exactly who he is, without judgment, and I’m free to be whatever I am too … even if that turns out to be monogamous – entirely.
[Image Source: EWN]
Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.