From the Community: In Finding Non-Monogamy, I Also Found Myself
A few nights ago, I had a first date with a man I’d recently met on tinder. He’s a former attorney in the middle of a career shift, rather new in town; with a keen appreciation of gin, words, and a decent joke. We met for one of my favorite happy hours in the city, and made smallish talk while pushing through some usual first date silences, and curiously peeking at each other over our drinks. In all respects it was a normal date- it just happens that we are both (happily) married to other people.
We talked a bit about those people. (There are boundaries with these things, so we didn’t dive deep- mainly first names and general occupations.) We talked about our children, who happen to be the same age. We also chatted about what had brought each of us there- to a date at a bar with a stranger, on a school night, while our spouses were home with our snoozing kids. This topic is normal for me on first dates- we’re curious- what brings other people to this unconventional life?
I’ve told my own story a lot- to myself, to my husband, to friends and lovers and family and first dates. Each time I tell it, I get to reflect more on what led me to non-monogamy a whopping 15 years into my partnership with my husband. Each time I tell it, I gain a little more insight into who I am, and where I’ve been. Like a lot of us, I love telling my own story.
For me, this shift was really set into motion seven years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child. At that time I was thirty, just three years into my career, spending my summers playing urban homesteader on our small property, and generally leading a full life. I had friends, some family in town, and a job that kept me busy. Even with all that goodness, I was ansty- always sniffing out new avenues to explore. And then just like that, my husband was offered an opportunity to work in the Netherlands for two years, and we jumped on it.
When we arrived in Amsterdam, I was four months pregnant. Marc (my husband) was setting up an office there, and wrestling with all of what that entails in an unfamiliar country. He was very busy! I did what I could to also keep myself busy (at first there was so much domesticity to attend to- I was having my first baby in a new country and there was much preparing to be done), I joined Dutch classes and pregnancy classes, in an effort to make friends. (Satisfying friendships with depth take time to build, and I was only somewhat successful. But I persevered.)
Later that winter, our gorgeous baby was born, and suddenly I was lost. Lost in a new place- without my work, without my friends, without my family, without a community in which I felt at ease. I was alone all day with this lovely new baby, in this new country, and I was totally disconnected from everything I knew. (Later, I’d come to realize I also had postpartum depression, but there was so much newness just then, that it was tough for me to spot.)
We spent two years in Amsterdam, and came home with a toddler and another baby on the way. We had enough money saved for me to stay home with the babies for a bit, and we moved out to a suburb in a push for a family friendly home and quiet neighborhood. And even though I love Portland, and even though coming home felt pretty great, I felt almost as isolated living that suburban life as I had in Europe. Two babies can put a real glitch in your social life. I never quite got the hang of bonding with other new mothers- the constant conversations about sleep deprivation and breast-feeding eventually made me want to chew my leg off. And my depression only got worse. I had never felt so disconnected- from myself- from, joy, from feeling- everything.
When my youngest child was two, I started taking an antidepressant. It helped me feel buoyant almost instantaneously. I could see in color again. I decided to go back to work that summer as well. Everything felt fresh and new- I felt myself waking back up after having been in a sort of long slumber. During that period, my life shifted in a truly unexpected way. I went to dinner with a few friends, and one of them was talking about her new boyfriend, and dropped the term “monogamish”. You could almost hear the record scratch. We had never heard of such a thing. We all leaned forward, “Tell us more”. So, she did. She told us there are people just like us who have decided to explore different relationship models- people who were coupled, but had left total monogamy behind, in favor of a more dynamic relationship that worked for them. And the best part? There was no one way to do it- no rule book. They simply made it up as they went.
I left that dinner, and came straight home to read articles. I searched through Dan Savage’s sex columns to find anything that might have to do with being ‘monogamish’ (a term he made fairly famous). I looked into books, and went out the next day to pick up, ‘The Ethical Slut’ (a popular read on the subject of contemporary polyamory). And I talked to my husband.
Keep in mind- this was absolutely brand new to us. We knew what swingers were- vaguely- but the idea that people just like us were exploring a spectrum of relationship styles and non-monogamy- that may or may not include extra-marital sex- really blew our minds. He was, as many partners would be, extremely hesitant. I’m an impulsive human, but he needs time to process. And so we processed. We talked and we talked. We cried. We got angry. There was fear. I had no idea what this could look like for us, but I knew I had felt disconnected from other adults for years, and I was finally entering back into the world and gaining back some of my autonomy. And the idea that I could have the freedom to connect with folks in whatever way felt good was almost too good to be true. Lots and lots of people were living a truth I had only just considered- we make our own rules, and our marriage can look any way we want it to.
For four years I had been some sort of wife-mother-creature. Many moms get this- especially if you’ve stayed home with babies. You lose yourself, you can’t imagine anyone would find you sexy, you can’t remember what you used to talk about in adult company. I wanted to explore and continue to be adventurous- things I had always needed in my life- but with work and kids and a mortgage, I needed a way to do that without moving about geographically. This seemed like an adventure we could go on right here- at home, TOGETHER.
So, Marc agreed to try it. I think he could see I wasn’t going to give up this idea, and he was curious as well. He hadn’t been on a first date in fifteen years. What would that feel like? Could he actually have sex with another woman? What would that feel like?
As we’d heard women tend to fair better on dating sites, we decided to let him take the lead. We had never even seen a dating app or website before! He made his Ok Cupid profile first. He went on the first, first date. He had sex with someone first. All of those firsts happened, and we survived. We didn’t disintegrate, I wasn’t disgusted, or crippled with jealousy. It was weird- sure. But it was new and exciting and scary, and suddenly we had a secret to share again. A thing just for us. A thing just for us, that wasn’t our children.
It’s been three years now of not being monogamous. We don’t call ourselves polyamorous, because it’s never quite fit the way we date. We simply say we are not monogamous, or are practicing ethical non-monogamy. In the past three years, we’ve explored a lot of relationship dynamics, from falling in love to casual flings to the sweetest friendships. We’ve rediscovered ourselves, and each other. And I know, without any doubts, that I’m not a wife-mother-creature. Motherhood is still, and will always be, a beautiful part of my life, but it’s not all of who I am. I no longer worry that I’m not sexy or engaging or interesting- I am absolutely those things. Actually, I think I’m far more sexy and engaging and interesting than I was ten years ago, as I’m living on my terms- living a life that feels made for me. I don’t long for my younger self or the early years of my marriage. This self and these years are totally amazing. And my marriage is more honest and authentic than it’s ever been. We are better now.
More than anything, I no longer feel disconnected. The opposite has happened, really. In a twist ending I didn’t expect, I’ve found my people. I have a strong network of loving and amazing friends who know me and love me. Maybe we’ve been on dates, or maybe we’re platonic pals. I don’t have to hide what I think and feel (a thing I’ve realized I’ve done almost my entire life). I don’t have to worry about conforming. I get to love who I love, in whatever ways work for us both. I can admit flaws and mistakes and still feel accepted. I can explore my sexuality and preferences as a grown woman- without many of the insecurities and trappings of girlhood. And Marc and I get to make the rules up as we go. There’s no blueprint for this- no outline that tells us how to do it. And we’ve not always done it well- we’ve messed up- but we’re learning and growing all the time.
At some point the other night, my date and I looked at each other and just shook our heads. “My friends don’t understand how my wife and I can do this.”, he said. “They think that we’re nuts, and that we’re ruining our marriage. This hasn’t gone over well. But, I just feel so, so lucky.”
I just laughed. Maybe we ARE nuts- all of us. But, I’ve kind of always been nuts- now I’m simply building a life that fits those parts of me. I make it up as I go, I understand that it’s dynamic and ever changing, I worry less and less what other folks think about any of it. And I just feel, so, so lucky.