*This article is copyrighted to NEXT magazine and ran in the November 2012 issue
A healthy open relationship starts with a solid “primary” partnership. Ideally the couple involved should have an established relationship, with trust and respect at its foundation. Good communication forms the basis for any successful partnership, especially if a couple decides to invite others into their bed. The needs of the primary partner should come first, all others second. At the heart of the idea lies the notion that monogamy is unrealistic, but lying and cheating are execrable. Therefore, the couple takes other lovers to satisfy aspects of their sexuality, sometimes together, sometimes separately, all the while keeping the lines of communication open.
When I met Neil, an open relationship was not on my mind. We fell in love in an instant, and then hit the road together. I gave no thought to my previous relationshipswhich had been shot through by infidelity on my part. With Neil, it would be different. He was special; I loved him more than I’d loved the others. I wouldn’t have wandering desires, because Neil was “The One”. Six years went by in a flash, and Neil became the longest love of my life. And then, like a dormant volcano, my old rovingeye made a comeback.
Nightmares of betraying my lover began toinvade my sleep. Alone in the dark night of my soul, I imagined the loneliness of being without Neil, just because I wanted to experience other people sexually. It was a heart breaking thought and I kept it to myself for as long as I could. Moliere said that to sin in private is not sin at all, but I was burdened by guilt. Keeping this part of my heart from Neil was damaging in itself.
We were spending the summer in Italy. Beauty was everywhere, seeming to mock my cheating heart. One afternoon, drinking Perroni under the Tuscan sun, I choked out what had been festering in my mind.
“I need to tell you something,” I began ominously. My tone suggested I was about to deliver dreadful news. I was resigned to the possibility that confessing to lustful curiosity may spell the end of our affair.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about monogamy. It’s not that I don’t love you; it’s just that…sometimes I feel freaked out at the possibility of never sleeping with anyone else for the rest of my life. For the rest of my life,” A flighty feeling of panic reared up from the Pandora’s Box I’d stuffed it in. I babbled on, avoiding Neil’s gaze, feeling like my own gravedigger.
When I’d run out of steam I used my last nerve to look at my boyfriend. He was not only completely relaxed, but also highly amused.
“Don’t worry,” he said, sipping insouciantly on his beer. “I don’t want to stop you from being yourself.”
I thought I’d misheard. Neil was not threatened by my fantasies? He didn’t think of me as his alone? Where was he getting his point of reference from, if not the same place as I had– middle of the road kiwi values?
We talked more, tremulously at first. We sifted through our feelings about love, panning for truth in muddy waters. As we warmed up, we became more impassioned.
“It’s ludicrous to think one person can be all things to another!” I firedat him.
“And what is this idea of The One?” cried Neil. “There are thousands of ‘ones’ out there!”
“Just pick a random person, they could be The One!” I agreed. “It’s choice and commitment that makes a relationship last.”
Over the course of the afternoon we decided that the laws of church and state did not apply to us. My feminist lover felt monogamy was just another tool of the man to sublimate women. Society had no right to impose upon our private lives. The only thing Neil trusted me to do was be myself.
Airing my feelings was a relief. It actually injected new life into our relationship. I felt closer to Neil than ever. Any doubts I’d had at our compatibility were put to rest. I felt sexier, and the intimacy between us intensified. In the eyes of my lover I was a free bird, a regular Ruby Tuesday.
Life went on. We continued travelling, living the bohemian dream, with no fixed plans. Then a business opportunity arose in New Zealand.
At home again we made our own type of pledges. We would never marry. Marriage was a repressive, useless construct. We would build a strong business that would enable us to travel and explore our hearts’ desires. We would not become poor facsimiles of ourselves.
Our discussion in Italy hadn’t been explicit in what we now expected. ButI’d bought a book – The Ethical Slut by a couple of commune dwelling seventies hippies, Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt (a pseudonym, presumably to protect her reputation, which should have pointed to future fallout, but didn’t). The book championed a polyamorous lifestyle of love and sex in all its infinite configurations. I’d devoured it and became evangelical in my devotion. Neil had shown minor interest, but his work was his mistress, taking up most of his time and energy. I took his lack of protest as silent support, and pronounced our relationship “OPEN”.
Pretty much everyone, at least outwardly, upholds monogamous standards, and haveclear, known expectations. For those looking for useful blueprints for non-monogamy, it’s a lot harder. I clung to the small bites of wisdom I could find.
According to The Ethical Slut love is infinite. Does a mother love her older children less than her newborn? No, she has a limitless capacity. The book said it was possible to love many people at the same time. To have secure primary relationships, which aren’t threatened by a secondary (or tertiary et al) lover. It mapped out a kind of love-food-pyramid, with the primary relationship at its foundation, and subsequent sweeties further up.
The chapter on handling jealousy was fascinating. The authors explained that fear of the unknown played a large part in jealous behaviour. They recommended meeting new partners, to dispel the threat that they are more beautiful, or more intelligent. They also pointed out that jealousy is one of the few human emotions that we choose not to cope with. It’s so uncomfortable that we tend to run screaming, when we should sit with it, feel it, and let it wash over us. The authors promised that if jealousy is able to be demystified in this way and we learn to sit with it in the way we do with grief, anger and joy, jealousy would cease to have such power over us.
I took it all in I was confident Icould do this. Only squares freaked out over a little sexual jealousy. The image I had of myself was of a renegade maverick. I was slowly becoming more and more full of myself.
Six months into Neil and my relationship’s new direction, Leo walked into the office. Tall, dark, refined and handsome, Leo needed his website overhauled and had chosen our firm for the task. Websites were not something we did much of, but as I took in Leo’s broad shoulders I mentally made a note to brush up on my HTML.
Leo’s crosshairs were trained on me. The attraction was electric. I felt sick and giddy and all the things you feel at the beginning of an affair. I didn’t even want totalk about it with Neil. It felt private.
I’d hit the first hurdle. Polyamorous guidelines were as hard to follow as monogamous ones. My inclination to keep quiet clashed with advice from The Ethical Slut. Dossie and Catherine recommended I burden Neil with my wandering eye. I tried to broach the subject, but he willfully withdrew, telling me he’d rather not know.
As well as the nebulous cloud that was settling over me, my ego began to expand. I felt the power of feminine mystique, but did nothave the responsibility required to govern it. The Ethical Slut had prepared me for jealousy management and given me an idea of a wide and loving community of friends and partners. It had not prepared me for meeting this new side of myself – selfish and hungry, with a frightening capacity for destruction. I was the new Medusa. Only I didn’t have the perspective to see it.
Leo and I slept together. It was insanely good. I was off and running without doing my due diligence.
I told Neil. He took it well, but didn’t want details. He needed only to be reassured that he was and would remain my number one. Too easy.
I binged on love. I was glowing, luminous with hormones nursing mothers could only dream of. Where Neil was measured, Leo was wildly spontaneous. I could enjoy a wild weekend of red wine and great music with Leo, and return home to the steadiness and comfort of Neil.
I thought I might die of happiness. Sex with Neil took on a new intensity. My natural dopamine was better than heroin; I felt smug, like I’d found the answer that everyone else was blind to. How could they expect to be faithful to one and fulfilled at the same time? The wisdom of convention was lost on me. No one person could be all things to their lover. It was an impossible expectation. Friends said my new lifestyle sounded difficult. “What, and monogamy is easy?” I’d toss out. “Self denial will give you cancer!”
Things with Leo moved fast. We were addicted to each other. I explained to him that he was not responsible for my future or my feelings. All those things were the domains of my primary partner. Leo was there for fun, sex and fantasy fulfillment. After initially balking, he found the ease of his position suited him well.
Having laid out the terms, I then did what humans are apt to do, and changed. I was starting to want a lot more than what I was letting on. Because of the unusual nature of our relationship, Leo and I began to fight as if the world was ending. Another valuable lesson went by unlearnt: you can plan a picnic, but you can’t predict the weather. I’d fallen in love with him.
And I still loved Neil, same as I ever did. While I explored my sexuality, Neil worked long hours, ignoring my requests for quality time together. Looking back it’s obvious he was hurt, but at the time I figured he was just focusing on growing the business. I missed him.
One value that is essential to a polyamorous lifestyle is time management. There may be no end to love, but there are only twenty-four hours in any day, and in order to get the love pyramid balanced, these confines must be managed. I didn’t like this maxim. It didn’t suit the mania of the moment. My synapses were snapping, my cylinders were firing, and there was no time to worry about time. I’d gone from a woman with a plan to a woman who seemed to need medical intervention. I had to admit to myself that I was now out of control. I’d fallen hard for Leo, and I still loved Neil, and we were all dancing with the devil because I hadn’t built a solid foundation on which to pitch my three-pegged teepee.
The fantasy of Leo collided with reality one night at a media function. I arrived with Neil, who left after half an hour, leaving me with Leo and a gaggle of friends. Wine flowed and as the night wore on I noticed Leo taking an interest in a woman I knew in passing. Around midnight he drunkenly approached me.
“I want to go home with Anna, but I wont do it if it will upset you,” he said. Thinking out loud I said, “Well, I can’t expect you to be faithful to me when I’m not faithful to you…”
When Leo and Anna disappeared into the night, I felt hideous. I was jealous, so jealous, and my ego burned. I’d turned into a complete narcissist, so high on myself that I failed to see the men in my life as complete beings of their own. Had I learnt nothing from The Ethical Slut? Apparentlynot. I’d essentially become the hypocritical Old Testament zealot version of the polyamorous – cherry picking the bits of the good book I could use to justify any behaviour I wanted to indulge in.
It was time for some guidance. Relaxing into an ergonomic chair in my therapist’s office, I confessed all. Reiterating my love for Neil, like the mantra it had become, I voiced my guilt at ‘betraying’ him. I then described the unpredictable nature of my relationship with Leo. How all of a sudden I was wildly unhappy.
“I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I were you,” said the therapist. “It sounds to me like this arrangement suits Neil quite nicely.”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, he doesn’t have to provide you with fun and excitement anymore, because he has Leo taking care of that aspect of your life. And it leaves Neil with a lot more time to work on his creative projects.”
I’d never looked at it like that. Neil had taken on a number of dream jobs, and was extremely involved with every aspect of them. Whether that had anything to do with me, though, was unclear.
She continued: “What is it about Leo that keeps you coming back?”
“With him I never know what’s going to happen,” I said. “It could be amazing or it could be shattering, but it’s so unpredictable.” I noticed I did not sound happy when I said this. I sounded traumatized.
“Who in your life does this remind you of?” my therapist pressed. Without missing a beat I replied.
And there is was – the pathology of my sex life, of all my seeking was all about Mother. Fuck.
My mother had been mentally unstable. My father was not in the picture, leaving a question mark over the qualities I would look for in a man. In Neil I had found a steady, loving home. But something in my blood made me look for the chaos of my mother. I’d found it in Leo.
I left the session promising to “break the cycle” and end things with Leo before I lost myself completely.
Chastened by these revelations, I felt worse about myself than I did before the session. Could my therapist be right about Neil? Was I just too much to handle? I knew I was a lot of woman, but I didn’t realize that that might actually be an off-putting quality. I imagined Neil luxuriating in his quiet moments, no emotionally intense girlfriend to distract him from his work. Then I envisaged Leo’s sweet deal, when I was home with Neil. He could do whatever he wanted, safe in the knowledge that sex was guaranteed thrice weekly, with the balance of power now tipped in his favour.
What I needed was some female company. I decided to have a girl’s pool party. I invited two of my best friends, imagining a cozy evening of intimate gossip, and maybe a bit of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
From the moment they arrived there was an unfamiliar tension in the air.I know now that promiscuity and radical non-monogamy is contagious. When Neil turned up after work and hopped in the pool, he and one of my friends were all over each other. This was new, but instead of the jealousy that devoured me with Leo, I felt only good will towards Neil and my friend. I thought it would do him good to feel desired. Then of course, there was the fact that if he slept with her, it’d take the pressure off me.
My friend Lara pointed out the flirtation. I explained to her that I was totally fine with it. Lara took that moment to lay an open-mouthed kiss on me, and all of a sudden I was getting it on with yet another person. Jesus Christ, I thought. What next? Group sex? Pegging? Dressing up as bears? I shuddered to think. But she was beautiful, and I had no limits, so I went for it.
Around this time it occurred to me how overwhelming chaos is. A voice that liveddeep in my subconscious was now telling me that without a system, the world would degenerate into anarchy. I’d been anti-everything. I’d never accepted the wisdom of law and order. I felt there was too much big brother stuff going on in society. But my life had swung violently in the other direction. Nothing was taboo. It was exciting, but I was starting to get sick. It was time to slow my Little Red Corvette down.
Like the addict I was, I failed. Instead of reigning myself in, I kept charging along, subsisting on coffee, sex and cigarettes. Leo slept with several more women, and felt justified in doing so. I slowly lost my grip. I’d smashed the walls down and now had no magnet in my compass with which to orient myself.
And then Leo began to find my double standards intolerable. Things deteriorated and finally we broke up.
I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t stop crying. It was the worst break up since high school and I thought I would die. It’s pretty sobering to be back in that place – the kind of broken heart where you burst into tears while you’re driving, an unstoppable tsunami of sadness that makes you stop caring about anything.
It was Neil who rescued me. He arrived home with my favourite foods and literally nursed me back to health. It was astonishing. I didn’t think it was possible to admire someone so much before all this drama, but there it was. He still loved me. He still respected me, and I him.
After, I had a new driving emotion, something female and utterly useless - guilt. I beat myself up emotionally, at having betrayed Neil. I hadn’t – not technically, but tell that to a heart full of remorse. For the next couple of years I curtailed my dalliances, and stuck close to his side. My therapist would no doubt have had something to say about that, but I didn’t seek her advice, preferring to go to ground. I unconsciously decided to be a faithful partner, adhere to society’s laws and save myself the trouble of a wild love life.
I had safety with Neil. We had a life, not a fantasy. I’d thrown myself into free-love-infested waters, and nearly bled to death. I didn’t want to be unhappy, so I farewelled chaos and settled for normalcy.
Then the inevitable happened. I met someone. In the grand scheme of things, he was inconsequential, but after sleeping with him, I realized I was pretty freaking far from upholding my end of the bargain. Neil had been game and adventurous, second to none in agreeing to experiment. Intellectually, he understood completely, and supported me. But emotionally, I knew it cut him. The fact that I was hopeless at honestly communicating my feelings rendered the whole experiment hopeless. Neil had stood by me, supporting my ill-conceived notions of free love. Without his strength, who knows how I would’ve pulled myself back together? But I also realized that in our hearts what we wanted out of life differed to the extent that we couldn’t make each other happy.
The day I ended our decade-long relationship was one of the worst of my life.
“Are we not in love anymore?” he asked with disbelief. I cried. I had cheated him out of what he’d counted on always being there. We had love, but as anyone in a long committed partnership will attest, love is only part of the equation. I felt that we needed to set each other free. I had to stop abusing this man, who had his head screwed on a whole lot tighter than mine. My experiment had been unsuccessfuland I had led my loving partner into harm’s way in the process. It was time to admit defeat.
I carried the guilt of hurting a good man with me for years after. To this day I think that Neil was one in a million. An adventurous spirit, brave, handsome and compassionate. A real human being.
After all the heartache, I still believe an open relationship can work in theory. A high level of maturity is obviously essential. If I ever embark on that journey again, I will take heed and place absolute priority on my primary partnership. I will tread carefully, putting my desires second to the well being of my number one.