The first time a man I was dating confirmed he’d slept with another woman, a sucking sob flew out of my mouth like a whirling genie escaping from a bottle. I had to grab a napkin to cover my face. I wasn’t upset with him, but with myself for my reaction. After all, we were in an open relationship and consensually non-monogamous.
But no amount of intellectualizing the non-possessive magnanimity of non-monogamy prepared me for my amygdala’s roar. So I sobbed. He placed his hand on my knee, looking both confused and concerned. I blew my nose and simply asked, “Did you wear a condom.” “Yes, darling.” he replied. So, I lifted my chin and carried on.
I survived that relationship, mostly because we lived two hours apart and we didn’t have to talk about who else we were sleeping with. I know this goes against all the tenets of healthy polyamory, but I felt better ignoring what he might be doing when we weren’t together. He told me he loved me before we headed to bed and, though we did break up after less than a year, sex with other people was not our undoing.
And this seems to be the rally cry of the relationship disruptors: sex with other people should not be our undoing. You’ve been fed a lunch of bullshit if you believe that love and commitment should be dictated by religion and the oppressive patriarchy. We are perfectly capable of loving multiple others, deeply even. Bringing their naked bodies into the mix is simply a natural extension of that. Jealousy is an antiquated evolutionary impulse based on scarcity and the need for survival. Now that women have more economic parity with men we can have sex and love lives the way we want them without needing to be on the lookout for a financial sugar daddy. Whew. Are we converted yet?
By the time I returned to the States from the UK a few years back, I’d experienced a few significant non-monogamous relationships. At the time, I was perfectly happy being open. However, I was operating as a high libido woman set free from the confines of marriage and monogamy after decades with one man. And my UK residency was temporary. Investing in a long-term relationship simply didn’t make sense.
Back in the US, my impulse was to seek out a traditional monogamous relationship again. I wanted a little mono-amory after three years of frenetic London dating. But Polyamory was becoming a talking point nearly everywhere I turned, from the New York Times (Polyamory Works for Them) to Rolling Stone (Who Really Practices Polyamory?). New friends and old ones were opening their marriages. I was beginning to feel as though any 50-something man who wanted to date me would come primed with one condition: I can’t possibly love only you.
I’m a healthy skeptic when it comes to most things: whether the planet is going to collapse on my son’s watch; if any political candidate can defeat the astonishing specter that is Trump; whether I will ever become multi-orgasmic. So, when I was assigned to write a feature article on polyamory in the Pacific Northwest by Cascadia Magazine, I approached my assignment hoping I’d get a little more clear about the benefits and difficulties of non-monogamy by interviewing a dozen people doing it.
By most accounts, the west coast is the US mecca of non-monogamy. Not only are there nearly a hundred Facebook and Meetup groups in California alone for people who are poly, the coastal areas of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are also dense with people practicing open love. The piece I wrote was primarily a reference guide, pointing people toward resources needed to explore the sticky issues of a lifestyle less ordinary. I was not passing judgement upon, nor being a cheerleader for, polyamory. As I discussed the topic with more people, it became clear I was still fascinated with the pitfalls and possibilities of open relationships.
But what gnawed at me, what hearkened back to my mini-breakdown when confronted with my lover’s other lover, was whether someone like me, both insecure and avoidant in most every adult relationship I’ve had, was capable of the unique challenges of polyamory. Could it be more than one partner would provide the extra lovin’ I needed to be more securely attached in love? Or were polyamorists already so damn secure they were naturally good at loving multiple people and I would fail miserably?
I threw this question out to the Twitter-verse. Turns out a few researchers are actually studying the attachment styles of people interested in or practicing consensual non-monogamy (CNM). The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships published an analysis of surveys conducted through social media. Questions were written to help define an individual’s attachment style (go here to read about Adult Attachment Theory) and their attitude toward, or participation with, CNM.
The researchers theorize, as I have myself, that avoidant individuals may prefer CNM relationships because these relationships allow them to dilute emotional closeness with one partner by investing less across multiple partners. This was consistent with my previous desire to avoid the more consuming demands of one man when I wanted variety without commitment. Whether that would continue to be my dominant style was unknown.
Indeed, in this study, avoidant individuals were found to hold positive attitudes toward CNM and report greater willingness to engage in various forms of CNM. But anxious people were also undeterred from engagement with CNM. The theory being that highly anxious individuals might see CNM as an opportunity to gain affection from multiple partners despite the heightened threat of abandonment by those partners.
Sex and relationship guru Justin Leymiller, once surveyed 1500 people to look at how personality factors were linked to relationship satisfaction within both monogamous and CNM relationships. No matter what kind of sexual style they had, people with high levels of attachment anxiety and neuroticism were less satisfied with both monogamy and non-monogamy. People who had more ‘sex-seeking personalities’ were happier being non-monogamous. And people less driven by sex were happier being monogamous.
I suspect many of us move through these multiple personalities over the years. I’ve been both anxious and sex-seeking. It wasn’t just living as an expat in London that made me amenable to open relationships. It was my perimenopausal drive to get laid. In the showdown before my fertility shut down I was hornier than a sixteen year old boy. I was driven to seek sex with as many men as possible. And, at the time, monogamy simply didn’t make sense to my brain.
But now past menopause, I’m not operating under the influence of such a libido-fueled cloud. I feel more drawn to the simplicity of monogamy, not because I’m still anxious or avoidant (the therapy is really working y’all) but because I’d almost rather cuddle than fuck now. (Almost.)
I’d love to see more research on whether consensual non-monogamy is the healthy evolution of our bonobo natures or an avoidance of committed intimacy because we’re becoming more distracted and disengaged from the people around us. Is the abundance of choice and the pursuit of novelty the new normal? Or could we actually become better loving people if we practiced with more than one person?
One thing I’ve concluded: polyamory needn’t be defined by sex. I could be a sexually monogamous polyamorist. I think the beauty of polyamory is rooted in a commitment to be boldly honest with one’s partner about how we feel about other people we’re attracted to. It’s the freedom to express our deepest desires without the fear that our mates will shut us down, kick us out or otherwise judge us.
This attitude came to me from a couple I chatted with during the intermission at Bawdy Storytelling in Seattle. This couple identified as polyamorous but didn’t have other lovers. One told me polyamory for her was the ability to love other people deeply without it being seen as wrong by her partner. To me, this is the semantic beauty of polyamory; to simply feel safe in loving more than one person. Where one goes with that sexually is up to them.
I do want to build a shared history with one man eventually. I want the ‘I got your back, baby.’ with a special someone, a person I admire and commit to working with through both difficulties and countless moments of joy. I don’t think I require sexual monogamy. Does that make me polyamorous? Yes and no. I rather fancy a once in awhile fling, and having a partner who is happy to see me enjoy life fully, even if that’s naked with another man. But multiple people in the bedroom on a regular basis? Not likely. That just goes counter to cultivating a simple life the older I get. But I won’t ever be afraid to say to my man, ‘Tell me what scares you. You’re safe with me. We make our own rules here.’ That, to me, is the essence of polyamory.
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