You Had and Lost Me at Polyamory
Editors note: This post is written by a cisgender heterosexual woman about her polyamorous relationship. Her intention is to enlighten and share, not promote heteronormativity.
Nelson and I started to see each other in April 2015. I was sold on the idea of polyamory in May. He shat on my heart in June and left town for six months in July. In January 2016, we started to see each other again. Yet, the unresolved issues that plagued us pre-departure began to resurface, and I broke things off in June 2016.
This was my first and last polyamorous relationship, and it was an emotional roller coaster. It was loud and bumpy. It’d go up, down, and spin me around. Always the slow and suspenseful inching toward the big drop. When it hit, I’d scream all the way down, and then some, til my throat was raw, my voice raspy. The screams were shrill, the kind associated with screaming “bloody murder.” The sadness of a finished ride loomed. The candids etched in my memory. The noise never faded. My voice remained foreign. Never did I kick the anxiety of the up, up, up, culminating in the big drop.
Within a month, Nelson and I were seeing each other multiple times a week. Then one day, my “not-boyfriend” introduced the buzz “P” word. I was a novice to the concept and willing, so I let him have his cake and eat it too because sometimes, I’m giving. In a culture and millennium of Do everything and Try everything (is that just me?), I figured I had to say, “yes” to the crimson dress guised as the dude I wanted because, duh, I had nothing to lose. We never talked about what polyamory meant for us, what it meant Nelson or I could do with other people, or any of the implications it had on our relationship. I could argue that we treated one another like long-term hookup buddies, friends with benefits, or that we had an open or monogamish relationship. We should have opened a clearer channel of communication then because a category as subjective and pliable as polyamory deserves to have it’s rougher edges smoothed out. The fault of categorization befell my polyamorous experience because we weren’t easily categorizable, yet functioning under the guise of a category that neither of us sufficiently elucidated, or felt comfortable doing so.
Other than “polyamorous,” I’d describe the relationship as: long (almost a year, wow!), involving other partners (neither of us know how many the other had), jealous-ridden (the words “I like that you’re jealous” still ring in my ears), lacking in communication, and rife with ambiguity (are you coming home with me tonight or that person you brought to the party/ were flirting with?). We also had multiple relationship interventions - we’d try to fix what was wrong with understanding and, for lack of a better word, “rules.”
I didn’t know what I know now, that an empowered, intelligent woman or man can’t be bound by rules she does not set for herself or doesn’t truly believe.
Every partner comes with their own emotional baggage. Nelson and I rode up, up, up, fell, enjoyed, and lamented together. What made this one so particular and peculiar was that we tried to stick with it for so long, carry the weight, and ride the rollercoaster, hands held, til we screamed in unison, til we realized we were living with a basal level of sadness and unfulfillment, and one of us had to call bloody murder for what it was, the end.
Learnings from my polyamorous relationship compared to any other pseudo-normative relationship type aren’t niche, go figure. As you read them, maybe you’ll find that they relate to your orthodox or not-so-orthodox relationship. We are all people after all, wired with more or less the same neural networks, with similar wants and needs no matter our personal histories. This is almost shocking because when I was emotionally and physically in my relationship with Nelson and it went South, it seemed like hell literally self-cultivated in my personal atmosphere, orbited only around me, and barely affected my partner, but this is only because I loved him, regardless of relationship category. I enumerate my stand-out polyamorous relationship learnings in efforts to self-learn, self-teach, and share my experience with you, for reasons you can decide.
“Get off your ego’s high horse.”
Removing ego from a situation allows you to be less offended, if at all. I have a lot of ego I’m trying to unlearn (thank my machismo father). During the relationship, when I got mad, I always felt offended. I can't believe you did this to ME, you dared do that in front of ME... The actions taken “against me,” never had anything to do with me. They had everything to do with him. It’s not my fault I wasn’t valued highly enough to be Nelson’s supreme queen of the land and wee wee empress. I didn’t think I had to enumerate that it would hurt me if he hooked up with my friends and didn’t give me special attention at parties.
I didn’t understand that “polyamory” was Nelson’s way of telling me he wanted free reign. In our world, the one I agreed to, we both had free reign. For us, the motto was “anything goes.” No one ever said it, and my ego never learned it. No matter what “rules and regulations” I tried to enact, my ego and Nelson’s way of being never jived to the same beat.
“When is ambiguity ever a good thing?”
Ambiguity as to the expectations of a relationship breeds toxicity. Communicate. This is the foundation upon which the human race distinguishes itself. We have so many modes of communication - spoken, unspoken, multiple social platforms - yet, it’s a gift most taken for granted. Like all things, it takes practice. No matter how uncomfortable it seems to go over the “terms of service” of a relationship, save yourself the heartache later and have that talk, or those talks. If the other person can’t hang, you shouldn’t hang with them, period. It’s a question of maturity, context, openness, love, and intimacy.
Here are some confusing actions that would likely give your partner mixed messages if a relationship isn’t disambiguated and a clear channel of communication hasn’t been opened (maybe they’re just confusing in general) - I know because these patterns plagued my relationship. On one hand, saying “I love you,” sleeping together, and agreeing to spend more time together socially. On the other hand, leaving the next morning to hang out with another partner, hooking up with the other’s friend, bringing attractive, opposite-sex guests to parties, flirting more with strangers at parties, or getting uncomfortable and embarrassed when given more attention in front of an ex. In sum, doing massively couple-y things together privately vs. treating each other like bros publicly.
“The fourth time’s not a charm.”
If you try to disambiguate the relationship multiple times and it doesn’t move forward, that’s a sign. Stop lying to yourself. Nelson and I “disambiguated” the relationship three or more times throughout its lifetime, and it temporarily helped us ride over rough waters, but the waves crashed ceaselessly on the horizon, and we made headway for them. We are all risk-and-pain-averse, and perhaps that’s what compels me to promote the relationship talk. I loathe that chest knot that festers when I’m mad and offended and the emotional spewing that follows as I try to understand my autonomic response to anger. The symptom of our infectious relationship was bad communication, and pumping it with meds in the form of “interventions” was an attempt to cure the effect, not the cause, a fatal mistake we made over and over again. I wish upon the stars and moon that one of our disambiguation talks could have forgone me heartache. In the long run, they didn’t help, just drew out the end (argumentum ad ignorantiam).
“You can’t delete Jealousy.”
No matter how “okay” I said I was about the whole basis of polyamory, I was never 100% okay about being in the presence of another significant other of my partner. Hell no, bye. The highs of my relationship were high and the lows were low, just like any other relationship, but the lows tended to pertain to jealousy more than any other issue. In my perfect world of polyamory actually functioning well for me, I would have been informed of the fact that there were significant others, know how many, when Nelson saw them if it were temporally significant to my life, and never know anything else about them, not hang out with them, not see them on his soc med. NADA. This seems so unreal that I’ve accepted my dubious future with polyamory.
“Say it, mean it, show it.”
The intention of expressing love doesn’t equate the action of expressing it and your partner feeling it. This was the most difficult thing to understand and learn, and it dawned on me two months after we broke up. Example: Nelson can tell me he loves me and there can be a difference in how we express love, but the discrepancy (real or perceived) between his intention/ verbalization and actions feels more significant than his “I love you’s” and our shared hedonism. The significance of the discrepancy grew with time, and after a while, sweet nothings and coupley things felt cheap when they weren’t complemented by his individual action of expressing love with actions. That Nelson intended I feel loved but didn't was just as much his fault as it was mine.
In other words, actions speak louder than words; if you say - insert intimate relationship glitter here - and say you mean it but act differently, your actions are taken to heart over your words. In effect, I’m not wholeheartedly going to feel loved (that’s the ultimate goal, right?). I’m not saying it’s fair or unfair, but that’s how it was for me. Now I know that this is exactly how my love psyche works, and it makes perfect sense because women are attuned to unspoken language far more than men. If someone’s feeling an imbalance, that your words don’t seem to defend your actions or vice versa, it needs to be addressed. If sacrifices aren’t willing to be made on both ends, realize you’re asking for something someone can’t, won’t, doesn’t want to, or doesn’t know how to give you.
Queue sappy reflection: I emotionally aged a lifetime in a year in this relationship. I felt so many new, different, contradictory, annoying, and confusing feelings over the course of the year (as well as all of their emotional opposites), that I could have literally done my normal relationship song and dance while aging 5-10 years and probably experienced the same amount of peaks and dips of that one-year roller coaster. I’m not mentioning the highs, and I don’t have to, but they were there. They weren’t as loud as the lows, but they were crazy, and I had legit, unadulterated fun... maybe they were as loud, functioning on a different frequency that doesn’t tend to brood.
I have a dubious future with polyamory or relationships like it. It stems from fear of association, that because this one sucked they’ll all suck, but I know that’s not logical. There are massive perks of polyamory that keep it on my radar. With open communication and consensual non-monogamy, you account for human tendencies toward disloyalty and unfaithfulness. In more flattering terms, you don’t have to quiet your tendencies to lust for, like, or love other people. Instead, you agree to engage in sexual, romantic, and/or emotional relationships with others.
Happy-go-lucky me would do this again with the same guy, but I know it takes a long time for people to change, and instead of molding someone into the prince charming I want him to be, I’d rather put my efforts and energy into myself, and meet someone down the road with new baggage more in sync with my own.
I don’t regret my actions. I’m not the type, and I know they had noteworthy implications. I still live by Do everything and Try everything; this experiment didn’t douse the fire. Of course, the relationship taught me about myself - my morals, values, ideology, and way of being. I like to think I’m wiser. I definitely feel it. Saying “yes” to polyamory back then had the effect of broadening my horizons. I can now have fruitful conversations with people engaging in unconventional relationships, and I like it. You can never truly understand and empathize with someone if you haven’t lived it yourself.
I especially don’t regret the relationship because it made me write. Not reflections, how-to’s, or polyamory analyses, but write from within. Poetry in Spanish and English about love, life, and loss. From a place that was hurt, from a place that loved so deeply it couldn’t believe it was being bled dry, from a place that shocks me to revisit.
Here and there, I’ll let you in now that you're familiar with the landscape.