On the Kinds of Love We Fall Into: Polyamory in Theory and Practice
By Emmett RensinFebruary 14, 2014
2012 © Andy Denzler
IMAGINE A SUBURBAN zoo at night. All the animals asleep, replaced with men in masks and glowing, orange bulbs. It’s Halloween but the air is freezing breath already. The haunted tram ride is the main attraction, but I’ve come for a touring display of animatronic dinosaurs, purportedly the largest collection in the world. They roar limply and I go into the gift shop for the warmth.
My date, a slight girl with glasses, is two steps ahead of me, half-turned and smiling. She is holding an old bag and wearing an outfit thrown together from a half-abandoned Goth phase. Older than I am, she is a graduate of the college where I’ve just started my second year, too cool to know the kids already much too cool for me. I like her cheekbones and her hair.
She is reflexively caustic, not unlike other girls staring Alice-like into adulthood for the first time — fearful, tinted by disappointment and uncertainty. But now she’s smiling, shaking even. From the cold, most likely, although I hope it might be some kind of joy. Her eyes catch themselves, trying not to let on much excitement.
She bites her lip. Neither of us speaks.
“Thanks for taking me,” she says after a minute. Her voice has a quality not immediately explicable by accent or other distinct feature; it is neither high nor, despite her origins, discernibly Long Island, unless she gets to shouting. If it is remarkable in any way, it is in lack of affect: sincere without concerted effort, reassuring, like a friend who has long since stopped performing for me. “I haven’t been this happy in a long time.”
We go back out into the cold in search of better dinosaurs. Her name is Lou, except it isn’t really (every name but mine has been changed). This is our third date, but I am still afraid of her. We will stay together, in some form or another, for the better part of four years; in love for parts of it, and never once monogamous.
I’d met Lou six months earlier, during my first year at The University of Chicago. She was a senior, a sort of matriarch to our college theater scene, who brought bourbon in water bottles to parties with inadequate booze and held court with kids I wished I was friends with. Her boyfriend was more popular than I would ever be. We met in passing: I helped her step over a law student’s vomit on a late night bus when she was on crutches; later, we traded names in a group conversation we’d both wandered into. We’d exchange pleasantries at parties. Soon, we were Facebook friends in the way two people can be without really knowing one another.
One night, near the end of the year, particularly frustrated by a long time spent celibate in the name of a languishing hometown holdover relationship, I sent Lou a message. We’d never spoken like this before, and I was coming on pretty strong with my self-pity. She indulged me; listened to me complain about my girlfriend, about long-distance fidelity, about not wanting to be the kind of man who rationalized his desire to betray, but who still couldn’t understand why love was proved by exclusivity. She listened to all of it, and when I was done she said, “Don’t worry. You’ll grow up one day and find a girl you can love who’s OK with polyamory.”
At the time, I don’t think she meant herself.
Back in Los Angeles for the summer, I manufactured reasons to call Lou: I’m looking at classes for next year, what should I take? I’m in the Tribune this week, could you save a copy? I saw you reading a book once, remind me what it was? I suspect she knew what I was doing, but found it charming enough to play along. I remained terrified of her.
My hometown girlfriend moved to Chicago and we leased an apartment together. We took separate bedrooms but never really discussed why. She worried that she’d made a mistake; I did my best to be distracted. By mid-fall, it was over and she found her own place in town. I kept after Lou, and manufactured calls became manufactured outings. By Halloween I was at the zoo and agreeing — immediately and with no real understanding — to be polyamorous, “if this becomes a thing.” I said I already knew what it meant (I didn’t, aside from the obvious). Anyway: anything to be with her. I figured I could cram before exam time, and newly, over-eagerly in love, I set out learning everything I could about the word and the world that came with it.
Polyamory. Nearly five years later, the term is far more common than it was when I first heard it: case in point, this likely isn’t the first time you’re seeing it in print. But despite greater visibility, the meaning of that word and the culture that accompanies it remains confusing to most people, even threatening: a phrase for pretty, irresponsible youngsters, or a kinder term for child bride cults; a cop-out for the forever immature, or the latest iteration of free love dressed up in a new, pseudo-intellectual veneer.
Even for the genuinely curious — like I was, back then — it’s difficult to get a handle on what precisely “polyamory” means, beyond it involving relationships in the absence of traditional fidelity, beyond it being antithetical to everything we’re taught about love.
We are a monogamous culture. Almost all of us were raised — before we even felt the first inkling of adult desire — in a romantic faith. We are brought up to imagine our love as a (sometimes circuitous) journey toward a preordained end. The particulars of this fairy tale are age-old fodder for critical circles, particularly feminist ones. But beyond the frequently heteronormative, deeply problematic ideals of provider princes and women of eternal blonde-haired youth, is the notion that the finest love is an exclusive one, and that the journey — even if it comes to accommodate youthful promiscuity, homosexual acceptance, and children out of wedlock — is still geared toward eventual, and subsequently perpetual, fidelity. It should surprise no one that even gay marriage campaigns — the most broadly palatable and well-supported deviations from hard tradition these days — found their stride in messages predicated not on civil rights but on ideals of family and devotion. Monogamy is the foundation from which all present unorthodoxy stems, more fundamental to our cultural sense of self than even the gender of the lovers.
It isn’t that reforms have not been real, or even that they were not radical in their time. Thanks to broader acceptance of romantic and sexual freedom, longer periods of exploratory sex and dating have been normalized, and making a mistake has been robbed of its stigma through the rise of no-fault divorce. But little real damage has been done to the central tenant of the faith: that the attainment of a single, beloved partner, no matter their gender, body, status, or politics, is what we’re all after in the end. Divorcés, young swingers, and sluts may be reformers, but polyamorists are Protestants.
Polyamory remains alien, mysterious, even threatening. The latest pop culture writing on the subject hardly helps. The most common discussions tend to be broadsides, shouting back and forth over the legitimacy of plural loves, and avoiding any middle ground between Watch out for these charlatans! and If you don’t like us then fuck you! Learning is difficult when you’re caught in the crossfire between intractable factions.
More exploratory discussions do exist in the mainstream, doled out by The New York Times, the Oprah Network, and other middle class purveyors of casual anthropology. Despite their good intentions, they don’t tend to get closer than arm’s length curiosity, always at a safer distance than the walk to their own backyards.
Poly relationships are as varied as the people who have them. Among those who call themselves polyamorous, there are philosophers and charlatans, the promiscuous and the celibate, the emotional and the empty. It’s an umbrella term, broadly defined as non-traditional because it asserts that love, like fine clothing, must be tailored to its owner.
But the difference is deeper than that. Some of the most callous dismissals have come from critics overly focused on sex. But that’s secondary. At its heart, polyamory is a dialogue about what the word “love” means, what is at the core of that feeling, how we feel it, and how we show it. It is a diversity of arrangements, all with their own restrictions and allowances, custom designed for partners unwilling or unable to fit into long-term, traditional monogamy. Beyond that, the particular patterns are malleable, with rampant ideological contentions, and it is for this reason that — even without hostility or suspicion — it can be difficult to pigeonhole, let alone understand.
I can really only speak to my own experience, although I hope some clarity can come from it: some idea for those who find the word scary, or find mysterious why so many (roughly five percent of Americans) have given up monogamy in search of less traditional arrangements. I’d like to offer what I can, from my time with Lou, and the time that has come after, because one thing can be said with certainty about the ranks of American polyamorists: they are growing, and with them the kinds of love we fall into.
By winter, I’ve effectively moved into Lou’s apartment, a second story coach on Chicago’s north side. One of the bedrooms is a storage closet. Lou has a roommate, an archly hip sort of southern girl who loves to cook for us despite possessing the skepticism toward me of a lover’s roommate. The pressure of close quarters is relieved, most nights, by the porch: a wooden balcony, jutting out from the front door over the yard. It’s painted blue and possesses inconvenient gaps, which we eventually wrap in cellophane to keep just enough of the heat in to make the cold tolerable. The wrap keeps the smoke in, too. Contemplating the color from a string of Christmas lights hung year round, refracted off cheap plastic and through cigarette haze, falling on Lou’s mostly naked body becomes my private ritual, acted out on any number of winter three a.m.’s, when we go there to escape the stuffiness of her room that is too much for languid, post-coital comfort.
Cigarettes are so frequently an affect, in writing and in life. She smokes because she likes it, and I like this about her.
I say so, one night.
“I’m just better at performing my identity than you,” she says.
I find this inexplicably funny, but I’m very tired, too.
Writers, trying to construct the early parts of love for an audience, use single, ornamented images like these; otherwise they hurry, throwing out a stock of frantic conversations with excitement and discovery, recounting with a staccato urgency the tearing of clothes and writhing limbs in beds and bathrooms and on floors. They remember long talks of mutual recognition with clocks ignored till daylight. The trouble of course is that in deploying these clichés, they are trying to summon somehow, in retrospect, the feeling of a time that appeals precisely in its disregard for retrospect. The howling, late night conversation, the frantic fucking: the beauty is in the shared feeling that we’ve finally got it right, and for a moment can believe we won’t need to talk about it later in more nuanced, measured tones.
It isn’t that those stock moments didn’t happen with us in the weeks and months after we got back from the zoo. We went out nights to two or three shows — music, movies, and theater, mostly — then went, stumbling drunk into diners at four a.m. to talk about the books we liked. And yes, sometimes we stumbled home too drunk to make it to the bedroom and fucked on the hardwood instead. And yes, we liked the same gas station snack food and guilty, bullshit movies, but these clichés don’t capture it entirely. No more so than the nights spent picking crumbs out of the sheets, or the game we played where, standing up, we pressed our foreheads against each other while wailing in a baby’s voice until one of us fell down giggling. Each relationship has its strange rituals, and its easy moments too. But all of them are symptoms, not the cause.
Rather, the sentiment of early love seems to me a particular sense of belonging, defined by a particular absence. In the times when we feel that present love isn’t truly best — when we’re just accepting, settling, or getting by — there is a persistent nag of discontent. It doesn’t signify unhappiness: it can be felt — is always felt, even — with friends, or in the wake of some success: the unsettling feeling that while we should be content now, there is some foggy, unknown place we’d rather be. With Lou, that sense was gone. “Where do you want to be right now, really?” could always be answered, “With her.”
Our lives are a series of discrete points, and while we may see the broadest semblance of a story in them, there is always a fear of blind spots, of self-interest confused with self-awareness. So love, at its best, is a witness. It is another entity, who sees not some but every point of our being, and by watching grants us surer continuity. This is the lure of consuming love, and the reason why, alone, it is difficult to reconstruct in scattered images. The lover grants coherency — we cannot do it on our own. Perhaps the ordinary way of recounting early love, then, is an effort to make the reader do this work: to see the late nights and abandoned clothes and put the pieces together themselves, bringing back that sense of story lost when the lover went away.
Was this different from the early parts of any love? In many ways it wasn’t. Polyamory is neither so strange nor so deviant a thing that it does not at all resemble love as we all recognize it.
But if I say that she and I were, even through this early period, still fucking other people — more vitally that we were still fond, even romantically attached to other people — I imagine some would suspect that I am lying about the intensity of Lou’s and my relationship. To that, I can only offer this: those nights we were apart, that one or both of us was with another, were not a source of pain or jealousy; they were a comfort. That she went out and experienced whatever love she wanted kept me active in a way that the supposed comfort of exclusive devotion never would have. The knowledge that despite these other lovers, she wanted still to have me first and best, said more than guilty self-denial ever could.
Despite the knee-jerk warnings that came almost at once from friends I told about my new dynamic, Lou’s and my extracurricular activities were perhaps the least difficult part of our relationship. By and large, our other lovers were friends, or strangers, never enemies. I met some of hers at parties, sometimes, and they were friendly; she encountered mine from time to time, too. If anything, I was surprised by how easy it was, how the predictions of inevitable jealousy and fixation didn’t come. It felt natural, more natural than I had ever found monogamy, and while I don’t believe that all or even most of us are built that way, I’ve long suspected we’d have more polyamorists if only trying it were not so stigmatized.
It’s not that these instincts weren’t present, or that from time to time I didn’t want to spirit her away from all the others, but if anything, these feelings faded as affection grew. Other lovers just existed, out there, a comfort for each of us when otherwise alone. Or, when we’d had some fight, others provided an outlet for comfort or frustration that absorbed the animosity that might otherwise have boiled between us. Despite what common sense might like us to believe, those other lovers were never themselves the source of any fights: whatever problems we had came from between us, and if anything I found, even early on, that lesser outlets of affection eased these troubles for both of us.
In the beginning, I hardly thought about the others anyway, lingering as I did in an “us against the world” state so common in early love. By loving Lou, and agreeing without a second thought to the polyamorous structure she’d long practiced, I’d unknowingly joined an old fight against the leers and shaming of more judgmental peers, and for a time I took to it with that special fervor reserved for the newly converted.
It didn’t take terribly long to find out what I had gotten myself into. The first instance I remember was at a party, shortly after Lou and I had become a public item.
An old friend of mine from Los Angeles had come to town, the sort of girl who is energetic in her sadness, sharp-tongued and chain smoking; like she was only waiting to become one of those old, bitter ladies who seem so much like quarrelsome hens. Her fingers were elegant for a junkie.
We had been involved the summer before, and after I picked her up at O’Hare one night, the enthusiasm of the long-parted took over, and by sundown the next day we still hadn’t managed to get dressed. A friend of mine was having people over and Lou was busy, so it seemed natural to entice my friend from bed with the promise of free booze and company.
We went, and within an hour, more than one person had taken me aside to ask what was going on. I was clearly involved with this woman — we were being physically affectionate! — but wasn’t I going out with Lou? Had we broken up?
It wasn’t that these friends didn’t know that my relationship with Lou was polyamorous, it was that the affection between this other girl and me seemed wrong to them. That I admitted readily that I was fond of her disturbed them: it was one thing to have other lovers, but to like them? This must mean I didn’t really love Lou, nor she me, presumably, since she was out that night with a man she’d been fucking on and off for ages.
The implication continued: “If you’re going to be open,” they seemed to be saying, “fine — but couldn’t you at least have the decency to feel guilty about it?”
I realized then that monogamists prefer to understand non-monogamous relationships in terms of limited, slightly guilty fun, than to accept that a secondary lover might still be important to you. It’s odd, really: it seems to imply that it is more normal — better, somehow — to enjoy something quietly and a bit regretfully, than to enjoy the same thing openly and with the consent of all involved. I found it instantly maddening, the subtle implication that what I was doing was only about sex not about the free expression of my fondness, or the expansion of a capacity to love.
Aren’t you cheating, in a way, by liking this other girl so much? they seemed to ask.
In a way, they would have had an easier time with that. Infidelity is a transgression, but it’s one that exists within the monogamous paradigm; coming to a party with a secondary girlfriend and having that be OK with all directly involved just doesn’t compute as easily. In a way, it feels more like a rejection of monogamy than a simple failure to honor one’s vows; having it be OK is almost more threatening, because it suggests that — despite the cheap and common criticism — polyamory is not just intellectual window dressing for the immature and commitment-phobic, accepted but resented by unwitting victims everywhere. Somehow, these people are OK with it!
It’s important to understand how that judgment feels to a polyamorist, especially a new one. I say that I was a zealot when I started out, and in large part my zealotry was motivated by a reaction to a culture that condemns us as immature, dishonest, or immoral. For me, first judgment came at that party, but it didn’t stop there. It never did. It came from strangers, it came from family, it even came from friends — from people who didn't have the slightest experience with polyamory, but were pretty sure they knew what was wrong with it. Judgment came from people who “just wanted to ask questions,” which was fine except when the questions started to sound more like assertions of moral superiority.
Endurance has its limits. Patience fails by a thousand cuts, and when it does, it’s a radical who comes after. Self-defense is no longer good enough; now, you want to take all of those little judgments and project them back upon your accusers.
So for awhile I believed — and told anybody who would listen — that monogamy wasn’t just the dominant kind of love in our culture, but that it was a corrupt one, inherently unworkable and taking for its lifeblood the brainwashing and repression of its victims.
How could anyone believe monogamy, even in principle, is wrong? At the core of my former radicalism — the same kind that informs the and if you don’t like us, fuck you essays — is the contention that the very premise of monogamy is nothing more than ownership masquerading as commitment; not just the mostly harmless center of our cultural gravity, but a veritable black hole.
A lot of it had to do with the laughably accidental history of the practice. In its earliest forms, monogamy came about because in hunter-gatherer societies, men having all of their children grouped with a single mother enabled marginally more efficient food distribution. Natural selection ran its course, and the practice stuck until necessity was replaced by habitual normativity. Since then, monogamy has been enforced — in various and varyingly cruel forms — by kings, churches, and the insatiable paranoia of men looking to avoid bequeathing property to anyone outside their bloodline.
So, not the best history for something that survived The Enlightenment.
I used to be fond of saying that another word for “faithfulness" was “ownership.” I said that monogamy subsisted in the insecurities of lovers united by the assumption that their partner shared their guilt; the fear of the lover fucking somebody else assured their own fidelity.
As I saw it then, polyamory — at least in principle — celebrates the virtues of autonomy, trust, and honesty. It says that we are not innately insecure, that we can love without becoming possessive, and that if our love is healthy then we need not fear our lover getting some of their happiness elsewhere.
There was a pride that came from this belief, and one night when Lou and I met, her body still visibly bruised from the enthusiasm of another love, my own still recovering in less visible ways, I remember never feeling more strongly that this was real love, embracing and free. We talked about others, what we found charming or delightful in their affect on our lives, like they were relatives or only friends. How could the repression of monogamy compare to this? I wondered.
But seeing monogamy as an institution for oppression and control moved me into strange territory, because everywhere I turned I met those who genuinely believed that their sexuality was tied to love, and that their love had only one object at a time. I was forced, in virtue of my disdain for monogamists, to contradict the emotional experience of many people, including some of my closest friends. I managed to rationalize this for a while, essentially by dismissing their claims out of hand. Of course people claim to want monogamy, but every one of them is brainwashed, I thought. Having internalized the overwhelming cultural pressure toward exclusivity, their fidelity was predicated on jealousy (“If he sleeps with someone else, he doesn’t love me”) and guilt (“If I sleep with someone else, I am a liar and a bad person”). Those who subscribed to such a worldview were no different than those women who declared themselves anti-feminists, believing that they and every other woman ought to stay at home to please their husbands.
Then I cut that bullshit out. It occurred to me, after the dozenth time I’d wondered why I’d just told a good friend that they were too stupid to pull the wool off of their eyes, that the extremism of my case against monogamy was precisely the kind of thing monogamists used to make me a zealot in the first place. If there is one valid point to be made about monogamous culture, it is that it does not believe in the validity of polyamory. The lesson of the TV shows and movies, of the myths and magazines, is that fidelity isn’t only a part of love — in some sense, it is love; the only real kind, anyway. It is both sign and signal. We stay true to show we are in love, and wanting no one else shows us that we are in love. It’s why even my political peers — feminists, gay rights activists, the promiscuous, some even anti-marriage — still cannot quite accept polyamory. It’s odd to have a friend — one who dates members of their own sex, rallies for equal pay, votes Green and slut walks every year — say, “Oh, so you don’t really love your girlfriend.” But it happens.
The cultural disapproval of polyamory had made me disapproving. But, I came to ask myself, if polyamory is truly based on openness, on the acceptance of idiosyncrasy and the right of all partners to negotiate the arrangement that works for them without being shamed or having their love denied, then the zealotry that I practiced could never be correct, much less productive. Like the monogamist, the zealot in me believed that there was only one kind of love to fall into. And yet, as a polyamorist, I wanted to expand the kinds of love; to make it alright for me, and for other consenting adults, to do as they wanted without the constant, sneering judgment of the ignorant. I didn’t want to become a sneering judge myself.
But in the beginning, the zealotry was useful, and not just for intellectual reasons. Fighting an intellectual crusade gave common cause to Lou and me, and condemning the love of others kept us — for a while — from confronting the failings of our own love.
Six months have passed since the nighttime zoo, and I drive to Lou’s to break her heart. We’re sitting in the coach house, having just come up from playing with her downstairs neighbor’s cat — a fat, white and brown thing that showed up one day from out of the cold. There is a picture of me from that night that I didn’t see until years later: the cat is perched awkwardly across my shoulders, tilting my head down while my eyes look up into the lens. I have an earnest, closed smile. I don’t remember the moment it was taken, but the lack of concern on my face seems cruel in retrospect: certainly I knew what I had planned for that night.
Lou takes the news as well as she can. I don’t provide much more than a rehearsal of well-worn reasons — I just can’t be emotionally responsible for someone right now — and she’s savvy enough not to argue with a farce. This is the opposite of what I want from her, really, because I’m not actually trying to break up with her: it’s just half a year in and with the first fire fading, I want to test the waters. I want to say, “No, fight me, I need to push you until you prove you love me.” I want her to protest in that unhealthy way we force other people to. So I needle her and she does eventually, though her voice goes sad and soft and childlike in the way it does when she’s too tired or too unhappy to pretend.
It’s snowing, and on the way home my brakes fail and I crash my car. Ultimately I’m thankful for the excuse, and use it to call Lou the next day. She comes over. We have sex; we say the breakup was a mistake. After, we eat Chex Mix in bed and banter about theater and books and friends. We don’t really talk about what happened, or why. It feels wrong, even viscerally repulsive somehow, but neither of us says so. The feeling passes in a few days.
In more nostalgic moments, I like to think there was a golden age of our relationship — a time when we were unabashedly happy with each other even after the initial rush had faded and before the bad times started, but it never really was that way. It was always intercut. The first break-up passes, but the pattern doesn’t, and I continue to act out my insecurities on her, switching from saccharine affection to shrieking threats if she doesn’t drop whatever she’s doing right now and come over. She enables me and starts the long process of us both rationalizing my behavior away. It’s easier for her to believe this is her fault, that she is failing me somehow, than for me to be this way because I’m cruel. She tells herself I’m young and will get better, which is true. In the same measure, it is easier for me to believe that her mood swings, selfishness, and acting out are just the behavior of an adult that I haven’t yet become, and not the scrambling of an unhappy girl with something to prove.
I’m 19. I don’t know any better. Lou is older, but not enough to know any better than I.
We found one another in the moment when each of us was wanting in the worst way: for a time, neither of us felt wholly human without the validation of the other. Even after the fade of first limerence, we clung to each other; at parties and on the street, in her apartment. We made a show of our love to our friends: playing dress-up as kids too old to be Goths anymore, shrieking at parties about our half-sincere patriotism, coming and going, always together, as if by making ourselves inseparable in the objective eyes of others, we could make it real and healthy between ourselves. She flooded the Internet with photos of domestic moments; I called her by her real name, like nobody but her parents had in years. She didn’t mind, for a while.
Clinically, this kind of love is called co-dependence; for all the sense that such a thing can only bring misery, there’s a comfort in it, too. The act of making not only your happiness, but your very sense of self, dependent on another opens doors to irrational joy and irrational sadness in equal measure, even if the latter invariably wins out. Mostly, it leads to an irrational mutuality of opinion: Lou and I ceased having any of our own in conversation — when we disagreed, we did so violently (confession: I’ve come around on Neutral Milk Hotel since then, but I still don’t like David Lynch movies). It was as if we weren’t two people disagreeing, but rather two halves of one mind in conflict. In retrospect it’s easy to see something so unhealthy for what it was, but the experience of co-dependency is addictive in its moment, and neither fidelity, nor openness to other partners, can alleviate its spell — the issue is beyond monogamy or polyamory.
But for all its allure, co-dependency was unstable, too, and after our second or third breakup, Lou declared her intention (made privately much earlier) to move to Los Angeles with her roommate. The move took months to execute, and by the night before she was meant to leave, we were back in each other’s good graces. I asked her not to go; she stayed, but already she had lost her sense of declaration. The move was a consequence of inertia — it was too late to call the whole thing off.
Her former roommate moved in with the boyfriend almost at once. Lou lived alone, in the spare room of a dark house, with an elderly friend of her mother’s.
Within six weeks, she came to Chicago for a visit meant to last a week. I asked her to stay longer, and she did: two, then three weeks in my apartment. It was a relief to be back together, but mostly because we were unhappy apart. She was unhappy in Los Angeles, I was unhappy in Chicago. We were no happier together, but it felt more normal, and this was the closest thing we knew.
I had two bedrooms, so we managed to keep up with our other lovers — at least the polyamory was working. In talking to Lou later, after the true break up, we still at least agreed on that: for many of our friends and lovers, we were the only polyamorous couple they knew, and at least on the surface we modeled it well for them. We dealt with others well, just not with one another.
Six weeks after she arrived, Lou was still living with me. She applied for a job at the University and got it. The return was poorly timed: I leave for a summer in New York. When I visited in July, we broke up. Again. But by August, I was her date to a wedding on Long Island. I got high with her parents, and we caught the garter and bouquet. I went to London for the fall.
While in London, I told her that when I got back, I wanted to be together, “really, this time,” without the bullshit and the fights and mutual cruelty and manipulation.
I meant it, but I was also lonely, and it was only at a distance that we convinced ourselves it was possible to simply declare our problems over.
When I came back to Chicago, there was calm, at least for a little while. Lou worked on campus, we spent most nights together in my new apartment. Still, there was a current of damage under all of it, and it isn’t quite right to say that we had finally fallen into a healthy kind of love. Rather, we had forgotten what it was like to be with anybody else; worse, we had forgotten who we were when apart from the other.
In monogamy, other partners and other possibilities are dreams, and ones that can cause partners to destroy the love they already have. In polyamory, these other possibilities are always present and taken — they are real — but by the insidious character of co-dependency, there was, at that time, little possibility that we could leave one another for one of them. They were others. We were the same. None of them could solve our problems, because ours weren’t problems between two people; they were the problems of one person, struggling to grow up.
How does someone raised in our culture come to polyamory?
It tends to be through crisis. The details vary of course, as does the severity: for some, only catastrophe can send them searching for such radical alternatives; for others, like me, it’s as simple as a shitty long-distance frustration, coupled with wanting a girl whose earlier transition made mine all the easier.
It’s an idiosyncratic confluence of mental state and circumstance, but the story you hear most often is a slow and steady failure of monogamous experience. It’s not so different from the end of a religious faith. It starts with a crack, then a splinter. It ends with a worldview shattered, with pieces picked up and put together in a shape nothing like the one that broke before.
Let’s say you accept the basic bargain of monogamy. You believe that fidelity, if handled realistically, sensibly, and maturely, is the romantic ideal. You believe that we are jealous by nature (at least to a point), and that this is healthy. Even if you’ve enjoyed sowing your wild oats, you believe that love, true love, makes people want to be exclusive, and finding true love appeals to you. At the very least, you believe in practicality: monogamy means less chance of heartbreak and venereal disease, and your lover leaving you for someone new.
You believe, as the majority of our culture does, that true love is a zero-sum game traded in sex.
You try your best, but many partners, especially your earlier ones, fail you, or you fail them. More than 50 percent of ostensibly monogamous people admit to cheating — chances are, you don’t always get what you bargained for.
Or maybe you do, but find there’s a more insidious trouble: the exclusivity that was supposed to give you peace of mind… hasn’t. Even if your partner doesn’t cheat, even if he doesn’t leave you for another, you can’t shake the feeling that he might: it just seems to happen so much to people around you. How can you ever be sure? You believe jealousy can be healthy at first, but you find it doesn’t go away. After awhile, you’re unsure if you’re more bothered by the prospect of him stepping out behind your back, or just the perpetual knowledge that he could at any time. Is this even the partner you want to worry so much about, or are you just settling? You imagine making a mistake, and you imagine the price the world extracts for such a failure. You remember parents and friends, broken down and trapped in financial or emotional captivity.
Love is supposed to be a challenge. You know that. But you wonder if it always has to be this challenging, or if it ever gets any easier.
The very axioms of monogamy conspire to make things worse. You believe above all else that real love is manifest in sole attraction: but then what happens when you find yourself longing — even fleetingly — for a pretty girl at work, or an old, still single friend? Doesn’t that mean you don’t really love your partner? Doesn’t that mean you love this other one instead? You don’t, of course, but if true love is wanting exclusivity, then something must be wrong. It can’t just be lust, and so you begin to rationalize your attraction. You think about that pretty boy so much, surely it means something beyond sex. But what can you do? Convinced of your failure, you destroy the relationship you have with your lover, and pursue the other. It doesn’t work, of course. Once you have them, and the tension’s gone, they return to what they always were: a curiosity, and nothing more.
Or maybe not. Maybe you stay in the initial relationship and, decades later, with a partner you barely recognize and lonelier than you ever were alone, you wonder if you should have left, if it’s too late now, and if you’ll ever stop being too afraid to do something about it.
Either way, you can’t help believing that you’ve failed. You know this is where a lot of people give up and make false compromises: they tune out, or they cheat quietly — it helps a bit, but not enough. You know that, and you can’t stand the thought of becoming one of them.
But you’re at an impasse now, and there seem to be three options.
First, you could buck yourself up and keep trying. That’s the “right” thing to do. At the worst, you’ll end up trapped and burdened with regret, but at least you stayed true to your partners and your culture. And who knows? If you try harder and have reasonable expectations, maybe you’ll manage to find “the one.”
Second, you could do what people all too often do: pay lip service to monogamy, but violate its rules with escalating rationalization. Stepping out, so long as you don’t embarrass your wife. Leaning on affairs, but dumping them if things get too precarious. Using silence to get by. It’s not the moral path, but it’s the path of least resistance for the discontent, trying to survive in a culture like ours.
Or there is, of course, the third way. For some, the thought occurs: what is the virtue of this kind of love? Is the bargain worth it? You’ve gone all this time assuming a clear goal and trying, against your assuredly disruptive impulses, to work against the possible and actual failures of others, to meet it: but what if the problem is the goal itself? Why keep climbing? The bottom falls out. Why can’t two or three or more people love one another without these rules, if it’s what they all want? When that thought happens, to you, to me, or to others in the crisis of experience, a new polyamorist is born.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but in long talks with my peers in the community, it seems to be the most common experience.
And there’s this: those with a cynical view of polyamory tend to assume that we approve of option two, at least over option one. Well-meaning friends have come to me with their plans for infidelity, imagining they will get my support. But I — and by and large most polyamorists — don’t approve. The trouble with cheating, or with lying in general to your partner, isn’t the sex itself, but rather the betrayal of trust, breaking your promise to someone you ostensibly love. Polyamory does not imagine relationships without rules; rather, we imagine that there is more than one set of rules to which we can aspire. The virtue is not in the particular freedom of emotion, or even of sex, but in the ability to decide these things for yourself (although sex, set free of self-conscious hang-ups, guilt, or expectation is… something). One of the chief appeals of polyamory is in its honesty, in its equitable negotiation between partners for the best arrangement, in its informed consent.
You just have to be willing to face the cynics, who might concede that honest polyamory is better than skulking or cheating, but still a kind of failure. Openness, to a lot of monogamists, is like a pre-nup: perhaps acceptable, but unromantic bet-hedging at best.
We are years in, now, and while the peace that came after Lou and I both came back to Chicago could not endure without a return to some old habits, the sheer force of passing time fomented their coming; rendered them expected, almost acceptable. It is easier not to talk about them. They are flashes, anyway; brief terrors symptomatic of a sickness we can still ignore.
The day-to-day of our relationship is largely pleasant — the horror as rare as the euphoria. Despite having other lovers, we sink into the same familiarity as any long-enough-standing couple. We see movies, and try to make the other decide what food to get. We sit on couches, each working, each comfortable with the other in the room. We keep pressing heads together, shrieking and giggling like stupid children.
We finally do what any polyamorous couple should do from the beginning (we, if this has not yet become clear, were not terribly good at the more prosaic aspects of relationships) and formalize our rules. They are simple and they work for us.
In the quiet time, I come to understand Lou better; to develop that intuitive sense that emerges between lovers through a thousand mundane evenings and unselfconscious mornings, not possible when every moment is perilous.
Despite the job at the University and the other work she’s managed to find, Lou manages to run short on rent money, and one morning we go to offload some of her old books at a second hand store. I scan spines for something to look at while she negotiates with the clerk. Nothing catches my eye, and I look toward the counter to see how things are going. Lou tells me later that they wouldn’t take her books, but even at a distance, I can tell something is wrong. It’s subtle. Despite how precarious her day is and what must be a fit of annihilating panic rising in her chest, she isn’t visibly upset. Rather, she seems almost calm, mostly composed, and anyone who knows her less well than I do would never sense that she was more than a little disappointed. I realize that she is layered in a way I hadn’t considered before.
On the surface, Lou is an eccentric. She’s a showgirl of sorts; Long Island rough punk rock meets manic Goth. She’s hard, in the street sense, and those who claim to be intimidated by her (and there are many) are responding to this performance. She has a way of throwing her right arm down from the elbow while stepping forward with, “But no, but wait,” or “That is bullshit,” in a voice a little deeper than her usual tone, that throws interlocutors off guard. Three “nos!” for something that excited her, each a little throatier to emphasize the point. She screamed at people at parties for brushing up against her at the wrong time, leggings and cut shirts and giant rings shaking like a costume on a coat hanger, stored in her mother’s closet.
As far as social personalities go, this isn’t a particularly dishonest one, especially for someone in the arts, but beneath it is someone far more vulnerable. Someone unusually comfortable with sincere pleasure for the age of irony, comfortable with joy; the child voice, the days spent in sweaters and bad glasses in a pile of blankets pressing noses together. Beneath the surface is the second layer: someone unusually disposed to terror, to overwhelming migraines and days spent in a pile of blankets paralyzed by fear; a girl tired and sad more than her fair share, worried about money, about her parents, and her brother. This is the girl who wrote delicate, horrifying prose with an intuitive sense of rhythm I still envy, the girl who could tell herself I wasn’t just a jerk, but that it must be her fault, somehow.
But in the bookstore, I consider that there is a third layer to this girl I’ve been trying to love.
At bottom, most street-tough art types are afraid, at bottom. Coddled and insulated by community, they do not know what they would do if truly challenged because they very rarely have been; not in a real and consistent way. Lou is different. At core, she is resilient, but the public way she plays it falls far from the mark. It isn’t quite so flashy. Rather, she endures in a way I rarely see in peers; more readily and more steadfastly than I ever have. She weathers more than her fair share of heartbreak and poor circumstance not by declaring that she will, or by making an opera of her efforts, but simply by continuing to exist despite them. It is an invisible endurance, where things that might cripple me merely wash over her.
The real Lou, this third layer, has known the corrosive consequence of a thousand mounting difficulties. These things would paralyze the showgirl or the mess, but she endures them, no less able to go on, and no less able to pretend.
Despite the lip service I have been paying the fundamental honesty and appeal of polyamory up till then, I realize that I have never quite accepted it. Like most people, a part of me has seen it always according to the cliché: a new form of free love, reserved for the young and tough and glamorous. It was a cause for an otherwise causeless rebel, and my aspiration to prove its validity and worth to my friends and family was inexorably tied to my aspiration to prove the same things about myself to Lou. Polyamory for me, until that day, was a studded jacket that didn’t exactly fit: it wasn’t that I didn’t really believe in it till then, but it was a projection of who I wanted to be, onto a girl I wanted to love me.
No more, though.
I decide, rightly, that this epiphany is vital to my growth. More arrogantly, I imagine that it is the sum total of what will preserve my relationship. I get it now! I can keep the peace now!, I think.
We go back to her new apartment (the coach house is long gone). A few people owe her money, she says, she’ll manage somehow. We walk to the 7-Eleven and buy cheap beer, and in her living room we sit on the floor and watch TV and play with each other’s noses under a Christmas tree still there in April. Across the street is a graveyard, and she tells me how when lightning strikes she sometimes checks to make sure nobody inside is moving.
Morning comes and I wake up while she is still asleep. Her costume — the jewelry and chains and cut up t-shirts — are scattered on the floor amidst the remnants of my own dress-up apparel. I look at her; tiny, really, skin distorting over faint ribs, tattoos on her torso bending when she breathes. I lie back down and press my head against her neck, pull back a little of the blanket she’s stolen in the night. Light comes in the window, reflected off the sheer marble grave markers outside. It makes the bed a little warmer.
I want to remember these moments, the boringness of boring days, and the easy comfort in them. There were many, between the more fraught episodes that always clamor readily in recollection. I want to remember the contentment and the mundanity. I’ve learned something, I think. Things will be better now.
We should finally take a moment and talk about polyamory more broadly. We’ve seen how one gets there, but what is polyamory? What were Lou and I actually doing all this time that was different from any relationship, troubled or otherwise?
Polyamory isn’t a cult. It isn’t old men gathering underage sister wives. It isn’t nude weekends with strangers at the nearby consciousness-expanding retreat. It isn’t swingers swapping wives and frequenting sex clubs with spouses squirming by their sides. It isn’t saying, “Fuck you, I’m going to fuck whomever I want.”
It isn’t about sex. Above all other things, this should be clear by now: it is not only about sex.
What it is — what bonds together people like me with the polyfidelitous and with everyone in between — is a core set of principles centered on the development of emotional, romantic bonds outside the monogamous norm. What Lou and I were doing, with primary partners and satellites, was as different from polyfidelity (usually closed households of more than two people: the kind of thing you see on television more often, and a group of people I respect but have chosen not to speak for in more than broad terms here, since theirs is not my experience) as it was from monogamy, in some ways. But there are common values.
Of course, those values can be difficult to define; for any particular definition you propose, there is some polyamorist who disagrees. Searching for lists of universal polyamorous values can also yield conflicting results, from passionate declarations of no shared rules, to pillars reaching into the dozens.
But for the most part, polyamorous practice is centered around a few, simple notions, not terribly different from what any monogamist would claim to value, even if he or she define the terms a little differently from us. I’ll limit myself to three:
Polyamory is trust and respect. Because each polyamorous relationship is negotiated, and each is a rejection of a culture where people must lie about their desires and their preferences in order to get along, polyamorous relationships emphasize the idea that all partners respect the autonomy of the other partners; more importantly, they respect the relationship itself as something to be valued. If your partner, outside of your dynamic, has other reasonable needs that they fulfill elsewhere, that ought to be respected, but in turn, each partner must be able to trust each other to be honest, and above all to keep their commitment to the relationship, unless it’s time to end it. At bottom, we try to see our partner’s partners in terms of how they enrich their happiness, rather than as threat to our own.
Polyamory is communication. Because every polyamorous relationship is different, you don’t get to inherit a civilization’s worth of rigid assumptions. So it begins with a conversation that involves mutual consent to the relationship and its particulars, and one in which each partner voices his or her desires. It’s important for reasons beyond the practical: open communication at the outset encourages ongoing communication, where partners check in regularly, rather than waiting for something to be wrong to broach the subject. It’s not that this isn’t possible in monogamy, but the decision to pursue a more complicated, less normative culture encourages it. In polyamory, you can’t so easily just “assume” you’re dating, and what those rules are, without ever having run it by your partner.
Finally, polyamory is fidelity, just not the sexual kind. Rather, it means honoring the agreements you have made to your partner(s) — whether those be sexual, emotional, or otherwise. For a polyamorist, fidelity is the culmination of the other values, coming together in a deeper loyalty to the person or persons — despite other partners — to whom you can come openly, and rely on for support, care, and empathy.
Of course, the declaration of principles and their faithful practice are not the same, and commitment to these goals does not exclude the power of individuals to sour their own love, no matter what kind it is.
I don’t know what changed. Time, maybe. Old habits. The ineffable confluence of personality that compels people to make each other miserable is difficult to resist, I suppose. It is late spring and we are unhappy again.
I don’t handle it well. I’m not handling things well in general. I find myself annoyed by Lou as often as not. Her neediness and desperation, not just toward me but in a growing, constant public spectacle of self-pity, begins to grate on me.
I am causing it, of course, but I cannot admit that to myself, so I feel embarrassed. Embarrassed for her, but worse, embarrassed for myself. I become pettily concerned with my social standing, and this concern becomes inappropriately important. At least I’d had status with Lou the showgirl, I think, but I don’t even have that with this perpetual broke girl, with this shithouse mess, always asking friends for money and broadcasting cutesy jokes about her depression and her lack of productivity to the world. I begin to feel like she is dragging me down, and I become an insufferable dick about it.
I humiliate her. I talk down to her, even in public, because it feels like being the asshole is a decent cost for screaming loud and clear: “Not me! I’m not like her!”
She might have left me then, or should have, but it was either too late or too early for that.
We play this out over months, like a game of chicken, each of us daring the other to fold and ask for reconciliation; or failing that, end things. Prove you still love me! What we don’t do (what we never did well) is talk about it.
We get into horrible fights; worse than we have ever had before. We stop talking for a while. But not for very long.
Sex. Chex Mix. Television. Revulsion. The feeling doesn’t pass this time, not really. We act as if the trouble isn’t happening, but this is little more than playing along, too exhausted to do otherwise. We stop seeing one another sober, and when we aren’t fighting or talking past each other, we are drunk, or coke-fueled, or both, clinging to each other in the late nights as the party dies down; our actions shouting “Everything’s OK! We love each other in this terrible way, it’s fitting for us, don’t worry!” to everyone we know is the closest anything can come to convincing us that it might still be OK.
I leave for another summer in New York without properly saying goodbye.
We talk a few times. One night while walking home through Brooklyn, I call her and we get into an argument and don’t speak for two months. In August, she tells me that she’s coming to New York to visit family, and wants to meet me the day she’ll be in the city. We should try to be friends, at least, she says. I agree, and meet her at a bar in Manhattan.
It’s a pleasant hour. Separated for a time, and with daylight and a time limit, both sober, we manage to fall back on old familiarity. I make her laugh, once. She charms me, a bit.
We part ways and agree to feel things out when I get back to Chicago.
That might have worked. But later that night, my plans end early. I find myself at a subway stop in Brooklyn. It is late, but I’m not tired, and I find myself not wanting to go home. I call Lou. She is in Manhattan at a burlesque show and I go to meet her there.
After, we go to Green Point to drink with an old friend of hers. It is one, then two a.m. Lou is meant to fly out from Islip in the morning, but it is too late for her to take the railroad to her mother’s house that night. “I know this is probably a bad idea,” she says, “but can I stay over?”
An hour later I vomit over my bedside. We have been arguing since we walked in the door, perched up, each of us, on lofted beds across the single, giant room of the apartment. We are both crying. We are both screaming. Every terrible thing that we have ever done to one another is rehashed; they do not bear repeating here.
We scream ourselves hoarse. We are terrified: it has never been this bad before, and never for so little cause. “I just need to sleep,” she says, as the sun comes up and neither of us has spoken for a while, “I can barely breathe and I’m panicking, and I need to get on the train to Long Island in a couple hours and I need to sleep,” she says.
I finally let go. I am far away from her and do not know if she manages to fall asleep. Either way, she is quiet for a while.
Around eight a.m, she grabs her bag and we get on the subway. I don’t know why I follow her. We get to Penn Station, and I buy two tickets to Long Island. We get on the train and for the first hour, neither of us speaks.
“You didn’t have to come out with me,” she says, “You’re just going to have to turn around and come back.”
The sun comes slanted through the window, and it is warmer in the train. In exhaustion, with everything awful already said, we give up for moment. She slides against me and I hold her for a while.
Old habits die slow deaths, and despite everything — how bored I claim to be of her, how long she has been quietly unhappy — we are close for the last half hour of the train ride. It’s been a terrible night. It has been a terrible few years. But each of us is the only one who understands it like the other, and there’s a perverse camaraderie in that.
“We just can’t do this anymore,” she says,
“I tried my best,” I say, although I know somewhere that I am lying.
I think I might not see her for a long time, and I don’t.
Fall comes for the third time since the zoo, and I am back in Chicago, 21 and in my final year of college. For the first time since I was a teenager, I am alone.
I see other women, as many as I can. Strangers, old friends, older women and younger. None quite fit the mold. I drift into some asinine contemplation of soul mates, but remember the probability that even if such a thing existed, mine was likely bent over a rice field on the other side of the world. I settle for a version of cellular biology’s induced fit model: you aren’t destined for someone, but once you meet a woman and the complimentary configurations of molecules are formed, you’re stuck. But this only seems like a more rigorous kind of sentimental bullshit.
I consider that while I have now identified as polyamorous for several years, I haven’t been polyamorous and truly single until now. I realize that secondary relationships are called “satellites” for a reason: they must orbit a central source of gravity. I’ve lost mine. There is no one I can text with every funny thought I have, and no one who would be happy to receive them. There is no person I am comfortable being quiet with. There is no witness.
I know that we are better apart, but I fall into the usual clichés of someone out of love: I sleep too long, I wander aimlessly, I tell my side to anyone who will listen. I try calling her a few times, but I don’t know what I’d say if she picked up, and soon I stop trying.
These months are difficult, and during them I considered something worth stepping back for a moment and mentioning, in the broader effort to demystify polyamorous culture: the possibility of switching back and forth between commitments to fidelity.
Up until now, I have portrayed the break from monogamy as an irreversible one, because it often is, but also because I want to resist the all too common idea that polyamory is just some form of adolescent rebellion, grown out of when true, monogamous maturity is reached. This charge subsides a bit as you get older, but a large part of polyamory is learning to accept that some people will never believe you. Not really. Some of your family, some of your friends: they’ll acknowledge that it all sounds good in principle — who isn’t in favor of trust, communication, and respect? — but they remain skeptical in practice. It isn’t hostility, exactly: the hostile will attack the (admittedly obtuse) jargon as pretentious, call you a home-wrecker, a pervert, or worse.
If you’re lucky, your loved ones won’t do any of that; rather, they will tell you how interesting it all sounds, how happy they are you’re doing something that works for you, how everybody should be able to do what works for them, but underneath it all will be… some kind of doubt. You can hear it in their tone, in the upbeat, measured civility they’ve learned to take with any group they don’t quite understand. The tone that says, Sure, but one day you’ll grow up and settle down with the right person. I mean, that’s at least possible, right? The tone that says, Sure, but when you really care about someone, don’t you get jealous? Doesn’t the whole thing blow up then? Aren’t you really saying you aren’t looking for a long-term relationship? The tone that says, in a more subtle way than most, But you don’t really love your girlfriend.
After it seemed that Lou had left me for good, I was presented with a situation I hadn’t faced before. My conversion had come with the relationship, and so while I had defended and explained myself to friends and potential secondary partners, I had never had to detail my life to anybody who might become the one I loved, and who might — who likely was — monogamous.
There is a painful part of this, a part I never realized until after Lou was gone and I began to seek out new partners, and not just secondary loves — a part made all the more difficult because it does not come from judgment or from ignorance, but from the incompatibility of partners in good faith.
As a single polyamorist, you have to be honest. You have to say to those you think you might be able to love that you are polyamorous, to begin that open negotiation that makes these structures work. The painful part is not when they say no — you can move on then, or promise fidelity if it’s worth it; no, it’s when they say yes, it’s when they’ve known you or other poly people and think it might be worth a try; it’s when their mind says, “I can do this”, but soon you see that it is hurting them. Soon you see that their heart does not follow their mind, even if they keep saying that it’s alright. We are a monogamous culture, but that is no excuse to injure those who cannot or should not escape its gravity.
I’ve lost loves that way, before and after Lou, and it has made me consider returning to the fold and practicing exclusivity, at least sometimes, if only to avoid another heartbreak. It is done: many polyamorists I know, although they prefer polyamory, are still beholden to the realities of our culture, and will date monogamously when a situation arises that compels it. At first, the possibility seemed like a betrayal to me — isn’t going back, even temporarily, giving credence to the nonsense that plural love is just a phase?
It isn’t, though. Regardless of one’s willingness to dip toes back in the broader pool of exclusive lovers, the notion of going back and forth is not a blow against polyamory; rather, it is a confirmation of its central premise. There are many kinds of love, there are many kinds of practices, and sometimes old monogamy is best. That this is determined circumstantially, honestly, and without guilt is a celebration of polyamory, not a condemnation of it.
At the time, my consideration of other possibilities is cut short. I am alone that last collegiate fall, but despite the apparent finality of the summer train ride, Lou and I are not quite finished yet.
We haven’t spoken for months, but circumstance reunites us by winter: I become ill, and after she calls to check in on me, we fall slowly back into constant contact. We have dinner one night in December, and I venture that we get along better, now. That maybe we’ve gotten more mature. She smiles, but not without looking down. Not without pausing for a moment. I am sure she is quietly saying, What the fuck are you doing? to herself. I am too.
We go to her apartment. Two in the morning comes and I say I should go.
“You can stay if you want,” she says. I know this is a bad idea, but I do.
By New Years, we are back together. We spend the month together in a sort of trance, old dynamics and affections picking up as if there had never been a time apart. It isn’t especially joyous, but the world feels normal again, in a way it hasn’t in awhile.
It lasts six months. Nothing dramatic happens, but Lou becomes more distant. We still see one another, but the old sense of joy, the old limerence, never returns. There is a picture of us on the 4th of July: we both look like idiots, but more than that, we both look like we don’t know the other one is there.
It’s a slow and strange revelation, but I begin to realize that without the anger, we have little excuse for euphoria. In the wake of wild oscillations, there is a long, dull calm. One night I text her to see if I can stay over. It’s late and I’m near her apartment and my work is much closer to there. She says her roommate will let me in, but she might not be back. In the past I might have thrown a fit — protested, been accusatory, and the exciting stakes of argument might have given us new life, good until the next bloodletting. But this time I say nothing, and when I wake up in the morning I can see she’s come and gone.
We are no longer at each other’s throats, but there’s no romance left at safer distance. The fight was all that was left, but we couldn’t bear to have that anymore.
She blinks first. I go over. She says she isn’t happy, and for a moment my instinct is to fight, to goad her back into passion, even if it’s through bitterness and rage. I give it up quickly. I say she should think about this more, she says she already has. “OK,” I say, “Well, it was fun.” She cries and I walk out onto the street.
There is an old Church there; orthodox, with ironizing towers that block the sun at twilight. I look at them. I ask myself what’s next.
Lou and I fell apart that summer; there was no third (or 23rd) act. Months later, I’d tell a friend that our final breakup had been boring, stemming from little differences grown enormous by grating interaction. We just didn’t get along that well. “Of course it was boring,” the friend said, “If it was interesting, you’d have gotten back together.” Despite the flare-ups with others, despite my own oscillation from monogamist to ideologue to committed non-monogamist, polyamory didn’t destroy my relationship with Lou. The mundane did. Our inability to communicate did. Our insistence on hurting one another to make ourselves feel better did. We were children; we didn’t know how to tell each other what we wanted, how the other one was hurting us, or how it might’ve been different if we’d known.
I have lost and found other loves since then. Polyamory has not solved my every failing, and trying my best to be honest, to be communicative, and to be understanding has not made every affair a perfect one. I have succeeded in ways I failed before, and failed in ways I hadn’t thought of yet. I’ve learned things, and those things have helped and hindered; steps taken to avoid old pitfalls have led me to new ones.
Above all, I have tried to keep on talking. Even before the first rush fades, even while the new love is consuming, even when it is almost too familiar: I don’t wait to talk until the bad times start. When I do, I know I’ve waited too long.
I don’t plan to go back to monogamy, but polyamory, of course, has not solved everything.
I remain a polyamorist because I believe that polyamory, in the long run, is good for me, and good for our society. It helps us in the very ways monogamy has let us down; by promoting negotiation and compromise, openness and empathy, respect for the many kinds of happiness we need. These things don’t always come with polyamory, but it can help, and I think that might help us as a people.
I set out here in story and in analysis to demystify polyamory, to make sense of my own experience in this kind of love that seems to blossom ever closer to the mainstream.
The big reveal is this: of the kinds of love we fall into, monogamous or polyamorous, casual or serious, there is a common thread of mundanity. They live or die by a slog of compromise, of negotiation and trust. They aren’t quick witted or sexy every day. They live by knowing they can’t run on faith forever, and die good deaths when we recognize that a good thing’s course isn’t always endless. The nasty deaths come from ignorance and silence, from refusing to ask “Are you OK? ” for fear the answer is “Without this. ”
Sometimes it will be. Sometimes it won’t. Usually, though? It’ll be “No, but I’m so happy that you asked.”
I’m sorry it can’t be sexier than that, but fundamentally, we’re all just trying to figure out what makes us happy, and who we can share that happiness with.
A year goes by. I speak to Lou, for the first time since we’d parted ways for good, in the basement of an old church in Chicago. I tell her that I am writing about us; we talk about what she’s comfortable with me divulging, and what is fair to say. I notice that she’s changed her hair.
After, we go upstairs and see a play. We sit next to one another, but we both stare straight ahead, careful these days not to catch each other’s eyes. This is not a date. There is no flicker, there is no anything. I find that I don’t want there to be. Between us, there is nothing but ancient irritations and quick anger; two soldiers from an old, bad war that nobody wants to talk about.
Another year goes by. She asks me how the piece is going, and I tell her how I think that I’ve found some sense in what had passed between us, some perspective that might be worth sharing with the world. Nobody should take us as reason not to love however their heart compels them. That’s important to point out, she says.
I go outside. The air is cold enough for seeing breath. It feels like Halloween again, and I am still afraid of her.
Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa City.
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