Artwork by Teresa Grasseschi
Over the last few months I’ve been getting more requests to speak more about my polyamory journey. Sometimes folks are asking out of curiosity. Sometimes they’re asking because they’re thinking of practicing some form of non-monogamy or opening up their current relationship and they want my advice. Sometimes the conversation happens within a spiritual or religious context, or folks wondering what I mean when I say it’s a pathway to dismantling systems of oppression.
Whenever I have these conversations I feel compelled to remind folks, a disclaimer really, that I’m fairly new to this journey and still learning so much about it…and myself in relation to my journey. I also realize that in my relatively small world, I may be one of their few, if not only, personal frame of reference because of my willingness to be open about my journey. What can I say? I am an oversharer. I don’t share for the attention. Believe it or not I’m an introvert. I share more in an effort to normalize a way of being that still carries a lot of stigma, and to help others feel less alone. Maybe so that I feel less alone too? Also, I have shit memory, so I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with who knows and who doesn’t. Call it part authentic living, part work-smarter-not-harder.
When I say a way of being, I’m alluding to a well-worn conversation in non-monogamy circles: is this simply a relationship descriptor or an identity? Do I practice polyamory or am I polyamorous? I know for me it’s an identity issue. I know that I am polyamorous regardless of my relationship status at any given moment. I could be single (not dating, not in a relationship) and I am still polyamorous. And if you view it as a relationship practice, that’s perfectly fine too. Some might think it’s a futile chicken and egg debate, but I think not. Who we are, or at least who we believe ourselves to be, determines our choices. It also gives us clarity about ourselves beyond our choices.
Which raises the question I often pose to folks who raise an eyebrow to any form of non-monogamy: are you truly monogamous or is it a relationship style you choose to practice because it’s all you’ve ever known because it’s culturally accepted and validated and you weren’t aware you had other options? Not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy. It’s perfect for some folks, but not for everyone. One size fits all is not a thing. You might suspect it's not for you, but you haven’t wanted to give yourself the opportunity to find out for a whole host of reasons that range from ignorant to very valid: it’s an excuse to cheat; my partner won’t ever go for this and leave me; it’s not moral; I can barely manage one relationship, no way I can handle multiple; this is for people who can’t control their sexual urges; this is for young unattached folks and I’m older with a spouse and children; people will think there’s something wrong with me; I think there’s something wrong with me; I might lose friends and family; I might be shunned from my spiritual community; it's not Christian; I might catch a disease.
I first heard about polyamory maybe 13 or 14 years ago. Remember, shit memory. I was married for just over 10 years. I was a seminary student in the Midwest, and my wife and daughter lived on the East Coast. I spoke to them pretty much every day, and I flew home every two or three weeks. At some point, through mutual seminary friends, I met Lisa.* The mutual attraction and chemistry were immediate and intoxicating. Right away we started spending a lot of our free time together. I told myself it was ok. As long as I didn’t act on any of my feelings, they would eventually dissipate and we’d just be good friends. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened during my marriage, and my method had always worked.
Shortly after we met, she asked if I was polyamorous. I had no clue what she was talking about. She gave me the cliff notes, and in the moment something stirred inside me. My out-loud voice declared that I wasn’t, but my deep-down-inside voice whispered, “Maybe I want to be? Maybe I’ve always been?” You know that feeling when you’re working on a puzzle and you see an opening that looks perfect for a piece you passed over 15 minutes earlier? Like that. She recommended I read The Ethical Slut, and the puzzle piece clicked into place. It’s a non-monogamous relationship classic, and as I read I kept thinking, “Of course! This makes so much sense! This explains so much about how I’ve always felt!”
The more I read the more relieved I felt. Finally there was a valid explanation for why I had struggled and never felt settled in monogamous relationships. Until then I had always assumed that my internal restlessness was just what happened in long term relationships, and that the times I cheated in the few relationships I had before getting married in my twenties was due to moral immaturity and weak will power. I didn’t know this world existed, and I felt like it was where I should be, but by happenstance of fate I was living in another dimension that I didn’t belong. I felt like I was meeting myself for the first time, again.
Another feeling crept in as I read: despair. I knew my wife would not want to open our relationship. I knew I wasn’t brave enough to even ask. I also felt guilty for what might happen if I did: for the pain I would cause by blowing up our marriage; for the untold developmental harm it might do to our preteen daughter. And even though I philosophically agreed with the idea of non-monogamy, it didn’t mean I would actually enjoy living like that. I felt there was too much to risk losing over what might just be a flight of fancy. To be fully honest, as much as it felt right, there was still so much cultural and evangelical Christian programming that made it feel more wrong.
So I said nothing, and buried my feelings until a memorable rant a couple years later during a spiritual crisis right before graduating from seminary. Let’s just say sometimes you have to be very mindful if you tend to process things out loud. I wasn’t. The shit hit the fan, and for a brief time, things got very messy.
The story continues in Poly Notes Pt.2 - Old Habits.
Check back soon.
* Lisa is not her real name. To this day we continue to be platonic friends. She is married and monogamous. Yes, you can transition from non-monogamy to monogamy as well.