"Do you think I'm the kind of person who can pull off saying the word 'lover'?" I ask my husband over coffee one Thursday morning a few weeks ago. I am sitting on the couch in my underwear, watching him flip casually through his phone. He is probably checking the OKCupid app, seeing if any cute girls messaged him back.
"No, absolutely not. So embarrassing," he says, grimacing at me like I'm a lunatic.
"But . . . what else do I call him?" I start trying on names. "My man friend. Person-with-whom-I-sleep-with-and-share-common-interests. Side piece." I frown. "Boyfriend and f*ck buddy both miss the mark, but in different ways. What's the male version of mistress? I hate them all." I sip thoughtfully and stretch my toes to a point. "I like lover; it's very French."
My husband mimes gagging behind his coffee cup, but I ignore him. He is not a very romantic person — more of the sardonic, raised-eyebrow type, which is why he is my best friend and I'm glad I married him. I'm not terribly sentimental either, and we are perfectly matched in that we are more likely to play practical jokes on each other than stare into the other's eyes. But since deciding to pursue relationships outside our marriage, I'm also craving a little drama — something foreign, sexy, passionate, and intense. I could certainly get used to the idea of having a lover. A bearded lover. A handsome one with tattooed forearms and soft brown eyes. That is, if I can bring myself to say the word with a certain amount of finesse.
I arch my back absently and squeeze my bare legs together, creating a nice pressure, mouthing the word, seeing how it feels. My index and middle finger rub together where once there would have been a cigarette. I stare dreamily out the window and my mind flashes through mental images from a few nights ago. Hands tangled in my hair. Teeth on the skin of my neck. A voice whispering a husky "baby" into my ear.
My husband looks up from his phone and sees me staring stupidly into space. He shoots me a lopsided grin. I give him the finger. Today is going to be a good day.
My marriage has been officially open for over two years, but only recently have we decided to act on it.
The topic arose for the first time about a year previous to that, after our heads nearly collided while simultaneously scoping out an especially cute girl. This happened a lot. I identify as sexually fluid and have long been attracted to women. I even drunkenly kissed a few in high school and college. Sadly though, I spent most of my formative years trying to convince frowning art boys to worship me, yielding a lot of angst but predictably poor results. And so it remains: I have never had an adult sexual or romantic relationship with a woman, even though I've wanted one for a long time.
He knew that being with me meant at the very least talking about girls who I found attractive so that I could act out in fantasy what I never had managed to do in person. But even though I had fallen deeply in love with him and wanted to commit to a life together, there was still a part of me that felt a weird sense of grief at the idea of never sleeping with a woman in real life.
I faced the choice to suck it up and accept that monogamy is the cost of committed love, or . . . be honest about my fear that being with him meant I could never experience this profound thing I longed for.
I chose the second one.
It was nerve-wracking. I was telling him, essentially, that I was worried he would never be enough for me. I told him on faith that we would be able to figure it out together, unsure if a solution was possible or if this meant we would, eventually, break up.
But, my now-husband and then-boyfriend, this "guy's guy" from a traditional, religious working-class background, who comes home with filthy hands more often than not, turned out to be super into exploring this new way of life with me. Instead of tending towards jealousy or possessiveness, as had many of my past boyfriends, he laughed a little and said, "That would be crazy. Let's talk about it."
We did. For over a year. We talked about what we found exciting (sex, friendship) and what seemed weird and gray and scary (sleepovers, emotional attachments, commitments). We had exactly zero reference to contextualize a healthy open relationship or language to discuss boundaries. We thought of our friends — a rumor that one of them was polyamorous with one primary partner and multiple lovers, that another couple regularly invited guests into their bed. How do they know how to do it, we wondered.
As newbs without a community, we had to seek one out. We listened to the Savage Lovecast in which Dan Savage doles out relationship advice to many "monogamish" couples. We did online research about how couples manage multiple partners, "entwinement levels," boundaries, labels, lingo, and so much more.* We came out to our close friends who were in open relationships and asked them, respectfully, if they would tell us everything about their sex lives. We figured if it worked for other people, it could work for us.
We were nervous. We knew there were a lot of potential unknowns, like what if we say we are comfortable with a sleepover but then start to panic at the thought? It seemed like our only option was to acknowledge that boundaries shift, listen to each other without reservation, and be as honest as possible a day at a time. And of course, we set up some hard limits:
Everything must be discussed beforehand. Our relationship comes first. All questions must be answered. Must practice safe sex. No falling in love. This is how it began.
Several years, our engagement, a brief flirtation, a ridiculously fun wedding, a steady hookup, a couple of third bases, a one-night stand, one lover-maybe-boyfriend, and about 10,000 honest conversations later, here we are. He is in a relationship — a term used broadly — with a brilliant grad student 10 years his junior, and I am . . . figuring out what to call the bearded fellow with the eyes who knows exactly where to pinch and sends me home recorded songs when I want to feel some-kinda-way.
Our framework is seemingly ever changing. We have learned not to take our first reactions too seriously. One week after exclaiming that he could never in a million years invite his girlfriend over to sleep in my bed (the very idea!), I realized with great surprise that I didn't care. It felt like a collision of the instinct to protect my territory and the growing feeling that the idea of ownership — the insistence that what is mine cannot be hers — is arbitrary and somewhat useless. I smirked at myself for self-righteously trying to protect my bed as a sacrosanct symbol of marital love while trying to revise what marriage means in the first place. It was the first of many moments that reinforced in me that my marriage exists solely within the heads and hearts of my husband and myself and nowhere physical — not in our shared spaces, not even our bodies.
That Friday we spent the night apart for the first time — he at a hotel with the girl, me at home with the guy. The next morning, my husband came home and they met. I found myself gazing huge-eyed at two handsome, kind men as they sipped coffee and talked about motorcycles. I giggled nervously and they looked at me. I blinked back. "WHO WANTS EGGS?" I yelled, probably startling both of them, trying to find something to do with my hands.
What a time to be alive.
Of course, the reality of acting on well-laid plans is not without its anxieties. My husband's girlfriend is quite young and enviably pretty, and I both joked and grumbled about that when it started. "Oh, she's 21? That's nice," I commented primly, trying not to roll my eyes. Now that they've gotten to know each other a bit better, it turns out that she is fun and weird in precisely the way he likes, and he is enjoying himself. I have stopped sucking my teeth when he talks about her, and laugh appreciatively when she sends him videos culled from the darkest corners of Reddit.
And then there is the fact I have become rather attached to my guy, which was initially considered the uncrossable boundary and continues to be a difficult road to navigate. My husband wishes things hadn't progressed so quickly, and he isn't wrong. But he does not ask me to end it, even though he could, probably because that would be the path of least resistance. Instead he is hanging tight, choosing to be honest about his insecurities, to ask me for my attention when he feels like he needs me. We are not looking back at what I should have done differently; we are looking ahead, figuring out how to live with this new person in my life.
Why? I'm not sure. He loves me deeply, I know that. He wants me to be happy. He has a surprising and sweet trust in my guy, who is abundantly respectful of our marriage. He also embraces the opportunity to challenge himself and move through fear. He is brave, and it is for this reason that I know I made the right choice in marrying him.
Every day, I trust more that doubt, jealousy, and resentment are not going to kill me or my relationship, and what little we feel of them is worth the incredible joy that comes from pushing my relationship outside of its comfort zone. What I know now is that feelings will always shift — that's a fact. And they most often will pass if I share about them. So instead of doing what I thought strong women did and swallowing my insecurities, I talk about them in blunt terms with my husband. What if you stop wanting me, and what if we start to hate each other, and what if you fall out of love with me but are too afraid to tell me, and what if . . . My husband listens, nods, understands me a bit better, kisses me, tells me he loves me, and the fears start to fade away.
And for all this gooey heart sharing, there is so much heady adrenaline. We are reveling in the giddy haze of new experiences and great sex. We are growing closer every day. Seeing my husband get nervous over writing a text to a girl is both sweet and a strange new intimacy. He played it cool when we first got together, so naturally I have never seen this side of him before, this playful mix of arrogance and uncertainty. I get to see him through another person's eyes, enjoying the victories of flirtation as well as the geeky excitement of not knowing if someone likes you.
We lay together late at night and he touches the two bruises on my left arm, perfect fingerprints that he didn't leave. I smell his hair, which smells like the cigarettes she smokes. We kiss each other a little deeper. We are bound together in this experience — unfaltering in our bond, happy more often than scared.
And as for the girls: I am not nearly finished on that front. Back to OKCupid.
It should be said that while my husband and I situate ourselves as "ethically polyamorous" — meaning we have relationships with multiple people and ensure all parties are aware and consenting — our experience is by no means representative of the vast diversity of polyamorous arrangements out there. While we may not be able to call up our grandparents and chat about extramarital dates, our cisgender, heterosexual(ish) status lends our story some cultural legibility — and therefore acceptance. That is not the case for all poly folks, and their stories are important too. For more information about radical nonmonogamy and the important ways it can create healthy partnerships, click here. It's worth it.