I never thought of myself as the kind of person who could be in an open relationship.
The way I love has always been passionate and all-consuming—I give myself over to someone entirely, and I expect the same from them. When I’m into someone, I can’t bear to even consider sleeping with anyone else, and finding out my partner doesn’t feel the same way has been horrifying in the past.
The men I’ve dated weren’t cheaters, but they loved flirting with other women, which means much of my romantic history has been filled with frantically scrolling through text messages at 3 a.m. Finding one in which they called another woman “gorgeous” made my heart sink into my stomach, and watching them flirt with someone better-looking than I made me feel like an old sack of potatoes. It was never enough for me to be beautiful and loved. I had to be the most beautiful and the most loved. I had to be the only one.
So when Sam—a man I befriended more than a year ago—told me flat-out that he was in an open marriage and would like to have an “affair” with me, I laughed and turned him down.
I was certainly attracted to Sam, but I knew I couldn’t handle sharing someone’s husband. Still, we lived close to one another, so we began meeting up on park benches and having long conversations about the complexity of love and marriage. As my interest in him grew, so did my intrigue in the arrangement he had proposed.
I began reading a book called Untrue by cultural anthropologist Wednesday Martin that challenges the long-held belief that we are all monogamous by nature. Martin argues that, contrary to popular opinion, women often get bored with monogamy even faster than men.
I found myself fascinated by the idea that non-monogamy could be liberating rather than soul-destroying. When I considered how I felt whenever I got jealous, I realized that a lot of it stemmed from insecurity rather than love. If I didn’t take a boyfriend’s flirting to mean anything about me or our relationship, there would have been nothing to be jealous about.
I decided to have a conversation with a friend of mine who had been polyamorous for many years, something I’d long struggled to understand. “If you want all the security of a relationship and the fun of sleeping with whoever you want, it seems like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too,” I told him. “You can’t just do whatever you want without taking into account how it’ll hurt the person you love.”
“The goal isn’t to do whatever you want,” he said. “With my ex-girlfriend, I didn’t even sleep with other women because I didn’t have the time, but she did and I was OK with that. Because the goal is to have unconditional love, to get to a place where you love someone so selflessly that your reaction to them being with someone else is to be happy for them as opposed to jealous.”
“That’s interesting,” I thought. I had never considered the idea that being polyamorous could be selfless as opposed to selfish.
One night shortly after that, my dog’s stomach was upset and he woke me up four times in the middle of the night begging to go outside. Afterward, I was surprised to realize I hadn’t been at all angry with him for making me go outside in the middle of the polar vortex—all I cared about was that he was OK. “Huh,” I thought, “I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a love like this before. I can’t think of a single instance in which I put the needs of someone else above my own.”
I wondered if that, in a weird way, was the kind of selfless love my friend was talking about. And I wondered if I could translate that to my other—read: human—relationships. Could I give as much as I do without demanding that the other person did the exact same thing in return? Could I consider someone else’s feelings without immediately making them about me? Could I love someone just to love them?
A few weeks later, I went back to Sam and told him I was willing to give it a go—with one condition: “I want your wife’s permission and I want to hear it from her,” I said. “OK,” he answered breezily.
He immediately took me to his apartment. When his wife answered the door, he introduced me as “the woman he’d been telling her about.” She offered me some wine. We sat and talked about politics for a while, but when she and I were alone together, I had to ask her, “How are you OK with this?”
“Honey,” she answered, smiling and taking another sip of wine, “when you’ve been married for 30 years, you’ll understand.” For her, commitment from Sam wasn’t about not sleeping with other people—not anymore. It was about him being a good father to their children, coming home when he said he would, and not forgetting to pick up milk on the way—all of which he was apparently very good at.
When I got up to leave, Sam told her he was going to walk me home. “No, no, you don’t need to do that—it’s only a few blocks away,” I sputtered, panicking that it would upset her in spite of what she previously said. She put her hand on my shoulder and looked me straight in the eye. “Let him walk you home,” she said. Then she looked at him and said, “And don’t rush back.”
Ever since that night, I decided to be on Sam’s wife’s team. I wasn’t going to treat her as a competition. I wasn’t going to try and take him away from her in any way. I was going to give her control and take her feelings into account as well.
Sam and I have been seeing each other for a few months now and, so far, it’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in. He’s kind, generous, dependable, and considerate—and he actually encourages me to see other men because we both know that marriage isn’t in the cards for us and he doesn’t want to “waste my time.”
I’m always surprised by how fine I feel about him having to cancel plans because something came up with his daughter, or by the fact that he can’t stay over because he needs to go home to tuck her into bed. I respect that his priority is his family, and it doesn’t feel like it diminishes how he feels about me in any way.
One night, Sam came over late and started complaining about what a nag his wife was and what a relief it was to see me. I shut him down immediately. “I am not the person you go to complain about your wife,” I said. “I’m not interested in having you compare me to her. If you and I were married for three decades, I’m sure we’d annoy one another too. She’s actually letting you sleep with someone else and you should be grateful for that.”
I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth, but I had made a decision as to how I was going to handle this arrangement and I felt proud of sticking to it. Because, for me, being in a relationship isn’t just about finding the “right” person anymore; it’s about being the person that I want to be in that relationship.
Sam’s wife has said that our “affair” has actually had a positive impact on their marriage. Apparently, he’s always in a good mood and she feels appreciated in a way she didn’t before. According to her, your husband can be faithful and you can feel invisible, and he can be unfaithful and you can feel seen.
I can’t promise what the future will hold for me and Sam. Maybe the whole thing will fall apart or get ugly. But at the moment, I feel like one of the reasons it works is because it is open in every sense of the word. Everyone is reasonably upfront and honest about how they feel; it’s cheating, yes, but it isn’t deception.
When I talk to my friends whose marriages fell apart because of affairs, they always say, “It’s not the cheating that bothers me, it’s the lie.” The thing they tend to repeat over and over again is, “I really didn’t think he/she was the kind of person that would do that.” The sex really isn’t the problem; what haunts them is the feeling that the person they were in love with was essentially an illusion.
I still believe I would be absolutely furious if I were committed to someone who didn’t reveal that they were in another relationship—or worse yet, married. But that wouldn’t be because of the sex; it would be because of the deception.
Friends who know about my current situation often ask me if I’m worried that I’m going to end up wanting “more.” Frankly, I don’t think I will, because one of the things I’ve realized about myself is that I get into relationships for intensity, not longevity, so I’m perfectly happy with knowing that this is a transient affair.
People are also curious about whether or not I think being in an open relationship is “the way to go.” And they’re shocked to hear that in my opinion, it isn’t. Polyamory and monogamy both have their pros and cons. I just think that any kind of relationship can work, as long as you are honest with both yourself and others about who you really are.