After a year and a half of limited social contact, the summer of 2021 was promised to be a Shot Girl Summer of too much flirting and groan-worthy decisions. Eager to live up to this ideal, I found myself at an outdoor party with my friends when a handsome stranger approached me out of nowhere. “I like your shoes,” he said, which made me assume he was gay. About twenty minutes into our conversation, however, I realized he was straight because he mentioned he was divorced. He’d gotten married in his early 20s, had two children, and gotten divorced two years previously. This handsome stranger—let’s call him A—seemed both sweetly complimentary and genuine, so I gave him my number.
On our first date, A mentioned that he was still in a relationship with his partner B, and that they’d recently opened up their relationship so that he could date other people. I’d only been in monogamous/traditional relationships, where you may casually date multiple people until you reach a point of seriousness and just pick one person to be with. But knowing that A got married at age 22 and spent the next 10+ years as a devoted father and husband, I felt much more tolerant of his need to explore. After all, I was no angel when I was 22—although that was just called “college” and not “polyamory.” But was the practice of it that much different, from a practical standpoint? When A floated that some day, B and I may meet and even hang out as friends, I gave a cursory nod—after all, I felt only friendly curiosity toward A at that point.
While I suspended judgment, A and I began talking—passionately on his part, much more cautiously on mine. I realized we had a lot in common in terms of our ambitions and progressive ideals, empathy, artistic affinities, and intellectual drive. A was exceptionally flattering in an authentic way—that is to say, he made me feel really seen as who I am. He wanted to know my past, empathized with my difficult childhood, was genuinely curious about my work, and impressed by my accomplishments. He made me feel great when we were together. I made him feel the same way about himself. A large part of love is understanding and being understood for your identity. Another part of it is physical attraction, and we checked that off too.
What first started as another social experiment in my Shot Girl Summer quickly became a real emotional attachment. And the more I cared about A, the more I became aware of B’s presence in his life. Although B had supposedly given her consent to his seeing other people, it seemed that she was still not wholly on board with the set-up. There was a phone call from B when he was dropping me off at home. Then fleeting hints from A about B’s discomfort. It seemed that, while they had both read The Ethical Slut, studied how polyamory ideally works and how compersion makes you happy to see your partner happy (even with others), at least B didn’t naturally feel that way. I actually felt compassion for her situation, although truth be told I also felt judgmental that she didn’t have the guts to insist on what she truly needed from A: monogamy. At the same time, I know how hard it is to insist on self-respect when you really love someone: maybe that’s not the healthiest form of love, where you mutually fulfill and empower and expand one another, but I totally understood why this was not an easy choice for B, emotionally speaking. Love is truly messy.
Weeks later, A told me that he and B finally broke it off for good. I felt that this was separate from my relationship with A, and it didn’t change how I behaved around him. After he went and returned from a trip, though, I did something more unusual: I went out of my way to host a romantic dinner party for A and myself. There were candles and flowers galore, a special Spotify playlist I made for the occasion, and a multiple-course meal I lovingly created, agonizing over the result. It all came together perfectly, and A and I spent one of the most romantic evenings—if not the most romantic—of my life. This was also only the first time he said “I love you” to me—which we actually said to each other at the same time.
It occurs to me that as much as B’s departure didn’t consciously affect me, I probably would never have pulled all the stops for A otherwise. The reason I know this is that, several days later, A let slip that the day after our dinner party, he took another woman to a concert. I knew that he would be seeing other people—he had told me this clearly. I’d accepted it, because I have had plenty of chances to sow my wild oats in my 20s, and felt badly that he’d lived an exceptionally restricted life. Nonetheless, I said with tears in my eyes, “I made such an effort for you—and then the very next day you took another girl to a concert, to hang out with your friends?” And then A—someone who had only had one sexual partner, his ex-wife, until his mid-thirties—also got teary-eyed, not wanting to be shamed for exploring.
In the sense that I got hurt for being with someone who isn’t just satisfied by me, I am no different than B. Love makes you do things like that—expose yourself to vulnerabilities. But I’m different from her, because I didn’t say this was okay with me when it wasn’t. I said good-bye to him then and there, because while I wish him well for his fulfillment and self-discovery, I don’t want that to be at the cost of my self-esteem and emotional security.
I don’t think polyamory has to be a negative experience for everyone. For some people, I can see how it could help them have everything they wish for: stability of a long-term relationship(s), and excitement and passion of new encounters. For me though, it only reiterated Oprah’s wise words that “you can have it all—just not at once.” I’m still digesting other lessons from this experiment, but I know that whatever form a relationship takes—polyamory, monogamy, or maybe even conscious singledom—you will feel adored, enlarged, and empowered by the right situation. You will feel like your best self. And no lover or lovers is worth anything less than that.
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Photo: Gemma Chua-Tran via Unsplash