I love Elle’s laugh. She throws her head slightly back and kind of sucks in air in a reverse, high-pitched hee hee, and her eyes sometimes squint so hard that they close. For a while she’ll slip back into her native Hong Kong accent and I’ll have a bit more trouble understanding her. I find the entire experience endearing, one of the perks of being her boyfriend.
There are pots and pans and cutting boards arrayed throughout the kitchen; food in various stages of steaming or boiling or being chopped. Elle is standing in front of all of this holding her phone, laughing at some new text message. I’m sitting at the table next to her, playing with my own phone.
There is other laughter in the adjacent room as well. Our friends, Zahra and Ben, are sitting by the television with their backs to us, sharing some joke between themselves, oblivious to Elle and I. They’d make a cute couple, if they would ever commit to dating each other. For now it’s a romance of occasional convenience.
I feel a hand rest on my shoulder and look up to see Elle’s lingering smile. She hands me her phone to share in the joke: flirty texts from a man she’s been sleeping with the past two days. He’s supposed to be giving her cooking advice, but I can’t fault the guy for trying for more. And the punchline is funny enough to make me chuckle.
Elle accepts the phone back, kisses me on the forehead, and turns to continue cooking. I smile and give her a slap on the butt to get her moving, then I turn my focus back to my own phone: Tinder banter with a new girl, hopefully leading up to a date in a few days and, if we have quick chemistry, a night with her in my bed.
When I was younger, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be in this position. I had fantasies, of course, of threesomes and polyamory, but I never thought it would be something I’d encounter in real life. I was monogamous and thus didn’t have the experience to know how these things were even supposed to happen. Now these things are a part of my life, occasionally so banal that I get annoyed at having to plan around them.
So now I’m in a non-monogamous relationship with Elle. We encourage each other to make connections with other partners, to enjoy flirting and sex and love, and to be limited only by our own good judgment. Sometimes we’ll even share a partner. Paradoxically, with each expression of our independence, our appreciation for each other grows stronger. At this point I couldn’t imagine being satisfied doing things any other way.
There are so many challenges in relationships—whatever way the relationship is structured.
I remember four years of dating Grace. We were monogamous and struggling with her feelings of jealousy and my inability to tell her what I wanted. I eventually fell out of love and challenged myself to understand what had gone wrong. What lessons did that teach me about relationships?
I remember my year and a half of dating Chloe. She thought non-monogamy would be a cure for our issues; I thought we were doomed anyway so I might as well try something new. This time I was the jealous one, paralyzed by my emotions, pretending like everything was alright. We were both still in love when we finally broke up, which only made us bitter. How is it possible that I’m facing none of these issues now?
And what the hell am I doing, enjoying such a strange relationship?
Elle continues her text conversation, stopping to stir a pot and add some vegetables to a sizzling pan. She briefly looks my way, I can see a wry smile curve across her lips. I’m very easy to read; she must know I’m flirting with someone. I probably have a look on my face, thinking about how to make my next reply both funny and sexy. I’m struck by the difference in reactions to jealousy between this relationship and those in the past.
Grace once threw a tantrum because I spent too long talking to a female bartender. She was convinced that I was flirting. Actually, I was explaining why the excessive credit card surcharges imposed by the bar are illegal in our state, which is about as far from flirting as I can imagine. That’s even more difficult to explain to a pissed-off girlfriend.
I didn’t understand then why Grace would react that way. Now I do. Self-worth and trust in your partner are essential to a sense of security. But Grace always fought with feelings of inferiority, which made her feel replaceable. She had also experienced who I was when I was less discriminating in the quantity of my partners, and she had difficulty believing that I wouldn’t return to my previous vices.
Chloe once cried for half an hour because I wanted to leave early in the morning to exercise alone; I was too independent, she said, which made her feel like my hobbies were more important to me than she was. Later on in the relationship, our roles would be reversed. She was living in another city for three months to work at a new company, and she told me she wanted to pursue other men. I eventually agreed, and had my own women, but I still suffered through crushing jealousy until the relationship fell apart around us.
At the time I had assumed that my reaction was a product of my monogamous nature. But I came to realize that I would have been perfectly happy (probably more so than in a monogamous relationship) if only Chloe would pay attention to me. It wasn’t sex with other people that created jealousy, it was a loss of affection. Chloe simply lost interest in my half of our relationship.
Ben catches my attention when he detaches himself from Zahra and wanders into the kitchen to offer help with cooking. He’s a friendly, touchy guy at his core, so I’m not surprised when he gives me and Elle hugs. This moment sticks out to me, because I realize that this is contentment. He’s a good friend to both of us, so I’m happy to see Elle smile at his good hug. I think this is the ideal response to a potentially jealous situation. But then reality is never ideal. And the kinds of things we face in a non-monogamous relationship are rarely comparable to a platonic hug like this.
I still feel jealous at times. The last time was several months ago when Elle, in a display of out-of-character, going-with-the-flow thinking, decided to have sex with a date after knowing him for just a few hours. She texted to tell me what happened, and I was immediately struck by an unexpected sense of possessiveness and competitiveness. The emotions lasted only a single day, gone as soon as I processed and understood them. The next morning I celebrated Elle’s freedom of choice, her spontaneity, and her trust in herself.
What allows this to work, above all, are three guiding principles: trust in myself, trust in my partner, and trust in the strength of our relationship.
Sometimes jealousy arises from weak self-esteem. If we do not love ourselves, then we crave love from others. External validation becomes a substitute for internal deficiency. When I learned to love and trust myself, however, I no longer feared being alone or even replaced. It’s like using love from others as a crutch. If that person leaves, then we fall or we frantically grasp for anyone who will prop us up. But if we are healthy and whole on our own, then we can withstand our time alone, embrace independence, and spend more time choosing suitable partners for qualities other than their ability to carry our weight.
Sometimes jealousy arises from uncertainty, when we don’t know what our partner will do in new situations. But I’ve learned to choose partners who make good decisions (when their values are aligned with my own), and who value me (when they consider how their decisions will affect us and our relationship). I thus have no reason to fear that they will make a decision I would strongly disagree with.
Sometimes jealousy arises from doubt. If we are unsure about our relationship, if we’re experiencing significant differences with our partner, then small annoyances are exaggerated into large threats. Could one attractive stranger be the last, compromising crack in a faulty relationship? But I’ve learned that it is the intrinsic strength of a relationship that determines its path, rather than any external influences. A strong foundation makes light work of tough situations.
Elle turns her head to ask me how my date was last night. I had been walking around downtown and crossed paths with an intriguing woman from out of town. We shared a few laughs over drinks and headed back to her hotel room to fool around. I told Elle something about the woman, a new-agey school teacher from Florida on an unplanned vacation, and gave a rundown of how I managed to get her into bed.
I never felt like I could have talked like this to Grace or Chloe. Grace and I appeared to be a perfect couple, but we sustained that image by ignoring major misalignments in our values. We simply wouldn’t constructively talk about our problems. Of course, that can only last so long. Chloe and I at least acknowledged our issues, but we had difficulty understanding the differences in how we preferred to give and receive affection, and in what we expected out of the relationship.
At the same time, I never felt like I could talk with myself that openly or honestly. I had issues but rather than facing them and conquering them, I hid them from myself until they festered. I can still feel the pang of anxiety that sparked in my gut every time I lied to myself or to others. “I’m fine” became an increasingly untrue mantra that I used to get through my day.
There’s an interesting link between communication with oneself and communication with others. Openness and honesty are general habits, so when you learn to become open and honest with yourself, you necessarily become open and honest with everyone else. And when you learn to open up with others, you necessarily open up to yourself. I learned to be unafraid of expressing who I was, what I wanted, what I expected. I now actively test to see if my values align with others, to see if my expressions of affection are compatible with another’s, and to see if my expectations within a relationship can be met.
Elle and I certainly share more with each other than most couples. She knows all of the interesting details about who I have been with—from how they think to how they orgasm—and how I feel about it. And I know the same for her and her partners. That level of openness isn’t necessary for a functioning relationship, not even a non-monogamous one, but it’s the level of openness that we both enjoy.
Zahra’s voice breaks me from my reverie. She’s yelling across the room, asking what we did to Ben the other night. A large smile spreads across Ben’s face and he starts laughing. He explains: a few nights ago we all arrived at different times to the same party. Zahra wanted to go home with Ben that night, but she couldn’t find him and heard that he had left with Elle and I. She knows we’re in an open relationship, so she had assumed that we took Ben to bed with us. We didn’t and, though we often joke about it, we probably never will. Of course Zahra refuses to believe this, so there’s good-natured teasing all around.
Elle and I have found a good balance in communication. We tell each other everything simply because we enjoy it. We tell choice friends (and occasional strangers) the details of our lives, because we believe all relationships require open and honest communication (though not all people want to hear certain details, and we do our best to respect boundaries). Of course, we tell our other partners about our lives, especially our polyamory. And, above all, we strive to always be honest with ourselves.
I didn’t expect this to be my life. I simply sought to grow as an individual, and reacted to the lessons provided by past relationships. It has felt like life is a challenging mountain trail that is occasionally fun to run and climb on, and sometimes overwhelmingly difficult or harsh, and taking odd turns at unexpected places; and if I choose my path by whichever options offer the greatest opportunities for growth, then it always seems to work out in the end.
It’s strange to think back about my plans with Grace and how misguided they were. Our greatest disagreements were about how we might spiritually raise our future children, and whether they would be biological or adopted. We had many tearful arguments before we reached an unspoken agreement to never bring up the subject again. But somewhere embedded in our arguments was the assumption, and thus the plan, that we were going to have children, and that we were going to be married. Grace thought I was the last man she would ever date. I was unsure. These and other plans came falling down when we broke up.
I made no long-term plans with Chloe, but there were still surprises in store. Before our relationship completely fell apart, Chloe had asked if we could switch from a monogamous relationship to an open relationship. We had been so happy at the beginning, that even the thought of us going through such hard times, or deciding to sleep separately with other people, seemed far-fetched. Eventually it was a reality that I would painfully live through, and (much later) appreciatively reflect upon.
The situation with Elle is, I think, a bit more grounded in reality. We make plans a few months in advance, and we understand that even within this timeframe things can substantially change. We have no expectation that we’ll always be together, though I think it would make both of us very happy if we were. And there is no expectation that the relationship will take any particular course.
Elle and I have each been in a lot of relationships, and that has taught us a bit of the impermanence of things. All things are temporary, including life and love. Unattachment to particular outcomes frees you from a certain kind of anxiety and allows you to accept what comes.
So we don’t plan on settling down or marriage or children, though we wouldn’t turn down the opportunity if we thought it would add value to our lives. We didn’t plan on non-monogamy, even. It just happened and we went with it. And I think that’s what we’ll happily continue to do.
Elle must be finishing up with dinner; I hear her calling all of us to grab plates and dig in. What I like about dinners is that each person, in their own way, will share in what is brought to the table, whether it’s food or wine or companionship, and we all look to make sure each other’s plate is full. I grab my portion and only after sitting down do I notice that I’m sitting diagonally across the table far from Elle. It’s alright, I’ll have time to interact with her one-on-one later. I look up and meet her eyes and I smile; she smiles back.
Names and identifiable details changed for privacy.