This week, for the first time since I’ve been out as (almost-)polyamorous, I got an OkCupid message from a married, poly man. He’s not really someone I’m interested in romantically or sexually, but in this apparent online drought of ethical non-monogamy it was nice to be messaged by someone who knows the score, and is able to share a little conversation from my side of the tracks. A few days ago he sent me a message that contained (some version of) this question: “How did you come to be non-monogamous?”
When I started writing for the Swingset I knew that at some point I would have to tell this story, if not for my readers then for me. But when I received this question from my new friend, I had to sit back for a couple of days and think about how to answer it. The thing is, it’s difficult because the answer itself is hard to explain and also because it requires me to look at a part of my history I would really rather – in a lot of ways – have erased from my memory.
A couple of years ago I was in an extremely abusive relationship. I won’t go into the details of what happened physically, first of all because it does not have a place in this story, but also because – and you’re not really allowed to say this – sexual or physical abuse, in some cases, is by no means the hardest part of being with an abusive person. In my case, I told people about the sexual aspect because in our society, that is often understood to be the deepest abuse, and in terms of how I felt, it represented what I was going through. But truthfully, I rarely think about the sexual side of our relationship because it wasn’t what left the scars. What left the scars was deep emotional and psychological manipulation. And amongst the many fucked up ways he abused my trust, mental stability, and compassion, was the way he used other women and my difficulty with jealousy to keep me clinging onto him. Without writing an entire novel about my time with him and the intricacies of how he did this, it’s hard to explain how him running off to see other women sucked me deeper instead of acting as a wake-up call – like it should have! But you’ll have to take my word on this, and understand that I was not of sound mind or reason, and it’s only in retrospect that I can really begin to unpick it all.
When I did finally wake up and step back, it took me a good six months to a year to right myself, to get my head back on topic, and be able to trust people. Needless to say, his use of my difficulty with jealousy had only served to make me feel even more deeply and desperately monogamous. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with monogamy, and I still believe it can be a beautiful, and wonderful thing when both partners have decided upon it, but what I was projecting was a road to the most unhealthy exclusive relationships possible. After some time I came to a point where I loathed the possessive way I cared about people. I couldn’t stand that he had turned me into such a deeply needy person, and I decided that I needed to get over the extreme parts of my jealousy, and learn how to cope with the rest in a reasonable and sensible way.
And so I did. In small ways at first: I enquired about my fuck-buddy’s romantic life, and smiled when he told me about potential dates; I said “I love you” to a non-monogamous man I had been keeping at arm’s length, despite my deep adoration and affection for him; I even listened to Life on the Swingset and fantasized about a monogamous marriage wherein, once a year, we might go to a place like Desire and break our exclusivity for a few days. I can’t explain how these little things changed how I felt, but somehow imagining and facing them as a reality meant that some part of me began to open up; to trust and simply think about other possibilities.
It’s true – as I have written before – that what tipped me over in the end to identifying as non-monogamous was the realization that what I need and want from a partner is so wildly contrary that I am unlikely to find it in just one person. In early 2013, that did cause me to adopt the umbrella label of non-monogamy and begin exploring the possibilities of alternative relationships, to start working out how that looked for me, and what I could offer to the people I’m intimate with. But ultimately, that horrible experience with my abusive ex did put me on the path. So whilst it might not seem like the immediate answer I could give in response to my friend’s question, it feels like the truth. The roots of my relationship model are much deeper than a desire for variety. A large part of the reason I am non-monogamous is because he put me in a place where monogamy wasn’t healthy for me. And maybe people will say I opened up for the wrong reasons, but I’m not sure there is a right way, and at least now I can sleep with the lights off.