“Okay. Let’s start dating other people”, my husband said after we finished appetizers. I met my husband, Jay, in front of a nightclub in two thousand four. We were both recent grads. I had a shady job selling carbon fiber centrifuge rotors, and Jay was unemployed. I didn’t care that he was jobless — he had a great smile, wide shoulders, and kind eyes. We talked for hours in the club's outside smoking area that night, missing the headliner and the rest of the party.
Over the next few weeks, I desperately looked for any excuse to spend time with Jay. It seemed that I was more into him than he was into me, but I didn’t care. I had an agenda. I planned to date a nice guy, marry him, have a couple of kids, celebrate holidays in large family gatherings, buy a house and plant a tree. The unsuspecting Jay didn’t know it yet, but I already designated him to be the nice guy within my plan.
I was determined. I organized occasional run-ins and a tennis match with a couple of friends… I texted, and I called and demanded his time. I never gave him a chance to figure out whether he actually wanted to be with me.
We went on our first official date. After a lovely walk and dinner, we drove to an empty parking lot with a great view of the night bay area. We could see the planes take off and land above the bay. It was very romantic. We kissed on the hood of his Ford then he drove me home. I was happy.
A month later, Jay and I went to Burning Man together. Burning Man is an art festival that brings about a hundred thousand people together in a desert in Nevada over Labor Day week. It’s one of those must-attend events that change people. Jay said he knew I was “the one” when I put up our Burning Man tent all by myself. It took him four and a half years to share that realization with me, but that was part of his wedding vow, so it must have been true. I am a badass when it comes to putting things together, whether it’s tents, furniture, or life plans, so I can’t blame him…
After Burning Man, our relationship followed the so-called “relationship escalator” trajectory to a tee. I made sure of it. I believed that a relationship that doesn’t follow the relationship escalator trajectory is not valid.
Relationship Escalator is the default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. The relationship follows a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, towards marriage. Often buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal.
Jay and I dated, moved in together, introduced our families to each other, got married, bought a house, had our first child, then our second child three years later. I didn’t know any other way to live because the relationship escalator was all I saw growing up. That’s how relationships always developed in movies and TV shows, books, magazines, and role-play with my friends. I didn’t personally know anyone who lived their life in some other way. Our relationship was progressing as I’d planned. I always had a plan while Jay didn’t. He was a great follower - most of the time, he agreed to my ideas, which was good enough for me. In my early thirties, I found myself living the American Dream. I had a husband, a house, a couple of kids, and a great career in marketing. But something still seemed off. I wasn’t as happy as I thought I would be when I’d reach all the life milestones I outlined for myself.
I started looking for the reason for my unhappiness. At first, I thought my job was the culprit, so I found a new one, but that nagging “something’s missing” feeling didn’t go away. Then I thought I needed a new hobby. I wanted to try doing something creative to see if it would satisfy the mysterious longing I had. I took up coloring, dancing, and voice lessons. It felt great while I was doing it, but once the class was over, so was the joy.
I tried working on my social life — started spending more time with friends and finding ways to meet new people. I started having more fun and made deeper connections with people in my life, but that didn’t fix it.
Yes, I loved my husband, but I didn’t feel that crazy passion I saw in the movies. There were no fireworks. We loved each other, but we weren’t in love. Our relationship was very secure, very stable, and a bit… boring. I never gave Jay a chance to make me feel wanted and show me he was actually interested in being with me because I was always moving at a much faster pace, deciding everything for the both of us.
It took me about a year to make up the courage to tell my husband Jay about my realization. I was scared to admit it to myself and him. If I told him that I was missing the romance, he would get upset or mad or leave me altogether. Finally, I couldn’t hide it any longer and told Jay I wasn’t happy with how things were. I told him I wanted the butterflies to come back. He said there would be no butterflies. Butterflies didn’t return to couples that have been together for as long as we had, he said.
I was heartbroken. Jay’s pragmatic reaction made me feel sad and hopeless. I refused to believe that this was it and that I could never feel that passion ever again. The prospect of living the rest of my time on Earth with no butterflies was terrifying. I was not okay with that. As I always do when I face any problem, I researched. How do other long-term couples solve their lack of romance and excitement?
Pretty soon, I stumbled upon the term “polyamory.”
Polyamory means the freedom to ethically explore feelings and meaningful connections with more than one person and the ability to love multiple people simultaneously.
“I can do that,” I thought, “I can explore feelings and connections with multiple people! I must be polyamorous!”
It just made sense. When I had my second child, I realized my love for the first child had not diminished at all. And if I ever had more children, I’m sure that the love for my first two would not suffer. I still have feelings for my exes that I dated before I met Jay. Maybe those feelings are no longer romantic, but they are still tender and beautiful and are simply a different kind of love. I have a few close friends that I love dearly, and when I develop friendships with new people I meet, I still love my existing friends. Sometimes I meet people that are not my friends or family that I genuinely like or even love. Connecting with people is the most interesting, fulfilling, and beautiful experience one can have. Getting to know people and learning how they think, getting new perspectives on life from people from different backgrounds and cultures — there is nothing more exciting than that.
I started thinking… Why was it okay to have many friends but not okay to have many partners? Why did we, as a society, decided that only one person had to meet all of our romantic needs? If we applied this logic to friendships, we would only need one friend to do everything with. The tricky part would be to find someone who is into the same set of hobbies as you, who wants to have Chinese for dinner when you do, and who would pretty much meet all of your personal needs. But that’s not how it works. I have friends that I play tennis with and others that I take yoga classes with, and some friends I go to for financial advice, while others are great as cooking partners…
My husband had a very special place in my heart and my life. He was my partner in crime and my best friend. But I didn’t feel he could meet all of my romantic, spiritual, and emotional needs.
As far as I can remember — I’m talking daycare years — I always had a crush on someone. As a teenager, I sometimes liked two boys at the same time. Sometimes three. I felt that I was only allowed to like one, so I made myself choose. Choosing who to like was not an easy task for a teenager and was usually accompanied by emotional turmoil and drama. When Jay and I were already dating, I developed a crush on a coworker. I didn’t think I was supposed to feel that way since I was in love with my then future husband, so I lied to myself and pretended I didn’t care. I “waited it out” until I changed jobs, and the feelings eventually subsided. A couple of years later, I started liking one of our friends. Then there was another coworker… I did nothing with those feelings except fantasize about the other men during sex, but even that felt wrong.
We are so heavily socialized to believe in monogamy and marriage that it’s hard to imagine any other option. Discovering polyamory was a breakthrough moment for me — there was another way!
I was reading anything I could find on the topic. I would fall asleep with Janet Hardy and her “Ethical Slut” and wake up with Franklin Veaux’s “More Than Two.” I was constantly exploring r/polyamory on Reddit and sharing my findings with my husband. “Honey, did you know what kitchen table polyamory is? It’s when you have great relationships with your partners’ partners and can hang out all together,’’ I would say. Or “Wow! Did you know there was a name for a feeling you experience when you are happy that your significant other is sleeping with someone else? It’s compersion!!” Jay, of course, didn’t know. At first, he didn’t even want to know. He wasn’t excited about opening up our relationship. He didn’t share my enthusiasm about the literature on the topic either.
Slowly he started to warm up to the idea. We talked about how we both had a wide range of needs, some of which conflicted with others. There was the need for having a secure and trusting connection that can only form over a long time, and at the same time, there was the need for passion and excitement that was more likely to happen when getting to know someone new.
Finally, almost a year after that relationship-defining conversation, we went to a friend’s birthday party. That night we found out that our friends were in an open marriage. They were quite open about being open, so to speak. They lived fifteen minutes away from us, and they had kids the same ages as ours. They worked in tech, and they were a lot like us. Seeing them living the lifestyle was the ultimate nudge my husband needed to agree to try it finally. It was Jay who brought up the topic on the night of our seventh wedding anniversary. We left the kids with the babysitter and went out for dinner at a cute restaurant. “Okay. Let’s start dating other people”, my husband said after we finished appetizers. By the end of that dinner, we were both ready to give open marriage a shot.
The idea of polyamory was a beautiful solution that worked for us for a few years. Eventually, we realized we were always supposed to be friends and not romantic partners. We have separated and are both a lot happier with our new partners. My journey to polyamory and back was certainly enlightening and life-changing. Polyamory did fix my marital problems, just not in a way I’d imagined.