I fell in love with a fantasy: my first experience with non-monogamy
When I was twenty-five, I met a young man on a promising first Tinder date in Seattle, WA. The only caveat was, he was “committed” to a non-monogamous lifestyle, and in order to date to him, I had to agree to certain….terms. Sounds a little fifty-shades, doesn’t it?
If you’re not familiar with non-monogamy, it is the practice of dating more than one person at a time, and a little more ambiguous than “polyamory,” or — the practice of (ethically) loving more than one person at a time. This was an entirely new concept to me. It was not an open relationship, nor was it a purely sexual relationship. It was something in the in-between gray area where mutual care, understanding, and firm boundaries were expected, set, and given, but that was never truly defined as a bonafide “relationship.” I was not his girlfriend, nor was I his primary partner, although I referred to him as such for the majority of the 18 months that we spent getting to know one another.
We met in Volunteer Park, in late spring. I had just moved back to Seattle to help care for my ailing father, and I sorely needed to escape from the turmoil at home. We had a fascinating conversation about philosophy, theories on commitment, our families and how they influenced our habits and personalities, and by the time he broke the news (so to speak), I was hooked in real good. He made it very clear from the get-go that he was not interested in a monogamous relationship, that he truly believed in the possibility of a basis in friendship, respect, and consideration, that would never become more than what it set out to be.
At the time, I thought, “Fine with me! I’m not looking for anything serious. In fact my life is completely unpredictable at the moment, so having something fun with strict boundaries feels safe and relatively welcome.”
So I said, enthusiastically, “yes!” Then he casually dropped the line that he tended to be more dominant in his encounters, and that there was this little old festival called “SEAF” coming up next weekend and would I like to go with him? He advertised it as an erotic art festival, one which he’d been to before, and perhaps a good way to introduce me to the so-called Seattle “kink community.” Sounds fun, I thought, imaging a gallery full of local art exhibitions focusing on sexuality and kink. I was right, in some respects.
The following week, I show up on a public bus to meet him, dressed in my work clothes, covered in flour and chocolate (I worked at a French Bakery at the time), thinking that it would be a casual affair held at the Seattle Science Center in Belltown. Oh how wrong I was… We paid the entrance fee, entered the building, and it had been completely transformed. There were six-foot tall gender neutral individuals in full latex bodysuits with leather riding crops dangling from their wrists. A couple was doing hook suspension demonstrations (Google this at your own risk) in one corner, and sensory explorations with electricity, flame, and ice in another. The walls were covered with paintings of women who had sewn their lips shut, couples covered in leather, and photographs of contorted bodies that weren’t entirely recognizable. There was one group with one man and two women, where the women were dressed as dogs, and clearly reveled in being treated as such for the entirety of the night.
Needless to say, I felt extremely uncomfortable, and required several fortifying glasses of wine before I was willing to participate in any of the above without staring open mouthed and stifling the urge to squeal involuntarily. By the end of the night, I was intoxicated, hypnotized, and wanted to know absolutely everything there was to know about this stranger who had dropped me into this friendly, seductive, dark world that I knew existed, but had never sought out on my own.
We started going to local BDSM (Bondage, Dominance/Submission, Sado-Masochism) parties together, him playing the top and me playing the bottom, watching but not participating — at first. I would bring him copious amounts of buttery pastry from the bakery, and he would tantalize me, care for me, and support me, seemingly without limit. I told him that I didn’t want to know about the other people he was seeing, and he agreed not to tell me unless it directly affected our relationship — i.e. via health concerns or potential shifts in loyalty. I continued to date other people, but my loyalty grew continually skewed towards him, the one person who I couldn’t really have if I wanted to (and I desperately wanted to.)
He was used to partners hating his vulnerability, and categorizing it as weakness instead of strength and a bid for connection.
You see, the only thing he ever really promised me was emotional support. At the unfortunate young age of sixteen, he had lost his mother to cancer, and his relationship with both his biological father and step father were never conducive to what you would call love in a palpable sense. He was used to partners hating his vulnerability, and categorizing it as weakness instead of strength and a bid for connection. At one point he even confided in me that he was going to attempt to curb his vulnerability and focus purely on the person that he wanted to appear to be — strong, a caretaker, secure, and completely in control. Regardless, I saw him as especially well equipped to help me through the year leading up to my father’s own untimely death.
I learned this the hard way: if someone shows up completely for me in my hour of need, and offers their traumatic experience as collateral for my own, I cannot prevent my brain from creating a fantasy of them. At the time, I referred to that fantasy as love. In psychological terms, this is referred to as a “trauma bond,” and boy did we have a strong one.
Yes, I loved the way that he identified with my grief. I felt immensely grateful for the way he always listened, held, and shared with me about his own experience. I felt indebted to him for the way that he let me stay in his house (in a separate bedroom), the weekend that my father passed away, and held me as I sobbed into him with no intention of stopping.
I loved the connection that this bred between us, and the way that he would literally take control of me physically, and take the responsibility of dealing with my own feelings completely out of my hands. The BDSM heightened this experience of power exchanged between us, and allowed me a feeling of safety and surrender that I craved at the time.
I loved the idea of him as savior and protector of my feelings. He always picked up the phone. He always talked me through whatever was happening, and purported to value communication above all else. However, the more our relationship progressed, the more I saw this value in communication as more of a need to assert his own boundaries and his own point of view over mine. The closer we got, and the more I asked for, the less time he seemed to have for me. Because I didn’t want to forfeit the connection between us, I fell into a cycle of placation and self-sacrifice to the point of martyrdom. I was so afraid of ending the relationship and losing this support I had come to depend on, that I wasn’t being honest with myself, and was thus unable to be honest with my partner about what I really wanted.
Of course…what I needed then was not really that relationship. What I needed was my Dad, who was giving into the depression brought on by his diagnosis of early-onset Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I was in the process of losing a primary love connection, and I needed something to temporarily fill the hole left inside of me, that still hasn’t been completely sealed over (nor do I ever think it will be). Instead of forming an equal partnership based on mutual love, transparency, and understanding, my romantic partner replaced the need I had for a father figure at the time.
By martyring my own wants and needs for his, I was also robbing him of what he was searching for.
I ended up breaking all the rules and boundaries that he set out from our first date in Volunteer park, and falling in love. My therapist had been telling me that I was already falling in love with him for some time, and I had conveniently chosen to ignore her. How dare I share my love with him! At least, that’s what he told me when I finally broke down out of necessity and shared how I was really feeling about him, and what I really wanted from him. Turns out non-monogamy wasn’t really my thing after all, and I wanted what he had rejected since the beginning: a more traditional relationship where I would be allowed to express my love for my partner, and receive love in return. Where vulnerability would be valued instead of feared, where boundaries around my own feelings would be kept, and my ability to take care of myself would be trusted.
Instead of doing what I wanted him to do and returning my unrequited longing, he told me that my profession went “against our agreement,” and told me that he was not, in fact, O.K. with me dating only him. What else could I have expected? He’d told me what he wanted and what he was capable of from the very beginning, and I’d made the choice not to listen — to project my own wants and needs over his own. Sounds familiar, right?
You see, by martyring my own wants and needs for his, I was also robbing him of what he was searching for, and he was not shy in telling me so. His reaction was not exactly welcome, but neither was it unwarranted. Our foray into non-monogamy together had turned into a toxic, codependent mess, and we were both to blame. Him for care-taking me and hiding himself away, and me for projecting my wants onto him without being honest about them.
What did I learn from this extremely painful year and a half? WELL — I have a shiny new idea of what I truly want from a relationship, along with a clear set of boundaries around my own feelings, and some great tools to help me recognize when I’m sliding back into codependent and compulsive behaviors.
Let me be clear: I don’t regret the experience.
It gave me the gift of teaching me what I don’t want, so that I could figure out what I really do want. Which I now know is the single most important thing for me to identify when entering any sort of relationship. My challenge for the future will be to continue sticking by those core wants, and not compromising them just because I’m afraid of losing someone. If they don’t want the same thing, it’s not worth my time or energy to develop a relationship with them.
I recognize that this approach is kind of counterintuitive to the current millennial outlook of, “let’s just see where this goes!” But I’m not asking for marriage, I’m not even asking for monogamy, right off the bat…but I do have boundaries on how much of myself I share based on how safe and intimate I feel with that person. Sex and love are both incredibly important to me, and I still firmly believe I cannot have one without the other. I just need to know that the person I’m spending my time with is open to the possibility of love, and willing to respect my boundaries, without sacrificing their own. I choose to commit to a healthy kind of love.