Experiences with Polyamorous Relationships

One man details the impact his polyamorous relationships have had on him throughout his life.

Polyamory

"Stories from the Polycule" coins the term "polycule;" a network created by the interconnections of polyamorous relationships. Just like the molecules that make up all living things, polycules come in diverse forms: large, small, tightly bound, loosely connected, static, ever-changing.

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The first of its kind, Stories from the Polycule (Thorntree Press, 2015), is an anthology that brings together stories, poems, drawings and essays created by real people living in polycules. In this book edited by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, children describe life with more than two parents; adults share what it's like to parent with more than one partner. We hear from triads, solos, people who have felt polyamorous their entire lives, and people exploring poly for the first time. Some whimsical, some hilarious, some heartbreaking, some mundane, some life-changing — all pieces reflect the diverse reality of polyamorous families.

I was introduced to the concept of an “open relationship” in early 1969 at age 19, although the term “polyamory” was not coined until 1990. The office manager where I worked, a man age 39, was trying to convince me to go back and finish college. One day at lunch, he smiled and asked me, “How’s your sex life?” I replied, “What sex life?” Little did I know what would ensue. He invited me over to his home for dinner and to go over possible paths, got me slightly inebriated, and said instead of driving under the influence I should sleep on their hide-a-bed sofa in the living room. I’m trying to fall asleep, when suddenly there’s a beautiful woman — tall, slender, fit, and age 37 — standing next to the sofa, completely naked, smiling and saying, “Having trouble sleeping? Perhaps I can help.” Oh, did she ever help ... Her husband explained over breakfast that they had an open relationship. She had a steady boyfriend in addition to her husband, and he had a girlfriend. I had the opportunity for several more “tutoring sessions” before they moved out of the area for better jobs.


I got engaged at age 24. My fiancée and I were talking about what we wanted our marriage to be like. She said (before I could bring up the topic) that she wanted an open marriage, where we could have emotional and physical connections to others if we wished, with the other knowing and consenting beforehand. She suggested we leave “forsaking all others” out of the vows we wrote, since she didn’t feel it was realistic. We both did have other partners — mostly people who were already my, her, or our friends. I had told her about the few swinging parties I’d attended before we met. She expressed curiosity — and ended up attending a number of parties with me, and enjoying it.

In 1980, my wife had a dramatic transformation in her faith, and got very involved in a conservative Christian church. She said she didn’t want to “do this anymore, it’s wrong.” Out of respect for her, I also ceased any outside activities — for 26 years.

In 2006, after seeing Merry Wives of Windsor with the theme of Falstaff’s infidelities and their consequences, my wife initiated an extraordinary conversation. She thanked me for decades of faithful, loving partnership, and said she felt guilty that I wasn’t being true to myself all those years due to a misunderstanding which she neglected to correct — that she changed, but didn’t expect me to change. She offered me a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) situation. I found this very difficult — it felt completely wrong to me not being able to honestly tell her what I might be doing. In early 2007, I met a couple who had just been to a poly workshop. They wanted to try opening their marriage. She and I began a relationship. My wife consented to my doing this. (I later found out she thought it was just a mid-life crisis where I wanted to sow some wild oats. She assumed it was all about sex, and never considered that there might be an emotional component.)

I found out why swinging hadn’t felt right. I wasn’t seeking a lot of recreational sex; rather, I wanted someone with whom I could have an emotional bond, and that was more important than the sex alone. I realized I’d always been poly and not known it.

The husband started being possessive and jealous. He wasn’t ready for poly. Also, his wife and I found that he thought “poly” would be a way for him to get sex with more women, without guilt. He was seeking to be a swinger, not poly, and found it very difficult to accept that his wife had entered into a second emotional bond.

She and I quickly decided to stop being lovers. Both are still my very good friends.

What ensued over the next several years, while I was still married and living with a very monogamous spouse, was a series of relationships where I was a secondary or tertiary partner to the “other woman.” One lived with the father of her six-year-old child (not married), and had a long-term primary-equivalent partner as well. Another lived in a “vee” or polyaffective relationship with two straight men, and so on. I wasn’t getting enough companionship and affection at home. Neither my wife nor I wanted to go through the trauma of a divorce, so we just “continued to continue.” I wasn’t getting enough companionship, affection, and quality time from the outside relationships either, not much sex, and a lot of stress. Eventually my wife and I separated and divorced. We were simply moving in quite different directions in our lives. She asked, “What do you do when the circles on the MasterCard logo no longer overlap?”

My psychologist believes that my ex-wife offering me more freedom and subsequently accepting poly was simply “setting me up” — giving me more than enough rope to hang myself. She portrayed herself as the innocent victim of a philanderer having a mid-life “itch.” This let her look blameless to our adult children, her friends, and her family. I took the high road, and would not tell the kids that Mom wasn’t telling the full truth. It’s been difficult. I hope eventually the kids and I can reconcile.

In October 2011, I met a woman who said that she and her husband were poly, and it was ok if she began a relationship with me. Between her house, husband, and two school-age kids, there was a limited amount of time available for us to spend together. It turned out that she and her husband had each briefly dated someone years before, but they never became full relationships. Also, we found that her husband only expected she would date and have sex with someone else, not get emotionally involved and threaten his exclusivity. After a couple of months, he said he wanted a divorce. Had she understood his position and conveyed it to me up front, I wouldn’t have moved forward. They ended up getting counseling and remaining together. He and I actually became friends, and I became like a surrogate dad to the kids. On a number of occasions, the entire family would come to my home for dinner and perhaps a movie, then the husband would take the kids home while she stayed overnight. The young daughter sometimes smiled and asked if Mommy was having a sleepover at my house.

Again, I didn’t have enough companionship, touch, and quality time.I was lonely and depressed.Things got markedly worse when she met someone else and suddenly had flaming NRE (New Relationship Energy) with him. I felt I was in his shadow. She reworked the shared calendar, and my “date time” with her got cut in half so that he could have time too. Trying to juggle three relationships plus kids plus house had her overloaded. I tried to tell her that what she was doing terrified me, since several previous partners had met someone new and left me for them. I thought that was happening again. She didn’t understand. Our relationship rapidly went downhill and ended badly. Very badly. I had been like a substitute parent to her preteen children, and not being able to continue interacting with the kids I loved hurt me a great deal. She admitted that this was a classic case of “relationship broken, add another person” on her part, that I was trying to have something that wasn’t available, a primary relationship, and she was trying to rescue a dysfunctional marriage. Neither was healthy.

Looking back on my attempts at poly relationships, I realized that my needs had not been met being a secondary or less, and that the only way poly would work for me was if I had a stable healthy primary relationship where we had one or more secondary relationships. Very sadly, I realized that I’d been starved for warm affection and touch for over 30 years.

My attempts at finding someone poly who might possibly become a primary proved fruitless. I decided to change my online dating profile to not mention poly, and see what happened. Suddenly, I was almost inundated with people viewing my profile and a number of them sending me messages. I started dating, wanting to find out if I could tolerate being monogamous.

I met a woman about my age in February 2014. She had been divorced eight years from an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive marriage.

The good part: we lived only 15 minutes apart, and spent a lot of time together. I finally had someone to simply hang out with, be friends with, and “do stuff” with — picnics, drives, movies (particularly nice: movies at my house where she liked to hold hands and lean against my shoulder on the couch), and games (Scrabble, backgammon, etc.). I felt vastly more peaceful, content, and productive. We talked and text messaged every day. I felt like I had a warm, smiling affectionate friend, companion, and sweetheart. And four generations of her family liked me.

The bad news: her ex-husband left her with a steamer trunk of baggage. It took a long time for her to gradually open up to emotional and physical intimacy. She realized I was respecting her and being very patient, and that helped a great deal. So, for that time period, I basically gave up intercourse, and committed to being monogamous with her unless we decided it couldn’t work and broke up.

I was happier having this warm connection with her than I was in relationships where there wasn’t this kind of emotional link. I found that the smiles, affection, and time together mattered more to me than sex (although I hoped to have both). I felt that over time, she would realize just how different I was from her ex, and things between us would only improve. We planned two vacation trips: six nights at Reno/Tahoe, and a week in Arizona.

The six-day vacation ended after two days. We drove back in silence. I dropped her at her house, and we never spoke again. I let my hope and optimism mask the communications issues and, in my opinion, her serious OCD and other neuroses. It simply couldn’t have worked.

Just before Thanksgiving 2014, a woman messaged me on a dating site. We chatted online, then on the phone. Then we met for lunch, and after that for dinner. We both felt right away that we were friends, with potential for more. The “more” quickly developed. Both she and I had prior marriages of more than 30 years, neither of which satisfied us emotionally or sexually. I feel at home with her, and she with me. My psychologist remarked that he’s never seen me this peaceful and happy. We don’t want to rush into anything, but so far it seems to both of us that each of us considers the other “the one.” She commented that we feel like soul mates who were pre-destined to meet. We just returned from a week’s vacation out of state, which was delightful. I’ve been almost living at her home, going back to my house one or two days a week to get the mail, water the plants, do a few chores. We’re gradually moving towards more balance, with perhaps four nights a week at her home and three nights apart. It would be difficult for her to sleep over at my house due to an elderly mother who lives with her. That’s ok for now. We both realize we need some time to be individuals. Distance is also an issue, as we live about 80 miles apart.

Could I be poly again? Possibly, under the right circumstances. However, my current partner only wants a monogamous relationship. I’m feeling that monogamy will work, provided the relationship continues to grow emotionally, and it continues to include mutually satisfying sex. Whether I’m comfortably settling into a one-on-one relationship because more of my needs as a person are being met than ever before, or because my flirtations with poly were from within a less-than-fulfilling marriage, I can’t say. My current feeling is that poly simply didn’t meet my needs, and caused a lot of pain.

I know a few poly households where it seems to be working. I know more where it didn’t work. Perhaps my forays into poly when things weren’t great at home were cases of “relationship broken, add more people.” Perhaps I simply got involved with the wrong people or for the wrong reasons. I don’t know. I do know that at present I’m happier than I’ve ever been . . .


Reprinted with permission from Stories from the Polycule, edited by Dr. Elisabeth Sheff and published by Thorntree Press, 2015.