I was listening to a song today while driving – Brandi Carlile’s “I belong to you” and suddenly I felt a wave of grief coming over me. Here are some of the words:

I know I could be spending a little too much time with you
But time and too much don’t belong together like we do
If I had all my yesterdays I’d give ’em to you too
I belong to you now
I belong to you

And I thought to myself: I don’t think I’m ever going to have that. And I want that.

And also: I’ve had that. And I didn’t want it.

Both things are true.

A while ago, on a Relationship Anarchy facebook group I’m on, someone mentioned the strange grief that comes from surrendering the idea of “the One”. I feel this grief at times more insistently than others, but it’s always there in the background. The dream of being known and seen and cherished is very hard to extricate from the dream of being part of a couple, a tight and exclusive and cosy couple.

I want to be somebody’s favourite person.

I want to feel radiant and beautiful as that person looks at me with awe. I want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else knows it. I want to be weird with someone and know that my weirdness is being held with compassion. I want to be someone’s top priority.

But experience tells me that I cannot have these things without their shadow side. And for me that shadow side is neatly encapsulated by almost everything on the ‘Relationship Escalator’, which Aggie Sez defines as “The default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships.”(She also wrote a really good book about it). Basically, some of the aspects of the Relationship Escalator include monogamy, sharing a living space, merging lives, public recognition as a couple. The normal trajectory relationships usually follow.

And while choosing the relationship escalator is a totally valid choice, for me its shadow side outweighs its advantages.

This is what happens for me when I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship: I look at my partner with equal parts love and exasperation. I chafe under the knowledge that the places we don’t fit will never fit. I grieve for the dreams I’m giving up as I meld my life with theirs. I grieve for the dreams they’re giving up to be with me. I feel guilty when I flirt with other people, and a little resentful over the guilt. I miss having my own space.

I worry about the future – a lot. What if I want to resign, sell all my belongings, and move to an intentional community, and they don’t? What if the way he holds onto his little routines start bugging the living hell out of me, and I can’t leave, because we’ve become too entwined? Wait, is that already the case? How do I love this person without losing so many of the things that bring me joy?

There are ways around these issues without abandoning monogamy, or without abandoning the relationship escalator entirely. Lots of people do it. They spend more time doing fun activities with their girlfriends because their partners don’t enjoy those things. They get permission to flirt with strangers, as long as it doesn’t go any further. They date long-distance.

That’s all valid. But somehow that’s not enough for me.

I want the breathless joy of exploring the beauty of other people’s souls without fearing that I might have to pull the brakes soon.

I want to live by myself entirely (for now at least; I am aware that this might change). I want to make spontaneous weird decisions, go on long road trips and have flings with strangers. I want to flirt with my friends. I want to get to spend entire days alone. I want to bring all of myself into every encounter without worrying that my partner might feel abandoned. I want to not have to explain myself and my choices all the time. I want to not have sex with only one person for the rest of my life.

If that means abandoning the idea of “the One”, then so be it. Because even as I was writing down some of the things I want, I knew I don’t really want them. I don’t really want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else does – when I find someone really beautiful, I want others to see that too. The idea of sharing friskiness and curiosity with others excites me; it even excites me to imagine others falling in love with my partners, when I pause for a moment and let the knee-jerk jealousy evaporate. I don’t want to be somebody’s top priority – the idea makes me nervous; instead, I’d like to be valued. I don’t want to be part of a tight, exclusive couple – there wouldn’t be enough air to breathe.

As for being someone’s favourite person – I am lots of people’s favourite person, even if they have, paradoxically, other favourite people too. And I have lots of favourite people too, people who fill my heart with gratitude and awe and curiosity. I am cherished by my family, by more than a handful of friends. I am known. I am loved. I will never be alone, even as I wander this earth feeling sometimes startlingly alone.

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” – Kahlil Gibran

Serial monogamy as a young romantic

For my tenth birthday I received my very first diary. It was a small flipbook with blank black pages; I wrote in it with my precious set of milky pens. The first page says “Warning! Danger! Property of Sage. If lost, return to Sage. Do not read.” I repeated this warning on every page, although it didn’t deter my siblings in the least.

One of my first entries reads as follows: “Samuel is very large he has brown eyes and brown hair. He is very quiet and very friendly. I love him very much. Signed, Sage.” (With a drawing of a heart and an arrow through).

About one month later, a new entry reads: “In love! I fell in love very suddenly with Raymond when he joined our school. I would describe him like this: black hair, medium size, long nose and that’s all. Goodbye!”

My subsequent diaries, all of which I kept, are increasingly full of lovesick entries.

There was Jean, who’d accompany his mom on visits to our family but sit outside by himself, fair hair hanging into his eyes, looking mysterious and a little sad. (I ran into him two years ago and he told me out of the blue that he’d had a crush on me too, but he’d been too shy to ever talk to me. With such satisfaction did I report back to my eleven-year-old self!) There were all of my friends’ brothers, especially Freddy who was older and had a steady girlfriend (so much more the allure) and was prone to whipping out his guitar and singing to any willing audience. There was Lewis, and Wynand, and Pieter, and many more.

When I was thirteen I made a list of all the boys I’d fallen in love with, going back all the way to my very first crush, Vincent, when I was four. We were in kindergarten together and the longing and awkwardness was about as real as it gets – I remember sitting on the swings in the playground wondering which magical power I’d developed that enabled me to always know, always feel, where he was standing. I had no words for the ache I felt when I looked at him.

Anyway – by the time I was thirteen, the list of all my crushes was longer than the years in my life. All of them had felt intense. I had daydreamed about marrying every single one, being carried off on a horse (there were always horses in my daydreams) while playing the violin, swept up in our deep and abiding love with which we would subsequently travel the world, feeding hungry orphans and becoming famous. I was getting a little worried, too: how would I know when I’d found the right one, if every time felt this intense? And so I asked my mom: “How do you know when you have found your True Love?”

My mom’s response left much to be desired. She thought for a moment, looking puzzled, and then said something along the lines of “well, you kind of decide this is it. You make up your mind to love this person for the rest of your life.”

My mom was not a good authority on love, I decided. She and my dad were forever splitting up and getting back together. Obviously she hadn’t found her True Love, but I would. I’d know it when it happened.

My first serious relationship started in high school and lasted through our undergraduate studies, five years altogether. His name was Krisjan and he was my best friend. We spent almost all our time together, riding our bicycles through the small university town, arguing about politics, eating mulberries from the tree behind his residence, watching rugby games with his friends, making out. He was intelligent, odd, kind, and loved Rambo movies. When we argued he’d go quiet and grim, I’d burst into tears, eventually we’d make up without reaching a resolution. Sometimes I’d picture our life together, the farm we’d live on, me perhaps teaching (I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else with a degree in language), him making his own craft beers and driving around in his pickup truck with our toddler sitting next to him. Imagining our future made my throat constrict, and I wasn’t sure why. I knew I loved him – even though I’d had other crushes since we’d started dating, the thought of us ever being apart felt ludicrous.

And then I fell in love with someone else.

It happened on an varsity tour in Europe, and it was perhaps the most terrifying experience I have had to date. This guy was everything Krisjan was not: flamboyant, liberal, emotional. He was a philosophy student and it showed. He bought sunflowers from a street vendor and gave one to each of his tour mates, pulled me into a waltz in the subway where a man was playing the accordion, burst into tears during the train ride to Antwerp. He spoke about Nietzsche and existentialism A LOT.

I wanted this life forever: to stand on the prow of a boat entering Amsterdam harbour, sick with longing, the rain whipping harsh tears into my face. To meet eyes across a crowded restaurant and smile with a secret knowing – I see you. To wander the streets of Amsterdam and come to sit next to a canal where all of a sudden, at three in the morning, bridges lift and tiny boats start chugging past while we talk about the meaning of the universe. To karaoke together, him with a rose in his teeth, me suddenly gloriously aware of my body and radiant youth.

I barely ate, barely slept. At night I turned this question over and over in my mind: How to break up with Krisjan? It was unthinkable. It would be like cutting off my arm.

I had to do it.

And so I did. It broke both our hearts, but I did it. I came back from Europe, arms laden with the Belgian beers I had bought him, and broke up with him at once. He cried. I cried. He begged me for two weeks of normalcy in which to say goodbye, I begrudgingly said yes. We spent the entire two weeks arguing, him beseeching me to come to my senses, me torn between this gaping loss and the romantic dream pulsing within my heart.

I journaled intensively during this time, and wrote long letters littered with poems to my philosopher, Alexander, who was studying on the other side of the country. I wanted…something else. Not to fall into another long-term relationship, but rather to have an undefined enduring romance, one in which our knowing of each other would be stronger, braver, more real, than any man-made institution. I would never get married, I decided. I wrote to Alexander that defining our relationship would make it lesser somehow, would remove the spaciousness from our union, might squeeze the air from it. Much taken by my unconventionality, he wrote back that he’d like to take my brain out on a date.

But our romance almost immediately floundered. Alexander’s roving soul was matched only by his roving eye and within two months he let me know that he’d met somebody else. My heart shattered, but my commitment to a new kind of life did not. I decided to make up for lost time by making out with every somewhat attractive guy I met. I swapped spit with a first-year in a noisy club near campus, disgusted by his kissing technique but undeterred in my quest for fun. I learned to provide a pseudonym in clubs, so that guys wouldn’t find me afterwards on facebook. I embarrassed my friends with my unsubtle flirtiness. I broke my toe on the dance floor. In between I grieved, for my beautiful earthy Krisjan, and for my flamboyant philosopher, my True Love gone, Alexander.

Krisjan had not quite disappeared – our friendship had been too real for that. He still was, somehow, my person. I missed him too much to let him go entirely, sometimes we even hooked up again. I was incredibly confused – how could I love someone this much (maybe even be IN love with them…?) yet also feel profoundly in love with someone else? (the dream of Alexander was still very much alive). Perhaps it was a question of timing. I wrote in my journal:

I realise more and more that Krisjan is not the one for me – in any case, not for the foreseeable future. I don’t even know why, but I just feel it – I want more. It’s not that he’s not enough, it’s just that I need other things too. And, though he might not know it, he needs that too. He is meant for more things in life than simply being my anchor and my rock.

I quoted a lot of Kahlil Gibran in my journal too – ‘let there be spaces in your togetherness…’

Alexander came back on the scene; he did a lot of that over the next two and a half years. We had a complicated romance: I knew he was falling in and out of love with the varied women crossing his part and it hurt, but in a bittersweet way. Since we’d made no promises and were always long-distance, I too was meeting, even sometime briefly dating, other men. Krisjan and I never got back together, although the friendship endured even as the romance faded (he is now married to a teacher, lives on a farm and has a baby I have no doubt will soon accompany him on tours of the orchards in his pickup truck).

But I continued to believe in the dream of the One True Love. I’d fallen in love again – and again, and again – but I’d never again had that magic we’d had in Amsterdam, Alexander and I, wandering the streets with unspoken universes hanging between us. I thought I only had to wait; we’d find each other, he’d come back to me when the time was right. In the meantime I tried hard not to get too entangled in other relationships. I wrote a lot of poems. I moved to a new town, started working.

Then he met someone else, on the other side of the world, and this time fell in love so hard that I could feel the intensity of it from across the ocean. We were over, I knew it then. He’d found his One True Love and she wasn’t me.

The relief was tremendous.

I was angry, I was embarrassed that I’d wasted so much time waiting for him, but I was heartily glad to be rid of all that melancholy holding-off. To make matters worse, he got married, betraying my dream of a True Union Which Needed No Formalising. It was clear: he’d never been The One.

But then, how do you know which one’s The One? That same question, more than ten years later. I was coming to realise that I had in fact dearly loved every man I’d dated thus far. The love between Krisjan and I was real. As was the love I’d felt for the men who’d been there since, and the heartbreak when we’d split each time (all of this while ‘waiting’ for Alexander), and the love for Alexander too. Each connection had been beautiful. There had been moments of tenderness and laughter in each relationship; evenings of board games and walks next to the beach, drunkenness and hangovers and movie nights.

With each of them I’d had moments where I’d look at them and think “I see you. I really see you. This is enough.”

Maybe every one of them was The One, for a while? I wasn’t quite ready for that thought yet, but I decided that each had been the right one for then, propelling me into further maturity, punctuating my life with horniness and laughter on this strange journey towards self-knowledge. I would be ready, I thought, when the right one comes.

It’s seven years later now. Lots to tell, no space in this post. But this strikes me when I think of that time: returning to my diary, seeing that I wrote “I want more. It’s not that he’s not enough, it’s that I want other things too.” Remembering my brave suggestion to Alexander, that we fling convention to the wind and meet as lovers undefined. Observing how much space I was able to hold in my heart, in spite of my confusion, for simultaneous connections of all kinds. Cherishing the strong friendships I still have with many of these connections (including with Alexander, who is now one of my closest friends).

Increasingly, I was moving away from the model of serial monogamy I had been taught, even from the prioritisation of romance above all else. But it took me another five years to realise that. What I was coming to know, in the meantime, was that there are many, many more ways to love than we allow ourselves to imagine. And all of our loves are beautiful, and there is growing to be found in all of them.