The first time I heard about non-monogamy my instinctive reaction was to jerk back. “Oh no, I could never do that,” I said to myself. I felt a kind of fascinated revulsion. The idea sounded so foreign to me, so…sad. How could anyone resign themselves to not being their significant other’s One True Love? How could anyone so resoundingly give up on the romantic dream? Could people really be happy living non-monogamously, or were they kidding themselves, being brave and modern and secretly very, very alone? That’s how I thought it must be: a very liberal, forward-thinking yet deeply painful lifestyle.
Yet I couldn’t leave the idea entirely alone. Something in me was triggered and I reacted the way I see my friends reacting now when I talk about non-monogamy: defensively, as if they suspect they’re in the wrong somehow for not embracing this. To be clear: they’re not in the wrong. We are where we are and there is no need for us to push ourselves into uncomfortable territory if that doesn’t speak to us.
Monogamy and the romantic dream goes so deep for us, touches us at the very core of who we are and of what we secretly hope and long for; and therefore when this idea is challenged even slightly we react with the flinching instinct of a threatened child.
People say all sorts of things when they hear I’m non-monogamous, and all of those things are comments I’ve made myself at one time or another: “Oh, I’m too jealous, I couldn’t ever do it” and “That’s completely impractical, having one romantic relationship is a full-time job already,” and “I’m a born romantic, I can’t be in love with more than one person at a time” and “it’s just a phase, you’ll be monogamous when you find the right guy” and “but what about feeling special?”
The weird thing about people’s reactions is that they often react as if I’m trying to convert them, when really, that’s not it at all. I’m not preaching non-monogamy, not trying to get them to change their lifestyles, not hinting that their way of living is worse than mine. (Or am I? It’s hard to tell, sometimes, when you stumble upon something that revolutionises your way of thinking, whether you’re being overly zealous. But after all, isn’t that what growth and community is all about? We lovingly share what we’ve been learning, and perhaps it benefits others, and perhaps it doesn’t.)
So I share where I’m at, and people react in a way that betrays how very, very threatened they feel in the area of romantic love. And it makes sense, because this is scary stuff. Even just briefly facing our bottomless need for love and acceptance and belonging, and our fear of this need not being met, is terrifying. Encountering the idea of non-monogamy for the first time takes us right to the edge of the terrifying unknown.
Non-monogamy stayed at the fringes of my consciousness for a long while before I finally started delving into it. Amanda Palmer and her husband Neil Gaiman are non-monogamous, which is where I’d first heard about it. They’re some of my favourite artists, the both of them making wise and brave and moving art; they also seem human and relatable. Yet they’re non-monogamous. This fascinated me. I scrolled through Amanda Palmer’s Wikipedia page (this was almost a decade ago when she was just as confessional on the internet but social media wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous) looking for clues to how she did it, looking for scandals maybe, for hints that it doesn’t really work. She must be even cooler that I think she is, I thought, she must be confident and collected with no hint of insecurity. Then she posted on facebook about her marriage, mentioning that being in an open relationship is tremendously hard work, requiring a lot of communication and facing of your own insecurities. Somehow she made it look more real, like something normal humans do.
For a long time I kept the idea of non-monogamy tucked into my mind, something scary and fascinating that I was saving for a rainy day. My romantic relationships, each offbeat and unique and often very difficult, without my knowledge were moving me towards revisiting this idea. I was becoming more disillusioned with romance and my seeming inability to find the ‘right’ person or to settle down. Finally, one day in late 2017, I officially started exploring non-monogamy. I read books. I imagined myself as polyamorous. I read blogs, arguments for and against. I encountered more people who were in open relationships of one kind or another. Then I took the plunge.
It’s been a hell of a ride. I could write a hundred posts about it, and I hope I will. For now, what bears repeating is that it is incredibly scary to dismantle one’s ideas of romance and monogamy, because they touch you right at the core of who you are. When I started entertaining the idea of being non-monogamous in 2017, I had no idea that I was about to launch a full-size investigation into who I am, into what I really want, into what I have always assumed about life and how to transcend these assumptions.
I’m not even close to finished with this journey, but so far it has by far been the most revolutionary event in my life, greater even than that time, ten years ago, when I started questioning my faith.
My advice to anyone considering any form of non-monogamy is this: Do not think you can compartmentalise this experience. We have so successfully internalised monogamy, made it such a deep part of who we are, that we cannot leave it behind without putting other aspects of our identity in jeopardy too. That’s okay, because there are many corners in our psyches that could do with some deep cleaning. Letting go of parts of ourselves that we thought were intrinsic to who we are is not a bad thing. It is, however, a tremendously challenging thing.
Listening to my romantic woes, a friend recently said to me: “But you know it doesn’t have to be that difficult, right? Love can just be easy sometimes.” And it can. It has been for me, and it will be again. It’s not love that’s hard – love is really very, very easy – it’s fear. And the way I lived my life before, the way that I often still do, I now see is filled with fear. I’m not saying that monogamy is bad, but I AM saying that unquestioned monogamy is a hotbed of insecurity, it’s an institution that we have created to hold fear at bay, and it is not working. It is making us smaller. The answer is not to dive with abandon into polyamory or swinging or threesomes. The answer is to approach the topic of romantic love with curiosity and the courage to be sceptical about our assumptions, the courage to grow more than we thought we ever would. All we need is willingness, and growth will happen.