A little over three years ago I found myself in a place I had never pictured myself before. I was dating again after separating from my husband of 12 years, and I had met someone I really clicked with and instantly fell for…and now this person was telling me that he could never been in an exclusive relationship with me. Not with me, not with anyone. I had no idea what to do.
I decided to continue seeing him. I had no idea if it could last, or if it should last. Was I allowing someone to override my autonomy? Was I letting my feelings for this guy cloud my judgment? I moved cautiously; I pried my eyes open as wide as possible to catch any suspicious activity in the shadows. I would give this man a chance, but I wasn’t going to let him take advantage of me. For months, I watched his every move to catch him in an act of deceit or meanness, but I never found any.
Simultaneously, he was feeling the same caution towards me. He’d been hurt before by women who claimed to care for him and accept him for who he was only to discover that when the going got tough, the girls got vengeful. He watched me carefully, searching for any sign that I was just pretending to be okay with his non-monogamy or that I would eventually do the bait-and-switch on him and demand exclusivity. He “guarded his heart,” as we used to say in church, as much as I guarded mine.
So with both our hearts racing at full-speed toward a serious relationship, we strapped our bulletproof vests tightly across our chests and kept our boots marching at a steady pace as we approached minefield after minefield together. We developed our strategy and followed it, we somehow defused bombs without setting them off, but most importantly we never drew our weapons at each other.
Many of those around us disapproved of what we were trying to do. They disapproved of us. My family in particular distrusted and maybe even disliked Neil for “what he was doing to me.” But what no one could see or understand was that “what he was doing to me” was freeing me to discover my own capacity for love and trust and to develop the strength and resilience that can only be borne on the battlefield. No one could see that except the two of us, the two people actually in the trenches together. Deeply convinced that we were truly on the same side, we squeezed hands and turned outwards to face whatever fire our enemies launched at us.
Read: “When Your Lover Is Non-Monogamous” (Part One)
Back then, I didn’t know if I was wired to be monogamous or not. I became comfortable with his non-monogamy but hadn’t yet figured out what it meant for me. He encouraged me, though he never pressured me, to discover this for myself. I made a few half-hearted attempts at seeing other people, but it never did much for me. I was pretty comfortable with being monogamish – having my one and only guy but also the freedom to roam if I wished.
Then Matthew came into my life. Or rather, came back into my life.
An Old Flame Rekindled
After I separated from my husband but before I met Neil, I met a guy the way everyone seems to meet these days—on an online dating app. We talked several times on the phone, we had a lot in common, and it felt like a good match. We arranged to meet each other for the first time with a walk along the riverfront. From the moment I laid eyes on him, I was smitten, and he was smitten with me too. But it didn’t last long or go anywhere because of, well, reasons.
Fast forward nearly three years and then Facebook, or perhaps Fate, put us back in touch with each other through a simple “People You May Know” (Okay, so I may have Facebook stalked him a few times over the years, until their algorithms got the hint and finally just made the suggestion for me). I sent him a friend request, and he accepted.
Thanks to all the lessons learned from charting open relationship territories with Neil, I entered into the rekindled friendship with a few good skills for navigating this new land I was embarking upon. I told Matthew up front that I had married again and that I was in an open relationship. Matthew, being a self-aware and self-assured man, took some time digesting and processing this information before pursuing anything with me further. Then COVID hit, and I was pretty sure that once again, nothing would happen with this guy who was so lovable that even after three years I still considered him my “one who got away.”
I talked to Neil about all of this. We had learned that the only way to navigate a minefield was through communication, honesty, trust, and grace. Neil encouraged me to keep at it. Don’t let him get away this time.
Matthew and I finally agreed to meet again for the second first time. (Both of us were COVID-free.) And just like the first time, it was instantly magical. But also like the first time, it was complicated.
I worried about what would happen if my feelings for Matthew developed into something more than a fun friendship. I worried that my heart wouldn’t be able to hold affection for two different people simultaneously. I worried about hurting Neil. I worried about hurting Matthew. I worried about hurting myself. In turn, Matthew worried about all the exact same things – hurting me, hurting Neil, hurting himself. He, like me a few years ago, was considering entering a non-monogamous relationship as a monogamous person. I could practically read the same thoughts, worries, insecurities, and concerns swirling around in his head the way that they had in mine. I was now on the side that Neil had been on, and I began to appreciate the struggles he had faced while I faced my own.
Matthew and I were on the edge of another battleground full of land mines, but unlike soldiers, we did not have any orders to follow; this would be a voluntary mission, should we choose to accept it. It would be new territory for both of us—except it wasn’t just the two of us in the trenches this time. Neil was going to be in the trenches with us, for better or for worse. Navigating a minefield with two people is hard enough, let alone including a third. After lots of discussions and soul-searching, we all, individually and collectively, as two couples and three individuals, arrived at the same decision: Yes, we’re going to do this.
Once again, my choice in relationships has invited plenty of disapproval and shaking heads. Many bewildered faces. Many narrowed eyes and suspicious brows. A few outright accusations, but I’ve been down this road before, and my bones aren’t that brittle anymore. It sucks to have all the outside negativity pressing in on me, but it has lost most of its sting at this point because I have allies on both sides of me who make me stronger and who love me fiercely. We are all fighting on the same side together.
Work That’s Worth It
The internal side isn’t always easy, either. I still feel jealousy when Neil is with someone else, and surprisingly, he’s discovered that he isn’t entirely immune to jealousy himself. I know I will feel jealous if or when Matthew ventures out to meet someone new. Needless to say, figuring out where a boyfriend fits into my life as a married woman is complex. How do I divide my already limited time between my two loves? How do I ensure they both feel safe and secure with me? Do I introduce Matthew to my kids? Do I introduce him to Neil? Do I keep the relationships totally separate or do we sometimes do things together as a big, happy family? What will my ex-husband think? What will all the PARENTS think? There are so many unknowns, so many land mines to maneuver around.
Yet we aren’t out in this battlefield unarmed. We have open communication all around. We trust each other’s best intentions and we give grace when we fail. We have faith that everyone involved wants the best for everyone else and is not out to destroy what was already there or what will someday come to be. We set and respect our own boundaries and those of one another’s. We prioritize self-care even as we pay attention to the needs of each other. Again, none of this is easy, but I wouldn’t call it hard either because of the one secret weapon we all wield unwaveringly—love. Every beautiful kind of it.
I worried at first about loving two people at the same time, which turns out to be a ridiculous concern. While time is certainly limited, love is not. What I’ve learned most from non-monogamy is that love is infinite. Just as I didn’t have to split my love in half when I had my second child, I don’t have to split my love in half between my husband and my boyfriend either. It’s not a pizza. Instead, my world has expanded like a helium balloon to include more love than even seems possible. Sometimes my world is so full of love I think I could burst, but it just expands to greater capacities than imaginable. And this shield of love serves to protect me, to protect all of us, as we navigate these hazards, as two couples and three individuals.
WHEN YOUR LOVER IS NON-MONOGAMOUS, you are indeed in risky and hostile terrain. There is no shortage of people ready to attack you from every angle, and the potential for screwing up from the inside is also great. There is no question about it. I’ve learned it through having a non-monogamous lover and now being the non-monogamous lover, and my lovers are both learning what it’s like when their lover is non-monogamous too. It is complicated, it is exhausting, and it is risky.
It is also breathtakingly beautiful. It is mind-blowingly exciting. It is heartwarmingly happy. It is inexplicably comforting. And yes, we pay a high price for it because anything this valuable doesn’t come cheap. It is costly because it is so precious. To expand oneself and one’s love to such a size as this, like the balloon, involves some stretching that can be uncomfortable and poses the risk of pain. But unlike the balloon, it is far more valuable than any 90-cent party favor. It’s like a crown of jewels. I simply cannot measure its worth.
Which leads me to one last thing. When I started my open relationship with Neil, and people thought “what he was doing to me” was so terrible, no one, not even me or him, knew that what he was ultimately doing was giving me the most precious gift a person could give another. He gave me the gift of infinite love. He gave me not only his love, but the potential for love from others. He gave me not just one person I could love, but the freedom to love whoever else may come into my life—including my “one who got away.”
It is never-ending because now I have Matthew, who is also giving me the gift of infinite love—the chance to love him and to keep loving my husband without having to choose one over the other. And what’s more, it’s a gift that I now get to return to both of them—to give and receive love from others infinitely. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Neil didn’t take anything away from me when he asked for non-exclusivity; he added to me exponentially. How could anyone give me a gift greater than that?
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]