You Can’t Un-Learn a Thing
Once upon a time, I hadn’t even heard of the word “polyamory.” But when a friend came out to me as polyamorous, that changed forever.
You can’t un-learn a thing.
It was a paradigm shift. I no longer saw a strict binary: Monogamy/non-monogamy. With monogamy, as the ideal goal, a virtuous path for good, committed people who cared about others. And non-monogamy? At its best, a temporary state of casual no-strings-attached flings until something better came along. At its worst, the stealthy movement of cheaters, those deceptive selfish folks who wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.
But after I heard of polyamory?
There was no going back to this simpler mental model.
You could be non-monogamous and have relationships that meant something to you. Multiple people in your life that you treated well.
And as time went on, I even began to realize that casual relationships could be meaningful and respectful even if they were low on formal expectations. And not Capital-R-Relationships.
As the months went by, I became a busy hinge in the middle of a rather complicated web. Polysaturated to the max. Until struggles with an insecure metamour with control issues kicked off a web burning that consumed it all.
When the flames died down, only one of my romantic relationships had survived. Justin and I were good friends and great roommates. With phenomenal sexual chemistry. It was fun, easy. And deep.
I was tired of drama. And still reeling from the pain of 4 breakups in 3 months.
I told Justin that I was fine with his dating new people if he wanted but that I was just going to date him for a while. And I’m still not sure why he felt this way, but he said that he was happy just dating me, too, for a while. We agreed that all it would take was a single conversation, and we could open back up. But until then, it would be just us. For a while.
That “for a while?” Well, it ended up lasting for 4 years. I went to therapy. Went back to school. Started a career. Got my finances stable.
But during those years? I felt rather confused about my identity. Even though our relationship functionally closed, I still had the same friends. And three-quarters of them were polyamorous, or at least some flavor of non-monogamous.
So I found myself in an odd spot. After years of evolution, self-exploration, and challenge, years when I discovered that polyamory brought out sides of me that I loved, I was suddenly advising people at parties, “You’re hot, but I’m in a monogamous thing.”
It was so they’d know that there were limits.
But I never stopped flirting. And Justin never stopped cuddling.
And the word “monogamous” always felt a bit strange as it came out of my mouth.
It didn’t mean the same thing it used to. And even though I was only dating Justin for those years, I sure as heck didn’t want to go back to the way I was before I discovered polyamory.
I wasn’t exactly monogamous. And I wasn’t exactly polyamorous.
I felt different, from both polyamorous and monogamous people.
I had fallen into a state of post-polyamory exile.
Am I lost? I wondered. No, you’re not. You know where you’re going. But there are no longer any words for where you are.
I had undergone another large conceptual change when it came to relationships. But this time, I was on my own. There was no exit interview. No post-polyamory sherpa. There was no welcoming committee. No one to tell me what this even was that I was experiencing. This in-between state: Polyamorous in spirit, monogamous in practice.
I was familiar with Dan Savage’s term “monogamish,” but that seemed to describe otherwise monogamous relationships that had the occasional adventure. Nothing like what I was. An open person closed to new partners for an indefinite length of time.
Early on in this moratorium on new relationships, Justin dubbed me mono-flexible. Coming to my rescue with the closest label that seemed to fit.
It was tempting to just say, “Well, I’m monogamous. I’ve failed at polyamory, guess it’s not for me.” And it definitely was something I thought as I recovered from the breakups, went to therapy, went to school. And definitely more than once.
But for the life of me, I couldn’t un-remember how wonderful polyamory was for me when it worked.
And even while Justin and I were functionally monogamous, it was a very polyamory-aware monogamy. I couldn’t see myself ever returning to a relationship that honors the tenets of toxic monogamy (and still can’t).
Coming Out (Again) as Polyamorous
And then one night, we found ourselves YET AGAIN checking in after a party. Saying to each other “So this happened, was that cheating?” And responding, “I don’t really know? But I also don’t care. So… no?”
It had started getting a little silly.
This time, I’d even yelled at Justin and Sika (who were cuddling) that they should make out. And meant it, though neither had, since they took it more as a drunken joke as permission. And I’d kissed a friend’s neck after checking in with Justin re: comfort level.
So we had The Conversation. And decided to open back up.
One thing that was extraordinary to me was watching our friends’ reactions to it.
Some were completely unsurprised — “You’ve been saying the entire time that it would only take one conversation for you to open back up. Guess you had it. Interested, by the way!” To them, we were always Actually Polyamorous. But in a deep freeze.
Others were stunned. “I’ve been using you two as an example of how some people try polyamory and find out that monogamy is better for them for years.” To them, we had been coded as Actually Monogamous. And now they had to readjust their view of us.
“If it were anyone else, I’d have my doubts about the health of it,” another friend confided. “Reopened after a long closing up? I’d say there was trouble in paradise. But it’s you guys. And I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”
And after our first few quick dating experiences with new folks (one example, mine), attitudes among our friends shifted once again. This was no phase. We were accepted back into the fold as Really Actually Poly.
You Can Never Go Home Again, or Can You?
I think I will always have the potential for either polyamory or monogamy. (Update from 2021: In other words, I’m ambiamorous.)
“What if we thought of monogamy as a spectrum?”, Zachary Zane’s piece for The Washington Post asks.
It’s a compelling question. And much like bisexual erasure happens, it leads me to wonder if mono/poly hybrid types like myself fall through the cracks. Become effectively invisible. With a toe in each world but at times not considered fully part of either, except when “rounded up” to poly or “rounded down” to mono.
Much like how my mother remarked, “I’m glad you’re straight now,” when I married a man, some might say, “It looks like polyamory didn’t work for you,” at times when I’m only dating one person.
And if there’s such thing as a monogamy spectrum, can a person evolve? Slide up and down that spectrum (as many do with fluid, evolving sexual orientation)?