I was a child of the 80’s. Obsessed with Cabbage Patch Kids. Punky Brewster.
This meant I came of age during the Jerry Springer years.
As I watched countless chairs hurled angrily across the stage, I absorbed a key message: There was nothing worse than your partner sleeping with someone else.
I internalized this idea. It was crystal clear to me that sexual infidelity was the worst kind of failure state for a relationship. Cheating equaled bad. End of story.
But by focusing on this and only this, I didn’t have the first clue what made a relationship good. Other than not cheating.
I defined virtue by what a partner didn’t do. Not by what they did.
It was a lot like glorifying virginity.
As Jessica Valenti writes in The Purity Myth:
For women especially, virginity has become the easy answer- the morality quick fix. You can be vapid, stupid, and unethical, but so long as you’ve never had sex, you’re a “good” (i.e. “moral”) girl and therefore worthy of praise.
Valenti argues that this purity myth that reveres virginity defines women’s virtue by what they abstain from and gives women a goal that is inherently passive. And in the process of honoring someone for what they DON’T do, we don’t set standards for what they SHOULD do.
Growing up, I was taught a “purity myth” for husbands. By TV, sure, but also by the other women in my life.
A husband could be brutish, cruel, lazy, selfish. But so long as he never cheated on me? Well, he was a keeper. And I should be grateful to have him.
I Thought We Had a Good Thing Because He Never Cheated On Me
I married a man I met on a blind date. We’d been set up by friends who thought it was an interesting experiment. Introducing the last two single people they knew.
I thought we had a good thing because he never cheated on me.
We did a great job not sleeping with other people. But being a team? Really connecting? Well, we were terrible at that.
We lived in the same house, but our lives ran in parallel. We wanted very different things. I longed to be understood, but I bored and annoyed him.
“I’d listen to you if you had interesting things to say,” he would tell me when he tuned out mid conversation.
“Well, what would you like me to talk about?” I’d reply.
“Not that,” he’d say.
And perhaps most painful of all, he didn’t like my writing and wouldn’t read it.
The Difference Between Loyalty and Fidelity
After 8 years of monogamy, we opened our relationship after finding out close friends of ours were polyamorous. And as we experimented with non-monogamy, I came to realize that there’s a difference between loyalty and fidelity. Loyalty is about supporting your partner and having their back. And fidelity, traditionally speaking, is about not having sex with people outside of your relationship.
Even if you’re monogamous and sexually faithful, you can act in ways that are disloyal to a partner’s interests. Constantly insulting a partner to others. Being competitive with your partner in a way that undercuts their own ability to succeed.
While opening up our relationship gave us both new emotional outlets, it didn’t change the fact that we really weren’t that compatible.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, one night after he started seeing his new girlfriend. “But she has this way of listening to me that makes me feel smart.”
And I, too, was stunned when I started dating a man who read every word I wrote. Listened to me carefully. And loved all of it.
Over time, we drifted apart and called it quits. We’re divorced now. And are both happier than we ever were together. We chat on occasion. Laugh at the thought we were ever married.
We’re both still polyamorous. But the difference is that these days we’re with people who make us feel like they’re excited to be with us.
Shifting From Fidelity to Loyalty
“If your partner has other lovers, how do you know they care about you?” I’m sometimes asked.
But that’s the funny thing about polyamory and non-monogamy in general: When you stop defining being a good partner as only sleeping with one person, other forms of loyalty become paramount.
When you don’t have sexual exclusivity to fall back on as an indicator of commitment, it becomes much clearer whether or not you’re fulfilled. Whether you feel loved and supported. Whether you’re actually compatible.
And now that I’m polyamorous, I find it easier to pay attention to what partners do, instead of defining them by what they don’t.