Growing up, I had a television in my bedroom. I’m not sure exactly where it came from — whether it was from my parents or one of my older sisters– but it was a hand-me-down. Obsolete and tiny. Black and white. We didn’t have cable in my house growing up, so the best case scenario started out limited to four channels. But there was something seriously wrong with my little TV, so only two of the four came in with any clarity.
Even that wouldn’t have been so bad, but strangely whichever ones came in seemed to change, so it became difficult to follow any particular program regularly as I could lose easy access to that channel without warning.
So I didn’t use that TV for viewing programs that often. And instead I played Nintendo games on it in black and white.
This meant that most of the time that I watched TV, someone else was in charge of the remote control. This would happen in my own house, where we only had a few channels, as well as later when I started spending a lot of time with friends who lived in town, where they had cable… which meant so many channels.
And those experiences taught me that I really hate watching TV with some people.
Always Channel Surfing, Never Really Watching Anything
Cable TV was, frankly, mind-blowing to me. I was about 11 the first time I experienced it in all its glory. I’m spoiled nowadays with Netflix and Hulu (as well as living for a few years in a house with deluxe cable with DVR), but back then even a basic cable package was amazing. There were so many channels that they needed a separate channel to tell you what was playing, or about to be, on all the other ones.
A channel of channels. Unreal.
And yet my friend was often restless when we watched cable TV together. She flipped from one channel to another. Quickly. Sometimes this happened just as the show seemed to be getting good. Other times the changeover happened so quickly that there was no reasonable way she could have really known if what was on was worth watching.
Even when we did find something she deemed worthy, the moment that a commercial came on, she’d navigate away to something else instead of simply taking a break (what I normally did when I was limited to my two channels, took it as a time to grab a drink, go to the bathroom, interact with my pet cat, etc.). This could have been fine, had she returned once it was over, but she usually either completely forgot to revisit the original program or misjudged the length of the break and returned too late, having missed a few scenes.
Because of this, it was incredibly rare that we really watched anything. With my friend working the control, having more options didn’t result in a higher quality viewing experience at all. Instead, I felt like I’d been pelted by video fragments, a series of images that failed to cohere.
Amazingly, it was an inferior experience to my two channels on my unreliable black and white television.
My Early Friendships and Relationships Were Like the Black and White TV With Only Two Channels
My early experiences with relationships mirrored this same general pattern. I’ve always been a person who doesn’t have a lot of time for superficial connections. While I can go out and socialize and maintain friendly acquaintances, I tend to go very deep with my friend-friends. And when I really like someone, I move very quickly away from small talk.
Socially, I’ve always mixed breadth and depth this way:
- Breadth: A lot of people I’m friendly enough to but don’t really know (and vice versa).
- Depth: A trusted few who know me arguably better than I know myself.
As the years have gone on, I’ve managed to expand the number of deep connections in my life, adding new people one at a time while the folks from before remained supportive and stable. As I sit here writing this, I am happy to report that I have a rather large chosen family of people who really get me.
But in the early years, it wasn’t like this at all.
It was more like the janky little black and white TV.
I usually had a couple of people I opened up to and tried to have connections with. But I always felt like they were holding something back out of fear, that I wasn’t getting the full color picture of them.
And often, just like mysterious reception issues would plague my set and cause those channels to stop working without warning, I’d find that support from people I’d come to depend on would similarly vanish into thin air.
Regardless of how much I’d invested in them, how much I’d personally risked to support them, it was rare that friends reciprocated those past favors, even in part.
So I learned to live with it, just as I’d learned to live with my obsolete TV set. I took what came when it came, and I resigned myself to never seeing full-color images.
And I similarly exercised very low standards in my love life. I suppose it didn’t help that my earliest relationships were with other women. In the 90s in the woods surrounding Bangor, Maine, we were all a bunch of closet cases because in our area queer people had a way of getting murdered. And queer kids were bullied incessantly, to the brink of suicide.
This meant that I was often loving women privately who would never acknowledge me or our relationship in public. Sensible, given the current social environment but a reality that often had me feeling like a dirty secret.
Relationships That Were Like Empty Channel Surfing
But as the years wound on, I began to break free of monochrome living. Especially once things fell apart in my own family of origin and the house I grew up in, and I started to live primarily with friends and relatives. There was suddenly a huge number of people in my life. Supportive presences. And unconventional connections.
In some ways this was a really exciting change. And yet, none of these places really felt like home. I was welcome there, but I was a guest. And I could tell. I never really felt like I fit in anywhere.
I bounced from one place to another the moment my presence became inconvenient for my hosts. Completely understandable, then and now (I’m eternally grateful to the kind people who made sure I would never end up homeless and appreciate that they took me in at all, even if not forever). But jarring. Creating an undeniable emotional whiplash that it took me decades once I actually settled down and began to live on my own terms to stop expecting.
Similarly, I began to experiment with more casual romantic and/or sexual connections in late high school and early college. And while some of what I experienced I remember very fondly (e.g., an interesting fling with my friend Jay), other experiences were far less satisfying:
- Having former casual sex partners speak disrespectfully about me in public afterwards as a weirdly proactive reputation defense tactic
- The worst threesome I ever had
- Hooking up with another musician who I’d thought was single (and even implied that they were), only to have them tell me the next morning that oh, by the way, they had a girlfriend, and could I not say anything about what happened? Ugh. The worst. I almost threw up. I was so angry. Never trusted that person again, about anything.
These experiences mirrored the frustration I’d felt when I’d sat next to my friend flipping through cable channels. I felt like I could see the glimpses of a life that could be truly gratifying. One that combined adventure and stability. Something unconventional but extremely rewarding.
But I didn’t have the control. I was at the mercy of other people. Because the world was there first and the world seemed to equate relationship health with monogamy. And my life experiences up to that point seemed bent on constantly reminding me that non-monogamy could only mean inferior connections. That more options meant heartache, emotional whiplash, and the feeling at the end of it at all that you’d walked away without actually experiencing anything meaningful.
Like an afternoon that you’d sat in front of a TV but never really watched anything, constantly surfing channels.
Going Back to the Monochrome Two-Channel TV of Relationships
So when the opportunity presented itself, I settled down with the first person who would have me — it wasn’t even a woman (who I’m generally more attracted to) but a man that my friends set me up with on a blind date. And not only was Seth a man, but he was also one that I didn’t have a lot in common with. We had the same sense of humor and both liked video games, but that was about it.
And even more difficult, we clashed on a lot of our basic values. His stated main goal in life was “to be happy,” which seemed to mean always being entertained and experiencing as little pain as possible.
Mine, conversely, was to accomplish things and help people somehow, essentially to earn my keep by giving back something to the world, instead of taking from it. As I wrote in an earlier piece:
For whatever reason, I’ve always felt like I was less deserving than other people of happiness, of wealth, of stability, of security. Of love. For as long as I can remember, I felt very unwanted, unnecessary, like a burden. Where some others seemed to walk around like the world owed them something, I felt like I owed the world an apology. It bothered me that all I ever seemed to do to the world was damage it, and short of not existing at all, I couldn’t prevent this: I destroyed animals and plants when I ate. I eroded every surface I walked on. Produced waste that needed to be dealt with.
I was like a tiny fire that consumed and damaged everything I touched.
My partner had a hard time understanding this, and I had a hard time understanding him. Looking back, I think the healthiest way of being was probably somewhere in the middle of how we were both trying to live. But at the time, we were both fully invested in our own life philosophies and each thought the other was doing life wrong.
Which predictably produced a lot of natural tension. And kept us from ever forging a connection that was vivid, full color.
But I was so hungry for stability, to actually get to watch an entire program for a change, that I took my chance.
Even though we had a lot of problems, I did my best to make the relationship work.
We got married.
I Consciously Chose to Settle Down, But My Husband Didn’t
For me, settling down was a conscious choice. I was comparing it to the past I’d had of disrespect, frustration, and instability. I knew precisely what I was giving up, the nature and scope of the positive parts of it, and I’d decided that the cons of nonmonogamy outweighed the pros. Largely because I’d never seen nonmonogamy done in a way where there were deep connections or even a reasonable expectation of being respected later by one’s partners.
My husband Seth, however, had never experienced that. I was only his second girlfriend. He’d frequently tell me after we were married that he felt like he’d settled down too soon, before he “got a chance to taste all the flavors” (an analogy that always made me wince, the idea of sampling people like a buffet, not worried if you accidentally consumed them).
But I knew that I was done with channel surfing. Whiplash. Empty afternoons that turned into empty weeks and empty years.
I wanted to experience meaningful things or nothing at all. And I’d never seen a model of nonmonogamy where that was even remotely possible.
Discovering a Different Way to Experience Multiple Relationship Channels
But life is kind of funny. Eight years into being monogamous with Seth, all of that would change when I found out a close friend of mine was polyamorous. A beautiful blonde social worker who managed a team of other social workers. She was smart, funny, well grounded.
She didn’t fit my picture of “nonmonogamous” at that point in time, since I thought of that as mostly something that had more to do with party culture. Wild living. And my friend wasn’t like that at all. I’d actually thought she was kind of a prude when I met her.
But when I told her one night of my concerns that her husband might be having an affair with his coworker, she’d started laughing. Which by the way was really weird and jarring and not at all what I expected. Who laughs at the idea they’re being cheated on?
People who have consensually open relationships, it turns out. She assured me that everything was fine. She knew about the relationship — and oh, by the way, she was polyamorous. They’d been open for about two years.
I’d never even heard that word. I was a bit skeptical at first. But I did my best to stay curious and started to spend more time with her, something she welcomed since she hadn’t had anybody to really talk to about any of it. I became her confidant, and I got a better glimpse into her life.
And as I did, I realized that this was a completely new way of doing relationships. Yes, there was more going on. In the analogy, there were multiple channels on the TV. But despite what I’d been told my entire life, I actually didn’t have to cancel all the other shows in order to enjoy a different one.
In some ways, polyamory was a lot like getting a DVR or subscribing to a streaming service. You could create your own experiences from scratch with someone else, negotiate what you both wanted to get out of something, and build custom relationships (rather than being stuck on the relationship escalator).
And after several months of getting close to her, I realized more and more that polyamory was actually something I could see myself doing. And so I ventured out to try it.
Ten years later, it’s turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
Loving Multiple People Is Like Having More Channels On Your TV
That said, I do still encounter polyamorous people that are more like my friend the channel flipper. Who flit restlessly from connection to connection and never really seem to get close to or go deep with anyone.
And you know, it’s their life. They can do that.
But I’m a different kind of viewer. I’m not down for that. No judgement, no shame; it just means we probably wouldn’t date each other well.
Does this mean I can’t ever do something casual? No, I’ve been open to that and I’ve had good experiences that weren’t capital R Relationships.
But whatever I’m doing, whoever I’m with, I really want to be present with them. To be attentive in whatever time we have together. And to honestly explore the experience.
I want to actually watch whatever show I’m tuned to instead of mindlessly, endlessly flipping through all of the channels, looking for something else.
Loving multiple people is like having more channels on your TV. If you play your cards right, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences there is. Sometimes this can take a little creativity. Gracious, patient partners and metamours will make it easier, allowing you to use the DVR every once in a while (if you want a lower-stress poly life, reward that behavior).
But more isn’t always better. It’s just more. And if you don’t play your cards right, you can walk away feeling like you never really watched anything.
Just something to keep in mind.