As I trace back the events of the last couple of months, it’s hard to remember when it exactly happened, when my relationship with Ms. K started to unravel.
Was it during a recent vacation when she, yet again, proposed the idea of an open relationship? Was it when I said yes after years of saying no? Was the seed planted months or even years before, born of restlessness and the arguably difficult task that some find it to remain monogamous? Or was it there all along, tucked in the knowledge that long term commitment probably wasn’t something that K was cut out for?
I don’t know.
I can, however, point my finger to a conversation with K this past February. She had innocently announced that she was going to purchase Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships from Amazon. With that she had hoped we would both read it and have an honest talk on whether an open relationship was right for us. It was a very passive-aggressive approach to an old subject that occasionally bubbled up. But K, knowing me well, had played to my rational side this time.
I read Opening Up, an enthusiastic if not academic selling of partnered non-monogamy, figuring I would give K that much, even if my enthusiasm didn’t match that of the author’s. I’m not saying that an open relationship can’t work, but even sex positive Tristan Taormino would agree that they can be a landmine. And if anything, to do them well, one has to be at a graduate level when it comes to relating, boundaries, trust, communication, and maturity. Were K and I even capable of that level?
For the uninitiated, an open relationship is an arrangement between two intimate partners to open the boundaries of monogamy. This could take on many forms, from one partner seeking casual sex to the other exploring sexual expression that they could not otherwise explore within the relationship. Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, the subject of a recent New York Times article titled “Married, With Infidelities,” makes the case for an open relationship with the claim that monogamy is a lot harder than people admit to. Quote Savage:
“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy, when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.” …
But here’s the thing, I wasn’t sure I was wired for an open relationship, despite Savage’s very logical arguments to the contrary. Or maybe I was? How did I truly know?? Intellectually I had no problems with an open relationship, but my emotions begged to differ. Here I was, a progressive mind locked in fierce battle with a traditional heart.
I did a lot of soul searching. I examined every dark crevasse of my psyche and inventoried all of my insecurities. I surveyed my relationship, looking for cracks and instability like an engineer. Could it sustain the stress of fluid boundaries? The introduction of a potential third person? K swore that we were solid, otherwise she wouldn’t have brought it up. However, I felt backed into a corner as it was clear that K was not going to let this go. Forced to decide between dealing with this now or dealing with this later, I chose to deal with it now.
I reluctantly said yes.
The Leap of Faith
Sometimes you do things in life that defy rationalization or even comfort. This was one such thing. And here’s a confession: I love personal growth. I also love turgid introspection and self evaluation. Maybe my error comes with associating pain with growth, but on a macro level I knew that an open relationship would force me to confront a lot of my own shit.
For as much interior work I was doing, I also I also relished the level of communication I was having with K, noting that for the first time in my life I was actively and honestly expressing my emotions. I told K that this was a big leap for me and, almost like a warning, I asked for baby steps. Don’t freak me out, okay?
If going it slow was the primary rule, we drafted other rules. No sleepovers on a work night. Potential dates had to have full disclosure about how the other person was in a serious, committed relationship. Another rule was if the date fell on a work night, she should try to be home around 1 am because I can’t sleep when she’s out and I’m wondering when she’s going to come home. Naively I now realize there should have been more rules.
In May, K announced that there she had asked a former colleague, Jess, out on a date.
I gulped, wrestling with a onslaught of emotions that comes when something abstract becomes very real, but kept these emotions bundled inside as I am aught to do. And as the day of their first date approached, my anxiety level increased to a point where, while we were watching When a Man Loves a Woman on Netflix, I burst into tears, sobbing that the experiment would break us.
“Hey,” K soothed, “we’re more important this this. If the open relationship isn’t working, we’ll shut it down, okay?”
“Okay.” I was mollified, if only temporarily.
The day of the first date with Jess came and went. Then a week later came a second date. Then a third. Then they were texting each other all the time. Soon I could tell that K was starting to get emotionally invested, caught in the glow and decreased intellect that comes with a new relationship. I was starting to get a bad feeling about this.
The problem was that things were moving too fast. I would call K out on a particular behavior only for her to rationalize it away. One thing that fucking drove me up the wall was the texting — she was always texting Jess around me. And when I asked her to stop, she would say, exasperatedly, “Well, when am I supposed to text her?? I’m always with you?”
K had a line for every complaint, every comment I would make when I was forced to police our relationship.
“You have feelings for this girl,” I would say.
“No, it’s not serious.”
“You can’t even get home at a reasonable hour on a work night.”
“Sorry, I just loose track of time.”
“Things are moving way too fast.”
“You’re overreacting. It’s just a casual relationship.”
It got to the point where I began to question my own sanity. If it weren’t for friends, I wouldn’t have the other perspective telling me that, no, I am not losing my mind. These are the actions of someone who not only has an emotional connection to someone else, but someone who is treating me like shit and doesn’t even realize it.
I begged K to change the way thing were progressing, but it was like she wasn’t hearing me. It felt like I was in a speeding car heading towards a wall with K at the wheel. I kept telling her to slow down, turn the car around, she would say okay, but not do anything about the fact that impact was imminent. Each date brought us closer to points that seemed difficult to turn back from.
One night K didn’t come home until 4 in the morning. Her date nights were always the worst for me, obviously, because they left me usually awake at 2 am, stewing in my own angry thoughts, anxious about what time she would come home. But this time it was different. 2 am became 3 am and still no word. She finally arrived home at 4:30 am, crawled into bed, and quietly pleaded with me to not be mad. I turned my back to her and tried to recoup what little time left I had to sleep.
In the morning I learned that she had been at the beach the whole time with Jess. While rules were technically not broken, they were being pushed, tested. And in the light of day I spied the yellowish bruise of a hickey on K’s neck and scratches on her back. They had not only had sex, but there were marks to prove it.
I kind of lost it after that point.
How could you be so stupid? How could you think this was okay? Respectful of our relationship? Sustainable? How could you have such a staggering lack of empathy and self awareness through all this? What the fuck is wrong with you? Pull your head out of your ass! Wouldn’t you think I would be worried when you weren’t home by 4 am? No call? No text??
“I lost track of time!” K protested, weakly.”I didn’t want to wake you up when I realized it was so late. I’m sorry.”
It’s hard to realize that someone you love isn’t even capable of having your best interests in mind. It’s not to say that I didn’t think K loved me anymore, it was that I realized that she loved me in a way that was no longer acceptable, no longer meeting my needs. As I yelled at her, I realized the absurdity of the whole situation — the glaring disconnect of what K thought was acceptable. I mean an open relationship was one thing, but we were now in far different territory. This was careening into polyamory, and bad polyamory at that.
Everything I know about open and poly relationships — everything that I read in the glowing case studies of Opening Up — is that it is undertaken with a great amount of care and respect. The rules are to serve and protect the primary partner, who has complete power of veto. So what was happening here? How could she not see what she was doing?
This became our pattern for a few weeks. K would go out with Jess, push the limits of what was acceptable, get yelled at, say she was sorry and then we would do it all over again. Despite threats that this was going to break us up and accusations that I was no longer a priority in her life, K’s actions to remedy the situation were woefully lacking. And my role in the relationship had been reduced to that of a parent shouting at a misbehaving teenager.
When I would call her out on her increasing feelings for Jess, I always got, “I don’t know what happened.”
This is what galled me the most. I don’t know what happened. Of course she knew what happened. It’s not like I wasn’t vocal about what I saw happening day in and day out. At every point K made a choice to go further, to continue with her relationship with Jess. “You created this,” I would say over and over. “Don’t disempower yourself by saying that it just happened, like you woke up one day and had complicated feelings for Jess. You made a choice! FIX THIS!”
Sometimes K would offer me a half-hearted, “Do you want me to stop seeing Jess??”
Of course I wanted her to stop seeing Jess, but here’s the thing, it’s not my decision. K can’t abdicate her personal responsibility only to resent me for it later. It’s got to be something she wants. She’s got to want to stop seeing Jess knowing that I mean more to her and that preserving our relationship is the most important thing. Never once did she do that, never once did she man up, take responsibility, and try to halt the fast approaching demise of our relationship.
My heart was breaking.
The Final Straw
After a couple of times of coming home at 5 am, K announced that the rules were not working for her. She wanted to see Jess more and felt that the rules impractically restricted her dates. She had a problem specifically with the 1 am weeknight curfew.
“Remember how it was when we first started dating? Remember how we would just lose track of time?”
I laid into her again.
“First of all,” I said with the jab of my finger, “I don’t have a lot of rules here, but this is one of them. I am not going to give you carte blanche to do whatever you want. Second of all, how can you compare this to when we first started dating?? You’re in a serious committed relationship with me! I’m sorry if that is inconvenient for you.”
“I just think they are impractical!”
Perhaps to work around the restrictions of a weekday date, K made a Friday night date with Jess. As expected, K didn’t come home until 10 am the next morning. My reception was cool when she arrived in the apartment to say the least.
You know that feeling you have when there’s so much you want to say that it’s actually better to remain silent? Well I tried to keep it all in when K got home, but she prodded me to find out why I was mad. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Unable to keep my emotions in, I let flow the full force of my agita upon her.
What it boiled down to was respect and personal responsibility, of which I was feeling none from her.
She was apologetic, promised to do things differently this time, but then informed me of some upcoming plans she had.
“I’m bringing Jess with me kayaking next Thursday with my mom. We’ll probably stay over and come back Friday. I thought I would let you know because it seemed like the sort of thing you would have a problem with.”
Something I seemed like I would have a problem with??
“No. NO,” I said. “I’ve not said no to very many things during this experiment, but this I’m saying no to. Absolutely not. It’s totally inappropriate for you to bring your girlfriend kayaking with you and your mom.”
“But I won’t tell my mom she is my girlfriend.”
“Not the point! No way!”
“But it’s too late. We already made plans. Jess got work off and we’re going.”
“She has feelings too, you know.”
“So what you’re saying is that her feelings are more important than mine?” I shot back.
“No, I mean that she’ll be upset if I back out on her?”
“So basically you don’t want to look like an asshole to your new girlfriend?”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it? No, absolutely not. You do this and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“It’s too late,” she repeated, despite the fact that the trip was five days away. And if to show just how much she cared about me, K added, “Get on board.”
It was at that point that I knew that I had lost her.
The kayaking trip came and went. K didn’t come back till late on Friday. I made other plans just so I wouldn’t have to be around. In fact, I took off work and got a massage, only to end up bursting into tears in front of my masseuse friend. That night I had dinner and drink plans with another friend.
The next day K tried to talk to me. She was contrite, which I initially brushed off, but something seemed different, as if she finally understood how far off the rails she had taken us.
“I’ll admit that taking Jess kayaking and to my mom’s house was a mistake.”
While I found some solace in knowing that we were finally understanding each other, it seemed like too little too late.
Now, two weeks later, our relationship is in a state of limbo. The wound incurred feels fatal and a breakup inevitable. While K is apologetic and feels horrible about how things have worked out, it doesn’t change that she is still seeing Jess, still progressing with her feelings for her, still taking us further down a road that I don’t want to be on.
So where do I get off?
I’m not sure. I can’t seem to bring myself to break up with K yet. I’m not sure why that is, that after all the egregious violations of trust and respect, that I can’t tell her that it’s over? I tell myself I need time, time to catch my breath. And I think there’s still a part of me that hopes that she can fix things. I realize I can’t occupy this state forever, this state of being both in and out, but for now it’s where I am, caught like a ghost between worlds.
Give me time, give me time. I’ll get there, wherever there is. No regrets.