How does one make a transition from one lifestyle to another? Especially from a lifestyle that is socially acceptable to one that is not? I have recently come to the conclusion that polyamory is a more workable approach to life than monogamy. One of the things that appeals to me about polyamory is the idea that you can live your life honestly. In a purportedly monogamous lifestyle, many people still have relationships with other people outside of their marriage, but in cases where those relationships exceed the expectations of the marriage, deception becomes a central feature of the relationship. Some people have affairs. Even in cases where a physical affair isn’t undertaken, many couples engage in what have become known as emotional affairs. In my mind, though, deception plays at least as large a role as infidelity in causing damage to the relationship.
So the idea of being able to be completely honest and open about relationships is extremely appealing to me. Instead of hiding that a certain person is an important part of my life, I want to be able to acknowledge that part of my life. Girlfriend is important to me. I love her. I want other people in my life to know what a positive influence she is. I want to share my happiness with others. Yet I have been discovering that instead of people finding joy in my ability to be honest, the only way that they can relate to what is going on in my life is to equate it to cheating.
Furthermore, rather than finding comfort that I am trying to live my life with integrity by matching my actions with my principles, I find that most people would rather hear that I had actually had an affair than that I have decided to be polyamorous. The idea of monogamy is so ingrained into society as the only way to conduct relationships that deception is preferable to honesty, at least when the deception is coupled with an acknowledgment of the standards of monogamy and when honesty is achieved only by resorting to polyamory. I’d like to share a few stories of people’s reactions to polyamory.
First, though, perhaps a little review is in order for those either new to this blog or the forgetful. In the interests of anonymity, I don’t use names on this blog. I am married to–but currently separated from–Wife. I am in love with Girlfriend. And Girlfriend is married to Mr. Wonderful. I made proper introductions in the first post of this blog. Girlfriend and I have been really good friends with each other, but up until the time we learned of the idea of polyamory, had never so much as even hugged each other. We were both committed to the ideals of monogamy, despite our growing friendship.
Naturally, the first thing we did after we learned of the term and decided that it sounded like it could possibly be an option for us was to introduce the idea to our spouses. I’ve already covered the results of that conversation with Wife: she asked me to move out of the house if I couldn’t be monogamous. Mr. Wonderful had a different reaction. He recognized that he didn’t own his wife and couldn’t control her. He felt that if polyamory was something she truly required in her life, he would find a way to live with it. He gave his consent to us continuing our relationship. It was evident, however, that he had a difficult time disentangling the idea of polyamory from that of an affair. Over and over in our conversations, he kept saying things like, “I always just thought that an affair would progress differently….” We had to keep reminding him that we hadn’t had and weren’t having an affair.
His reaction may have been tempered by his current outlook on religion as well. Girlfriend and I had both decided that the church wasn’t true, and so our outlook on life was open to options. He had accepted what she had told him about the church and had come to the point where he no longer believed as he once did, but still hadn’t quite arrived at a point where he could say he had definitely rejected everything. However, he feels he doesn’t really have time to look into the matter in an in-depth way as she and I have done. So while he still hasn’t completely given up on his faith, he is at least open to the idea that the church does not have all the answers.
Wife’s mother was probably the next person who learned of it. Just before Wife asked me to leave, she spoke with her mother about what I was thinking, and her mother responded in a rather surprising manner. She said something to the effect of: “Isn’t that interesting! Well, now you can experience what our ancestors went through as they struggled to accept polygamy. They lived through it. I’m sure you’ll be able to.” As I said before, Wife’s mother is a saint.
Interestingly, Girlfriend’s mother, Mr. Wonderful’s parents, and my parents all found out about it within a week of each other. As active, believing Mormons, they all reacted very similarly. Each was shocked, outraged, and offended with our choices. Each was certain that we were firmly on the path to hell with such decisions. Each felt obligated to issue dire warnings of the inevitable outcome.
On the initial discussion, Girlfriend’s mother seemed relatively accepting and understanding. She had other children who had wandered down different paths in life, and seemed able to accept each child for who they were. Yet as the days passed, she was increasingly upset and saddened. During their long talks, Girlfriend found out that the news of what she had decided had made her mother so sad that she was unable some days to even get out of bed. She even told her that she would have been more comforted to learn that she had had an affair with me than that she had decided to be polyamorous.
Mr. Wonderful’s parents had an even more dramatic reaction. They called Girlfriend and confronted her on the phone in an extremely tense and hostile conversation. They expressed concern over the welfare of their son and the long-term effects on their grandchildren. They stated they were booking a flight first thing the following morning so that they could come to the house to help out with the kids, put an end to things, and ensure “that man” didn’t come around anymore. She talked them out of booking the flight, but that gives you an idea of the general tenor of the conversation. Over the next few weeks, they called Mr. Wonderful every day to try to convince him to prevent his wife from seeing me.
My parents and I had a long conversation over dinner one evening shortly after. My father doesn’t talk very much, so it was mostly just me talking to my mother and him listening. She was following up with trying to understand why I was separated from Wife, and as part of that conversation I admitted that the biggest issue between Wife and me was that I had feelings for another woman, and as I tried to explain about that, I mentioned that I saw merits in polyamory. My mother was certain that I was making a big mistake, and made sure that I had no misunderstanding of how she saw it. She told me that no matter how great a woman I found, there would always be someone who could be “better,” and how would I ever settle down with anyone if I was open to the idea of not being monogamous with just one? Just as I started to explain why I thought polyamory was a more practical approach to life than monogamy, however, my father joined the conversation.
In what I felt were the most stern and forceful words my father had ever spoken to me, he berated me for not being true to the promises I had made. He insisted that I had made a promise with Wife and that no matter what–no matter what–I needed to live up to what I had said I would do.
This is something that my father has lived fully. He keeps his word, regardless of the personal cost. I went home after that deeply moved by what he had told me. I questioned in my mind almost everything I had been thinking recently. In the struggle between the freedoms of society and the needs of the individual, where does the balance tip? What do we owe to others? How much are we allowed to change if we discover new information? How much can our current understandings color our past commitments? I can’t begin to describe the struggle I had. For days I could think of little else. What do I do? Am I forever trapped in a life I don’t want? Even if I was deceived into starting it? Am I condemned to live it the rest of my life?
I did agree to marry Wife. At the time, there was nothing I wanted more. I promised to be faithful and monogamous with her. In return, she would be faithful and monogamous with me, and God would bless us with eternal life. We would be a family throughout the eternities and He would give us all that He had. But I had since come to the realization that there was no God. No afterlife. No eternity. No eternal rewards. It was all deception. All lies. Was I still required to fulfill my promise when I made it under false pretenses? I decided that my father could make such a decision for himself, but that only I could make that decision for myself.
I decided I wouldn’t live my life bound by a promise made while deceived.
It was about a month later. My mother called: “So I hear you were making out with Girlfriend at the store.” Making out at the store? I racked my brain. Oh. About three days before, Girlfriend and I had stopped at a store to pick up a few groceries she needed. We were standing by the tangerines. In the middle of some mundane conversation, I had said something like, “No, I don’t think so, Sweetie.” She smiled and said, “I love it when you call me that,” and then gave me a quick kiss. I laughed and kissed her quickly back. Making out? Wow. I doubt I would even have ever remembered that moment at all if my mother hadn’t mentioned it to me. But I guess it had made an impression on somebody.
And I guess word has a way of getting around. Later my sister texted me. “Someone told me they saw you kissing someone who wasn’t your wife at the store.” I had already talked with her about our separation, including the fact that I liked another woman and that I had discovered polyamory. This was the sister who had researched the church after hearing that I had left and had also decided the church wasn’t true. She was the most understanding of what I was going through and had even accepted the idea of polyamory without much judgment. And yet the idea that I had kissed Girlfriend really upset her. “If the divorce were final,” she told me, “or if Wife had accepted you back at home and had decided to accept your polyamorous lifestyle, then it would be okay to kiss her. But otherwise, I find it extremely disrespectful.”
I couldn’t understand the fine distinctions she was trying to draw. “In what way is it disrespectful?” I asked. “Wife knows that I have a relationship with Girlfriend. That’s why she asked me to leave. I’m not hiding anything from her. She knows that I kiss Girlfriend. If word got back to her, it wouldn’t be news. She wouldn’t be hurt.”
She answered, “Even if she knows about it, it still hurts. You need to wait until you’re divorced.”
I tried to explain. “I don’t believe in marriage. But a divorce takes time. And Wife knows. In fact, Wife has also been dating and kissing other guys. She’s told me. We’re not hiding anything from each other. How is this disrespectful? We are being open and honest with each other.”
Somehow, though, monogamy was too incontestable an idea in her mind, and all else had to bow to it.
Why is the deeper issue adherence to monogamy? Why is honesty and integrity not taken into account? Why, with everyone we talked to, did they think it felt too much like cheating, too much like an affair?
One of the most interesting reactions, and one that I found most gratifying, was when Girlfriend and I were (separately) asked if we were having sex with each other. People just couldn’t understand. “Then what are you even thinking about this for?” Nobody could understand what could possibly motivate us. For some reason they can identify with and excuse us if we had already had an affair and were now only entertaining the idea of polyamory as a way to move forward with our love for each other. But they couldn’t fathom how we could have been acting with integrity from the start and wanted to continue to live with integrity.
Why is it more comfortable to think that a person believes in monogamy but can’t live up to that ideal than to believe that a person is true to what he or she believes but happens to believe something that isn’t accepted by the majority of society?
Interestingly, the one thing that I learned from all of this is that it may not be wise to have too much integrity. If you want to live your life according to what you believe in, but you believe something that most other people find they can’t, then it may be in your best interests to, at the very least, not openly admit that you are living according to your own beliefs. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Maybe that really is the best policy. But doesn’t that just lead to a life of superficiality? Should I really hide who I am because I know that other people will feel offended when they learn that I live what I believe? It’s something I struggle with. I want to be able to share who I am with other people. But I am constantly amazed at the backlash I receive when I do.
What do you think? Is it cheating to say “I no longer look at the world the way I once did and I am going to live my new beliefs rather than my old promises?”