She was terrifying. A tall, blonde, vegan who was seven years younger than me — and she never wore a bra. She was my husband’s girlfriend.
My husband Per and I were exploring Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM), which is an umbrella term for non-monogamy that includes open communication, mutual care, and consent. The learning process was uncomfortable. We had dabbled in friends-with-benefits relationships while Per and I were in a long-distance relationship. But neither of us had ever sought a relationship in the way Per was now dating his girlfriend. And this new shift was uncomfortable.
They met on a dating app and their first date was a long walk on the beach. They exchanged Bernie memes, while my friends and I spent our weekends campaigning for Elizabeth Warren. Per came home giddy and I hated it. I resented the way he smiled when his phone buzzed. She was everything I’m not: a great cook, a carefree spirit with free time and excess energy — and she was even a better gardener than me.
After they were dating for a few weeks, all three of us met for a drink at a run-down bar on the harbor. I wore a flowing yellow dress that showed off at least four inches of cleavage. I put on new lipstick and clenched my jaw. She arrived wearing a colorful flowing dress as well. She wasn’t wearing a bra, of course. She was certainly tall, blonde, and beautiful. I felt she was different from me in every way. She was also just a woman.
We talked about politics and books and the shades of pink in the sunset over the ocean that night. We shared stories about our pets and teased Per for his bad puns. He had his hand in mine most of the night. He’d also reach out and touch her knee under the table. He kissed her lightly when we said goodbye.
Over popcorn and wine, I remembered she was just a person, not a threat. Later, she’d become a friend. Now, dinner with my metamours—the polyam term for the partner of my partner—is an enriching part of my life. In polyamory communities, metamours can have a range of different relationships. They can know about each other and never meet. They can be friendly but not friends. Each person gets to decide how they want to engage with metamours. The term reminds us we are connected, and therefore, there is a relationship between metamours, even if it’s distant. When we first explored polyamory, I preferred distance.
At first, I felt distressed every time Per left for a date. The only thing that made it better was when — each time — he came home to me. He always kissed my hand and asked about my evening. He filled the water glass on my bedside table for when I woke up thirsty at 2am. Eventually, I planned my own dates. We shared awkward first-date stories and laughed together. We both lost sleep when Per’s girlfriend began to struggle. Per was happy for me even when I dated a man he found obnoxious. He’s even happier now that I’m dating a guy who we’ve been friends with for years.
Until we sat down and shared a meal together, Per’s girlfriend was a threat — but in reality that threat was a figment of my imagination. Meeting her dispelled a fantasy. She wasn’t trying to take anything from me. She was a smart woman with her own life, needs, and desires. She could relate to Per about emotional experiences I didn’t understand. They added to each other’s happiness. (They could talk about Bernie, so I didn’t have to listen to it any more.)
Now, these kinds of dinners are the norm and a source of joy. I practice “kitchen table polyamory,” which means that I hope all of my partners can, at the least, enjoy a nice meal together from time to time as friends. We have a group chat titled “In Pod We Trust”, a hold-over from when we were podded together earlier in the pandemic. We use it to share memes, plan potlucks, and request cat sitters. Last month, we all got covid, one household right after the other. We texted In Pod We Trust to ask for help and make plans to deliver groceries and medicine.
When people transition away from monogamy they’re inevitably going to make mistakes. I still do. Patricia Johnson and Mark A. Michaels are sex and relationship experts who outline how to create “designer relationships” that begin by acknowledging the unique needs of people in the relationship. When I dipped my toes into polyamory a decade ago, their book might have made the process less confusing.
But no matter how many books a person reads, transitioning to CNM is always challenging. It’s liberating. It can be more flexible for different people’s needs. It’s also hard. The transition inevitably triggers feelings of insecurity, fear, and self-doubt. For me, it was hard to figure out what my needs were beyond the life scripts I had been assigned. I couldn’t imagine why Per wanted more. Nor did I understand why I also wanted more.
Now, polyamory is an important and enriching part of my life. I still make mistakes: I hurt people and I get hurt. Deeply vulnerable relationships often include both joy and broken hearts. And it was often my metamours who helped me feel safe and cared for through the process.
On a cold, rainy day last fall, I was on my way home from work. It had been a long day of teaching, it was dark, and the bus wasn’t coming. Per and Rachel, his current partner, had a date that night. When the storm started, he texted to check in on me. They put the dinner on hold so they could pick me up, saving me a long walk in the rain. At home, I dried off, and they served me a huge bowl of spicy eggplant curry. I warmed up as we all laughed listening to Rachel’s report from her first visit to the Folsom Street Fair.
But polyamory is more than just hitching rides and eggplant curry. Per has struggled with depression and aimlessness, feelings that come with anxiety about late-stage capitalism. I can’t be his sole source of emotional support. Even when we’re not struggling, neither of us are able—nor want to be—each other’s only source of pleasure and joy. We delight in intimate relationships that remind us love is an abundant resource.
For some people, friends and family offer this support. I also have loyal, committed friendships. However, my connections with my metamours are uniquely vulnerable and loving. My polyam community is my chosen family. We keep choosing each other and these complicated connections—with life-long loves, deep seated insecurities, heart breaks, and frequent tough conversations. We don’t choose each other because it’s easy. We choose each other because, through our complicated relationships, we can be deeply vulnerable and cared for.
This week, my entire polyam family was out of quarantine for the first time in weeks. My ex-boyfriend’s wife texted our In Pod We Trust text thread to plan a picnic. Together with Per, his girlfriend, her husband and boyfriend, my ex and his wife, we feasted on a dinner of chips, hummus, figs, and pastries. We celebrated our recovery with the people with whom we can be the most vulnerable — and the people who know best how to care for me.