It was my fourth date with him—this funny, tall blond boy—and things were going shockingly well. As someone who’d essentially always been single, I was amazed (and mildly terrified) by how easily we clicked, how comfortable I felt around him from the get-go.
Our first date, a Sunday afternoon show at the Malthouse, had led onto dinner and drinks, followed by a home-cooked breakfast the next morning as he chucked a sickie to hang out with me. On our second date, I invited him to my friend’s improv show. I’d never introduced a boy to my friends before. For our third date, he came to my house and cooked me risotto: he was worried about my vegetable intake (I was unemployed and living off baked beans on toast). My mind was running out miles ahead of me, already settling itself into a comfortable, committed (monogamous) relationship: the culmination of a fantasy I’d long harboured. Our fourth rendezvous involved me accompanying him to a Spring Racing suit giveaway, which required participants to line up for hours in their underwear to earn their prize.
We were now cuddled up in bed back at my place, his hideous free suit hanging on my door, researching movies to watch on his laptop. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but his search history appeared on the screen before us. One recent search term jumped out in particular, almost leaping off the screen: “polyamory and compersion discussing with a new partner”.
The tension was palpable as we each simultaneously noticed the offending sentence and noticed the other person noticing it.
We didn’t talk about it. He tried to initiate a conversation, but I shut it down quickly and he let it go. We watched the movie. My stomach wouldn’t unclench for the entire 102 minutes.
He left shortly after the movie ended and I immediately took to Google, committing a good two hours of my evening to educating myself on both polyamory and this previously foreign concept of “compersion”. For anyone as unenlightened as I was, Wiktionary defines compersion as: “The feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another; contrasted with jealousy.”
I have always been a very jealous person. As a child, I was jealous of my friends when they formed other close friendships. I envied girls I felt were prettier, smarter or more interesting than I was. As I grew older, I resented and envied my friends who, one by one, fell into giddy first-love relationships and stopped being so available to me. I simply couldn’t contemplate the idea of this boy, for whom I had fallen so hard and so fast, falling similarly hard and fast for other girls.
Late that night, I sent him a message on Facebook, addressing the elephant in the room. We had a long chat. He explained that he found the poly lifestyle interesting and wanted to explore it. He’d never been a jealous person. He’d found monogamy restricting and damaging in his past relationships and wanted to be open to meeting new people and forming new connections. I became more emotional than I’d like to admit. I considered myself a sexually open person, but when it came to love, I didn’t want to share. I told him I couldn’t do it. He asked me to think about it for a few days.
What followed was a long and repeating cycle of denial, anxiety and emotional confrontation. I was so happy spending time with him, getting to know him, that I suppressed my feelings about his poly tendencies—after all, couldn’t we just have fun? Did we have to think about the future? He wasn’t seeing anyone else right now, so what did it matter?
More than once, I ended things. I told him that, for me, a relationship meant throwing yourself in fully, committing to someone and loving them with all of yourself. I couldn’t comprehend loving more than one person in that way. Sex was one thing, but I couldn’t imagine balancing multiple relationships or loves—I’d never been successfully able to balance even one. He always respected my feelings, but he told me he was trying to work out who he was and what he wanted from life, and he knew that this was something he really needed to explore—even if that meant losing what we had.
One night, home alone and caught up in my own thoughts, I sent him a message articulating all the reasons I couldn’t ever be comfortable with polyamory. “It’s not the idea of sleeping with other people that bothers me—I think that could be fun. But I don’t want to have feelings for anyone else, and I don’t want you to, either.” Something in my phrasing here broke through and clarified something for him—for both of us.
He wanted to meet new people, experience new things, and not fall into damaging codependence as he’d done in the past. But, he told me, he didn’t feel any desire to seek out other strong connections that paralleled our relationship, which had developed so quickly and so intensely. Ideally, he wanted something more akin to “friendship with benefits”. He wasn’t sure if that was all he’d ever want — he still found the idea of polyamory intriguing — but he felt comfortable with it for now.
Myself, I wanted to have fun and positive sexual experiences—and, I realised, not just with him. I’m a sexual person, and I wanted to reclaim that after a string of negative experiences in my recent past. There were things I wanted to explore that didn’t come naturally to him, and I was excited by the freedom to try these things with other guys. What I didn’t want was to share the emotional or romantic connection we had with anyone else, and he agreed that he didn’t want that, either. So, we began crafting a list of boundaries and guidelines for our open relationship.
We outlined what we were each comfortable with, and what we weren’t; what we were happy for ourselves and for each other to do with other people, and what was just for us. We had a policy of absolute honesty—the opposite of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach you often see in popular culture. We placed limits on how often we would see other people and established expectations in relation to them and to each other. It was difficult and time-consuming, but it helped us to get on the same page and to feel comfortable in negotiating a kind of relationship neither of us had any experience with.
I didn’t tell many people at first. Part of me was ashamed. I knew only one other person in an open relationship and our mutual friends found it ridiculous: they thought he just wanted to sleep around, that it was unfair on his girlfriend, that their relationship wasn’t “real” or “loving”. In movies or TV shows, open relationships tended to be a sign of dysfunction; or they were one-sided, with the man sleeping around and the woman either tolerating it or turning a blind eye.
When I did tell my close friends, most of them were supportive. But there was always a caveat: “I could never do it myself”, or “I’m just worried you’ll get hurt.” A lot of people seemed to think I was “giving in” to my partner’s desires, that I was sacrificing something of myself for him, despite our lengthy and honest communication on the topic and my enthusiasm for the idea of sex with other people. My best friend was particularly dubious: a complicated combination of concern for me and validation of her own recent choice to get married young.
We both updated our dating profiles (we’d originally met on Tinder) to indicate our relationship and what we were looking for. I quickly found that a lot of guys were very into the whole “open relationship” thing. For them, it was basically a built-in No-Strings-Attached clause. Almost every message I received on dating apps made some mention of it, most of them asking me to explain it: “What exactly does ‘open’ mean?” “What are you allowed to do?” “Are you looking for a threesome?” “Does your boyfriend want to watch?”
My partner had the opposite problem. The playing field on dating apps is already skewed towards women (yes, we can usually find dates; though that doesn’t say much about the quality of said dates), and his relationship status seemed to be an additional turn-off. For the most part, the only women who showed much interest were those already in open or polyamorous relationships themselves.
This created more confusion. Poly people didn’t understand our relationship any better than monogamous people did. “Why would you restrict yourself?” “Isn’t it difficult working out where to draw the line?” “You’re just setting yourselves up to get hurt.” They expressed variations on a belief that individuals should remain open to connections and not place strict boundaries on relationships. Some were unimpressed that we were imposing the boundaries of our open relationship on them, without their consent. “It’s not fair for you to expect other people you date to be okay with this arrangement and all the rules you have in place,” one woman advised my partner. Another said she felt people should either be poly or mono, and that the grey area in between was too dangerous and difficult to navigate.
Though we were both happy with the boundaries we’d drawn for ourselves, the constant challenges and doubts that came at us from both sides of the spectrum were certainly a knock to our respective confidences. We were very different people, with different understandings of what friendship and sex meant, and it wasn’t an easy path.
What I can say, though, is that our open relationship brought us closer together. We were forced to be honest and communicative in a way I’m not sure we would have been otherwise. We were attuned to one another’s feelings, and open with each other to a degree that I think was pretty unique. My partner came to realise that polyamory wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted for himself, but that he valued respectful and friendly sexual encounters with a variety of people. I finally had to confront my many deep-seated insecurities and, in doing so, came to understand where it was that my jealousy was coming from. This allowed me to separate myself from my jealousy in a way I’d never before been capable of, to the point where my insecurities no longer had control over me. On top of this, dating other people made us appreciate each other all the more. (Even in an open relationship, dating kind of sucks.)
The stigma surrounding open relationships is complex. Don’t get me wrong—there are so many people these days who won’t bat an eyelid if you mention it, for whom it’s totally normal and perhaps even ideal. My housemate’s friends were constantly raving about how amazing our relationship was and how much they admired our honest communication. I can increasingly see, in popular culture, the media, and even my social circle, that the way we engage in romantic and sexual relationships is evolving—boundaries are becoming more fluid.
But I still haven’t told my parents—I doubt I ever will. I keep it quiet at work, too. I have a number of more conservative friends I’ve not told, as well as some who do know, through mutual friends, but who have never acknowledged the fact in my presence. My partner and I recently broke up, and our open relationship had very little to do with it—but I can tell that so many people in my life thought our relationship was doomed from the outset.
People make certain assumptions when they find out you’re in an open relationship. They think you’re promiscuous, or sex-obsessed; that your relationship is unhealthy or lacking; that you’re greedy (“Isn’t your partner enough?”); that you’re into weird shit in bed (So what?); that you’re a hippy, or a hipster, or just looking for attention. Most often in my case, people thought that we were young and inexperienced, and that we didn’t know any better.
Yet here I am, 18 months on from that fateful day, a month on from our break up, and I have no regrets. The experiences I had as part of our open relationship taught me more than I ever expected. I learned a lot about what I value in others, and about what I value in myself. I met and engaged with people I certainly never would have otherwise. I gained so much confidence in myself both sexually and emotionally, took charge of my insecurities and greatly developed my capacity for trust. I opened my mind in a way that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Though our relationship didn’t last, I have a deep respect and admiration for my ex-partner, and I believe we’ll be able to maintain a genuine friendship. I feel confident that I know what I want in future relationships and I definitely wouldn’t rule out having another open relationship in the future.
But I’m still not comfortable putting my name to this piece.
Anonymous is a Melbourne-based millennial born and bred in country Victoria, and an emerging writer/editor.