The only polyamorous relationship I was ever in ended up being very short-lived, because I’m convinced my so-called boyfriend was doing it wrong. This was a guy I met at a Students for Freethought meeting during my first few weeks of college. He was ten years older, a self-taught philosopher and everything I was physically into at the moment: tall and sinewy, with deep-set eyes and killer bone structure. Imagine Jack Skellington with thick dark hair and sweaters. He smelled like wet tobacco laced with the pungent green smell of good weed, which he smoked slowly and thoughtfully, as men who look like that are apt to do. I found him completely fascinating and made up my mind to sleep with him.
We had sex the following night. My intentions were to keep it casual, but I started to develop feelings for him. You can’t have casual sex when you’re full of feelings.
He was brilliant, witty and curiously charming. We started doing things together that people who like each other do. We visited art galleries and held hands at parties. He picked me up from class and made me homemade soup. At concerts, he kept one hand on my waist in that comforting, protective way and fed me shots of whiskey through open-mouthed kisses.
Everything would have been totally fine and uncomplicated if he had been up front with me from the beginning, if he had just said, “I would like to be close friends and also sleep with you on a regular-ish basis because you’re interesting and hot.” But he didn’t say that. He said “I love you,” and so I expected him to love me. But he didn’t. Whatever “I love you” meant to him wasn’t at all what “I love you” means.
His other girlfriends were older than me. Not by many years but relatively older, considering the incredibly fast aging process you undergo between freshman year and graduation. At first, sharing my lover wasn’t too bad, until I found myself becoming increasingly enamored of him and starting to need things — reassurance, emotional support. Things you don’t want to admit you need from your partner, but the lack of which can reduce even the most composed and reasonable person into a sobbing mess.
The longer I stayed in the relationship, the more clearly I realized that we were all there to fulfill certain fantasies. Different parts of his personality would come alive with each one of us, that’s why one wasn’t enough. The tall, wiry brunette with the sweet face was for drinking tea at home, discussing feminist perspectives on Sartre with Sigur Ros looping softly through a haze of ashen smoke. There was something about her that made people feel warm and taken care of. I often imagined him leaning over her angular shoulder, kissing a wine-flushed cheek as she stirred couscous on a snowy Thursday.
The fireball blonde with sharply-curved lips was for wild weekends, I decided. Like a hummingbird, she gave off the impression that you couldn’t hold her. She was very petite but not the least bit frail. I wondered if she made him feel powerful, being so small. I wondered if he realized she wasn’t as small as she looked.
And me, eighteen. I felt lost and too young, like a freshly-adopted kid whose new mother tells the other kids to “Be nice, I’m sure we can make room for one more” while rearranging their room to fit another bed. The fact that he got in my pants by saying my poetry moved him (among other things, but basically) just goes to show how clueless I was –- I genuinely thought he was serious. My poetry is really only good for moving into the trash.
He had wanted to eradicate jealousy, to make it a non-issue. Unenlightened people get jealous. Possessive people get jealous. I mean, we all agreed to this, we all knew about each other. We were cool with it, right? Even though I realized full well that it was irrational to get jealous, I still couldn’t help but feel neglected. After all, he had said “I love you.” Why didn’t he love me enough, then, to acknowledge my insecurities? Why didn’t he love me enough to hear me out, smooth my hair and make it all better? Why did he only love me on Wednesdays and Fridays?
It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve, when we all found each other at the same party, at the same time, sharing the same man that I realized I couldn’t do it. It was just too weird. Not really awkward or hostile, but strange. Like we were all in line for the same seat on the same roller coaster, anxiously craning our necks, and there he was, happy, laughing; making his rounds: first holding her hand, and now hers. Eyeing the one in the corner he hadn’t slept with yet, mentally putting her on the list. Taking bites out of every slice of girl pie without bothering to actually put one on his plate. I realized that the acidic, vacuum-y feeling lodged in the pit of my stomach was unfiltered jealousy.
I cornered him in the kitchen, mid-sip of chocolate stout.
“So, did you decide who you’re taking to bed tonight?”
That was supposed to be sarcasm, but I got an answer: the blonde had driven the furthest, so she apparently got the bed rights. I realized he did not give half a shit about how anyone besides himself felt, and so turned and silently returned to my beer.
I woke up the next morning shivering on the couch, covered in smeared eyeliner and trapped under a heavy sense of stupid loss. The kind you feel when something awful happens that makes you feel wronged by the world, but was both completely preventable and absolutely your fault no matter how you try to think about it.
I came to understand later that he never loved me, not really. He loved the idea of me, if anything. He loved spending time with me; the conversations, the boozy evenings, the easy sex. But he had no idea who I was, and was content not knowing. He was never there when I needed him, never concerned with my life except for when it involved him. He only really listened to me when I said his name.
What made this experience so particularly hurtful, even in light of all the messy relationship drama in my past, is that he didn’t take care of my heart. He had reached out for it, I dropped it in his hand; he dropped it clumsily among his books and papers. It was an exotic plant he had special-ordered and then forgot to water. A piece of taxidermy mounted in his gallery. I wasn’t a person with feelings, I was #3.
I still don’t think that monogamy is the only way — it really is not. Relationships, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. There are plenty of people out there who can and do make polyamorous relationships work. However, when you’re polyamorous, it’s not enough to just get the “poly” part down — you also have to have the genuine amor. If you’re going to take on the job of having multiple loves, you have to put your heart where your mouth is. Loving someone means more than giving them the time of day twice a week — it means actually caring and engaging. It means making them feel like more than business suits on rotation during the work week. There is a marked difference between lovers and friends with benefits. You can’t just drop the love bomb and not expect it to detonate.
“I love you.” Really, do you? Those words are so deceptively heavy. We throw them around like nothing but rarely consider the impact of their weight.