My open marriage to Travis wasn’t a secret. At least I didn’t think it was. I didn’t want to think it was. I thought that if it was a secret, that meant I was ashamed of what I was doing. And I so was not. Occasionally eating a quarter-gallon of ice cream in one sitting without offering anyone any, texting my ex way too many Big Ang memes when we broke up, occasionally throwing something in the garbage that I could’ve recycled because it was probably an old gross yogurt carton and the sink was clogged, again — these were things I was ashamed of.
I was all too familiar with the feeling. I knew better in each situation, but I chose to ignore my nagging conscience, to do what felt good instead, and to keep my big mouth shut about it. Looking back on it now, I’m sure that’s why my open marriage felt so much like a secret for so long, even though most of my closest friends knew about it — because I was doing something that felt good, and even though my conscience was clear, there were so many people I cared about whom I still hadn’t told.
I have a code of ethics for love and sex, much like everyone else, and all I can say is it’s working for me. It’s hard to explain to someone how it’s less complicated to be in two relationships than one, but I’m being 100% myself, and that alone has allowed me to experience a fuller honesty, vulnerability and connection with my partners than I’d yet experienced. Each relationship is built around trust and consent and a continuous dialogue.
If I’m being honest, though, I’ve always been a little afraid of how the people in my life would react when they found out I had another partner. I still am. I feel like I shouldn’t have to ask for permission or forgiveness or offer any explanation for being polyamorous, but I often feel it’s expected. There are people who condemn me and the people I love for eschewing traditional marital-normcore culture. There are people who tell me I simply have commitment issues.
But my husband and I have been in a relationship for 10 years, and last week we were privileged to be able to celebrate our second wedding anniversary. Like any relationship, we’re complicated individuals trying to make it work. We have ups and downs, almost entirely unrelated to the openness of our marriage. I’ve been seeing my current boyfriend for 18 months now, and we have plans to open a small business together. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you do with someone if you have commitment issues.
Every time I tell another person for the first time and their face doesn’t fall off from snark, I breathe a little sigh of relief. That’s another person I can completely be myself around, a little bit less of a double life my husband, partner, and I have to lead. Hiding any aspect of yourself is exhausting, and I’ve made mistakes that have left me tired, y’all. Too often, I have put off being honest with people because it was simply uncomfortable.
So when someone who has recently been informed about my relationship status approaches me on their own with the FAQS of polyamory, I rarely mind. I’ve come to find that exercising honesty and openness versus secrets and lies is like smiling versus frowning. The first one takes way less work, and as far as I know, it won’t give you wrinkles. I’m certainly not an expert on open relationships, but I’ve come to be fairly comfortable answering a range of questions, no matter how curious.
How do you split time between your partners?
Are you in love with both of them?
How does that work?
Do you have threesomes?
Have you ever had sex with both of them in one day?
How did you tell your family?
It was always the last question that left me feeling the most anxious. It was a reminder of things to come, a reminder that although we live in the era of #yolo, we still have to answer to our mothers.
My family did not know about my open marriage. When my mom would call for our weekly check-ins, so often I would want to tell her about the awesome new guy I’d been seeing, Dirk. But instead, I would simply ask her about the shows we were both watching on Netflix because that was easier than approaching a subject that so many people seemed to have a problem with.
Months and shows went by (I’d fallen off The Walking Dead, but we both agreed Stranger Things was perfection), and gradually she’d learned practically everything about Dirk: he rode mules, he was a poet, and he loved all the same BBC shows that she did. The one thing that she didn’t know was that he was my boyfriend, and had been for a year and a half. That we were in a serious, committed relationship. And that my husband was totally cool with him moving to Austin with us. But Dirk would need to crash in my family’s guest room until he found an apartment. I had to tell her that Dirk was coming.
“So you’re moving back home with your husband?” She asked after I’d told her.
“And you’re bringing a guy with you?”
I felt my heart racing. This was the sort of anxiety I took Lexapro for. This was the sort of nervous queasiness that had compelled me to keep a huge secret from my mother for years.
“How does Travis feel about it?” She sounded motherly, protective. She loved Travis, and had since she’d met him when we were dating in college.
“He’s fine with it. He likes Dirk.”
I heard my mom sigh into the receiver. I could imagine her tilting her head to the side and pursing her lips, the way she does when she’s really trying to listen.
“Does he know he’s your boyfriend?”
I was shocked. I hadn’t lived in the same state as my mother for years, but I still couldn’t keep a secret from her. And a part of me was also relieved. The thing I was most scared of was happening, but waiting to see if this part of me was acceptable to someone I needed to accept and love me would soon be over.
“Yes,” I told her.
There was a pause on the line. I noticed I’d been grinding my teeth. I was an emotional wreck.
“Well, I suppose you’ve got it made pretty good. They’re both very nice.”
And just like that, it was over. While she admitted she was upset that I’d waited a year and a half to tell her, that I’d lied to her, that I had let my fear assume the worst about her (my brother and sister had similar reactions when I told them), she was supportive and understood why it was a difficult thing to do. It’s been a few months. My mom loves Dirk’s cooking, his sense of humor, and his generosity. If anything, she’s mad I didn’t bring him around sooner.
Being married, most people who don’t know that I’m in an open marriage see me with Dirk and assume either that we’re friends or that I’m cheating. Because I’m lucky enough to have a generally loving and supportive family, I always took for granted that they would assume the former, even if that were blatantly not the case. I didn’t even consider that there was another option. That they wouldn’t think the worst of me. That they would want to know that I’m okay. That, like any other relationship, they would appreciate honesty. That my family is really fucking cool.