My boyfriend Rhodri and I sat in companionable silence, listening to the car radio and the rain on the windscreen. Four months into our relationship, I still couldn’t believe how attentive he was and how special he made me feel. We’d just spent the afternoon strolling around a flower market. The week before, we’d hiked up a mountain and had hot sex in a thunderstorm. He’d bought me a sheer dressing gown to slink around the bedroom in. For the first time in years, I felt irresistible.
Gradually, I noticed that Rhodri was quieter than usual. ‘Are you OK?’ I asked. His reply was so quiet. I had to ask him to repeat it. ‘I can’t deal with monogamy,’ he mumbled. ‘I want an open relationship.’
My brain processed the words but I couldn’t take them in. A lump rose in my throat, ‘Are you saying you want to sleep with other women?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘And that you’re OK with me sleeping with other men?’ ‘Yes,’ he said quietly. ‘And if I don’t agree?’ I said, although from his attitude of calm certainty, I already knew the answer. ‘Then I can’t stay with you.’
It’s funny how your whole world can turn upside down in a few strokes of the windscreen wipers. The ironic thing was, I’d begun to believe Rhodri could be ‘The One’.
He was the complete opposite of past boyfriends who had been possessive and made me – a 26-year-old single mother to a five-year-old boy – feel old and exhausted. We’d met on a film set where I was working as a journalist and Rhodri was a boom operator. It was love at first sight, and he’d made such an effort with my son, Jack. When we went to the park they’d climb trees together or kick a football around. I’d felt as if this relationship had the potential to last. Until today.
All the way home, I kept thinking I was going to vomit. I felt so rejected, so hurt. ‘If we love one another, why would we want to sleep with other people?’ I asked, parking shakily in front of my house, in Manchester.
‘Because I want you, but I don’t own you,’ Rhodri explained. ‘You are your own person, and you should do as you like.’
Coming from most men, this would have been more to do with opportunistic sex then personal freedom, but I believed him. Rhodri isn’t the lecherous, sleep-with-anyone type. He’s a gentleman who genuinely cares about people. But could I cope with his view of an ideal relationship?
After a difficult night alone, I called my best friend, Lucy, ‘It will never work,’ she told me, outraged on my behalf. ‘If you want to sleep with other people, you obviously aren’t right for one another.’ Yet the more I thought about it, the more I questioned my initial reaction. How would I know whether it would work if I didn’t try it? I had never been unfaithful, but I’d had a possessive boyfriend, and I liked the idea of a man who wasn’t so attached to me. I was intrigued by the possibility of a different kind of lifestyle, too. Maybe monogamy wasn’t the only way to run a relationship.
I started researching open relationships on websites and online forums. I couldn’t help noticing that the people in them didn’t seem any less happy than those in monogamous relationships. I tried to imagine a future without Rhodri, and I realised I didn’t want to contemplate it. That’s when I made my decision. I’d rather be in an open relationship with him than not at all, I was no longer scared of what might happen. I trusted him.
‘OK, let’s do it,’ I told him. ‘But I want to be clear that it will be equal. I’m not going to sit at home, crying into my pillow.’ If I’d hoped he would change his mind, I was disappointed. Instead we sat down and agreed that we would be upfront with each other about any encounters, as if we were drawing up a rota for the washing-up.
For a while, it seemed like the idea had been forgotten. Then Rhodri, a keen environmental activist, was given the chance to go away for a few months on a project. As he kissed me goodbye, I blurted out, ‘Do the same rules still apply?’ He knew exactly what I meant. ‘Yes,’ he laughed, ‘do what you want.’ I was worried that he’d return with tales of escapades with other women, and I’d be left behind. So, because I’m the kind of girl who’d rather jump into a vat of hot oil than be pushed, I decided to get in touch with my ex-boyfriend Mark, telling him how things stood.
Mark and I had had a relationship a few years before. Now we met at a jazz bar where we knocked back vodkas. With my son staying at his grandparents’ house, we went back to mine to practice the art of giving each other carpet burns.
When Rhodri called the next day, I was nervous about telling him. ‘Did you enjoy it?’ he asked. It felt weird talking like this, but I managed a tentative, ‘Yes, it was good.’ ‘I’m glad,’ he said. ‘What about you?’ I asked. ‘Have you met anyone?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘There was no one I liked enough.’
I did feel guilty, but that didn’t stop me feeling compelled to do it again. So, a couple of weeks later, I slept with another ex-boyfriend. I told Rhodri about my second encounter. ‘Same person?’ he asked. ‘No, different.’ He was stunned by how quickly I had upped my tally but, as I was discovering, I only had to ask. Men seemed more than happy to have commitment-free sex and scoot back to their normal lives, which suited me, too. I expected Rhodri to be taking advantage of our arrangement, but each time I asked, his reply was the same: he hadn’t found anyone he liked enough.
I surprised myself by just how quickly I became accomplished at this free love malarkey, even after Rhodri returned. We were still loving and intimate – although we didn’t live together – but, when Mark was around, my life was peppered with romps in hotel rooms. The anticipation was thrilling, but it soon dissipated when I returned to Rhodri and regret set in. Then, even though I hadn’t (under our terms, at least) done anything wrong, I felt as if I was letting Rhodri, my son and our families down. But it wasn’t as if I were sleeping with strangers, I reassured myself. I’d known Mark for years, and he was a good friend. And I was finding out so much about my sexuality. Casual sex was nothing like sex in a relationship. I wasn’t shy with Mark, as I had been with other boyfriends. Sex wasn’t gentle or supportive, but rushed, frantic and highly competitive.
But I couldn’t ignore the downsides. I began to crave emotional involvement with Mark, which wasn’t part of our set-up. Some nights I felt lonely and sad, wondering what would have happened if Rhodri and I hadn’t decided on this path. I didn’t talk to him about my dilemma. Falling in love with someone else hadn’t been agreed on, and I felt it would be a betrayal.
Six months later, Rhodri and I had a heated argument about commitment that ended with him moving in with me. I was elated. But I still struggled to understand his logic. What was wrong with me that I wasn’t enough? Was he waiting for someone better to come along? ‘I don’t want anyone but you,’ I’d say. ‘Tell me to stop and I will.’ ‘No,’ he’d insist, ‘that’s not what I want.’ He would repeat that he simply did not believe in monogamy. But I couldn’t see the benefits for him.
He always maintained that there was no one else, but he couldn’t promise me that there wouldn’t be in the future. Some days I’d be racked with panic that he was about to pack his bags and leave. We’d have blistering arguments about everything – money, housework, the environment – although, interestingly, never about other men.
The more we bickered, the more my affections shifted in other directions. I became intimate with yet another friend – like Mark, it was a casual arrangement. I didn’t tell Rhodri because I didn’t want his understanding. A divide as deep as a ravine had opened between us.
Three years after agreeing to the open relationship, and three lovers later, I had tired of the whole experience. Far from feeling liberated, I was torn apart by neediness, guilt and lies. I was almost 30. I wanted security, I watched other couples and envied their closeness. I wanted what they had: a life partner and mutual plans.
Rhodri continued to reject monogamy and, in the end, I decided I would be better on my own. No Rhodri. No other men. We split up and, for a while, I was entirely celibate. Gradually I began to think more clearly about what I wanted.
Eighteen months on, I think I’ve found it. I am dating one man, in the old-fashioned way. But I have no regrets. I understand desire is not a short cut to love and that jealousy is a useless emotion. And I know that, should a partner ever feel the need to cheat, I’d rather hear about it first.
Single Mother on the Verge by Maria Roberts (£6.99, Penguin) is available for purchase.