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How do I hold all these mermaid boyfriends?
When most people find out that I’m dating a couple, they usually have one of two reactions.
They’ll either clap their hands together, Kinsey Fairy Godmother-style, squealing, “Oh my God, that’s perfect! You’re bisexual, so you get one of each!”
Or they’ll tilt their heads sideways, squinting. “So, a couple, huh?” They’ll move their tongues around their gums like they’re trying to dislodge a piece of particularly nontraditional fish-bone. “How does that…harumhmghghgph. Uh. Work?”
The first reaction barely merits a response. Though I like to pretend that my sexuality is eternally in danger of sliding from one extreme to the other with a single ill-timed makeout, I don’t really make a point of routinely switching back and forth between guys and girls to keep myself on the bi and narrow. I didn’t start dating Carlos and Alison as a pre-emptive measure against suddenly waking up one day and realizing I want to grow my hair long and rub my body all over One Direction.
Which brings us to the second question, which Jessica asked this very week: How DOES this work? Frankly, it’s amazing to me how many people seem to labor under the fear that people in non-monogamous relationships are one snooped diary entry away from blowing up the block in a rage-frenzy.
For some reason, lots of well-meaning strangers seem to be genuinely concerned that I’m just “waiting around” for either of my dates to throw their partner over in favor of boyfriending me instead. I sort of like the image of myself standing sadly with one hand pressed up against their bedroom window, fogging up the glass wistfully as they paint each other’s portraits and go to spin class together.
Never fear: this is not the case at all. See, the tricky thing about non-monogamy is that, just like anything else even remotely related to the care and feeding of one’s naked body, it runs the whole spectrum of discomfiting one’s parents.
And just like your sexuality, your identity as a (non-)monogamous person can operate completely separately from your behavior. You might be totally open to sleeping with the swarthy European you met at the local cartographers’ convention, but if your girlfriend’s not into it, you’re going to be monogamous until further notice. This makes it extra hard to explain one’s relationship to the casual stranger on BART, since there’s an important world of difference between “I’m dating a guy who’s in an open relationship” and “I’m Neil Patrick Harris’s primary in our five-way super-committed How I Met Your Mother RPG.”
Personally, I identify as a polygamous single jerkface who’s dating a couple in an open relationship. Honestly, the idea of being a couple’s permanent “emotional third,” while kind of cozy in an Alfonso Cuarón way, is absolutely exhausting to me. So many tears! So much processing, for god’s sake!
As someone who can barely handle the emotional commitment of signing up for a library card, being romantically beholden to two people makes me horrifically uncomfortable. This is why dating a couple has been super great for me in a lot of ways.
If I start feeling sweaty-toothed and furry, I can just retreat back into my single-lady duvet-cave with a Tom Robbins novel and a bottle of Barefoot red. Sure, Carlos and/or Alison will come looking for me eventually. It’s still nice to know that when I have other dates or just want to have Conway chill-time, they’ll always have each other. I won’t be neglecting anyone.
I’d be horrified if either of them tried to spirit me away in the night for secret Feelings, because that would be completely outside the parameters of our established relationship. In fact, when the two of them first asked me out, the conversation went like this:
Alison: “Kate, do you want to date us?”
No dur, Conway. But to be fair, I thought it was deeply important to establish that I was not setting myself up to be the Harry to their Ron-and-Hermione. I wasn’t planning on pining helplessly after the two of them every time they wanted to get a moment apart from their speckled bedfellow. I wanted to have the freedom to date, too, and to be very, very single.
And for the most part, dating Alison and Carlos fulfills lots of my emotional needs while putting the kibosh on some of my more obnoxious commitment-phobic flight-risk tendencies. I have to admit: it is pretty goddamn liberating to be able to sweep in, have awesome weirdo three-way sex with a couple who is already very physically in tune with each other, and then flounce out again, high heels in hand.
At the same time, it’s not all sunshine and flowers and interestingly flavored personal lubricants. At the end of the day, Carlos and Alison need to know that they’re each other’s primaries first, even if that means throwing me over. Which I am totally on board with -- to a point. I may be allergic to early-morning love-revelations, but as an attention whore by nature, it kind of starts to get under my skin when my couple-date is too busy reassuring each other of their primary affection to, I don’t know, tie me to the mattress and read :The Golden Compass: aloud until I squirm.
Because I don’t necessarily equate humping with love, I’m sometimes baffled by the fact that havin’ sex with little ol’ me could potentially cause a rift in a relationship. Intellectually, I know it’s important that Carlos and Alison have the opportunity to check in as often as possible with each other, particularly if I’m on a date with just one of them. Emotionally, it can get kind of annoying to have to derail the sex-train mid-grope while we wait for the “go 4 it horndogs” text from our absent, erstwhile conductor.
I don’t want to be a homewrecker, so I try to be as gracious about it as possible. But occasionally, it’d be nice to face the prospect of sitting in a booth seat with the two of them without making it a Thing.
I get into it, too. If Carlos sits next to me, is Alison gonna feel neglected? Can the three of us squeeze into one side? If I lie across the table and invite the waiter to just slather me in ketchup to combat the awkwardness, how are we going to split the bill? Blech.
In my perfect world, dating a couple would probably just be an invitation for me to sprawl out on two people’s laps and be cosseted, with zero emotional complications. Naturally, people don’t really work like that. Especially people that are, y’know, functioning humans with whom you actually enjoy interacting in a non-sexual way.
All relationships take a lot of communication. In some ways, I think monogamous ones are easier because they come with a sort of built-in style guide. I’m not saying that romantic comedies or George Bush’s marriage are good indicators on how to boyfriend, but they do offer some framework around which you can thoughtfully arrange your own sexy lifestyle.
Non-monogamy may be all the rage, but when was the last time you saw a healthy non-monogamous relationship actually played out in the public sphere? Pretty much never. No wonder one-on-one types have so many questions. We’re all just figuring it out ourselves.
For the record, though? So far, it’s totally worth it.