This is something I wrote back in April 2013, which was published on a website called POLYTICAL. From time to time I want to reread or link somebody to this article, so I'm republishing it here.
A new beginning at 35: establishing a primary relationship with myself
(HD, April 2013)
This article is about a new beginning after a long-term monogamous relationship. How best to balance the primacy of my new relationship with myself and opportunities to grow through friendship and intimacy with others? How ‘out’ to be at this stage?
That was then
In 1997, as a 20 year old student, I met my first girlfriend. She recalls feeling uncomfortable when I said on our first date I didn’t want an exclusive relationship. During a summer cycling trip 12 exclusive years later, I initiated a serious conversation with her about opening our relationship. To be precise, I suggested we do a SWOT analysis of the relationship. Yes I know that’s hilarious. I’m a management consultant. It was an unexpectedly good conversation.
In the 18 months that followed we continued to talk intermittently about how to move forward but she felt very unsafe, I felt stuck, and sadly we started to move apart. Eventually we agreed to spend the summer of 2011 travelling separately, free to have sex with other people. Would I get something out of my system?
Having some time apart was definitely the right way to break the impasse. My partner isn’t the book-learnin’ type, but we both read ‘The Ethical Slut’ (Easton and Hardy, 2009) and ‘Opening Up’ (Taormina, 2008), and arranged some sessions with a couples therapist before and after the experiment. My partner travelled to San Francisco, whereas I opted to cycle by myself from London to Lesbos and back again, via the Balkans. Not the obvious or – as it turned out – the most effective way to get laid a lot but an extraordinary adventure nonetheless.
On returning home from our respective travels my partner and I decided to separate permanently, after 14 years. We’d both proven our points to ourselves. I loved her as much as ever, but I needed to experience new ways of relating and sex with different people (something I was actually terrified about, much as I wanted it). I also realised how much I needed to force myself ‘out of my comfort zone’ more generally, in order to grow as a person. I’d stretched more and felt more in those few months apart than I had for years.
My partner had warned me she might fall in love that summer and, sure enough, she’d left her heart in San Francisco. The therapist who has worked with me throughout this transition summarised things beautifully: in the final reckoning neither my partner nor I chose our relationship; I didn’t continue to choose it over my freedom and she didn’t choose it over her safety.
Some of our friends were baffled and/or palpably shaken by our mutual decision to separate (which we attributed to ‘wanting different things’) – we were the longest-standing couple many of them knew. My partner sold me her share of our house and, 12 months later, emigrated to be with her new partner. For me, those 12 months were about grieving (she’d been my family, my home) and practising shagging, not usually at the same time.
This is now
After my partner emigrated, I felt a weight lift from me. 35 and single for the first time in my adult life, my next significant relationship would be with myself. Being part of a couple felt safe and wonderful, but for the next phase of my life my identity will be my individual self. I quickly learned to enjoy living and spending time alone, I fed and generally took care of myself, read about personal development, invested time in friendships, stretched myself in a host of ways. A sense of calmness and presence descended on me. For a few months I felt wonderful.
Having been in one ultra steady relationship for all my adult life (and competently parented before that) [2016 edit: after a lot more therapy I'd reframe this slightly to 'good enough'!] I’m relatively secure, but I’m inexperienced in relationships and perhaps a bit naive. I’ve started to dip a toe into new queer communities here in London (on- and offline) and been fortunate to find my first role models for negotiated open relationships. I’ve met some great new friends and lovers. I feel immense gratitude for a handful of quality notches in the proverbial bedpost: hot encounters and short relationships from which I’ve gained a ton of confidence and fun.
After a couple of slightly bruising experiences I quickly resolved only to become involved with people already decided on principled, open forms of relationship. First, I don’t want to feel someone would rather be in a monogamous, ‘couple’ style of relationship (which is not something I anticipate ever choosing again). Second, I’m a little scared I will repeatedly lose lovers to monogamous couplings (promises of, demands for, aspirations to). All these things have happened already.
Six months ago I met PNS (pretty new squeeze). Though she hadn’t previously experienced or considered open forms of relationship, she has her own reasons for taking a chance. She’s hot, bright and funny and I feel thankful to have met her. But, I’m scared. In addition to the suspicion she’s frequently uncomfortable and would really rather continue being serially exclusive, I’m scared that – by allowing my intimacy with PNS (or anyone) to develop – I will lose my identity and the sense of self for which I sacrificed so much. I enjoy intimacy, I’m not bad at it, and I have a lot to give, but separateness and the freedom to stretch and grow are non-negotiable. Interestingly, one close friend who read a draft of this article said she had not understood until now this new imperative in my life, so I must be getting better at explaining it at least.
Meanwhile, some friends ask NOT if I’m alright and enjoying my life but whether I have a new girlfriend, as if that is the measure of being alright. I wince and want to say ‘you’re missing the point!’ Some serially monogamous friends – some of whom settled into long-term couplings with ‘The One’ in their thirties around the same age I broke mine – seem to regard me with pity as if I’ve done things the wrong way round. I’m almost sure some friends find my journey of sexual and self-discovery a bit embarrassing. One friend even scoffed that she ‘wouldn’t have a relationship with someone who goes to play parties’. I wish I’d said to her ‘but you go to a swimming club to practise your hobby and meet new people, what’s the difference?’
Sometimes I feel lonely but – interestingly – no more often than I felt lonely within my long-term relationship. Many people avoid feeling uncomfortable at all costs; I’ve learned that feeling uncomfortable sometimes is important for growth. I wonder why my choice to leave the comfort zone of my former partnership – and to shun the default ‘relationship escalator’ model for my current and future intimacies – seems to be so uncomfortable for some of the people who know me.
I would like the important people in my life to understand my considered philosophy on relationship, but I am reticent for fear my integrity (even my sanity) be called into question. This has happened already, in subtle and not so subtle ways. My new ‘poly’ friends say I am right to fear judgment. Conversely, when I first came out as a dyke aged 19 I began shouting it from the rooftops as a student activist, even before I had any sexual experience. I don’t think I’ve ever internalised society’s heterosexism and homophobia, whereas I’ve no doubt that internalised ‘monogamism’ and ‘polyphobia’ are affecting me now.
In summary then, I am trying to find my way as a conscious and conscientious participant in open forms of relationship without losing my newfound sense of self. I don’t usually struggle to make myself understood but, on this issue, I am easily disheartened by people’s incomprehension. To finish, here are five things that feel true for me now, and a question:
- I enjoy connection and am grateful for my past and present intimacies, and I need separateness too. Separateness involves time by myself, time with friends, and absolute freedom to seize life’s opportunities (erotic and otherwise). Yes life might be a bit more ‘complicated’ than it used to be. I don’t care.
- That ‘everybody knows’ something doesn’t mean it is true. When my lover relates to another person I do not feel that I lose something. Sharing an erotic and/or loving connection with someone does not generate a need to merge my life with theirs or a desire to ‘own’ them. Also, I will endeavour never again to take anyone’s love for granted.
- I don’t have much experience of jealousy which – in common with many who practise open relationships – I think of as a light shining on whichever insecurity is causing discomfort. I don’t believe jealousy is inevitable. I have no doubt I’m capable of compersion and I hope to have the opportunity to confirm this sooner rather than later.
- I don’t yet have much experience of negotiating open relationships. I’m learning about balancing separateness vs. connection, privacy vs. disclosure, and so on. Privacy seems important to me as a defence not against jealousy but against loss of self, but my thinking about this feels confused. I’ve just read this 'Solo Poly' blog post and found a lot that resonated.
- When I left my long-term partnership I did not turn overnight into a cad and a bounder; I’m as honest, careful and loyal a person as I’ve always been. I would like to give the people who matter to me the opportunity to understand and support my choices, but I’m scared of being misunderstood and judged. Should I build up my experience and support network a bit more first, or just go for it?
Thank you to AB, AJ, AJT, AR, BE, BT, FA, GR, HJ, JND, LW, SH, VB and to my former partner for reading drafts.