Feeling (Poly)amorous: Asking Questions About Managing Modern Relationships

At the end of this month, I will have been single for two years.  June 24th is my first “divorce-a-versary.”  I have been on a couple or three dates since then, none of them good, and I have not had sex since the last time I was with my ex-husband.  I literally cannot imagine a sexual relationship being less satisfying than ours.  You would actually have to try to get it as wrong as we did, I think.

I have three kids, and since my British ex moved back to the U.K. as soon as we split, there is no weekend off for me.  I have full custody of the kids per the court and per the circumstance.  I cook all of their meals, wash all of their clothes, tuck them in, get them up, strap them into their car seats, drop them off and pick them up at daycare, take them to the doctor… You get the point.  I do it all.  I’m not looking for pity here; this is merely a statement of fact.  Most single parents at least get some time off.  I do not.

As a result of this inconvenient truth, I haven’t a whole lot of time to tend to my personal life.  I do go to Chicago and St. Louis to visit friends from time to time, but it’s basically impossible for me to just drop everything and go on an impromptu date with someone.  In point of fact, it will never happen – not while the kids are still as young as they are, anyway.

It would be a lie to say that I’m not lonely.  In point of fact, it feels like a physical ache sometimes.  I do not miss my ex-husband, but I do miss having someone to talk to, who fulfilled those essential husbandly duties.  I also miss not having to bang pickle jars against the counter to get them to open, but I manage.  Still, loneliness is not the thrust of this conversation.  I’ve had a lot of time over the last two years to consider what I want in my next relationship, should I happen to stumble blindly into one.  And after all of that consideration, I feel as though I have been left with more questions than answers.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re here today to talk about polyamory and open relationships.  I feel like these two things are to our current times what Origami Owl and Lula Roe are to the girls at my office.  Everywhere I go, people are talking about having the freedom to fuck other people and why it’s the only logical consideration. 

Well, actually, I don’t hear anyone around here talking about it.  I know there are people that do it, but the community I live in is conservative and generally Christian.  Nice people don’t do those kinds of things, even if they secretly do.  (There is a reason I keep my shenanigans contained to weekends out of town.  I know better than to act up around the town gossips.)  The whole subject made me think about my own marriage and other relationships, and it made me start to question how valid the idea of a lifetime of monogamy truly is.

Humans are not biologically oriented to mate for life.  Men, in point of fact, are more or less directed to spread their seed as far and wide as possible.  When this is the biological imperative, you have to wonder if a 40-year commitment to never having sex with anyone else is anything less than cruel and unusual punishment.  I certainly know plenty of women that get bored quickly too, and I can definitely count myself among that number. 

I have never cheated on any of my partners, although I was sorely tempted many, many times during my unhappy relationship with my ex.  I had the opportunity, but I never took it.  We had never discussed the possibility of an open relationship, and frankly, our shoddy foundation would probably never have withstood such a thing.  I would have fled the scene a lot sooner, I’m sure.  Still, I have begun to ask myself the question of whether or not I would be open to an open relationship, given the fact that I am easily bored and am frankly something of a novelty-seeker under the best of circumstances.  I’ve always had itchy feet in nearly all areas of my life.

There are so many ways that people approach polyamory and open relationships.  Some people have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  Some people prefer “throuples,” where a couple has a girlfriend or boyfriend.  Some people swing, some people go to sex clubs, and some people blatantly date others and tell their spouse everything.  There are any number of different ways that couples can negotiate these waters.  

Personally, I don’t know how fond I am of the idea of my partner having sex with random people.  For one thing, I live in fear of STDs, which was not true when I was in my twenties.  Unfortunately, I know enough people that have contracted incurable uglies over the years to view hookups through a different lens than I did when I was 19.  Back then, life was forever, and I never looked further down the road than next week.  I had my fair share of unprotected sex, and in most cases, I never looked back about it.  Now, however, I have the wisdom and caution that comes from lived experience, and it has led me to lean more towards treating my body like a temple than a parking lot.  Also, well, see above.  I don’t have time for dating, and I will never let strangers into the same house as my young children, regardless of how much I might want to have sex.

The point here is that I don’t know that having sex with random people is the thing for me.  I would like to, but I just don’t feel like it’s feasible.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my partner having sex with a bunch of other randoms, either.  What I have decided I could be okay with is the occasional threesome or, uh, you know, minor orgy with known quantities.  I think I could actually feel fairly good about “cheating” together.  That way we’d both still get to feel like we’re part of the whole fantasy, but it we would get to bring in new elements, to keep it interesting.  I like that.  I think I could be happy with that. 

I actually think, in my mind, that it would be beneficial to me.  Most of us have this tendency towards complacency in relationships.  We get too comfortable, and we start to take our partner for granted.  They get on our nerves.  We get on theirs.  We get short with them and they with us, and sometimes it takes getting away for a few days to force us to really appreciate how great we have it at home.  What if the cheating was a part of our vacations together?  What if bringing another couple in, getting our jollies with some new people, and then returning home together, actually made us feel happier and more grateful for one another?  In my own case, I could quite easily see that, actually.  I could see enjoying someone else and coming home happier and more eager to please my partner.

My other question is this: How do you deal with this scenario when there are children involved?  Although it is clear that these types of relationships are becoming more and more commonplace, how do you handle it with kids?  Do they need to know?  What happens if they find out?  What happens if they find out from their bitchy friend’s gossipy mother?  Saying that others’ opinions don’t matter isn’t a helpful response in situations involving the kids, since quite frequently their peers’ opinions are more important to them than what their parents think. 

I don’t know that I would tell my kids.  For one thing, I think sexual matters properly belong between the couple.  That said, I am wrestling a similar question in regards to what I hope is an eventual new relationship.  How do you handle sleepovers with your new sex partner?  How much do the kids need to know?  How do you talk to them about it?  How do you present it without making it sleazy?  These questions are important to me.  I want my daughters to grow up having a healthy relationship with sex, but I also believe in a certain amount of discretion.  I am a private person – hard to believe, given the current subject matter, but when it comes to the specifics of the person, place, etc., I’m protective of the information – and I don’t actually think my kids or anyone else need to know everything I do.  I don’t just feel that way about sex.  I feel that way about most of my personal relationships and my other personal activities.  Nobody else has the right to know my business.  I just like it that way.

How do you reconcile that need for privacy with the need for honesty?  And for that matter, how honest do we really have to be?  Does our partner need to know everything?  My ex believed that not telling wasn’t the same as lying, although he never cheated, to my knowledge.  (I don’t know who’d have him, frankly.)  I wonder now if he wasn’t more correct than I was willing to give him credit for at the time. 

If we cheat once – just once, for one night, with one other person – are we doing the right thing by confessing to our partners?  Are we just doing it to assuage a guilty conscience and force the other person to pay the price for a burden that would perhaps best be carried alone?  If we’re in an open relationship, do we need to tell our partner the details of every date, ever sexual encounter, and every crush we have on someone new?  And even if we don’t know the details for fear of our own jealousy and that we are losing the person we love, isn’t that equally as likely under any circumstance, even in the absence of sanctioned cheating? 

I am asking these questions because I don’t necessarily have right or good answers.  I do not believe, at this stage, in confessing to a one-time slip.  I studied German for many years, and the Germans have a saying: Einmal ist keinmal.  Once is never.  I believe it is generally meant in regards to perfecting a practice or study, but I think it can also be applied to cheating.  Once is never, unless you confess and force the other person to carry that burden with you until death, desertion, or divorce do you part. 

As for the rest of it, well, I’m still searching for my own personal answers.  I think swinging and “cheating” together could be a viable solution for me, but it wouldn’t have to be often.  I can be perfectly content with routine, but I do like to indulge my senses every three to six months.  I don’t anticipate that will be something about me that changes.  I actually look forward to the idea that I might be able to find someone that is compatible with me on other levels that would look forward to a few debauched nights or vacations here and there.  I think I would feel like that person understood me, and perhaps in conjunction with everything else – sexual attraction, intellectual stimulation, shared goals, and a real affinity for crème brûleé and burrata – would make me feel like I had finally found someone that could make sense of it all.

I’m really interested to hear what is working for others and also what did not work.  If you’re willing to share, please weigh in down in the comments section.  I think this is a conversation worth having.  Also, if this is a subject that interests you as much as it does me, I would highly recommend listening to Tim Ferriss' interview with Esther Perel.  I found it incredibly interesting, and it made me uncomfortable at points, which is usually a good indicator that I'm getting something out of it.