I met my former partner at a meetup of the local group for alternative relationships. At that meeting we barely exchanged 10 words, but the connection I felt was immediate and electric. He was there with his primary partner and another couple. It was the first time I ever attended a meeting such as this, and even though I was very interested in taking him up on his invitation to join them, I was too intimidated by the size and coupling of their group, as well as their sticking together as a unit rather than mingling with others. I was new in town and more interested meeting lots of people -- regardless of relationship potential -- than I was in potentially falling into a cliquish sub-group.
As it turned out, the four of them remained separate from most others in the group mostly due to the layout of the venue. Toward the end of he evening, after they'd all eaten dinner, they socialized a bit more, but it was still very clear that the two pair were each strongly coupled. The dynamic between my former partner and his obvious primary was curious. For every hundred words or so that she uttered, he might have uttered two. Despite the apparent power dynamic between them, I was still drawn to him.
In the weeks or so that followed, I didn't think anything of meeting them, but then I got a message from him via an online dating site. I was admittedly excited, but also hesitant. Aside from being naturally hesitant about being approached by men who are clearly part of a couple, I was also hesitant because his profile made a lot of mention of being open, but did not necessarily mention being poly.
As we began to exchange messages and have phone conversations, I tried to get a clear sense of whether his relationship with his primary partner was open to only strictly casual relationships or if perhaps there was room for genuine, loving relationships outside of their own. Over time I became convinced that their may be an opportunity for a real relationship with him. Based on my relationship experience with a married poly man, I expected to have no problem dating a newly engaged man -- so we agreed to try dating.
A Fine Start
As we dated I struggled with other areas of life including work and other relationships. Through these challenges he proved himself to be a wonderfully supportive friend. He became very important to me. The more we learned about each other, the more we came to respect and admire one another. I was growing attached to him.
Our dates were amazing. They were some of the best dates I've had in many, many years. Without his awareness of it until after the fact, he satisfied a years-long innocent romantic fantasy of mine by creating a picnic in the park at dusk for us, that featured the natural light show of a field full of fireflies. Nothing could tarnish how special that night was for me...not even being bug bitten, rained out and forced to retreat to the most unauthentic Irish pub in town that had a horrible beer selection and professional wrestling on TV. In fact, all those little quirks made it just that more authentic. It's a date that stands out like few others in my history.
By this point I recognized that I could be in danger of developing "serious" feelings for him. Yep, the L word. I wanted to be able to consider him a boyfriend, I wanted to know whether falling for him would be a problem. I explained what I wanted, what I didn't want, and what it all meant to me. He checked in with the fiancee.
The first response was something along the line of, "she's already been referring to you as my girlfriend", and "she's comfortable with whatever relationship [he and I] mutually agree upon", with heavily suggested requests for the three of us to spend some time casually hanging out as a group and getting to know each other.
So that's what we did -- when we could coordinate everyone's schedule -- and it seemed to work well. Our discussions regarding boundaries and expectations went pretty smoothly. I understood that their relationship to one another was the most important romantic relationship in each of their lives. It seemed they both understood that I knew my relationship to him was secondary to theirs, and that I had a strong interest in supporting their relationship and ensuring that my relationship with him never impeded their relationship. I was told that even though they discuss everything with one another and hold no secrets from each other, they do afford each other privacy in their outside relationships. I was told that they had a commitment to each other to be vigilant in ensuring that they both refrained from bringing any issues of their outside relationships into their relationship, at least until the issues had been fully addressed in those external relationships. I understood everyone to be committed to open communication. It seemed we were all on the same page.
My Own Superlative
My relationship with him continued into physical intimacy, which was deeply emotional for me. It became clear to me that not only could I no longer internally deny that I was feeling love for him, but that I was also expressing that love physically -- and, in hindsight, I had been doing so for some time without admitting it to myself. I experienced a connection with him that was like no other connection I've ever felt. It was frighteningly, amazingly wonderful.
I was terrified by the emotional vulnerability I felt. Despite my fears, I gathered the courage to admit that I'd been making love to him. Even though my logic on this subject dictates that I can't make love (i.e. physically express love) without feeling love in the first place, it somehow seemed a safer admission than admitting that I love him.
His reaction was what I expected it to be. It was genuine, tender, kind and largely, if not completely, unrequited. I felt good about coming clean on the meaning and emotion behind my display of physical intimacy, and at the same time, I knew the fear surrounding my emotional vulnerability had been validated. That validation didn't cause any sort of heart-sinking or knot-in-the-stomach feelings. It just was.
Before our time together came to an end that day we discussed when we might be able to see each other again. Facing both of our schedules, the possibility of getting together any time over the entire next week, over the weekend, and some time into next week was the very next evening. I knew I was going to miss him over the extended stint to come, but also didn't want to pass up any opportunity to spend time with him.
But almost as soon as that plan emerged it became tentative when he realized he had to take his car to the shop and would probably have to pick it up (well out of town) in the evening. The only way that the plan might work was if the car needed more repairs than could be completed in one day. I was a disappointed that the plan had to be put on the "maybe" pile, but I understood, reminded myself that I'd just gotten to spend a lot of time with him.
The next morning when it seemed clear that the plan would be moved from the "maybe" pile to the "no" pile, I decided that I should make alternate plans rather than continue to be the ever-hopeful optimist and end up with even more disappointment. As it turned out, his evening was free because the car wasn't ready at the end of the day as the shop said it would be. I didn't let that get to me though. I had made a decisive choice to not risk disappointment by holding out hope.
I stayed pretty busy and managed my desire to see him by keeping in contact with him when possible throughout the next five days. I finally managed to arrange for a small (less than 30 minutes) slice of his time to meet up with him at the parking lot of a neighborhood grocery to borrow landscaping tools and quickly catch each other up on our respective weeks. I've always cherished all the time I've gotten to see him, talk to him and show affection for him, but this was too little. Not only did it feel like too little, it wasn't even enough time -- or quality of time -- to objectively meet the expectation that all three of us agreed upon, which was he and I seeing each other (i.e. having a date) at least once per week.
At my next attempt to get a connection of a higher quality than text messages (i.e. a phone call), I was also met with disappointment. He couldn't call because he was helping his fiancee. But he suggested having the call the next evening. I appreciated his effort and accepted the offer, but given the series of disappointments, I was also starting to feel worn down and left out. I asked for his availability over the coming week and made every effort I could to secure a few hours of the one evening he wasn't booked.
Is This What I Signed Up For?
Just as I was starting to feel I was managing to get closer to getting what I need and what I'd expected (based on group agreement) to be getting out of the relationship, I encountered big bout of disappointment. Through our text conversation, I gathered that he would not allow me to be in the house she shares with his fiancee after dinner on our next date. I tried to understand and negotiate this, but imagining myself in this scenario made me feel really bad, cheapened, disrespected, hidden away like a dirty secret, and generally treated something like a prostitute. When I attempted to assert my need for respect, while also acknowledging respect for both him and his fiancee, the conversation quickly escalated and became adversarial. I disengaged from the conversation and promised to return to it the next day.
The two of us discussed the issue over the phone the next day and seemed to come to a mutually agreeable resolution. The evening of the day following that was our next and last date. Aside from receiving an unexpected request to bring back a meal for the fiancee -- which was only unexpected, not at all unacceptable -- everything transpired pretty much exactly as expected.
The only thing about the evening that struck me negatively had nothing to do with any reaction to him, his or my behavior, or our conversations. It was a symbol that I saw, formed where we'd been lying together. It was a heart, and it mocked me. When I first saw it I thought I was just my brain -- as if in response to a Rorschach test -- wanting to see it as a heart, but after a double- or triple-take it was clear that my brain wasn't just trying to make it fit the known...it really was the shape of a heart. And as I said, it mocked me. I'm sure he wondered what the hell I was looking at, or maybe he saw it too. I don't know, because I didn't dare say a word. I know how I feel about him, but I was still too frightened of the effect of my feelings to admit them.
I shared other details of how I feel when I'm with him and we talked until it was almost an hour past the time we were supposed to end the date. I felt only partially satisfied with the time we were able to share, I made mild complaints about all the time that going to a full-service restaurant consumed, and joked that next time we'd have to make it fast food. I really needed more time for giving and receiving affection; I could have cared less about the table service.
A Proposed Personal Bonding Experience
Earlier in the week we locked in plans to go on his first skydiving expedition. Originally the plan was conceived as an activity that he and I could enjoy on our own, because like a few other activities, skydiving is one in which the fiancee has no personal interest and would rather that he do with someone else. As the plan moved from concept closer to reality he changed the plan to include his fiancee. I don't see this as ideal (since I'd prefer that the majority of the time I spend with him is one-on-one), but I did accept it, along with the disappointment it brought with it.
A couple of days after our last date we discussed the skydiving trip, but also on the agenda was an arrangement to exchange the tools I'd borrowed for other tools. Although he'd made mention earlier in the week of bringing the tools by my place, when I asked if he would do that he explained that he couldn't because he had a date with his fiancee. He hadn't mentioned the date to me before, so again, I was faced with another unexpected disappointment. My only option was to be at his house very early in the evening -- which meant I'd be fighting rush hour traffic...both going and coming back. I try to avoid commuter traffic like the plague, but for the opportunity to make progress on my home maintenance chores -- and especially for the opportunity to hug and kiss him -- I bit the bullet and vowed to make it work.
In the very same thread of text conversation, he dropped in another unexpected change to our plans. Now not only was the fiancee joining us to spectate our skydiving expedition, but the plan had been changed to include a couple who will be visiting them. At this point, I see that my efforts to form a personal bond over a first-time, "bucket list"-worthy adventure have been reduced to entertainment for the fiancee and house guests. Further, aside from a request to confirm that this change is ok, I've been allowed zero say in this change.
That little bomb, combined with all of the disappointments that have stemmed from the perpetual breakdown of my hopes for sharing quality bonding time with him, sent me directly into self-protective, ultra-platonic "skydive buddy" mode. Inside I was intensely crushed. With a phone call he managed to talk me out of this mode by offering to arrange for the two of us to drive separately from the rest of the group, so we could at least talk on the drive out to the drop zone.
The Ugly Parts
I woke the next morning to my phone chiming with incoming messages at an irregularly early hour. They were from the fiancee. Despite having my phone number for weeks -- under the auspices of discussing poly topics that might be useful in her external relationships -- this was the first day she'd made any attempt to communicate with me directly. It caught me off guard and, given the likelihood of her involvement in injecting her house guests into my plans to introduce her fiancee to skydiving, I was carefully and cautiously hesitant.
Her first two messages seemed harmless enough, and really rather pleasant. I replied honestly and thankfully. ...Then came the books.
The first message was so long it was broken into 6 different parts. Its content was mostly what I might call left-field speak. Aside from expressing a desire to have a friendship with me, I couldn't quite discern what message(s) she was trying to deliver. Everything seemed like it was coming from left field rather than being delivered directly over the plate. I kept my reply brief and addressed her content as well as I could without attempting to guess. I'm often really bad at inferring true messages from left-field speak, and I find it's generally best to try asking clarifying questions instead. However, I guessed that a one-step-at-a-time exchange of clarifying questions and answers just to uncover and begin to address the true message would just make for more incoming, indecipherable books. So I decided to just address the sections that didn't seem to make sense to me or seemed to directly contradict expectations that the three of us had agreed upon.
The book I got in response covered 9 separate SMS messages. Again, mostly left-field speak, but I think I was able to discern that she was simply reiterating (for what purpose? beats me) the same points we thoroughly discussed and agreed upon during the talk we three had about boundaries and expectations. Among the territory covered in that discussion was the notification that the two of them discuss everything, yet she reiterated it, not just once, but twice in this second book of text messages. This struck me as possible patronization, but I wasn't going to be making any insinuations along that vein. She seemed to be riled enough all on her own.
The Worst Hierarchy?
The content was also peppered with hierarchy and superlatives, such as "above all others" and "closest friend". I took offense to this. Not because she and he put their relationship above other relationships, but because she was stressing it directly, and privately, to me. Maybe it's just me, but I know darn well that if I were ever a primary partner of someone I'd never think that it was acceptable or appropriate to privately stress the superiority of that relationship to one of my metamours. It's just rude, and demonstrates a marked lack of empathy -- and maybe even a lack of respect -- for the metamour.
However, I feel obliged to make clear that I do not hold that same opinion when it comes to someone expressing to their own partner the higher level of importance they place on an outside relationship. In this case such expressions may help that secondary partner face and healthily deal with feelings of jealousy, or it might arouse feelings of compersion -- especially if the partner who's in the outside primary relationship communicates the richness of the benefits of that relationship and how it brings them fulfillment and joy.
As a secondary I have always been beamingly proud of my partners for being fantastic husbands, fathers, breadwinners, caretakers and all the other roles that their primaries expect them to fulfill. Hearing about how much my partner loves and shows his love for his primary makes me love him all the more. Hearing that my partner's primary relationship is his most important relationship instills in me a respect for that relationship and a desire to support and protect it, for his sake if for no other reason.
But hearing about the superiority of a metamour's relationship with my partner strikes me as nonempathically thoughtless at best, and an attempt to rub my nose in the superiority of their relationship at worse.
A Careful Response Fails
Even so, in my reply I took care to not insinuate that I'd taken any offense. SMS is not the best medium for expressing that sort of thing. I just honestly re-affirmed the exact same things I'd originally affirmed in our original discussion on expectations and boundaries, and because I was beginning to become concerned that some contradictions may be coming to light that could negatively impact my relationship with him, I pointed out the contradiction and asked (rhetorically only) how the two sides of this apparent contradiction could both be the case.
Perhaps my concern about the contradiction -- and illustrating it clearly -- riled her further regardless of my attempt to avoid doing so. Of that I'm not certain, but what I am certain of is that her next message struck me as clearly adversarial and seeking conflict...in a wolf-in-sheep's clothing kind of way.
I refused to play into it, happy that my schedule wouldn't really allow for it even if I had wanted to engage her in this fight she'd been trying to stir up.
Fulfillment Of An Obligation
Of course though, I was still obligated to appear at their house for the tools exchange and she knew it. Apparently she completely disregarded -- and was perfectly fine with showing no respect at all for -- the fact that my schedule could not allow me to stick around after the tools exchange. But even more appalling than that, she had complete disregard for the impact of my emotional state upon arrival.
After the SMS exchange with her earlier in the day, I knew trouble was brewing. I didn't understand it in the slightest, but I knew that I didn't want any part of it, at least not before whatever trouble she was brewing was left to simmer and settle. But I knew that she wouldn't be able to let it cool off; I knew she'd be waiting for me, ready to start the fight she wanted.
Traffic was so heavy that even though I'd allotted an hour for a 15-mile drive, I thought I actually might not make it in time to meet his deadline. I fantasized about turning around when the deadline came, and sending my apologies for not being able to make it. But I made it there with five minutes to spare. So I drove around their neighborhood, looking for a place to park so I could take some time to focus on staying calm and being slow and deliberate in my actions. I found a place, practiced some deep breathing and tried to remain in the moment.
The Uneasy Scene
When I arrived I noticed that her car was on the street rather than in the driveway. As I recall, it was even parked on the street facing the wrong direction. It was definitely out of place and increased my feelings of unease about the situation. I decided to park on the street, across from their house. I got the tools out of my car, brought them to the front door. Before I could ring the bell the dog started barking. I thought to myself, well, I rang the dogbell. That thought seemed kinda funny, so I thought I'd try it out. After all, this might not be the trap waiting to be sprung that I expected it to be. I rang the doorbell, and he came to the door to wrangle the dog and let me in.
I tried the joke, but got nothing. He looked up at me with somber eyes as he wrestled the dog. I told him that the tools I was returning were on the porch and that I'd decided against borrowing the other tools. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her approaching down the hallway, hearing her threaten, "This isn't going to end well if you don't talk to me." I kept my focus on him. I saw the confusion and concern in his beautiful eyes, and I felt myself starting to shake and break into tears as I told him that I couldn't stay and that I couldn't do this right now. I picked up my hand and slowly reached toward the knob. I saw my shaking hand, I saw the knob and I heard her say behind me, "If you walk out that door this relationship is over." I knew I had to turn and pull that knob. All I could say is, "I know".
I think I breathed, but I'm not sure. I really can't remember what happened between my hand being on the doorknob and my hand being on the door handle of my car, but I think I walked slowly. I recall seeing him walk slowly down the driveway. After backing my car a few feet I turned into the driveway. I spoke to him briefly. Thinking that this may be the last time I see him, I blurted out, "I love you". I saw something change in his face. Aside from this, I'm not even sure I know what I said to him, but I know that I was thinking that I needed to disconnect from this feeling. I needed to get back to me.
I know that nothing could have changed the way everything played out. I did what I had to do. I had to take care of myself first. Although I resent the notion that she ended my relationship with him, (she clearly had every intent of ensuring that my relationship with him was over, regardless of whether he might claim that he ended the relationship of his own accord) I know that I made the healthiest choice I could have made for myself.
A Necessary Ending?
Because this is all still very fresh, I'm still struggling a bit with whether my relationship with him really needed to come to an end. Slowly, and with objective feedback from friends, I am solidifying and coming to peace with the notion that it did need to end. I have a plethora of questions about why everything unfolded as it did, but as with every time I have such questions, I am growing to accept that these questions will likely never have answers.
As of now I still have a desire to address the issues underlying this explosion, and I'm trying to accept that the opportunity to do so will never -- and perhaps should never -- materialize.
Some things that help me accept that the end of my relationship was necessary and the most healthy option are my perceptions and concerns about: the power dynamic between the two of them and how they expect that to play into his outside relationships, the power dynamic/relationship they seem (or at least she seems) to expect from metamours, the contradictions within their stated expectations and boundaries, and the impatience in communication and lack of acceptance that all parties need to have a safe emotional & physical space in which to communicate. Aside from the perceptions and concerns I have about the relationship, the fact that I have many other unrelated and highly important responsibilities and goals in my life also plays a significant role in helping me accept the end of this relationship.
I approach this as a learning experience and aim to gather information and gain skills that will promote more success in future relationships.