After my divorce, I entered a cliché rebound relationship: heavy on great sex and light on emotional intelligence. Once that relationship ended, I wanted more emotionally nourishing relationships, along with great sex, so I decided to try out conscious non-monogamy.
I met a man who was in an open marriage. After getting permission and ground rules from his wife over the phone, I had one of the most electric sexual experiences of my life with him. I could feel his love and respect for her throughout. I now had a blueprint for a deeply committed and adventurous relationship. A year later, I fell in love with one of my lovers.
In her book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, Esther Perel writes: Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.
In every monogamous relationship I’ve had, my sexual desire has dwindled over time. A few months after falling in love, I wanted to explore monogamy with him, with deliberate attention on the dance between love and desire as described by Esther Perel. I asked him to be monogamous. After a long pause, he said yes.
Our relationship withered over the next two months. It felt like a crusty shell instead of the rich, nourishing connection I was used to. I could tell he was withholding something. One morning, when I started crying out of the blue, he realized what it was. He told me that when he said yes to monogamy, he wasn’t a total yes. He said yes to please me and then shut down.
We decided to be monogamish instead. To us, monogamish means being primarily monogamous and, if a strong desire arises to make out or have sex with someone else we may do so, as long as we communicate openly and handle any residual effects together.
Neither of us kissed anyone else for over a year. Then I had sex with a fellow diver on a dive trip after we’d flirted all week. When I got home, I told my partner about my experience. Knowing I could be honest with him once I got back to land made it even hotter for me. To my surprise, he got turned on by my turn-on.
I love that my partner approves of my appetite instead of trying to own it.
Almost another year passed and an ex-girlfriend of his came through town while I was away. When he told me they were having lunch, I had a feeling they might have sex. How would I respond if they did? Would I be generous or would I shut down? I didn’t know.
When he told me over Facetime, his face bright and open, that they had sex after lunch and a flavor of his desire came out that he hadn’t felt in a while, my heart expanded at his bubbly chattiness. As a coach and spiritual practitioner, I’ve cultivated the ability to stay steady in intense moments. I felt love, gratitude for his honesty, and happy that he felt nourished and full of joy. But there was more for me to see.
Once I got home, I felt insecure and needed reassurance. I uncovered a false belief that I internalized while growing up: If he wants to be with someone else it means that I’m not enough for him and he doesn’t really love me. I worked with that belief until I could let it go. This internal work helped me see that I don’t have to be everything and everyone to my partner in order to trust his love for me and know that I’m enough.
One spring day, we walked down 14th St. in NYC and a young woman walking in front of us caught my eye. She had flawless brown skin, an afro, and was wearing a bright green dress that hugged her stunning curves. I felt his attention shift to her, as mine had. I said, Wow, what a gorgeous woman. I love how her ass looks in that dress and how confidently she walks! He said, Yeah, she has an amazing body and seems happy in her own skin. I felt affirmed, instead of gas-lit, that the shift in his attention I felt was real. He felt accepted in his appreciation of another woman’s beauty and power. We continued our walk feeling closer to each other. To me, that’s a win-win.
Today, in the developed world, relationships are about love, instead of about uniting families for survival or commerce. Because of this and women’s gains in financial independence, we are more free than ever before to set up our relationships as a practice-ground for our growth. But most of us still default to the familiar.
If monogamy is your default, the question is: Am I choosing monogamy out of habit, fear, or desire?
If the answer is habit or fear: Am I willing to get uncomfortable and explore an aspect of conscious non-monogamy that intrigues me in order to expand my range?
If non-monogamy is your default, the question is: Am I non-monogamous out of habit, fear, or desire?
If the answer is habit or fear: Am I willing to get uncomfortable and explore how monogamy could support me in going deeper with one person and expand my range?
One relationship structure isn’t inherently better than another. We can be conscious or unconscious, and ethical or unethical, within any structure. I believe that relationships have the potential to free the love hidden behind our inherited identities that wall us off from one another. To that end, I coach people on creating the relationships they want to have, however they want to have them.
I’m grateful to have a partner who’s also dedicated to relationship as a practice. Our shared dedication to individual growth strengthens and supports our loving bond. Instead of relying on a structure to stay safe, my safety lies in knowing I’m on a path that’s true for me, however rocky, at times, the terrain.
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