Love, to me, is simple. Love is a man who will stay over after sex (without being asked). A man who will drive on our road trips to national parks, but let me navigate. A man who knows I’m his Number One (and Only) Girl. But it took spending time as someone’s Number Two Girl — dating a man who made no secret of already having a fiancé — for me to better understand and accept the kind of relationship I really needed.
I find dates almost exclusively on OkCupid, occasionally on Tinder, and in my thirties I’ve concluded that it’s best to keep my options open and my standards loose. “I’m just looking to make a real connection with someone and see what happens,” my profile vaguely asserts to potential mates.
By the time I met this man — I’ll call him Greg — I’d learned that if I used my ideal end state to determine the men I dated, I wouldn’t be dating much. I regularly went out with some not-right-for-me dudes, but it was how I learned. It was good practice.
With this mind-set, I responded to a message from Greg, who labeled himself “in an open relationship” in his OkCupid profile. I had always avoided men in open relationships, but this kind-looking artist with paint-splattered jeans really appealed to me. We exchanged emoji-laden messages and goofy selfies. He was forthcoming about his “poly” (short for polyamorous) lifestyle, and encouraged questions. I grilled him. He answered them thoughtfully and sent me a Venn diagram of different types of nonmonogamous relationships. "Can I get college credit for this?" he asked.
We agreed to meet up for lunch. He was more handsome than his photos, stout with a long, flowing beard. His sky blue eyes lit up when I pulled his bar stool closer to mine. He commented encouragingly on the stories I told, as if to convince me that he valued every detail I offered. He struck me as “good boyfriend material.”
We discussed what it meant to be poly and to openly love many partners at a time. “Love doesn’t subtract; it multiplies,” he said. Loving isn’t the hard part, I thought. He explained that his serious girlfriend (his fiancé, in fact) was the one who had suggested they transition to an open relationship, and that he was also seeing another woman casually. It sounded complicated.
“If you and your fiancé have an open relationship, why get married?” I asked. To me, marriage is an agreement, a commitment to exclusivity, a promise. His enthusiasm for marriage was lacking (he did little to hide that), but it was clearly important for his fiancé, who wanted an event to commemorate their union.
He charmed me on that first date, despite my reservations, and I grew more and more curious about how he could make this lifestyle work. How does the girl you see casually feel about all this? She walked out on him at dinner last time they met. Are you allowed to bring partners home with you? At first that wasn’t OK, but it was logistically complicated, so they have allowed it. Does that lead to some awkward encounters? Yes. He hesitated to admit it, perhaps feeling the need to defend this lifestyle and its quirks.
After the date we talked daily, tugging back and forth on definitions and labels and identities, finding they were pliable. I arrived at two truths: To many people, monogamy is natural; to many people, monogamy is unnatural.
The more we talked philosophically about relationships and about the things we had in common (video games, beer, art), the more I felt drawn to him. After slogging through interactions with lackluster guys for so long, I felt like I had emerged to find a freshwater lake glistening in the sun at the end of a long, sweaty hike. Suddenly, I was really not curious about his other relationships. And that’s how I realized I was starting to like him.
What I facetiously called my “social experiment” with Greg was starting to matter. A close friend, who could tell I was wading in deeper than I was openly admitting, urged me to have the talk. “He should expect you to ask where this is all going, since he’s dating a monogamous girl.” A monogamous girl. That was my label.
And suddenly that concept, and in essence, part of my identity, was in question. What if I could be persuaded to bend the rules? Allowing a break from sexual monogamy could ease pressure on a relationship. Perhaps it could negate some of the potential thrill of “cheating.” But on the other hand, when I love someone, I don’t find I’m able to allocate love to an additional romantic partner. For me, love doesn’t multiply. Yet here I was, dating a man in a committed relationship with his live-in fiancé. Did that make me poly too?
Greg and I began sleeping together and progressing in a relationship in a pretty standard way. We had everything I had been looking for: physical chemistry, great communication, similar senses of humor. He was eager to make plans together. He wasn’t stingy with compliments. It was nice. It was working.
Eventually, I broached the idea of some limitation of sexual partners — although I feared this went against the whole poly idea. But Greg agreed easily. He wasn’t interested in sleeping around (“That’s not why we’re doing this”). So it was just me and his fiancé. Great. Great? Well, it was something.
And then things got weird. Greg’s fiancé, Cassy, was out of town for a week, so he invited me to stay at their place. At first, I thought it would be too strange. But impishly, I also thought it might be a little thrilling to sleep with another woman’s fiancé in her house. When I arrived and he began making dinner, he handed me an envelope, looking a little embarrassed. “Look, I know how you feel a little weird about this whole thing. But Cassy wanted me to give this to you. I haven’t read it. I think she wanted to say hi and welcome you.”
I was curious, even if I was unnerved by this woman hand-writing a nicey-nice note to her fiancé’s lover. You be the judge of the subtext of this missive:
Dear Jess – I just wanted to say hello and welcome you to our home (though I’m positive Greg will do an excellent job in carrying that out ). Please make yourself at home — and enjoy
I look forward to potentially meeting you in the future!
Maybe it was just an effort to dispel awkwardness, since I was about to sleep in her bed. Maybe it was about establishing her territory: This is my house, this is my man, and I’m allowing you to enjoy them. Maybe she was recruiting.
I confirmed to Greg that she had just welcomed me to their home and that it wasn’t a death threat. In the moment, I didn’t want anything to do with the letter. But I stuck it in my bag; it was evidence, after all.
The letter effectively doused any thrill I might have felt that evening. And in general, it eventually became clear that adventurous sex wasn’t on the menu. Our sex was more or less kink-free, and sometimes didn't happen at all; his equipment wasn't always…ready to go. But more than that, it was the knowledge that we were never really going to be boyfriend/girlfriend that brought us to a plateau. We were not meeting each other’s friends or families. We were not going to be “Facebook official.” There was no next step.
There was one week where we met up twice; the second date was at a paint class he instructed. Afterward, I asked if he was coming over, and he looked surprised. “Oh, I was planning on going home. Sorry! I wasn’t prepared!”
I was surprised and hurt, and I left in a huff. I had thrown down the cash to attend his class, but it was like this wasn’t a date for him — just work. I could feel myself overreacting, throwing a fit over nothing. He called me and smoothed things over; it was a miscommunication. I said, “When I believed you didn’t want to hang out with me, I thought, Who am I to this guy?”
It’s really difficult for me to talk about feelings in a relationship. I did say that dating him was easier than I had expected it to be (but also, not easy). However, I still felt like there was an end point where I’d have to bow out. I just wasn’t ready to bow out yet. “By this time in a typical relationship, I’d be looking for a commitment. But it feels like we lack that typical progression, and I wish I had a next step to reach for.” He understood what I meant, but there was no real answer for this concern.
I asked about Cassy’s progress in her relationship with the other man she was dating. Ben — the guy — wasn’t a great communicator, sometimes going a week before responding to a text. They had a great time together, but the logistics were tough. They had slept together, but only once, weeks earlier. “Also, Ben doesn’t want to meet me, which I think is strange,” Greg said.
“I don’t think that’s strange at all. I have no interest in meeting Cassy.”
“Really? Because I was going to invite you to a party…”
“No,” I cut him off. “Sorry, but I can’t. Just imagine it. ‘Hi, I’d like to introduce my fiancé and…this other girl I sleep with.’”
“Do you want a label? Because you mean more to me than ‘some girl I sleep with.’”
“I appreciate that. But you already have a girlfriend. And once you have more than one, the term girlfriend loses its meaning.”
With Greg, I felt like I was traveling in large circles. I was covering a lot of terrain, but eventually, as I honed in on my goals and desires, the circle got smaller, until I was simply revolving with no direction. And I knew that this experiment had run its course.
I don’t regret a minute of it. This experience made me redefine concepts that I imagined to be black and white, and I think more openly now about love and desire, marriage, and monogamy. Something that I insisted (firmly, even heatedly, at times) was not a relationship clearly was one — perhaps the most significant relationship I’ve had, in terms of personal development.
It was harder to end than I expected. Despite lacking labels, we had built a strong emotional bond, and its effect truly snuck up on me as I sat with him in an oyster bar in the middle of the afternoon. Just that morning he had helped me settle on a new apartment. It was big, a significant life decision, and it felt ungracious to reward his kindness this way. But as we sat with our drinks, talking, I could tell that he thought there was still room to develop our relationship. And I knew I didn’t believe it.
We had a rational but emotional conversation about what we wanted from our love lives — and admitted how opposite our desires were. Ever the gentleman, he walked me back to my car and kissed me goodbye. I’m not a crier, but my heart, my head, and my limbs felt heavy as I drove home alone.
I am not a Number Two, after all. But I’ve realized how much I grew through his admiration for me. Through him, I grew to better appreciate myself and to understand the qualities that will make me a great girlfriend — to someone else.
Names have been changed.