‘What if he finds someone better?’: the agony and the ecstasy of an open relationship

My mother will kill me for writing this article. She doesn’t get why my partner and I would want to have sex with other people; why, God why, would we want to question a structure as sacred and, let’s face it, successful as monogamy? As she said, when I first mentioned I’d been on a date with someone who wasn’t my long-term partner, “Well, what if he finds someone better than you?” Brutal. Mothers really know how to find your deepest insecurity before wringing it – and you – out like a dishcloth.

She wasn’t wrong, though. What if he does find someone better than me? That was, admittedly, the first question I had when my partner and I decided to sleep with other people a year ago. Not only that, we decided it would be fine if we went on dates with other people, too: one, two, 10 – as long as we kept, as every pop psychologist whose bestseller I’ve never read will tell you, communication streams open.

The first date with someone else was mine. It was with an incredibly hot guy who I’d met at a fashion party, because I’m glamorous like that. He flirted so hard it was essentially impossible to say no. My partner and I discussed it: “Let’s just see what happens.”

Naturally I was nervous. The guy was hot. I was sweaty. It was the first date I’d been on in way over half a decade. What on earth do you talk about? I messaged a friend who is a very chic dater: “Just ask him his most problematic opinion… Honestly, it’s the best opener.” I wore black, because I always wear black, and I unbuttoned my shirt one lower than usual. I kissed my partner and my dog, Celine Dion, goodbye. And off I went.

The date was fun, the sex was wild – not better or worse, but invigorating in its difference. Kissing was, bizarrely, harder than anything else because a kiss with a stranger these days feels more intimate, and until then that intimacy had been reserved only for my partner.

When I arrived home that night after sleeping with the first person who wasn’t my boyfriend in seven years, I felt, simply, glad to climb into bed next to him. But also, perhaps, like I was beginning to undo three decades of conditioning towards monogamy. A monogamy which, until then, I’d held on to so tightly it was as likely to suffocate me, or my partner, as the worrisome potential of finding someone better.

See, the thing about our monogamous relationship was that the desire we had for others never went away. It was simply annexed in our brain, right there next to Catholicism and the bad exes. That’s not to say it was repressed. I don’t know a single person in a monogamous relationship who doesn’t flirt, have crushes, perhaps overstep the mark in someone’s DMs. A lot of people cheat, too. It’s been this way for aeons and it will be this way for aeons to come (or until the next pesky mass extinction event hits). And annexing this desire is perfectly fine, but when you simply ask the question, “But why?”, finding a solid answer becomes difficult.

The day after I’d consummated our open relationship, we packed a bag and drove to the countryside for a friend’s baby’s christening. The atmosphere in the car as we drove out of London was one of deep, icy tension. We could not seem to find the right song to narrate the moment, for the whole 90-minute trip, until I burst and said: “OK, we fucked!”

We decided there and then, on the A419 on the way to celebrate the choices of some dear friends who had done what they were supposed to do and moved to the countryside to raise their perfect child, that this open thing was a terrible idea.

My partner is the love of my life. Something – perhaps the only thing, except that blondes really do have more fun – I feel sure of. A climate crisis brings daily anxiety, the newspapers are littered with transphobia, the government goes beyond incompetence to arrive somewhere between casual cruelty and calculated fascism. And on days where it feels as if there is very little to live for, just looking at him still reminds me that there is something so good in the world. Something with meaning.

See I am, and always have been, a sucker for love, romance and utter dedication – a paradox with my ever-intensifying queer politic. For a long time, it was me who had a desperate stake in our monogamy. I am the kind of person who people describe as “so attractive” but, because of my hairy belly and flagrant femininity, it’s often followed by: “I’m always attracted to people over bodies.” Well, good for you. But for me, attraction has always found me in spite of my body, not because of it. And plainly put, my boyfriend has both: charm, vigour – and abs.

Now I don’t want to be shallow: I wouldn’t want to say that the only reason I clung tightly to monogamy was because I’m a six and he’s a nine. It’s also a Catholic upbringing, every bit of culture I’ve consumed, the fact I believed I was, like every gay from a small town, Carrie Bradshaw. And I was looking for “can’t-live-without-each-other-love”, because, really, I’d never felt like I’d really been properly loved before. By anyone. Romantic or not. And so, when I built futures in my head they were monogamous. It was all I had ever seen. And I had made love, commitment and true romance all synonymous with monogamy.

At the christening we barely spoke. On the outside we were still the perfect gay couple: cooing over the baby, congratulating our friends, telling jokes only marginally over the edge of inappropriate for a christening. And for that day, everything appeared blissfully normal. But normality can be suffocating. On the way home, in the car, we broke: “Oh my God that was so normal we can’t cope.” So we checked ourselves into a cheap hotel that night, halfway between London and the Cotswolds, got absolutely hammered and defined the rules of our new setup. And at that point, there were no rules. Just communication. And that we can stop whenever either of us wants.

The second person I had sex with approached me in a bar and described what he wanted to do to me. I’d never felt a turn-on like it. Not that I’m not turned on by my partner – because various types of desire, of turn-on, are not mutually exclusive. Desire, as I’m learning, exists on various planes, in various spaces. Herein lay a huge learning curve: in an open relationship, you begin to experience totally varied and different types of desire to the type of desire you feel in a monogamous setup. I’ve had fast sex, slow sex, hot sex, sex I regret. I’ve made love to a stranger and had feelingless sex with a good friend.

The more people we told, the more we were asked my mother’s fated question: “How do you know he won’t find someone better than you?” After pushing back, I realised this wasn’t my friends and my mother telling me I was shit and my partner could – and perhaps should – find another, better partner. It was that everyone worries about this, too, in their own relationships. We’re all terrified that we are phonies and that if someone else came along we would be exposed and left to become the Miss Havisham type we were always destined to be.

The truth is, I don’t know he won’t find someone better than me. But can you know that in a monogamous relationship either? No. In fact, the answer, after a year of making mistakes and communicating about them in ways we never did before, is that it’s liberating to accept that. It’s freeing to see the end, because in seeing the end you have a reason to keep choosing the relationship.

And to me it has become an absurd claim that it would be possible to find someone better than him. Because a partnership, a love, a life that took seven years to build cannot be torn apart by something as new and naive as lust and, at most, momentary love. They are different emotions. They both provide rich experience, but they are in no way comparable. If anything, my tendencies towards jealousy and self-doubt have simmered away somewhat – because here was our get-out clause. And we are still in.

“It’s easier for queer couples,” a heterosexual friend told me, after I told her. And I think, for countless reasons, this is true: like the fact the centre still sees our relationships as fringe; the fact that sex for a lot of queer people is a mode of finding community, touch and family; the fact that we were kept out of normative conventions of relationships until a brutally recent seven years ago. But, at the same time, there is still the same fear, the same worry, the same risk of loss. So easier feels like too easy a word. Perhaps more accepted.

Culturally, we always think about the rush of the new: those heady days when you meet your partner and every move they make drives you to distraction. Then we do the merry dance of less sex, less communication, less fun, more bills, more plans, more stress, until we die or someone leaves.

And, yes, with every new partner I’ve been lucky enough to have an experience with over this moment in our relationship, I’ve experienced the rush of the new. But the rush of the new spills over into my primary partnership, too: new dynamics form, each scenario brings with it something for us to negotiate, and our sex is more adventurous than ever: perhaps because we learned new moves elsewhere or perhaps because we have a reinvigorated sense of desire for each other knowing that someone, elsewhere, has found this body in front of you desirable in new ways, too.

Our open relationship wasn’t born out of a lack of sex. Don’t worry, we’ve had that phase and we really did consider going open. But we decided then that if we were ever to do it, it couldn’t come from a place of trying to cure a wound, or fill a gap. That’s when the primary partnership ends. In fact, we’d only recently talked about getting married and then we decided to try the idea that non-monogamy might be an even more immense, powerful commitment to each other than a ring and a register.

How could that be possible? How could sleeping with other people be more of a commitment than marriage? Because in sleeping with others you are allowing your partner a deeper expression of their desires. Marriage is fantastic in many ways, but it is also a means of state control – one which produces couples who care for each other, and children who will become workers. But in the case of openness, I am committing to the fullness of his desires and mine, and the risks that come with expressing them. Commitment is another word I had got wrong, too. I always equated it with sacrifice, but I’m coming to learn it means a willingness to understand the changes in a person, to understand their fullness.

Of course, there are hard parts. With certain aspects – silly insecurities, double standards, needing to know every detail – you have to take on the individual responsibility of self-management of (some of) your own emotions. You have to accept that sometimes you are going to feel strange things and that your partner cannot be responsible for curing them. Or even always listening to them if they are unfair and unfounded. I’d been on multiple dates with someone, and felt deep worry when he told me he was going on a second. This was a feeling I had to– with the help of generous friends – self-manage. And lo and behold, he came home after what he described as an “impossibly average” date.

Something I’ve come to learn, something necessary for the success of truly any relationship, is that love is not control. Monogamy, too, is not control – and this is not my accusation. Because whether monogamous, open, polyamorous, the terms of the relationship should be agreed upon by each person within it, mutually, and not simply put there because it’s what – literally – the Bible says. I have radical queer friends who adore monogamy. I’ve met viscerally dull couples who are radically polyamorous. There’s no rhyme or reason for who it fits.

But the point is that non-monogamy is actually about care. It’s about seeing your partner, and yourself, as someone separate to you who has desires, feelings, emotions that they want to, and should be able to, share with other people – not just you. For us, at least, it’s created a dynamic of tantalising flux: one where sometimes you feel lonely, sometimes you feel powerful, sometimes you feel more in love than ever. But in understanding these dynamics that whirl around inside, and between, us both it feels more likely than ever that neither of us will find a better partner. Because if we can learn with empathy, compassion and selflessness to understand each other in what is deemed such a testing situation; if we can both let each other go for an evening every now and then, the reunion feels so much sweeter. Because you come home to someone who is committing to work hard to see you, to make space in their complicated emotional life for yours. And vice versa. That feels like more commitment, more love, than anything I’ve experienced before.

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