It's Friday night and I'm home working on this essay about non-monogamy while my beloved is out with friends from high school. We've been dating for six months and we both agreed to have an open relationship from the beginning; we wanted our relationship to be something we had, not something we were. I had been exploring non-monogamy for a few years after reading the popular and informative polyamory primer The Ethical Slut by Janet W Hardy and Dossie Easton, and discovering polyamory was the first time I felt like I could have a core bond that could also allow me to explore the multiplicity of my desire.
Last year, I meditated on the next deep love of my life, imagining a relationship of two sovereign beings choosing each other each day. I pictured the two of us sharing exploration, learning and adventure with other lovers in a way that strengthened our core bond. Although at times I still feel lonely or fretful, my twin tools of self-care and clear communication get me through. We are growing. Together, but not as one.
I've always had a tendency to grasp for love. After discovering psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory—essentially, the idea that our ability to form a sense of attachment to others is the basis of our survival—I recognized in myself the hallmarks of an anxious attachment personality. When I feel a threat to my core love bond, I become emotionally dysregulated, which in turn leads me to being preoccupied and fretful. Despite this, I'm still glad I chose non-monogamy as the framework for my current relationship.
"If it's later than 1 am, I'll just stay at John's," she says as she's about to walk out the door in her tall black boots. I feel a twinge in my core that she might not come home tonight, and since we haven't seen each other in a few days, I'm feeling needy.
Open relating (also known as non-monogamy) comes in many different forms, from primary partnerships that look almost exactly like monogamy, to full-on relationship anarchy. "Poly people" are sometimes stereotyped as irresponsible hedonists or aggressive evangelists, but the truth is that open relationships are simply relationships that are not closed. There are endless possibilities for how people inside the partnership might choose to relate to each other through a set of lovingly negotiated agreements. In our case, we've been building agreements as we go, almost like co-creating a piece of art.
"You'll text though, yeah?" I belie my sudden insecurity.
"I'll call," she says lovingly as she kisses me goodnight.
My anxious attachment is periodically triggered in my relationship, although we rarely connect romantically with others. In a way, knowing that I do not possess her is a type of exposure therapy for my insecurity. Sitting with my possessive instincts is one of the main ways that practicing non-monogamy has supported my personal growth, but it's not the only one; I have also become a better communicator, and I have two choices when I become anxious about our relationship: to communicate my wants and needs, or to self-soothe.
So, as the evening progresses and my antsiness builds, distracting me from my writing, I decide to do yoga. I break for 60 minutes of breath and movement, and feel the angst move from my core throughout my body. When I'm finished, I come straight to my writing. I don't check my phone to see if she's texted me, because as I witness this familiar feeling move through me, I begin to understand that the way I've been feeling wasn't really about her after all.
Non-monogamy forces me to differentiate from my beloved. I don't allow myself to regress into a fantasy of escaping myself and the world by dissolving into someone else. Instead, I hold space for her freedom—and my own—by soothing myself. Relationship psychologist Esther Perel says that love desires closeness, but the erotic craves distance. Letting my beloved go sets up her triumphant return. Our relationship grows like grapes in loose rocky soil, exposed to the wild cliffs of unknowing, allowing our wine to become delicious and complex.
Someday, this love will fade or change, and if not, someday one of us is certain to be mercilessly ripped from the other by the final parting of death. Separation is certain. So I practice equanimity, protect my beloved's freedom, and take responsibility to heal the wounded boy inside of me. Only I can do the work on myself that needs to be done—but to have this brilliant, silly, wild lover by my side for however long we choose one another suits me well. I couldn't clutch her to me if I wanted to, for I would crush her beautiful wings.
Eamon Armstrong is a writer, speaker and host of the Life is a Festival podcast. He lives in San Francisco and grew up in Santa Fe.