By: Erin K Barnes/Men’s Health
My husband has a girlfriend…and I love her. That’s right: the love of my life is dating another woman, and she’s awesome.
The topic of my metamour—that’s my partner’s partner, in polyamorous terms—is controversial. It doesn’t matter that it was my idea to open our marriage. It doesn’t matter how my husband Cliff looks at me with heart eyes, or how many sizzling affairs I have. Most people feel sorry for me, or even disgusted, that I actually like the woman who—as they see it—threatens to replace me.
Flash to Cliff’s holiday party: the entire office had just found out he and his colleague Allison were dating. When a coworker recently spotted an affectionate display between Cliff and Allison, it was especially scandalous since everyone knew he was married. I was thankful HR handled their subsequent dating disclosure without bias. I was also thankful Allison was out of town; while I was eager to meet my metamour, these weren’t the best conditions. I knew the rumor mill had been industrious because Cliff’s coworkers approached him with reactions ranging from “you’re the man!” to “you’re stepping out on your wife”—behind my back, of course. I wore an extravagant cocktail dress and, despite my burning cheeks, attempted the most rumor-proof smile I could muster. I got so many sympathy drinks that night.
It’s easy to absorb office gossip, especially after free drinks. It was harder to brush off the grief our friends felt when our relationship changed.
We were the recipients of side-eyed glances from longtime buddies, people who were suddenly unsure if we’d lure them to an orgy or divorce each other. A number of my girlfriends kept my non-monogamy a secret from their spouses for fear they wouldn’t be allowed around me. I wondered, would their husbands restrict them from associating with a single woman? Why was I so different? Cliff’s best friend pulled me aside tearfully after a night of drinking, telling me, “I don’t want to lose you.”
I didn’t blame them; despite the myriad polyamory explainers on the internet like this one, most people misunderstand our arrangement.
Allison and I aren’t milking goats on the cult compound, Jell-O wrestling at the feet of our Virile Male, or drinking dosed Kool-Aid before ritualistic throuple sex. We do what typical friends do: share memes, drink craft beer, and discuss the latest episode of Killing Eve. We pick up meatballs for each other at Ikea.
It wasn’t always this way. In the glow of new lust, Cliff was my everything. If another woman had tried to date him, I’d have brushed up on all the shanking scenes from Orange is the New Black. I was filled with rage to hear people say that monogamy was flawed.
After having children, my love for Cliff was less territorial, partially because I didn’t have the energy to shank another girl over him. Creating human life together forged an unbreakable bond. At the same time, I was hit with a wave of hormones after I stopped nursing. The renewed sexual energy of reclaiming my body transformed me into a total adolescent. I got tattoos, dyed my hair blue, and partied. I flirted salaciously with hot dads who were our mutual friends. I was being ridiculous, and I worried I’d cheat.
One night, I lay awake with my pulse pounding, gripped with the sudden courage to tell my husband that I wanted to have sex with other people. I put his hand on my breast to cushion the blow…and woke him from a dead sleep.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about,” I whispered.
“Oh?” he asked, his voice rising a pitch.
I said I was grateful we were still in love after 17 years. That I felt like I was going through a change, and rather than rebel alone, I wanted him to be my partner in crime. And that it really turned me on to think of us in an open marriage.
My husband sat up in bed. “Wow,” he said. I had always been the vanilla one. “Yes,” he said, kissing me. “Yes!”
Cliff looked as giddy as I had when he had proposed; only this time, we were choosing us, and setting each other free. We had mind-blowing sex. Not only was my husband okay with this—it turned him on.
With freedom, my pent-up sexual tension deflated. I could be around hot dads without losing my mind. I indulged in pastimes I never thought I’d relive, like lying in bed with a new man, tracing his tattoos with my fingertips and alternating between talking and rendering each other speechless. I also explored profound platonic friendships with men I’d have surely missed out on in monogamy.
Cliff wanted kitchen table polyamory, where both partners have serious secondary relationships. I wanted lust and extramarital fun. In a twist of irony, I fell in love with someone new and had my heart broken, organically extending my own boundaries. While my family didn’t need to know the details, I didn’t hide my feelings. “Children,” I began with puffy eyes, “I’d like to introduce you to the music of the Smiths. They tell people that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes.” Being a 37-year-old mom with a broken heart sucked, but knowing it was possible to love two people at once gave me stability for what was to come.
Cliff started dating Allison. Never having dated polyamorously before, she handled the revelation of our open marriage perfectly: she barraged him with questions.
When the time came for Cliff to go to Allison’s house for an intimate date night, I texted her, saying, “I hope this isn’t weird, but I wanted to introduce myself so you know that I’m okay with this.”
We followed each other on Instagram and discovered we share the same absurd sense of humor. We gleefully bonded over memes. She entered our lives respectfully, without being pushy, but she also didn’t hide from me, nor I from her.
A month into their relationship, I discovered a playlist Allison had made Cliff titled “I Love You.” It didn’t help that I was in the ugliest throes of my breakup. All of that good will flushed out of me like a public restroom toilet, and what gurgled up in its place was grotesque. Sure, I had fallen in instant love with another man, but it had taken us six months to admit our feelings to each other…you know, like normal, emotionally-fearful people. I felt angry that they were moving so quickly. At this rate, this new woman that I hadn’t even met was going to be moving in next month.
I pulled out my jealousy and examined what was beneath it. I feared I was being replaced. Plus, I felt the suffocation of being absorbed into a very serious relationship I wasn’t ready for. I started to regret my decision to open our marriage.
“It’s not your fault, but I’m still hurt,” I told Cliff. “I’m just going to have to be mad at you for a little bit.” He listened with empathy and said he had felt the same way during my fling. He assured me he had no intentions to replace me. I fumed for about a week solid. Then out of nowhere, my anger disappeared. The pain of betrayal can take a lifetime to dislodge; but this pain came with an undercurrent of trust. Plus, I knew firsthand that my love for Cliff never changed through loving my own paramour.
Jealousy is like anger. Both are common emotions that should be accepted, admitted, and allowed to breathe. Neither are emotions we should bend to. If we planned our lives avoiding situations that angered us, we wouldn’t have sports, politics, or great TV. Yet, we submit to jealousy in the most important arena of our lives: love. When we get married, we mark ourselves with rings, banish anyone deemed a sexual risk, and deny ourselves until our desires display in toxic ways.
Today, we have a happy little polycule. Allison and I hang out together, and when we do, Cliff sends us video chats that start with a grinning, “Hey ladies…” Cliff is notoriously late to everything, so Allison helps him get home on time. Allison even started a fling with another man.
Have I felt more jealousy? Some, but I’ve experienced more jealousy in my extramarital flings, because jealousy is rooted in insecurity. We’ve built trust together. And when I occasionally feel like the relationship is moving too fast, I ask for space.
Society wants me to hate this gem of a person–the person who texted me after our dog died to send us “love beams,” only she accidentally wrote “love beans,” so now we often jokingly send each other “love beans.” People want to believe that I’m either a freak or uncommonly evolved to handle this unconventional arrangement. In truth, I’m not very remarkable at all; it’s simply not that hard. Concepts that once seemed terrifying are surprisingly easy when we meet the people involved…and they’re awesome.
Erin K. Barnes Erin K Barnes is a Denver-based author, synesthete, and publicist who has written for SyFy, OK Whatever, Westword, and the Denver Post.