We all have different definitions of what “cheating” really means, and for me, it’s secrecy. I’ve been “cheated” on, for sure. But when someone I was dating hooked up with somebody else and told me about it the next morning, it didn’t feel like a big deal. When I found out from a friend of another partner that he’d been having a whole other relationship behind my back for months? That felt like cheating. And it didn’t feel good. I cheated plenty in my misspent youth — but, and not that this excuses anything, I never lied. I’m certainly no model of morality, but honesty is something I value tremendously. (Plus, I have the worst poker face of all time.) The thing is — and I know this is hard for many to believe — I never felt like I was truly doing anything wrong. How can mutual, consensual expression of desire and affection be wrong? I wondered. But then came the turning of the tides. It seemed a lot of people were deciding that an extra-relationship experience no longer meant the end of the preceding relationship. Suddenly, I knew people who had primary, secondary, even tertiary partners — so it didn’t seem that odd when, after I’d been dating Luke* for two years, my close friendship with Grace* turned physical. At first, Grace and I tried to laugh off our hookup as a fluke, afraid of disrupting the status quo. But, repeat occurrences made it clear that what we felt was real, and it wasn’t going away. And I realized I’d been wanting it to happen for a long time. After a few months, I was forced to acknowledge the heretofore unthinkable: I was in love. With two people. As my feelings for Grace grew, I kept waiting for my feelings for Luke to naturally diminish, like there should be some sort of max-capacity for emotions — but that didn’t happen. If anything, I loved them both more as time went on. They were by far the two most important people on my personal planet. But actually trying to be with more than one person was so much harder than I’d imagined. On the one hand, life felt rich and full; there were two incredible people to love. But there were also two people to disappoint — and worry about, and prioritize, and commute between. When I’d initially told Luke about me and Grace, he said he was glad I was finding intimacy in multiple places in my life. I encouraged him to go out and find someone else to be intimate with, too — in addition to (not as a replacement of) me, though he never did. Over time, Luke started inquiring — kindly, bless his heart — why he wasn’t “enough.” He didn’t want to compete, but he did want me to choose. “If being with Grace is what will make you happy,” Luke said, “I want you to go and be with Grace.” The thing is, I knew that if I left Luke, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. He was more than my partner; he was my family. He made me a better person: kinder, thoughtful, more patient. Grace, on the other hand, made me a smarter person. She inspired me, motivated me, so that I’d never grow complacent or unquestioning. And she was willing to be flexible. She knew how much my relationship with Luke meant, and she didn’t want to get in the way of that.
I was spreading myself unreasonably thin in hopes of making them both happy.
Grace had also started dating someone else. Sometimes, it felt like she and I had fallen easily into being each other’s secondary partner. Other times, “secondary” didn’t seem enough. And, despite my overwhelming love for her, there was a sense of imbalance permeating our relationship that made it almost always tumultuous. Grace’s current partner was newer than Luke, so she felt their situation was at greater risk; I felt Luke and I had more to lose. All in all, Grace and I were both terrified of being too invested — and terrified of losing each other. Also, my much-valued adherence to honesty had begun to suffer. I wasn’t sneaking around or making up stories, but I was omitting details and padding the edges of emotional conversations in hopes of making them easier for everyone. It was Grace who called it all off, in the end. She was brave enough to admit that it was too much, for all of us. None of us felt like we were truly being taken care of, or that we could trust each other 100%. Would it have worked, if Luke had had another partner, too? If Grace’s primary relationship had as much history as ours? If I hadn’t been so selfishly determined to keep them both in my life? Who knows? Really, what are the odds that your level of love and openness and attachment will match up with those of not only one, but two or more other people? Many of my friends in open or polyamorous relationships are still going strong, and I admire them. I wholeheartedly believe that love is something that should be shared and spread, not compartmentalized and isolated. But I also have serious relationship-juggling whiplash. And much of the openness that existed in my relationships with Luke and Grace ended up feeling (or maybe always had been?) forced. A therapist once told me that I was the best candidate she’d ever seen for an open relationship. The problem with non-monogamy, she explained, is that too many people dive into it because they’re not 100% invested in a particular partner. I, on the other hand, was 100% invested in Luke and Grace. But, I was spreading myself unreasonably thin in hopes of making them both happy — and, in doing so, I was failing to make any of us happy. I don’t know if I’ll be monogamous forever — or “monogamish,” or what have you. But I do know I’ll never be a “cheater” again. I know enough about myself and my partner to know that I’m no longer comfortable with omission or even delayed truth-telling. From now on, any secondary relationships or extra-relationship flings will happen after, not before, my partner and I discuss them and make a decision together. And I’ll always be grateful to Luke and Grace for showing me my own capacity to love, which, it turns out, was more than I ever thought possible. *These names have been changed.