Like most women, I grew up conditioned to look at monogamy as both the journey and the destination. I had my share of casual dating, where romantic entanglements involved varying shades of pleasure tempered with meaningless dates and inconsequential hookups. My more romantic pursuits were always colored by the desire to match attraction with commitment. When you are invested in the idea of monogamy, it’s easy to believe that love exists only inside it. So it’s no surprise that a large part of my 20s was characterized by long-term relationships. Even when stability tended to overpower passion or pleasure, it didn’t set off alarm bells in my head simply because, for a long time, I saw love as a remedy. I was more than willing to sacrifice my personal boundaries on the altar of love and loyalty. How else could I prove that I was in love if my life wasn’t entirely consumed by it?
I saw monogamy as the epitome of being wanted. Desperate to be wanted my entire life, I latched onto it with everything I had. I never quite knew how to love someone without making them the center of my universe, without feeling like I needed to mold myself into whatever form the other person wanted. As I realize now, the thing that happens when you chase love like an addict is that you end up living a life of illusions — a life built on the exhausting distance between how wonderful something seems in your head and how it plays out in real life. In hindsight, it feels a lot like a wilful erasure of my individuality. I’d like to think I was happy in these relationships but I often find myself wondering whether I was capable of giving myself to someone without losing a sense of self. As I saw this distance increase in my last relationship, so did my assumptions about being loved.
Thrown into the breathless world of casual dating after that relationship ended, I sought control in extremes. I vowed not to be dictated by the potential of an eventual relationship when meeting people for the first time. I decided I wasn’t going to treat any romantic connection as a project and obsess over it, using it as an excuse to ignore my own life. But I was still seeking connections and looking to bond over mutual intellect, shared commonalities or silly likes and dislikes. Despite my solemn promises not to lose myself emotionally to the romantic options in front of me, I couldn’t quite switch off that need. So I dived into the bottomless possibilities of meaningless sex, telling myself that it was the easiest way to school myself in managing my expectations. Yet I grew weary of it soon enough, when the electric thrill of skin and chemistry started feeling like a monotonous chore. I wanted something more but I also wanted to be met midway.
I met S, who I saw casually for three months, at a party that I almost didn’t go to. He told me he was in an open relationship in the same breath that he told me about being unsettled by the degree of attraction he felt toward me. The alcohol flowed that night, as did the banter. When I left his house the next morning, I didn’t feel the urge to cancel everything in my calendar that week to free up enough time to see him. We exchanged numbers but got in touch with each other only when it was convenient for both of us to meet. Every time we met, I felt a strange contentment, as if it were possible to experience the closeness I was searching for without wishing for a way to trap that feeling forever. The time we spent together was made all the more alluring by the realization that I was seeing someone who didn’t demand the entirety of my attention. He wanted me as a significant part of his life but never as a witness. That someone could care for me and multiple others while retaining their own identity and priorities felt like stumbling onto a secret.
Over the next few months, I made it a point to only date men in open relationships. I made absolutely no effort to halt my own life while seeking these connections. In a way, being in these relationships made me feel so desirable that I felt compelled to protect my own boundaries rather than sacrificing them at the first promise of a monogamous arrangement.
I’m not sure what a non-monogamous life will look like for me but I do know something that I didn’t know before. The truths of monogamy spill only when you’re not bound by its limitations, when it’s possible to see your life at a remove from its hold. I see now that monogamy prevented me from prioritizing my own pleasure. In every relationship, I was overwhelmed by the duty of making my company as pleasurable as possible for my partner. Their needs became my own, to a point where I felt incapable of defining the outlines of my pleasure. My dating life right now has attraction as much as it has commitment. It seems radical that I can also derive pleasure from it.