Lynn liked to remind me of how, when we first met on OkCupid, I ignored her message. Only this never actually happened, because she never messaged me. She only neurotically thought about it and then decided against it.
We did eventually meet, though, a few weeks later, when a mutual friend invited us to the same bar. Lynn was up-front about who she was: pansexual, poly, and married. And as we became friends, I began to like her more and more.
When the topic of dating one another came up, I was skeptical, to say the least. The whole open marriage thing was a turn-off. How could someone already in a committed relationship have the capacity to provide care and affection in the way I desired?
Before Lynn, I thought poly people were just swingers with big eyes, high sex drives, and commitment issues. But as we dated and my short misadventures in the world of polyamory began, I began to notice misconceptions I had about labels and the way I existed in relationships.
In the past, I’d dated people who claimed to be polyamorous, but really, they were just cheating.
While Merriam-Webster defines polyamory as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time,” a true polyamorous relationship isn’t about the number. It’s about the way someone approaches a relationship and gets consent.
Another term that’s used interchangeably is “ethical non-monogamy” or “consensual nonmonogamy,” meaning all those involved practice good communication and clear, enthusiastic, and ongoing consent between everyone involved.
This makes what I experienced in the past — with a woman who had me lie to her boyfriend — cheating, plain and simple. Regardless of labels, people who don’t fully communicate their desires or who exist in some sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” gray area with their partners are cheating.
Attachment theory is a psychological model describing how the dynamics between humans work, long- and short-term relationships included. British psychoanalyst John Bowlby originally conceived of this theory as a way to understand stress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. His research would lead him to theorize that attachment colored the human experience “from the cradle to the grave.”
My attachment style is anxious and shaky at best. Like many neglected children, I lived in a state of fear, anxiety, and toxicity, which left me feeling insecure and emotionally unattended to.
As an adult, it’s manifested in an inability to feel secure in relationships as well as an affinity for clinging to any romantic partner who comes my way, no matter whether they’re actually good or bad for me.
I used to be convinced that if a monogamous relationship couldn’t meet my emotional needs, then a situation involving multiple lovers wouldn’t be able to make me feel secure either.
To my surprise, whoever else Lynn was with didn’t matter so much. What mattered was the amount of affection she gave me when we were together.
In comparison to past lovers and even caretakers and family members, Lynn gave ongoing and consistent verbal praise and emotional support, which made me feel supported. As a result, I felt less anxious and pretty safe to speak my mind and be myself.
It’s easy to say my short-lived relationship with Lynn went wrong because we were polyamorous, but the issues were unrelated to that. Issues in a relationship often come from within and build up. The only way to clear the air is through communication.
On my part, I’d assumed the relationship would run smoothly because Lynn and her wife had been open and poly for a few years.
But as soon as Lynn and I went from merely friends to girlfriends, there were a bunch of new rules from her wife. I was “banned” from sleeping in Lynn’s room, relegated to the spare guest room. While I expressed my displeasure at this rule, I went along with it. After all, I thought, I had my own place.
But these embargoes took their toll, leaving me feeling less welcomed in their home and less empowered in the relationship. I began to feel as if someone else was pulling the strings to my happiness.
I was ultimately blindsided by a Facebook message on what was supposed to be our date night (but, unbeknownst to me, was also their wedding anniversary). Lynn had broken up with me.
I was shocked and hurt, but looking back, it shouldn’t have been too surprising. There was a level of non-communication and lack of respect throughout the relationship that I’d inadvertently ignored — because of both my desire for Lynn and my desire to respect an established relationship.
But in doing so, I also betrayed and ignored my own needs.
I compromised because I didn’t want to be alone with myself again. But do I really want to be in a relationship where I have to compromise myself in the pursuit of romance?
While I’m surprised that seething jealousy hasn’t overtaken me like I thought it would in a polyamorous relationship, I know I don’t want to feel powerless or cast aside again. If something doesn’t feel right, it likely isn’t.
This experience has taught me to trust my instincts and that the dynamics of a relationship have a lot more to do with the actions of those involved, not the label you put on it.
Niesha Davis is a writer currently living in Thailand. Bylines include: Glamour, The Huffington Post, Women’s Health, Everyday Health, Bust, Bitch, and many other publications.