What Polyamory Taught Me About Love

We all write our own narratives.

Photo by rosalinafonso on Reshot

Have you ever taken the Five Love Languages test? As with MBTI, I have been taking the test for about 16 years and I always get the same results. I wind up in a three-way tie for Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Quality Time.

The thing is, you’re supposed to end up with a top two when you take the test, not a top three. But I think I’ve always been a bit hungry for love. Maybe even ravenous. In The Five Love Languages book, author Gary C. Chapman writes how our love languages reflect the way we prefer to give and receive love. He also refers to our “love tank” veering toward empty or full, and I admit mine tends to be on the empty side. See? Ravenous for good reason.

Of course, I’m also a very fluffy and emotional INFP. My love for words of affirmation in romantic relationships has been unquenchable. Meaning that for the longest time, I lived for verbal affirmation from my partners. In fact, it used to dictate how I felt within the relationship and even how I felt about myself. So not exactly healthy.

If I was getting a lot of positive affirmation, I felt good. My mood then fluctuated up and down depending upon the amount of good words I was getting. It was like riding an unreliable high because some days I felt loved and other days nothing was enough.

My addiction to sweet words was problematic. Sometimes partners say things they don’t mean, or don’t really think about before they say it. Me being autistic, I tend to take men literally in my romantic relationships. If they say they need me, I believe it must be true because, why say it if they didn’t mean it?

Another problem with riding the wave of affirmation--I tend to make too many assumptions and take the relationship much further in my mind. Because I take all of those words to heart and I want them to mean more.

Looking over the trends in my past relationships, I can see where I ran into problems with unhealthy expectations. When I care about someone, I want to know they care about me too. But I don’t have a great history with love and like other people with borderline personality disorder, I’ve got abandoment issues. That means I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to get partners to tell me what I mean to them.

Plus, like many other INFPs, and folks with a traumatic family history, I love love. I love the idea of love. I want to love and be loved. So much so that I’ve prioritized it even when I shouldn’t.

But a funny thing happened last summer. After going on a long string of dates through OKcupid, but finding no spark, I finally fell for a guy in Atlanta (about two hours away). Except he’s poly.

Honestly, polyamory was never my bag. I think the biggest strike against it is how many men I’ve met who call themselves poly but only treat their primary partner well. If even. There are way too many entitled poly men treating partners like objects and gap-fillers. Whether I’m going to be a primary or secondary to anyone, I believe I’m a good partner who deserves a real relationship. I shouldn’t have to settle to be anyone’s gap-filler. Nor should I put up with lies or bullshit.

Furthermore, my daughter’s dad came out as poly when our daughter was a year old, and I never found him to be believable or authentic about it. He has a long history of cheating since his teen years, and always justified it by blaming each woman he had an affair with. And I’ve never seen him genuinely care about more than one person at a time. Even just one is... a bit pushing it.

So I’ve been well aware that some people use the poly label out of selfishness and that’s definitely rubbed me the wrong way.

Knowing I have these feelings, when I contemplated dating Mister Atlanta, I was pretty sure that he would break my heart. I actually pictured myself staring at the phone and crying, thinking about him wanting to be with someone who wasn’t me. So I didn’t think I could handle poly. If I hadn’t felt we had a real connection, I would have never agreed to meet him last August.

A year later, I hesitate to call what Mister Atlanta and I have a “relationship” simply because we don’t see each other or even talk much these days. I could talk to him more… but I’m so focused on rebuilding my life through writing lately that it doesn’t seem urgent.

At the same time, I have no interest in pursuing anything else with anyone else. That may change, but for now I’m at peace about it, because trying poly helped change the way I view relationships:

We don’t have to force a relationship to go anywhere or be anything.

It took me ages to understand that you can be in a healthy relationship without having any expectations, without labeling it, and without making it follow some predetermined course. Some things can simply be.

This can be hard if you're coming from a religious background where courtship was stressed and marriage was the goal. Dating Mister Atlanta taught me that a relationship can be successful even if it doesn't lead to something more, like a primary partnership, exclusivity, or marriage.

It’s okay to be in very different places.

Mister Atlanta is a business manager in his forties, recently divorced, and a big world traveler. I am a 35 year old single mom of a four year old little girl, and I don't drive. When we first met, my work from home was going well, but now I'm starting over and working on my writing career on an entirely new path. My life is complicated and tethered--it can't just be anything I want it to be since my daughter has to come first.

I used to think that I could never date anyone in such a different stage of life, yet whenever I'm with him, I understand that the way I feel around him is the type of relationship I ultimately want long-term. I feel completely at peace and free to be myself without apology. I don't feel like I have to perform for him at all. And I feel hopeful, and even energized to know there are men like him in the world. Guys who love to travel and go places and have real hobbies beyond videogames and sports. Honestly, I could get caught up in all the ways he fits my "ideal" for a partner, but instead, it makes me hopeful that I'll meet someone in the future and eventually settle down when it makes sense.

Sometimes having a connection and simply having fun is enough.

Some people are clearly people persons. I have more of a... love/hate relationship with humanity. My relationships with other people can be so complicated that it's rare for me to meet anyone who sets me at ease and makes me feel like I could be around them all the time and never feel it was too much.

With Mister Atlanta, I've learned that it doesn't matter how much time has passed between us. Whenever we finally see each other again, our time together feels pretty damn near perfect. Sure, part of that is because I love him. But who knew I could love someone without seeing him or talking to him daily? Not me.

Ultimately, my day to day life is all about raising my daughter and focusing on my writing. Spending time with Mister Atlanta helps me feel good--like I'm more than just a single mom.

We’re in charge of the way we feel about our relationships.

One of the things I love most about Mister Atlanta is how I know that anytime I need to talk something out with him, I can tell him and we'll talk. He won't try to avoid talking or say whatever he thinks I want to hear to shut me up. He will see the entire conversation through. I trust him to be real with me and that's a huge deal in my book.

Through those conversations, I've learned that all I need is that bit of trust that my partner will make time to talk things out with me if that's what I need. Beyond that, I'm not looking for words of affirmation from my relationships anymore. I've learned how to feel good within a relationship without needing to hear compliment after compliment to finally believe I matter. The reality is that I do matter, but no partner can give me a sense of my own self-worth.

Boundaries matter and we can’t blame our partner for our failure to have any.

For ages, I used to have a terrible time falling in love because I lost myself every time. I gave more than I should have given, and more than my partners could give, and then I felt frustrated that they didn't reciprocate. I didn't understand how to make appropriate boundaries.

Seeing Mister Atlanta helped me finally set boundaries for myself in a relationship. I finally quit scheduling my life around whatever works for the other person. I started saying no, that doesn't work for me. And I finally quit stressing out about who was giving or getting.

I suppose you could say that dating a poly guy in a long-distance scenario helped me learn how to mellow out about love. And how to quit seeing myself as valuable only if and when someone else loves me.

At the end of the day, we write our own narratives about love and no one else can write ours for us. We can spend a lifetime expecting others to tell us who who are and what love should be, but it will only leave us unhappy and waste more time.

Am I poly? No. But I’ve learned a great deal about love after falling for a poly man. I’ve learned that I can deal with poly a lot better than I ever guessed. I also learned how to see my relationships more honestly and clearly than in the past when I imagined or even tried to force them to be something else.

And one day I realized I was in love with a man who could never love me back. I was living in a fairy tale.
-Jenny, Big Fish