I Loved Them Both
My journey from culturally programmed monogamy to expansive polyamory.
I was always a sucker for romance. I still am, but it used to be an unhealthy fixation. When I was a blossoming (read: awkward) preteen, I bought into every cultural trope about meeting The One and finding True Love that the movies and love songs could throw at me.
I believed that you could only love one person at a time, and that maybe none of it was really love unless it turned out they were The One, meaning you were on a path to marriage.
I never wanted kids or fantasized about my wedding, so I guess I was weird that way. But I definitely believed there was One True Love for me out there in the world, and that I just had to be patient while life schemed to place that person in my path at the Exact. Right. Moment.
It would be magical. S/he would take my breath away, sweep me off my feet — or perhaps I’d do the sweeping — and we would live happily ever after, basking in the glow of our perfect love.
Unfortunately, The One was not making him/herself apparent quickly enough, so I started projecting my One True Love onto whoever was turning me on at the moment. I write this with the scathing clarity of hindsight. At the time, it all felt woefully sincere.
My first serious boyfriend was a punk rocker who was furious with the world and had a tendency to treat strangers with more care and generosity than he would ever treat me.
But he said those magic words: “I love you.”
I believed him. I said them back. And then, in a bout of impulsiveness reserved for the impossibly young and foolish, I moved to Kaysville, Utah, to live with him in a filthy single-wide trailer for a full year. Fantastic decision-making, courtesy of the One True Love myth.
Our relationship was tumultuous and abusive from the beginning, but I stuck it out as long as I could. I thought saying “I love you” meant you were committed to each other, and I envisioned us together forever…until it became obvious that that would be a very sad future for me.
Eventually, the severe emotional and mild physical abuse overrode the circuits in my brain screaming about ONE TRUE LOVE, and I got the hell out of there. I packed all my things plus three cats into my mostly broken Jeep Grand Cherokee and drove off into the sunset.
After that, I identified as a lesbian for a couple of years. Once you’ve dealt with the genitals of a man who prides himself on rarely showering or wearing underwear, you’ll understand that my temporary distaste for dick was real. Also, I didn’t realize this at the time — it took me years to acknowledge how abusive that relationship was — but I was traumatized and needed time to heal.
During that time, I met Brittany. Oh my God, Brittany. She was so beautiful. She was perfect. I was in love! I wanted to be with her forever.
That did not stop me from making out with a curvaceous hottie in the bathroom at a party that Brittany didn’t attend. I should’ve gotten an inkling of my future in nonmonogamous exploration then, but instead, I just assumed I was a dog, a total piece of shit.
I decided to be honest about my shittiness, and that was it for me and Brittany. She also bought into the idea that if you really love someone, you’ll never want or love anyone else in a romantic or sexual way again. True Love is exclusive and monogamous. That’s just basic facts, right?
I was bouncing between the US and my hometown of Seoul, Korea — I’m not Korean, I’m a military brat, it’s a whole thing, don’t ever ask me where I’m from, it’s the worst — for a few years after that, and that’s when I met Gabriel. He lived in Seoul, a brilliant, devilishly handsome American expatriate.
I’d never been so attracted to another human being in my life. I thought I knew what it felt like to be really into someone, but I was wrong. This was different. It was magnetic, hypnotizing, intensely sexual. When he looked at me, my stomach did butterfly flips. When we touched, it was like being hooked up to a power generator. My body and soul vibrated just from his hand brushing mine.
Whooooa. He must be The One.
We made plans to go out on what seemed like a date, but ended up being a group hang. His ex-girlfriend, a slim, curly-haired French Canadian woman, was there. She saw me all moony-eyed next to him, and managed to get back together with him that night. It was actually pretty impressive.
Ha! So much for True Love. Le sigh.
Gabriel and I became really close friends, and that’s how it was for the next two years. In that time, I moved to New York City. Bye, Gabriel!
Gabriel and the possessive French Canadian girl eventually broke up (PS: she HATED me — I can’t imagine why), and I ended up back in Seoul for a short spell one late spring. Gabriel and I finally slept together, and holy sparkle balls, it was magnificent! I was 25 at the time, and I’d been sexually active for eight solid years. I’d racked up some numbers in that time, and I thought I knew what good sex was like.
I had no idea. This was different; this was everything! It was a reason to go on living! It was a direct connection to the divine! With him, everything was so easy, so natural, effortlessly passionate. Also, we’d already been saying we loved each other as friends for two years, so when we started saying it while fucking, it made the fucking feel like love-making…because that’s what it was. We loved each other. Still do.
The thing was, I’d been pursuing this guy back in New York so hard that I hustled myself into his band as a back-up singer. Let’s call him James. I thought he was the funkiest cat in the cosmos. He was talented, a bit older than me and therefore more stable and worldly, and so damn elusive! It was intoxicating, and I was very focused on it, even while discovering the wonders of Gabriel.
At the end of my visit to Seoul, Gabriel and I both realized that if we lived in the same place, we would probably try to be together. It was too good. It was tragic that I had to leave, and we both had tears in our eyes when we said goodbye. But hell, I had to leave. I wasn’t going to move back to Seoul just to be with a dude, no matter how volcanic the sex was.
I went back to New York and resumed my pursuit of James. After ten months of casual hook-ups, he finally came to his senses and realized I was awesome. We got together and stayed together for the next two years.
Those two years were very educational.
Let me be clear. I loved James. I thought James was The One. I saw us building this band together and making it a huge thing and being a power couple. I saw us probably getting married. I had chased him for so long, and when I finally got him, I was sure it was fate. It felt magical and sparkly and destined. It was obviously True Love.
Gabriel was just a sad example of bad timing and circumstances, but he couldn’t be The One if this other guy was, right? I decided he was just someone I wanted to fuck, and I pushed my real feelings as deep inside myself as I could.
About a year into my relationship with James, Gabriel wrote to let me know he’d be visiting New York. Of course, I’d love to see him! We made plans to roll on ecstasy together…platonically, of course. I wasn’t a cheater.
We didn’t so much as kiss that night, but sexual energy was thrumming between us like a bramble of live wires. In order to have some privacy, we hung out in my band’s rehearsal space. We played Scrabble. I’m not kidding. It was the most sexual game of Scrabble that has ever been played. To this day, Scrabble still turns me on.
Here we are, two adults who want each other so powerfully it’s been transmuted into actual physical sensations with zero physical stimulation, playing fucking Scrabble in a rehearsal studio instead of fucking each other senseless. At one point, the tension was so hot I got up and start doing yoga stretches to calm down, which he later told me did nothing to help him hide the enthusiastic boner he’d been trying to suppress.
When he was walking me back to James’s apartment, which I’d moved into by then, we held hands and congratulated ourselves on our remarkable self-restraint. We were decent, honest people, playing by the sanctioned societal rules.
As we were saying goodbye, holding hands, staring into each other’s eyes, a sassy streetwalker toddled by on impossibly high heels and cackled, in a smoke-ravaged voice, “Kiss her, already!”
We laughed, a little embarrassed — it definitely broke the moment. But that moment felt like…wait for it…True Love.
Gabriel went back to Seoul a few days later. I went home to James and continued on with my life. He still felt like True Love, too…for a while, anyway. We eventually broke up. But that’s not the point.
That moment with Gabriel, and the subsequent return to my loving boyfriend at home, was the very first time that I became aware of my ability to love two people at once, for totally different reasons, in totally different ways, both of them deep and real and heartfelt and simultaneous, with neither relationship affecting the other. It was a revelation that went against all of my cultural programming.
It didn’t sink in immediately. I had to learn a few more lessons before I was able to completely come into myself as a polyamorous woman.
A year and a half into my relationship with James, I started realizing he was a pretty crappy boyfriend. He was constantly trying to prove to the rest of the band that he wasn’t playing favorites with his girlfriend. The effect was that even though I was one of the hardest working core members of the band, I was often the worst treated, not just by him, but by everyone, because he set the tone.
Beyond that, his sex drive didn’t come close to matching mine, and he was one of those men who thinks his orgasm is the main event of sex. He only made me come a couple of times in two years. He never even tried until our relationship was on the rocks. I was so used to poor treatment in romantic relationships that it took me a year and a half to see all this.
I scheduled a trip to visit my parents in Seoul for Christmas without him. I wanted out of the relationship, but I was broke and confused. I needed space to figure out what to do next.
Of course, I saw Gabriel. It had been a while since we’d been physically together. He had just started dating someone new who he was really excited about, but when we got together for drinks, words came out of him that I never expected to hear.
He told me I was God’s thumbprint on the universe. That being with me was like being near the sun. That it wasn’t fair I kept leaving him. He kissed me with the heat of the brightest stars. I melted, died a million deaths, and nearly slept with him.
The thing that stopped me? I didn’t want to be a cheater. Everyone knows that cheating means you’re a terrible person, and I wanted to be a good person.
But I’d never wanted someone more in my entire life. Not James or anyone else.
HOLY SHIT! GABRIEL MUST BE THE ONE!
But crap, he still lived in Korea and I lived in New York. And he had a new girlfriend.
Oh yeah, and I still lived with my boyfriend. That, too.
I returned to New York and immediately asked James for an open relationship. He reluctantly agreed.
This was the first time I’d ever tried such an arrangement, and it was for all the wrong reasons. Nonmonogamy was a salve that I was trying to apply to a dying relationship, and anyone who’s done that can tell you it’s not a smart move. We broke up six months later.
Gabriel continued dating that new woman, and moved in with her only three months after their first date. And he continued writing me love letters and lamenting that his new relationship was wonderful in every way except one: there was no passion.
Ah, but he and I had passion in spades. So clearly, this meant we were Meant To Be, and everything would work out in the end. He and this other woman wouldn’t last, because our passion meant we were supposed to be together. We were each other’s One.
I held onto that idea for years, but I also tried to move on with my life in the meantime. A girl’s gotta get laid, right?
That’s when I met Chris, a skinny lead guitarist with long curly hair and an unapologetically nostalgic 80s-style hair metal band. He was an accountant by day and a rocker by night, as well as a prolific songwriter and a fierce defender of chivalry. Chris liked to do all the planning for dates, take care of every bill, open every door, and constantly tell me why I had been worse off before he came into my life.
I was two months out of my relationship with James, and I was wounded by it. It hadn’t been an easy break-up. I was vulnerable and nursing a broken heart.
On our third date, Chris said he wanted to be exclusive, and I knew I wasn’t ready for that. I asked him for time; I said I’d rather we let things flow naturally and not rush into something serious.
His response was to give me an ultimatum — exclusivity or nothing — and I caved. I felt so lost and broken, and he seemed to be offering me the kind of love, affection, and stability I’d never gotten from anyone I’d dated.
The first six months were magical. He swept me off my feet. I started to think — you guessed it — he might be The One.
I told Gabriel to stop writing me love letters. I said he was disrupting my life and making it impossible for me to have healthy relationships, because the specter of his epic, passionate (elusive, long-distance) love was impossible for anyone else to compete with. Chastened, he apologized and stop writing. A piece of me felt very sad, but I thought it was the right thing to do.
After all, it’s not really love if you’re encouraging other lovers to contact you like that. Right?
The catch with Chris was that he had internalized our culture’s traditional values around monogamy and relationships even more than I had, and it made him deeply insecure, controlling, jealous, and possessive.
He believed that True Love meant you would no longer need to maintain any relationships, even friendships, with people you’d once been involved with, because now you had your One and they needed to go find theirs and stop bothering you. He didn’t like my friendship with a college friend of mine, because she and I used to make out at parties…in college. Years ago.
Of course, it was fine that he was still friends with women he’d slept with or dated. He just had a huge problem when I did it.
He really didn’t like my friendship with Gabriel.
Some of you might be wondering why I’d even tell a new boyfriend about someone like Gabriel, and I understand that a lot of people don’t share details of past relationships with new partners for fear of making them feel less significant.
But for me, that information is part of what’s shaped and formed me as a human. Hiding it means hiding vast swaths of myself. I’ve always been candid and honest with my partners. I don’t see the point in hiding parts of yourself and your life to spare someone’s fragile ego — we should be able to see the wholeness of the people we are closest to, or why are we so close?
So of course I told him about Gabriel, and that led to Chris essentially asking me to never speak to him again.
I am not proud of this. For the next year, I cut Gabriel out of my life. I was miserable over it. He was, too. It really, really sucked.
I also distanced myself from that college friend I used to make out with, and every other person I’d ever been involved with romantically or sexually, all to assuage Chris’s concerns that I wasn’t fully committed to him.
The relationship with Chris wasn’t healthy, as you may have gathered. Once he felt he had me secured, he wanted to put me in a little wifey-shaped box and leave me there while he attended to making his hair metal band the next great American music sensation. Things degraded rapidly. Chris stopped looking at me, literally and metaphorically, and I felt abandoned. Worse, I felt isolated — I had given up or scaled back so many of my closest relationships to make him feel secure.
The night Chris left me, Gabriel was my first phone call. I cried and apologized over and over again. He immediately forgave me, told me how depressed he’d been the last year because of the silence between us, and took me back into his life with no hesitation.
That’s when the Big Epiphany hit.
What Chris had asked of me — to stop having close relationships with people I had a romantic connection to — is considered pretty normal in our relationship politics. A lot of people would agree that I’d done the right thing in complying with his request.
But I knew in my heart that it had been all wrong. Cutting Gabriel off was a terribly unkind mistake that wounded someone I deeply love.
I swore I would never do that again. And I realized that, more than anything, I wanted to structure my life so that I would never have to cut off or unnecessarily limit any of my existing relationships again.
For the first time, I realized that the way we handle our romantic relationships would be considered wildly toxic if applied to any other kind of relationship — friendship, family, whatever.
Think of it this way — if you made a new friend, and you really hit it off, instant besties, and then that new friend started expressing major discomfort with you having other friends, how would you feel?
If your new friend was jealous of your other friends, and encouraged you to abandon those friendships for the sake of strengthening your friendship with them, would you comply?
If a new friend had a problem hearing about your other friendships in conversation, would that be okay with you?
If a new friend felt entitled to the bulk of your free time, and wanted you exclusively to themselves, would you agree? Would you sacrifice all other friendships?
How about if you had more than one child, and one of them really felt that you couldn’t love them as much if you loved the others. Would you confirm that belief for them and give up the other kids to make the one feel more special?
No, of course you wouldn’t. No one would. That’s fucking crazy.
But that’s exactly how most people handle their romantic relationships.
After Chris, I was done with trading in the important people in my life just because someone new came along. I have more respect for my love relationships than that, and I cherish them too dearly to routinely step away from them every time I date someone new.
As far as Gabriel being The One, over time, that certainty was transmuted into an infinitely more nuanced and subtle understanding of our particular dynamic.
Gabriel married the other woman he was seeing, and they’re still together. He and I have gone through many phases in our relationship, and the passion has never died. But we also never developed the kind of easy companionship that you need for a day-in, day-out partnership, and we still operate on opposite ends of the globe.
The myth of that perfect someone, The One True Love To End All Other Loves, doesn’t really exist unless you decide to structure your life that way. There are lots of Ones out there, and you can choose to have only one, or you can choose to allow all of your relationships to develop organically — to be what they are, no more and no less. Either way is fine, as long as you know there is a choice. Too many people accept as truth the concept that there is only one way to do romantic relationships — but there are infinite ways, and we should question and explore to find the right ones for us.
Since committing to a polyamorous lifestyle eight years ago, I’ve grown relationships with several other partners, all of which I cherished and which fulfilled me in different ways. I would never cut any of them out of my life for the sake of someone new. These relationships are as important to me as my family and friends, and they deserve to be respected and protected.
I also found someone who is so aligned with me on every level that I decided, after four years of riding the solo polyamory train, to make him my primary partner. We got married in November 2019 and moved from New York to Colorado together to start a new kind of life. Partly because of that, we don’t currently have other active partners, but that doesn’t mean we won’t in the future.
I’m grateful to be with someone who questions the validity of cultural programming, and who is so secure in himself that we can easily have the kinds of conversations that often devastate other couples. We talk about our attractions and desires for other people, about delicious, fun crushes and amazing past sexual and romantic experiences. Nothing is off limits, because we accept the whole of each other.
If and when my husband has other lovers, I’ll be super excited for him— I want all of my loves to have as much love, romance, and fantasmagorious sex as possible. And I know he would never limit me from doing anything that would make me happy and enrich my life.
When you love someone unconditionally, their pleasure is yours. And that’s what polyamory is all about.
Originally published on openlove101.com.