In 2005, my professional and personal lives collided.
I’d written a documentary film script and was working with a producer to find funding to make the film. We’d been meeting weekly, at his house, for six weeks. I’d met his wife a few times. We’d say hello, then she’d disappear upstairs.
On this particular morning, my producer wasn’t home for our scheduled meeting. His wife told me that he was stuck in traffic, about an hour from the city. I asked what I thought was an innocent question,
“Was he on his way home from a conference or film festival?”
“No. He was with his mistress last night,” she said, smiling.
I guess my face betrayed me since she poured me a coffee and explained that they had an open marriage and had been polyamorous for almost twenty years.
She told me she had rarely had outside relationships, but that he was virtually always in at least one other. And, that she was totally fine with this.
I asked so many questions. So many questions.
And her answers made polyamory sound so… smart.
She wasn’t interested in sex and had never had the same sex drive as her husband. She knew he loved her and that she was his primary relationship. He only had children with her.
He got to have sex as often as he desired and she didn’t have to have sex any more often than she wanted. Nobody felt guilty about having their needs fulfilled.
“It sounds like heaven.”
I’m not sure I said those exact words, but that was the feeling I had.
I’d been in what was technically a sexless marriage for almost ten years. I held all of the sex/no sex control in my marriage. My guilt about preventing my kind and loving husband from experiencing the intimacy I knew he missed and wanted to have had been eating away at me.
I pondered the idea of an open marriage. Knowing that my husband could have his needs met by another woman started to alleviate some of my feelings of guilt, even before I proposed the idea to him. Everything about polyamory felt right in my body.
However, in my head, I struggled with what I’d always known to be Truth:
Married couples only have sex with each other.
Sex with someone who is not your spouse is called an affair.
People who have affairs are lying, cheating, good-for-nothings who we shun and stop inviting to parties.
Having met a real-life polyamourous couple, I was forced to examine my assumptions about marriage, healthy relationships and love.
It took me several weeks to pluck up the courage to suggest the idea to my husband. I’d assumed he’d react negatively. But he didn’t. He wept with gratitude.
That said, I knew better than to mention our new marital arrangement to any of my friends. Conservative and monogamous, I assumed none would understand.
That assumption was confirmed after my husband left me for the first woman he slept with. With no chance to share his side of the story about how or why he slept with this woman, he was ostracized by the community he’d been a valued and loved member of for fifteen years.
I, on the other hand, was held and comforted and assured that James was the biggest asshole on the planet.
But the vilifying, the excommunication of my ex-husband for an act I’d encouraged — since I’d assumed it would benefit me as much as him — left me feeling just as guilty as when I’d been ‘withholding’ sex from him.
What was a girl to do?
I gave the whole story to all of my friends and begged them to stop hating him. The majority still refused to see his side. He remained a condemned man.
A colleague suggested that I have a marriage dissolution ceremony and invite the same friends who’d attended my wedding, so they could be part of my healing process, and perhaps, in taking part in an event that marked my new phase, accept that there was neither room nor need to carry bad feelings towards James.
All but one of my friends gave up their hate. But still, none understood why I’d suggested he have the affair. And all I can say is that it made sense to me at the time.
One thing my brief foray into having a polyamorous marriage made me examine was that sexual intimacy is just one of many intimacies we crave.
Emotional intimacy is a need to be vulnerable and to share our deepest feelings with someone who can empathize. A spouse who fills that intimacy need is amazing, but sometimes not the right person to share our deepest, darkest thoughts with.
I have girlfriends I confide in; some of my girlfriends know the true, naked soul me even better than my partner does. Is this considered taboo? Not usually. In fact, it’s usually encouraged to have friends we can confide in.
And, isn’t this also a role we often pay therapists and counsellors to fulfill? Nobody looks at therapists as emotional prostitutes. I think that’s a good thing.
If you belong to a book club that your partner is not part of, or you volunteer for an organization that does work you’re passionate about but your partner isn’t, you’re likely having at least some of your intellectual intimacy needs met by people outside of the sanctity of your relationship.
Connecting with people with whom you can have spirited conversations and debates about topics you care about is an intimacy need most of us have and many of us fulfil with people other than our partners.
Stereotypically-speaking, guys excel at having experiential intimacy outside of their primary relationships. Playing hockey together, watching ‘the game,’ pub nights… do we think of these relationships and experiences as cheating? Typically, we don’t, but the intimacy of these relationships is as important to many people as the intimacy that comes from sex.
Five to ten years ago, when I was a volunteer firefighter and my partner was not, my experiential intimacy needs were being filled by lots of men in my community. That’s how I met their wives and developed friendships with many of the women I turn to first when I want to get out of the house and have some fun.
When my son was three-years-old he pointed up to a tree and said, “I believe that God is the trees.” It was a spontaneous and random comment that twenty years later I still clearly remember. Even in our non-secular, eventually atheist household, spiritual intimacy is something that most of us seek. Hundreds of miles of forest are right outside the door to my home and that’s where everyone in my family goes when we need to ground. Are we condemned for being ecosexuals? Not so far.
Are Christians condemned for putting their love of God before their love of their spouse? That would be a firm, No.
Physical intimacy differs from sexual intimacy. It’s the need to be touched, specifically non-sexually. Every human needs physical intimacy, from infants to octogenarians. Even people who have active sex lives may not be getting the physical intimacy they need from their partner(s). But seeking this kind of intimacy outside of marriage is tricky since we too quickly equate a loving touch with a desire to have sex.
My friend, Becky, cuddles for a living. People, mostly men, hire her to simply lay with them and touch them non-sexually. She is paid to hold them, to let them be vulnerable, to let them be human. Some are married. Many are not. All long to just be held, for physical intimacy.
We all understand what sexual intimacy is. What we, as a culture, don’t seem to understand though, is why, of all the different kinds of intimacy we need to thrive, and all the different people we find those intimacies with, is sexual intimacy the one that is given all the power to ruin loving relationships?
It hasn’t always been this way. Many cultures used to treat sexual intimacy like just one of the many ways we engage with others. A few cultures still do. But it is certainly not the norm in modern, Eurocentric, Christian-dominated cultures where sexual intimacy holds the throne of all intimate relationships.
Being a woman who loves many women and just one man
I’m now twelve years into my second long-term, sexually monogamous relationship.
Of the many things I love about my partner is his commitment to our community as a volunteer firefighter and First Responder. I admire him for the hours he spends each week serving our community, having intimately experiential experiences with other firefighters, including several women.
I love that he unwinds with our dog, taking her, not forcing me, to go running in the forest on weekends to fulfill his spiritual intimacy needs. I’m grateful that he has co-workers with whom he debates politics and has his intellectual intimacy needs met with them.
I like to believe I’ve broken free from the outdated cultural rules that used to hold me hostage to what is and is not appropriate behavior in a loving, respectful relationship. I believe that there is no reason to make the act of being naked with another person the crime that ends so many relationships.
I wonder, given how much I love the women I’m emotionally, intellectually, and experientially intimate with, if adding physical and sexual intimacy might also be fulfilling. I suspect it could be.
And I don’t feel like I’d be cheating on my partner since having sex with a female friend would not take anything away from my sexual experiences with him.
Or so I like to imagine.
But, when I imagine him in bed, having intercourse with another person, that picture does not feel benign or neutral to me. It feels desperately dangerous. I have a very real double standard.
Maybe it’s because he and I have a robust and fulfilling sex life and I know if he were to have sex with another person, it would be with a woman. She would be competition, someone I would likely feel jealous of since whatever he got from her would be something I either could have or should have been able to provide to him.
Or maybe it’s because of how my first experiment with polyamory ended — and how quickly. Intellectually, I can see now that my marriage was already broken by the time I’d proposed we open it to other people, but that doesn’t remove my feeling of fear that if my current relationship was to be opened up for my partner to explore sexual intimacy he might also realize that his relationship to me was broken. Or at very least, not all he wants in a monogamous partnership.
It seems like a fair fear. What if he met a woman who wanted to go running in the woods and share spiritually intimate time with him? What if she loved to debate politics and talk about history and did a better job fulfilling his intellectual intimacy needs than I ever could?
I know I keep my partner fulfilled physically and sexually, but what if he found a woman who could keep him happy across all the intimacy areas? It may be selfish of me, but that’s not a door I’d like to open for him. And so, it’s not a door I’ll open for myself either.
Because even though I don’t believe that sexual intimacy needs to be the Queen Intimacy, the fact that it is provides me with some amount of comfort and security that my partner will still be waking up next to me in five years, even if I continue to shush him when his pillow talk turns to World War II trivia and trade tariffs.
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