After divorce, polyamory taught me what love is (and what I was missing)

I had permission to explore and become simultaneously attached to him. I wasn’t weighed down by expectations of a future — of marriage, of kids, of moving in together, of having to pick up my life and move with him to New York City — because he already had that future with someone else.

It began as intrigue and then quickly shifted to insatiable attraction. I never expected what followed: attraction evolved into trust, and then trust grew into unconditional adoration. I struggled to use the word love because I was afraid if I said it, the spectrum of feelings I had would suddenly sour.

But I could feel something strong and emotional in the quiet moments I spent with him. Those moments felt like foreshocks — tiny jolts stemming from what I worried would be such a powerful quake it would rattle and shatter my life as I knew it. It was in those moments — like when I got a glimpse of his laughing wrinkles as he smiled and shyly shifted his gaze downward — that I tried to embrace the spectrum of my feelings. On one side was awe, and on the other happiness. Then somewhere in the middle lay paralyzing fear.

With every new relationship there’s a struggle to reconcile two feelings: first, the hope of either developing something extraordinary and having it either last or run its course, and second, the fear of getting close enough to someone that the thought of it ending gives you physical pain. This relationship came with an entirely different set of hopes, fears and what I thought was an inevitable endgame.

It began with me swiping right on the profile of a gorgeous man named Chris with a bulleted bio: He’s in a committed open relationship and bisexual, and he has two dogs and loves sports and EDM. When I swiped, I was about a year out of a major breakup and I had spent that year exploring, discovering and trying new things. This was a new thing, and I needed to try it.

As we casually texted, he revealed more details about the complexity of his relationship. He said they opened up their relationship a few years ago, and that he explores with women while his fiancé, Matt, explores with men. A significant amount of the time, they have experiences with others together. They both have veto power over each other’s outside relationships, he told me.

I set out to do my own research. What Chris described seemed normal within the context of open and polyamorous relationships. It even seemed safe, and none of it shocked my conscience. For the most part, it made sense. Was I progressive enough to enter his world? Perhaps. Then I shared with him my story. I was a 25-year-old divorcee who was raised Mormon and married a man who discovered he was gay more than five years into our relationship. It’s a story I hesitated to share until I was sure it wouldn’t distract from me as an individual. My divorce didn’t define me, and that took me several months of therapy to work out. The last thing I needed was my divorce redefining me to someone I was dating.

But I shared it with Chris anyway. He was intrigued and asked me questions without judgment. My story made him even more interested than he had been, he said. He hadn’t scared me off yet, and my story somehow reinforced my “openness” toward his sexuality and his relationship.

He asked me to meet him for happy hour and I said yes. It didn’t take long for my digital intrigue to shift to attraction — perhaps a grand total of 30 minutes after I met him for the first time. I sat with him and we talked over a handful of margaritas. First I noticed how level, kind and warm his voice was. His voice was as warm as his eyes, although his eyes had a curious but inviting gaze as he studied me. I immediately felt like I was being sucked into his orbit. I needed to touch him. I needed to sit closer to him.

“It’s getting late. I should probably get going,” he said.

It was 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. I agreed. I had class in the morning. But when would I see him again?

“Unless… do you want to meet Matt?” he asked.

I paused. I wanted to see him again, so the answer was easy. If I wanted to see him again, and continue seeing him, meeting his fiancé was inevitable.

“Sure.” I replied. Why not? Might as well. At the very least, I should better understand the situation before I dive into it.

I met Matt that night and we clicked instantly. Chris held my hand as I talked to Matt, and I felt a shock of electricity run through my veins each time he let go and then laced his fingers around mine again. I needed more. I needed to touch him more. And from there our new affair flourished. We ran away with it and didn’t look back.

Over the months I spent with him — sipping Bloody Marys on his couch, going out to dinner, spending lazy weekends wrapped in his sheets in his comfortable bed — my therapist began to classify the budding relationship as one with “training wheels.” I was free to be interested in him but also be interested in other people. I had permission to explore and become simultaneously attached to him. I wasn’t weighed down by expectations of a future — of marriage, of kids, of moving in together, of having to pick up my life and move with him to New York City — because he already had that future with someone else.

The truth was that I thought I had fallen in love when I was 19. I adored that boy and I wanted the world with him. I depended on him, but knew I would survive if it ended. I knew I wouldn’t be worse off if I had never met him.

In hindsight, I think I remember looking at myself in the mirror on my wedding day. Really looking at myself. Was I sure? No. Was this a mistake? Maybe. Was what I felt for him enough? It was too late to back out.

And then came the divorce. Perhaps it was the unconventional reason we parted ways, or perhaps it was because what I felt for him really was never enough. Regardless, I didn’t feel the gaping hole described in stories of heartbreak. My heart was fine, while my confidence and sense of self were shattered. I was fine. Jaded, but fine. It was just like I had always anticipated. I swam to shore from the wreckage, and I didn’t stop for a minute to miss him.

What’s the difference between liking someone a lot, loving someone, and being in love with someone? Where does “falling” in love with someone fit into the equation? After my divorce, these words were a series of abstract concepts I couldn’t understand, mostly because I wasn’t sure I had ever fallen in love. I had felt butterflies, but not a helpless fear of plunging down a steep rollercoaster slope. I had never made the choice to put it all on the line with my ex-husband. We sunk into a comfortable routine but I knew I could live without him. My love for him made me a better person while we were happy, but if those four years were erased, I don’t think I would miss them.

Then at 25 my heart went into its first frenzy under extraordinarily unconventional circumstances.

But Chris was engaged (and soon after married). To Matt. Chris was bisexual and he and Matt were in a completely functioning and happy open relationship.

One morning, as we sat drinking Bloody Marys, I made a decision, conscious or not, to plunge heart first into Chris’ world and warmth. He was married then and moving to NYC in a matter of months, and I knew exactly how the story would end. If I plunged, I could break into more pieces than after my divorce. If I had never met Chris — if my time with him was suddenly taken away and erased — I knew I would miss every single minute. I would miss him; I would miss his hands, his kiss, his good morning greetings, his ability to communicate openly, and the way he let himself feel without fear or guilt.

That decision to plunge, to strap myself into the rollercoaster and embrace the free fall, was the most terrifying decision I had ever made. It was scarier than looking at myself in the mirror on my wedding day and questioning my entire relationship but walking down the aisle anyway.

But it was the easiest decision I had ever made. If I didn’t let myself be consumed by him, I wasn’t sure I would understand what it meant to love or be loved. Plunging came with a heavy price, almost heavy enough to make me hesitate. If it ended badly, if my heart was broken in the process, I didn’t know if I would survive. If I did survive, I had no way of knowing how long it would take me to recover.

And yet every day I fell further. When he looked at me and whispered that I was special, I believed him. NYC wouldn’t be an organic end to our relationship, and he wouldn’t leave me behind.

I loved Chris long before I realized what I felt was love.

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