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I Survived a Dysfunctional Polyamorous Relationship and Learned Some Lessons about Love

Posted on July 9, 2019 by
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Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

He was married, 19 years older, and my supervisor at the start-up he founded. We “met” when I published a blog article about Findhorn, and he emailed to tell me that he liked it. This led to a year-long conversation about ecovillages, sustainability, relationships, and working on a start-up together. Then one summer evening, he was in town visiting his mother. I met him for dinner, and as we talked about our work and relationships over spicy salmon rolls, it felt like reuniting with a long-lost family member, a father I hadn’t seen since childhood perhaps, or a twin brother separated at birth. We talked until midnight on the porch under the magnolia tree. The next day I wandered about in a daze, recalling his hands on my face, the audacity of his lips on mine. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and when I tried to describe to my best friend what happened, I was as astonished as she was to hear myself say, “I met Art in person for the first time last night. I love him.”

He had been in an open marriage for 25 years. When he and his wife lived at Findhorn in the 1990s, she fell in love with someone in the community, and after six months of talking about it, they decided to open their relationship rather than call it quits. At the time, several affairs came to light in the community, heartbroken couples split up, and people left the community. Years later, he recalls how their agreement kept their marriage intact. “I am sure that we would not be together today if we had not opened our relationship,” he said.

I discovered polyamory a few years before I met him after reading Sex at Dawn, and then verifying on the internet that it was a thing. My discovery that there was a way to ethically be in more than one romantic relationship at a time was as liberating to me as accepting that I wasn’t going to hell for having sex with my boyfriend when I was 20. There was nothing wrong with me for loving more than one person at a time. In fact, it felt like a gift that I loved with so little jealousy and so much generosity.

In December I visited him and his family. He and I slept in the guest bedroom while his wife slept in their bedroom. The next morning she made eggs, toast, and coffee for breakfast. Their daughters, age 11 and 15, acted as if it was perfectly normal for their dad’s girlfriend to sit down at breakfast with their parents. They left to visit her family for the holidays leaving us to spend a blissful seven days alone together. On New Year’s Day they came back with her boyfriend, John. We all unwrapped presents, and I took photos of us: Guin smiling goofily as her husband and her boyfriend leaned in to kiss her cheeks, Art with one arm around his wife and the other arm around me.

By March, we were talking about moving in together. Having lived in intentional communities for over 25 years, Art was no stranger to the pitfalls entailed, but this was different, because the people involved were in intimate relationships with each other. We would be sharing our beds as well as our home, our partners, and our families. How would we split the finances, make sure the house was clean, and dietary differences accommodated? Who would sleep where, when? How would we make decisions and deal with conflicts? There was a lot to figure out, but with everyone being a mature adult and Art and Guin’s experience living in communities, we were excited to try to figure it out.

In September, I packed everything that could fit into my four-door sedan, including my dog, and drove the 10 hours to our new home halfway across the country. Art and Guin had found a huge house in the suburbs with six bedrooms, a hot tub, and fenced back yard. It was bigger than anything any of us had lived in, and big enough, we hoped, to contain all of our relationships and all of our dreams.

The first month went fairly well. Guin and John were on vacation at Findhorn, Art and I painted rooms, bought furniture, and confused the neighbors about our relationship. (Are you the daughter? The wife? What are you?) But once Guin came back and John went home, problems started. She complained that I woke her up when I walked around my room in the morning, that I stacked my shoes incorrectly by the door, and left my mug out on the table after breakfast. She wanted a cat, even though I am allergic to cats. She didn’t bother to tell me that she would be late at work and wouldn’t be able to make dinner. Her back hurt and she wanted to sleep in the master bedroom, even though it was Art’s room and we were supposed to take turns being in it with him. Since I was the new person, I tried to please her and brush off the injustices, even though I knew it was setting a bad precedent.

In October came bad news: John was not moving in with us. He had started a new relationship with a woman back home, and even though he loved Guin, it was no longer working for him to be partnered with a married woman.

Guin was devastated. Ironically, she had encouraged John to pursue this new love interest, thinking that it would help him understand polyamory, but he chose monogamy instead. She cried inconsolably, lamenting the loss of “the love of her life.” She complained bitterly that Art never paid attention to her like John did, and now that he was gone, there was nobody to love her. While I was visiting my parents for the holidays, she flew into a rage when she found him talking on the phone with me, and it took him hours to calm her down. She said she was polyamorous all those years only because of the lack of intimacy in her marriage. She demanded that her husband and I break up so they could work on their marriage.

After recovering from his shock, Art refused. Not only did he not want to break up with me, he felt that her demand was unethical given their agreements.

“If we had two children,” he asked, “and the child that you liked better died, would you give away the other child?”

“Well, yeah,” she answered unsympathetically.

“Wrong answer,” he told her.

I found an apartment on the other side of town and we continued our relationship as best as we could with him coming to see me twice a week. His family life was increasingly unbearable. They no longer slept together, and she was angry all the time and they fought whenever he tried to talk to her about our relationship. Every time he came to my place, he arrived shaken from the fight he just had with her, and I spent hours trying to comfort him, counsel him, and imploring him to make some hard decisions.

“I am ready to commit everything, Art,” I said with tears in my eyes, “Are you?”

He was silent. He wasn’t ready to give up on 30 years of marriage. He wanted to be with his children and for them to be with their mother, and he wasn’t ready to turn his life upside down. If only they could talk with a therapist, work out their resentments or their sexual hangups, or even try Ayahuasca (a psychedelic drug), then perhaps she would understand and accept our relationship. “I don’t want to give up until I have tried everything,” he said.

● ● ●

It’s been almost two years since Art went home to his wife and didn’t come back. He tried valiantly to stay in touch with me, braving many fights and abuses in order to see and talk to me. We tried a six-month break where we did not have sexual contact and saw each other rarely, and I spent six months living in a different state where we did not see each other at all. She continued to berate him about talking to me, so we also agreed to two months of not talking to each other. They went to therapy and worked with two poly-friendly counselors, but could find no compromise that would make both of them happy. She insisted that monogamy was what she needed to stay in the marriage, and he said that we should at least have the right to stay friends. But when the reality comes down to defying his wife and living in a disharmonious household, he chose to stay home.

I have had terrible breakups before, but nothing this soul-crushing. I became angry, bitter, and resentful. Whenever I had any interaction with Art it usually turned into a big fight and ended in tears and a meltdown. I would show up at his door unannounced, come onto his phone calls without warning, threaten to do harm to myself, and refuse to get off the phone when he needed to end our conversations. One time when we were arguing while driving, I jumped out of the car and refused to get back in, and the driver in the vehicle behind us called the police. He became fearful and withdrawn, and did not want to stay in a relationship with me because he feared my doing harm to myself or to him. It took me almost two years to recover from the worst of it, and I’m still processing the grief. I suffered frequent migraines, chronic back pain, heart palpitations, and suicidal thoughts. My weight dropped from 116 to 102 pounds. With yoga, therapy, and a lot of help from my friends and my partner, I slowly, slowly, brought myself back to life. In the process, I developed some insights to help me move forward.

I learned that trying to convince someone to do something they don’t want is like leading a calf to slaughter: the more you pull, the harder they pull away. I would love for Art and Guin to love each other and to love me, but I can’t make that happen. Even though I’ve talked to Art many times, I cannot convince him to act differently. Accepting that people are not going to change was the biggest part of my letting go. All I could do was focus on getting myself better, which I did by dating, going to the gym, and trying to eat as much as possible.

I accepted that sometimes good people do stupid things, and that’s just a fact of life. I don’t understand why people shoot children in schools, why our government doesn’t take action on climate change, or why Trump was elected President. Volumes have been written on why things are the way they are, but the world is still a mess and I’m still disappointing to my mom. Even Buddha or Christ probably broke someone’s heart at some point in their lives. Understanding why Art made the choices he did helped me have compassion and forgiveness, but I still suffered the consequences of those decisions. I cannot prevent bad things from happening to good people, including myself, but if I were to be frustrated with everything I didn’t understand or like, I would explode and not be able to function. “Why me?” is not a productive question; shit happens; and we just have to do the best we can.

The most helpful lesson was that even if my beloved stops loving me, I don’t have to stop loving him. Just like if someone you love died suddenly, you’d continue to love them and remember them, even if they can’t love you back. Love is too strong an instinct to be dismissed, repressed, or restricted, even if it is not returned. If Art doesn’t come to see me, I can still text, “Good morning.” If he doesn’t talk to me, I can talk to him in my head. I can build a shrine or light a candle, and find some expression for my emotions, even if he’s not able to receive it. I can hold my partner a little longer, or take my dog for a longer walk, or call some friends and care about how they are doing, instead of always bemoaning how terrible things are for me. As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

The fact of the matter is, I am at the source of my love. I can generate it, give it, and attract it, regardless of whether I get it back. In fact, people do this all the time. Babies are born and loved even though we still don’t have universal health insurance, people work even though wages suck, and activists keep acting up even though the coming global warming apocalypse shows no sign of abating. Love is a rose blooming in December. Love is a smiling baby in poopy diapers.

Eventually I found a new partner, and we moved in together after nine months of dating. He is polyamorous and we truly support each other and our relationships with other partners. Sometimes I wake up in the morning next to him, and I cry about everything―the loss of my soulmate, the best sex I ever had, the home I wanted with him and longed for all my life. My partner holds me tightly in his arms and his shirt becomes wet with tears. Then I cry that in spite of everything, I love someone who loves me, someone whose beauty and kindness brought me back to life. I’m moved to tears by the simplest things―the smell of his hair, the warmth of his hand, his quiet and constant devotion. I cherish his physical presence because I am always denied that in relationship with Art.

I learned that relationships work not because they are polyamorous or monogamous, but because of the kindness and dedication of the people involved. I learned that intimacy doesn’t depend on how much sex you have or how much time you spend together, but mutual understanding and compassion. A couple who sleeps in the same bed and lives under the same roof can have no intimacy, while two people hundreds of miles apart interacting only through their phones can feel that their hearts are one. Like a cactus, love is more hardy than it is delicate.

Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am; the world seems so full of love, my heart can hardly stand it. It’s the 31st of December, and I’m dancing with friends at a New Year’s Eve party at their house. As we count the seconds to midnight under a swirling disco ball, I feel myself part of a community―people who show up to wish you Happy New Year, people who spill champagne on your couch by accident, who call you when you are having a bad day, or when they get their heart broken. We don’t have to live in the same house to be a community; community is anyone who cares. Love is all around us, and all we have to do is let it in.

Clara Fang is earning a Ph.D. in environmental studies at Antioch University New England and works as higher education outreach director at Citizen’s Climate Lobby, a nonprofit organization that builds political will for climate solutions. Her poems and essays have been published in Painted Bride Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Nimrod, Poet Lore as well as many others. She was born in Shanghai, China and immigrated to the United States when she was nine years old. She writes a blog about sustainability at Residenceonearth.net and a blog about polyamory at Consciouspolyamory.org.

Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


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