I am a 60-something-year-old working, professional woman who has traveled the world, had some wild adventures, and then hunkered down to work and family, first as a mother, now as a (youthful!) grandmother, and always as a career woman. I thought there was little left to shock and upset me, but I was wrong.
Enter my friend Kathy. I have known her for over 13 years now, have watched her develop great self-confidence, hone new skills and experience new love in full bloom. She is a remarkable woman whom I am proud to know and whose enjoyment of life is infectious. I’ve learned a great deal from her. When I first met Kathy in 2002, she was living with her husband and their three children. She had held numerous part-time jobs so that she could spend the time she wanted raising her children. She was your average “all-American,” white, middle class woman. Much happier than most, I would posit, and more well adjusted and comfortable in her own skin as well.
Kathy shattered that illusion for me years ago, at least the part about being your average all-American. She confided to me that she and her husband were polyamorous. I had no idea what that was. She explained it this way: “Really, it means romantic non-monogamy with the consent of everyone involved. There are almost as many different types of polyamorous relationships as there are people who engage in a poly lifestyle.” To me this simply translated as multiple sexual partners, or “swinging,” but Kathy explained emphatically that it usually encompassed much more, full emotional and physical relationships with more than one central person on an ongoing basis.
Over the years, Kathy and her husband created their own polyamorous rules, foremost among them the decision not to share the details of their other partners with one another. The arrangement worked beautifully, at least from Kathy’s perspective. She had enjoyed a number of relationships, some longer than others. One in particular, with a professor at a top tier university, had lasted over 12 years, with the full approval of his wife and the understanding of her husband. Neither Kathy nor her husband had anticipated that she would fall head over heels in love with one of these partners, but she did, churning things up, changing patterns that had been in place for a decade and a half. One big change was that Kathy and her husband agreed to formally separate so that she could begin a new life with a new partner.
It was interesting to me that within a year in this new partnership, they chose to become monogamous, and she communicated this carefully considered decision to her polyamorous partners, saying a difficult goodbye. “Polyamory is a flexible lifestyle,” she opined. “There are no rules, no must-dos. At this juncture in my life I don’t want to spend time with others. Since we both feel the same way, for now, at least, we decided to forego intimate involvement with anyone else. We have put our polyamorous lifestyle on the back burner.” And to further cement the new order of things, Kathy and her husband formally ended their marriage with a cordial divorce, continuing to gather for family events and holidays.
I listened to all of this with great interest. I didn’t think I knew others who had chosen polyamorous lifestyles, and I wondered why it was so under the radar. There appeared to be a cloak of secrecy, yet Kathy herself felt very comfortable to be “out.” Were people ashamed? Did they feel they would be ostracized? Did they feel like “the other”?
Kathy was ecstatically happy in this reinvented life, and her new excitement and romance that had grown out of polyamory continued to pique my curiosity; I confess to feeling slightly jealous, wondering what we old, solidly monogamous, married people were missing. I thought that the fluidity of moving from polyamory to monogamy was enviable. I enjoyed following her Facebook entries, smiling pictures of her travels with her sweetheart, family reunions, her numerous hiking trips with her girlfriends and pictures of her children and granddaughter. It was all pretty perfect.
Until one day about five months ago.
I still can’t wrap my mind around it, perhaps because it triggered locked away memories of my own difficult divorce in 1990. Or perhaps it’s because I am shocked frequently by how little we really know about another person. Whatever the reasons, this trauma—her trauma—also traumatized me. To be clear, what is written here is my own interpretation of events, based on Kathy’s recounting to me.
Kathy had become increasingly aware of a long-distance friendship that her partner was developing with another woman. Never a jealous person, something about this budding relationship bothered her, and she decided to muster the courage to ask him to cut it off. Even though he could be controlling and prone to occasional bouts of anger, she knew that he loved her; he was proposing marriage on a regular basis. She was considering his proposal, although she didn’t see the rationale for it.
Preparing for the conversation made her anxious, because like many of us, Kathy dislikes conflict. She often lets others have the last word in order to keep the peace, and this works because she is a mellow person and compromises without resentment.
His reaction to her request to curb this new friendship was shocking and unexpected. He became livid. He screamed and shouted that she was behaving irrationally. He proclaimed that he could talk to whomever he desired, and have emotional intimacy whenever he chose. These livid outbursts stunned Kathy. It occurred to her that perhaps he had made a decision to return to a polyamorous lifestyle unilaterally and without discussion.
He stormed out of their apartment. When he returned an hour later, he was no calmer than when he had left. He refused to listen to Kathy’s appeals to sit down and talk things through.
He adopted a stony silence and began to gather his things. With no one assisting him, he carried large piles of clothing, and ultimately, even furniture, down the stairs into a rented U-Haul that he had parked in front of the apartment. He seemed to possess superhuman strength, driven by adrenaline and fury. Apparently, he was moving out. Kathy watched as he ignored her, looking straight through her as though she was invisible, and continuing to load the U-Haul. She stood frozen in place, too shocked to move or speak throughout the ordeal. While she had difficulty breathing and felt that she might faint, she was able to avoid a full-blown panic attack.
When he had finished moving his things, her lover of 10 years got into the U-Haul and drove away without a further word.
That was five months ago. She has not heard from him since.
With his sudden departure, and the removal of all his things, she couldn’t stay in the apartment. She moved in with friends until she was able to assemble the necessities required to live independently: bed, table, chairs, kitchen items, towels.
It has taken me a while to process what happened. Was their agreement to return to a monogamous lifestyle their undoing? I have asked myself how someone can propose marriage and then storm out of his beloved’s life with no explanation. I have queried over and over again: How many of us are living with strangers? I have no answers to these questions.
Five months pass quickly. Kathy is a resilient person and has begun to reconstruct a new life, to forge another path, another chapter. She has also decided to return to her polyamorous lifestyle. She finds it freeing and more satisfying. Her children, now grown, are fully “in the know” and have been very supportive. Recently, she initiated contact with one of her former partners, and they have now resumed their relationship. She takes it one day at a time, but she seems busy and at peace. I see her self-confidence and joie de vivre returning. Her children and friends have served as her lifelines.
So why, I ask myself, has this been so personally upsetting to me? It’s not her return to a polyamorous lifestyle that unnerves me. In fact, I applaud any lifestyle choice where there is full transparency on all sides, an absolute value in the polyamorous world. And I rejoice that Kathy has returned to a lifestyle that is meaningful to her. It’s not even that Kathy had to endure a breakup. I would have heard her news, and I would have understood that things didn’t work out. Sometimes they just don’t.
I think it was the abrupt and almost violent nature of the final act; her partner’s refusal to reason with a woman he claimed he was ready to marry, whom he had lived with and loved for over 10 years. His actions were so disassociated from their life together that I’ve had trouble reconciling how any one could behave in such an irrational manner after holding it together for a full decade. And of course, it’s hard not to personalize it: Could I do this to my husband? Could he do this to me? Could any of my friends do it?
At the foundation of it all, what unsettles me the most is that perhaps we can never really know another human being, no matter how much we love them, no matter how long we have loved them and no matter what our expectations are. It serves as a constant reminder that every day presents new opportunities and new challenges, accompanied by a sense of the mystery of the unknown and the understanding that nothing can be taken for granted and nothing really stays the same. Nothing. I admire my friend’s grit, resilience and optimistic nature as she moves forward. She will be OK. She is OK. And I know that she will find love again, whether it is polyamory or not.
This article first appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Muses & Visionaries.