My latest breakup has to mean something. Our relationship was beautiful, but our underlying incompatibility — his preference for monogamy and my inability to deliver it — was known over a year ago. If we had kindly ended things then, we would have spared ourselves months of heartbreak.
Neither of us was wrong. We simply wanted different relationships and both of us pretended we could be happy with one that didn’t suit our needs.
Now I’m single and it hurts. Of course it hurts. I’ve been driving around Los Angeles feeling lost. What an awful city to be sad in. L.A. is a city of dizzying glamour that nearly demands round-the-clock happiness from its inhabitants. But I’m not happy. I feel guilty and heartbroken over a relationship that I knew had no future.
I left him on the East Coast, on the bottom right tip of the country. I am a thousand miles away, but if you folded America over, I could drop into our backyard, walk into the apartment we shared, and tell him I’m sorry and ready to fix things. But it would be a wasted effort — there’s nothing to fix. He wants monogamy. I can’t do that.
I thought I could be monogamous at the beginning of our relationship, and besides, monogamy was not our biggest issue. When we met, I was graduating from college and he would be a student for another two years. We knew our relationship would probably not survive very long. The promise of those first wonderful weeks was that this setup was temporary. That was understood. But that’s not what happened. I graduated and found a job in town. We moved in together.
He was easy to love. He was sensitive and a good listener. I never realized what a valuable characteristic that is — I’ve never dated someone who waits for you to finish speaking and processes what you said. Now I want to be that person for my future lovers. Everyone should experience someone like him. The men he chooses next will be incredibly lucky.
Gradually, I realized I wanted more sexual freedom — the same realization I’ve come to in every relationship — so we made compromises. We agreed to only play together with occasional guys we met at the bar. We were what the sex advice columnist Dan Savage calls “monogamish.” And that was fine. It was enough. And then one day, unexpectedly, it wasn’t. I don’t know when it stopped being enough, I don’t think any specific happened, but I simply wanted more, and I felt guilty for wanting more. I wanted to fuck people without his approval. I wanted to go home with guys, then come back to him. I made promises: I would tell him beforehand. I wouldn’t stay overnight with anyone. I would always shower after sleeping with them. But he couldn’t bear the thought of me fucking someone without him present, and that’s what did it. I was badgering, complaining, and starting fights over what I called his “restrictions.” My job in Los Angeles came almost as a relief — at least it would stop the fights.
A few months later, he called me. As soon as I answered the phone, he said, “Alex, I want us to break up.” And here I am.
I’ll be frank: I’m not doing well. I was looking forward to going home, kissing him, and telling him I was ready to stay. I had my words ready. But I know in my heart that those words were pre-packaged lies, promises I couldn’t keep. I would become dissatisfied again, start complaining again, and we’d be back in that familiar toxic cycle I’ve shared with far too many men. And I feel broken, like some part of me is deficient. Why can’t I do what everyone else does?
Here’s the truth: I don’t think everyone else does it. I don’t think monogamy is natural. In fact, I think it goes against every basic animal instinct we have as human beings. And I believe that, in most cases, it fails miserably, either through cheating, dissatisfaction, bitterness, or simply a sad expiring of one’s sexual urges. All of these are horrible fates that no one in love deserves.
I think many gay men find themselves in relationships like the one I was in, and I think their connections either grow toxic, or they successfully open, or they simply resign themselves to something that feels very inadequate. And I want to be clear: the man I loved was never inadequate — he was amazing in bed — but our rules were inadequate for me, and my efforts to change them amounted to trying to change him. And you can’t do that. You can’t rewrite someone’s needs.
Non-monogamy was a concept I knew about when we started dating, but it wasn’t something I seriously researched until we started having problems. The term defines a range of relationships that exist on a spectrum between completely monogamous, or closed, and completely open. I learned that fully open relationships are ones in which both partners are free to have sex with whoever they want, whenever they want, with or without each other’s knowledge, and that kind of setup isn’t scary to me at all — I think my next relationship will be an open one — but many people apparently consider open relationships too threatening. Most gay men I’ve talked to fall somewhere between the two — “monogamish” — and have rules like the ones my ex pushed for: they only sleep with someone else together, or they only sleep with someone else when the other person is traveling.
In the relationship, I realize I wanted something closer to the “open” end and he wanted something closer to the “closed” end, and we argued over the details. This means we were incompatible over slightly different versions of non-monogamy. That’s all it takes for something to not work. Let this be a lesson for those reading this: if you want to try a non-monogamous relationship, you both must want the same kind of non-monogamous relationship and agree at the outset on its freedoms and boundaries. More importantly, you both have to desire those freedoms equally — one can’t push them while the other resists.
All my relationships in the past were monogamous because I didn’t have the language of non-monogamy when I was in them — I didn’t know it was an option. And I think most people who struggle to date faithfully are similar predicaments. It’s powerful to learn the word “non-monogamous,” which leads to other exciting terms like “polyamorous” and “relationship anarchy.” That’s when you go down a road well-trod by sex therapists and relationship counselors. You become something of an academic on modern dating. And that leads to theories on why monogamy exists in the first place.
The concept of monogamy is rooted in ancient practices and beliefs — in patriarchal religion, the systematic oppression of women, and the formation of families as economic units, which experts say happened sometime around the agricultural revolution. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was sensible to keep exclusive sexual partners in times before modern medicine, and family lineages could only accumulate power and wealth so long as this social doctrine was enforced — so long as parents raised children who were their blood. If children were raised communally rather than by single parental units and if sex partners were freely shared and nonexclusive (as some historians believe early human civilizations were), lineage would be difficult to trace and wealth hard to keep. But while monogamy was good for social and economic growth (and later stringently enforced as religious doctrine) it nevertheless ignores basic human needs and demands intense self-denial.
As part of the LGBTQ community, I participate in a culture that has always rejected hetero constructs and pioneered free love. I want to enjoy that. After talking to non-monogamous couples, I know their relationships are not without pitfalls or struggles, but being non-monogamous require good communication and that, they say, helps them overcome things like jealousy, envy, and insecurity.
If humans were made for monogamy, we’d have an easier time doing it. To see our success, consider the divorce rate, which has generally only climbed. The dialogue our culture fosters about relationships, from pop songs to reality TV, is littered with breakups, cheating, dishonesty, lies. We are bombarded daily with the bogeyman of the “other woman” and the “other man.” Our relationships are perpetually threatened by competition. Is that any way to love?
I love my ex. I miss his hair on his neck and how it feels to hold him. I can’t believe I’ll never feel his body against mine again. But we had to break up so that I can find someone more like me, and I now know they’re out there. The non-monogamous community is growing. Come join us.
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