I ended a nine-year relationship 3 years and 2 weeks ago. As I prepare to celebrate my 3-year anniversary with my new love tomorrow evening, I am thoughtful about what the last three years has taught me, and is still teaching me — about myself, about love, the nature of relationships — all of it.
I hadn’t dated much before I settled into my long-term relationship at the age of 21. My first love had dumped me after a few intense months for getting too deep too fast, and for being too poor to marry into his family, according to his mother.
I had lost my virginity with him, and I was raised that you marry the first person you have sex with. When he left me, I felt like I had been dumped out of a cup into the ocean, unequipped to deal with relationship dynamics post-virginity.
I met an attractive man the following summer, and went to bed with him fairly quickly, kind of rebounding, like, “Well – fuck it, what’s the point of waiting 18 years like last time?” After a few dates together, it soon became apparent to me that I didn’t want to mate with him in the formal sense, but he was fun to be with and we enjoyed each other’s company.
I was really struggling with my sense of virtue in my newfound sexuality, so I caused him a bit of grief by going spells where I refused to have sex with him because I was trying to be “good” somehow, trying to avoid continuing to give my body to someone who wasn’t going to be my life partner. It was a very mentally conflicting time. I couldn’t yet envision a new relationship paradigm.
Because it was clear to me that I needed different qualities in a mate, I dated some other people simultaneously, but no one really clicked with me. I remember having one particularly conflicted day when I had had some physical contact with three different men in the span of 24 hours. It made me sick to my stomach and I wrote a poem about it for one of my class assignments.
Although I was very open and honest with my dates, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was doing something “wrong” by spreading my physical and emotional affection. I didn’t have my bearings for what was okay or appropriate anymore.
There was only supposed to be one.
Halfway through college, I fell head over heels for a boy who was very similar to me in our passions. I liked him even more because he seemed very independent and didn’t chase after me like I thought he should. I endeavored to seduce him, and ended up with a few intimate encounters that rocked our worlds but drove him away and left me wanting.
Like a lovesick puppy, I clung for several months onto the intensity of emotion I experienced with him and wrote about a dozen poems trying to process my emotions while in the tortuous state of un-returned affection and relationship void/chaos.
Having moved to New Mexico for the summer, I then met a man at the gym who would become my partner for the next nine years. I was (and still am) a big fan of Oprah Winfrey. The things I learned and was exposed to watching her shows in high school and college really helped me have a positive mindset.
So I listened when she recommended one day, that you should completely cut your ties with ex-boyfriends when you get a new boyfriend. That “fit” with what I was taught growing up, that you should “protect” a relationship from temptations and the like, and stay focused only on your one partner.
By the end of that summer, my “passion prey” had gotten engaged and married off, and my “long-term fling” came to visit me unexpectedly. He had driven in anticipation something like seven hours that day to come see me, and he arrived late at night. Being pragmatic, I offered he could sleep in the bed next to me, but I withheld all affection from him that night. I thought that was the proper thing to do, because I had a new boyfriend now.
I cooked him a pancake breakfast the next morning, then said my goodbyes. He was quite shocked and hurt by my cutting ties with him that night, especially given the circumstance, but was lovely and sweet to me when he saw me a year or so later randomly out in public.
So I locked and loaded in with my new partner. He was cute, ambitious like me, a bit striving, liked the finer things in life, and had goals and plans and wanted a family like I did. Although he was over ten years older than me, we felt like equals. He made it very clear that he only had eyes for me, and that I should only have eyes for him.
He was quite untrusting, questioning my answering the phone out of breath, or whom I was out to dinner with, or what was that condom package doing under my bed (he had bought it). I had started to explore my feelings about the same sex, and he was hurt and upset about it (surprisingly to me, against stereotype). He wanted me all to himself. And that felt right, given my upbringing.
There was only supposed to be one.
Fast forward, nine years of long-distance dating, trust issues, and splitting up several times, I was so happy to be free finally. I had learned a lot about what it meant to stick and stay and work through anger toward resolution. But as we got closer to moving in together, our growth progress felt stalled and I felt hopeless about nine more years training him to love me. There had been so many failed attempts to get what I needed/wanted.
The ensuing three years of dating again would prove to be an experiment in how tightly I would hold to my notion of:
There is only supposed to be one.
It’s almost laughable at this stage, if it weren’t still such a standard in society. After a failed attempt to “lock down” my first new love, who kept moving in and out of the country, I went through several stages of dating around, settling, dating, settling, trying to create structure and imagine a new, happier life.
I don’t like the word “rebound,” as it implies that a relationship is taken on without love, attachment, or meaning, and I don’t feel that way about any of my relationships, ever. But my energy in this phase was “rebounding” from a state of untrusting/jealousy/love-scarcity, searching for the other side of the balance toward trusting/freedom/abounding-love.
I resigned that it was no longer a black-and-white world of “no sex before monogamy,” which was spouted often on a dating show I would watch called “Millionaire Matchmaker,” all about how to lock in the life partner of your dreams. It was a patented process, of sorts, that many times ended with a couple in marriage vows. And there was something elegant about that system that appealed to my engineer mind, that appealed to my religious fundamentalist mind, while also feeling just a little too formulaic/controlling.
The past three years have been ultimately about letting go…letting go of my need to feel in control of the pace and outcome of a relationship. Letting go of conforming every relationship to the formula. Letting go of the idea that there is only one person out there worthy of my love and affection. Letting go of my need to smother a person I deeply connect with, with my continuous presence and energy from day one. My multiple relationships helped me buffer this.
While I appreciate the simplicity of the monogamous system of relating, I’ve found it too limiting to define what makes me feel healthy and loving. I’ve discovered that, with ample communication, love and trust can be established outside the boundaries of a monogamous relationship that can even be deeper and more solvent than the trust and love provided by mere process, vows and labels.
A while back, a friend of mine referred to my new relationship style as “sophisticated.” I like that description, and I think it feels more real and true to the nature of relationships in general. And I am attracted to the authenticity of that.
In my early twenties, a girl a few years my senior said to me while we were immersed in relationship talk, “Relationships are complicated.” It hadn’t struck me before that that was correct, but it resonated with me on a deep level.
On my first date with my new love, three years ago this week, we went to a Bawdy Storytelling event in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. The theme of the night was “It’s Complicated.” We joked after the show about how silly it was that these polyamorous people had such complicated lives, and how grateful I was that my last nine years of monogamy had been so simple.
Little did I expect, we would navigate the next three years together, at varying degrees of closeness and distance, all the while with me struggling whether to listen to my turbulent emotions, my quiet sense of knowing, or the voices of Oprah, Millionaire Matchmaker, my parents, church, and Hollywood, or the lovers who would call me a slut or a whore, either in jest, in the heat of the moment to turn me or them on (doesn’t turn me on at all), or in anger at my willingness to spread my affections further than ONE.
During a particularly intense discussion a couple weeks back, we both found ourselves admitting, “This is the most complicated relationship I’ve ever had.”
And I’ve never been happier.
Update 7/15/13: Ended three-year relationship. Complications became overwhelming. Need a happy medium. Still not ready to admit Oprah was right though(!)….tbc…