Photographed by Lula Myers.
We met on a Wednesday down the pub. My friend recognised him from his university days and shouted at him from across the bar to join us at our table, where we and our other friend were eating fish and chips and drinking tequila soda. We talked about politics and TV shows and films we’d recently seen, my two friends fading into the background as I laughed to eschew the explosion that was mounting in my chest because of the way he was looking at me – insistent and unswerving – romance novel clichés elbowing sentient thoughts out of my brain.
We parted ways after last orders and a few days later I enquired about him through our mutual friend. I got his number and in a fairly unprecedented move for me, texted him to see if he wanted to go for a drink. He did, he said, and we met the following Friday on a bench at an outdoor bar in south London where the sun made both of us squint.
“I liked talking to you,” he said. “I felt like it was really natural and easy.”
Three drinks later and we were at another bar, drinking tequila sunrises and comparing tattoos. We kissed, in a dark corner upstairs – one of those once-in-a-blue-moon kisses that makes your body forget its limbs. We laughed and ribbed each other and kissed some more, until he finally pulled away and, with that same unswerving gaze, admitted that he needed to tell me something.
“I’m in a relationship,” he said. “An open relationship and we’re polyamorous.”
“But I might not be in a few weeks, who knows,” he said, “it’s always changing.”
I shrugged. I’d just met the guy and besides, I’d been reading a lot about polyamory and agreed with most of its core ideas: that monogamy didn’t feel natural to a lot of people; that two-person couples – a paradigm largely defined and protected by a cis-gendered narrative – was flawed. I’d slept with women and felt the tyrannical constraints of having to repress that side of myself when I did eventually enter into more long-term relationships with men. Perhaps he was onto something, I thought. And besides, I was drunk. I didn’t care. We carried on kissing and met again a few days later at a social event where neither of us spent much time talking to the other. At the end of the night he offered to walk me home and on the street near my flat, leaned in to kiss me and said that he would like to see me later that week.
And so it continued, until one day, sprawled out in the bath and thinking about our next encounter, I started to feel the first pangs of jealousy. I texted him saying that I didn’t think we should meet again, that I would never be comfortable hooking up with someone who had a partner, polyamorous or not, and that I hoped he understood. I sent a follow-up explaining that there was no judgement – that I admired people who could live without these feelings – but explaining that for me, at that time in my life, it didn’t feel like the right thing.
His reply was swift and insistent. He liked me, he said. His partner had been the one to suggest being polyamorous and he’d never felt comfortable with it. He would wind things down with her, end it, he said. He would like to see where things went with me.
Six, perhaps seven more blissful dates ensued, spent lolling around the park, watching films, being intimate but, on his insistence, never actually having penetrative sex until one night, on a Friday, when we headed back to my place and drank and ate dinner and then inevitably started kissing, stripping our clothes off – two sweaty bodies against each other, staring at the ceiling. He hadn’t mentioned his partner in a while and I felt the need to clarify the situation before we jumped off that cliff into uncertain new levels of contact. Were things winding down as he said they would? Had he seen her recently? I needed to know before we had sex.
“We slept together yesterday,” he said, a smile indicating that the information to him was harmless. I rolled over, naked and vulnerable, and after a few minutes staring at the carpet, rose to leave.
The next day he sent me a message explaining that he didn’t want to force an end to his feelings for his partner; that he wanted to still get to know me; that he never meant to hurt me. The anger I felt, though, which didn’t materialise for several days, was for the lack of respect he’d shown my feelings. Where I had been open and understanding of his views, he had treated mine without even the slightest respect. As my replies came back less polite, more annoyed, he took offence. He didn’t want to talk to me if I was going to behave in a way that was possessive, he said. There was nothing he could do. He was at the mercy of his feelings.
Only then did I start to register all the ways in which he’d disregarded me on a more human level. I’m a writer, struggling to publish my first novel – a fact he barely seemed to register. Meanwhile I found countless examples of him showing support to his partner online – sharing, liking and posting encouraging comments under her work. When I had complained about being unable to reach the ceiling of my new flat that needed painting – I’m 5ft 5, he’s over 6ft – he’d only shrugged, and told me that he was sure I would be able to find a tall enough ladder sooner or later.
When my responses became curt and unwavering – I didn’t want to see him again, it was over – he confidently asserted that he would try and be monogamous again with his partner. I’d been used to test the waters, in other words. The fondness and affection he felt for me were suddenly extinguished. While he couldn’t switch off his feelings for her, he could, apparently, me.
I started to realise that while in some circumstances polyamory can work and makes its participants far happier than otherwise, in my case I’d been reduced to little more than an object; and not because those involved wanted to objectify me but because the arrangement, by its nature, necessitates it. For relationships between people to work – partners or friends – they require a certain investment of time and it’s a simple matter of arithmetic that explains why in polyamorous relationships, parity of time is often difficult to achieve.
Yet unless clear rules and parameters are set to ensure that all parties are treated equally and fairly – which in itself seems counterintuitive to the wider principles of polyamory in wanting to live and love with fewer rules – some participants will always be left wanting. And in a world where patriarchy still goes unresolved, and women are already set up to fail and to feel inadequate about themselves, this kind of behaviour seems dangerous. It leads to the decision that affection and time will be dealt some, while only sex will be dealt others, reinforcing Madonna/whore complexes that have plagued us since the beginning of time.
Of course all of this could be avoided if the person involved had respected my feelings and my decision to end things early on. I guess in future I will learn to trust my instincts, and take matters into my own hands regardless.