Last week I was having dinner with three other women. Not close friends but a group of ex colleagues who I meet up with once every 12 – 18 months. The conversation takes the usual twists and turns of people who’ve known each other for years but see each other rarely. The dynamic of colleague friendships fascinates me; for the period you work together you spend more waking hours with each other than you do your family, friends and partners, you see each other at your best and worst, you spend long evenings in the pub analysing crises and internal politics and then poof! – just like that jobs change and you’re down to a couple of hours every year or so. Anyway, the conversation went the usual way – asking each other about work, holidays, children, nieces and nephews, common acquaintances.
Then the searching “Sooo, how are the love lives then?” directed at me and one other single woman with the hungry gazes of two women who have been married for years and want you to give them something new and exciting to pore over. As I have written previously, I am increasingly open about my relationships with those closest to me and who I see regularly. Not so much with ex colleagues who I see rarely and whose response I couldn’t necessarily predict. But last week I had one of my ‘fuck it’ moments and I found myself talking more freely and honestly than usual.
The response? Well, one woman exclaimed: “Oh my God, I need another drink!” and promptly ordered a large glass of Rioja. There was surprise, there was fascination, there were some sensible and some annoying questions and there was (happily) very little judgement. But there was also concern. Was I definitely OK with this? Am I being treated OK? Is it what I actually want? Does my partner’s wife know? Is she OK with this? Have I ever met her? Do I like her? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes! What I realised was that while there was little judgement of me the tone of the concerned questioning was loaded with judgement about my partner.
At the time I calmly answered all their questions, reveling slightly in the fact that I’d sent a little shock wave through our pleasant but pedestrian evening. Yes, it suits me really well. Yes, I get many of the nice bits of a long term relationship but with none of the compromise of family Christmases and blended lives. No, I definitely don’t want to ever live with anyone again. Yes, I know her and I was at their wedding (that tit bit always shocks the listener and delights me). I’m off on a gallery day with her and another friend next week actually. Without the bloke? Yes, he doesn’t need to chaperone us.
But on the way home I started thinking about their line of questioning and how frequently people default assume that non-monogamy is something that is done to women by men and that it is something that women put up with because they have to. I started reflecting on other occasions where I have had this assumption projected on me. My best friend: “But you are so sensitive I just worry that you are going to get hurt.” Me: “But the things that hurt me are things that could happen regardless of whether a relationship is non-monogamous or not.” Exhibit A, The Other Livvy and me at an event in my local bookshop discussing a book called Is Monogamy Dead? and a woman asking EA rather aggressively “But what would you think if they had other partners?” and the surprise in the room when I piped up “I do have another partner.”
That last one always causes surprise. People outside of this community never expect me to have other partners. Even if they can just about get their head round the fact that I have an established and happy relationship that will never be more than it is, with a man who is married to someone else, and that is enough for me and fine with everyone involved, then introducing the notion that I have other people in my life just about makes them fall off their perch. My Mum, who now always asks about Baby M, never asks me if I’ve been on any other dates or after other partners who I may have mentioned. It’s like that is a bridge too far.
The more I thought about it the more I found myself getting annoyed by the narrative that non-monogamy and polyamory are things owned by men and accepted by women and that men will be the ones with multiple partners while the woman stays happy with just the one. Even if my friends or a stranger in a bookshop weren’t explicitly acknowledging that assumption it was there in the way they asked their questions. When I mused this point on Twitter last week @kinkynerdy rightly pointed out that the assumed status quo makes no allowance for poly lesbians, for example.
Interestingly, much of my experience with non-monogamous men suggests something contrary to the assumed norm. When I think about the significant men I have met since I joined OKC in 2013 – not the brief flings or one off sex dates, but the ones that turned into something more – I note that four of them opened up their relationships as a result of their wife or primary partner having an affair. Now, I am not advocating this approach to opening up a relationship – all of them came with a fuckton of baggage – but unless I exist in some microclimate or have unique appeal to men who have been cheated on then this wafer thin data suggests that there are many women open to shirking a one penis policy!
The thing that bothers me most about the common narrative is that it is taking away women’s agency in non-monogamy. It is suggesting that women may be passively accepting something that is somehow second best. Do people really look at me and my life and my business and my travel habits and see a woman who is ‘settling’ for a life because that’s all she can get? Do they think I am lying when I say that I don’t want more than I have? I also hate the way it pitches women against each other. The subtext of people’s questions can be that women who are in a relationship with the same man see each other as enemies or a threat when in reality we are connected through a shared affection. There is deep joy and camaraderie in sharing a small joke or knowing smile about a mutual partner’s habit. I have written a letter to a woman I have never met who lives 4000 miles away, expressing sympathy for a terrible event, not because I had to but because it seemed inconceivable not to extend a kind word to the wife of someone who meant something to me. For me, one of the greatest joys of non-monogamy has been discovering a completely new kind of friendship and respect that can exist between women.
That non-monogamous relationships are becoming more accessible through dating apps and normalised through mainstream media delights me. Six years ago I didn’t even really know what non-monogamy meant; now my mother asks after my partner’s five-month-old. I once worried there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to settle down, now I have meaningful relationships that nourish me without stifling me. Sex is back in my life. That people might look at everything I have and somehow think I am being short changed distresses me. Did I spend my thirties explaining that ‘no, I don’t want children and I am happy to not be married’ only to have to spend my forties explaining that “yes, non-monogamy really works for me, I am very happy’. Must women always have to justify their choices?