Ask Polly: He Wanted an Open Relationship. Why Wasn’t I Enough?

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Dear Polly,

I’m in a swamp of complicated emotions right now, but I think my question is about monogamy. Knowing that life is long, your options are vast, and eroticism between two people is doomed to die out sooner or later, how can any one person be enough for any one somebody else?

Several months ago, after a long string of 30-year-old guys dumped me unceremoniously after our fourth dates (you could pretty much set a watch to it), I met someone I adored, and who I’m pretty sure adored me, too. He was a brilliant listener, open and kind, had a great career, a sense of humor, and an affection for me I’m not sure I’ve felt before. But a few months in, he told me he needed to see other people. He wanted to see me, too, but he said there had always come a point in his relationships when he wanted to sleep with other people, and now he needed to make a lifestyle shift, and would I like to be his primary partner? He told me all this in a fog of emotion after I opened up a what-are-we-doing-here conversation; he got shifty, quiet, had a hundred weird other reasons not even worth repeating, cited his depression, said he didn’t know who he was or what he wanted, exactly, but that he had to try this. It’s funny, because in the hours and days before this happened he told me that what we had was incredibly special and rare, that he felt “understood” by me and that he hadn’t felt this way in a very long time, and also that the sex was better than any he had before. Anyway, I said no. I didn’t want an open relationship. It pained me then and it’s killing me now, but I couldn’t do it, especially not when the decision felt so fear-based and not before we had a chance to build a basic level of trust.

My therapist told me that we can give my now-ex credit for being honest about the fact that he needs to be with other people. Okay: good for him. Credit where credit is due. But as much as I am trying to applaud his resolution, I don’t understand it, never having had real issues being loyal to anyone (even to the wrong people). And what’s more, it makes me feel horribly inadequate.

Because the truth is I wasn’t enough. He needed more. More what? More sex, I guess, despite what we had getting a pretty glowing review. More conversation, maybe, even though he said he felt he could tell me anything.
More beauty? I’m not Miss America, but I’m not an ogre, either, and that seems like a dumb reason for a good guy to bolt. Until everything fell apart, this man looked me in the eyes and told me how much he cared about me, and I could see — am I crazy?? — I could see he was beginning to fall for me. I felt so safe, and then it was over. He seemed 100 percent in, until he was out. I’ve come a long way as a woman, a human, in the last few years, and I think I know I am enough. But still I feel like I wasn’t. He needed something, someone, more.

Polly, does this man, who’s a bit of a seeker and depressed and feeling the need for change, deserve credit for saying what most men, and maybe most people, are afraid of saying: that one person just isn’t enough? I looked at him and saw a big, beautiful mess with a million jagged edges, but also someone who naturally made me peer into the future, and who made the future look like a place that didn’t seem so scary. After a difficult 20s and a long string of disappointments and a lot of hard work and a few losses and a few gains, I look at myself and I think: I contain multitudes. Aren’t multitudes enough?

Just Not Enough

Dear Just Not Enough,

Claiming that you’re “not enough” for someone who wants an open relationship is like saying that a socket wrench is not enough for a freshwater trout. The two things are completely unrelated to each other. That’s why arguing “I should be enough for you!” does nothing. What you should say is: I will be enough for the right person.

This is a recurrent trap of singledom. We go into each coupling experiment believing that it will work, or else we will gain crucial data that we’ll need to use to tweak ourselves and improve ourselves before the next experiment starts. If one party decides it’s not working, that means that something wasn’t good enough. “Was I too pushy?” we ask ourselves. “Did I try too hard? Should I have lost those last five pounds? Was I too demanding?” We ask around: “Am I always going to fail this way? Will anyone ever take me for who I am? Do I have to be better?”

We feel like we’re failing the same test over and over again. “I’m not good enough to be loved yet,” we tell ourselves, echoing the parents who rewarded us with love when we were “good” and punished or ignored us when we were “bad” (i.e., didn’t do the things that happened to please them as parents). Asking “When will I be enough?” means traveling backward into the deep past in ways that allow you to access your most primal emotions and views of yourself. Even when you say “Aren’t multitudes enough?” you’re really saying, “Fuck you, I have to do more than what I’m already doing? Why do I have to work so hard and it’s STILL not enough?”

When you meet the right person who’s ready and knows what he wants and understands the very specific joys of building a relationship with one person (and sometimes this is a person who’s TRIED open relationships and is therefore intimately familiar with the benefits and drawbacks therein), that person will know that you’re enough. And what you might just discover is that your fear of never being enough makes YOU fearful of a commitment. You might learn a lot about yourself, once you’re faced with someone who looks at you and says, every day, “Jesus, baby, you are MORE than enough. I can’t imagine better.”

I don’t want to stoke some fantasy of romantic love here. I just want you to learn to stop taking choices like these personally. We happen to be living in a moment when lots of young urbanites believe that open relationships are the way and the light. There’s this very common notion that sex always gets very old with the same person, and once that happens you’re fucked, so why not structure your life differently? Young people regularly talk about monogamy like it’s this trick that the Man plays to get the sheeple in line, or it’s some dying gasp of a conservative, religious world that had yet to be emancipated by the infinite choices and glories of Tinder. Meanwhile, though, there are millions of happily married people out there who wouldn’t trade in their unions for anything. Why? Because they’re best friends and the sex is still great. People who’ve never had love like that want you to believe that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s rare as hell, or that it always ends in boredom or heartache or loss or all of the above.

Don’t listen to those people. You stood up for what you wanted: true love. Monogamy. A place where you know you are seen and heard and you share your multitudes with another human being. You believe in that. Believing in something that big is rare these days. I know that there are people who have true love in open relationships, too. But that’s not what you want, so that’s that. The question of your worthiness is not on the table at all. You know what you want. Embrace that and stand up for it without huffing the spray paint that everyone else is huffing.

As someone who always believed in love, and then finally found what I was looking for (with all of the work and struggle that entails, even after you’ve found it!) I have to tell you that the dream is real, motherfucker. The dream is real and it’s worth it. Life is not long and boring, it’s short and exciting, and sex with someone who you love like crazy does not get worse and worse, it gets better and better. Knowing that someone is on your side — really, truly on your side — and sees you clearly, and forgives you every day for your shortcomings and your bad moments and your … well, your multitudes? There’s nothing else like it. You turn to this person who knows you so well, and sometimes you just say “Eh” at something you both saw at the same time, and you both start laughing, because you understand each other. “Eh” means “What the hell was that?” or “Jesus, your aunt is crazy” or “Let’s not call him back” or “Why did we get another dog, again?” or “Too bad it’s a Monday and we don’t have a babysitter.” And it’s so mundane but goddamn, to say so little and know so much, to know so much and still want each other. You know you’re in the right place. You might have fucked up plenty of things, but you got this one thing so right. You are the luckiest person on the planet.

Let the people who want infinite choices take them and savor the hell out of them. Let them sample the fruits of seduction to infinity and beyond. I want one flavor forever, and I can’t get enough of it. It is not boring, bitches. It is not boring. Hold out for exactly what you want. Believe in it. It is anything but boring.


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Ask Polly: He Wanted an Open Relationship. Was I Not Enough?