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‘Is an Open Relationship With My Ex a Bad Idea?’

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Dear Polly,

I love your column in part because you seem to focus on what the person is leaving out as much as what they’re saying. I’m a writer too, and I spend a lot of time thinking about desire, relationships, and what underpins human action. I’m writing to you because my usual propensity to go deep is often rewarding. I usually have clarity about what I want in my relationships, and currently I’m at a standstill.

2020 has been hard for many reasons including obviously the pandemic, life under Trump, and also the fact that my mother has had major health issues and I just got dumped. To say I feel tired is an understatement. Normally I can bounce back or work through the pain in a productive way, but things feel limited right now. My ex broke up with me a few weeks ago. We were together for a year — he’s ten years older than me and went through a divorce a few years back. When we started seeing each other, I was very drawn to him despite the fact that we’re really different (he’s quiet and reserved while I’m talkative and like to discuss astrology and have long deep conversations).

The sex was and is amazing, the best I’ve had, and while at first I felt trepidation about getting into a serious thing and broached the idea of having an open relationship, he wanted a closed relationship and talked about living together. I decided in the first months that I could be exclusive with him, because he seemed really stable and that was worth forgoing the excitement of being nonmonogamous. It turns out that he’s not that stable after all — near the end of our relationship, he expressed not wanting to live together, and then he dumped me sort of surprisingly. He’s usually pretty brutally honest, so when he told me that he didn’t think he was cut out at this time for a really serious relationship (he’s dealing with a lot of mental-health stuff and has been going on and off different meds to deal with it), I believed him.

Anyway, when he broke up with me, he said he genuinely didn’t want someone else but thought he was being a bad partner to me, and wanted to be alone (like completely alone in his apartment — he hasn’t really seen other humans since COVID started). Two miserable weeks passed and then I got really horny and suggested hooking up, which he agreed to. We had really hot sex and then we did the same thing again a couple of days later.

We’ve talked in this time about our relationship and he’s admitted that maybe it would have made more sense if we had been open all along. Again, he doesn’t want to see other people, but feels like he can’t give me everything I need, and now that we’re having this sexy fun time and these deep, honest conversations, things are feeling really good for both of us. Despite the obvious difficulties of being open during COVID, I’ve been going on distanced Tinder dates and I’m excited at the prospect of stepping into this new territory with him. He hurt me a lot with the breakup, but I never felt angry. I feel like I understand where he was coming from because I’ve felt that way before, too. I was so disappointed when we broke up because I thought there was so much we could do together and so many ways we could have shifted the relationship model to make it work for us. I’ve had experience with that before, but as an older person, he has not been in any alternative relationship model and so he seemed less able to ask for what he wanted, ultimately fearing that what he wanted wasn’t okay to ask for and growing distant and disenchanted as a result. I’ve had many relationships improve by shifting the expectations and am close with my exes. I don’t feel possessive of this guy and I don’t think that I’m just “taking what I can get” with this new arrangement (we’ve decided to sleep together a couple of times a week moving forward and see how that goes, and maybe start integrating other hangouts and dates in there in the next while, when I’m ready). He’s been very aware of having hurt me and is letting me lead this whole situation, which is good and also has been very sexy.

Do you think that an arrangement like this can work and is the right thing for me, based on this information? I’m aware that the limited nature of contact under COVID heightens things and that there’s an element of relationship triage going on here. I think I feel good now because this is what I want, but I guess I worry that a part of me just feels good because I wasn’t ready to let go and now I don’t have to entirely. At the moment, the pain seems to have melted away, but I worry that some underlying resentment or hurt will reemerge and reopen the wound. Since the breakup and in general lately, my emotions haven’t felt very stable and my opinion has changed quickly, which is not normal for me and makes me trust myself less. What do you think I should do?

Confused Sex Girl 

Dear Confused Sex Girl,

I could read your entire letter as an elaborate rationalization of winning back your ex and taking whatever you can get (as you put it), or I could read your letter as a woman following her desires without crushing fear or anxiety or shame, maybe for the first time in her life. If you polled 100 people and asked them what you should do, many of them would scold you for not protecting yourself and your emotions from this indifferent man who just wants to have sex and can’t or won’t serve your emotional needs at all. Others would say that you clearly set out to have an open relationship from the start, and now you have exactly what you were looking for, with far better sex than you expected. Plus, now you and your ex are both being completely honest about what you want and don’t want.

If I told you that you should quit this relationship out of emotional and physical self-protection (the potential for rejection, the underlying longing for more, the COVID risk), I might be saving you from a world of pain. I also might be saving you from a world of rich sensations and experiences where you learn about your own boundaries and fascinations and limitations at a rapid pace, in a vivid and exciting and sometimes unnerving way.

If I told you that you should stay in this relationship because you wanted an open relationship from the start, plus the sex is amazing and now it’s accompanied by total honesty from both you and your partner regarding the built-in limits of what you can provide to each other, I might be encouraging you to follow your own instincts into adventurous and promising new territory. I also might be encouraging you to sell your own deepest emotional needs up the river for the sake of clinging to a great sexual relationship with a man who currently seems incapable of much more than that.

In other words, this is one of those stories that you can’t write as you go. The moral will be provided after the characters either flourish and thrive and support each other’s healthy desires or after they flail and clash and weep and wallow in pain and betrayal. Anything is possible from this point forward, so any moral can be attached after the fact.

And honestly, there aren’t any obvious tea leaves to read in your letter. Normally that would be a reason for me not to want to answer it. I like hints and clues and artifacts to dig out of the dirt! But I also sort of love the ambiguity here — the emotional ambiguity, the moral ambiguity, the existential ambiguity, if you want to call it that. I love the ambiguity because it opens up a universe of important questions around what you want from your life and how you want to live from this point forward.

Personally, I’ve always been unambiguously pro-monogamy. I’ve always considered lying and cheating morally wrong, and I’ve always considered open relationships faintly intriguing yet mildly repellent at some level I could never really put my finger on. I’m laying bare my biases for the sake of honesty, now, not lashing out at a perfectly reasonable lifestyle for no good reason. Whenever I thought of open relationships in the past, I pictured this one night years ago when I watched Real Sex with my much older boyfriend. He was kind of a boomer in some of the good ways and also many of the bad ways. He loved some extremely stupid New Age trends and hopelessly dumb New Age books, and he was pretty high-strung and controlling. Every other day, he’d get into a pissing match with me over something completely trivial, and he’d hallucinate that I was the architect of the entire exchange, and then he’d light up a joint and shout, in a celebratory tone, “PLEASE REMIND ME TO DO THIS FIRST!”
That said, he could be fun. I’m still writing about him, so obviously I learned all kinds of lessons from that relationship — and I’m still learning more, more than a decade later.

Back to Real Sex: This was one of those episodes where we bear witness to a room full of middle-aged white heterosexual couples trying to find the womens’ G-spots in sync with each other. Questions arise but loom unanswered, questions like, “Why do they need to do this in the same room together?” I think the idea was that they were all supposed to come close to climax but not actually reach the top of the mountain or tumble down the other side. So we spent a long time in this kind of sad room with a faded carpet and low ceilings, zooming in on the faces of women in their 50s and 60s growling and groaning while men did mysterious but apparently effective things between their legs that were blessedly blurred out by the camera.

And my boomer boyfriend was like, “Wow, that is so cool! Look at that! That is fucking amazing!

And I was like, “There are a lot of dream catchers on the wall, aren’t there? I mean how many dream catchers do you need in any given room?”

Was I repressed? As Catherine O’Hara would say in Schitt’s Creek: Ab-so-lutely. I was oh so repressed. I was also ageist and sexist and Central California Coast–ist. I was allergic to New Age shit (my parents were into it, enough said) and I could smell the tahini from 300 miles away. My boyfriend had started to wear patchouli regularly. He seemed to burn sage around the clock. He went free-balling around the house in his Hammer pants all day, yapping about reductive psychosocial paradigms, each of which could be boiled down to the same feeble attempt to take the wild, untamable universe of human emotion and lock it in a safe, secure cage so no one would ever talk out of turn or feel things or want things that you couldn’t give them.

The problem was, the man pretended to believe in human emotion, but he didn’t want me to feel things ever, at all, for any reason. He would urge me not to blame him for my emotional experiences. He would urge me to make “I” statements, to go straight to the heart of what I was feeling. So I started to do that, and when I did, he would yell at me and tell me I was an emotional terrorist. Even after I was totally disarmed and crying and admitting to every single one of my flaws as a human being, he’d say, tell me how we landed here so I can figure out how to avoid this next time.
He was a fucking dick, let’s face it. I mean it’s not that ambiguous to me now. So basically, our relationship was like being in that room with the people and the dream catchers and the roving cameras, except the point wasn’t to get me off. The point was to make me feel small for wanting anything at all. Instead of growling, I was whimpering in pain. The point was control. I was something wild that needed a cage so I didn’t hurt someone. He was something wild that needed a cage so he didn’t get hurt. He spent all day, every day, looking for more cages.

Naturally, I had my own giant pile of baggage and bullshit. Read any of my former columns for more details on that. And sadly, I knew in my heart all along that we were terrible together. I went against my instincts. My instincts told me that he was not looking out for me. He wanted to dominate and control me. That’s not at all what he thought he wanted, mind you. I’m sure that he believed that his intentions were pure. But that’s how his intentions and confusion manifested themselves in my life, until he gave me a black eye. But even after that, his story didn’t change one iota: I got punched in the face by his fist, but I was still the bully in the picture.

And a part of me believed that. Imagine distrusting your own instincts that dramatically, for that long!

These days, I trust my instincts. I feel very safe without cages. That room full of women getting off strikes me as slightly more interesting now, although it still feels a little bit clinical and not all that sexy. I really hope that they’ve replaced that old carpet with hardwood floors since then, if only in the interest of proper sanitation protocols.

These days, I am very good at choosing people who love me for who I am and avoiding people who are playing me for some advantage or who secretly dislike me and don’t know why or who want to control me for reasons they themselves might not understand. But honestly, I was always good at figuring out who was trustworthy and who wasn’t. I just didn’t trust my instincts as much when I was younger. These days, I trust my gut.

Your current situation is the kind you can’t navigate with a borrowed GPS. You have to use your own. You have to trust your gut. You say that your feelings and opinions are changing rapidly, which is unlike you. I know exactly what you mean by that because I’ve been in a similar state since a year ago, and honestly, I love it.

I love this feeling that I can’t predict the new things I’m going to think and feel on any given day. Some days I wake up and I feel very strongly about something, and then the next day, my feelings are a direct contradiction of what I felt the day before. It doesn’t feel bewildering somehow. It feels natural. It feels like the world is a tight web of contradictions, and letting myself live inside those contradictions is making me smarter and also more open and also more interested in my own desires and senses and experiences. I’m also more interested in other people. It’s extremely fun and inspiring.

Since I started following my instincts full time, I feel like I’ve become a better mother and a better friend and a better wife (still kind of hate that word; let’s call it partner, except I hate that word, too, let’s call it… human). Maybe I’ve become some strange varietal of hippie. But I like who I am. I’m finally brave enough to ask the world for what I want. I’m finally brave enough to stand up for what I believe without fear or shame. Maybe I finally believe that I deserve to get off, and it doesn’t matter who’s watching. I mean that figuratively, of course. But we all deserve to get off quite literally, too. Not to state the obvious, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

I’m also shameless about telling people I love how much I love them, and telling people I admire how much I admire them, and telling people I want to be friends with that I want to be friends with them. I love being this shameless. It’s not at all safe and I don’t care.

I want you to trust your instincts, too. You sound very brave at this moment in your life, and it doesn’t sound like you’re ultimately that worried about getting hurt, either by your current partner or by someone else. It sounds to me like you feel inspired and honest and humbled and fully alive. What more could you ask for than that?

Of course that could change on a dime. That’s the nature of the beast. I want you to be safe and take your time with new people, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t know how that can work or what that might look like, but I want you to be as cautious as possible, in the service of keeping yourself healthy and protected, okay?

But I also want you to savor where you are. You’re learning so much so quickly! Even if you look back and apply a very rigid moral to your story in retrospect, one that sounds like “I never should’ve kept sleeping with that dumb guy” or “I never should’ve let that guy go!” that doesn’t mean you did the wrong thing. I never should’ve stayed with my older boyfriend but I also learned a lot from that experience. I know that sounds wrong, considering my black eye. I wouldn’t want another person to follow the same path I did. But I love the life I’ve lived so far, and I have trouble feeling much regret over even my most questionable choices. Feeling conflicted and ambivalent is part of the human condition. I can look back in anger and look back in wonder and look back and laugh my ass off that I ever landed there. I can look forward to my future and feel fearful and feel comfortable and feel ready to challenge all of my previous assumptions about what it takes to prosper in this new, uncertain world. That’s ambiguity, and it’s intoxicating.

Trusting your instincts isn’t just smart; it feels good. You know more than you realize, and it feels good to notice that. You’re more brilliant than you ever imagined you could be. If you’re feeling brave and full of love for this world, then do whatever it takes to stay in that state for as long as you can. That’s how you arrive at a place of compassion for yourself and others, where you naturally honor your deepest principles without even having to puzzle through them intellectually. That’s how you transform yourself and transform the world around you. Courage is rare. When you have it, use it.


Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new, free Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘Is an Open Relationship With My Ex a Bad Idea?’