While there have been lots of memorable firsts in the last few years, this post is inspired by what I expect will be a particularly novel poly experience. In a few days, I will be performing my very first wedding ceremony as an officiant! To be fair, the wedding is only between two people so it’s not technically a “poly wedding”. But these two people happen to be very old friends of mine who have been navigating non-monogamy much longer than I have.
In preparation for taking on the great honor of joining two dear friends in the most sacred of unions (not to mention the responsibility of not saying anything dumb or inappropriate in front of their entire families), I have been thinking a lot about relationships of late.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what this kind of commitment actually means for someone in an open relationship.
In exploring this lifestyle, the first big misconception I wrestled with was the idea that expanding a relationship to include others somehow cheapened the connection between two people. The story I told myself was that a person would only want multiple partners as a sort of insurance policy; a way to diversify one’s own romantic portfolio in an effort to avoid making a bad investment.
As someone who approached love and sex with a scarcity mentality, this outlook was easy to rationalize. Dating people besides your primary partner was a way to keep one’s own needs met while preventing someone from getting close enough to do real emotional damage. This is the most common critique I’ve heard from people who were uncomfortable with the idea of open relationships.
In fact, one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with someone I dated was seeing the arc of this belief changing first hand. With any woman I’m involved with, honesty and transparency are my priority. I make it clear what my relationship status is and what our boundaries are from the start. Since I include “ethical non-monogamy” in any dating profile I have, most of the women I connect with are either on board already or interested in exploring. But even the curious gals still have hang-ups from time to time.
In this instance, the woman I was talking to felt like non-monogamy was a way to avoid actual commitment and the hard work that comes with it. She grew up in a conservative religious community that stressed the primacy of marriage. From her cultural standpoint, you couldn’t forge a deeper connection with someone without monogamy, because you weren’t committing to only them.
She wasn’t disrespectful or preachy about this opinion, but I felt like she was making some unfair assumptions about my relationship. I explained why I felt like my relationship actually demanded more trust and communication from my partner and me, and that she wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.
The reason this experience registered so powerfully with me was because she actually listened to me and changed her mind.
As anyone who turned on a television in 2016 will tell you, a person who changes his or her beliefs when presented with new information is pretty fucking rare. But she stayed open to the idea, asked lots of great questions, and even met my girlfriend.
Even though she ultimately decided that non-monogamy wasn’t for her, she was wonderfully communicative about how positive an experience it had been to see a nontraditional relationship in practice. I was touched by her recognition and appreciation for the foundation of love and trust that my partner and I had built together. While we didn’t continue dating, I came out of that experience with a friend whom I respect and admire even more than if we had never disagreed in the first place.
It was validating to have someone else affirm my relationship the way she did, especially considering her initial doubts about the viability of non-monogamy. And while external validation is far from an ideal metric for what constitutes a meaningful and healthy relationship, there is something to be said about choosing to make that kind of commitment in the presence of friends and family. It communicates unequivocally to those that care about us the most, what kind of lifestyle and relationships we choose to build for ourselves.
I can’t stress the importance of choice enough, here. The freedom of choice is exactly what makes open relationships special in the first place. I had just drawn the wrong conclusions at first. My partner and I didn’t have other partners around in the event things didn’t work out; we just acknowledged that we were always going to have other options but made the choice to be together anyway.
I don’t often wear my fiscal conservative glasses, but romantic relationships are not unlike the free market. After all, we’ve been using the lingo for ages. We take risks, we invest our time and energy, and sometimes we have to cut our losses and play it safe before we get back on the market.
In this context, you could look at commitment as a form of brand loyalty. And that kind of loyalty speaks volumes when people have more than one option. Having a “monopoly” on someone is an easy way to make them feel taken for granted or exploited.
I’m sure quite a few people have found themselves in relationships that eventually felt like getting involved with a terrible cable company. All the perks expired after the first six months and then you’re stuck in a shitty contract that looks nothing like what inspired you to sign on in the first place.
Nobody should feel that way in a relationship. I choose to spend time with the people I do because they bring joy, laughter, comfort, understanding, wisdom, and love into my life. That’s what’s important to me. That’s what I value. And I want to continue to add that value to the lives of my partner and the people I date.
I love knowing that my partner chooses to be with me every day. I love having a sense of security without worrying about complacency. I love never having to wonder if my partner is with me because she’s too afraid to leave or to be honest with me (or herself) about what she wants. I am proud that my partner has other options and that, despite my mountain of flaws, she still wants to be with me.
In my upcoming role as “man of the cloth”, I talked to each of my friends individually to get a feel for their intentions. I had a few specific questions about their relationship, how they helped each other grow, how they communicated, and more importantly, how they handled conflict. I wasn’t looking for any specific answer; I just wanted an honest look at why they wanted to take this step in the first place.
The bride-to-be communicated to me that they hadn’t always been keen on the idea of marriage, and hadn’t even begun to entertain the idea until recently.
Hearing this detail piqued my curiosity, so I asked what had changed and made them want to get married.
“I stopped feeling like I had to. I’m marrying him because I want to.”
That’s how I know they mean it.
I couldn’t ask for a better answer.
Walker Davis is still figuring out what the hell he's doing with his life, but he loves writing, feminism, secularism, extended metaphors, and cheese.