The Man in the Box

This poly story starts with me taking an amazing girl on a first date and falling hard shortly after we both ended long-term relationships. I know, total rookie mistake. I didn’t see it coming, either. She had explored non-monogamy with her ex-boyfriend, and while the actual relationship didn’t work out, non-traditional relationships were something she knew she wanted to continue pursuing. She was clear about that even before our first date.

I was intrigued immediately. I’m a child of divorce, not to mention a pragmatist, so I never bought into the idea that I would find someone at 22 who would magically be able to meet every need of mine until we both croaked. But even approaching relationships with this level of realism, I was mostly just shocked that I had never even thought of non-monogamy as an option before. I didn’t grow up in a religious household and my parents made it clear that sex was important and meaningful, to be enjoyed and celebrated.

As an outsider, I remember being so intimidated by poly folk that never had any special attachment to monogamy, rarely experienced jealousy, and seemed to just be wired that way. However, one thing I heard across the board was that living this way wasn’t something they thought they could do.

This was beyond encouraging to me as a newbie. I was still adjusting to this crazy notion that everything I had been taught about relationships wasn’t actually set in stone. In fact, it became clear that much of what I ingested about my masculinity and sexuality had actively been making me miserable for a long time.

Looking back, I was lucky to have an advantage that many men didn’t: my upbringing gave me the tools to recognize my conditioning in the first place. I’ll always be grateful for one lesson in particular called “Man in the Box, Woman in the Flower”. It was one of the many discussions on race, sexuality, and gender that I was a part of over my three years in a youth theater workshop.

In this exercise, we drew two diagrams on the board. Over each was written, “Act Like a Man” and “Act Like a Lady”. The idea was to list the expectations of each gender in the box (or flower). Outside the box, we’d list the consequences of not adhering to those expectations. For instance, a woman in the flower should be passive and nurturing. She should be chaste, yet ready to knock her man’s socks off; if she isn’t, she’s called a bitch, slut, or prude. A man in the box should be dominant and confident. He should hide his emotions and have sex with tons of women; if he doesn’t, he’s called weak, a pussy, or fag.

I wasn’t ignorant to the fact that these double standards existed. What I was ignorant about was how pervasive these problematic ideas were, even with people who had nothing but the best intentions. In my head, sexism was always obvious and unmistakable. It was wolf-whistling construction workers and chauvinist pig bosses at the office, right? I didn’t grasp that my actions and the actions of normal people I looked up to all bolstered this flawed construct.

Now, I’ve always been a pain-in-the-ass skeptic who likes to be right. So when I realize that I’m operating on bad intel, I want to figure out where things went wrong so I can get it right again next time.

The challenge of rewriting this script and taking an honest look at myself was precisely what interested me in exploring ethical non-monogamy in the first place. I knew that, despite the information I had, I was still harboring some fundamentally flawed ideas about what it meant to be a man, I just hadn’t had an incentive to confront them before. Our culture affords men far too many excuses and alternatives before we’re forced to do actual introspection, so developing a healthy relationship with our masculinity isn’t given the focus it should have. 

I was a late bloomer. I was always interested in girls, but I was an overweight, awkward teenager. The lack of success I had relative to my friends and peers led me to write the narrative that I was inherently undesirable. I remember not just worrying, but knowing that sex was just not something that was going to happen for me. Although I hated feeling that way, pushing myself to accept that as a reality made it easier to deal with.

But that was a long time ago. Surely losing weight, becoming more comfortable in my skin, and having positive sexual experiences would have balanced all that out?

Well, sort of. The problem was, the narrative was still there. I still felt undesirable, so I still approached love and sex with a scarcity mentality. Every time a woman expressed an interest in me, it seemed like a glitch in the matrix--a stroke of good luck that might not happen again.

It wasn’t until I considered a non-monogamous relationship that something clicked about my relationship to monogamy:

I was using it as a way to avoid dealing with my own sexual shame and insecurity.

Rapidly realizing that this was a terrible reason to do anything, I had to reassess. I didn’t think monogamy was especially sacred, or the right way to have a relationship. I just wanted to project the image of a sexually attractive man; I wanted to be the man in the box. And men know how to make women want them. Men aren’t insecure, or if they are, they suck it up so nobody knows. Men don’t have body image issues, and they certainly don’t ever cry because they feel fat and ugly.

Any of you who have dated partners with pathologically distorted perceptions of their own worth know that it is a massive bummer. I was no different in the context of a relationship. Monogamy became an excuse for me to outsource my attractiveness to my partner.

I’m not proud of this dynamic, because making my partner the source of my confidence also made them the source of my inadequacy. Whenever I felt insecure or intimidated, it was all too easy to treat my partners as if they were the cause of those feelings. This was especially true with partners who were more sexually experienced than I was.

Thankfully, I never went so far as to shame those behaviors; I wanted a partner that had a curious and playful attitude towards sex. I just didn’t want to hear about it with other people. It took some time to realize just how possessive that outlook was. “It’s okay for you to be a sexual being, as long as that sexuality belongs to me.

An overhaul of faulty programming is rarely painless, but it’s always worth it. This is what my mom would call “another fucking growth opportunity.”

What my open relationship did was force me to leave the safety of that box. It challenged me to be intensely vulnerable. I wasn’t learning anything hiding behind a façade that made my worth dependent on the behavior of other people. I was only causing harm to those I loved by pretending the problem was with anyone but me. I had to remember that my partner’s sexuality belonged to her, just as mine belonged to me. I wasn’t getting any stronger avoiding behaviors that could call my manhood into question. I had to recognize that confidence and security were all muscles I could train on my own. I had to learn how to be my own ally instead of an adversary.

Radical honesty is a prerequisite for functional non-monogamy, and that started with me.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do any of this work alone.

Remember that girl I fell for? Well, we just celebrated two incredible non-monogamous years together.

So I must have done something right. 

 


Walker Davis is still figuring out what the hell he's doing with his life, but he loves writing, feminism, and cheese.