"I'd like to see you with another woman."
My husband and I had just spent an exhilarating and sweaty hour tangled in the bedsheets when I first brought up the idea.
I'll never forget the look on his face: His eyes widened, his lips opened a little. The smile that crept across his face could have just as easily been fear as excitement. He's a shy guy, a gentleman, and while his daydreams might have taken him into the realm of a threesome, he'd never dare utter the words out loud.
And my offer could have easily been pillow talk. A less bold woman might have startled at his wolfish look, retreated into fantasyland, and chalked it all up to the afterglow. But I was feeling brazen, and I'd been harboring these kinky thoughts for a while.
As it turns out, I wasn't alone. In fact, when I confessed this to my oldest and dearest — and married — friend, she quipped, "Oh good! I can introduce you to my boyfriend!"
Little girls are raised with the Cinderella story: Wait long enough, and a fairy godmother will give you a pair of bespoke glass shoes that only your One True Love will care enough to return to you after a night of drunken partying.
But what if that story were a big, fat lie? What if there is no One True Love in the world for you? What if there were many loves, each as distinct from one another as the shoes in your closet? What if you could love them all differently and to various depths, the way parents love their children all differently but equally?
A growing number of polyamorists claim just that. They argue that tending to more than one loving relationship actually improves every facet of their lives. And not just in the bedroom, though they clearly benefit there as well.
For over a year now, my husband and I have been practicing what is known as ethical non-monogamy. The stress is on the ethics. We only have relationships with people who understand this brand of love, and we're completely open with each other when it comes to our affairs. Everyone involved is as open as we are; we meet each other's lovers and their partners. We are truly a group of friends. With benefits.
We've learned that our particular brand of open marriage is as individualized as our monogamous relationship of 15 years had been before. In fact, there's an entire spectrum of polyamorous people out there in the world. This spectrum has more to do with emotional trust than sexual freedom.
While all couples in non-monogamous relationships champion sexual freedom, the differences lie in how much of their own hearts they trust with others outside their marriage, or their primary partnership. On one far end, there are swingers who value the sexual act itself. They prefer more anonymous sex with strangers, finding each other at swing clubs or house parties, and they don't make love connections with their play partners. On the opposite end of the spectrum are what I think of as true polyamorists: They love many people, wholly and fully. A man may have a wife and a girlfriend. His wife may be friends with his girlfriend. She may have her own boyfriend — or girlfriend — and they may share partners together or separately. These folks are out to the world, and their unbridled passion for life can't be contained by a traditional definition of marriage.
My husband and are somewhere in the middle. We started off with baby steps, and a contract. (I'm not kidding.) We both read Sex at Dawn and The Ethical Slut, prerequisite texts for any couple interested in walking the relationship road less traveled. Then we made a list of no-nos: No sex in our bed with others, no overnights, no oral sex. And absolutely no falling in love. The list was long, and in making it, we learned what made our relationship tick. The rules were like training wheels, and when we faced a situation where our rules limited us, we took them off, one by one.
I, for one, lost my shit over Spotify. My husband taught me what good music is, and our early days were spent lying on an outrageous couch we bought at a thrift store, spinning records on his dad's old turntable. So when I found him sharing songs with his girlfriend, complete with little notes like, "I was humming this on the way to work this morning, thinking of you," I went crazy. Sure, they'd been having a sexual relationship for months, but I drew the line at musical intimacy.
He lost his mind over a fancy restaurant. When my boyfriend treated me to a dinner with a price tag over $400, my husband hit the roof. We'd struggled most of our lives to be able to afford little luxuries like nice soap and organic bananas, and he couldn't stomach another man treating me to expensive cabernet and ceviche.
How would we have ever known about these tender spots in our hearts if not by stepping on them? I didn't even realize I had such a strong attachment to those sweaty afternoons spent in abject poverty listening to "Honky Cat" with him. He certainly didn't expect to balk at someone else picking up a hefty tab.
But a year into our experiment, we've come to a profound realization: We still choose each other. Every single day. Even when we don't have to.
He has a serious girlfriend who is 10 years younger than me, one who is 10 years older, and a host of casual buddies with awesome benefits. I'm not jealous of the time they spend with him at all. In fact, I have them to thank for his incredible moves in the bedroom, the swagger in his walk, and his unstoppable confidence at work. The man is a hunk, and now the world knows what I've always known. He's bold and awesome and kind, and he's not repressed.
Likewise, my own lovers have expanded my horizons. One is an author and my link to the best new books on the shelves, another strategizes business mergers with me, and a third, an E.R. doctor, talks politics, religion and world affairs in the fertile darkness of his room between shifts. I've learned to be different shades of my same self with each of them, to try on those parts of myself like kid gloves and admire them. I love feeling the freedom to explore these parts of my personality.
I have my husband to thank for this, of course. He's a big man whose heart is battered, bruised and made all that more profound by his willingness to explore these deeply personal issues with me. I love him more now, I can say with surety, than I ever did before I started sleeping around.
So, can you love more than one person at a time? Absolutely. For me, those loves deepen and color my one true romance with the man I married.
Molly Bordo is a pseudonym.