I sometimes think about how nice it must be to figure out polyamory in the modern-day. If you google, say, “two boyfriends”, you’re getting poly results on the first page. Hell, googling “two girlfriends” puts you at More Than Two by your fifth click. There are books (not that I’ve read them) that will walk you through poly relationships, whether you’re coming at them solo or coupled. There are meetup groups and poly message boards, and even some poly blogs out there somewhere too. There’s some limited cultural awareness, and some media coverage, and even some television shows to put ideas in your head about how that can work. I’m not saying that the world is saturated with poly thought, but if you put even a little effort in, you’re bound to stumble on some resource.
But if you’re trying to figure all of this out in the late 90’s, and you don’t have an internet connection with a newsgroup reader? Well, you’re pretty much stabbing in the dark, making a ton of mistakes and working off of bad assumptions. And that was the way I was rocking it back in 1999.
I stumbled into my first poly relationship, not knowing at all what the hell was going on. I was bad at monogamy then. Hell, I was bad at relationships back then. I had gone back to a relationship with the first woman I had ever fallen mind-blindingly in love with, while I also had a ex-girlfriend that desperately wanted back into my life in one form or another. My girlfriend and my ex really hit it off. Like, immediately flirty and focused in on each other. They shortly ran up hundreds of dollars in long distance charges (ah, back when phone calls were expensive), and then began traveling the few hours between to see each other when they were both free.
When I asked my girlfriend what was going on with them, she said she wasn’t sure. She didn’t want to risk the relationship she had with me, but there was definitely something with my ex that she wanted to explore. And when I asked my ex about it, she said almost exactly the same thing. So I did what any giving, loving, nineteen year old boy with a lack of real critical thinking skills does in that situation: I encouraged them to go for it without actually contemplating what that meant. No need to talk about boundaries or feelings or any of that nonsense. My girlfriend was going to go do something incredibly sexy with my ex-girlfriend! What could possibly go wrong!
When that first night came, and I was laying in bed by myself, that was the first time that it starting hurting. And that second night, when I was sleeping on the couch while they were in the other room doing god knows what, I got leveled by feelings that I couldn’t understand. I had said this was okay, so why was I… I didn’t know. Angry wasn’t right. Jealous? Excluded! Why was I excluded?
So I asked them about it, but in that whiny way that only a nineteen year old boy with a lack of real critical thinking skills can. My ex was into the idea of including me in whatever their dynamic was going to be, but my girlfriend was much more hesitant. So I plotted with my ex about how to get it to happen. I remember sitting in a diner with her one night, trying to figure out how we could convince my girlfriend to at least give this thing a shot. And, eventually, my girlfriend agreed that it might be the best way to preserve my relationship with her, and get this other thing that she wanted as well.
And to me, this was the most amazing thing in the entire world. It was the three of us! The world became a million times brighter. My ex would come down to visit, and we would all cuddle on the couch and go to dinner and sleep in and hang out. There was sex, and it was awkward but mind-blowing but weird but amazing. We didn’t know what it was, but it was the three of us. We were the talk of the small town I was living in at the time. My girlfriends sisters were getting a lot of static at school because their classmates had seen the three of us out. I was getting a ton of eye-rolls at work, because I was calling off or shifting my schedule to accommodate this new thing I was constantly talking about.
The one thing that the three of us absolutely didn’t do was talk about it. We didn’t talk about feelings, we didn’t talk about the broader implications, and we definitely didn’t talk about what any of this meant to us. So when an issue would inevitably come up with any of us, it immediately turned into this massive snarl that none of us had the wherewithal to even try to untangle. We didn’t have the tools or the training to make this relationship work.
I immediately went into crisis management mode when this happened, and tried to stop all the leaks. I was so invested in keeping the three of us together that I wasn’t really listening to what either of them was saying. And of course this didn’t work at all. My ex would shut down with me emotionally, which meant that my girlfriend was constantly having to do all the work on that end. These two factors were the things that through the relationship off-balance, and it flew apart spectacularly. My girlfriend told me she was moving in with my ex, and since I couldn’t afford the apartment by myself, I should probably find somewhere else to live.
I spent a lot of time being angry about all this. How could I have put forth all of that work just to end up tossed aside? I spent most of that summer on a spectacular bender. I built a whole truckload of bad cognitive patterns in order to deal with what had “happened to me”. And it wasn’t until a decade later, when I actually started approaching all of this in therapy, that I actually saw what had happened.
When I think about all of that now, I wonder what it would have been like if we had more information about what was happening to us. I wonder if I would have had the capacity then to communicate openly. I wonder if I could have done the work to keep it together, or had the awareness to see that it couldn’t have worked. I’d like to think I would have, but I was a nineteen year old boy with a lack of real critical thinking skills after all.
I also think about all of the knowledge I received from that time in my life. I’ve had to do all of this work internally in order to work through things, so I am a healthier and more complete person now. I made all of the really stupid mistakes already, so hopefully I won’t have to make them all over again. I have more awareness of my partners and their needs because I know what being neglectful will bring. I know that poly relationships take work, especially when I think that they shouldn’t take that much work
And that first time that I came across the word “polyamory”, on some forgotten website about a year after everything flew apart, I immediately pointed at it and said “that’s what that is.”