Essay

Love at the End of the World

I opened my marriage when the pandemic shut everything down. In Seattle, I was hardly alone.

By Sarah Stuteville Illustrations by Teresa Grasseschi May 31, 2022

My husband and I can’t quite agree on whose idea it was to open our marriage. He recalls a couples therapy session where he broached the subject. But I think it was me.

I remember sitting on the couch in our Central District home, slogging through graduate school homework in my training to become a therapist. I perused an academic paper about polyamory—the practice of having multiple romantic and sexual partners at one time—and tried to ignore the constellation of toddler snack stains on the sofa.

It was the summer of 2020, and all my classes had recently gone online due to Covid. It felt like systems were failing all around us, or maybe failures that had always been there were just being revealed. The pandemic had brought on a wild combination of isolation and collective questioning of “normal.” But at this moment, with research on romantic counterculture in hand, that sense of rupture seemed less alarming than seductive. It snuck in and lit up the most intimate part of my life.

A lifelong RELATIONSHIP Actually contains the DEATH and REBIRTH of MANY relationships WITHIN it.

“Hey, have you ever heard of ‘ethical non-monogamy?’” I asked my husband, who was working at a table splotched with syrup nearby. “What do you think about it?”

The laundry tumbled a few feet away, and I looked up from where my finger was holding my place on the page. In that pause floated the fading remains of a world where we were just living through a “crazy summer,” where romantic love was either total or broken, and where I might live the rest of my life and never have to experience a dating app.

Alex turned toward me. “Huh. Non-monogamy,” he said. “I’m interested in that.”

Alex and I are curious people—maybe sometimes to a fault. We worked together for years as journalists, hungry to understand the world and our own places in it. We’re also familiar with alternative ways of living. We spent our twenties in punk houses; now we raise kids in a chosen family and own our duplex with another couple. But still, non-monogamy wasn’t something we had considered—at least not consciously—until that sunny afternoon in the living room.

Things moved quickly from there.

Within a month we were going on dates. During the pandemic, these evoked Victorian courting (no touching and lots of strolling out of doors) and required a forensic analysis of possible Covid exposures.

But we forged ahead, and within six months we’d both developed significant relationships with other people.

 

It turns out we weren’t alone. A 2021 study revealed that one in nine U.S. adults has “engaged in polyamory at some point in their life,” and research from 2017 found that Google searches for polyamory and related terms had significantly risen over the previous decade in the U.S. What was once a taboo is now a trend.

The Pacific Northwest is a hub for this curiosity, with countless meet-up groups, online communities, and locals with dating profiles proclaiming their “ENM [ethically non-monogamous],” “nonmonog,” or “polyamorous” statuses. Which aren’t synonyms for cheating. These terms typically refer to mutually agreed upon relationships outside of traditional couple-centered monogamy. Basically, everything from “swinging” and occasional sexual experiences beyond a primary partnership to multiple, simultaneous intimate relationships in a polycule. And so many things in-between. “We have less religious vibes in the Pacific Northwest, which correlates to the number of queer folks here and those living nontraditional lifestyles,” says Sam Cat, founder of a Portland-based polyamorous educational resource with the once-mock, now-official name of Shrimp Teeth.

Ironically, social distancing may have encouraged people to seek more romantic contacts. Shrimp Teeth has seen a significant uptick in interest and requests for its “peer to peer” polyamorous coaching sessions since the pandemic began, according to Cat. In my own therapeutic practice (I eventually graduated from suffering homework to become a licensed therapist), where I specialize in working with queer people and polyamorous communities, I’ve noticed an increase in clients who want to explore non-monogamy for the first time. Isolated monogamous couples suddenly had a lot of time to contemplate different ways to share their lives. People who—like me and my husband—found themselves wondering if traditional relationship structures were another failing institution up for reinvention.

Cat is quick to recognize that queer communities have practiced non-monogamy and developed chosen families for generations in part because they were actively banned from traditional institutions like marriage. “I think open relationships have existed forever,” she says, “but maybe without as much recognition.”

In a culture steeped in heteronormativity, white supremacy, and patriarchy, the rising visibility of polyamory often lacks diverse representation and flirts with whitewashing: In short, white middle-class people in traditional marriages (like me) will become the more “respectable” face of a marginalized identity and lifestyle.

Author Kevin Patterson says it’s DIFFICULT to start REFRAMING ourselves as “GOOD at NON-monogamy” INSTEAD of “BAD at MONOGAMY.”

Though sex defines non-monogamy, the practice is clearly intertwined with mental health. A book called Polysecure, published in 2020, wedded the practice of polyamory to the therapeutic concept of “attachment theory.” The text explores how traumatic and emotional experiences, often made early in life and with our caregivers, influence our intimate relationships as adults.

In this way non-monogamy is a trend following cultural themes. There’s growing awareness of how a society historically dominated by white men and capitalism has ingrained the importance of “traditional” nuclear families. But polyamory is also intensely personal. It can be as liberating and exciting as it is terrifying and unpredictable. For some people it comes naturally and easily.

For me, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

 

I don’t think there’s a “right” way to open a relationship. In my practice and private life, I see all sorts of approaches work (and not work). Some folks need to take things slowly. They process feelings, read books, define terms, set boundaries, and build agreements. Others favor a “google a few things, jump in, and process as you go” method. I would say Alex and I hewed to a third approach that’s more “cross your fingers and try not to mess it up too much.”

And we did mess up. I wasn’t fully prepared for how disruptive and scary it would feel to carry on relationships outside of our marriage or to plunge into the world of online dating for the first time at 40. I made some cringey rookie mistakes.

My first polyamorous date included a cheap hotel room downtown even though we’d never met in person before. I was home after the first drink, learning the hard way that online chemistry doesn’t always translate to the physical world. Another early date ended up with the guy disrobed within the hour, as it turned out we’d met at a well-known nude beach on Lake Washington’s shore. I stayed prudishly clothed and was, again, home early.

As my husband found partners he was interested in, I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Dating was activating my own—sometimes traumatic—sexual history, along with fears of abandonment and anxiety about coming out publicly as bisexual and queer. It turned out that opening up wasn’t all fun and intrigue. It was also challenging some of the most personal and raw parts of my identity.

 

Alex and I may have had an unconventional life in some ways, but our marriage had followed a traditional path.

We married young, easily convinced that our love for each other, and shared passions for politics and media, would carry us through a lifetime. What we couldn’t have known at 23—before the worldly adventures, the grueling joy of parenting, and the relentless churn of the world—is that a lifelong relationship actually contains the death and rebirth of many relationships within it. Shifting professions, parenthood, and the pandemic taught us that a shared life, especially one that spans decades, must make room for change.

And things had changed between us. A couple years before we opened our marriage, Alex had developed feelings for someone else—an experience that shook us both deeply. And as a bisexual woman in a long marriage to a man, I found myself yearning to express my own queer identity more fully.

When I began meeting people outside the bounds of that long marriage, I gradually learned more about myself. I dated a musician who took me to live music for the first time since I’d had children. I started seeing a woman. Together we went to queer burlesque at the Wildrose, a lesbian bar in Capitol Hill I’d longed to visit, but never had.

There were, and still are, hard moments. With every first—first time having sex with someone else, first overnight, first weekend away with someone else—I’ve had to navigate moments of panic when I’m convinced I’m losing the most important love of my life.

But there’s lots of joy as well. I’ve become good friends with one of my husband’s partners (she sends the best memes), and I just celebrated a year anniversary with my girlfriend.

WHEN systems FAIL, when relationships FALTER, we’re often tempted to just TRY harder, rather than CHANGE.

So few models of failure or success exist in polyamory. Kevin A. Patterson, author of Love’s Not Color Blind, which explores race and representation in polyamorous communities, talks about how career choices intersect with discretion. “I work in tech, and as long as I make my deadlines, nobody cares what I do,” he says. “But I have friends who are lawyers and teachers who have to keep [non-monogamy] under wraps.”

It’s easy to imagine that difficulties, when I experience them, would be solved by monogamy. But Patterson, who’s also co-authoring a series of fiction books that feature polyamorous people, says that it’s difficult to reframe ourselves as “good at non-monogamy” instead of “bad at monogamy.” Beginners just “gotta let things change.”

And maybe that’s the most consistent lesson of the pandemic and non-monogamy for me. That change—whether personal, collective, or inside a relationship—is frightening and full of opportunity.

When systems fail, when relationships falter, we’re often tempted to just try harder, rather than change. We don’t have to force existing models of relationships if we need something different. That might mean multiple romantic partners, but it can also look like chosen family, life partners who are friends or sharing economic resources beyond traditional marriage and biological ties.

Change is still hard sometimes. Parts of it always will be. I struggle with seeing my husband express affection toward another woman. He struggles with feelings of guilt around his desire. Our partners struggle with dating people who have the demands and responsibilities of a young family.

Yet, two years since that sunny afternoon in my living room, there are moments when I’m living a polyamorous dream. My girlfriend recently came over with dessert. We watched Is it Cake? with the kids, while my husband went out on a date. All four of us adults went to a concert together last month at the Showbox.

That double date epitomized my experience in non-monogamy: fun, sometimes scary, and inevitably awkward. Two years in and I didn’t know who to sit next to, or if anyone should touch each other. Let alone how to handle the check. On my way back from the bathroom, I squeezed my husband’s hand. But I soon returned to my girlfriend’s side on the floor of the music venue. I hesitated a moment, then slung my arm around her shoulders and kissed her cheek.

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