“Love is not a pie, honey. I love you and Ellen differently because you are different people […]. I don’t choose between you. And it’s the same way with Daddy and Bolivar. People think that it can’t be that way, but it can. You just have to find the right people.”
-Amy Bloom, Come to Me.
What if the woman in red were his wife?
Reading Amy Bloom’s story, “Love is Not a Pie”, was my first encounter with something like polyamory. Bloom didn’t call it “polyamory” or even “non-monogamy”. It was just a woman’s relationship with her long-term lover—a relationship supported by her husband because, for those characters, “love it not a pie”—there’s enough to go around.
In the scene that most stayed with me, the narrator’s father and her mother’s lover take a nap together, exhausted by grief over the death of the woman they both love. They lean on each other because they are the only two people in the world who can understand the immediacy and depth of the other’s loss. That, to me, makes sense. Those are good, healthy loves.
Sometimes I forget that what I experience as normal is not, in fact, the norm. When I look at the image above, I don’t see a man checking out a hottie behind his wife’s back. I wonder if the hottie in red is his wife…or the woman in black’s mistress. It does me no credit, but I tend to walk around in a sort of bubble, protected against the unconventional nature of my relationships by a community that is fundamentally accepting.
As a result, I get lulled into a false sense of normalcy. Of course, my husband has had girlfriends (one of them even became my bridesmaid). Of course, I go to London to see my boyfriend-partner-person. Of course, my boyfriend-partner-person has other emotionally committed relationships. It’s a lifestyle that feels healthy, honest, and stable because, to me, love is neither a pie nor a competition. In fact, The Other Livvy wrote an excellent piece about precisely that.
For all that though, sometimes I’m reminded that what I take for granted is, for some people, unconventional, unhealthy, and pretty confounding. I bring this up because I’ve gotten a surprising number of questions about the status of one of my relationships recently. After talking it over with Exhibit A (my partner in that relationship), I’ve decided to write a post addressing some of the questions / curiosities people have put to me.
Without getting into specifics, the issues are generally this:
- How can you love two people at the same time?
- How can you maintain different, emotionally connected relationships without one of those relationships suffering?
Before I launch into my thoughts, Exhibit A has been good enough to let me share his take on the subject….
Most of us are brought up with pretty traditional – and narrow – ideas about the nature of love and relationships. We’re taught that romantic love at least is finite, and acceptable only when focused on one person at a time. I struggled with that perceived constraint for a long time – it didn’t fit how I felt, but I also couldn’t see a way around it, and the relationships I formed suffered as a result.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned to take a more fluid, open view of love. Forming a primary bond with one person doesn’t preclude maintaining equally deep, valid, loving connections with other partners – indeed, as long as there is good communication, openness and honesty, each relationship actually supports and enhances the other. Not only am I much happier as a result of finding that out, I’m a better partner too, and finally feel like I’m able to express my feelings in a way that works for me.
The notion of fluidity that Exhibit A mentions is important. There are no guarantees in poly relationships, just as there are no guarantees in life. There is only the desire to take care of the people you love, and part of that care is allowing your relationships (and those of your partners) to change and grow.
For example, while my husband, James, and I have always been non-monogamous, we temporarily closed our relationship once. Of course, it helped that neither of us were in serious relationships at the time, but even if we had been, those other relationships would have been considered in that decision and quite possibly maintained, even if new relationships weren’t started. The key is open communication with everyone involved so that each relationship is allowed to grow and shift naturally.
Now, to bring it back around to the first of the two questions – how can you genuinely love two people at the same time?
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure—it’s a bit like asking the caterpillar how it walks. All I can say is that it is possible though I think it has a great deal to do with how a person is wired and the nature of the relationships they find themselves in. Some relationships are safer and more emotionally supportive than others. I’ve been very lucky in that all of my serious poly relationships have been, with one exception, remarkably healthy, so my natural tendency to love / lust simultaneously has been positively reinforced.
The second question is easier to pin down. In fact, I suspect it might be simpler to address the first question through the second. The way you maintain two (or more) relationships without letting one negatively affect the other(s) is to engage your relationships honestly. Not every relationship will be a long-term love – some will be casual and some will run deep, but they all deserve respect and a certain level of investment. In other words, you need to feed the connection you have to each of your partners regardless of what’s happening in your other relationships. Here’s an example….
My roles as a wife and mother, while being an integral part of who I am, don’t negate my role as a partner in my other relationship. My relationship with Exhibit A doesn’t threaten my marriage (or vice versa) because James and I laid a foundation of trust and communication very early on. My marriage doesn’t threaten the health of my commitment to Exhibit A for the same reason, and it’s for that same reason that his other relationship(s) don’t detract from mine with him.
A lot of how polyamory works (or fails to work) has to do with a person’s motives for being in an open relationship to begin with. I’m not with Exhibit A because of some lack in my marriage. I’m with him because we share a genuine (and pretty fucking awesome) connection. That’s important because if I were using our relationship as an escape hatch for problems at home, both my marriage and my relationship to Exhibit A would be on pretty shaky ground. Instead, both are rock solid, existing side by side without one detracting from the other because one isn’t supplementing a lack and vice versa.
To that end, feeling secure in both of my relationships is the critical factor. That sense of security makes accepting and embracing Exhibit A’s (and James’s) other partner(s) a natural and happy thing, because I trust that our foundation is solid regardless of who or how he loves.
Admittedly, the only reason any of this works is because there is genuine love, attraction and connection on all sides, and because the principle relationships involved are emotionally committed and have been for some time. In addition to honest attempts at communication, everyone involved has genuinely good intentions. No one is angling, lying or undermining. While we don’t exist in a utopia where birds talk and mice do your laundry, everyone is honestly trying their best, and that counts for a lot (don’t ever discount how important awesome metamours are).
So, all of this is a long way of saying that you love whoever you love and the loves you feel are specific to each person. Sometimes that means falling in love with two (or more) people at the same time. If you’re, lucky, you’re able to love without losing anyone. And if you’re extremely lucky, you’re able to establish healthy, honest relationships that change and grow (if a relationship is what you want).
I know that isn’t normal. In fact, it’s rare enough that I’m extremely grateful for it, but it’s also not impossible. Because, sometimes, in some relationships, love is not a pie.