How I Gave Up Cheating and Became Polyamorous
I’m afraid to be lonely, yet I’ve never been alone.
I have a problem being monogamous. “Mono” means one. As an only child, I could not stand being “one” all the time. It didn’t seem a fair choice.
So I’ve always looked to pair. I’ve been in a coupled state as long as I can remember; it’s a core desire. For most of my life, I didn’t know how to feel good and valid without being part of a couple — but I also haven’t limited myself to being in a traditional relationship. That’s just another unit of one, after all.
As an adult, I tried to suppress that drive. But in hiding my endless coupling, my desire for more partners, I drove further away from monogamous relationships. I broke trust with the people I dated so I could find others and feel less alone. By cheating, I just isolated myself again.
But I found out I wasn’t the only one struggling with the binary of “cheating or accepting misery.” Monogamy isn’t the only way to sustain loving, consistent relationships.
My father made me a bastard. He started seeing my mother after leaving his wife. He and his wife had an uptown relationship; he worked at the university and she was a nurse. He was from Spanish Town, the ghetto. She was from the nice part of Kingston, the hills. Her hair and skin were light and easy. My mother, though, hailed from the country. She was tough and sweet, like breadfruit. My father did not choose one path — and later, I’d learn he didn’t choose one desire either.
Despite the stereotype that nonmonogamous people were indecisive or afraid to commit, her life seemed structured and well-defined. It was the polar opposite of cheating scandals that I’d set off in my life.
I’ve never seen firsthand the ways my mother loved my father. I never saw them share a lingering stare or wash the same plates. My only proof was my existence. Love and children didn’t occur in neat lines or on planned branches of my family tree. My grandmother had children with different husbands. My mother’s youngest siblings were from her father’s second marriage. In tracing my family, I discovered marriage and monogamy were often incidental. My family continued to grow without hard and fast rules about how relationships formed. Although infidelity wasn’t spoken of in the daylight, we accepted that the overlaps between separations (and children born in those time periods) meant that marriages survived even when monogamy didn’t.
By my teen years, I learned how love could complicate loyalty to one person. I was in love with my first girlfriend, I thought. We bonded everywhere, from the malls in Queens and Manhattan to our school trips upstate. But there was another young woman: my best friend, who I told everything. She taught me how to kiss, with practice sessions at her Brooklyn apartment that happened while I was dating my girlfriend. I wanted to practice with my friend, who had more experience — I’d heard on TV that kissing was like peeling a grape without your teeth but had no clue what that meant. I grew to love them both for different reasons. The duality of wanting a romantic sweetheart to wear my varsity jacket and a friend who could explore erotic beginnings but still talk all night on the phone caused me no end of conflict. Because I felt trapped between extremes, I hid how the idea of love was evolving in me.
In my twenties, I started to explore polyamory. I tired of cheating (though I wouldn’t stop then). One girlfriend smashed my laptop into pieces when she saw lurid emails to a co-worker I liked and was pursuing. Years later, another girlfriend destroyed a newer machine, fueled by the same resentment — I’d been staying up late to chat on a dating site. While I felt bursts of shame during these episodes, the emotional toll they took on my partners was drastic and harmful.
In an effort to change, I tried to find people, books, and groups who understood and practiced not being “one.” Early on, an OKCupid match named Nicole told me about her life. Her husband, a musician, lived on the West Coast with his daughter and the mother of that child; she lived on the East Coast with their most recent child. She also had a boyfriend and several casual partners — and her husband had one other girlfriend, in the Midwest. She wrote messages and told me she was returning from a walk along Prospect Park, holding hands with someone new.
As exciting as this was, I couldn’t understand how I’d fit into this other world. Despite the stereotype that nonmonogamous people were indecisive or afraid to commit, her life seemed structured and well-defined. It was the polar opposite of cheating scandals that I’d set off in my life. Her partners seemed to love and care for her, and she for them, without a need to possess each other.
I couldn’t stop hiding and wanting more, so I sought people open to other relationship styles. Monogamous affairs were a turnoff, and fizzled out once my interest waned. I wanted to find a more liberal approach, or at least stumble into more personal freedom. In one of my relationships, we agreed that the burden of monogamy didn’t suit many of our needs but weren’t sure how to go about it. First, we thought a “don’t ask don’t tell” route could work, but only I dated others. She resented how liberal I was with the “don’t tell” part, so it ended up that this was only a fancy way of cheating. We sought counseling, where I dove into my childhood abandonment woes and tried to undo 20-year-old habits.
I didn’t trust that I could share the breadth of my desire with her and expect her to stay. She didn’t stay, not always. She distanced herself from my worst habits. We came close to breaking up twice — both times, I’d fallen in love with a new girlfriend and plunged headfirst into my old tactics of hiding and erasing texts. When she finally left for good and didn’t answer my calls, I knew there was work left to do.
I entered therapy in earnest, taking a year to find the mental health advice I needed most. I read Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships and More Than Two, key titles on polyamorous dating. I joined forums to read testimony from polyamorous people of color who were open about their journeys. As with most issues, the stigma of nonmonogamy performs double duty on a Black person stepping outside of a known system. That’s not to mention the memes, headlines, TV shows, and movies that stress monogamy as the only way and “side chicks and side dudes” as the taboo alternative. When one of Hollywood’s most famous couples endured backlash and mockery for their inability to uphold an impossible monogamous standard, it served as another reminder of how strong these systems are.
No partner should have to accept cheating or negligence. But when communication and fulfillment break down, it seems like a faulty absolute for both people to resign themselves to either a limping, loveless relationship or philandering as a survival mechanism.
I’m not foolish enough to claim wisdom. Relationships are hard, include jealousy, fail at gratifying, and bring up damage no matter how much I’ve tried to avoid those truths. I’m convinced that if more of us knew the joys of sharing our desires with our partners rather than hiding them, we might experience deeper love than can be contained in “one.”