Open Marriage and the One that Got Away

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Natalie, on the other hand, was a different story.  A 24-year-old idealistic grad student, she was  reared as a missionary and was attending a seminary getting her masters in Christian Thought and Biblical Studies.  Her long-term goal was to obtain a PhD in philosophy, write papers, and teach.  While quite socially progressive, her personal belief system had issues with dating a married man.  Nevertheless, there was a strong chemistry and instant attraction between me and Natalie.  She represented so many things that I admired and wished were true about myself.  I actually looked up to her, even though she was younger than me, and talking to her was intoxicating.  She gave me some level of fulfillment that I didn’t even know I needed in my relationships, and I was addicted.

Looking back, I don’t remember how we overcame her initial trepidation.  I remember her telling me that, as a rule, she didn’t date attached men.  She said that she loved with her whole heart, that she didn’t know if she could share a man, or if she could look for the man she would marry while already dating a man she loved.  I remember her telling me that when it was time for us to break up, to please not argue.  But I also remember feeling like we could both enjoy each other while it lasted.

Before I knew it, we were sending instant messages all day.  Then we moved on to voice chat.  Then text.  Then the phone.  Then web cam.  We’d talk about the mundane, our jobs, her classwork, our shared interests, her religion, my family, sex, things we wanted to do with each other, thing we wanted to do to each other.  We’d trade pictures in various states of dress, with eyes looking in the camera in such a way as to tell the other person, “I’m thinking of you.” 

Even though I had entered into this secondary relationship with the intention of keeping it somewhat detached, as Allison had done, even though Natalie had her reservations, I knew we were falling in love.  The first thing I would do in the morning was check my phone for the usual “Mmmorning” text.  We’d spend the whole day “together,” and she was usually the last person I’d talk to each day.  I never neglected Allison or our three sons, but I was always “with” Natalie, and she with me.  Allison was cautious about the situation, but she was happy to see me so happy.

Over the months, there were several occasions when Natalie would tell me that she feared we were too close, that she couldn't stand to be with me because she could never have me as hers monogamously.  That she was jealous of Allison.  She’d declare that we should be "just friends," and then a few days later, we were back to our old routine.  I knew she was conflicted, but it seemed that her feelings for me were enough for her to bend her own rules a little.  I knew this was, at best, uncomfortable for her, so I did everything I could to not remind her that I was married.  Oddly enough, though, she seemed to want to be close friends with Rafael and Allison, like couples on a double-date.

Interestingly, at some point, I realized that I was glad to be the sole focus of Natalie’s affections.  Likewise, when she’d talk about ex-boyfriends or cute guys in her classes, I would feel jealousy pangs.  It occured to me that it was odd I would feel jealous for Natalie but not Allison, but Natalie seemed to like that I was focused enough on her to feel that way, especially given her feelings for me, so I shrugged it off.

After some time, Allison and Rafael set up a real-life meeting.  Allison had not had a vacation to herself since before our oldest son was born almost six years prior, so she eagerly took Rafael up on his invitation to visit him at his home.  She spent nine days with him, watching TV, eating out, and having new, exciting sexual experiences.  I truly was happy and excited for her.  I derived pleasure from her pleasure with another, a feeling called “compersion.”  I did notice, however, that while I wasn’t particularly jealous, I did feel somewhat unfulfilled.  Unable to pin down the emotion, I simply called it “loneliness.”  I was so thankful, then, that I had Natalie to talk to throughout this.

Natalie and I continued our cycle of hot and cold.  I didn't want to lose her presence in my life, so aside from occasionally getting frustrated at her, I mostly just accepted it.  Allison and I knew, however, that Natalie probably could not go on like this forever, and, wanting to see me happy, Allison offered more and more flexibility in ways that Natalie and I could grow our relationship.  We discussed things like polygamy, me splitting my time between our town and Natalie’s, even going so far as to suggest that we could someday talk about separating amicably.  Natalie never really warmed to any of these ideas, but she and I still grew even closer on a daily basis.

Finally, Natalie asked me to think about when we could meet in real life.  We started talking about plans, and we settled on a weekend trip to a mountain town about two hours’ drive from her home.  I booked plane tickets and made hotel reservations for a trip the next month, and we were both excited, at least for the moment.

I’m not entirely sure what happened over the next few days.  As Natalie told me later, something inside her “broke.”  Between her thoughts on marriage, her ideals, the stress of her classes, the stress of moving from an apartment to a new house (by way of a temporary stay with her parents), and who-knows-what-else, she couldn’t deal with our situation anymore.  She told me that she was deeply in love with me, but that she agonized over how I could never be hers.  How she’d forced herself into a relationship with me, hopeful that it would get easier with time, but it didn’t.  How, with everything else going on in her life, she just couldn’t deal with this anymore.

I was crushed, of course, and our old pattern of rebuilding didn’t seem to be playing out this time.  We continued IMing and texting, but she was still slightly distant.  The admission that she really, truly loved me made it that much harder.  After several days of being sad around the house, figuring I should at least meet the girl once, Allison told me to just get on a plane and go see her. 

Natalie was surprised and a bit mad that I would flaunt her wishes, but she had dinner with me, and we spent an afternoon watching movies and making out.  She wouldn’t re-commit to our vacation getaway, but she did say she was very glad I came.  We shared a tearful, tender embrace as we said goodbye, and then the next morning, I flew home.

The next few weeks leading up to our planned rendezvous were stressful on my marriage to Allison.  As my perception of Natalie’s outlook regarding our trip rose and fell, so did my mood.  I became obsessed with salvaging what I had with Natalie, and Allison was concerned that I had lost perspective.  I even let this up-and-down spoil a long-planned vacation Allison and I took the weekend before the planned trip with Natalie.  Allison’s faith in my love for her was shaken, and I didn’t seem to care.

On the plane ride home from our vacation, Allison and I talked and reached an agreement.  We both recognized that my relationship with Natalie was very important to me.  Allison again suggested that we could talk about an amicable separation, if that’s what I wanted, to save what I had with Natalie.  In retrospect, I realize I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I realize now I was too quick to latch onto this idea, to be willing to arbitrarily throw my marriage under a bus, hurting Allison in the process.  But at that time, I took this as all the signal I needed that I was free to leave, and I decided that the best thing to do would be to convince Natalie that I really needed to see her for our planned trip and use our time alone to talk about where Allison and I stood.  That Allison wanted me happy, but that I needed to figure out what that meant.  That I needed Natalie to be patient with me and just wait.

Desperate, I sent Natalie an email imploring her to keep our date, that I needed to see her.  I said that if she would see me this one last time, I would never ask again, if that’s what she wanted.  I was so convinced that I had it all figured out.  Natalie’s response was quick.  First, she pointed out that she was under too much stress from other sources, including several late papers, to actually be able to keep our date, even if she wanted to.  However, given the tone of my email and the personal agony she had been in, she simply didn’t want to anymore.  She chided me for trying to pressure her, for bargaining with her.  She reminded me of my promise to just walk away without arguing.  She reminded me that I had already violated her trust once by just showing up that weekend.  And she went on to say that she just needed this to be done.

All of my hopes that I had pinned on that trip came crashing down.  I wept.  I sobbed uncontrollably.  Allison, alarmed at my loss of control, texted Natalie, imploring her not to close the door forever.  She said it was apparent that Natalie made me happier than she could, and it would be a shame to throw that away.  Natalie did not take the news of my tension with Allison well, and reiterated that this was proof that it was time for her to walk away.  I haven’t heard from her since.  We went from constant contact every day for over half a year to complete silence, now for almost a month.

So, what’s the aftermath?  As I started coping with a deep depression, Allison and I got counseling, and we spent a lot of time talking about our marriage and what it means to us.  We learned that Allison and I are two very different people in how we love.  Whereas Allison can build an emotional buffer around herself to allow a level of detachment with her secondary relationships, I can’t.  I, like Natalie, tend to love with my whole heart.  Whereas Allison is, by nature, polyamorous, and will find fulfillment in that, I am, for better or worse, by my nature, a monogamist.

So what does that apparent difference mean for our marriage?  Remember I said I felt “lonely” over Allison’s relationship with Rafael?  I’ve come to realize that was my own personal craving for the focused, mutually monogamous attention that I got from Natalie.  The problem with this is that I’m not willing to ask Allison to change.  I’m not even willing to let her.  I love her as she is.  I love that she’s being honest with herself, but I crave that type of connection I had with Natalie, and I don’t know how, as a married man, I’m ever going to find it with another woman.  “...but it’s an open marriage!” is a really bad pickup line, especially when you’re looking for monogamy.  It’s not impossible, but it is frustratingly difficult.

So if you’re considering an open marriage, ask yourself before you start, what exactly are you looking for?  Because while you might assume you want a certain type of secondary relationship, as I did, you might find yourself looking for something entirely different.

The truly torturous part for me now that Allison and I have learned to recognize our differences, is that we realize at some level this is a significant incompatibility, and will be for years to come.  We want so badly to see each other happy and fulfilled, but it’s going to be difficult for me to find what I want.  Of course, we have our children to consider, but Allison and I have reaffirmed our desire to see each other happy and fulfilled, regardless of how we find that.  For her, that means being polyamorous.  For me, it may eventually mean that Allison and I separate so I can pursue something monogamous.  In our view, that wouldn’t be an end to our relationship, just a transition to a new state where we were both in a position to find fulfillment.  We both strongly feel that we could maintain friendship and partnership as we raise our sons. 

If Allison and I had understood this about ourselves earlier, would it have mattered to Natalie?  I was really happy in my relationship with Natalie.  I found the fulfillment I wanted.  If Allison and I had communicated to Natalie that I wanted to transition from an open marriage with Allison to a monogamous relationship with Natalie, would she have allowed it?  Natalie has a strong sense of family values, but given the love we shared, would she begrudge me my conscious choice to choose the relationship I wanted?  I tend to think she’d be cautious about it, but I maintain some degree of optimism that she would have respected me and Allison enough to let us make our own decision here and not view herself as a homewrecker.

 

As it is, I don't know that it will ever come up.  I don’t know what Natalie’s been doing in the weeks since we last spoke.  She said she wanted to try to maintain a friendship, but I’ve tried a couple times to gently reestablish contact with no reply.  I don’t know if she’s focused on dealing with the other stress in her life, or staying away in an attempt to make me get over her and preserve my marriage, if she's hoping she can feel more detached from the situation, or if she’s simply trying to erase me from her life.

Knowing what I know now, assuming the chemistry is still there and she's still interested, I would eventually like to try to grow a mutually monogamous relationship with Natalie.  Now that Allison and I have this better understanding of ourselves, it'd still be a little complicated, with logistics to work out, but it'd really be possible for me to be what Natalie needs and wants.  This is what Allison and I really want for each other.  This is what I want to be for Natalie.  Still, I’d understand her caution.

If she reads this, I hope she’ll take me at my word that while I did love her, Allison and I alone are responsible for the future of our relationship and our kids.  I hope she’ll remember that we were friends first, and we can be friends again.  I hope she knows that she was very important to me, capable of fulfilling something in me that I need and so much more.  I hope she knows how sorry I am for the way I handled things.  I was learning things about myself, Allison, and our marriage, and I stubbornly tried to fit Natalie into a role she couldn't live with, and for that, I feel awful.

Most of all, I hope she knows I miss her.

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