Almost every girl has a movie that breaks her. It's usually something intended for children, like Cinderella. The girl watches it and gets hooked on this idea that if she has an impossibly tiny waist and can talk to birds, eventually she'll stumble upon the man of her dreams. He'll put her in a carriage, and for some reason she'll be into that.
Honestly, I didn't buy the fairytale trope. Never did. I mean, talking to birds? Massive royal galas? I was much too much a realist. For me, the movie—the one that broke me—came much later. It disguised itself better as a story that could actually happen, so at 12, I drank the Kool-Aid.
The movie was Bed of Roses, starring Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson. You might remember it from when you went to the video store in the '90s and saw it and said, "Hey, what's that movie that looks exactly like American Beauty?" Here's the premise: Girl is an emotional minefield because her family was psychologically abusive. Boy is a sad, hot, widowing florist. Boy sees girl while he's on one of "these walks he takes at night." She's at her apartment window—apparently the only lit apartment window in all of Manhattan—and she's crying. Boy sends girl random flowers. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy fixes girl. The end.
I absolutely loved this movie. I loved how delicate and sad Mary Stuart Masterson was; how she so believably had built "emotional walls" to prevent the pains of falling in love. I loved how Christian Slater could somehow afford a rooftop rose garden to have sex on, but only if it was with Mary Stuart Masterson. (And maybe his ex-wife, who died a LONG time ago, and whom he had of course mourned appropriately.) I loved how at the end, after the requisite movie misunderstanding, Mary Stuart Masterson is leaving Christian Slater's apartment, about to give up on their love, and he says, "Wait, don't go." These triumphant, slow violins begin to play before they kiss.
I loved all of it. I knew then what most girls know at some point in their life: all I wanted, more than anything, was to be found, rescued, and loved forever.
A little over a decade later, I had been in six long-term, serious relationships. By "long-term" I mean that they lasted over a year, and usually almost exactly a year and a half. By "serious" I mean that marriage was discussed in every one of them—including the first one, when I was 16. I couldn't stand the idea of being in a relationship that didn't have the potential of being my Bed of Roses relationship. The boys I dated were almost all wonderful—they were all "husband material," as my mother put it—but something always went wrong and they all ended. By the time I was in my mid-twenties and still not married with a dog in the yard and a kid on the way, I was pretty annoyed.
Then I got into the relationship that I was absolutely sure was The One. It was one of those relationships where we mutually crushed on each other for a while, and then there was this perfect summer kiss on a grassy hill in the sunshine, and then everything proceeded to go flawlessly. Every day I spent with this guy was perfect; we never fought; we both liked alone time; we ate the same foods. He even watched Glee with me that year I was really into Glee, and I read the weird gross-out comics he was into that made me a little nauseous. I'm telling you: this was the perfect relationship. I had wedding invitations planned out.
And then, all of a sudden, it ended. Nothing had really seemed to be wrong, and then suddenly something felt wrong to him, and eventually he told me that he couldn't pretend anymore, and the relationship ended. I just sat there, watching my Bed of Roses fantasy crumble, and the world as I knew it came to a grinding halt.
I spent a LOT of nights alone in my room watching Gilmore Girls for a while, muttering statements that included the phrases, "alone forever," and "lots of cats." What had gone wrong? How had this perfect relationship broken? Where was Christian Slater when I needed him?
I spent days doing what too many girls do post-breakup: I made a long list of everything that must be wrong with me. You know this list, because I'm sure you've made it before: Too Fat, Too Weird, Not Pretty Enough, Likes Netflix Too Much, Too Flirty With Other People, Not Into The Right Stuff, Does Sex Wrong, etc. And then at some point, the list got so comically long that it didn't make sense anymore. Suddenly, in a Haagen Dazs daze, I realized something: Maybe the relationship hadn't ended because something was wrong with me. Maybe it had ended because something was wrong with the model.
Right around this time, my roommates, who are a couple (couples are everywhere when you go through a breakup), had started to read this book called Sex At Dawn, cowritten by Christopher Ryan, PhD, and Cacilda Jethá, MD. The book, which was published in 2010, challenges the idea that humans evolved to have just one sexual partner for life. They argue that the "standard narrative" of man-and-wife is an agricultural development, and ought not to be assumed right out the gate. Dr. Ryan even gave a TED Talk on the subject called, "Are We Designed To Be Sexual Omnivores?" In it, he says,
What I'm saying is that to argue that our ancestors were sexual omnivores is no more a criticism of monogamy than to argue that our ancestors were dietary omnivores is a criticism of vegetarianism. You can choose to be a vegetarian, but don't think that just because you've made that decision, bacon suddenly stops smelling good.
After my roommates were done with it, I read Sex At Dawn, and I have to tell you: this idea totally blew my mind.
Dr. Ryan isn't a post-punk anarchist on the side of the road spouting philosophies about the possibility of having multiple partners. He looks, honestly, like my dad. He even talks like my dad, with allusions to Darwin, metaphysical descriptions, and historical notes about social primate evolution. The idea of dating multiple people, but not necessarily in a hookups-only kind of way, was completely new and foreign to me. And frankly, it made a lot of sense.
I started dating again. This time, for the first time in my life, I let go of the Bed of Roses objective. I decided I would date without the assumption that monogamy would be an endpoint. I would date because I met someone I liked, and we would go out with each other until we didn't feel like going out with each other anymore. For the first time in my life, I started dating people and breaking up with people in ways that didn't feel so scary or world-ending. I started to have fun.
Before we go any further, there are some things you should know about me. In high school, I did not get invited to parties, because given the chaos and enigmatic tendencies of parties, I was known to cry outwardly at them. I didn't get drunk until after I'd turned 21, and I didn't like it. I don't drink much these days, either; just a glass of wine with dinner, like a 40-year-old accountant on a diet plan. I didn't get high until I accidentally ate a pot cookie on Mardi Gras when I was 25. I'd thought the cookie just tasted like that because it must have been vegan. I typically go to bed around 8:30 p.m., and I like to wake up a little after 4 in the morning. I have the lifestyle of a healthy elderly recluse with a vegetable garden and waterproof clogs.
I say all this because I want it understood that I'm not the type of person who would typically pass as "sexually adventurous" in a lineup.
And honestly, one-night-stand-types of situations don't really work for me. I'm an emotional person, and my feelings get in the way. Don't get me wrong: I like sex a lot, but I'm into the slow-build and excessive communicating that comes along with early-on dating, too. So I wasn't ready to hop into a swinger's lifestyle, even if evolution was on my side. (More power to swingers, though; all the swingers I know are also Grade-A communicators, often more so than my sexually traditional friends.) Instead, I tended to go on a few dates with someone and then watch things fall off. It was always fun and rarely very painful. I didn't, however, really fall in love.
And then I met Ned. This was roughly three years after my Epic Break-Up; we met while substitute teaching the same fourth-grade class in New Orleans in early February. (Ned's a teacher, I'm a teacher, so already there was some compatibility there.) We hit it off immediately—if you can co-teach with someone, there's a special kind of magic that blossoms that only people in education can truly understand. We stayed out until 3 in the morning talking about Greek tragedies and stand-up comedy; at the end of the night, we kissed in my car, and I felt all the tingly butterfly feelings you are told you are supposed to feel when something is about to be big.
After a few weeks of not-so-casually dating, Ned told me he was falling in love with me. I was feeling it, too, but I didn't want to say it. After all, with love supposedly comes monogamy, and I was really enjoying my dating-around time. I had become a person who didn't need rescuing, and I liked it. It had finally happened: I didn't want Bed of Roses anymore. I just wanted to take care of myself, and kiss people I liked.
But love is weird. It's an unwrangleable force that science is yet to find a good definition for or answer to. I found myself thinking about Ned in every vacant minute, and checking my phone way more often than I ordinarily check it, to see if he'd texted. I could feel myself losing control of my emotions, and it felt like being drunk: I was ecstatic, terrified, and electrified by it all at once.
At this point, my roommates had opened their relationship up, too. Reading Sex At Dawn does this to people, in my small sample size: It's hard to argue with nonmonogamy when the science is so clearly laid out for you. I watched them develop a deep, loving partnership unlike anything I'd ever seen: they spent hours upon hours in conversation about everything from local politics to dinner to their own relationship, and they were flatly honest about even the most difficult subjects. They sometimes went out with other people, and then they sat together and calmly discussed it. What I most admired about their relationship was that the only assumption or rule they had in place was this unspoken knowledge that no matter what happened, they would love each other. Underneath the current of their constantly changing relationship was a deep, untouchable trust.
So on the roof of Ned's house one afternoon, I told him I loved him, too. But, I added, I still didn't want to be monogamous. He said he didn't want to be monogamous, either. Channeling my roommates, we made very egalitarian and logical promises. We promised to be honest with each other. We promised to support each other in times of crisis, and to prioritize and commit to this relationship. And mostly, we promised to be open to whatever inevitable changes would come as we moved forward. After all, the only thing you can know about anything in life is that it will change. I rested my head on his chest, Bed of Roses-style, and watched the silhouettes of egrets melt into the sunset.
We continued to date each other, and occasionally other people. Sometimes that was easier; sometimes it was difficult. There was a lot of "processing." I became obsessed with Dan Savage's podcast, the Savage Lovecast, and listened to it every Tuesday without fail. Savage is a huge proponent of "coming out" as non-monogamous, and every week, it seemed, he would tackle some issue that fell right in line with the kind of relationship Ned and I were trying to have.
There were difficulties, sure, but we both continued to feel like this was the kind of relationship we wanted to be in. Ultimately, it wasn't so hard to be primarily with each other, and dating other happy, curious people on the side.
Then I met Luke. Ned and I had been dating for six months at that point, and things were going well. We had met each other's parents and visited each other's hometowns, and everyone in our lives knew that this relationship was serious. But, also, we were both still on Tinder and OKCupid, and sometimes we'd browse profiles together, match-making for each other. Luke turned up on my Tinder feed, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw his picture. I'd seen him around town for a few years (we have tangential friend circles, I guess), and had a long-term, faraway crush on him.
"Oh, my God. It's LUKE," I gushed to Ned. Ned happened to know Luke. They had worked together for a while, and Ned thought Luke was great. "You should swipe right!" Ned said. So I did.
Luke and I ended up at the same party a few weeks later; Ned was busy that night, so I'd gone alone. We recognized each other from Tinder, and talked until the party was dwindling; arguing about educational politics, mostly, but also openly flirting. We exchanged numbers, and two days later, Luke asked me on a real date.
"I'm in an open relationship," I told him. "That's a deal-breaker for some people." Luke said it wasn't a deal-breaker for him. We had a very nice time walking along the bayou by my house, eating chocolate, drinking wine, and making out.
Luke and I continued dating. He made me mixtapes and fancy dinners and introduced me to his neighbors. One day in late November, I realized that the butterflies-fireworks thing was happening all over again. I was falling in love with Luke.
Suddenly, there was no playbook. Ned and I knew about being in what Dan Savage calls "monogamish" relationships, where you're committed to one person and you date other people. But the idea of being in love with two people seemed crazy. I found myself with two serious boyfriends, who knew about each other, and were reportedly fine with everything. Where was the romance-movie-drama model for this?
A few years ago, Maria Bellow published a Modern Love column in the New York Times about coming out as a "modern family." There are a lot of wonderful, groundbreaking ideas in the piece, but maybe the most revolutionary is her rejection of the term "primary partner." She argues that love, family, and partnership can take forms way outside the realm of the standard man-and-wife narrative, and that just because a relationship ends does not mean it is not a success.
Humans have tried so hard to shove the idea of love into a one-size-fits-all box, even though no one can hammer down a simple definition for the word. We want a world in which there are rules and answers, because such a world implies a kind of safety. Historically, though, nothing has ever really stayed the same, especially in terms of love. Aside from financing the entire romantic comedy industry, maintaining the notion that people are designed to only love one person at a time has led to outrageous lies, rampant divorce, and even severe violence. How is that serving anyone?
In December, Ned met a girl I knew he would fall in love with, too. I wish I could say that, after all my research and personal understanding, I was not jealous. I was, however, unfathomably jealous. I found pictures of this girl and compared her to myself (Thinner, Prettier, More Normal-Seeming, Better Dressed). I made up stories about how Ned didn't love me anymore. And through all this jealousy and anger, I was embarrassed. I had assumed I wouldn't get jealous; I had assumed I would be happy for Ned immediately; I had assumed that I would be cool and calm and collected, because science was on my side, and the rational part of my brain knew that this would all be OK.
Here's the thing: I think in general, we don't give our brains permission to be irrational for a little while; we don't know how to be patient with that part of ourselves. I knew that the thing I was feeling wasn't what I "should" feel, but I felt it anyway, so I went straight to being mad at myself. Really, you have to give yourself time to honor those feelings. Let them ferment, breathe through them, love yourself for all the ways in which you are wonderfully unpredictable, mourn appropriately, and then—when you are good and ready—move forward.
I didn't give that to myself. Instead, I just yelled at Ned about how I was a bad person. Also, Ned yelled at me about how he was a bad person. This was an ugly time that I'm not proud of, but we were still learning, and hey, at least we were talking about it. Polyamory requires time, communication, space, communication, communication, and patience.
After a while, I felt better about Ned and the new girl; and he said he felt good about Luke, too. The transition into having new serious partners was rocky: we talked for four-hour long stints about what would happen and what might change. There was never a moment when I felt like I loved Ned any less. There was never a moment when I wondered if he would always be in my life. This is what commitment looks like: it is not always a ring on a finger and an impossible promise of fidelity; it can simply be people promising to bend with each others' changes, no matter what they may be.
In a nod to Dan Savage, who is a big proponent of coming out, I told my mom that I was polyamorous last Christmas. It seemed like the least I could do for Dan, who had smashed my ideas about what love needed to look like.
My mom was open to the concept, but I got the sense that she felt like this was a phase. I hope it's not a phase: my love life has never made me happier; I have never felt so grounded or completely myself. I wish this kind of happiness on everyone: the feeling that comes from giving yourself the permission to be exactly who you are in the world, let go of the idea that anything about you needs to be fixed, and then to love in whatever way you choose. It's not the bed of roses I predicted for myself as a girl, but it's one I've grown to love.
Sophie Lucido Johnson is a writer, illustrator, and comedian in New Orleans. She is the editor-in-chief of Neutrons Protons, and she blogs and makes comics at her website. Illustrations by the author.