I Tried An Open Relationship & This Is What I Learned
"What do you think about opening our relationship?" my girlfriend at the time, Grace, texted me. I stared at my phone until my eyes hurt. We'd been dating for four months and I was completely infatuated with her, to say the least. We were similar in a lot of ways: both party girls who liked wearing bras as shirts, drinking heavily, and shamelessly flirting with people for free drinks. We had the occasional threesome, which I enjoyed, yet the thought of trying an open relationship and my girlfriend sleeping with someone else felt like a step too far for me — I mean, just the thought of sleeping with someone who wasn't Grace seemed incomprehensible to me. But because I didn’t want to lose her, I texted her back saying "yes."
I gulped as I pressed send.
"You're always down for new experiences," she wrote back. "That's what I love about you."
It's sort of true. I was adventurous in the "let's try anal" sort of way. Not so much in the "let's see other people separately" sort of way. After that initial text, we didn’t discuss the parameters of our new relationship, so I felt pretty unsure about specifics. Did she just want to have sex with other people? What about consistently dating? I decided I'd rather not know. I thought I could handle it better if I didn’t get the details. And to be honest, I didn’t really care about the "rules" — I knew deep down that I'd remain monogamous no matter what happened.
I imagined her on lavish dates, having fabulous sex, and forgetting all about me.
What I don’t know won’t hurt me, I thought. But the next day, my mind went wild wondering what she was doing. I ignored customers at work and constantly checked my phone, ping-ponging from her Instagram to her Facebook to her Snapchat and back. I imagined her on lavish dates, having fabulous sex, and forgetting all about me. Even though she continued to text me "good morning" and "good night," — which was normal for our relationship because we both had busy lives — now, the silence during the day felt threatening.
For the most part, our relationship continued as normal. We told each other we loved each other, went on dates, had lots of sex. But ever since that initial text about opening up the relationship, something felt off for me. I felt sad all the time, even when I was with her.
One day, Grace posted a picture of her and another girl on Facebook. You know when you see something that makes your heart sink and your stomach hurt? Seeing it and attaching a face — a human — to the situation sent me spiraling. I stalked TF out of her. She was effortlessly beautiful, the kind of girl you feel drawn to hate because she’s fresh-out-of-the-shower gorgeous. The kind of girl who only needs tinted moisturizer, lip balm, and a touch of brow pencil. The kind of girl who wears matching Calvin Klein underwear sets.
I could feel myself unraveling with jealousy. Self-hatred. Anger. Heartbreak. But when Grace texted me that night and asked me to come over, I didn’t let on that anything was wrong. I was nervous about ruining our relationship or looking less open-minded than she thought I was.
As we ate dinner by candlelight, all I could think about was Calvin Klein girl. When Grace gifted me a diamond necklace and thanked me for being open-minded, my brain played the dab-of-moisturizer girl’s face on repeat. On the outside, I touched Grace’s hand lovingly. I told her about the book I was reading. I listened to her talk about how her women’s studies classes were going. I dared not mention the sh*tstorm that was raging inside my brain. She had reacted poorly in the past when I expressed any negative feelings about our relationship. I thought if I said I wasn't happy, she would break up with me.
Grace was open about what she wanted. I was not.
I felt that playing along with Grace would somehow make me look "more evolved," like I was above society's old-fashioned rules. I felt affirmed by how pleased she was that I was willing to open up the relationship. And I loved her. So I told myself what we were doing was rational — more queer, even. But my communication skills were taking a nosedive. I had once shared everything with her, and now I spent all our time together pretending a fiery rage wasn’t burning inside me.
Grace was open about what she wanted. I was not.
When we were two months into this new phase of our relationship, I hadn’t even looked at someone else. Then I went out drinking with some friends and met a girl. She had black hair down to her butt, tan skin, and was wearing a Juicy tracksuit. Early 2000s Kim K chic — totally my type. When she hit on me, I wasn’t hit with the guilt I had been expecting. It felt… good. I wondered if maybe I hadn't been on board with the open relationship because no one had expressed interest in me. But now that it was happening, I had to rethink the whole situation.
This epiphany was short-lived. After we exchanged numbers and planned to meet up, I got that heart-dropping, sick-to-my-stomach feeling again. Something inside of me was screaming that I didn’t want to do this. Not because of society’s preference for monogamy, but because I truly didn’t want to. It wasn’t me. I ghosted the Kim K look-alike because I was too confused and unhappy to explain myself.
From then on, when Grace texted me good night, I said good night back. Whenever she wanted to see me, I saw her. Whenever she wanted to have sex, we did. I was so focused on not losing her that I lost sight of myself. After all, I wanted her to be happy! But making her happy came at my own expense.
One day, I was at a family friend’s graduation party. Normally I would've invited my girlfriend to come, but Grace had been showing less and less interest in meeting up for anything other than drinks and sex. At the party, Grace texted me and said she was at the gyno — she thought she had an STD, but it turned out to be a yeast infection. "Glad you're OK," I texted back, and I meant it. But then I lost my f*cking mind.
We had sex, then I shame-spiraled and cried my eyes out.
I drank way too much, and knocked over a bunch of wine bottles. She had delivered the news as if she was telling me to pick up milk on my way home; like it was nothing. We hadn't talked about safe sex since opening up our relationship, which is partially my fault (even though I do — and did — feel like my partner and I should be open and honest about our sex lives). Even if it was just a scare, I felt like Grace had put my body in danger and had no qualms about it. I texted an ex and she picked up me from the party. We had sex, then I shame-spiraled and cried my eyes out.
I thought I’d feel "accomplished" by finally participating in our open relationship and sleeping with someone other than Grace, but it only made me feel empty and far away from myself. It felt so counterintuitive to everything I wanted out of a relationship: loyalty, honesty, commitment. My situation with Grace was destroying me. But still, I said nothing.
Instead, over the next three months, I told myself how disgusting I was for not being good enough for Grace. She criticized me constantly for how I dressed, how I wore my makeup, and how I interacted with other people. I told myself that if I were prettier, thinner, funnier, then maybe Grace would still want to be monogamous. I felt threatened by the new women in Grace's life, and reasoned that if I were more like the girl in that photo, then maybe Grace would only want me. I thought had to "get better" to show Grace I was worthy of a monogamous commitment.
I didn't judge Grace for wanting an open relationship, but it was finally clear to me: an open relationship just didn't suit me.
My self-esteem plummeted. Insecurities I didn’t even know I had began to regularly plague me. I went from being obsessively jealous of other women to just feeling flat-out heartbroken. Sometimes, I lashed out at her for seeing other people, but after all, it was what I had agreed to. I felt like I'd done this to myself. I thought I had to suffer in silence. If I wanted to be with Grace, the sacrifice I would make was not opening my mouth about how uncomfortable I felt.
This relationship wasn’t healthy for me, obviously. But it wasn’t healthy for Grace, either. She was comfortable and happy in an open relationship, and she deserved to be with someone who would be equally as comfortable and happy. So I broke up with her on Valentine's Day. She'd come over with a handmade book, and in it, had listed everything she loved about me. After reading the first page, the flood gates burst open. I — sob — can't — sob — d-do this anymore, I cried. It didn’t matter that she had made me a lovey-dovey gift. It meant nothing in comparison to how sh*tty I felt all the time.
I had been gearing up to break off the relationship for awhile, but I hadn't planned to do it right then. The gift set me off. Reading how much she loved me made me feel even worse. It all felt so fake and I exploded.
I'd finally come to terms with the fact that I only wanted to be with one person who only wanted to be with me. I was sure of this now. I didn't judge Grace for wanting an open relationship, but it was finally clear to me: an open relationship just didn't suit me.
Dating Grace was a huge lesson in acknowledging and respecting my own personal boundaries.
After months of fighting the voice in my head, I'd learned that when you're not being honest with your partner about your boundaries, you're hurting both of you. Grace was (and is) an autonomous person who, like me, deserves to explore her sexuality and do what she wants. I shouldn't have stuck around to make both of us feel bad about that. Dating Grace was a huge lesson in acknowledging and respecting my own personal boundaries. I realized I'll no longer change myself and my comfort level for partners. Yes, her choices were completely valid and worthy of respect, but my voice mattered too.
Open relationships work for some people and I think it’s incredible. For me, I know now that I just don’t want to share the person I love with anyone. Thanks to Grace and our relationship, I learned that I deserve to honor who I am and what I want.
Maybe I'm a boring, monogamous lesbian. But I'm damn proud of it.
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