Now that we’ve had the story, it’s time to talk about some of the lessons I learned from the whole experience. Originally I was going to split this up into two parts like I did with the story. But somehow it just doesn’t make as much sense to do that with this part. So even though it’s long, I’m still going to include the whole text in one post.
To start I think it’s important to say that despite how disastrous the whole experience ultimately turned out to be, I essentially knew from the very get-go what I was getting into and what the risks were. In a previous post I discussed how things had developed between Max and me, and I talked about making a leap of faith into the relationship we had rekindled. As the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Not that I’m claiming anyone was maliciously fooling anyone else, but the sentiment that I should know what I’m getting myself into the second time around definitely applies. So while I may say that someone shouldn’t have done something or that I reacted in a situation based on what another person did, at the end of the day it was my decision to make that leap of faith; as such, the consequences of my experience are mine to bear.
What’s more, some of the things that happened shouldn’t have come as a surprise. And in fact, they aren’t all that surprising—at least in retrospect. In the moment several incidents confounded the hell out of me. In part because I thought we had dealt with some of the issues that reared their heads, and at other times because words and actions just seemed so disparate. Nevertheless, at it’s core it was more of a disappointment than a shock.
Let’s begin with the easy one: there’s no way I should have ever tried to be in a monogamous relationship—and I knew that. Particularly when I’m not having sex with anyone in that relationship. So why would I in my right mind opt for sexless monogamy in the face of staunch conviction in sexual openness?
One of the reasons is that this wasn’t just three people coming together, it was also the merging of two existing relationships: Max and my relationship, and Max and Aster’s relationship. And according to the parameters of their relationship, sexual monogamy was one of the most significant ways of showing dedication to the relationship. Both had said individually that they understood and to a varied extent shared my perspective, so I thought it was important to play by the rules first and then change them. I meant it as a show of good faith, but it was backward thinking.
It would have been backwards enough to cede non-monogamy if I were having sex with at least one of the two other people in the relationship. But doing so without a sex option in the relationship was just asking for trouble. It initially stressed me the fuck out, and that bled over into the relationship. Eventually I talked myself into believing I was cool with waiting – and for a time it worked – but all of the stress it caused was pointless.
One point I kept making was that in my opinion, compared to sexual fidelity, so many other factors were more enriching in terms of gauging the depth of a relationship. The important thing was being able to be myself, to come home and talk about any and all of my experiences, including sexual experiences with other people. Rather than just talking about it, I should have lived this point. Part of my reasoning behind non-monogamy is that it’s less stressful, yet instead of going with “Hey, look how relaxed it is here in non-monogamy land” I opted for “Look how stressed monogamy makes me.” It may have been a show of good faith on my part, but if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, this was definitely one of the cobblestones along the way.
I had had sexual ménages à trois before, but this was my first one with a significant emotional component. During one conversation Aster had mentioned that she had once been in a three-way relationship that was based on love, so of the three of us, she had the most experience. Since I had no idea how to do what we were doing, I unfairly expected her to be able to guide us. She later rescinded and said that her other three-way relationship had been all about sex and not love. As far as experience went, she was as green behind the ears as I was.
Since she was the one I thought had experience, I cast her in a role that she couldn’t fill. By the time I figured out that my expectations of her didn’t suit the person in front of me, the damage had already been done.
Initially she seemed like a really strong person, an individual. She had a sexy personality and was beautiful. I loved that she radiated a goodly nature with a streak of playful wickedness and a healthy helping of curiosity. It was the same genderless character that attracts me to many of the important people in my life. I fell for her hard.
And often I thought that the interest was shared. But over time I got the impression that it was primarily driven by a need to understand the relationship between Max and me. I don’t doubt that there was some genuine interest there to get to know me, but I think the main objective was more of a “know thy enemy” sort of thing. Not out of malevolence, it was simply more important to know me in order to better understand her man. Which would be fine except that in a three-way relationship I kinda hope getting to know me is fundamentally about getting to know me and not about getting to know another person through me.
As time progressed we seemed to butt heads more frequently, and it became clear that while our worldviews overlapped in some instances, there were also several areas where they were at odds. I should have thrown in the towel, but I wasn’t ready. I thought we could overcome our hurdles. Or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. So instead of backing off I doubled down. Insanity, really. And it only prolonged what was at that point inevitable. So why do it?
I guess the reason is two-fold. Firstly, I had fallen hard for Aster, and I didn’t want to have been wrong about that spark I had initially felt kindle inside me. I don’t fall for people very often, and to then have it fail so spectacularly was a hard pill to swallow. How things turned out between me and her broke my heart, and holding on a little longer meant I could pretend my heart wasn’t in pieces for just a little bit longer.
Secondly, I was afraid of losing my bro; our connection was important to me. Yet within the three-way relationship – where arguably my concerns should be given equal weight as everyone else’s – I felt like my concerns increasingly didn’t matter, were relegated to “let’s see how Aster copes with it”. In short, it felt like a repeat of our previous situation a few years prior. My logic was that if everything about our connection was subject to Aster’s approval in a relationship where all three of us were on the same playing field, there was no way we would be able to work out our issues when we weren’t on the same playing field. Which is pretty much how things went.
It hurt that someone who once cherished our openness couldn’t talk to me about his life. It hurt that one by one every aspect of our relationship was cut—according to him not because he didn’t want that with me, but because Aster couldn’t understand it. It hurt being told quite literally that I was expendable. I simply couldn’t fathom how this person who had shared so much with me could be telling me that I was disposable.
So of course when he told me the next day that he hadn’t meant it, I jumped at the chance to believe it, to embrace it as if the night before had never happened. It’s why I dared to believe the promises that this time we would figure it out. The blind optimist was driving when the pragmatic realist should have been behind the wheel.
It was also too easy to believe that this all came down to Aster’s inability to deal with the connection between Max and me, to take “Aster doesn’t understand it” at face value. But I should have been reading between the lines. What he was really telling me was that he couldn’t cope, that he didn’t want it. Here I was expecting him to fight for us, and he was trying to convey his disinterest in doing just that. I wish I had seen that a lot sooner.
It’s interesting because at some point one of the things Aster said to me was that she didn’t think Max would defend her in a situation where someone was threatening her physically, and that bothered her because that was the sort of man she wanted. I responded that while it was true that he wasn’t really the type of guy to jump into a fight, that was part of who he was, and if she or I were willing to fight in such a situation, then he wouldn’t need to. But I wonder, is her disappointment that he wouldn’t stand up for her physically any different from my disappointment that he wouldn’t stand up for me emotionally? And is my disappointment not equally the result of blindness to Max’s non-confrontational attitude?
In my defense, I’ll say that I was basing my expectations on how Max and I interact when he didn’t have a girlfriend, when he would stand up for us. I already had experience regarding how he acts when he has a girlfriend, but I still failed to adjust my expectations accordingly. I couldn’t wrap my head around the disparity between standing up for our connection when he’s single – which would imply an ability to do so – and not being able to stand up for it or even communicate with me when he’s not single.
But honestly, whether or not I understood it should have been irrelevant. I refused to accept that that’s just how he is and once again continued to try to figure things out when I should have thrown in the towel. It really got me nowhere trying to get him to meet an expectation I thought he was cable of meeting for a criterion – the ability to stand up for something – I deem important.
And that really is a key criterion in my book. If someone is important to me, I’ll stand up for what we have, no matter who the person against it is. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
Ten years ago my dad and my step-mom Sabine were going through a divorce. I met her the summer before I took off for university, and over the years we had developed a bond. Sabine wasn’t just the person married to my dad, she was a close friend, completely independently of her relationship with my dad. So when they decided to get divorced and my dad spent hours on the phone talking to me about it, I made it clear that while I supported him, I also supported her and wouldn’t be cutting off my relationship with her for him, which he had requested. He seemed to understand my perspective and left it at that, and over the next few months I continued to be a shoulder and an open ear for him.
I had booked a flight to visit him over the Thanksgiving holiday, and my intention was to see my step-mom as well as my mom while I was there. But the storm started brewing a few days before I was to fly to California. My dad once again asked me to refrain from seeing Sabine, and I reiterated my stance. He told me that he would like me to give him my final answer the following day.
When he called, my final answer was the same as it had always been. For three days we repeated this cycle, him telling me to give him my final answer the next day, me standing my ground. Finally he frustrated me to the point where I called my grandma – his mom, with whom he wasn’t speaking because of her continued relationship with Sabine – to discuss how she saw things. Then I called Sabine and talked to her about everything, and we decided that since she and I had recently seen each other in Germany and I hadn’t see my dad in a couple years, maybe it would be best if we acquiesced to his demands and didn’t see each other this trip. It bothered the fuck out of me that we had to accommodate his asinine request. It was something he had absolutely no right to ask. Still, I called him that evening and gave him the answer he wanted. And then I boarded a plane.
The mood was tense when he picked me up at the airport. I had nothing nice to say, so I seethed in silence. After a while we got into it and I told him how bogus I thought it was that he felt he could dictate the terms of my relationship with another person based on his relationship with that person, that doing so didn’t at all take into account the actual relationship that Sabine and I had with each other. We stopped before our words became acrimonious, but nothing had been settled.
It didn’t get any better later when Sabine came over to drop off my little sister and I could only wave from behind the living room window. So close, and yet so unnecessarily far.
Later that night my dad, my sister and I went to dinner in the home of one of my dad’s friends. Afterward we got into in the car again, and I had the distinct impression that if my then six-year-old sister hadn’t been in the car, he might have struck me. Instead, he told me that if that’s how I felt, I could pick up my shit and get out of his house. By then, I was only too happy to oblige.
My relationship with my soon-to-be-ex-step-mom – which some would deem less important than my relationship with my dad purely because I sprang from his loins – cost me my relationship with my dad, but it was the right choice. He had no authority to tell me with whom I can and cannot be friends. He could have simply accepted it while not liking it. Instead he gave me a “me or her” ultimatum, forced me to make a choice I never should have had to make.
Had the roles been reversed – if Sabine had tried to tell me I shouldn’t have a relationship with my dad – I would have stayed loyal to my dad. Ideally, I should have been allowed to stay loyal to both. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice one relationship to satisfy another.
For me, loyalty is connected with trust. I could trust that Sabine had my back because she also stood up for our relationship against my dad. If she had been like “well, it’s cool, I won’t see him if you feel that’s best”, then I wouldn’t have trusted her enough to let her into my inner sanctum. My dad lost that trust when he decided he was a better arbiter of the people I let in than I am.
And this doesn’t just play out in such “pick one of us” situations. For example, I’ve heard from some people who were diagnosed with cancer that the moment they found out marked when they knew who their real friends were because the others stopped calling. The ones who stuck around, the ones who were loyal to their friend despite the horrible turn of events are the ones you know you can rely on.
This works internally in a relationship as well. About a year ago I had a big argument with one of my closest friends. We had known each other for years at that point, but it was the first time we had ever had a serious dispute. We ended the conversation pissed off as fuck at each other. But we agreed to come back to it the next day and work it out.
I would have been hurt if he had decided not to even try to work it out. But since we not only tried but succeeded, my trust and loyalty increased because he’s not just a fair-weather friend; I now have first-hand experience of riding through the rough times with him, of it being worth it to both of us to find our common ground.
The question is, when do the rough times become too much, at what point does that loyalty to a relationship teeter across the line into blind devotion to the illusion of a relationship? I admit, this question is difficult for me to answer.
In Max’s case, what in my opinion could have been a small rough patch stretched into a rough loop around the sun. And yet for a long time I persisted in the belief that the wall of silence I kept crashing into would come down and that we would finally figure things out. Such affectionate loyalty coupled with such a protracted absence of justification for it. But since it was my decision to hope against hope for a resolution, all the pain in that period was self-inflicted. I’m not a masochist, so why put myself through it?
It would be easy to say it was because Max kept telling me we’d get to it soon, he just had to take care of this or that first. Yet while it’s true that he did keep saying that, I had heard it often enough to know it wasn’t actually going to happen. I should have insisted on setting a time when we could resolve everything. But you can’t insist on something without consequences in the event of non-compliance; otherwise it’s just a request, and requests had gotten me nowhere. So it becomes an ultimatum: work together to figure this out, or I’m done trying.
I have a hard time with ultimatums because they’re so final. And quite frankly, coming back from an ultimatum is a struggle for me. Let’s take my mom, for example.
Before I came out as non-hetero – back in my good-Mormon-boy days – my mom and I were extremely close, but that closeness shattered when I told her, and it never recovered. But I loved her, so for the longest time I tried. Yet no matter what we talked about, it always came back to me needing to consult people in the church and work this shit out of my system. I could be telling her about having a picnic in the park with friends and she would want to know why I was still doing this gay thing, and bawling her eyes out in the process.
It hurt me to hear her question my character, it hurt me that I was hurting her. But I also couldn’t stand calling just to get the same earful as the last call, couldn’t stand how miserable it made me feel. Still, I kept it up for as long as possible because I hoped relentlessly that she would find a way to accept me so we could be close again. So finally I told her that it had to stop or I couldn’t call and try to share my life with her.
I still called occasionally for birthdays and holidays, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to share more than the most basic information about what was going on in my life. She had broken my trust by rejecting me as the person I am, so I withdrew my loyalty to our relationship. In finally admitting that I had let myself feel bad for too long, I drew a line in the sand, and unless she agreed to my terms, I wouldn’t allow myself or her to cross it.
And I think this was a good decision. My overly optimistic desire for her to reconcile her religious beliefs with the person I was – or at least to accept that she couldn’t talk me out of being the person I was – was harmful, and extricating myself from the situation was a healthy thing to do. But what about after time has passed?
At this point it’s been more than 15 years since I came out to my mom. She’s told me several times that she misses our conversations, but I still have no clue how to let her in. I’ve long since forgiven her, but I can’t forget.
Of course, one factor is that when we do start to venture into less superficial territory, she’ll still bring up my sexuality and my leaving the church. And when it comes time to share, I can’t seem to get past that. I can’t separate enough “safe” topics from the fabric of my life, and tepidly dipping my toe in the water occasionally reveals the same issue between us. I remember how much it hurt to let her in so far only to have this thing come between us, so if that wedge is still there in the form of her attempts to get me back in the church and straight, why open myself up to the pain?
I would be open to the idea if she were to ask something as banal as “do you have a boyfriend?”, for example. Some indication that she could accept the line I drew all those years ago. It could even be something to the effect of accepting it but not liking it and leaving it at that. But without that happening, if all signs point to her still refusing to come to terms with my sexuality and the fate her religious beliefs would have befall me, I can’t let myself open up.
Just as she is repeating the cycle each time she questions my sexuality, so too would I repeat the cycle by hoping we could work past it and talk to each other for real again. That cycle wasn’t healthy for me then, it wouldn’t be now, and I can’t imagine that it ever will be in the future. I broke the cycle by putting down an ultimatum and standing my ground. Having made the ultimatum, I have to stand by it for as long as the reasons for making it persist.
This demonstrates a level of rigid inflexibility on my part, and it contrasts starkly with the flaccidity I exhibit in the hoping-against-hope phase, which is in turn very different from the malleability I otherwise evince. Malleable is how I try to live my life, but like everyone I have places where I’m unbending. Flaccid is what I become when I don’t stand up for myself at a time when I should, and like I said, all of the pain I feel in that phase is because of my own obstinance to see the writing on the wall.
Loyalty to someone for a shared past is one thing, as is optimism that a conflict can be resolved. But I need to get a lot better at recognizing when no understanding is possible, when the closeness of the past is meaningless in the face of current expanses. It might not change the outcome of losing the intimacy with someone, but it would skip over the hoping-against-hope phase, which would save me a world of pain. It would also cancel out the secondary function of that pain.
I’ve often said that I go through that period of trying to find resolution even when my efforts don’t yield results because in the end I’m glad that I at least gave it my all and tried my hardest. And I think that’s true to an extent. But I think I also use it to build up additional defenses against the person.
Standing up and saying this line cannot be crossed, of saying this has to stop or I’m gone, means putting up walls to keep people we were close to out. But if the conflict between two people is represented by the walls we put up in defense, then the pain caused by dragging out the inevitable are the barb wire-filled and land mine-bespeckled trenches I inflicted on vast swaths of the countryside surrounding my walls. It’s as if during the construction of the walls I say, “well, if we’re not letting you in, then we need to be impregnable.” The walls are fine, but the trenches really are overkill.
The question is, without the trenches, if I were to call it quits before that pain was inflicted, would it be possible for someone to get past the walls again? Is it right for me to make it so impossible for a person to even make a try at the walls?
Let’s take my mom again. Instead of dragging things out because of vain hope and hurting even more in the process, what if I had just made my ultimatum pretty quickly after it became clear that I saw no way around our impasse? Would it have made it easier for me to remove sections of the wall for her later?
If she can’t even get close to the walls because of the trenches, then a simple question like “do you have a boyfriend” might not be such a simple question after all. The way is just as fraught with pain for her, and not having the trenches might have made it easier for her to ask, to give me the sort of sign I needed. That being said, now that I’m older and have filled in the trenches, now that she can at least get close enough to know that I would hear through the walls, I still have yet to feel like she’s interested in accepting all of me.
The inflexibility in certain aspects of my life and standing up for those aspects is totally fine—we all have aspects of who we are that we can’t change, and protecting them is vital. What I need to eliminate is the hurt I do to myself. And to do that I need to get much better at knowing when hope is legitimate and when I need to face the music and cut my losses.
Being better at this would have saved me a lot of heartache in Max’s case as well. Again, I don’t think it was wrong for me to put up the walls after my attempts to get him to talk. But those attempts went on too long and I once again took the pain of losing my best friend and augmented it with unnecessary self-inflicted wounds. The former was enough to confront without the added complication of the latter. Hopefully the lesson will stick and the next time I’m in such a situation I’ll be better at deciphering when things shift from justifiable hope to self-deception.
But I also see ways in which I’ve improved compared to how I was 5, 10, 15 years ago. One thing that’s always been a struggle for me is letting people I’m close to see me when I’m down. A large part of this was my fear of my own emotions and the disquiet the idea of sharing them with others caused me. But as I’ve grown and accepted that the whole gamut of emotions is an integral part of the human experience, I’ve also shed the fear of opening up to others, and that was a big victory for me throughout this whole experience. There’s still room for improvement – I was much better at it, but still not superb – but the process is ongoing and I’m pleased by the progress I’ve made along the way.
I’m also glad I didn’t pull away from circles of friends that Max and I both run in. Pulling away would have imparted on them a sort of guilt by association, and that’s not the right way to handle things. One example of another time this was an issue was when I left the Mormon Church. There were so many people I was close to, many of whom didn’t have a problem with my sexuality. In fact amongst my circle of friends, there were really only one or two hostile youth amongst us who had a problem with me. The rest might not have all agreed with it, but they at least accepted it.
Yet despite their acceptance, I pulled away from the group—not to stay away from the ones who didn’t care, but to avoid the ones I didn’t want to see. I gave up good friends – I was disloyal to people who cared about me and whom I cared about – all because I was too weak to deal with a couple of people in the group who I didn’t get along with.
And it’s not like I’ve never been in group situations in which I don’t quite hit it off with someone or they rub me the wrong way. The difference was the couple of people in the Mormon group had previously been really good friends. When it’s people I don’t know or barely know whom I don’t particularly care for, I’m polite but distant. With the two in the Mormon group I was distant, but the distance made me uncomfortable. And that discomfort made my politeness more like disinterest.
The thing is, the discomfort would have eventually worn off and I would have adjusted to the new situation; I could have hung out with the ones I still got along with and it wouldn’t have mattered that the two I couldn’t talk to were still around. But I didn’t give myself a chance to acclimate, and so I distanced myself from the whole group.
This time around, I made a conscious effort to not pull away from the group just because the distance between Max and me made me uncomfortable. It was difficult, obviously. But these were people I had come to know over years, and sticking to it was worth the temporary unpleasantness of adapting to the new situation between me and Max.
And of course there were awkward moments along the way – where politeness manifested as something more akin to disinterest – but after a while it stopped feeling weird not being able to share a laugh or occasionally catching each other’s eye with a smile. The uncomfortableness faded and I got on with enjoying spending time with my friends. It wasn’t as easy in the short term as simply walking away from the group would have been, but the difficulty was worth the effort.
One thing that has become very apparent is that when it comes to conflict resolution, I need the solution to involve the voice of both or all parties involved. Obviously there will always be things that each individual needs to confront on their own as each person continuously discovers more about themselves over the course of life. But if there are problems in a relationship, they’re created between more than one person; as such, for me the solution must entail discussions where everyone involved can enunciate their perspective, can better understand where the others are coming from. Over the long term the solution can’t be “go figure it out on your own and then we can have some fun again.” I could and should – and to the best of my ability do – figure my own shit out. But those are my problems. Our problems mean figuring out how we fit together, and that’s not something I can do on my own.
That’s not to say it’s wrong to be the sort of person who prefers the non-communicative approach, who can put things in a box and not think about them for months before finally getting around to dealing with them. Hell, for a long time I thought I was one of those people. But over time I’ve learned that while some people are naturally suited to such a disposition, I am not.
And in truth, whether the non-communication is part of your personality or if you are just afraid of what you would communicate – which was the case with me back then – doesn’t really make a big difference. At the end of the day, both scenarios result in a lack of communication, and no matter how much I want it to be otherwise, sometimes that’s just how it is. Recognizing this sooner won’t keep me from needing to hash things out or wanting to understand why things happened, but it will keep me from unnecessarily drawing out the final curtain.
I think it is good that I’m reserved with people I don’t know, and I think it’s fantastic that I’ve stopped hiding behind fear and open up to people I trust and let in. I need to improve in terms of damage control when things end. And I also need to work on making sure the distance that ensues does not creep over into giving someone the cold shoulder.
I also acknowledge that ultimately, I would rather occasionally get hurt than go back to hiding behind the fear that allowed me to keep out even the people I trusted. Having let someone in, my tendency will probably always be to try longer than I should in the event that things come to an impasse. I don’t want to completely reverse that tendency; I just need to get better at knowing when it’s time to pull the ripcord and land safely on my own.
Things may not have turned out how I would have hoped, but the entire experience was at the very least instructive and insightful. It gave me a chance to think about lots of other things that have transpired throughout my life, to appreciate the growth and the pitfalls along the way. Over time I’m sure I’ll draw even more lessons from the experience, and I hope I’m able to apply them in similar future situations. In the meantime, I’m still a work in progress – and will be until the day I die – but I’m glad to have been able to take another step toward understanding the threads that weave the fabric of my life.