The open relationship that turned my love life around.
When I registered my profile on an internet dating site, I certainly wasn’t looking for an open relationship. I didn’t have more than a vague sense of what that meant. But I did have very recent experience of the more traditional model of non-monogamy: cheating.
With my thirties, I seemed to reach an age when all the men interested in me were cheating on their partners. They were the ones who pursued the hardest too, insured by the ego safety net of their special someone at home. They acted as if they had nothing to lose when, in fact, they had the most to lose.
There was the married client who engineered meetings I couldn’t get out of in order to spend time with me, turning them into lunch and dinner outings. The father of a 2-year old, he only became more obsessed the more I resisted him. Then there was the married brother of an old school friend who would message me all the time with the cheesy chat-up lines he used on all the other women he pursued. At first I thought we meet might up as friends, until he began talking about the hotel room he’d book.
And then came Carl*, the one I was unable to resist.
I’d moved to Madrid, Spain, a few months earlier, and immediately met Carl through a networking forum. I arrived barely knowing anyone, with very little Spanish, and I had gotten into a weird situation in a shared apartment after it was robbed twice in two weeks. The landlady accused me of masterminding the robberies, moved everyone else out, and then refused to give me my deposit or that month’s rent back. Carl offered a place to stay while I looked for a new room.
Carl’s girlfriend had just moved to another country and it sounded, from what he told me, as if their relationship was over in every real sense. I was drawn to him but I would never have gotten involved if he hadn’t pursued so hard. I honestly thought they would split up and that not pushing him to call and tell her would give him space to make a difficult decision.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, he left Madrid and he left me. Turns out his move had been planned all along. I’d just been a salve for his ego and a minor bump in the continuity of their relationship.
Suddenly lonely, I knew I needed a network of local friends, the people I should have been meeting while I was spending all my time falling for a guy that wasn’t available.
Internet dating seemed like the ideal way to meet people and looked like just the distraction I needed. The messages pinging into my OK Cupid inbox made me forget for a while. It was affirmation, entertainment, potential. Carl was still very much in touch, promising to visit, even hinting that he wanted me to go and visit him. I couldn’t manage to break free, still reading hope into the messages he sent. At least now not every ping of my phone was from him.
When Juan* sent me a message through the site, his eloquent profile and dashing photo caught my attention. I was intrigued until I read that he was in an open relationship, with the full knowledge of his long-time girlfriend, who was also on the site. I appreciated the full disclosure, but replied that I wasn’t interested in getting involved with another guy who had a girlfriend. I wished him luck, acknowledging that he probably didn’t need it as he seemed to have everything he needed.
He replied that there was a difference between needs and wants. The distinction struck me as interesting because: What did I want? I wanted Carl but that ugly situation wasn’t what I needed at all.
Juan and I had a couple of friendly exchanges. That would have been it, except I found myself thinking he was, by far, the most interesting person I had met online. It only took a few days before I wrote to him again to express my curiosity. I pictured a sophisticated, slightly debauched, John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons type.
We met up for a mildly awkward, early evening drink. It was only when we discovered we had a mutual friend that I unstiffened. Then we chatted easily about books, photography, and relationships, topics we developed further in a series of email exchanges.
I asked a lot of questions about how this kind of relationship worked. He’d been non-monogamous for five years at his girlfriend’s instigation and credited it with transforming him from a clueless guy with self-esteem issues into a confident one. Over the course of two weeks of emailing and one more date, I went from intrigued to attracted. He picked the exact kind of places I enjoyed and gave more than a couple of signs of just how well he knew what women liked.
And, as hard as it might be to believe, there was nothing sleazy about any of it. His guiding principles were to establish expectations and to communicate openly and honestly. It was a direct contrast to Carl, who had lied every step of the way.
Lots of things appealed to me about Juan, but one of them was I felt he would help me understand Carl. Did Carl just need to be in an open relationship? Would those be terms I could handle?
I ended up dating Juan for a year and a half, and he made me feel amazing, full of confidence and belief in myself. It was the single most positive relationship experience I’ve ever had. We met once, sometimes twice, a week—less if I felt like it was too much or if he was busy. Strange as it may seem, someone who’s dating other people doesn’t make you feel like less of a priority if they make sure you have firm plans together and never break them.
By then, I had made more friends in Madrid and, not putting all my social energies into one guy, had time to see them and form the friendships that would make the city feel like home. Juan became friend, confidant, lover – the person I called if I was happy or upset – and we messaged each other constantly. He would listen if I wanted to talk about Carl and, though he sometimes struggled to cover his anger at the way Carl was stringing me along, there was no jealousy.
This time, my expectations perfectly matched the experience I was getting. But no one believed I was really happy. Friends insisted I was scared of commitment, being used by Juan, or just lying to myself about how amazing I felt. I actually understood their response: Before Juan, I would never have believed how much good an open relationship would do me. Juan helped move my apartment, fixed my computer, championed me in everything I did career-wise, and shared fantastic insight into men and relationships. Juan’s honest approach meant I enjoyed it for what it was, a secondary relationship that was nevertheless treated with full respect.
Which brings me back to Carl. I saw him when he visited Madrid on a work trip a few months after I met Juan. The intensity had fizzled for me. I had lost respect for him and, with that, the rest of my feelings waned, starting with attraction. After being with someone whose main appeal lay in the honorable principles he lived by and demonstrated every time I was with him, Carl just seemed weak. I was able to shake the bad habit he had become once and for all, even when he moved back to Madrid—single.
In the end, what all my friends had insisted could never happen while I was “wasting my time” with Juan happened: I met my long-term partner, and now we have two children together. I know who I have to thank for that. Juan gave me a stable foundation to be completely happy “single,” helped build my confidence, and changed my beliefs about how I should be treated by a man.
*Names have been changed.
Nicola Prentis is an ESL teacher and widely published writer on the topics of relationships and motherhood. Follow her @NicolePrentis.