What polyamory and one year of marriage taught me about love
By Clara How, Jun 06, 2019
There are two parts to Avi’s journey – both starkly different, but both equally important. In her mid-twenties, she experienced her mother’s passing from cancer, and the breakdown of a marriage that lasted a year. In the process of dating post-split, she met a polyamorist (someone who has consensual relationships with more than one partner) who would broaden her perspectives on what it means to love, show respect to a partner, and communicate her needs and wants.
She has asked to remain anonymous out of respect for her ex-husband, who may be identifiable with her real name, but has sketched some portraits of herself and the two men in this story.
Avi is currently single and not dating, but she believes these experiences made her understand what it means to love, and be loved.
My name is Avi, and I’m a freelance artist. I met my husband, L, at a flea market when I was still a polytechnic student, and he was a visiting designer from Russia. He liked my work and asked for my name card. We ended up working on some collaborations together, before losing touch.
When I graduated, I emailed all my clients to let them know that I was available for work. L was one of these people, and we reconnected. It was a year of talking (and catching feels) before we decided to be in a relationship. I was 23, and he was 25.
It was very much a “see how it goes” long-distance relationship that lasted a year and a half. I really respected him because of his work, and how passionate he was about design. We would fly to visit each other, and stay for a couple of months each time. By and large, I was very happy with him. It was a very romantic long-distance relationship, and because real life never got in the way, we didn’t face any issues. I’m free-spirited, and this kind of bohemian romance suited me.
Everything changed when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I told him that if the relationship were to continue, it would have to mean flying back and forth for short stints. I can’t leave the country for long periods of time, I said. So after graduating from his Master’s, he decided to come to Singapore on a work visa and be with me.
That being said, I wasn’t ready to get married, even after he lived with my family for a year. It was my relatives who were broaching the topic, thinking that an auspicious event would help reduce the bad luck for my mum. It was annoying, and I complained to L about how they were harping on it.
Unfortunately he took that as a hint that I wanted to get married. When he proposed to me at a fancy restaurant, I was completely blindsided.
My first feeling wasn’t excitement or happiness; it was nausea. While the relationship was good, I never wanted or thought about getting married. I didn’t want kids, nor did I want to deal with the legalities that a marriage entailed.
But in the end, I caved to the pressure and said yes. I figured since we had been living together for some time, we might as well take that next step. It was also partly down to guilt. Before he came to Singapore for me, he was a freelance designer and loved it, but he had to give up that freedom for a full-time job and a work visa to be here with me. I figured that if we got married and he didn’t have to depend on the visa, he could have that ability to freelance again.
So we got hitched with an intimate ROM dinner for my immediate family and a couple of friends, and eventually did a bigger dinner party for relatives and L’s work colleagues.
It only took three months before things started to go downhill. After we got married, my mum’s health started deteriorating quite quickly. It put a strain on the relationship because I was one of her caretakers and I was constantly stressed. I was also very worried about L, because he had left his full-time job and was starting his own business. I was the one who was financially responsible for keeping us afloat.
I became depressed, and there were many days where I didn’t want to get out of bed. L did his best to look after me; he would buy me food, and try to coax me out of bed. Unfortunately, the things that he thought would make me happy was not what I needed. Because he was doing multiple projects and time was tight, he would buy me presents to show he was thinking of me. But that’s not my love language – what I wanted was quality time, and he didn’t give that to me.
Our caregiving was very mismatched. We tried to speak about feelings, but I’ve never been good at talking about my emotions.
I’m a very straightforward person, it’s possible that he felt the way I phrased my words sounded like direct criticisms or attacks.
Eventually, he fell into depression as well, but he tried his best to hide it from me. It was the burden of his finances plus being constantly around someone who was upset (me) that took its toll. He was the only one who saw the true depth of my depression, and he also had concerns about my mother, who was stubbornly resisting chemotherapy. There were a lot of emotions flying around, and he didn’t know how to cope. Looking back in hindsight, I pity him.
As cold as it sounds, when my mum passed away, I thought I would feel more relieved considering that it was such a huge emotional toll on the whole family. It was incredibly hard to watch her suffer. But there was still this heavy burden on my shoulders, and I wondered, why am I still feeling like this? Why do I still feel like I’m not free?
I started to think that maybe I needed to be free of my husband to truly feel relieved. And I believe he felt the same way.
The turning point was my mum’s funeral. It’s expected for all family members to be there for the week of a traditional Chinese funeral, but for him as an expat, he didn’t understand the concept of needing to be physically present, even if there’s nothing to do.
I asked him if he could at least turn up for the Buddhist chants, but inside I was furious. I thought: “I’m your wife, can’t you extend some respect and courtesy and just be there for the five days?”
He asked if he could quickly attend an exhibition, and cab straight from the venue to the funeral – but he asked if I could pay for the cab. At that point in time, everything he earned was invested back into his personal business and I was paying for the expenses.
This was what kick-started our fight. I mean, your wife is at her mother’s funeral, and you want to go to an exhibition? On top of this, you expect ME to pay for YOUR taxi fare? It was the final straw and I told him that I could no longer do this.
Neither of us fought to save our marriage – we were both so stressed out that we wanted it to be gone. This marriage was a terrible nightmare, that could hopefully be resolved by a lawyer. So after this one year together, we started to take steps to annul the marriage.
This whole experience made me have a lot more compassion for others. After my mum passed, I started watching a lot of Buddhist videos about love and compassion. My mum turned to Buddhism after she was diagnosed with cancer, and while I myself am not Buddhist, it did have some influence on me. One of the things the videos talked about was to have a universal love, which meant that no matter what the other person did, you would still love them. I started to understand what that kind of love meant.
After we agreed to part ways, I didn’t immediately move back home because I was still in a very bad headspace and I didn’t want my dad to see me that way. One night in that transition period, he got drunk and told me, “I hate your mum, I hate your dad.”
Instead of feeling angry, I felt compassion. Because I knew that he was saying these things because he was hurting, and he was lashing out by wanting to hurt me. I realised, maybe this is what universal love means, to recognise suffering, but not take it personally.
Before this, I wasn’t a sympathetic person. I used to laugh at women who would get cheated of their money, or think they were stupid. Throughout my marriage and its breakdown, my ego got taken down a lot. I learnt more about humility and letting go in my one year of being married than I did my entire life before that.
The decision to end the marriage gave me the relief I was hoping for. There was a period of time when I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision, or thought maybe I should have tried harder since the marriage was so short. I was afraid of breaking my dad's heart again, because I know his heart was broken when my mum died.
I know it sounds silly, but I went to see a fortune teller. He told me that my ex and I were not meant to be together, and suddenly, I felt that the lump in my throat was gone. Maybe I just needed confirmation from someone else that it wasn’t my fault that the marriage failed, and it was just fate.
After seeing that fortune teller, I ate half a table’s worth of food. I hadn’t been eating before that, because I felt so weighed down. I had been living with the stress for so long that I had normalised it. I had forgotten what it was like to feel like myself.
People have always asked if I would undo my marriage if I could. But if I didn’t go through what I did, I wouldn’t have learnt that love is such a double-edged sword. You can love, but love also hurts.
I learnt from my ex that when you love someone, you do things you don’t want to do, just for the other person. Because that’s what he did - even when things got dark, he tried to pretend to be happy, so I would feel less crap about myself. It didn’t work out between us, but I know that he tried.
I don’t have hard feelings towards him, but for now I prefer not to keep in contact.
I took a year out to work on myself before opening myself up to dating again. I’m a pretty open person, so I was up for meeting people who sounded interesting. I wound up meeting Q on a dating app.
He was a really upbeat, stand-up guy. I was drawn to how intelligent and curious he was about the world, especially about people and human nature. He’s still one of the most altruistic people I’ve met, and very passionate about trying to make the world a better place.
Right from the start, Q was open about being a polyamorist. He had a primary female partner in the United States, but he also had other partners, both male and female. What I liked about him was that he laid everything out on the table. He said, “We can be friends, be friends with benefits, or take it a step further and try having a relationship.” With him, there was no second-guessing, and he was very good at communicating his thoughts.
Q was a fun guy, and was also very practical and rational. He had been polyamorous for a while, and knew what he was doing and how to establish boundaries. I liked him a lot as a person, and we had a good time together, but I was never very invested in what we were. I would say that we were between the ‘friends with benefits’ and ‘relationship’ stages where we would date casually and travel together, but it never went further than that.
One reason why I decided to try dating someone who was polyamorous was because I felt like I had an inability to trust. Towards the final months of our marriage, I suspected that L was starting to have feelings for another woman. It was never confirmed, but I do know that they got together after we split. So post-annulment, my perspective was that if my partner was going to see other people, I might as well know from the start.
My understanding of polyamory is that it’s about having multiple loves. The people who practice polyamory believe that love is an infinite thing that can be freely given - it’s not a single cup of water that runs dry, it’s like a well that overflows. But of course, jealousy is a common thing and we’re all human.
Q tried to navigate that by constantly supporting me, and asking me if I wanted to talk. He was able to arrest potential problems at an early stage, before they built up and became resentment. This was something I appreciated, because it was lacking in my marriage with L, where we both could not verbalise our issues.
The reason why I wasn’t bothered that he was seeing other people was partly down to me not being really invested, but also because he was so good at making sure my decisions were respected. We might not be in a committed monogamous relationship, but I did like him and there was real emotional intimacy in the sense that we were both very honest with our feelings and emotions. Also, the sex was great because he had a lot of experience 😉.
I’m also a curious person who asks a lot of questions (whether I’m in a monogamous relationship or not), and it doesn’t bother me if my partner speaks about his previous partners. In this case, Q would share details of his other relationships or sex life if I asked. I know that not everyone feels the same way, but I don’t tend to compare myself to exes or get jealous about them, because I truly believe that everyone’s experiences make them who they are.
That being said, this openness comes down to what you’re comfortable with - I wouldn’t say it’s a polyamory specific thing. If you’re not comfortable knowing so much about his history, then establishing some boundaries would definitely be a healthy thing.
This honesty between us was important because it made me feel like I had agency, and nothing was done behind my back. Once, he asked me if I was cool with him meeting his ex-boyfriend and possibly hooking up. I told him to give me time to process this information, and I decided that it was okay as long as he used protection.
I knew that communication was a problem for me, so dating Q really showed me that it was possible to share my boundaries and comfort zones in a way that would be receptive to other person.
I remember the first time we cuddled: we were on the couch, and he said, “Okay, we should learn to cuddle.” I was confused – what was there to learn? He put his hand on me and said, “Is this okay? If we progress and if I hug you, if you’re not okay then I will let go.” In that same vein, I also needed to ask him if what I wanted to do was okay with him. I thought,
whoa, this guy is woke. I felt like I could trust him.
Another time, I asked: “If I were to say that I wasn’t ready for sex in the middle of making out, would you feel like I’m leading you on?”
He replied: “All I want from you is enthusiastic consent. And if we don’t have that, then we are not going to carry on.” I realised how important it was to establish boundaries, communicate them, and respect them.
Q is in a civil union (a legally recognised partnership that isn’t a marriage) with his primary partner – a person whose relationship takes precedence over others. He introduced her to me over Skype. Her partner was also present, and the four of us ended up chatting. Other than her, I’ve met another of Q’s exes when we travelled to the United Kingdom, and I thought she was a lovely, empathetic person.
I didn’t think it was weird, because everyone was so chill and they didn’t make it out to be a big thing. Prior to meeting Q, I met another guy on an app who was claimed to be polyamorous, but he didn’t feel genuine. It felt like he was trying to get back at his wife, so I didn’t see him again. The situation with Q on the other hand, was much more open.
I remember an incident where one of Q’s partners had crossed a boundary, and it left him feeling quite emotional. He tried to talk to me about it, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to help him. So he Skyped his primary partner, and because I was in the vicinity, I heard the way they communicated and thought it was amazing. She was so good at helping him process what he was feeling.
For me, whenever someone is upset I go into the mode of, “How can I help you solve this, here’s what you can do”. But she was addressing his emotions rather than the situation.
She said things like “I understand why you feel this way, and I’m sorry. I wish I could be there to hold you and help you.” It was very nurturing, and eye-opening for me because I tend to be very awkward in such situations.
Things with Q ran their natural course: I always knew that he had to return to the States eventually, and we parted on good terms after six months of dating. We occasionally keep in touch, but not often. After experiencing a long distance relationship with L before we got married, I didn’t want to return to that again.
While it was a good experience, I don’t think polyamory is for me. I saw all the effort Q took in scheduling his calendar and making time for all his partners, and I just don’t have the energy to do all of that. Polyamory does take a lot of work, and ideally everyone needs to be on the same page about understanding what each partner needs and wants, which isn’t easy to come by.
It’s been three years since I dated Q, but I remember what he taught me about maintaining an open channel of communication with people, whether you’re dating them or not. I haven’t dated anyone seriously since him, but I know that the way I connect with my friends and family has changed. I’m better at explaining what my boundaries are, and putting in the effort to keep in touch.
In the past, I would never talk about feelings, or ask how my friends are. I’d just assume that everything was fine. Now I check in with them, and give them that space to talk about their problems.
I’m still iffy at the idea of getting married again. It’s not that I don’t want to find someone, it’s just that I think the commitment and making the decision to choose each other everyday is more important than having a legal paper.
I think my future partner, whoever he may be, would be someone who has self-awareness and is able to reflect on his past, and work to resolve hang-ups and baggage. And I’ll also work on being better at communicating my feelings upfront instead of waiting for things to snowball, like what happened with L.
Ultimately, I believe that if two people are happy in themselves and on their own, when they come together, their happiness will be magnified. And that’s what I’m working towards.
Drawings provided by Avi.