Natalie Vartanian on sex agreements, polyamory, and sobbing her face off.
I recently had the most intense cry of my life and my partner was on the other end of the line the whole time.
I almost didn’t talk to him either because I was so hurt by something he had done. My first reaction was to push away from him and shut him out, which I thought of doing, multiple times. A small part of me wanted to punish him for the pain I was feeling.
I even had fantasies of breaking up with him so I wouldn’t have to deal with this any longer.
But I knew that would only make things way worse. First of all, it would postpone the inevitable and secondly, it would have me feeling even more disconnected from him than I already was. Somewhat hesitantly, I accepted his offer to chat, which he suggested after I mentioned needing to cry.
What I did not expect to happen was him so patiently and lovingly holding the space for me to feel whatever the fuck was coming up for me, for however long I needed to feel them.
Before I get to what brought us to that moment and how we worked through it, I need to give you a little background into my previous relationships. This part right here is just as hard for me to share as the story of what brought on my sob fest, because there is a fear of being judged for my choices. Yet tackling this shame is exactly why I NEED to put a voice to it.
I have been in open relationships for as long as I’ve been in relationships.
Didn’t realize that little fact until recently because my first one was somewhat accidental. The first person I had sex with, and then consequently started a relationship with, was one of my best friends, who also happens to be gay.
I was the first woman he had slept with, which was fitting because he was the first man I had been intimate with. However both of us, at one point during our time together, slept with people of the same-sex.
He was with one of his friends that was a man and I was with one of my friends that was a woman.
We talked about it eventually (when we finally fessed up about what we had each done) and what I impulsively said to him was “I am fine with you being with a guy because I don’t have a penis, I can’t compete with one, but if I ever find out you were with another woman, I will kill you!” And I meant every word … At that time!
What surprised me the most though was the fact that I was so ‘okay’ with him sleeping with another person besides me, even if it was a man.
I never fully was present to that whole experience, from the perspective of it being open, because it just happened. We were both open and comfortable exploring our sexuality, seeing as we were in our early 20s, and it seemed natural.
Stark contrast to the two relationships that came after that: one being a very serious, engagement, home purchase, overnight step-mom style relationship and the other being a summer fling, where he lobbied hard for us to be in a relationship, so that I wouldn’t sleep with anyone else while with him.
They were intense in different ways, yet the similarity was that they were both closed relationships. As much as I loved them, there was a subtle feeling of being confined or bound. I didn’t feel like I could flirt, or make out, or be super affectionate with a man, or woman, if I wanted to.
That desire was not from a place of loving these men any less; in fact, every man I am in a relationship with I love and love deeply. You can ask anyone! When I give my heart, I give it unconditionally. I love big … always!
However I also have a pretty big sexual appetite and I don’t equate sex with love all of the time. I think I did at some points in my life and it caused me angst, because I thought I should.
I know now that I love everything about sex AND I simply do not see it as big of a deal as most people do.
Flirty, touchy, kissy, sensual is just who I am!
Because of this realization (which I didn’t learn about myself until later on in the years when I became much more comfortable with who I am as a person, my body, and what I want for myself), the idea of an open relationship fascinated me … an intentionally open relationship.
It intrigued me so much so that when I was online dating, during my year of traveling around the US, a man reached out to me who was publicly in an open relationship and I requested getting together with him for that very reason. Let’s just say that I had lots and lots of questions.
That curiosity led to a pretty deep connection and he ended up becoming my first official partner in an open relationship. Saying ‘I learned so much’ during my time with him would literally be the understatement of the century.
What I had read about open relationships and navigating that whole structure was that agreements were super important. The other piece was that being completely honest and open in your communication was crucial. Those two things were what appealed to me the most.
The idea of being that vulnerable and connected and truthful with my partner was such a huge turn on!
So with my boyfriend Dallas (yes, you guessed it … fake name to protect the innocent), I got to really experience and experiment with what it would be like to have complete freedom in our relationship. He was not a jealous man and was open to whatever I was comfortable with in terms of setting the guidelines.
We had an everything goes policy regarding communication around our experiences, so if one of us asked, the other person would definitely tell. Surprisingly, it was a turn-on!
Unfortunately our relationship didn’t last longer than seven months (the second time around…long story), however that had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we were in a open relationship. Actually that part was probably the smoothest and easiest part. At the end of the day, he was simply not in a place to build a life with someone and he had a lot of personal work to do before committing to a relationship.
Fast forward to my current relationship with Bob (not a fake name because he doesn’t need protecting). It is by far one of the most amazing partnerships I have been in to date.
The love I feel for this man knows no bounds.
We have something really special and we know this. We are present to it every day. And after a month of being together, we made the choice to explore an open relationship together.
What I realized during my experience with Dallas is that I do really love the structure of open; it works for me and I thrive in that type of “container” because it is expansive and limitless. I show up as the truest version of myself.
I also feel so much more love for my partner because of the permission in the relationship and the shame that is removed from being a physical being!
Don’t get me wrong, open is not for everyone. I get that. My best friend for example still doesn’t quite get how this whole ‘open thing’ works and declares regularly that open would simply not work for her! As have a number of my friends. Which is totally fine! Just like not everyone is made for monogamy, not everyone is made for polyamory. To each their own! Truly.
Bob and I, however, do desire the freedom and quality of connection that polyamory provides. Or at least are willing to discover together what that looks and feels like for us, and adjust accordingly.
Not every open relationship is created equal either.
We are clear that the primary relationship is between him and I. He is my man! And I am his woman! Period.
We have had multiple conversations around what having an open relationship looks like for us specifically. Super important to outline and talk out, especially because we were both in open relationships previously that for the most part worked, but there was still a piece missing that didn’t have us feeling completely turned on and connected to our partners.
What we came to as far as our own agreement for having sex with others is ‘no seeking it out,’ however if it happens spontaneously or as a one off situation, especially if one of us is away for extended periods of time (traveling etc), then that is completely okay.
The caveat is you have to talk about it before it happens, if at all possible, and definitely talk about it afterward.
Back to how this story started:
Not even a week after our most recent conversation around our version of open, where we came to a solid, ‘feels good for the both of us’ agreement, Bob mentioned he would be staying at a woman’s house (during his travels, as he is on a road trip across the US) with whom something ‘may happen’. He shared that they had some interesting chemistry and he wasn’t sure if anything would transpire between them but he wanted to let me know (as we had agreed to).
I’m not going to lie and say that a part of me didn’t recoil. I felt hurt.
I realized later it was because I have not seen him or been with him in over a month and was missing him like crazy. The fact that he was going to be with this woman who would be able to be physically connected with him, when I was so far from him and aching for his touch, kind of killed me.
I pushed through and stayed present to the rest of my day. That evening though I was a bit of a mess. I sobbed on and off for most of the evening. Yet upon digging deeper, I was able to be present to how much of it was my own insecurity around men abandoning me.
The idea of him being with this woman was triggering my fear that he would decide to up and leave me.
The other, deeper, part of my emotions was fully facing how the intensity of my love for him scares the living shit out of me. Again, MY stuff, not his.
Bob was not doing anything ‘wrong’ and grounding myself in how connected we were helped me come back to truth and reality.
The next morning we chatted briefly and I was waiting anxiously to hear about his evening with his friend. Nothing. He didn’t mention a thing. I KNEW with every fiber of my being that something had happened, yet I was too afraid to bring it up either. I found myself not wanting to know and my fear won out.
There was a big fat pink elephant in the room and neither of us wanted to address or acknowledge it.
Here we were in this connected, but not connected, place. We did our usual check ins and text conversations during the day, which did feel for the most part as if nothing had changed. But when the evening rolled around and I didn’t hear from him at all, the anxiety officially set in.
The next morning we talked on the phone and that was when he finally told me:
“My friend and I had sex.”
I felt like a bomb got dropped on me. It took everything in my power not to crumble and become a catatonic heap on the floor. Will power alone allowed me to ignore the buckling in my knees and the nausea in my stomach. Automatic pilot kicked in and we continued the conversation.
I knew this was coming. Not only because we had talked about the possibility but because I KNEW. I’m a super sensitive, witchy woman after all. I knew something had happened and the not knowing directly was what was eating me alive. Regardless of whether you think you ‘know’ or not, silence suffocates connection.
Disconnection is bred when there is guilt or shame because it keeps the truth from being spoken. This is true for any situation and any type of relationship.
I mentioned to him that in the future I need him to tell me sooner. And he agreed to that. He also admitted that his fear of hurting me or my feelings had him hesitate in sharing that information with me. For the most part I held it together and allowed him to express his thoughts and feelings to me.
I did truly want to hear about his experience but the shock of how I got the information was running the show in that moment.
It wasn’t until later that day that it hit me. And when I say hit, I mean like a Mac Fucking Truck. I felt like my chest was going to cave in on itself. It hurt so much that I would have done anything to make that feeling go away.
It felt almost out of body because I could feel the physical pain near my heart yet at the same time I was going numb.
The thought of him with someone else was so painful, especially since we had barely had much time together ourselves. The feelings were surprisingly strong and all over the place. I wanted to cry, scream, check out, run away, pretend none of it ever happened. I could not hold them back any longer. It felt like they were on a mission and that mission being for me to really fully feel them. There was nowhere to run or hide any longer.
They caught me off guard because I had never had a reaction like that when I was with Dallas. When him and I talked about our experiences it was almost detached.
However this was different because my feelings for Bob are different. Like night and day. I love him in such a strong, pure, unconditional way. I feel him so strongly whether we are physically together or apart. I have been floating on cloud 9 ever since we met. But I guess as they say, ‘the taller they are, the harder they fall’.
The thought that kept running through my head in the midst of this emotional storm was “I can’t do this. This hurts too much.”
So when I told him that same evening that our conversation from the morning was just hitting me, part of me hoped he would leave me be. My usual MO is to isolate. I go off to lick my wounds and unconsciously reinforce the belief that I am alone and cannot rely on anyone for support. I could then blame him for “not being there” when I needed him.
But this is what is so different and special about Bob … he is willing to tackle head on any tension in our relationship and able to hold me when I am wrestling around with my emotions in this way. And wrestle I did. It was as if there were all of these parts of me fighting for attention and would not stop until I heard what they had to say.
Despite my resistance, I picked up the phone when he called, and committed to staying open even in my sadness, and heartache, and resentment.
That was what was different about me this time around. I did not want to run any longer. I wanted to feel all of it and stop numbing out when things got hard in relationship. I had learned to do that from very very young after all.
I was 9 when my dad committed suicide, the ultimate form of abandonment. I silently vowed that day that I would be strong and not give my dad the satisfaction of breaking me down or causing me to suffer any longer!
Here I was, twenty-six years later, vowing to finally do different in my relationship with a man. So I went in to my conversation with Bob choosing to trust him completely and to be naked and raw with my emotions. And I fucking felt them alright, all of them.
I’m not kidding when I say I sobbed my face off. For almost AN HOUR straight!
You know what though? It felt fucking good.
How many times do we hold that stuff in, especially when it comes to our partner? I let it out, all of it. I tried to communicate, through the tears, whatever thoughts were coming up at that moment. I made sure to stay conscious as well, so as not to say anything I did not mean and if I did say it, to preface it as such.
You know what else? We worked through it.
There is something so magical about being witnessed in your despair. Talk about vulnerability. Bob was there, the whole time, present, connected, holding me and loving me through my tears, fears, insecurity, anger. So much of what came up was not about him, or what happened, but the deeper wounds that had never felt safe enough to be revealed.
Because of the safety I feel in my relationship with Bob, I could finally break down and as a result, something profound happened for me … the ripples of which I am still feeling.
There was healing and that can only come from love.
When I look at the whole situation, neither of us did anything wrong. So much blame is heaped on to our loved ones because we filter everything through good, bad, right or wrong. We each do the best we can in every moment given what we know up to that point.
What we had was miscommunication, or lack of communication, and the only way to work through that is to have more communication, not less!
After my hour-long sob fest, we really were back to ‘normal.’ It was as if nothing happened. He was telling me about his day, I was cracking jokes, we were laughing and dreaming about our future and counting down to when he would be in town again (thankfully soon!).
Although at one point I was really feeling the need to close our relationship again, when we were back to solid and connected, I knew that I really did not want to change our ‘sex agreements’ because I would not want to take that option off the table for him, let alone myself.
I got off that call loving that man even more than I had before.
It shifted things for the both of us and took our relationship to an even deeper place.
We talked again the next day and because of our ability to ‘go there’ with each other, we remarked at how there is even more trust and safety to share in these experiences and continue to explore together.
It’s amazing how in less than 48 hours we went from feeling sad, scared and disconnected, to joyful and super connected.
So although open relationships may not be for everyone, THIS is one of the reasons I love them. You are actively designing your relationship in such a way that works for everyone, by making agreements and communicating throughout the process.
You explore your edges and insecurities, with your partner so strongly by your side, and come out the other side ever stronger in self and intimate in relationship.
Nothing sexier in my book than honesty in conversations and deep connection, regardless of your relationship status or structure.
Natalie is a co-creator of the Open Relationship Design eCourse and a co-host of Sex the Podcast. If you’d like support in creating an open relationship that increases intimacy and deepens trust go to www.openrelationshipdesign.com.
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Photo credit: Amir Kuckovic/flickr