• Steph Shuff

Love Me Like Your Secondary

Jack (not his real name) was everything I looked for in a partner. Smart, creative, funny. We met through mutual friends and clicked right away as we cracked jokes, traded stories, and debated politics. It was an intellectual flirtation, complete with the kind of verbal sparring I appreciate in a person.

He was a few years older than me, and had reached the quietly confident place where many men land somewhere between the ages of forty and fifty. He was not posturing or positioning; he was not desperate to be seen or heard; he was as confident in what he didn’t know as he was in what he did.

I was approaching that place myself, could sense it rising up under my feet, but I hadn’t quite landed. My mother theorizes that we often find ourselves attracted to people who have some quality we desire but don’t have ourselves. We are like a moth to a flame, drawn to that person, looking for a map, or a formula, or a guide. I can see some truth in this theory for me, at least.

Perhaps that is what drew Jack and I towards one another. He had a wild, reckless past, but he had found some kind of stability, both within himself and also, in his life. I, on the other hand, joked that if it weren’t for my pets tethering me to the earth, I might float up and away into the sky, like a wayward balloon.

There was just one problem with the mutual attraction between Jack and I. He had a girlfriend, a woman I will call Jill. Jill was not just a casual girlfriend, but a serious, long-term, live-in partner with whom he had built a life. In hindsight, I wonder now about how much of his stability was actually hers. How much of his solid life had he borrowed from the woman who led him there? I guess I’ll never know.

What I do know is that, despite his relationship, and despite his clear intention to stay in that relationship, we developed a relationship of our own. For the first time in my life, I was the other woman.

Before we go any further, I must make one request: do your best to suspend moral judgments. Perhaps you have been cheated on. Perhaps you have been the cheater. Perhaps you have been both, or neither. Perhaps your partner is cheating on you this very moment and you are none the wiser. This blog isn't about right or wrong, and you should know by now I see nothing in black and white. At the time of my relationship with Jack, I was single. Does it matter?

I may be sexual, but I am also self-righteous about my sexuality. I have never cheated on a partner, and perhaps by the end of this essay you will understand why. Regardless, I refuse to entertain an entire population of people who would fault a single woman for getting involved with a committed man, leaving the man practically free from blame. Boys will be boys! Please. Your morality is your morality, but if it is dosed out along patriarchal gender lines, we're going to have a problem. Spare me your unexamined double standards.

So often, we give men permission to be flawed and expect women to be saints. We not only ask women to be responsible for their own decisions, but to carry the moral obligations of all the men in their lives as well. This is bullshit logic. More importantly, this is a double standard by which I refuse to abide. Feminism means equal opportunity. Allow me the equal opportunity of imperfection.

For a time, I won’t say how long, Jack and I entertained a relationship. And despite how you may feel about its moral foundation, it was a real relationship. We spent entire days messaging each other. We talked about the state of the world; the nature of art; the failings of American culture. We talked about films and books and shows we liked. I shared my writing with him, he shared his passions with me. We had incredible sex.

At one point, when I was feeling confused and insecure, I told him I wanted to end our relationship. I was terrified by how vulnerable I had allowed myself to get with this person who was wholly unavailable to me. I had been more honest and more myself with Jack than I had been with any partner before. I was falling in love with him, and I knew that this was dangerous. What he said in response both surprised me and didn’t surprise me at all: he was also sharing things with me that he couldn’t or wouldn’t share with his partner.

Perhaps Jack enjoyed the secrecy of it all, or perhaps it was just a means to an end. I never asked him to end his relationship. I wouldn't dare. But I did reveal that maybe this arrangement was no longer comfortable for me.

What I told him was, "I'm young. I am greedy and selfish and needy." What I meant was, "I want this on my terms, not yours."

When the stakes of a relationship are high, we tend to be on our best behavior with that person. As a friend of mine puts it, we are not ourselves. Instead, we send out our representative, the spokesperson of our self that we become when expectations get folded into the mix. When the stakes are lower - when rejection is guaranteed, when a relationship is temporary, when there is nothing to enjoy but the present - that is when the masks come off.

It occurred to me: I wasn’t vulnerable with this man because he was “the one” for me. I was vulnerable with this man because he was “the one” for someone else. I was able to be myself because his rejection of me was all but guaranteed. Why would I pretend to be anything I’m not when I have nothing to gain from being less myself? Was I in love with Jack, or did I just love the freedom of being with him?

From Jack’s perspective, I got to see the full force of his most secret thoughts and desires, not in spite of his relationship with Jill, but because of it. He was safe with her, and so with me he could take more risks. If she hadn’t been in the picture, perhaps the stakes would have been higher, and I wouldn’t have met him in the first place. Not the real him, anyway. I would have met his representative. And he would have met mine.

How Jack talked about his relationship revealed a lot: he didn’t mention his passionate love for Jill, though perhaps at some point, their love was passionate. He didn’t mention their incredible sex, though perhaps at some point, their sex was incredible. What he mentioned was their stability, their safe and shared life together - mutual friends, a home, a foundation.

I think about Jack and his girlfriend. What if he was honest with her about what he really wanted? Would he be able to have his cake and eat it, too? Would she leave him? Would she feel betrayed by him? Would absolute honesty unravel the very stability that he longs to keep, or would it allow them to shed their masks and dive deeper into the true love that they share? What makes a relationship more stable? Our desire to protect it with lies, or our willingness to challenge its existence with the truth? The answer probably depends on who you ask.

It makes me think of all the people out there who seek out a sense of stability through monogamy, donning masks and denying parts of themselves in the process. We commit to a lifetime with someone, and then, somewhere along the way, we become estranged from ourselves, or our partners, or both.

While I do believe that monogamy can work for many people, I do not think it should be the domestic goal to which we should all aspire. I wonder about all the people out there wearing masks.

What is the price we pay when we tie our sense of stability together with the expectation of monogamy from ourselves and our partners? Does it doom us to a life where we are not fully ourselves with the people we claim to be closest to? What happens between two people when we save parts of ourselves for our affairs because the stakes of our relationships are too high? How solid is a foundation if it is built upon shaky ground?

Once, I had a one-night stand with a stranger I met on a dating app. One night stands for me are rare (my preferred seduction is an intellectual one, and these take time), but we had instant chemistry and the sex was some of the best "first time" sex I have had. Later, I joked with a friend, “He fucked me like a guy who has a girlfriend.” It was a humorous aside delivered for its shock value, but one that ended up being spot on. He revealed to me in a message some days or weeks later that he was in a long-term relationship.

The concept isn’t a new one. People who are cheating on their significant others are often less inhibited with their secondary partners than they are with their primary partners, and this pattern extends beyond the sexual. Jack was no exception to this rule. In a sexual sense, Jack was uninhibited. He commented freely on other women he found attractive, he listed off all the sexual fantasies he hoped to fulfill with me. Together, we made plans to live out these fantasies in real life. Intellectually, we turned over many stones. Morally, our relationship had no room for judgment, and so it was built upon a foundation of fearless honesty, at least as far as I was concerned. When I found myself falling in love with him, I told him. Unlike past relationships, this confession was not a romantic gesture delivered with the expectation that he love me back now or at some point in the near future. It was a statement of fact. When he told me he had no intention of leaving his girlfriend, I received the news with a nod of my head and no dramatics to speak of. We had few expectations of one another; our honesty flowed from there.

So often, I have found that men expect the long-term lovers in their lives to be so much more than just a lover: they rely on them for emotional labor, and ask them to supplement their egos, tend to their homes, care for their children. The woman's role in a relationship is not to be a lover or a partner, but a caretaker and a therapist as well.

I believe that some women enjoy being all these things and more for their partners. They want to provide emotional comfort. They want to provide a warm and loving home. They want to be both lover and caretaker. Feminism means that I don't get to decide for other women what it means to be a partner. If women desire these roles, they should fill them.

Beyond these exhausting and often lopsided gender roles, relationships require work - sacrifice, compromise. They require killing off certain parts of ourselves so that new parts can grow. I think of the basil plant sitting on my patio, the rose bush growing outside of my window. The real work is in what we prune away from ourselves, not in what grows in its place. New growth is easy. But amputation? That part is painful.

If I am honest with myself, I realize that I liked being Jack’s other woman more than I liked being the girlfriend of so many men before him. I didn’t have to be anything but a lover for Jack. Was it because he was already getting all his other needs met by someone else? Regardless, I got to be exactly what I wanted to be in a relationship: not a caretaker, but a fantasy. Not a provider of safety, but of exploration. I could come and go as I pleased. I could date other people. I could text back when it suited me. I wonder: is this what it feels like to date as a man?

Women are not innocent when it comes to having great expectations. I think of the expectations I put on partners that came before Jack. I expected them to be emotional stoics; I expected them to be financial guardians. I expected them to be safe and stable people so that I wouldn’t have to feel afraid.

I had few expectations when it came to Jack. But what we had was a real relationship, even if it was a nontraditional one. Soon after our affair started, I realized: I couldn't avoid the pain of being involved romantically with another person. The pain had just taken a different face. How much suffering was I willing to bear to help ease the monotony of Jack's long term relationship? How many of my own needs was I willing to amputate, because Jack was struggling to sustain a commitment he had made to someone else?

We equate commitment with stability. But stability is an illusion. It is a myth we tell ourselves so that we can deal with the psychological pain of being completely out of control of our own lives. Is it possible that relationships, and more specifically, monogamous romantic partnerships, are just an extension of this myth? Is monogamy a lie we tell ourselves to pretend we're in control?

We wouldn’t dare ask our friends to do or provide the kind of things that we ask of our romantic partners. We allow our friends to be responsible for their own safety and stability, and they allow us to be responsible for ours. We provide support when it is needed, but never a reason for being. Is it any wonder, then, why friendships can often last so much longer than romantic partnerships? Mine certainly have. I realize now that I’ve been dooming my romantic relationships to fail from the beginning by having too great of expectations, by putting far too much weight on it all.

The truth is, I don’t desire a relationship where I am responsible for the ego, self-actualization, emotional well-being, and psychological safety of my partner, but who does? It is not what we sign up for initially, but it is often where we end up in the long run. We amputate parts of ourselves to be with another person; it is understandable that our sense of self may get wrapped up in the process.

The truth is, I enjoyed the independence that came with my role as a secondary partner. I provided the novelty, the fun, the pleasure. But at what cost? I didn't mind that Jack had a partner, someone from whom he got things I couldn't give him. In fact, I preferred it. It was the betrayal that bothered me. Some people seek stability. But me? I prefer truth.

After spending some time reflecting on my life, the choices I have made, and the partners I have dated, I realize: I have devoted my life to the incremental deconstruction of my own ego. Research For My Novel, the blog you are reading right now, is a literal diary of this process. I have an ego, sure. Look no farther than my Instagram page to get a taste of it. But where most people seek out situations that shield their ego, I seem to seek out situations that remind me just how unimportant I really am.

I find monogamy to be unrealistic. So do a lot of people. But the ego needs it, and egos can be a tricky thing. They construct their own reality.

The idea of polyamory feels safe and dangerous at the same time, like the way it feels to climb a mountain. While the activity itself can be dangerous, there is no deeper trust than that which exists between climbing partners. You hold each others' lives in your hands.

In the last few years, I began having a “talk” early on with the people I date. It is the conversation where I reveal that monogamy may not be for me. “While I am looking for a long-term partner,” I say, “I am not convinced that long-term partnership includes sexual monogamy.”

At the start, this was a very difficult conversation for me to have. Sometimes, the people I date aren’t into it, and that’s ok. Either they are being truly honest, or they are not quite ready to take off the masks they have been wearing. Either is fine, but neither jives with the kind of relationship I am looking for.

Other times, this revelation is followed by an extensive and often arousing game of Q&A. I explain that sexual non-monogamy is something I hope to explore with my partner, as a way to deepen our relationship, rather than something I want to pursue separate from my partner. Think less open borders, more legalized immigration. I try to explain that the goal is to transcend the jealousy, fear, and expectations that so often assuage our egos in the short term, but damage our psyches in the long term.

This preference of mine may change at some point in the future. One day I may wake up and long to be someone’s everything. Maybe, when this moment comes, I will skip monogamy altogether and just have a baby - a pursuit that I imagine to be the penultimate ego-smasher. My mother, ever the romantic, maintains that I haven’t found the right person yet, and I am open to all possibilities. The only thing I am not open to is changing myself because of social pressure, someone else’s expectations, or fear.

I think about my relationship with Jack. What if, instead of lying to his girlfriend, he had been honest with her? Could we have been happy, the three of us, with her as the primary partner and me as the secondary? Perhaps it wouldn’t last forever. But what does? Perhaps it would be difficult. But at least it would be honest.

While I can wonder what it might have been like for Jack and Jill and me to live happily ever after in polyamorous bliss, the reality is, it didn't happen that way. Jack and Jill were a couple long before I came into the picture. They had their own understanding and their own emotional contract, about which I can only speculate. While I have my own brand of sexual self-righteousness, I'm nothing if not open-minded. There are two more sides to the story here. Jack and Jill are not flattened archetypes but living, breathing people.

If I am truly suspending all moral judgment, as I have asked you to do, I must then ask myself: is there a place where a lie might be better than the truth?

Let's continue to assume that Jill, like many women, wanted stability. She wanted a steady and committed partner. And Jack wanted to give that to her. He loves her, after all. What kind of stability would he be providing if he sent it crashing down with something as fleeting and temporary as the truth? I've already suggested that stability is a myth, but so is truth - it is just another thing to help cradle our fragile egos, mine included. I may prefer one over another, but it doesn't make it any less slippery of a thing to hang my reality on. The illusions of stability and truth both require a certain aptitude for denial and for delusion. But so does writing. So does art. So does anything beautiful. What's wrong with a little fantasy?

I may not seek stability, and I may opine endlessly about my desire to know the truth, but they are equally unsteady as a function of time. Stability crumbles, and truths become false - literal untruths. We must be careful to cling to the promise of either too closely. They are flimsy things.

As much as I don't seek the stability of sexual monogamy in a relationship, I also don't begrudge someone's desire to have it. That would be cruel. Why would I deny a woman I don't even know the very thing she wants? How small-minded and selfish of me would that be? I am allowed to seek the truth for myself. I am not allowed to demand it for others.

As much as it was a blow to my ego, I was never a threat to Jack's relationship with Jill. In his version of the truth, I was a blip - a distraction, an interlude, an intermission. Why would he mention me at all? I faded from Jack's life. Jill is still there. In Jack's version, I am not the truth. Jill is. And his relationship with me? That was the lie.

Perhaps Jack's commitment to Jill is precisely why he lies. Perhaps his desire to provide Jill with the stable reality her ego craves is precisely why he hides from her. His deception is not an act of cruelty, but an act of mercy. An act of true love. Jack may be having his cake and eating it, but I hesitate to paint Jill as a victim here. What if, instead, we see her as a beneficiary? The same way Jack is. The same way I was.

Jack may get to occupy two worlds, but he also has to live with the burden of his deception, the pain of his own failure, the knowledge of his inability to be the kind of partner Jill thinks he is. I don't know about the morality of it all, but that sounds like a painful enough existence to me. I may have had to suffer through the burden of my damaged ego, but I got the independence and honesty I was craving. And Jill? I can only speculate, but I believe she has chosen for herself, in her own way. Jill is not a child. She is not being held against her will. If she wanted the truth, as fleeting of a thing as it may be, I don't think she would have to look very hard or pry too deeply to find it. After all, Jill has had just as many opportunities to confront the myths of stability and monogamy as I have. My opinion may be a controversial one, but I believe Jill is living in the exact reality that she wants. I don't pity her. One way or another, we all find the reality we seek.

So where is the lie? Isn't the illusion of a thing the same as having the thing itself?