I kissed girls in sleepaway camp, fell early for teens exploring cross-dressing and trans identities, hid my body as it became more like my mother’s, dressed up in my dad’s suits and took suave auto-timed portraits — all before the selfie camera was a thing. Despite all of these experiences, growing up queer in Russia was a challenge. Even among my queer friend group, bisexual was the only word we knew to describe each other at the time.
We didn’t know we could live outside of the gender binary and the traditional “men marry women, and women worship their men” scenario. Same-sex marriage is still against the law in Russia, and so is “gay propaganda” — meaning if you’re being gay out in public or spreading the gay gospel, you might get into trouble. And by trouble, I mean a public beating and jail.
Still, growing up in this environment, I found myself bursting with love for so many people simultaneously, regardless of gender, age, or sexuality. I often questioned my sanity and trauma, having been abandoned by an alcoholic and bipolar parent just to be kicked out by the other one at age 16. Was I just suffering from loneliness? Did I need to fill in a void my parents left? Was their violent and abusive relationship pushing me toward other forms of love?
Or was I, simply, polyamorous?
When I was 18, I moved from Moscow to New York for college, and my long-distance now-ex-boyfriend (oh, boy) was visiting before I came out as non-binary and queer during spring break. I was aware of poly relationships, but had not participated in one yet. During that time, I was falling madly in love — for no good reason — with a dyke from my copyediting class. I thought it was an amazing idea for my boyfriend and I go to her house for dinner. “You’ll get to meet my best friend!” I was utterly confused, lost, and closeted, but that’s okay. What was not okay was that when my ex fell asleep on the couch, the dyke and I decided to have sex in the room next door. I had thirsted for consensual sexual attention from another queer woman since I was 12. I still remember the twinkle lights around the perimeter of her bedroom, slowly blinking as I softly moaned her name and grabbed her wheat-colored hair. We were discovered shortly, and I have never to this day seen a man sob — broken — into the streets of Kew Gardens, Queens in the middle of the night with such despair.
My ex flew back to Russia early, and we were unable to stay friends. The dyke, on the other hand, said, “I don’t want to sound like a player, but I don’t want a relationship right now, but I also would like to come home to someone.” Wow, so many red flags in one sentence! Children, listen closely: This is not the start of a healthy relationship and it’s nowhere near ethical polyamory. But silly little me was like, “OKAY BABE! WHATEVER YOU WANT!”
At the beginning, we did not wholeheartedly discuss what polyamory meant for us, but since we co-dependently spent most of our free time together, it didn’t seem like it would actually happen. When I did finally sleep with another person, which she was greatly upset about, we had to discuss “who we are allowed to sleep with.”
Looking back on that mess, I wish I had stood up for myself and stated clear boundaries about what I wanted from her as a primary partner and how we would interact with other partners. Ultimately, she ended up cheating on me. “But how can you ‘cheat’ if you’re poly?” you ask. Well, when someone breaks a boundary or doesn’t communicate about a new partner or sleeps with someone off-limits (Hey! You write the rules!), that could be considered cheating in a polyamorous relationship. We, too, have feelings.
It happened just after I was suddenly let go from my first full-time journalism job after college. Crushed, I impulse-bought a ticket back home to Moscow to spend time with my family and to meet my newborn niece. My trip coincided with my partner’s spring break — I was a year ahead of her in school — and she went back home to Pennsylvania. She was texting me about how she reconnected with one of her exes, which I thought was strange, but I was too deep in my grief to pay any attention to the situation. A day before my flight back, she spent the night at this friend’s house, which finally made me suspicious. Out of all the things I could worry about, my soft and aching heart asked, “Did you cuddle with her?” But turns out they full-on f*cked, and just like that, my heart broke.
I was inconsolable. I sobbed uncontrollably over the souvenirs I’d gotten her and her family as I packed my bag, wondering if I even should return at all. For 11 hours on an airplane, I wept, bawling and wondering why we couldn’t communicate beforehand. She lived on our living room couch for another four months, refusing to leave the lease, shortly starting to video chat with a new fling from Tinder without batting an eye.
After she moved out, I finally was able to heal and grieve the relationship. I gave myself space before revisiting polyamory in a healthier, more communicative environment. Slowly, I was building my life again after finding a new job. I started seeing play partners, meeting new people, and getting serious with a few others.
And as one does in their poly lifetime, I fell in love with a monogamous person. I could not stop thinking about someone I met at work; I caught her shy glances, the little corner-of-the-mouth smiles when I would ride around in a mail cart for fun. She spent lunches reading books and curated marvelous playlists for the workday. Soon, she invited me to one of her shows, “an open mic or whatever,” I thought. A soft angelic voice arose from a rough exterior of red flannel and black leather boots as she played guitar with such genuine passion, vigor, and dexterity, owning the stage. The bar broke into thunderous applause as I sat with my jaw down to the floor.
When we first started dating, she knew I was polyamorous, so she tried to keep it light and enjoy living in the moment. Truthfully, she went against the grain of her sexuality while confronting insecurities, jealousy and a fear of abandonment. At one point, I rushed to make a decision that “I won’t be able to do this” with a monogamous person, feeling guilty for still liking other people. I saw how much it hurt her when I went on other dates.
After trial and error, and many conversations about communication and boundaries, we learned how to find balance without judging each other’s needs. I had to unlearn that monogamy was inherently harmful, outdated, and patriarchal, as she discovered that polyamory was not “sleeping around” frivolously and unpacked a lot of religious trauma about the unity of a partnership and what it meant. We started by writing up points for each other’s lifestyle to see the positives. I discovered that consistency and more me-time were the biggest pros of monogamy, as she embraced that one person cannot fulfill every need, whether it is intellectual or physical.
My identity has not changed; I am still a polyamorous person. I’m just not currently seeking or engaging in other romantic or sexual relationships, just like how a bisexual person in an opposite-sex relationship does not suddenly become heterosexual. We are not choosing sides, we are choosing people who make us happy.
I have realized friendships are just as important as romantic relationships. Society often pushes us to only open up to romantic partners, but learning that friends can support and love you is incredibly freeing and empowering. Finding strength in a community should be a priority, as love is boundless and not reserved just for someone you share a bed with. You don’t have to have sex to be vulnerable, show affection, and love someone.
I have also realized that having multiple relationships and people who rely on you for emotional and moral support is exhausting. With different (or no) hierarchies in poly relationships, you still prioritize who gets your time. I have realized that I selfishly toyed around with my calendar, assuming I was everyone else’s priority when I should have been my own. And it’s hard to admit, but I have hurt people by not giving them the care and attention they deserved. Being in a monogamous relationship has grounded my expectations and has taught me to better communicate boundaries and to listen to my partner’s (and my own) needs. When you have more than one person to take care of, you lose sight of what matters and how you treat others and yourself.
Sexuality and desire evolve and grow with every partner. And while I still feel infatuated toward other people, ex-lovers, friends, and strangers on the subway (this self-quarantine will be the death of me), I am able to satiate and explore new avenues of my kinks and fantasies with my monogamous partner as well. You’d be surprised how many ways other people can still be involved while supporting your mono partner’s values: be the kink party’s favorite show pony, for example, or have a voyeur you trust Skype in on your next sex session. The key here is to communicate and focus on understanding what would turn you both on, instead of lamenting what you used to have. This is a new chapter for new exciting things, so don’t assume monogamy means someone’s a prude or that polyamory means someone’s down for anything.
We were both able to break down wall after wall, ditching words like “tradition” and “normal,” to create a safe, supportive, and empowering relationship by stepping outside of our comfort zones. I’m still polyamorous, and my partner is still monogamous, but this is our relationship — and we write the rules.