There is a woman on my couch. She slowly fidgets with her earring, nervously massaging her lobe.
"The reason I didn't answer your call last night is because I was with someone else," I tell her.
I stare intently into her eyes, awaiting her reaction. Only seconds have passed, but they feel like minutes. I know the reaction that is to come, and the hurt inside her that is uncertain what form to take.
Her head shudders ever so slightly. I place my hand on her knee in some attempt to console her. Finally, something. Words.
"We want very different things."
It's a conversation that's become all too familiar to me. I explain to the woman I'm seeing that while I want a serious relationship, and I want to keep seeing her, there will be others. There will be other women, bike rides, hair ties accidentally left on my dresser and evenings when I'm inexplicably unavailable.
To simply say I date casually would be an injustice to the significant relationships I've formed with women. I date widely and with vigor, frequently but with vested emotion. But rarely am I dating exclusively.
I used to chalk up the nature of casual dating to the little more than the nature of living in the Bay Area. Sometimes I can't help but feel like the entire history of San Francisco was designed for the frenetic dater, its very foundation rooted in lawlessness, fast-paced entrepreneurship and incredible diversity, with no one certain if tomorrow will be the day when everything comes together for them.
Today, the San Francisco I know is a mecca for the 20-something-year-old's transient experience. Any day of the week I can find a festival, a theme party or any number of socially acceptable reasons to dress up and get drunk. Friends, living situations and job opportunities all rapidly evolve. There's a sense of community among my fellow San Franciscans based entirely on our lack of stability.
And that's what San Francisco throws at you when it comes to dating: a panoply of experiences, each fraught equal parts excitement and uncertainty. You find yourself jumping from one experience to the next while trying to hold on to the one you had just before. Sometimes you feel bad, but when you look around, it seems like half the people you're dating are doing the exact same thing.
To be clear: I am not a cheater. My encounters with women run the gamut from one-night stands to months-long dating, but I care about all of them, and I make sure all of them know exactly what's going on.
What happens after that point becomes a very complicated pas de deux, with emotions and sexual health an ever-present concern. I ask them how much they want to know about my extracurricular dating, but my answers are never enough and always too much.
"What'd you do last night?"
"Went on a date."
"Where'd you go?"
"Cute. Did you get your usual?"
"I ordered what I like."
"Spare me the details when you decide to take your little dates to the same places we go."
"So did you make her come?"
Sometimes the intimate details are revealed immediately after I've been reacquainted with my partner. Other times, it's just prior to a sexual engagement while I'm hovering over her, both of us naked.
"Just so you know, I had sex last night."
And sometimes, there's no mention of the previous night's lover at all. My partner has asked that she be spared all details concerning other women, including how many notches, old or new, are on my belt.
Some of the women I date make a point of pursuing their own dates outside our relationship, most of them with little to no experience doing this. Many have said it's to keep their options open; others have admitted that it's more of a vengeful act of "staying even." And I'd be lying if I said I didn't obsess over every detail once I know my partner's been on a date. Some give me as much as I ask for.
"It was like a porn star's. I was able to fit it all the way to the back of my throat and still had room for two hands." Kick to the stomach.
Others leave me wondering, assessing if there are differences in the pillow arrangements on her bed, only to later notice the condom sitting atop her bathroom trashcan.
Apart from a painstaking adherence to honesty, there are no rules in these relationships. And there's been a lot of hurt because of that. But adding rules makes things seem official -- and making non-monogamy official is a scary thing, both for the women and me. How exactly does an open relationship function? Do we change our Facebook statuses? What do we tell our family? So we forgo the formality.
But without rules, even the most absurd of scenarios becomes fair game. A few years ago, a woman I was dating came over to my house to watch a movie. We loved each other, and we were open about our dating habits. She ultimately wanted monogamy, but I did not. That night, my roommate and his buddy from out of town decided to join us. A few hours into getting drunk with them, it occurred to me that neither the woman nor my roommate's friend were in the room and hadn't been for quite some time. As the night progressed and texts and calls went unanswered, my suspicions grew, and ultimately I resigned myself to sleep. As it turned out, the two of them had been having sex every which way in my bathroom, and had even commandeered my roommate's bed, forcing him to sleep in the living room. She confessed this to me as she crawled into my own bed the next morning, where we then had sex. There were no rules.
It hasn't always been this way. I've had monogamous relationships, and I've never cheated. But I'm in the minority. Most of my friends say they find open relationships unappealing or even ethically wrong. Yet the majority of those people have cheated. Why is it that an open relationship, in which two consenting parties have agreed to have multiple partners, is less accepted by society than pervasive cheating?
We all know the statistics about the increasing rates of failed marriages. But perhaps the problem isn't that people aren't staying married; maybe the problem is that monogamy, as an institution, is itself inherently flawed, incompatible with much of the evolution of the human species.
Most of us will have more than one sexual partner in our lifetime. Is that monogamous? Most of the people that I know who have cheated are loath to identify themselves as such. "The relationship was coming to an end anyway," "I ended up with the person I was cheating with, though," and so on. Is that monogamous?
All my life I've been led to believe that when it comes to relationships, anything other than monogamy is immoral, weak-minded and a failure. But how many aspiring monogamists do you know who, at one time or another, failed their partner? If two people are in a relationship, monogamous or otherwise, that's built on honesty, trust and respect, how can that be anything but a success?
I want to get married. I want to have kids. And I want to be in a successful committed relationship. But being in a committed relationship doesn't necessarily mean being in a monogamous relationship.
Some will say it's selfish to have more than one lover. But just as I believe that parents can have more than one child and love those children both equally and uniquely, so too do I believe that intimacy can be shared amongst multiple partners.
As it turns out, a month later, the woman on the couch will no longer nervously fidget with her earring. She will find a different man to date. One who wants monogamy. Like all the women I've dated, she'll tell me she wants to stay friends, continue to watch movies and go to parties. But it won't happen. She'll grow to fall in love with him, and there's no place for me in that. I'm a reminder of something that was so uncertain, new and scary. And as it turns out, they'll both cheat on each other.
As I sit here in San Francisco writing this, I realize that we are arguably the most sexually liberal city. I'm moving to Chicago in just a few weeks, and I have honest fears about how my views on sex and sexuality will be accepted there.
But the reality is that the failings of modern monogamy are not location specific. People need to have choices when it comes to their relationships. There has to be a new definition of a successful relationship. And non-monogamy deserves to be a part of it.