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Facts & Arguments

Polyamory is not a character flaw, Rose Dawson writes, it's simply the path we have chosen

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I have a boyfriend and he is married to someone else.

When people find out that I am in a long-term relationship with a man in an open marriage, they assume that I am a mistress or a bunny boiler (remember Fatal Attraction?) or both.

My friends talk both to and about me, wondering what I could possibly be thinking. How can I be unfailingly faithful to a man who gives me no stability or future? How can I choose to be monogamous, when he does not?

In an era of increasingly liberal approaches to romance, polyamorous relationships remain chronically misunderstood. But more than that, the responsibilities and boundaries held by a girlfriend (or boyfriend) who is not the "primary" are never discussed.

My boyfriend has a wife and two beautiful children. I've met his wife and, though it would be easy for us to despise one another, she and I have found a balance of tolerance and respect. We ask after one another and send good wishes. Though I have visited their home several times, she and I have spoken face-to-face only once. As his life partner, she decides the terms of their open marriage and she wants no friendship from me. I understand that feeling and I respect it. She and I approach our relationships with the man we both love in our own ways and at our own pace.

If I were able to do so openly, I would dote on his daughters. Instead, I quietly admire them from afar and occasionally send them small gifts. They are too young to understand the implications of another woman in their father's life, so they don't know the presents come from me. I watch videos of them on their birthdays and at Christmas; I am rooting for them to become the strong, confident women their parents are raising them to be.

There are areas of my boyfriend's life I have no access or claim to. We do not discuss money, except when strictly necessary. We talk about our futures as individuals, but not as a couple. We approach each day with the shared knowledge that at some point, I will move on to a man who will give me all the things my boyfriend cannot. We talk about dancing together at my wedding and how it will feel to look back on the magic we shared together. Our relationship encompasses more than sex, but our love is also limited by time and appropriateness.

I have been in this relationship for nearly two years; I am almost 30. I knew my boyfriend's marriage was open before our first kiss and I have known all along that he does not have the slightest inclination to leave his wife (nor have I ever asked that of him). Though it is difficult for people to understand, he is happily married. His relationship with me is not the result of a character flaw in any of us. It is simply the path that we have chosen; the path that keeps us all happy. My obligation to both my boyfriend and to his wife is to accept the certainty of no promises and no future and to be sufficiently sure of myself to move on from him when I am ready. I hope that he and I will always be in each other's lives, even once our romance has ended. I believe we have come too far together, to be without each other's platonic company and support once we are no longer lovers. Some accuse me of being idealistic, but in a relationship like ours, such transitions have to be possible.

Loving and being loved is a gift and I have learned more from my boyfriend than any partner I've ever had. We cheer on our successes and we build one another back up when times are tough. We hold obligations to each other and we delight in each other's pleasure. We consider ourselves a team, albeit a unique one.

As a young woman, I am resilient. I have a career path, I have enough of my own money to live comfortably and I live alone in a penthouse apartment. Both my intellect and my feminism sit at the forefront of my day job. I live a full life and I am not defined by my relationship, in the same ways that other, more traditional partnerships do not wholly define either person. I refuse to settle for less than I need from my partner – and though everyone assumes I must be unhappy or unfulfilled, this is what works for me.

Over the time that we have been together, I have seen friends get married, settle down and start having kids. I have watched all this, knowing the choices I am making cannot give me access to that life. Sometimes – rarely – when I have a bad day, I start to feel a dull ache in my chest, because I am not able to live with, marry or bear children with my boyfriend. And then I remember the moments that we share together, the richness and depth of our relationship and the love I know that he feels for me. And I smile to myself, instead.

Rose Dawson lives in Vancouver.