Falling for A Polyamorous Man Taught Me to Chill Out About Love

Shannon Ashley


Photo by Анна Хазова on Unsplash

Have you ever taken the Five Love Languages test? Just like the MBTI, I have been taking the test for about 16 years and I always get the same results. I wind up in a three-way tie for Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Quality Time.

The thing is, you’re supposed to wind up with a top two when you take the test, not a top three. But I think I’ve always been a bit hungry for love. Okay, maybe even ravenous. In The Five Love Languages book, Gary C. Chapman writes how our love languages reflect the way we prefer to give and receive love. He also refers to our “love tank” veering toward empty or full, and I admit mine tends to be on the empty side.

See? Ravenous for good reason.

Of course, I’m also a very fluffy and emotional INFP. My love for words of affirmation in romantic relationships has often been unquenchable. Meaning that for the longest time, I lived for verbal affirmation from my partners. In fact, it used to dictate how I felt within the relationship and even how I felt about myself. So it wasn't exactly healthy.

If I was getting a lot of positive affirmation, I felt good. So my mood fluctuated up and down depending upon the number of good words I was getting. It was like riding an unreliable high because some days I felt deeply loved and other days nothing was ever enough.

And I acted out accordingly.

My addiction to sweet words was clearly problematic. Sometimes partners say things they don’t mean, or don’t really think about the impact before they say it. Me being autistic, I tended to take men literally in romantic relationships. If they said they needed me, I believed it must be true because, why else would they say it if they didn’t mean it?

Another problem with riding the wave of affirmation? I tended to make many assumptions and took my relationships much further in my mind. All because I took those words to heart and I wanted them to mean more.

Looking over the trends in my past relationships, I can see where I ran into problems with unhealthy expectations. I got carried away with wanting to know the people I cared about also cared for me too.

I don’t have a great history with love, and like most other people with borderline personality disorder, I’ve had my abandonment issues. That means I’ve spent way too much energy trying to get my partners to tell me what I meant to them.

Finally, like many other INFPs and folks with a traumatic family history, I love love. I love the idea of love. I have always wanted to love and be loved. So much so that I’ve prioritized it even when I shouldn’t.

But a funny thing happened a couple summers ago. After going on a long string of dates through OkCupid, but finding no actual spark, I finally fell for a guy in Atlanta (about two hours away). Except he’s poly.

Honestly, polyamory was never my bag. I think the biggest strike against it was how many men I’ve met who call themselves poly but only treat their primary partner well. If even. There are way too many entitled "poly" men treating partners like objects and gap-fillers.

Whether I’m going to be a primary or secondary to anyone, I believe I’m a good partner who deserves a real relationship. And I shouldn’t have to settle to be anyone’s gap-filler. Nor should I put up with lies or manipulation. Which, to be fair, isn't what polyamory is about.

Furthermore, my daughter’s dad came out as poly years ago, and I never found him to be believable or authentic about it. He has a long history of cheating since his teen years, and always justified it by blaming each woman he had an affair with. And I’ve never seen him genuinely care about more than one person at a time.

Even just one is… a bit pushing it.

So I’ve been well aware that some people use the poly label out of selfishness and that’s definitely rubbed me the wrong way.

Knowing I have these feelings, when I contemplated dating Mister Atlanta, I was pretty sure that he would break my heart. I actually pictured myself staring at the phone and crying, thinking about him wanting to be with someone who wasn’t me. So I didn’t think I could ever handle poly. I thought it would end in my pining away for someone I could never "have."

If I hadn’t felt like we might have a real connection, I would have never agreed to meet him. But I did, and I have to say he's one of my favorite people in the whole world.

A year-and-a-half later, I hesitate to call what Mister Atlanta and I have a “relationship” simply because we don’t see each other or even talk too much these days. I could talk to him more… but I’m so focused on rebuilding my life through writing that it doesn’t seem urgent. He also has his own career to work on and is currently pitching a series to Netflix (no, not about poly.)

At the same time, I have zero interest in pursuing any connection else with anyone else. That could change if a new connection presented itself, but for now, I’m at peace about my singleness and connection to Mister Atlanta because trying poly helped change the way I view relationships.

1. We don’t have to force a relationship to go anywhere or be anything.

It took me ages to understand that you can be in a healthy relationship without having any expectations, without labeling it, and without trying to push it through some predetermined course. Some things can simply be.

This can be hard if you’re coming from a religious background where courtship was stressed and marriage was always the goal. Dating Mister Atlanta has taught me that a relationship can be successful even if it doesn’t lead to something more, like a primary partnership, exclusivity, or marriage.

2. It’s okay to be in very different places.

Mister Atlanta is a business manager in his forties, twice divorced, and a big world traveler. I am a 36-year-old single mom of a four-year-old little girl, and I don’t drive. When we first met, my work from home was going well, but less than a year later I had to start over and begin a personal writing career.

I am now on an entirely new path. My life is complicated and in one sense tethered —since it can’t just be anything I want it to be when my daughter comes first.

I used to think that I could never date anyone in such a different stage of life, yet whenever I’m with him, I understand that the way I feel around him is the type of relationship I ultimately want long-term. I feel completely at peace and free to be myself without apology. I don’t feel like I have to perform for him at all. I feel fully valued despite our differences.

Strangely, I feel hopeful and energized to know there are men like him in the world. Guys who love to travel and get out of the house. Men who have real hobbies beyond videogames or sports. Honestly, I could get caught up in all the ways he fits my “ideal” for a partner, but instead, it makes me hopeful that I’ll meet someone in the future and eventually settle down when it makes good sense.

3. Having a connection and simply having fun is enough.

Some people are clearly people persons. I have more of a… love/hate relationship with humanity. My relationships with other people can be so complicated that it’s rare for me to meet a person who sets me at ease and makes me feel like I could be around them all the time without feeling like it was too much.

With Mister Atlanta, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how much time has passed between us. Whenever we finally see each other again, our time together feels pretty much perfect. Sure, part of that is because I love him. But who knew I could love someone without seeing him or talking to him daily? Not me.

Ultimately, my day to day life is all about raising my daughter and focusing on my writing. So spending time with Mister Atlanta helps me feel good — like I’m more than just a single mom. And there's nothing wrong with the casual nature of that.

4. We’re in charge of the way we feel about our own relationships.

I know that anytime I need to talk something out with Mister Atlanta, I can tell him and we’ll talk about it. He won’t try to avoid talking or say whatever he thinks I want to hear just to shut me up. He will see the entire conversation through. And I trust him to be real with me, which is a huge deal in my book.

Through those conversations, I’ve learned that all I really need is that bit of trust that my partner will make time to talk things out with me. Beyond that, I’m not looking for words of affirmation from my relationships anymore. I’ve learned how to feel good within a relationship without needing to hear compliment after compliment to finally believe (for a day) that I matter. The reality is that I do matter, but no partner can give me a sense of my own self-worth.

5. Boundaries matter and we can’t blame our partner for our failure to have any.

For ages, I used to have a terrible time falling in love because I lost myself every time. I gave more than I should have given, and more than my partners could return, and then I felt frustrated when they didn’t reciprocate. I didn’t understand how to make appropriate boundaries.

Seeing Mister Atlanta helped me finally set boundaries for myself in a relationship. I finally quit scheduling my life around whatever works for the other person. I started saying no, that doesn’t work for me. And I finally quit stressing out about who was giving or getting.

This has been incredibly freeing--to finally love without losing myself in that love. I now have great confidence that when someone new does enter my life, it will no longer be filled with drama or tears.

I suppose you could say that dating a poly guy in a long-distance scenario helped me learn how to mellow out about love. And how to quit seeing myself as valuable only if and when someone else loves me.

At the end of the day, we each must write our own narratives about love and no one else can write our stories for us. We can spend a lifetime expecting others to tell us who we are and what love should be, but it will only leave us unhappy and waste more time.

Am I poly? No. But I’ve learned a great deal about love after falling for a poly man. I’ve learned that I can deal with polyamorous relationships a lot better than I ever guessed. I also learned how to see my relationships more honestly and clearly than in the past when I imagined or even tried to force them to be something else.

And one day I realized I was in love with a man who could never love me back. I was living in a fairy tale.
-Jenny, Big Fish

The reality is that I could have learned these lessons through other relationships, sure. Maybe it's not specifically because Mister Atlanta is poly. But his poly nature forced me to deal with some of my relationship issues and move forward.

For most of my life, I lived in a fairy tale about love, and I couldn't explain why I was always so unhappy about it.

Now, I am happy to say that I no longer obsess about love. I don't obsess about Mister Atlanta or any other date that comes up. I don't obsess about my relationship status. And I'm grateful that my positive experience with poly forced me to confront so many of my attitudes that needed to change.

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Single mama, full-time writer, ex-vangelical. It's not about being flawless, it's about being honest. I cover real-life issues, like family, parenting, relationships, and spiritual abuse.

Cleveland, TN

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