On a group chat with my friends last week, one of the most bad-ass single ladies I know gave us the latest on her adventures in the New York dating scene:
“I had a first date last night and when I joked about mansplaining, he said “I don’t know what that is and my friends told me I don’t need to” and I was like CHECK PLEASE.”
As we all chimed in with our virtual high fives and patriarchy-smashing gifs, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like a fraud. I had been on a date that night, too, and when faced with a similar situation, I simply let it slide. What can I say? They were really hot.
At 30, I’m still new to dating. I met my husband at 18, before dating apps and sexting were a thing. I finally came out to myself as bisexual in my early 20s, and it wasn’t until after we were married at 25 that we began to open up our relationship so that I could be with women. For us, polyamory has meant sex and dating outside of marriage together as a couple, with other couples.
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Esther Perel examines the causes of extramarital affairs, asserting that it is more a desire to explore oneself that drives people to cheat than a dissatisfaction with their relationships. I am grateful that I don’t need to cheat, but my own sexual deviance seems to follow the same path. I know that in many ways this drive to open my relationship stemmed from dissatisfaction with the life I was supposed to be leading and the pall of inauthenticity that had cast itself over my existence.
A friendly acquaintance escorted me home one night when I was 23, sloppy drunk. Stumbling down 42nd street together in the dark, alone in a normally crowded space, the moment seemed to exist outside of reality. I felt invincible. I turned to her conspiratorially. “You know, I’m not as straight as everyone thinks I am, just because I have a boyfriend.” It felt like such a huge secret to divulge, like I had finally put into words something I had been afraid to say even inside my own head. I had let some truth escape into the world, and deeply hung over the next morning, I felt it slide away from me and take on a life of its own. It was too late to go backward. My closet door had opened and it was time to step into the light.
Coming out as an adult feels like a revelation. It is still a work in progress and it has been terrifying, but as I build a marriage that allows me to be sexually free, my life has changed in other ways as well. I dyed my hair, shifted career priorities, moved to a new city. I wanted to be more of the person I felt like, and less like the person everyone else assumed me to be. I hoped that these changes would make me happier and healthier, and a better partner—and in many ways, they have.
But at the same time, I sometimes feel like I don’t recognize my dating-self. When I gave myself permission to be someone new – bisexual, poly, and promiscuous – other aspects of my personality that I had tamped down also came up, and I am not always sure that I like what I was hiding.
Dating has made me into a woman I never allowed myself to be. Before dates I apply makeup, spritz perfume, and adopt certain mannerisms of femininity that I shun in my day-to-day life. I let my partner take the lead. I demure. I giggle. I judge others by their outward appearances. As I stretch into parts of our culture I had shunned before, I wonder if perhaps there was more I found unsatisfying about my old life than heterosexual monogamy. Perhaps the liberation I was seeking from a feminist, progressive existence felt in some ways like a cage, barring me off from certain experiences. In my poly life, I can step inside another role. I can play the girlish flirt, try it on for size and see how it feels. Sometimes it feels good, and sometimes that makes me feel bad.
In an attempt to stop living half a life, I am living a double life instead. I do not know how to merge these two sides of my self, how to become whole. Who am I if I give in to this softer side? It’s still too early to tell. I want to give my new self the time and space to breathe and mature, so she can catch up to the rest of me, who has been navigating the world as a sexual creature for the last 15 years. But she needs to grow up. No one likes to see adults acting like teenagers, especially when that adult is yourself.
Last night, my husband and I were sitting in bed, composing and decomposing text after text, trying to figure out how to break up with someone. It was difficult and scary, and we felt deeply insecure. Dating is hard work, and it takes time and practice and lots of failure. But if I want to get better, it’s hard work I need to do. In desperate need of a pep talk, we called our friend, the same one who made no apologies for men who ignore sexism. We explained the situation, and asked for help. We talked through the importance of being honest, of standing up for what you believe in, and in calling out bullshit when you see it. Armed with her blessing, we finally hit send. “Tell me how it goes,” she said, “And I’m already proud of you.”