Iby Annabeth Leong
I’ve always wondered how a person who subscribes to the philosophy that sex is evil, horrible, shameful, and bad is supposed to just turn all that off on the wedding night and flip a mental switch that now sex is required, wonderful, joyous, and holy. In my experience, guilt and shame never go away that easily. I have a dear friend who seemed to manage that change just fine, to thrive within it. I think the permission slip of marriage set her free to explore in a way that she never could have allowed herself to do while single. It’s not something I can picture for myself, though. For me, the only solution is to not think of sex as shameful under any circumstance, so long as everyone involved consents and is of age to do so.
I’ve also never understood how a person can suddenly change from feeling like, “The absolute worst thing in the world that could happen to me would be to become pregnant,” to, “I want a child more than anything.” I read a very beautiful essay once that described a change from taking birth control pills daily to taking prenatal vitamins and marveled at all the small shifts of perspective that are indicated by that shift of behavior. Again, it’s not something I was able to follow in my own life. When I got into a situation in which it seemed like it might be time to get pregnant, I discovered that unprotected sex induced in me all the same panic as ever.
I bring up these two examples because I had the same experience with “infidelity” (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a moment). Infidelity, as many previous posts have described, is something our current culture deems an egregious offense. I have read studies that say we are more accepting of divorce, premarital sex, exploration of all sorts than people were fifty years ago—but far less accepting of infidelity. I have cheated on lovers at times, and I was wracked by guilt when I did.
Recently, however, I found myself in one of those switch situations. My husband and I, after probably a year or more of intense consideration, decided to become polyamorous. We laid out our expectations of how that would work—when and what did we need to tell each other, what sort of reassurances did we need from each other, and so on. And then I found myself in the novel situation of kissing someone else and knowing, intellectually, that it was allowed.
I am not being unfaithful, in that I have not broken any promises that I made. When I kiss my lover, I do it knowing that everyone involved is aware of the nature of the situation, that we’ve all chosen to be in it. My husband and my lover had dinner together before she and I ever kissed, confirming that everything was on the up and up.
I kiss him goodbye and drive to her house, text him that I’ve arrived safely, spend the night with her, and eventually kiss her goodbye and drive to the house I share with him, text her that I’ve arrived safely, and so on. It is a different sort of routine, but it’s a routine. It’s a different sort of faith, but there is a great deal of fidelity involved. I compare calendars and pay attention to my promises and do my best to be kind and fair to both of them.
Despite that, I had trouble flipping the switch. I found (and still find) that I am sometimes flooded with the sort of guilt I would feel if I was cheating. When there is any sort of problem, I am inclined to blame myself—if I didn’t have another lover, I think, this probably wouldn’t be happening (even if it totally would).
I also fear what people will think of me. People who know me as her lover, if they saw me with my husband… Would they think I was stepping out on her? Or vice versa? I worry that I’ll be branded with the shame even if the ordinary definition of infidelity doesn’t apply to me.
I read an advice column recently (and I really should stop reading those), in which the columnist ridiculed the idea that a man was in an open marriage, assuming he must be lying to the woman he’d approached, lying to his wife, out only for a lay, and a bunch of other stuff. Obviously, I don’t know the people involved, but the behavior described in the original letter sounded like the behavior people use when they’re trying to be ethical about this sort of thing. It’s painful to know that I can try my best to be ethical and yet still be seen as unfaithful or adulterous.
I’m still trying to get that switch flipped, though, because, as hard is it is to do, I want to see the situation as it is: no one is doing anything wrong. I’m lucky to be in this situation, to be understood so well by these people, to be cared for freely and as a free person. My hope is that I’m wrong to think of it as a switch to be flipped. Perhaps all this shame is a wound that will heal with time.