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How I Learned to Give Up Control in My Open Relationship

Why loving someone means allowing them to be who they are, even when that person is no longer in sync with who you are.

by Jeff Leavell
12 April 2017, 7:54am

Illustration by Petra Eriksson

I was seven months sober when I first met my husband, Alex. Our first date was at a Thai restaurant; we went home afterward and had the kind of sex that changes your life, the kind that transcends a quick orgasm and forges a deep connection with another human being. We fell asleep cuddling, watching 80s horror movies.

That was six years ago, and even then I could see the whole trajectory of our lives unfolding in those first few weeks—how happy we would be together, the life we would build. It was plain to me that he would be my everything, and that together, we would be invincible. But this is the same story that everyone has who falls in love—we spin necessary fictions while our brain is steeped in those intense chemical reactions that make us feel amazing and crazy at the same time.

I recently met my friend Isaac at Gym Bar in West Hollywood. We were both going through tough times in our relationships, and we were meeting weekly to talk things through. "I don't think we're going to make it," Issac told me. "Mike and I, we aren't the same people we were seven years ago. He isn't the man I married and fell in love with."

For the past year and a half, Alex and I have gone through the most challenging period of our marriage thus far, and at times I've felt exactly the same way. A misdiagnosis of depression and the wrong medication led Alex into a months-long period of mental and physical chaos—one medication made him sleep all day, another brought on mania. I didn't know how to handle what was happening, and I lashed out in response. Finally, in October, Alex was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He's since gone through (and is still undergoing) treatment, but there have been moments when I wondered if we would survive.

"Mike thinks opening up our relationship might help," Isaac said. "But everyone says you shouldn't open up when things aren't working. And things definitely aren't working. We haven't fucked in months. He goes to bed at nine, I stay up till two in the morning. We aren't in sync anymore."

Which made me wonder: Are Alex and I in sync anymore?

In those early months of dating, we took a trip to San Francisco. During a long walk through the city, Alex said he thought it was "inevitable" that we'd open up our relationship. At the time, I had my own doubts about that—I didn't think open relationships could work, and I thought polyamory was bullshit. We got into a fight over the definition of the word "inevitable."

Six months later, we had our first three-way. I still remember leaving our friend's apartment after fucking him and high-fiving Alex (yes, we actually high-fived) on the way to the car. We were high on the experience and high on each other.

Thus began a year of sexual exploration, where the two of us learned to trust each other and play together. We experimented with other couples, tried dating a few guys together. We shared our fantasies and looked for ways to explore them as a unit.

But then Alex got a job on the TV show Znation, which was shooting in the Pacific Northwest, a thousand miles from our home in LA. Despite the fears I once had, our year of exploration made me realize that opening up didn't mean that we didn't love each other. So we decided to be fully open while we were apart.

Learning to navigate a long distance relationship was hard, but doing so while learning not to constantly freak the fuck out about what my husband was doing with other men made things even harder. I had to accept that I was powerless—not just over individual facets of our relationship, but over everything. What Alex did, who he fucked: ultimately, I had to accept that I had no control over who he was and the choices he made, whether we were "open" or not.

That was a hard lesson for someone like me, who always wants to be in control.

Between the show's first and second season, when Alex was back in LA, we met Jon, the man who would become our live-in-boyfriend. Falling in love with Jon—and watching Alex fall in love with Jon, too—taught me about jealousy and acceptance, about what it meant to truly let go and the true nature of powerlessness.

It was during season two of Alex's show that I met Conor, the guy who would become my other boyfriend. As that relationship bloomed, I once again found myself traveling down a road I hadn't expected. I learned that love was larger and less finite than I had imagined, and that my capacity for love was maybe— maybe—endless.

And in January, while on a trip to London, I met Noah. Initially, I thought Noah would just be an affair, another guy I met along the way. But as things progressed, I realized that we were becoming something more, and like I'd faced before with Jon and Conor, I had to make a decision: Would I travel down this road, too?

Throughout it all, Alex struggled to find the right doctors and diagnosis. There were periods where he went off his meds; our new family therapist explained that this wasn't uncommon for people struggling with bipolar disorder because even though the meds can bring a sense of calm, they can't provide those old mania highs. For a time, Alex moved into a private apartment in the back of our house while he sorted things out for himself.

Jon and I wanted to be supportive, but it took time for us to fully understand what was happening. We each found individual therapists, and we now go to "triad counseling." Even still, the three of us began to feel far apart. Alex, in search of someone who understood what he was going through, began dating a guy in Seattle. Jon was beginning to explore dating other guys, too. Our grand experiment seemed to be taking a new turn.

"I want Mike to be the man he was when we first met," Isaac said to me at the bar. "I don't think I like the person he is now. I don't like how everything has changed. How do you deal with all the shit? It never seems to stop. Everything keeps changing."

People often ask how I manage the changes that accompany not just one relationship, but several—how do I juggle the issues that Alex has faced while maintaining my relationship with Jon, Conor and Noah? With Alex in crisis, how much energy did I have for the other people in my life? The answer is that the more people you have on your side, and the more love you experience, the more support that can be given—the more resources there are to be shared.

If anything, I've learned we are powerless over our lovers and the people they become. I am powerless over who Alex is, just as I am powerless over Jon, Conor and Noah, too. And they are powerless over me. I don't know where any of this will end up. Jon, Alex and I—the relationship at the core of all this—are still moving through some pretty dark waters.

Life can be terrifying, and nothing is guaranteed. Maybe loving someone means simply allowing them to find their own way; maybe it's about allowing them to be who they are, even when that person is no longer in sync with who you are.

These men, I have no idea where or who they will be in a year. I'm powerless over that. But they are my family, and they are the men I chose to love.

I don't know if being in an open relationship is a solution to anything. I'm still not even sure, in the long run, that it works. But I don't think I could have done anything different. I don't regret any of the choices I made. Even in these strange times, I feel lucky. Grateful.

"I just try to hold on," I said to Isaac. "And I do my best to be as kind as possible, to remember that even if things have changed, there was a moment when I fell madly in love with Alex. I try to remember that."

And I've learned not to fight what's happening, but to allow it to take place, and to allow my powerlessness to be my strength.

I am the luckiest man I know. I've had the opportunity to love some of the most amazing men in the world, and I would not trade that for anything no matter what comes, or who we will become in the future.

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