Americans talk about love: How we chose an open marriage

"Early in our relationship, Cate said, 'If you ever see anybody else, I'll kill you.'" An oral history of polyamory

Topics: Nonfiction,

Americans talk about love: How we chose an open marriage

Nick: The first thing you have to know is that early on in our relationship, Cate actually said, “If you ever see anybody else, I’ll kill you.”

Cate: Oh, yes, I was completely conventional. I’d never heard of polyamory. I certainly would not have believed that it was possible to love more than one person.

Nick: When I met Cate, we’d each been married and divorced. I was 48, she was 42.

Cate: We had sex every single night we were together. For something like five years.

Nick: Yeah, but we weren’t together every night.

Cate: [Laughs] My kids lived with me four days a week, and Nick lived with his full time, and we traveled a lot, so we never had the chance to devolve into a domestic routine.

Nick: I mean, we were in love –

Cate: [Fake sobs] You said “were”! [Laughs]

Nick: We met each other in January. In April, we did Ecstasy together for the first time. We began to do it every few months. It always resulted in this very significant affirmation of how much we loved each other. It did all the good things Ecstasy is supposed to do. About seven years into our relationship, we started fantasizing about various sexual possibilities. You know, just for fun. Cate wanting to see me with a guy –

Cate: I mean, we were naked, in bed, so it was not a totally abstract conversation on our part.

Nick: This went on probably two or three times, and at a certain point I said to Cate, you know, we don’t have to just fantasize about this stuff. We can actually do it.

Cate: I smacked him! [Laughs]

Nick: My best friend from high school, he’s sort of a closet homo, and he’s always wanted to do sexual stuff with me. So we were out at his house one day, getting stoned, and Paul was delighted, you know, by the prospect of sucking each other off in front of Cate.

Cate: I was not interested in participating. Paul’s quite beautiful physically, but he’s way too annoying. But it was fun because it was different. I’m generally up for anything different as long as, you know, no puppies or minors are being hurt. [Laughs] I’m glad we experienced it.

Nick: There was something unfun about it for me. I’m not particularly attracted to guys. But I was doing it primarily for Cate’s delectation.

The next day, we had dinner with Cate’s best friend, Elizabeth, and got stoned. And Elizabeth and I were totally clear that the three of us could be fucking. Then and there. And when we left, I said to Cate, “You know, we could have gone to bed with Elizabeth just now.” And she said, “Really?”

Cate: I was oblivious as usual.

Nick: I set it up. We went to Vegas and rented a room.

Cate: Because where else do you go to be sinful? [Laughs] I just figured that life was short. I really trusted Elizabeth and I really trusted Nick.

Nick: Cate had a justification, which I have always found incredibly romantic. Which is that she wanted somebody to reminisce with at my funeral about what a great fuck I was.

Cate: I imagined all your lovers gathered around the casket going, “Daaaamn!” [Laughs]

I thought it was exciting because it was transgressive. I had never been in bed with a girl before. And it’s a turn-on for a lot of couples to watch their partner have sex. It was sexy to see Nick in bed with someone.

Nick: And what Cate said, which I find interesting, is that on one hand, it was one of the most terrifying things she’d ever seen, but on the other hand, it was one of the most exciting things she’d ever seen.

Cate: Yep, that’s true.

Nick: And what happened next was that Elizabeth and I really wanted to be together again. Cate agreed to another meeting. And it was pretty disastrous. It turned out that neither of us was sufficiently bi. Threesomes weren’t going to work out for us.

Cate: I didn’t want to be in bed with them. I didn’t know how to be. I’m just not sufficiently bisexual, and unfortunately, that’s not going to change. I remember being acutely aware that we had opened Pandora’s box. We’d unlocked the genie from the bottle. Because what happened was that then Nick got involved with Elizabeth. Emotionally. So we decided we would have sex with other people. Separately. Separate relationships.

Nick: Cate was unbelievably brave about it.

Cate: Well, the reason I went along with it was simply that it seemed interesting. It seemed worth it to me to push my psychological limits, to just work through it. I wanted to get to a better self, because I knew — I hope that doesn’t sound preachy — but I just feel like if you can be generous in that way, it’s better.

Nick: Cate, I’m just … I’m a boy, you know. It’s not unusual when a boy wants to do this sort of thing. What’s unusual was Cate, like nobody I’ve ever seen, decided at some point that this was a good idea. And she sort of never looked back.

Cate: But it was hard. It was complicated. I was so jealous. Oh, my God. Nick would be with Elizabeth and I wouldn’t be able to sleep. She lived in California and he was there a lot on business, so they would spend the night together. They spent a weekend in Paris and it almost killed me.

Nick and Elizabeth, to their credit, would always offer to stop. And I knew that if I had asked, they would have. Once he was with Elizabeth and they called and said I was really present in their thoughts. And I knew that was true. But I remember really struggling with it. I remember explaining to Nick: “You have my permission 100 percent. But I can’t promise that I’ll be happy.”

Nick: I remember we had a very interesting conversation that I’ve never forgotten. We were walking around in Montreal and discussing how in your average relationship, at some point, somebody strays. And then you spend an unbelievable amount of energy either breaking up or salvaging things.

Cate and I realized that we would rather figure out a way to have a rich, sexual, romantic life with expanded boundaries than to constantly be trying to repair a relationship that was falling apart because somebody’s got the hots for somebody.

Cate: It just seemed like a more interesting way to live, to have an infinitely greater sense of sexual possibility, to have the possibility of romantic love with more than one person. I mean, it’s rare in life to really fall in love, but –

Nick: I mean, there’s love and there’s love and there’s love and there’s love.

Cate: But just that there’s that possibility, if you’re having drinks with someone, or, say, see someone standing on the subway, for example, and you know even just in the abstract that you could have sex with them and that it wouldn’t send the entire apple cart crashing, there is a sense of possibility that is lovely to live with — even if you never, ever exercise it.

Nick: We started out with quite a few rules, and we ended up with three: no sneaking around; safe sex; and we each have veto power. If one of us says no, that’s it.

Cate: Anyone who comes into our life has to understand that our primary commitment to each other is the foundation for whatever takes place with anyone else. And that’s not up for grabs: I’m not leaving Nick.

Nick: Still, I like to say this is not a game for amateurs, you know? This is a high-risk game. Because we’re definitely talking about more than just being simply in lust. Really, if you’re going to live a polyamorous life, you have to accept the fact that your partner might fall in love with somebody else.

Cate: When one of us has a crush on someone new, the other one can’t replicate that. They cannot compete with the newness, and the new relationship energy takes over.

Nick: Somebody said to me, “Jealousy obviously isn’t a problem for you and Cate.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. If we weren’t jealous, we wouldn’t care about each other.” It’s that we handle it differently than the average couple.

To make this work, we have to appreciate each other all of the time.

Cate: You cannot take each other for granted.

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Nick: Being poly, if you’re going to make it work, you’ve got to work twice as hard on your relationship. To the extent that Cate can go out and fall in love with somebody, I have to work pretty hard to earn her respect and her love. It becomes very important to express our love for each other. When I get on an airplane, I always text Cate — part of it is habit and part of it is I need Cate to know I love her.

Cate: I think the impression that people have of these things is that the guy is the sexual adventurer, and he somehow talks his girlfriend into this and she goes along to keep him happy. That was not the case.

Nick: No. I’m very jealous of Cate’s love affairs.

Cate: Wait, whoa, whoa. I have one. One love affair. With Daniel. And I did have this intense thing — this –

Nick: It isn’t over yet, and it counts.

Cate: Yeah, it totally counts, but you fell “in love” with Christine, or at least you were; you certainly fell “in love” with Sara; you were “in love” with Elizabeth. You’re not exactly sitting on the shore here.

Nick: I don’t think I was ever in love with Elizabeth.

Cate: [Rolls eyes and makes a face]

Nick: [Laughs] We had a very dark period, which came about when Cate first deeply fell in love with someone else. It was just the classic case where, you know, the boys tend to be the ones that say to the girls, “This is going to be great! Let’s do it, let’s do it, let’s do it.”

And when the girl finally decides, “Okay, this non-monogamy thing is fantastic. Let’s do it,” that’s when the boy tends to freak out: “Wait! Wait! It was okay when I was sleeping around, but if you’re going to do it, and especially if you’re actually going to start falling for someone, this is way too nerve-racking for me.”

Cate had been so brave going through the pain of me and Elizabeth, when it became my turn to go through some pain, because Cate had really fallen for someone, the last thing I was going to do was pull the plug on it. But I didn’t have all of the resources necessary to go with the flow. It was problematic.

Cate: But Nick also went through open-heart surgery. And — can I discuss the chemical aspect, Nick?

Nick: Yes.

Cate: Okay, this is about seven years into our relationship. Nick was fifty-five. He had open-heart surgery. And I was in a relationship with Daniel, who was thirty years younger than Nick. Nick was self-medicating with cocaine for part of that time.

Nick: We call it the Dark Period. I had to go through what Cate went through when I was with Elizabeth. But listen, part of it is that Daniel is thirty years younger than I am. It had nothing to do with mortality issues. It has to do with vitality issues.

Cate: What’s the difference?

Nick: I wasn’t worried about dying.

Cate: Liar! “I’m only having open-heart surgery — but who thinks about dying?” [Laughs]

Nick: The big problem with the Daniel period — it drove me crazy that I couldn’t excite Cate the way that Daniel could. To know that we couldn’t have that new relationship energy, as Cate calls it, that fresh excitement of somebody new, that I wasn’t able to provide that for Cate, and conversely, that she wasn’t able to provide that for me –

Cate: I think Nick was having a life crisis.

Nick: No. The point is that I was afraid you’d want to leave me for him. And by now, we’ve each had a half a dozen relationships that have been of any significance. Some of them have gone on for five or six years. But for me, none of them could replace Cate. If Cate fell off the face of the earth, it’s unlikely that I would have sought any of them to be my girlfriend.

Cate: That’s a relief.

Nick: I mean, I had a deep, deep crush on Sara. You always pointed out that my eyes just glazed over at the thought of her, that she turned me to jelly. But Sara’s fucking crazy. I mean, I would never in a million years want to be with Sara.

Cate: But when it happened with that woman Christine whom you saw very briefly, every fiber of my body went WHOOP! ZHOOP! ZHOOP! I mean, it wasn’t a matter of personal animus –

Nick: She was a really good person.

Cate: But I was just terrified of her, terrified — as I have never been before or since — that I would lose Nick. Not because of her, but this was during the Dark Period, and we were not on solid ground. If you want to have a non-monogamous relationship like we have, you have to be able to communicate, and we weren’t communicating well.

Nick: It was a complicated moment. Cate was several months into this very serious, deep love affair with Daniel, and I met this woman who I think would never have tried to take me away from Cate.

Cate: I was not worried about her being the evil player in this at all; I was worried about Nick falling in love with her.

Nick: I was falling in love with her. And I think the really interesting thing that I’ve never understood how to parse is that Cate has fallen deeply in love with people without ever thinking about leaving me, whereas I have found it difficult to fall in love with people, precisely because of that fear.

Cate: That’s because I’m good at boundaries and rules and you are not.

Nick: That’s probably a good answer.

Cate: Anyway, there’s terror in any direction. It was a good example of the judicious use of veto power.

Nick: Whereas with Colleen, with whom you invoked the veto at the beginning, it was because you don’t trust her.

Cate: [Hisses] [Stage whisper] She’s a viperrrrrrr. [Laughs]

There were a million — not a million, but many — painful challenges. Enormous, terrifying. But if you have relationships that have real emotional depth to them, which is what we aspire to, then it is never safe. You’re terrified about losing the person. It’s high risk.

But if we weren’t polyamorous, who knows what would have happened?

Nick: I can’t imagine that I could have stayed in a relationship for this long monogamously.

Cate: It seems like giving each other permission to have these other adventures is definitely the reason we’re so happy.

I would say that I love Nick for nine million reasons. Most of which have to do with the same conventional reasons that cause other people to love each other. I love him for how he takes care of me, and how smart he is, and how principled he is and blah-di-blah-di-blah.

And the fact that he allows me this happiness that I have been able to find with other people is a tremendous and trust-filled gift. I suspect that he feels this way even more so, in that he is more of a browser. I’m not implying that Nick is some big rottweiler and I have to say, “No, down boy.” He’s actually not a total horn dog –

Nick: I’m not.

Cate: But his default is “yes.” I mean, that’s the essence of what I love about him. His catholic taste is enormously appealing. Nick is the most interesting person I’ve ever known.

Nick: Oh, darling, that’s so sweet.

Cate: I’m always saying this, but it’s what Virginia Woolf said about Leonard Woolf: that when he entered the room she never knew what he was going to say. And I never know what Nick is going to be thinking or reading or wondering about, and it’s intoxicating. 

John Bowe is a freelance writer living in New York. He is the co-writer of the film "Basquiat," co-editor of "GIG: Americans Talk About Their Jobs," and author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor And the Dark Side of The New Global Economy." He has written for the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney’s, and appeared on NPR’s "This American Life."

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