Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I recently told my partner of a year that I couldn’t marry them. They brought up marriage shortly after we found out we were pregnant and moved into a new home together, and the look on my face must have conveyed how complex my feelings are toward getting married a third time. I told them it wasn’t a no, just not right now.

The knee-jerk reaction of fear made me incredibly sad. The thought of marriage made me instantly claustrophobic, despite admitting that raising a child together and purchasing a home with this partner was a far greater entanglement of our lives than being legally wed. Since that time, I wondered what specifically about marriage makes me feel so trapped. I realized I could only think of one word to describe my experiences with it up until this point: Disappointment. I was tired of disappointment, and the partners I’d been married to had let me down the most.

I see marriage as an artificial entanglement that people misguidedly put faith in to provide security in their relationship — security that isn’t earned or is poorly nurtured long-term. I recognize the legal reasons for wanting to be married, but I fail to see what benefit it would provide to my new relationship, other than creating a legal bond that would be expensive to break. It might provide some small measure of security if my partner ever passed away or was hospitalized. Marriage certainly will not protect my heart. It will not keep me from being abused and neglected.

My first husband was a disappointment in that I was incredibly naïve about relationships and what I wanted and who I was. We both were, or we would’ve recognized the red flags. I realized shortly after we were married how ill-suited we were for each other, and how those differences grew daily until there was a chasm between us that couldn’t be bridged. I discuss this in more detail in The Sexually Abandoned Spouse.

My first marriage was a mistake, but one that I’m not sure could’ve been avoided. I was woefully unprepared for partnership. I’m from a generation that saw most parents divorce, including my own, so I had so few examples of what healthy marriage looked like. Figuring out relationships was mostly trial and error for me. I can look back in hindsight and thank my first husband for insight into who I am, what is important to me, and how to navigate companionship. However, that lesson was incredibly painful.

My second marriage was a completely different animal. One that I’m still grappling with, and that’s one reason why I can’t marry my current partner without some closure and healing and an abundance of caution. My second go at happiness fundamentally damaged my feelings toward love and intimacy, and I’m slowly rebuilding that through therapy, self-care, and the companionship of a wonderful person who is very patient with me, and feels that I’m worth the wait.

It has been nearly two years since the official end of my second marriage. My relationship with my second husband has, by far, been the greatest disappointment of my life. I choose to use that word, rather than “heartbreak,” which I find a bit sentimental. It also gives power where there is none. I am not broken. I’m able to love just fine.

My ex failed to live up to the promises he made to me on our wedding day, and I hesitate to get up in front of friends and family again and let someone else make another promise to me that’s just going to be broken. The disappointment that comes with that broken vow has swallowed my joy in the past, and it took me a while to find myself again. I’m understandably weary of any more painful life lessons.

My second marriage was not a mistake. If I had to do it over again, I would still marry him, because taking a chance on someone you love and trying to build a life with them is not weakness, it is strength. Sometimes it is worth it. Relationships in general are extending trust that our partners will communicate honestly, build a life with equal persistence, and treat us with respect and value. However, people are flawed and sometimes they deeply disappoint us with their lack of care. Anyone in a relationship is taking a risk their partner will choose the latter option, and sometimes that risk pays off. Sometimes it does not.

I love my ex-husband. I don’t use the past tense here because I believe if you truly love someone, those feelings don’t die so easily. Sometimes I think about the affection we used to share and I feel a sense of longing for him. He was a hopeless romantic, and a good partner in many ways. We had mornings of coffee in bed reading together, breakfasts, little notes he’d leave on paper bags with warm chocolate croissants inside. He was great about doing the dishes, and making me banana bread, and writing me love letters. Our life was cozy, and, at times, perfect.

We were the most syrupy sweet couple, and it was obvious to all our family and friends we loved each other very much. I believe his love was genuine, I don’t doubt that. He called me his “heart,” and told me daily how much he cherished me, and for the second time, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with someone, and it surprised me. I never thought I’d want that again. When we got engaged, our friends were so happy for us. I remember feeling so supported in my relationship, a sentiment that masked a lot of red flags that I had mentioned to almost no one.

Three months into our budding relationship, I discovered he was cheating. I was using his computer to check Facebook, and before I switched profiles, I saw a message notification from a woman he’d been sex chatting with regularly. Their relationship hadn’t stopped when he and I became a couple. I went into the message, feeling like I was going to vomit, and I couldn’t stop reading. She mentioned me in the chat, asking if he should be talking to her now that he had a girlfriend, but he chose not to stop. I was devastated.

We spent a week broken up, and then the following Saturday I asked to see him and talk things out. We spent a night in a suite at a hotel downtown, having sex and eating in bed. I packed a picnic lunch of curried chicken sandwiches and cheese and crackers. I bought him a bottle of beer that we shared. I didn’t want the relationship to end. I was so in love with him that I took a chance and told him I wanted to stay together. He said he saw my forgiveness as a gift and promised he would never let the cheating happen again.

When we were engaged and living together, I found messages from woman #2. This time, I had a feeling something was going on by the way he was acting and I checked his computer. He and this woman were relatively friendly at first, but over time the conversation become very sexual in nature. I confronted him and he swore it would stop, and I reluctantly believed him. At this point, we were about six months away from the wedding, and the thought of calling it off seemed impossible. I wish I had broken it off then.

A month before the wedding, I discovered another lie, one that should of been a deal-breaker. He had been laid off from his job shortly after we got engaged, and wasn’t making very much money on unemployment. I’d been trusting him with money we received for the wedding from friends and family, including over $1K we made at our Jack n’ Jill. Instead of putting it in savings like we agreed upon, he’d been spending it. When I questioned him about how much was saved, the numbers didn’t add up, and I eventually got the truth after repeated denials.

Again, I forgave him. I mention this last one because none of his cheating ever extended to in-person interactions, and I’ve been told by well-meaning friends (and some not so much) that his actions don’t qualify as infidelity. Dishonesty is the root of why cheating is wrong. Sex isn’t the problem. Lies and cheating are equally a violation of the relationship agreement between two people. Deception in all its forms is incredibly damaging, and actual contact or not, the actions were harmful and crossed boundaries.

He begged his parents for money to cover the Jack n’ Jill funds he spent, and we moved forward with the wedding. I told him I wanted to trust him, that I was never going to check his phone or computer again, but he had to promise me the chats and lying would stop, that this was his absolute last chance. I hated violating his privacy, so that would stop, as long as he swore he wouldn’t in turn violate my trust. He promised me he would do whatever it took to keep our relationship safe, that he loved me, and I believed him.

The wedding was beautiful. My ex was beaming with joy watching me walk down the isle, surrounded by 150 of our closest family and friends. I was told by many that it was the most fun wedding they’d ever been to. Our pictures were beautiful — memories of a perfect love that I believed would last a lifetime.

When we’d been happily married a couple years, our sex life went through a bad dry spell. I had to initiate all the time with him, which was traumatic for me because of my past sexual abandonment. When I did initiate, it often stalled out or became awkward. When I tried to stop and talk to him about what he was thinking to try and understand, he would get defensive. It was a vicious cycle that only escalated.

Finally, after a year of this, and no progress when I tried to get to the root of the problem, I told him that I wanted an open marriage and counseling. I wanted him to explore talking to someone about his own unaddressed roadblocks that I felt were hurting our relationship. Ethical non-monogamy was something I’d been wanting for a while, even before our problems built to a head. I wanted a release valve for my needs and to stay married to my husband. I was desperate for a solution that wasn’t divorce. At this point I wasn’t considering that perhaps “ethical” non-monogamy would be a bad idea for a man who had issues with honesty, because I’d believed the cheating had stopped.

After some initial hesitation, and a very open conversation with friends who had a long-term open marriage, my husband felt that we were both well-suited to polyamory and he soon had a full roster of dates. My ex is a very good looking man, and I felt like exploring his attractiveness and sexuality might be good for him. It took some time for us to acclimate, but I felt compersion for him and how successful he seemed to be at dating. We became involved with the polyamory community, and met a lot of people that became close friends. For a brief time, it significantly improved our marriage.

I was less successful at dating for the first three months we were open, but I felt a sense of independence and autonomy that I didn’t realize was missing. As I dated more frequently and realized what dynamic worked for me and didn’t, I eventually broached the subject of how we would want to have our polycule structured, if we’d been open to having partners live with us communally or just continue to date separately. The honest communication was so refreshing. For me, non-monogamy opened up options that felt natural and gave my marriage room to breathe. I felt positive about our situation for the first time in over a year, like we’d turned a bend and we would grow organically into something unexpected, but satisfying for both of us. My husband shared that sentiment.

About four months in, I began dating a new partner that I cared about deeply. I spent two days a week at his house — more time than I ever thought I’d spend away from my husband. This new partner and I talked about pregnancy one night. I went to my husband and told him what was discussed. I didn’t feel comfortable having that conversation with a partner and then not mentioning it, but also I was excited at the option of releasing the pressure valve to get me pregnant. My husband performed poorly under high expectations, and I thought it would alleviate his anxiety further about our sex life, specifically since I had discovered complications that made conception difficult.

My ex completely and totally melted down at the suggestion of a non-traditional family where he was not the biological father of our children. At this point, however, he and I were still only having sex once every couple weeks and realistically, it just wasn’t enough to get me pregnant with my complications. IVF was an option that we couldn’t afford. I told him that having a family was something I needed to be happy, and if he wasn’t willing to improve our sex life enough to get me pregnant, something we’d been working on for almost two years at that point, I needed to explore other options, and I wanted to at least discuss them. I told him he didn’t get to take something off the table without a conversation, not without realizing how it would affect me and our relationship long-term.

Me wanting kids was not new. It was something established upfront in our relationship. He and I talked about it openly as a shared goal since our engagement. After our discussion, he told me to my face that he was willing to explore conception with other partners, and then continued to melt down to anyone who would listen behind my back. I would find out later that was something he did often. In the midst of this, I also discovered through a mutual friend that my husband had made comments about us not being able to afford kids, which was troubling on a couple levels. This was news to me that he thought this — a lie of omission and a total lack of communication. He was also doing nothing to improve our financial situation to make affording a family easier, despite that unspoken concern. Financial planning was all on me.

I began to wonder what else he wasn’t telling me, or if I even knew him at all.

Polyamory did not end my marriage. I want to be very explicit about that. What it did do was give me a front row seat to how my husband conducted himself in relationships, and seeing that from the outside was eye-opening to how bad my situation was. He was not honest with partners. He manipulated for his own benefit. He told people anything they wanted to hear to be loved. I realized he was absolutely doing the same thing to me regarding kids, his job, and most of our life goals that I thought we shared. He was a different version of himself to every person he interacted with, and I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that I was the exception to that.

It was shortly after the conversation about children that I decided to separate on a trial basis. I felt like my presence in my husband’s life was enabling him to remain stagnant in his behavior and career progression. I was a security blanket, keeping him comfy and unwilling to grow. Polyamory had given me a taste of autonomy after being in a string of severely co-dependent relationships, and I felt like a separation was needed to sever my husband’s financial and emotional reliance on me and force him to stand as his own person. I needed change and a fully-realized, adult relationship. At the end of my 30’s, I couldn’t afford to waste time with a partner who was unwilling to move forward.

We started seeing a marriage counselor. I sat there in session while my ex lied to the counselor in front of me and misrepresented our situation. He was even trying to be liked by her, creating a story that painted him in a far more flattering light. Despite this, I was hoping to work through some issues with him in counseling, living separately and continuing to grow my autonomy and see how he responded to the separation. I hoped if he showed some progress, we could start dating, and then, eventually, reconcile completely and move back in together. We made an announcement publicly that we were separating. I had no clue that it would be the matchstick that lit the bomb that blew up my life. One that was hovering just above me the entire time.

I got a text message from woman #3.

She told me that my ex had been soliciting her for sex chats right before our engagement, and that she wanted to apologize to me for it. She was glad I was leaving him. I was sitting in traffic court when she messaged and was able to read through and respond once, asking if she was sure was referring to my husband, before being told by a clerk to put away my phone. That hour waiting to get out to the parking lot was the longest of my life. I knew it was true even without reading her answer, because it followed his pattern of behavior. Behavior that he promised was not worth risking our marriage and he’d sworn repeatedly had stopped.

I confronted my husband when I got home. I asked if he had been chatting inappropriately with anyone else I didn’t know about before we opened our marriage, and he said yes. I asked if this was the reason why our sex life had stalled out, and he said yes. He said he’d felt guilty — the missing link that I’d been beating my head against the wall trying to figure out for a whole year. I asked if he’d been cheating our whole relationship, lying to me for over five years. He said yes. I told him it was over and I wanted a divorce. His response was “I wouldn’t blame you.” It was so unapologetic. So ice cold. I left the house and went to a restaurant down the street where my friend was waiting for me and wept openly at the table.

I came home later that night. I was so hurt. I asked him how he could do this to me, to our marriage. Did he care about me at all? His defense was “Well, my friend says at least I told you about it.” I wanted to light his friend on fire. Was this supposed to be a comfort? I corrected him: No, you didn’t tell me about it. You got caught. We’ve been having sex with other people for over half a year, and it didn’t occur to you to just clean the slate and tell me? He said he thought about doing it, but then he just didn’t.

He. Just. Didn’t. The disappointment completely swallowed me.

For the first time in our relationship, I made him sleep on the couch. Two weeks later I was moved out. The waves of further disappointment came crashing in after that. When he made no attempt to reconcile and apologize to me for what he did, I was wrecked. He sent me letters often when we were dating, and I waited for one in my inbox, pouring out his heart and begging me for another chance. It never came.

When I found out he lied to mutual friends about what happened, I went through the “anger” stage of mourning. It fits his pattern, though. He’s such a nice guy, he doesn’t want to destroy that image. That image is more important than a relationship with me. His ability to move through the world being seen as “the good guy” with his Superman cape intact was more important than our marriage.

When he brought a new partner to our divorce hearing and claimed she was just a friend when I called him out on it, the disappointment was so bitter that I almost choked on it. When he got on the stand and melodramatically sniffed with tear-glazed eyes as he confirmed our marriage was over, right after lying about how none of our mutual debt belonged to him, I realized that I didn’t even want to be friends with someone who would look for sympathy when he was the author of his own tragedy. I’d given him so many chances, and he squandered every single one like they were worthless.

How could someone who loved me so strongly, who I cherished with all my heart as my soul mate, be so utterly self-centered and shameless? I was enraged. A bonfire of scorned love. I told him after the hearing that I wanted nothing to do with him.

His actions destroyed any illusions that romantic love had meaning or value. Love was a lie — a social construct used to keep the human race from extinction, because surely, if we were all so horrible to each other without the attachment of romantic love, nobody would procreate. Love is telling someone with chocolate croissants and sweeter sentiments that they are your heart, that they are the most important person to you, and then hurting them with years of deception, because it’s easier than self-awareness and growth, and then petulantly blaming them for it instead of taking accountability.

Love was spending five years loving someone with all your heart, just to have them end up a stranger that lives across town in the apartment you shared together for four years, with your cats, carrying on his life with no consequence to what he did and how utterly and completely he destroyed something so important and so beautiful to you.

Love is disappointing as fuck. It is being used and abused by people you give your heart to because they are weak or bored. Love is the ashes of joy.

Love is not enough. Love is easy. It is cheap. It is nothing to build a life on. It does not provide common goals or mutual respect or growth. It is the empty version of friendship and companionship, hollow and waiting to be filled with responsibility and healthy boundaries and shared future. Those things are hard, and love is a lazy companion that gives up and abandons you when they begin to sweat a little too much.

Love continued to kick my ass. Right after my second husband destroyed my trust, the long-term partner I had discussed children with decided to become monogamous with his other girlfriend. He was dishonest about it and broke up with me abruptly and callously. Between these two men, I completely lost the ability to trust anyone at all.

Looking back now, that caution was a gift. I spent an entire Fall and Winter reclaiming my heart for myself. I lived in a communal house with four other roommates when I left the apartment. The house was beautiful, peaceful. I was surrounded by loving, kind people who supported me in my healing. My roommate did a Reiki session with me one day, and in the middle of meditation, I had a vision.

I saw my heart as a garden. In the middle of the garden was a secret, sacred place with a fountain. I knew I’d let too many people into that sacred place who didn’t deserve it. That water was my journey, and my future, and my joy. I had to learn that it was okay to guard that precious life from disappointment. It was okay to shut people out until I knew they were safe. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and I put too much hope and trust in people who had no business being in my sanctuary, who created stagnation and dissatisfaction, and I had every right to push them away.

The visualization was incredibly powerful and enlightening. I’d forgiven my second husband so many times, but not out of trust. I did it out of fear of being alone and never having a family, and that fear drove me to leave myself unguarded. I allowed attachment too quickly, and it made me cling to people who were unworthy. I envisioned a bear guarding my wellspring of life. A spirit guide that would heal and protect my energy until partners and chosen family came along who would treat that space with the respect and reverence it deserved.

I spent the next year and a half seeing every relationship, and even every date, as an opportunity to practice setting boundaries and expressing my needs honestly and unapologetically. I saw first dates as, essentially, a job interview for companionship and avoided superficial attachment. It was enormously effective. I encountered my fair share of abusers, but I put up walls when they crossed boundaries and pushed them out before they had a chance to even see the garden gates. I also made friendships that were, in many ways, more satisfying than partnership.

Eventually, my caution paid off and led me to someone amazing, who understands the disappointment of love and the power of kept promises and properly nurtured companionship. So far, our journey together has been incredibly satisfying, healing, and validating. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and in January, we will welcome our child into the world. Then, maybe someday — when I’m ready — I’ll ask them to marry me. I already have two ex husbands, but they would be my first wife.

I desire love like anyone else, but it isn’t my endgame anymore in relationships. I’ve been disappointed by it too often, and now I seek out more fulfilling goals. I want respect. I want collaboration. I want honesty. I want generosity. I want accountability. I look forward to the future with my new family, and our continued growth with each other on this shared journey of life.

Coffee snob. Horror writer. Tall. Polyamorous, pansexual, queer nerd.

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