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Previous Ask Bear columns for The Butter can be found hereIf you have a question for Bear, The Butter’s advice columnist, send it along to asking.bear@gmail.com.

Dear Bear,

So there’s a boy, and I really really like him, and I’ve liked him a while, and he likes me back in a kind of getting married-like way, though we’re not engaged. But we’ve talked about “our life” as though it’s assured going forward. He’s from a family that’s like my family in various ways, and there’s a lot of expectation and positivity. It’s clear that if I marry him I will be showered with all the love and gifts and approval you can imagine (and as I said, I really, really like him).

Then there’s a girl (if it matters, I’m a girl). I have known her less long but I like her a lot too. Differently, and I don’t know if that’s a boy and girl thing or some other kind of thing. I’m different with her than with him. She and I are having a thing that I thought was going to be a fling but isn’t. Besides which she and I are also from pretty similar families and backgrounds. I am not sure how my parents and so on would receive the news that I was breaking up with the boy they’re all so excited about to take up with a girl, but she would be a soothing choice for them.

The boy doesn’t know about her, but she knows about him.

They live in Boston and Chicago, respectively. I live in New York, but I will graduate in December and there will no longer be any reason to boing around like a pinball. I should move to where one of them lives and set up shop there.

I bet you can guess the question. But I have to say one other thing first. It might sound stupid, but I love them both SO MUCH. Just really differently. Like night and day, like sunset and sunrise, like stars and dew. How is it possible that having so much love in my life sucks so bad? That is not what I was promised.

* * *

Dear Brave Correspondent,

So first, can we talk about polyamory? Because here’s what I cannot help but notice about your succinctly-summed-up dilemma: the actual problem does not seem to be too much love, but rather the idea that you cannot keep all the love that you currently have. Which is a different problem entirely. So it feels fair to ask whether you have explored – within yourself, or with any of the constituent parties – people’s feelings about the idea that you could maintain these multiple relationships concurrently, in an open and aboveboard way.

How is it possible that having so much love sucks so bad? It doesn’t. It’s the possibility of loss that sucks so bad, the idea that you can’t continue to have all the love. If, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously wrote, you love them not only for what they are but for who you are when you are with each of them; not only for for what they are making of themselves but for what they are making of you, then your feeling of suck is about losing a part of yourself. A possibility of who you could be. And that’s awful, for sure.

I am, my very own self, in a polyamorous (open)(nonmonogamous)(there are a lot of words for this) relationship, and there are many satisfactory things about it. Not the least of which is being able to enjoy loving and being loved by multiple people, without having to sneak off the Chicago in order to further sneak around with a girl I might happen to like. It’s true that polyamory isn’t for everyone, for various reasons – some of them are constitutional, things about how you or your partner(s) feel that make polyamorous relationships untenable. In those cases, it’s just not a good idea. But sometimes much of people’s resistance to polyamory, or other kinds of open relationships, is more cultural – seems weird, jealousy is a difficult emotion, family membership at the zoo only covers two adults, and so on and so forth. There are a couple of pretty good books about polyamory that you can look into (Opening Up by Tristan Taormino is my favorite), so I am not going to do three verses and the chorus about polyamory and how it can work, except to say: it can work. It can work in various permutations, it can work with partners together or separately, it can work with children, it can work with many other happy possibilities you may imagine in your future. It can work on a train, it can work in the rain; with a fox or in a box. Is it complex? Sure. Will you need a very robust family calendar? Indubitably. Is there anything better than looking across the pizza place and seeing all your beloved humans together, munching companionably? Not so far as I am aware, and I have led a very lucky life and seen many marvels indeed.

Second piece of advice, assuming that choosing a person is a thing you need to do, is this: in my thirties I came to understand that picking a partner was as much about their faults as their virtues. Someone can have the most exciting good qualities, things that light you up all the way to your toes with how much you admire them, but if their faults don’t turn out to be ones you can live with it doesn’t matter. Of course you will want strong upsides, but let me just assure you right now: the downsides must be things you can roll with to some degree.

The faults (or mismatches, or however you care to construct it) cannot be things that trigger your fears and insecurities. They cannot make you feel diminished or invisible, not if you hope to live a happy life with that person. They can make you furious, they can make you exhausted, they can make you frustrated beyond the power of language to communicate – those are all actually totally acceptable ways to feel in a relationship sometimes, even if they’re no fun. With someone who has great and delicious virtues, someone who makes you feel emboldened and enlarged, you can probably be happy and satisfied for a very very long time with faults that (occasionally) make you feel white-hot with anger.

Faults or mismatches that make you feel unseen, or afraid, or small in the bad way (not tended to and cuddled, but condescended to and belittled) are… they’re awful. They erode your sense of yourself over time. That’s one of the ways powerful, thoughtful people end up staying in no-good relationships for too long; their confidence gets washed away bit by bit as they get habituated to a steady trickle of being undermined. So it’s vital, Brave Correspondent – absolutely critical – that you evaluate this boy and this girl in the light of not only what about them makes you feel fizzy with joy and hot with wanting. Also please look at how you feel when you disagree. This is so, so important.

The truth is, I have been foolish for love many times in my life. I have pursued many opportunities for intimacy in all kinds of ways. Some of them have been delicious and nourishing while others have been, eventually, bitter. Nevertheless, I am not sorry. Like you, I welcome and treasure the love they’ve brought. I may not have always been able to keep it forever, but I also don’t believe that’s the measure of whether a relationship is worthwhile – what’s true is that all of those loves enriched me (however eventually, and sometimes in that “growthful” way we don’t necessarily enjoy). All of them have added rooms to my heart that didn’t exist before; all of them have taught me. Which is the last thing I want to tell you, Brave Correspondent: be glad in love. Even if neither this boy nor this girl lasts, even if the whole thing comes crashing down and you move neither to Boston nor Chicago but to Toronto and start all over again, be glad. Everything you are learning now will last you forever.

Love and courage,

Bear

PS – there are many, many, many songs about choosing between loves. But if I were making a Give Polyamory A Try Playlist, it would begin with Ben Lee’s song “Apple Candy.”

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S. Bear Bergman is an author, editor, storyteller, publisher and loudmouth.

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