For over a year Lucy’s been dating a non-monogamous man named Charlie.
Lucy’s tried her hardest to accept the deal she’s been offered, to open her mind to the idea of non-monogamy, to accept that just because Charlie’s married doesn’t mean he cares about her any less, to convince herself that this kind of relationship – with the freedom it offers to live her busy life and date other men – might actually suit her rather well. But the constant punches to the stomach when he leaves to go back to his wife, and the fights when she sees him post a photo or some gushy comment on Facebook, have taken their toll. It’s been a long, slow death by 1000 cuts.
And when yet another ‘joke’ about fucking other people turns into a week-long argument via WhatsApp, Lucy hits a wall. She just doesn’t think she can take any more. Maybe it’s time to end it.
Over the weekend, she sizes up the idea, rolling it around, feeling how it sits with her. And although it makes her feel scared and sad she also feels, in a way, relieved, as though a weight has been lifted. It’s like when you get better after being ill, and you don’t realise how shit you were feeling until it’s gone and suddenly you feel brighter, lighter, and less like you want to vomit into your own shoes.
With Charlie she feels anxious and stressed so much of the time. During the one night a week that they’re actually together it’s pretty near perfect, but the rest of the time she knows he’s with his new wife, doing couple things, having sex, being loved up, and that makes her feel both disgust-ed and disgust-ing. Is that really worth it – the 5% good for the 95% shitty?
The problem is, in spite of Charlie’s faults, she’s really fucking into him. When you take away the non-monogamy thing, he’s brilliant in so many ways: sexy, sharp, funny, interesting, full of ideas and opinions; his background, intelligence, point of view, even the physical size and shape of him are the perfect fit for her. Which makes this relationship both impossible to quit – and impossible to continue.
By Monday she knows what she needs to say. It’ll be hideous, but she’ll get over it: it’s not like she hasn’t had plenty of practice getting over dating disappointments. And by ending it she’ll be able to make space for someone new in her life, someone real, with future potential, whom she won’t have to share.
(Not that she really believes that last part, of course. She was terminally single long before she met Charlie; having in him her life is definitely not the cause of that. But even so…)
The words begin to bubble up to the surface, popping into her head as she sits on the tube, or as she’s falling asleep. She writes them down before they evaporate. She needs to get this over with; there’s no point in keeping either of them hanging on any longer.
Is it shit to send a text? she wonders. Possibly. But this whole conversation has been over WhatsApp, and they don’t have another date in the diary, so she doesn’t know how long she’d have to wait to be able to say this stuff in person. And no doubt if she did try to do that, the words wouldn’t come out right. Or he’d lean in close and put his hand on her leg, and that’d be all it takes to make her bottle it.
Anyway, breaking up with someone by text is shitty if it’s a real relationship, but this is not the same thing at all. They’re not a couple. Charlie might be a bit annoyed, sad even, for a short time, but it’s not like she’s breaking his heart. He’s got a wife and who knows how many other potential rebound fuck buddies to call on. The man’ll be absolutely fine.
But Charlie doesn’t see it quite that way.
Lucy immediately feels sick with guilt. Has she hurt him? – the thought fills her with sadness and guilt – or is Charlie just bitter because he’s been rejected, and cross because his fun toy has been taken away from him? She simply doesn’t know and rushes to explain herself.
He’s quick to respond, clearly upset.
Lucy feels awful – and yet she still can’t quite believe that his response is caused by anything more than bitterness at the rejection. Maybe it’s because this is entirely uncharted territory for her, maybe it’s her own lack of self-belief, maybe it’s Charlie’s matter-of-fact, unromantic relationship style, but she’s never really bought the idea that she’s anything more to him than a fun fuck, no matter what he might have said. How can a guy who is so clearly and publicly in love with someone else, living the dream home life, fucking other women, really also care all that much for her? It just doesn’t compute to her monogamous brain.
How can she know that it’s not ‘just fucking’ for him? Fucking is all they do. He comes over, they have sex, hang out for a bit, he goes home. He doesn’t stay the night. They don’t see each other’s friends and family. They don’t spend days and weekends together. This is not a normal relationship, so surely normal rules don’t apply.
What’s more, Lucy knows from bitter experience that a huge part of heartbreak is not only losing the person, but also losing the future you’ve planned. When you’ve built a life with someone, not just in reality but in your head too, and then that life is mercilessly ripped away, it’s like losing a body part. Clearly Charlie was never planning a real future with her, so he can’t be heartbroken. Disappointed and a bit sad, sure, but heartbroken? It seems unlikely.
But what if she’s wrong? What if she really has misjudged the situation? What if Charlie really does have capacity in his heart to love more than one woman, and what if one of those women is her, and in her cynicism she’s just trampled all over his feelings in the most callous, fuckboy way?
Intimacy, rapport, connection… sure. But love? Of course it’s not just sex for Lucy; it’s never been just about the (admittedly great) sex, but she has no idea how this works for Charlie. His attitude to sex is very different from hers. His sex drive is much higher than hers. He’s slept with a lot more people than she has. She has no idea how this works for him.
And yet. Lucy’s curious to know if she really has misjudged the strength of his feeling for her. And what, in that case, he might be prepared to offer that would make the situation easier to stomach. More time together than just once a week? Overnights? Weekends? If she became a bigger part of his life, would he feel the need for other women? Obviously she knows he’ll never leave his wife, but if it was just the two of them and no one else, could she learn to accept that?
But even if he were to offer all those things, Lucy simply can’t see how she can keep him and not be sad a large chunk of the time. Sad that she’ll always be his secondary partner, when all she has ever wanted is to be someone’s number one.
So they agree to meet. Lucy doesn’t think it’ll do any good, but she feels she owes Charlie the courtesy of hearing him out. And besides, she really wants to stay friends with him. As much as she will miss the sex, she doesn’t want to lose the closeness, the support, the friendship that they’ve built. She needs to see him to secure that.
Charlie’s chosen a bar near London Bridge. It’s busy and brightly lit, which Lucy doesn’t like one bit. She knows without a shadow of a doubt that there’ll be tears, and she doesn’t really want to have to do them in front of a barful of drinkers giddy about the onset of the weekend.
Charlie’s already there, seated at a corner table with his back against the wall. Not sure whether to kiss him now or not, Lucy gives him a sort of half-wave and slides onto the bench at right angles to him. She feels anxious and awkward as fuck; she doesn’t really know why.
They order wine and pasta, and chitchat about other stuff. Neither of them mentions the reason why they’re there. But Lucy can’t relax with this pressure hanging over her, and by the time they’re onto their third carafe of wine she can’t take the suspense any longer.
“So we should probably talk about the elephant in the room…” she ventures.
Charlie immediately begins trying to persuade her that she’s been too hasty; that there are plenty of ways this relationship could be made to suit her needs more. She wants to spend more time with him? They can put a regular weekly date night in the diary, one that is exclusively theirs. Plus some weekends too. They can make a list of all the sexy fun things Lucy’s never tried and start working through it.
Lucy especially likes the sound of this last part. One of the things that attracted her to Charlie was the potential for trying new kinks and fantasies with someone experienced, but even after a year the promised initiation into that mysterious world has never materialised. Charlie doesn’t really seem that bothered about doing any of that stuff with her; she doesn’t know why. Is it because he gets it elsewhere? Because he sees her as too innocent to sully? Or maybe it’s just all talk and bravado; maybe he’s actually just as happily vanilla as everyone else.
But while his offer is a good one, it’s not enough.
“That all sounds lovely,” she says sadly, “but I don’t think it will help. You can’t solve the fundamental problem which is that I will only ever be your bit on the side. I want you to be my whole person, but you never can be.” And saying it out loud, to him, makes the tears start to flow.
“And I’m very sorry for the text,” she adds.
“That was not cool,” he says. “How could you ever think it was?”
“Well I guess I didn’t think it was going to come as a shock to you. You knew this was going to end at some point. And I had no idea you’d be so upset. I didn’t realise you felt so strongly.”
She turns her body inward and looks down at her lap, hoping the other people in the bar can’t see how red-faced and teary she’s become.
“But I tell you all the time!” he says, his voice strained.
“Yeah, but you sleep with loads of people. You probably say that stuff to all the girls.”
“I really don’t though. I was monogamous for ages. Then I went through a slutty phase. It took me a long time to accept that non-monogamy was a thing you can be, and that it was OK. Since then I’ve settled down, and you’re the first person I’ve felt this way about outside of my main relationship. This is not something I do every day – far from it! We’re just such a good fit, and I don’t want to lose you.”
He reaches across and squeezes her hand, and Lucy looks away, afraid to look him in the eye. Why is life so fucking unfair! How can the Universe offer her this guy, when she can’t actually have him?
“I know,” she tells him through her tears. “We are. And you’re only the second person in my life that I’ve felt this strongly about. So I really don’t want to let that go. But what’s the point? This may be great for you, but it’s not working for me. I want more. I want someone to introduce to my family. Someone to go on holiday with. Someone to wake up next to every morning and go to sleep with every night. Someone to look after me when I’m sick and hold my hand when I’m scared. But you can never give me those things because you’ve already promised them to someone else. And being with you gets in the way of me finding that person. So it’s for the best.”
“And I want you to find that person too, but in the meantime I just feel like there’s a way we can make this work,” Charlie persists. “Where we can be happy together while you still date other people. We have such a great time together, don’t we?”
She’s never seen him so upset, though he doesn’t cry. Which is fair enough. Lucy’s doing more than enough crying for the both of them. By now her face is scarlet, her cheeks covered with teary tidemarks, and her nose full of snot. She wonders what the other people in the bar make of what’s going on. And yet miraculously, her mascara stays put. God Bless Clinique.
Lucy’s tempted, she really is. Could she at least try his way, for a bit longer, and see if she could get used to it? Is she ready to give up yet? They’ve come so far and she’s been through so much – can she bear to throw all of that away? And can she bear to go back to being single, to never getting laid, to the hideous frustrations of dating apps, to having no one to talk to about her day?
And then she remembers all the stress and misery of knowing Charlie is fucking other women, and she knows she needs to trust her gut.
It gets late, and they’ve talked round in circles until they can talk no more. Charlie’s given up trying to convince her; he can see her mind’s made up.
They walk back to the tube station and find a corner by the entrance to the Jubilee Line, where they kiss, one tearful last kiss goodbye, full of longing and regret, before going their separate ways.
As Lucy travels home she feels the dull ache of sadness in her heart, but with it a sort of lightness: relief. That the hard part is over. That after more than a year of rollercoaster highs and lows, there are finally calm, flat waters ahead. The question is, will she be able to navigate them alone, or will the novelty wear off in a few weeks, and will the inevitable loneliness and raging horn send her scurrying back into Charlie’s embrace?
But what did Charlie think about all of this? A year later, he shared his story. Read his thoughts at Mr Non-Monogamous, Part 14 – Charlie’s Story
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