Body Image and Open Relationships
by Amy Jones Nov 26, 2013
Around the time I learned to OM I met a man who, by all conventional standards, was not my type. Not attractive, not really in my age range—simply not my type. But wow, his attention felt so amazing to me. I just melted into saying yes over and over again to going out with him. To say I was elated and giddy at how good I felt when I was with him is an understatement. It was amazing to be with him. As I was telling a friend who also knew him, she said to me, “You know he’s in relationships with many women, right?"
To avoid sounding totally innocent and naïve I shrugged it off. “Yeah, I figured as much,” I said, deflated and angry inside.
The term "open relationships" wasn’t one that had ever entered my sphere of knowledge. Did I know what polyamory was? Maybe—but only in the same way when I was a kid and my cousin asked me if were gay and I said, "No, gay people love each other." I couldn’t really tell you what polyamory or open relationships were at all.
As I tried desperately to GET HIM TO BE MY BOYFRIEND ALREADY, he fundamentally shifted my reality. He told me he believed we had the capacity to love and care for more than one person at a time in our lives. That connection was not so scarce it could only be shared with one person. That we had something to learn from all people. That yes, there is always someone we seem to return to over and over again, but that intimacy didn’t have to be confined to just one person. Yes, of course I agreed. How could I not? It was one of those things that rang so resonant in my body even thought I didn't understand the how or why.
Fast forward almost 5 years and here I am in an open marriage.
Yep, that’s right.
That first experience with my suave friend those few years back swayed me. Living the tenets of an open relationship are the fuel for who I am. It is the foundation of how I grow and stretch and lean into the woman I am and continue to evolve into. I was raised in a Christian home in a tiny farm town in Kansas; I don’t think I could have even told you what an open relationship was until 5 years ago and yet I know in my bones that humans are capable of living from a deep sense of love and community and connection that spans beyond the traditional bounds of what we know is possible.
And this isn’t just an open relationship where he has sex with whoever he wants and I do the same. We practice open relationship as a way to get closer, experience more intimacy, to know and feel and see one another in every location a human can be seen: in anger, in love, in jealousy, fear, ecstasy, unconsciousness, despair, joy and play. Not just with one another, not just in the places where it feels good to witness but in ALL places—especially those that make us stretch and grow and think we can’t stay connected HERE. That’s when it is most important.
What does this have to do with the body, OM and body image, you might wonder? Well, here’s the crux of it:
At the core of being in an open relationship is the belief that it is NOT my partner’s responsibility to keep me sexually satisfied, or assuage my insecurities about my body, worthiness, or confidence. I would argue that these same things are true for people who practice monogamy. For me the difference is that I could get really, really comfortable in monogamy—if I was the only one my partner had his attention on, the only one he turned to for sex and vice versa, well then there wasn't an edge for me to push. If I have him all to myself, then I’ve got it locked down. No wonder so many married people gain weight within a few years of marriage. Settle down and get comfortable. Case closed.
But in an open relationship, these unexposed, tender and scared parts of me are continually getting worked. I have come face to face with two of my biggest demons: my sexual appetite and my body.
As my husband moves in the direction of his desire for other women, I am faced with all the voices in my head that tell me I’m not good enough: I’m too fat, no one else is going to want me—you know how the script goes. The threat these voices pose is an intense one. And it is a fire I am grateful to burn inside of. Being able to prove these voices wrong time and time again is the only place where real freedom has come. It is through having to face that he finds another woman sexy that I have to come face to face with all the questions, all the insecurities: am I pretty enough? Am I pretty like her? What does he desire about her? Why does he desire her and not me? It can feel like an endless house of mirrors where in each direction I turn, I am faced with another ego-gripping soul-crushing question that I am sure I cannot withstand.
On the plus side, I know I am a sexy woman. It isn’t through my husband’s reassurance or reminders or soothing of my fears that I have come to realize my beauty or desirability. It is through sitting with self loathing, letting the voices rage, letting the fire burn and then after it has died out, looking to see what is left. And what I have found after the fire is a still small voice that LOVES how I look and the way I move, loves the curves and the body I inhabit.
And then there is my sexual appetite. Once the jealousy and insecurity burns off, I am left with the all the desire I have. And that can almost be worse than the insecurity—because now there is nothing standing in my way. I have to come face to face with my shame, my judgement, my stories and all the ways I shut myself off from feeding myself sexually—through my relationships, through the way I carry my body, even the way I dress. When I let my sexual appetite lead, the way I walk through the world begins to look very different.
An open relationship has been my biggest teacher in navigating my insecurities and beliefs about myself, my body and my sexuality. It is a practice in staying connected to myself and connected to my partner, and learning to live a life based in desire that holds no obligation or promise of saving one another, keeping another safe, or protecting anyone from all the demons that we typically never face. I think most of us come to relationship looking for refuge—someone to love us so that those voices are quelled. And yet, because I haven’t had that safety or refuge, I have gained power and self-knowledge and a deeper love than I knew was possible. And most importantly, I’ve gained that power, knowledge and deep love internally—in the place it matters most.