What To Do When Another Girl Flirts With Your Boyfriend | by ♡ Better Date Than Never ♡ | Medium

The morning after my 26th birthday, I woke up alone in a hotel room and tried really hard not to feel weird about it. I’d spent the previous evening with Adam*, a man I’d recently started dating who happened to be in an open relationship with his long-term partner. Two months or so into whatever it is you want to call the practice of occasionally borrowing a boyfriend—Adam has rather gorgeously referred to it as “stepping outside the timeline”—we’d settled into a delightfully decadent little routine of martinis and slightly slurred discourse in sultry hotel lobby bars followed by sex and champagne upstairs.

Like most men with a woman and a dog at home, Adam had a curfew, one that granted me the privilege of sprawling out in a king-size bed all to myself after our dates wrapped up and he headed back to his regularly scheduled boyfriend duties. Sort of the opposite of playing house, it was more like playing home-wrecking—except this brand of ethically non-monogamous debauchery was all above board.

 

In theory, these luxe upgrades from the twin-bed life I’m admittedly still living in my crowded Queens apartment were part of an ideal situation for a self-proclaimed “commitment-wary romantic” like myself, someone who craved the intimacy and connection of a relationship but rejected—or perhaps simply feared—the strings, labels, and timelines that tend to come with one. Mere days before my birthday, in fact, I published an essay for this very website in which I lauded this unconventional dynamic I’d entered into as “all the fun and excitement of dating someone new minus the pressure to DTR or hop on the relationship escalator” and “casual dating without the carelessness and confusion that often plagues ill-defined quasi-relationships” like I was blurbing a fucking New York Times bestseller.

On this particular drizzly March morning, however, waking up unbothered and unaccompanied in crisp hotel sheets didn’t feel luxurious. It felt lonely.

It is a matter of public, google-able record that when it comes to non-monogamy, I have historically had a habit of dabbling in the unethical variety. Which is to say that when I first started seeing Adam a year ago, I was skeptical of his open relationship status and my third-party role in it. And not for the reasons I think many women prefer to swipe left on the “ENM” guys who have become increasingly ubiquitous on dating apps in recent years—the jealousy and cheating-adjacency of it all that more traditionally minded daters tend to conflate with all forms of non-monogamy. But for even uglier, less flattering ones I wasn’t thrilled to admit, even to myself. Namely, that I knew there was some part of me that secretly would’ve felt more comfortable, more secure in whatever position I’d stepped into if this had just been a case of good, old-fashioned infidelity. For better or worse, cheating I understood. I got the dynamic and the appeal and I knew what I was getting in exchange for my sins: the thrill of the illicit and the intimacy of a shared secret.

Dating someone else’s boyfriend is a lot like renting a cool car—all the fun of cruising around in style without the costs and responsibilities of actually owning the thing.

I wasn’t proud of it, but that morning I was too hungover on Veuve and mid-20s birthday dread to ignore the feeling that I couldn’t quite seem to find my footing as an ethical accessory on the outskirts of someone else’s happy relationship. The question I couldn’t shake as I adjusted to life on the other side of 25 felt selfish and petty: What’s in this for me? If I was getting neither the toxic head high that comes with infidelity nor the guarantee of not having to sleep alone on your birthday that comes with a relationship, what—I wondered, grabbing a Ludlow Hotel–branded umbrella Adam had encouraged me to take as a rainy birthday souvenir and letting the door swing shut behind me—was I getting out of this?

Wondering what we’re getting out of something—particularly of the romantic or sexual variety—isn’t a pursuit women are usually applauded for. It’s generally preferred that we sit down, shut up, and take what we get with a smile. The idea of a woman wanting something out of a heterosexual union grates on the patriarchal mind—a mind raised to believe that the union itself, nay, male attention itself, is the ultimate prize. The end goal.

Having desires, wants, or expectations of those relationships beyond the relationships themselves doesn’t tend to go over well. Sure, society has different ways of demonizing women depending on what, exactly, those wants are. Financial security? Gold digger. Orgasms? Slut. Love and attention? Clingy. But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The wanting anything at all is the original sin. Ungrateful. You have the thing—the man or the ring or the grave honor of a guy bothering to have anything to do with you at all. What more could you possibly want?

When you are dating someone else’s boyfriend, however, the only thing people want to know is what you’re getting out of it. Not because they actually want an answer but because they want you to admit that you don’t have one; that they’re right, actually, and this whole “ethical non-monogamy” business is all just a bunch of bullshit, what was I thinking?

 

Because if there’s one thing that baffles your average monogamist more than open relationships themselves, it’s the supporting characters like me who engage with them. The benefit to the ethically non-monogamously partnered parties is obvious—eating their cake too and such. But why would a promising free agent choose to settle for a side gig?

I had spent the majority of my adult dating life in cold calculation, counting cards and placing bets to make sure I’d come out on top.
A month and change into dating Adam, I’d quickly tired of fielding these questions from others. The last thing I wanted was to ask them of myself. Not just because I am a sex writer whose work has often involved the active (or at least attempted) destigmatization of non-monogamy but because whatever tension I felt in my own lack of answers shone a less-than-flattering light on something I wasn’t ready to admit to myself yet. Specifically, the fact that I had spent the majority of my adult dating life in cold calculation—cashing in on my sexuality (sometimes literally), counting cards, and placing bets to make sure I’d come out on top in a game I’d come to see as ruthless and risky and stacked against me.

None of this was new information, exactly, but the part I wasn’t eager to face was that I was getting tired of it all—that I was starting to see through the holes in my carefully crafted yet ultimately threadbare coat of many defense mechanisms.

Dating someone else’s boyfriend is a lot like renting a really cool car—all the fun of cruising around town in style without the day-to-day costs and responsibilities of actually owning the thing. Yes, you have to make sure you return him on time and in good condition—full tank, no obvious dents or scratches—but when his check engine light comes on, that’s someone else’s problem.

 

That’s what I was thinking—and tapping into my Notes app beneath the cover of my stolen umbrella—as I tucked under Lower East Side scaffolding on my way to the train that morning after my birthday a year ago. I felt bolstered by my own flippancy, the irreverence of comparing a man to a car in a way that would be vile if our genders were reversed but I knew could spin clever and cheeky coming from me. Whatever I was or wasn’t getting out of this situation, my little auto analogy convinced me that I secretly held the longer end of the stick.

Or at least it did for the next 16 hours or so. That’s when until I woke up, ill, to the realization that the food poisoning Adam casually mentioned he and his partner had just gotten over at dinner last night was not, in fact, a case of food poisoning.

If there’s one time you’ll catch me openly lamenting my single status, it’s when I’m sick. That’s when I feel the most alone, when I can most sense the lack of a partner in my life. There’s an episode of Sex and the City where a flu-ridden Samantha wails, “I should’ve gotten married!” It’s histrionic. It’s ridiculously out of character. I don’t think there’s a more real moment in the entire show. No matter how superior I may feel in my singlehood, it all goes out the damn window the second I spike so much as a low-grade fever. Suddenly, I hate that there’s no one around to fuss over me. To insist that I drink fluids and to place the back of their hand against my forehead. To run to CVS for saltines and Gatorade so I don’t have to spend $40 on Instacart and then crawl down the stairs to get the order because I’m too dehydrated to stand.

The problem with borrowing a car you can’t afford is that it comes as a reminder of all the things you don’t—and maybe can’t—have.
Still, if there’s one upside to being sick and single, it’s that suffering any form of gastrointestinal distress in the presence of a lover is among my greatest fears. And yet, sweaty and nauseous on my bathroom floor much too early that morning, I found myself envying the intimacy of this illness Adam and his partner had shared together in their home and that I was weathering alone.

 

But it would be nearly a year before I could admit to anyone, especially myself, that I wanted what they had. Not that I wanted Adam to myself, but that I wanted something he had with someone and I was afraid I’d never have with anyone—something I was too afraid to want at all.

The problem with borrowing a car you can’t afford—even if you don’t necessarily want to own that particular make and model—is that it comes as a reminder of all the things you don’t—and maybe can’t—have.

By that summer, after I’d met and fallen in love—and into a messy situationship that would ultimately end not once but twice and in increasing levels of emotional devastation—with a fellow free agent, my anxieties about whatever I was or wasn’t “getting” out of my encounters with Adam had eased. Having, if not a primary partner, at least a primary love interest of my own seemed to level whatever field we were playing on, to poke some air holes into the enclosure where our off-beat pseudo-relationship existed somewhere in the margins of our daily, more socially scripted lives. Not only had the pressure seeped out, but suddenly this thing had room to breathe—and so did I.

Meanwhile, something rare and weird and gorgeous bloomed—something that makes it easy to simply roll my eyes and laugh along now when my more monogamously oriented friends ask how I can be sure Adam isn’t “just cheating on his girlfriend” or what the hell I could possibly be “getting” out of this. Because what I was getting out of it slowly but surely proved to be infinitely more valuable than the cheap thrill of the taboo or the admittedly lucrative one of shacking up with a sugar daddy.

Being a third party to someone’s ethically non-monogamous union is like living on an island that’s evaded national jurisdiction.

Make no mistake, Adam is more than generous both in bed and when paying the tab. But gradually, that stopped being the point. Because somewhere between the time he stared straight into my eyes in a hotel room drenched in late-spring sunlight and said, “I know you—and I’m not trying to own or control you,” and the fateful September night he Seamlessed some emergency pizza and prosecco to my doorstep after the first of two heartbreaks that would annihilate my soul in the span of six months, there stopped being a point to pin down, to quantify, to cash in on.

Here was a man who did, in fact, know me when so many others had declined to do so beyond getting intimately acquainted with my body and casually so with whatever version of myself I flashed behind a martini glass across the table. Here was a man who, after the second successive breakup left me hollow and humiliated, let me be sad and weird and unsexy on his couch. It was another bleak, rainy March day, just shy of a year after this story begins, his golden retriever lying between us and accepting me in all my weird, sad, barely functioning humanity the same way his owner did. The way I fear no other man I’ve dated ever quite has.

Our relationship exists in some kind of largely uncharted territory between casual lovers, close friends, and, dare I say, a secret third thing? To say I love Adam “as a friend” feels like an understatement and to say I love him romantically would be as inaccurate as to say I love him as family. We’ve chosen our own adventure, mixed our own drink. It may be an acquired taste, but I find it goes down much easier than the shots I used to pound in the name of staying ahead of a race in which I’d convinced myself I was an underdog with the odds stacked against her, a game with rules I needed to lie and cheat and outsmart if I had any chance of making it out alive.

The thing about open relationships and the auxiliary ones that form on their outskirts that is obvious on an intellectual level but hard to really “get” until you’ve experienced one first hand is that they exist outside the laws and constraints that tend to both govern and fuel monogamous love under patriarchy. Unlike infidelity, which transgresses but doesn’t subvert those rules, being a third party to someone’s ethically non-monogamous union is like living on an island that’s evaded national jurisdiction. There are very clear boundaries in the foundational sense that if you walk too far in any one direction, you’ll simply fall off but little in the way of bureaucracy—those rules that exist for the sake of rules, that no one can seem to remember implementing but can’t bear to dispense with. Here there is no game, no cat-and-mouse, no hard-to-get or will-they-won’t-they, no power dynamic for me to leverage or exploit.

Maybe it was when Adam instituted our weekly tradition of comparing Cosmo Sexoscopes every Friday morning or maybe it was when he sent me a spontaneous copy of Alison Rose’s recently reissued memoir, Better Than Sane (“read a review of this in the Washington Post and it seemed like it should be on your bookshelf—should arrive later this week”), but somewhere along the line, this simultaneously structured-yet-unorthodox, not-quite romance became a kind of Toxic-20-Something rehab, a halfway house between the defensive affairs I’d disguised as willful, free-spirited chaos and the real relationship I wasn’t ready to admit I wanted.

Gradually, it dawned on me that no one was keeping track of whatever race I’d been running against myself till my heels bled—that maybe I could just run instead of running away and that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t a total idiot for wanting a partner of my own to keep pace with me.

This past March, I celebrated my 27th birthday. Still reeling but finally recovering from the second of the two emotionally eviscerating heartbreaks that punctured the middle and end of that year like twin gunshot wounds, Adam and I toasted a few days early over an embarrassment of martinis at a slutty downtown steakhouse followed by sex at The Standard. I didn’t even wake up the next day trying not to feel weird about it.

Roughly 24 hours later, after 26 officially became 27 in the company of two very dear female friends who stayed up to watch the sun rise with me so I wouldn’t have to sleep alone on my birthday, a bright bouquet appeared on my doorstep. My hungover, 27-year-old eyes blurred with tears I knew I wouldn’t quite be able to explain to anyone as I made out the seemingly simplest of messages through my sleep-deprived haze:

Happy birthday.

Love,

Adam.