It took the possibility of losing a great love for me to realize that I’d built my entire identity around a single belief: that monogamy was against my nature. The idea of searching for another half to complete me made love feel like a crutch, and I was convinced that reliance was where self-love ended. My parents, like many other Arab parents, believed in the joys of the “relationship escalator”. Be “good”, get married, have kids – any other trajectory was a direct route to a perilous life. So, I decided early on that I would protect myself from the pitfalls of proprietary romance. I fuelled my beliefs with heartache, restrictive parental structures, and a strong desire to feel ownership over the emotional situations I put myself in. 

In truth, I misconstrued the very notion of polyamory. I assumed it was a breezy alternative to the suffocating entrenchment of monogamy, and that breaking romance into pieces meant I’d never feel too strongly about one single person. I never factored in jealousy and the reality that I would have to get very good at communicating my feelings.

To me, non-monogamy was the safest investment in life’s biggest gamble, and I’d never be the love-drunk fool placing everything on red at the end of the night. This defence mechanism also protected me from being cheated on. I was the one who opened the door to the other women to begin with. Ahla wa sahla, he’s mine and yours. My cautious vulnerability when it came to love and intimacy made me feel powerful, and it meant that I’d never partake in the ancient tradition of giving your heart away whole. 

I particularly loved telling men on a first date that I wasn’t the monogamous type, and that marriage was the farthest thing from my mind. I’m unalterably shy by nature, though I tried to spin it off as coy whenever possible. My counterculture stance on relationships became my great ability – an introvert whose secret identity held world-building powers. I would tell men that my candidness was driven by a moral obligation never to waste anyone’s time. In truth, I liked to feel unattainable and to hold, for however long I could, the graceful allure of an un-needy woman.  

Hani didn’t react the way the others did. He smiled at me, unfazed, and continued to listen without judgement or interjection as I explained my position on love. We met on a weekend camping trip in Musandam; we shared a sea of mutual friends and were both puzzled as to how we had never met before. We both knew so and so from high-school or old jobs. A fresh face in such familiar waters is a thrill in and of itself, but I was instantly drawn to him for many other reasons. I liked his downturned eyes and his strong legs. I liked that he was reserved but comfortable in a crowd. I liked his wit and that he never used it to get laughter from others – sharp humour was simply second nature to him, and that made me realize that I liked how aloof he was. I liked his nose and his aversion to hypey clothes. I liked that he liked me. 

We went on a date the day after we came back from the camping trip. He didn’t wait to ask me out, which felt unnerving. I told him that it was very becoming for him not to follow an arbitrary number of rules when it comes to dating, and I immediately felt silly for saying that. We had dinner at a small Thai restaurant on a rooftop that had Christmas lights as decorations, a wooden tiki bar with lanterns and a thatched roof. They played tedious pop music from an old sound system that made all the songs sound like compressed noise inside a fridge. I remember sour margaritas, lemongrass in everything, “Hotel California” playing more than once, and our overly giggly waitress. I remember feeling relieved he didn’t take me anywhere fancy. It must have been a combination of the summer heat and the fact that he didn’t make me feel like a broken person, but that night, I saw myself letting my guard down. I wanted to know everything about him, and every time he shared a memory, I felt a tiny pang of sadness, knowing I wasn’t a part of his past. I was ashamed of this feeling and it quickly reminded me of why I feared love. 

Hani drove me home that night and every night that week. Out on the open rooftop, my giddiness had room to expand into a thin, barely perceptible film; but here in his car, it was contained and intensified by our proximity, buzzing in the small space between us. I felt as though the way I sat or where I placed my hands on the car armrest would betray my palpable feelings. A single movement would give me away and with it my growing knowledge of a withering conviction. 

We were a month into our relationship when I told Hani I wouldn’t be free to see him one Friday evening because I was going on a date. I told him over the phone and looking back at it now, I’m glad I didn’t do it in person. The thought of seeing the hurt on his face still makes me ache. He didn’t try to play it cool and there was no tongue-tied warm-up to his response. He told me he felt completely disillusioned by me and that he didn’t think I was being honest with myself. I retorted that I had been honest with him from the start, knowing deep down that my statement was transparent compared to the thick expressions of joy and contentment I had been showing him for the past month. However, I didn’t let down the barricade and stuck to my self-righteous response. I clung fiercely to the unbridled parts of my heart that refused to buy into the coupling economy. 

Gertrude Abercrombie, Split Personality, 1954

Hani didn’t resist; he said he had misread things and assumed it was different between us, that our story didn’t fit my narrative. He felt we were so aligned on the matter that he didn’t even think to ask. He told me he didn’t want to be with other women but didn’t want to make me forgo a desire to be with others. He wished me well and even had the nerve to say he would miss me. I hung up and started to cry. I didn’t think I could feel so much pain from being loved. 

In an attempt to write my own rules and right my parents’ wrongs, I became consumed with a desire to dismantle the social structures I was born into. I didn’t want to live a life with my eyes closed, so I followed an impulse amplified by a deep identity crisis. I ended up conflating my values with my fears, and decided a cultural shift was the only way I could maintain my independence and ownership over my choices. 

Life is full of unwritten systems, with an appendix of terms to describe relationships and their orientations. Trying to love with arms outstretched, I pin-holed myself into something I didn’t even want. I realized that in order to keep a strong hold on my personal freedom, I had to live honestly and learn to trust the transitions that happen naturally as we continue to become ourselves. Last January, Hani and I got engaged. We’ve been together exclusively for the past 4 years, and decided to be monogamous as long as it always felt like a choice. To this day, it is the most rebel-hearted decision I’ve ever made.

Banner image credit: Ines Longevial

Written by Zineb Zebdi