This is an excerpt from a longer article by Daphne Gottlieb called "My Cheating Heart," in the March/April '06 issue of Utne Reader.
Love - at least the pair-bonded, prescribed love - does not conquer all. It does not conquer desire.
Let's say you're a normal, upstanding, ethical man (or woman) who has decided to share your life with someone beloved to you. This goes well for a number of years. You have a lot of sex and love each other very much and have a seriously deep, strong bond. Behind door number two, the tiger: a true love. Another one. (Let's assume for the moment that the culture and Hollywood are wrong - we have more than one true love after all.)
The shittiest thing you can do is lie to someone you love, yet there are certain times you can choose either to do so or to lie to yourself. Not honoring this fascination, this car crash of desire, is also a lie. So what do you do? Pursue it? Deny it? It doesn't matter: The consequences began when you opened the door and saw the tiger, called it by its name: love. Pursue it or don't, you're already stuck between two truths, two opportunities to lie.
The question is not, as we've always been asked, the lady - beautiful, virtuous, and almost everything we want - or the tiger - passionate, wild, and almost everything we want. The question is, what do we do with our feelings for the lady and the tiger? The lady is fair, is home, is delight. The tiger is not bloodthirsty, as we always believed, but, say, romantic. Impetuous. Sharing almost nothing in common with the lady. They even have a different number of feet. But the lady would not see it this way. You already know that.
You can tell the second love that you can't do this - banish the tiger from your life. You can go home to the first, confess your desire, sob on her shoulder, tell her how awful you feel, and she (or he) will soothe you. Until later, when she wonders if you look at all the other zoo animals that way, and every day for a while, if not longer, she will sniff at you to see if you've been near the large cat cages. Things will not be the same for a long time. And you've lost the tiger. Every time the housecat sits on your lap, you tear up thinking of what might have been, the love that has been lost. Your first love asks you what's wrong and you say "nothing." You say nothing a lot, because there's nothing left, nothing inside.
So instead, let's say you go home and tell your first love, This new love is a love I can't live without. What can we do? She will say, All right, I want to meet her right away. I get all holidays and weekends with you, and there will be no sleepovers with the new love, and I expect the same for myself, and you are never to call her any of the nicknames you have ever used for me, and the whole thing starts to remind you of a high school necking session - under the sweater, over the bra, but not under it.
You feel like an inmate all the time, and, moreover, where is your first love tonight? She's out with someone you've never met while you're out with your second love, who once had been amenable to an affair. She looks at you sadly and says, "So you think I'm only a half-time tiger?" Her fangs are yellowed and sharp and she finds herself unable to stop staring at the clock, which shows when you will have to leave her to return to the lady.
Maybe there is no "happily ever after" here, but I think there's an "after." I have been the first love; I have been the second; and I have tried to decide between my own firsts and seconds. I have walked through each ring of fire, and I've found no easy answers. It could be that hearts are dumb creatures, especially mine. It could be that there are no good answers. Whether we're admitting desire, lying about it, denying it, or fulfilling it, the consequences are staggering, sometimes ruinous.
So, heart firmly sewn onto sleeve, assured that there is an "after," what can we do but stride forth? It seems clear that no system - polyamory, monogamy, or stand-on-your-head-for-me - will sanitize the astonishing highs and the bereft lows of desire and betrayal. And even if they did, who wants a sanitized heart? So it's up to us: to work together, to love what's so human about us, to understand that the risk of love is loss, and to try to grant desire without eviscerating outselves. I'm not sure how to do this, but I'm still trying. Because above all, I know this: It's grace to try, and fail, and try again.