I finished The Husband Swap in a single day; partly because it’s not a long book, but mostly because I was thoroughly caught up in the story. Louisa Leontiades tells the story of her first polyamorous relationship, begun as so many are when she and her husband decide to explore polyamory together. You know from the beginning it’s not going to end the way they planned — the title itself is a giveaway — but the swift rise and fall of their intense love affair with another couple is captivating and poignant.
Poly folk have a habit of fixating on “mistakes.” I think it’s a side effect of living in a world that says your entire relationship structure is foolish and untenable. We respond saying, “No! Polyamory works, it can work! Sure, sometimes relationships self-destruct, but that’s because of the mistakes people made.” Do relationships right — with honesty, openness, communication, and respect — and you have love and delight multiplying on itself. If something goes wrong, find the mistakes. We view disastrous relationships didactically — learn from this and grow, learn how to do this better.
I thought of this because that mistakes-and-learning-orientation was very present in the foreword (which I didn’t read until after finishing the book, and could have done without altogether), but refreshingly absent from the book itself. Yes, it’s the story of a relationship — or two relationships, or eleven — that crashes and burns. But it’s not told from an angle of “Here’s what we did wrong, here’s what you should do differently.” It’s just told. “Here’s what happened. Here’s how it felt. Here’s what happened next.” Four people who love each other very much, who try hard and forgive and adjust, find that ultimately, their quad is unsustainable. And this has more to do with the personalities and growth trajectories of the people involved than any specific “mistakes.”
The truth is, sometimes you fall in love with someone who’s a terrible fit for you. In polyamory, sometimes you fall in love with someone whose partner is a terrible fit for you. And sometimes you are a wonderful partner for somebody in one stage of your lives, but then things change, and you find after five or ten or twenty years that you’re holding each other back instead of helping each other flourish. None of these necessarily come down to mistakes; they’re just things that can happen, because people are complicated.
Leontiades is very clear about where she thinks the nexus of conflict and difficulty resided, but she doesn’t demonize anybody. She acknowledges that the other people involved have their own stories about what happened, that they were acting out of their own needs and insecurities just as she was, and that ultimately it was the utter incompatibility of two people’s needs and insecurities that caused the downfall of the entire quad.
As much as we strive for growth and self-improvement, none of us have reached enlightenment. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people have emotional needs and engrained reactions that can’t just be resolved with a few weeks’ striving for personal growth. Sometimes those two things look the same, maybe are the same. A lot of relationship success, I am coming to believe, is finding someone whose weak points match up with yours; whose emotional needs and stress responses play nicely with yours, rather than triggering all your own stuff.
Above all, The Husband Swap is an honest and often lovely exploration of how it feels to love hard, to challenge everything you believed, to face social disapproval, to risk the most important thing in your life on a big idea. While reading it, I experienced bubbles of delight and identification — at the weird-this-isn’t-weird feeling of coming down to breakfast with your lover and your husband and his lover, at the terror of falling in love when your relationship involves more people than just yourselves, at the back and forth of sympathy, anger, alliance, and threat you can feel toward a close metamour. It left me wanting more — more poly stories, more people writing about the specific feelings and situations that I know so well, that are so rarely reflected in literature. It felt so, so good to read someone telling a story that, while nothing like any of my stories, has many of the same notes and moments underlying it. And, while the quad at the heart of the story splintered, life continued for them all. Our failings or mistakes don’t have to take us to a tragic ending; they can take us to a new life.