Book Review: The Husband Swap, by Louisa Leontiades

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.

Meandering Thoughts on the Baltimore Protests

April 25; I get a text from my best friend saying that if I see anything on the news about the Baltimore riots, she and her coworkers are all safe. She works on the historic ships at the Inner Harbor, and they are close enough to smell the smoke through the ship’s walls. But they are locked up in the Taney, behind steel doors, and they will be fine.

April 26; I check in to verify that she is okay. She is, and we talk about woolly mammoths for a bit. Apparently there were pocket populations that lived until after the pyramids had gone out of fashion. We both love this fact.

April 27; There are helicopters and the national guard and a 10 pm curfew is instated. Lots of places are closing down, including potentially the museum. Among her coworkers, places to stay are offered so everyone has the opportunity to sleep where they feel safe. My friend will be coming home for the time being. I’m happy for her; sad for all the people who can’t come home to safety, because their homes are where the rioting is happening.

April 28; My friend has entered the stage of ranting about the inaccuracy of the coverage, partly from the news but also from the world of Facebook and Tumblr. I decide its time to begin seriously researching what has been going on. I am aware of the basic facts, but I have deliberately kept myself from learning details for the time being. This is not from callousness; just the opposite. I sometimes find myself too affected by events in the news, particularly when I have no ability to change them. I like to wait a bit and prepare myself; rather like someone waiting to read a book until the whole series has come out so they don’t have to wait on a cliffhanger. For a long time this oversensitivity has kept me out of the news world entirely. I’ve been working on changing that.

April 28-May 1st; I immerse myself in information. My sorrow is amended; I am not only sorry for those who live in the rioting, but those who have lived in fear and frustration and anger for so long before the protests ever began. Intellectually I am aware of not only the murders of young black men, but also the problems of poverty the African American community has faced for so long, but sometimes the heart needs to be reminded of old news. I become angry at the news on the one hand and Tumblr on the other, who both seem determined to fixate on the rioters, a split-off minority of the protesters. Peaceful marches formed the bulk of the action, yet the media fixates not on the murdered young man they were marching for, not the damage and neglect the people in the projects have been living in, but on this one instance of angry outburst.

This video seems to sum up the problem, as Deray McKesson eloquently tries to redirect people’s attention to the issue, while Blitzer asks him to apologize, over and over again, for the property damage, even after he already has acknowledge that he does not support it.

On the flip side, activist-minded people, white and black, speak as if the fires and damage were nothing but a righteous crusade and nobody was affected but wrongdoers. My friend supports the protests completely, and was still locked up, with her black manager and several other black coworkers and friends, all terrified together. My friend passed a CVS and a 7-11, all smashed to pieces, where she knows the employees to be almost entirely young black men. This was not District 11 attacking President Snow’s peacekeepers. The rioters were not heroes targeting nobody but the damned.

And yet, perhaps sometimes you need a little broken glass to make your point properly heard. McKesson, in the video above, says it well. Broken windows can be fixed when broken spines cannot. You don’t have to condone something to understand it.

Humans love simple situations, but life rarely gives them.

Today; as I’ve researched all of this, a question keeps running through my mind. What can I do to stop this? How can I help?

I don’t have an answer that I like. I don’t have the ability to snap my fingers and end racism. I am neither a police officer nor anybody with any authority over the police. The only thing I can do is express my sorrow and desire for change. This feels incredibly inadequate.

Still, as I read more and more, I realize that even though its inadequate, it is what I can do, right now. I know that the essence of protest is simply people expressing their sorrow and desire for change, and change does come from protest. And I realize that I have a blog, small though it is, and I have yet to publicly speak on this issue that I truly do care about. I’ve been stopped because “I don’t think I’m very important” and “I’m white so I don’t have the right to speak” and “I don’t have anything original to say.”

Well fuck that. Sometimes there’s nothing original to say because the truth is painfully obvious. So here it is.

In our country, human beings are dying, unarmed and defenseless. They are dying because they resemble our popular stereotype of a criminal more than their murderers do, and they are dying without receiving any justice after their deaths. This is fucking wrong, and it needs to stop.