Recently my sister asked me a question about my relationship with the man in my life (let’s call him Greg). She was wondering about whether I think Greg is the “One and Only” for me, seeing as I have already been married to someone else, and have had a few previous loves in my life. How could I know that he was the one, and if I didn’t have that reassurance, was I not troubled by it?

That got me thinking. It is true that I feel a certain sadness about losing the blind, naive conviction that the man I am with is the only one for me.  I am slightly jealous of the high school sweethearts celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. A few lucky individuals still maintain an absolute belief that the person they are with is uniquely engineered for them and they – for their other half. Alas, it’s hard to maintain such a belief after having thought it four, five times. There is that slight sense of loss, yes, but also – an overwhelming sense of blessedness.

For a woman who could always count the number of close female friends on one hand, each romantic relationship has been precious and vitally important. To love and to be loved, to know a person intimately (though not necessarily sexually), to become vulnerable and to see the person you cherish open up, blossom and reveal his inmost essence – what a critical part of my life that has been. Each man that I have loved has given me much that I still carry with me. Each relationship formed me – turbulent, agonizing and exhilarating as it was.

As I write I cannot help but think of the ugly words we use to describe people who have had multiple partners. What a paradox this is: God has placed in our hearts the passionate love that He himself embodies, burning as fire, selfless, profound. And yet we are to pick one partner for the rest of our life and shun all the rest. So much rejection. So many broken hearts. As if each person has only enough love for one other.

I sometimes envy the courtesans that Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes in his novels. These are not the malnourished, beaten down young women forced into sexual servitude. These are the matrons who have stepped outside of society’s rigid constraints. They live in their own homes on the outskirts of the city. The living rooms are lush with greenery and exotic birds, the breeze blows gently through the linen curtains, the tea is always hot and date cakes await the weary visitor. The women are fiercely independent, and yet they will comfort and love, arduously, diligently, anyone who comes through the door. Unlike the street prostitute, they do not charge a fee. Love cannot be sold or bought, and theirs never runs out. The source seems  eternal. When I read about these women, idealized through Marquez’s magical prose, I often think of someone else who loved indiscriminately all the shunned people of the Earth…

And yet, monogamy runs deep in our culture, and in my veins. So much is gained through the conscious, willful abandon of freedom. Humility and strength both come when you acknowledge that you are desperately dependent on that one other person, and he – on you. Yoked to your permanent mate, you plod through the seasons of your lives together, learning ever more, fronting new challenges, making new discoveries. And the good news is – you don’t have to start each day from scratch; you have a history of your struggles and triumphs to look back on together.

A good friend of ours once told Greg and me a story. He and his girlfriend of several years were experimenting with polyamory – the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. They are a pretty liberated, enlightened couple who felt that deep, committed relationships should not be limited to a single partner. And so one day, with the full support of the girlfriend, our friend went to spend an intimate night with another man who was in love with him. He returned home the following morning and started telling the girlfriend about his interesting, educational (as he put it) experience. As he was talking, he noticed that his girlfriend’s expression changed, and shortly she was shaking uncontrollably. He stopped his story and they quickly decided that polyamory was not going to work for them. I often think of this story as a telling example of how something that seems so beautiful in theory can prove impossible in practice.

But where does all of this leave me and my one and only? I don’t remember what I told my sister that day, but what I might tell her now is that I am not troubled. As I grow, my capacity and flexibility to love grows. I do not love Greg less because I have loved others before him. In fact, with my love for him comes a more vast love that I feel towards the whole world. And this is something that I learned from him: to love generously.