A New Book Explores Polyamory And The “Darker Eroticism” Of Long-Term Relationships

Talking with ‘Vanishing Twins’ author Leah Dieterich

It's toward the end of Leah Dieterich's memoir Vanishing Twins: A Marriage that Dieterich's boss at the advertising agency where she works says the following words: "People can't have a preference if they can't see a difference." He's rehearsing a pitch presentation, one that Dieterich has heard before, and she thinks: "The first time I heard this line, I was struck by its truth. How elegant it made the obvious. And unlike so many things, subsequent repetitions did not diminish it."

We live in a world in which we can feel tyrannized by an abundance of options, and then, paradoxically, punished for not being able to settle on choosing just one thing, or just one path. In many ways, Dieterich's provocative, poetic memoir is about wanting more than what we—particularly as women—are told we can have. It is a meditation on openness and constraints, on partnership and absence, and it hinges on Dieterich's experience of a period of polyamory within her marriage, a time during which both she and her husband explored relationships with other partners while also staying tethered to one another. But it is also a book about making choices, and knowing that those decisions are best made after thoroughly exploring the available options, and also fully getting to know ourselves in the process.

Recently, I spoke with Dieterich about the peculiar freedoms that constraints afford, what she learned from opening her relationship, and how important it is to always want more. Read our interview, below.  

This memoir takes place over many years, but it's a very specific time in your life. Did you always know you'd want to turn this time into a book? What was that process like?

When I was going through the period of my life that I wrote about, I definitely knew that I wanted to use all of the creative energy that was swirling around for something down the road. I suppose a lot of writers,  or artists in general, feel that way, like, I have to do something with this someday. But, because that was always in my head, I kept a lot of materials that I felt were significant in some way, so I had all of that to reflect on and use for research. I always knew I’d wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know what it was going to be, I was searching for that: What is the book I’m going to write? And then when it hadn’t come by whatever age, I tried to push myself to write a novel, like the novel was the apex of creative achievement or something. But it just wasn’t my natural inclination to write about things that were too distant from my own experience. 

I can’t remember how far I got into [the novel], but I would find myself digressing pretty far from what I thought was the central narrative. One day I was writing, and I just started writing this little prose poem almost about the ligature o and e that are smashed together in French [œ], as kind of a stand-in for myself and any of the people in my life that I’d felt really connected to in a twinning kind of way, like a Siamese twin. And as I was writing this section, I remember it so vividly, I was like, This is the kind of stuff I want to write. I’m pushing myself to make up things for the sake of it being fiction, but why? Especially when my favorite writers are Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso. So I was like, Why am I trying to write fiction when the books that I really like are these particular types of lyrical essay and memoir? I should just let myself do that and explore the same themes that I was planning to explore in this novel. I was also working on a screenplay about twins and, eventually, I just kind of gave up on those other projects that were more fictional, and focused on this one.

I felt like your fragmentary writing style felt so much more representative of your subject, and also reflects the way we think, the way our thoughts progress. It also gives the text this other aspect, a physicality, which also worked really beautifully with the topics of identity and love and sex, giving your words a very visceral quality, making it exist not just in my head, but also on its own. 

I personally gravitate toward things that are also really visceral, [that can be felt in] the form of these paragraphs, that exist on the page with a bunch of white space, or in a book you can read in almost one sitting. That’s almost what I aspired to, in a sense, because there’s something I like about being able to hold an entire thing at once. Almost like a work of art, like a painting where you can take it in all at once. I do like long books—like, Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books—but it’s certainly not the kind of thing I could ever attempt to write, nor would I want to. Mostly I really prefer these things you can hold in their entirety, in a certain way. 

In Vanishing Twins, the writing is so concerned with the body, there’s so much physicality to it, even as you're exploring these very theoretical ideas. I wondered if your experience as a dancer informed your writing.

I think it had to, just because of the fact it was such a formative part of my upbringing. I feel like it finds its way in a lot of different ways. Besides [its effect on] your individual body, I think it’s also seen in how you relate to other bodies. This idea of always being aware of where you are in space and always working in concert with someone else is something I probably brought into my relationships and into my writing as well. I often think of the way I wrote this book, from a choreography standpoint where I was imagining the different sections—I mean, not consciously as I was doing it, but there was a similarity. With individual sections of the book, I moved them around in space, if you will, to find the right order and for organization, and I can see that as [being akin to] a group of dancers that I’m placing in space, and having them work together, and have one take the lead, or have them work in unison. Just from the perspective of spending a lot of time looking at myself, and thinking about my body, [I am aware of how much] you have to tune it. It’s your instrument, so you can never not focus on it—probably to a fault in some cases. So I think that level of attention to my body has me think of it first, whenever I’m writing. 

The partnership aspect, being hyper-aware of someone else's body, is interesting because I found this to be one of the most honest and unflinching looks of what it means to be a partner with someone, and very specifically within a marriage. You were married and, before that, partnered with your husband at a very young age, and I wonder if getting married so young was one of the things that allowed you to take the risk of expanding what your marriage meant, testing different freedoms and each other. Do you think making that commitment to each other at such a young age was something that allowed you to have more freedoms later on?

I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it that way! [laughs] I think that would imply that there was a lot of intentionality around it in some way, and I don’t know if there was. I talked about it in the book, and I don’t know if I expressed it completely, but there was a very strange way in which I suddenly really wanted us to get married, whereas I’d never had that as a goal before, and it’s one of those things that really didn’t feel intellectual, it was just like, Let’s get married. And I think that probably happens for a lot of people. But I remember saying, "If you want to stay in a relationship with me, you’re going to have to be prepared for, like, not a wild ride, but to be open to some crazy things." I didn’t know what those things were at the time, but I just knew that about myself, and he was like, "I wouldn’t be interested if that wasn’t the case. I’m definitely down for that." 

And so we sort of always had this unspoken idea that it would be real collaboration and that there would be a lot of ups and downs. Even though, as we got into the relationship, we had a hard time accepting that, as the things would come up, the typical things that would come up for any couple that is in a long-term relationship, as you start to get bored or this and that. Somehow always, though, we were always on the same page, [and] the point was always to feel supported and also inspired, and figure out what that meant at each step along the way. 

I don’t know if this is a big digression, but I’m a big fan of Esther Perel who wrote Mating in Captivity, and she wrote this other book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, and she said that every person in the West gets married and has three marriages, and for some people, that’s to the same person—like, there are three different marriages to the same person. And I feel like that’s definitely been the case for my husband and I... we’ve kind of had the opportunity to get remarried a number of times.

It’s such a real thing that you can change so profoundly over the years, so you need to recommit, and I think it’s such a fascinating choice to recommit to the same person. I also think it’s such a special thing to see that evolution with one other person over time, and it’s a gift to be able to examine someone else so closely. It’s so beautiful to have one other person to see you so intimately as you’re changing so much.

I just wrote a little essay about officiating a wedding, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about my own wedding and about getting married and having one person see you through so many things, that in itself adds something in my eyes about my husband. He’s been flexible enough and caring enough and loving enough to see me through all these challenging phases, and he becomes that much more amazing to me. And I hope it works the same way for him, and I think it does. 

In writing about officiating the wedding, I was looking up all these different quotes, and there’s one by Adam Phillips in his book Monogamy, that I write about in Vanishing Twins, as well; it’s about how we only value a relationship when it survives our best attempts to destroy it. [laughs] And there’s something about how every sadomasochist knows there’s nothing more sexy than resilience. I kind of had this tendency in my 20s to feel that I was already in this really long relationship, and everyone else was in these very new relationships, and it was difficult to not be a bit jealous of that and to see a long-standing relationship as somehow boring or staid, and that quote really excited me, because it was like, Oh, all the things you go through, when you do stay with someone for a really long time, kind of have a darker eroticism—maybe. [laughs]

It's easy, also, to look at marriage as an institution and see it as outdated and not perhaps necessary. But, and maybe this has to do with the BDSM thing, having that constraint and knowing that that bond is there, actually encourages people to explore their freedoms. Most people probably don’t, but having that commitment can potentially afford so much more freedom because you know you have a foundation to return to. And it made me think of what you mention your boss saying, that “people can’t make a choice if they can’t see a difference.” In a world where so many things seem the same, you weren’t afraid to seek something different. But so many people don't even give themselves permission to even see the differences. Why do you think that is? Is it just fear? 

Maybe it’s a fear on an individual level. But maybe it’s the way our culture talks about the institution of marriage and preaches about the same thing over and over. It can become really unconscious, I think, for a lot of people: This is what marriage is because this is what I’ve been taught it is, so if that’s not working for me, then I shouldn’t be married. But I felt this myself sometimes, not wanting to let myself explore something because I was worried about what would be on the other side of that exploration. And I don’t know why I’ve personally been willing to push past those fears, because I do often find myself a nervous, sort of worried type of person, but I have done a lot of things that would maybe lead people to believe it’s not the case. It’s funny. 

I’m also just really interested in that box you might feel like you’re in because of marriage, and I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s so true. I had thought about it a lot in terms of other kinds of constraints; like, I always say that I liked writing for advertising because of the constraints. When you know what the boundaries are, you somehow feel freer to work inside of them, or just outside of them a little. I never equated it to marriage, but I can see how it might be similar. And likewise, the kind of writing that Sarah Manguso has always championed, such concision and trying to say the most with the least amount of words, that’s also a box I’ve always loved. 

There's also a very practical side to those constraints, and you actually deal with very unromantic aspects of partnership, but very necessary ones—like, supporting each other financially as you both pursued artistic endeavors.

I always, even when I got married so young, had a pretty unromantic—at least from other people’s perspectives—notion on why I wanted to get married in America at that point. I was always like, “It’s a business! It’s a business arrangement.” Like, it’s good for your taxes and health insurance. We are living in a country where, unfortunately, it’s just like that, there are so many benefits to being married. I think it’s kind of sad. I wish that people who didn’t find someone they wanted to marry could have all those same rights and benefits. But, at the same time, I was like, Well, I have found this person who fits this bill, so I should marry this person. And, of course, there are other more romantic, philosophical things about it. And both my husband and I know that beyond the sort of ineffable things about each other that we’re attracted to, we’re also both pretty rational in a lot of ways. And I think that that rationality is why we were even able to embark on the open relationship. I often find when I talk to other people who have tried polyamory, they’re, like, computer programmers, or they’re people with really rational minds who are able to separate what they’re feeling from what makes sense, from this outside perspective. And because of the fact that we could both do that, we were able to say, "Let’s try this relationship." 

How was it to re-inhabit this time in your life from a period of some distance?

[Laughs] It was really painful! I had enough distance on it to be more objective and I could hear and see in my words the things that other people had said to me, like, "You’re being unfair," or, "You’re asking too much," or, "You’re taking advantage," or whatever it was. At the time, I was just like, [makes a dismissive sound], "No!" But, you know, I’ve matured, and I was more willing to see myself objectively. That also felt really important, because the fact that I can see that means that I’m not that person anymore, it means I’ve changed, and this is a really real way to know that. 

Also, because of the fact that I’m writing about my life with this other person, especially my husband who I’m still in a relationship with and who I care a lot about, we talked about the book a lot as I was writing it... At the beginning, every section I’d write that he had something to do with, I just worried, like, What will he think of this? And I had to let that go. I think that process itself was probably very important to the continuing evolution of our relationship and my position within it and my own autonomy. Once he did read it... having to then talk through all these experiences that had happened six or seven years ago with him, it really forced us to revisit things and say the things we weren’t able to say back then to each other. So I think it was a good experience for our relationship and kind of a “how are we doing now?” So that also felt very good, and I wouldn’t have wanted to publish it if we weren’t in a good place with it. I suppose it would have been a completely different book if we weren’t in a better place with it.

What were the most difficult parts for you to write?

I would say one of the most difficult parts to write was the moment where we close the relationship, and my husband and I start to continue what our life was going to be like in this new post-non-monogamy monogamy. At one point, I had an early reader—and I was originally calling the book an autobiographical novel, because of the fact that I was still sort of attached to the idea of fiction being the be-all and end-all—and so [this was] a friend who really didn’t know me very well, and so I had her read it, and she was reading it as a novel. I don’t know how much she knew was true or not, but her question in an early draft was, “Why does she stay with him?” And I was like, Oh my god, now I have to figure that out for myself, for my own life

Because, why did I stay in that relationship? That was the hardest thing. There was some resistance that I had to trying to figure that out or to interrogate that too much, because I think I felt that, Okay, I’ve come through this crazy period of time, and things are seemingly a little bit more placid right now, we’re back together, I don’t want to think about this too much, because what if that makes me blow the whole thing up again? But I think that question from her about the narrative was really important for me to have to answer myself in my own life, and I spent so much time… that was when I really delved into all our communications, and it wasn’t any one thing that I found in that communication between us that was the key to why we stayed together, but it was the amount of the communication that we had that became to me, Oh, this is why I love this relationship, because there’s this other person that, for whatever reason, I’m so interested in working with, and they’re so interested in working with me to try and make this relationship feel like it has a forward trajectory. And there’s something so satisfying and so valuable about that. I was like, that’s why we stay together. And I hope that I showed that that work is a big part of why that relationship sustained. 

I think it reminds me of the point at the end of the book when you’re crying to your mother, and you’re coming out to her, and she says, "You know, you don’t have to tell me all this," and you say, “I want you to know me.” Which is, I think, something that applies so frequently in terms of our relationships to our families, because they know us our whole lives but do they really know our full complicated adult selves? But in romantic relationships, it also applies, and in terms of your relationship with your husband, you know each other so well, all the messy parts of what happened when you opened your relationship, and then choosing to close it or refocus it, it’s such a conscious decision. And, still, after you really know each other, you still want to be together. I think that’s so powerful. It really resonated in terms of what it means to find someone with whom you can have that kind of aggressive intimacy with.

I agree, I think that was a big part of it. But also as we’ve continued in the relationship, while we do know so much about each other, there are still so many things we’ll never know about each other, just because there are so many things you’ll never know about someone. And that knowledge about my lack of knowledge, I think, is the thing at this point, in a monogamous relationship, that does keep me engaged. Because I think it can be very… it can start to feel boring, because you’re just like, “I know everything about this person,” and so why do you want to keep watching that movie or reading that book if you feel like you’ve already seen or read it? There’s both sides of it. Knowing that someone knows you so well is so comforting and so reassuring that they still love you after all of that, but then, somewhat paradoxically, it's still important to have that feeling of, I have no idea what else there is to know there. And that’s exciting and intriguing, too.

Vanishing Twins is available for purchase here.

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