I’m in an open relationship and have been for eleven years. My husband and I have been married for nine of those years, and in that time, I’ve had a very small handful of lovers, which is not what people expect. After all, I’ve been given carte blanche to cheat…uh, sleep around…er, whatever the hell you people call it, (I can hear my dad saying). But just because I can sleep with other people, doesn’t mean I will…at least not lightly.
There are all kinds of non-monogamies. Ours is selective to the point of qualifying as monogamish. Other happy, successful non-monogamous couples are more open about their open relationship. In fact, even within a relationship, it can be different for each partner. My husband tends to date more than I do though we’re both careful about starting anything new because any relationship outside of our marriage will naturally take time away from us, which means that we’d both want the secondary relationship to be worth that sacrifice.
It’s like buying flowers. He’s more likely to see what’s in bloom, whereas I’m never actively looking. It’s more that, every rare now-and-then, I meet someone and when I do I’m free to see where it goes.
Those parameters work for us and always have, but they may not for someone else. It all depends on the people involved and the nature of the dynamic. That’s one of the reasons why open relationships are so easily misunderstood.
The other difficulty with talking about non-monogamy is that there’s no single set of terms to use. There are, however, a lot of misconceptions. Non-monogamy isn’t “swinging”, though swinging is one form of non-monogamy. It also isn’t “sanctified cheating,” polygamy or polyandry, though it can be (and often is) polyamory. As you can see, it’s somewhat difficult to define. Part of the problem with (and the strength of) open relationships is that there’s no one way to do it – non-monogamy can take as many different forms as there are people and situations.
In the end, regardless of flavor, open relationships require the same things that any functioning traditional relationship does – trust, communication, honesty and work. Let me stress that last one. Open relationships take a lot of work – as much, or possibly more, than their traditional counterparts. That doesn’t make them more enlightened (as some poly factions would have you think). It just means that, for some people, it isn’t right. For others, it means being in a happy, fulfilling relationship with the person (and people) you love.
Here’s a snap shot of how non-monogamy works for me:
* My girlfriend being a bridesmaid at my wedding, (she looked beautiful, by the way).
* Watching my (then) boyfriend have sex with a woman we both loved, and feeling peaceful, content, and so very happy.
* Cooking Thanksgiving dinner with my (then) fiancé, my girlfriend, my lover and our friends.
* Making travel plans around three different work schedules and two different time zones so I could fly across the country to see my most recent partner.
Non-monogamy requires a lot of attention to detail, logistics, emotions and moods. There are more feelings to get hurt and schedules to fuck up and feet to tread on. But there is more of everything else too – love, connection, satisfaction and joy.
There is an Amy Bloom story that I love called “Love is Not a Pie.” It was the first time I’d ever encountered the notion of non-monogamy as anything other than cheating. I was in my early twenties and I cheated a lot, not because I liked cheating (I hated it), but because, despite being actively in love with the person I was with, I would occasionally fall in love (or serious like) with someone else.
Loving, (or being attracted), to two different people at the same time is an odd notion and acting on those feelings has been, historically speaking, the opposite of ok. As a pretty inexperienced 22 year old, the fact that I often did made me feel like an awful slut. That’s why Bloom’s story resonated so deeply with me. The protagonist’s mother tells her that “love is not a pie” – it’s something you share. Sometimes you share it with one person, sometimes with many, but there is an infinite amount. You will not run out. And that, made sense to me.
This is when most people think, that’s fine when you’re the one with the lover, but what about when the shoe is on the other foot?
Well, as long as I’m not getting lied to, the shoe fits very well. I don’t tend to feel a sense of competition with my partners’ partners. Their relationships with their lovers, girlfriends, subs, flings and fuck-buddies have nothing to do with me so long as they are honest, open and safe about it. The fact that they have casual sex or a long-term relationships with someone else isn’t a referendum on our dynamic. The relationships exist separately (for me), and it’s important that they do because it’s too easy to escape problems in one by starting another. Everything has to stand on it’s own.
That doesn’t mean I don’t get jealous. I do. I think most people do, no matter how much you hear about the virtue of compersion, (and compersion is real. What’s more, it’s a wonderful thing). What keeps me grounded is the knowledge that my partners’ lovers do not indicate a lack in me. To paraphrase John Updike, it’s difficult to find everything all in one person. It’s that understanding that helps me keep my perspective when jealousy flares up. And that is a big part of the work.
There’s acceptance and contention in equal measure, but there isn’t much of a cultural dialogue yet. One is starting—you know things are changing when Salon and Fox News Magazine run features about open marriages—but it’s still a challenging thing. Homosexuality, atheism, kink and non-monogamy have existed despite the pressure of cultural norms for centuries, but it’s only in recent decades that they’ve announced their presence without apology or excuse. It’s an important time in our culture, one that requires tolerance, curiosity and dialogue – as do love, sex and relationships, monogamous or not.
Non-monogamy isn’t perfect – far from it. It depends too much on the honesty and integrity of the people involved to ever be perfect. But the same can be said of any relationship. So, for what it’s worth, this is my experience with non-monogamy so far. I’ve no idea how it will look in 5, 10 or 15 years but I can’t imagine not being non-monogamous in some form. It’s given me healthy, loving, long-term relationships and, for that, I’m incredibly grateful.