All in One Person: On Non-Monogamy

The Game of Life, by Jack Vettriano.

The Game of Life, by Jack Vettriano.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a piece called On Monogamy for a different blog. Recently, I began thinking it was time to write a companion piece for it on non-monogamy, a far more personally relevant topic.

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. Not what you’d expect, is it? After all, I’ve been given carte blanche to cheat…um, sleep around…er, what the hell do you people call it, (I can hear my dad asking). But here’s the thing, just because I can sleep with other people, doesn’t mean I will…at least not lightly.

The thing is that there are all kinds of of non-monogamies. Ours is relatively selective. Other  happy and successful non-monogamous couples are much more relaxed about who they open their relationships to. It all depends on the people involved and the nature of their dynamic. That’s one of the reasons why open relationships are so easily misunderstood.

The other difficulty in opening up a dialogue about non-monogamy is that there’s no single set of terms with which to talk about it. There are, however, a lot of misconceptions on all sides of the issue. No, non-monogamy isn’t “swinging” per se, though swinging is one of non-monogamy’s many forms. It also isn’t “sanctified cheating,” polygamy or polyandry. It is, however, somewhat difficult to define. Part of the problem, (and the strength) of open relationships is that there is no one way to do it – non-monogamy can take on as many different forms as there are 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 require WORK – as much, or possibly more, than their traditional counterparts. It isn’t worth it for many people. For many people, it isn’t right. But for couples in which both partners are honestly wired that way, it means being in a happy and fulfilling relationship with the person, (or 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 fuck a woman we both loved, and feeling peaceful, content, and so very happy.

* Cooking Thanksgiving dinner with my (then) fiance, 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 current partner this fall.

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 23 at at the time, and I was a cheater. It wasn’t that I was particularly unhappy with my boyfriends, (or girlfriends), at any given time. I didn’t even like cheating. I cheated because I felt serious attraction, affinity or love for someone else while still being in love with the person I was with.

Loving, (or being attracted), to two different people at the same time is, traditionally speaking, an odd notion, and acting on those feelings is largely thought to be a contemptible act. For better or for worse, however, that all came very naturally to me – the wanting multiple people in equal measure. That fact made me feel like something of a freak, which is why I loved it when, in Bloom’s story, the 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.

Now, you may be thinking, “well, that’s all fine and dandy 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 feel no 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 relationships, or even just casual sex, with other women, is not a referendum on our dynamic.

Please, don’t think that doesn’t mean that 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, my friends, is part of the WORK.

Non-monogamy isn’t necessarily new, but the cultural conversation we’re having about it is. When you see articles about open marriages in Salon and authors on Fox News promoting relationship guides that include, among other things, healthy forms of non-mongamy, you know something’s shifting in the bedrock of our long held beliefs. Homosexuality, atheism, kink, non-monogamy… these statuses have defied 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.

19 comments

    1. Thank you so much. I love that painting. James, my husband, bought me a print for Christmas one year and it’s hanging in my office. There’s a lot going on in there – much like Hopper. Vettriano is great that way 🙂

  1. People often ask me that question of “but what happens when it’s your partner who wants to sleep with someone else”? I can answer, quite honestly, that in my relationships I am the one who is most likely to be monogamous by accident. And that’s fine by me.
    Relationships: one size does not fit all.

    1. You got that right. One size doesn’t fit all – it’s finding the one that fits you as an individual, as well as how you and your partner(s) function together is really the thing. Judgement on that score is fairly useless..as it is in most things regarding other people’s lives, (unless they hate kittens. Then all bets are off).

  2. What a great blog post! Whether or not you meant it that way, this is a great answer to my plea for non-preachy poly writing. And thank you so much for being brave enough to admit that the feelings of love can be strong enough to make one cheat. I know how seriously you take ethics, so that’s really eye-opening and gets me a little closer to understanding how strong the needs are.

    Note from Malin: Here’s the correct link for the excellent piece Yingtai referenced above! http://abjectsub.com/a-love-poem-for-the-not-so-polyamorous/

    1. Thank you Yingtai! I just read the post you linked to and it really did end up being a good response to the request you, (so rightly), made for non-preachy writing on non-monogamy. I wish there was more of it myself. One of the reasons I decided to run with the post now was because I’d like to address different aspects of non-monogamy in a more accessible, (read: less preacy / judgey), way. I’m really happy it worked! Hopefully, more will come 🙂

      I also want to thank you for you for your kind words about the personal aspects of the post. I have to admit that I unsettled myself a bit with how personal it got, but I couldn’t see how it would be right to opine on non-monogamy without copping to my own life and history and how non-monogamy has affected it. In fact, it was the issue of ethics that prompted me to embrace non-monogamy as an honest alternative to cheating, (which never sat at all comfortably), and it made all the difference in many aspects of my life. Thanks so much again for commenting, and for being such an incredible, thought-provoking writer yourself. It’s always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

  3. This is *fantastic*, important writing right here, my friend. I commend you for your honesty and bravery. You are inspirational.

    I’m now going to go share this with everyone. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Jacob. As you can imagine, it means a lot to me when someone I respect responds that way to something I write. Given that I respect the hell out of you, your comment means a hell of a lot. Thank you for reading the post and for sharing it too. You, my friend, are awesome.

  4. It’s nice to read someone else’s views on this. There was a discussion about this on Twitter’s #SexTalkTuesday recently which prompted me to write this article on the subject. While my experiences are different from yours, a lot of what you say about trust, honesty, and work apply just as strongly for me as they do to you.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Katie xx

    1. Thanks so much for reading, and for the comment Katie! And thanks also for sharing the link to your piece. This is one of those issues where each individual experience is important, because non-monogamy is so different for everyone who practices it. Much appreciated! xx.M

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