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.