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Freedom from Sexual Self-Denial: Why Not Have Sex With People Who Aren't Your Partner?

Infidelity is treated as selfish, while monogamy is celebrated. But what's so great about living a life of self-denial?

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Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life In An Open Marriage, doesn’t understand why an open relationship would seem more risky than a closed one when 50 percent of marriages already end in divorce. “Relationships are hard no matter what the set-up. Sometimes I think open ones have a better shot because they are (or at least the good ones are) steeped in honesty.” She is also a strong believer that no one should define themselves by their relationships. “Relationships don’t complete me. They complement me and I hope my partners feel they can say the same. Relationships should be about flexibility, not rigidity. They should be about love, not ownership.”

The dominant school of thought among journalists, therapists and the general public is that romantic relationships require a renunciation of desire in order to succeed, or at least a severe restriction of desire. “Self-sacrifice” comes up often, but rarely the question of why you want someone you’re in love with to make such sacrifices, or the possibility of long-term resentment and unhappiness if you yourself sacrifice too much. Desire, even when unconsummated, makes many of us feel vibrant and alive, more awake to the world around us.

Along with this assumption regarding self-control or self-discipline is the strange refusal to admit that most romantic relationships are not life-long or even decade-long; that marriages fall apart and true loves grow distant; that people staying in a marriage is not synonymous with being happy. As Sandra Tsing Loh so controversially pointed out, there comes a point where someone may choose not to “work on” falling back in love—but some of those people separate and others stay together. The assumption when an open couple breaks up is that their poly lifestyle destroyed an otherwise tenable relationship. I find myself wondering if open couples are not simply more honest about what they want and need, and unwilling to stay in a relationship that isn’t functioning. Of course, amid all this speculation is the proverbial elephant in the room whenever polyamory is discussed: the fact that so many “monogamous” individuals have extra-relationship sex anyway.

When it comes to open relationships, Esther Perel is pragmatic: “It’s not for everybody. But neither is closed. Neither is the traditional model.” She adds that, contrary to being irresponsible and greedy, “people who try out [an open] model are often people who are very respectful of the other person’s sexual exploration. Or there are couples that are hoping that by creating a different kind of boundary they have a higher chance to survive and to preserve themselves. It’s [a decision] made for the purpose of the couple lasting.”

Jason and I are still together. We’re still learning about our boundaries, each other, and ourselves. We’re not actively pursuing other partners, but we also haven’t ruled out the possibility that we may in the future. I hope and suspect that if our relationship comes to an end, it will be the result of sincere self-reflection and honest assessment, not a blowup over sexual attraction to another person or a perceived sexual betrayal. Jason’s affair in New York taught me that our relationship is durable, that I can be strong even while hurt, and that if two people are honest with one another, most situations become less scary. As Jenny Block says, “Ultimately, it’s not about the sex. It’s about honesty, trust, love and respect. If you have those, you have no cause for concern.”

Gabrielle Robin is a pseudonym.

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