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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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When my boyfriend, Jason, confessed to having sex with another woman, I cried. I cried almost nonstop for a full weekend, actually, in spite of the fact that I was the one who encouraged him to do it.

For the first two years of our relationship, I constantly teased Jason with dares that he fool around with any girl who hit on him. I maintained that I didn’t feel comfortable demanding monogamy, and that if he wanted to have sex with someone else, all I asked was that he be honest with me about it.

But Jason repeatedly said he was naturally monogamous. He didn’t like one-night stands—he was picky and prone to germophobia—and he didn’t want to have an ongoing sexual relationship with anyone else while we were together. He was a serial monogamist; he’d never had a “friend with benefits.” If he was having sex with someone, it was because they were dating.

Yet after years of being together, we hit a sexual wall. We’d tried meeting other couples and had two threesomes, but our efforts only yielded frustration and disappointment. I missed my days of effortlessly falling into bed with a new man and letting our chemistry lead the way. And I missed having dirty details to share with Jason about my past exploits (which he always enjoyed hearing). Together we decided that I would seek out another man, and though Jason would not necessarily look for another partner, he had license to seize the opportunity should it arise. That opportunity arose during a trip to New York, when a waitress gave him her phone number.

Although open relationships are not as shocking a concept today as they were 50 years ago, they’re still regarded with overwhelming skepticism and even disdain. The usual assumption is that polyamorous people are selfish, immature, incapable of commitment, and their primary relationship is therefore doomed to failure. When a letter writer asked Psychology Today columnist Hara Estroff Marano whether an open marriage might work for the writer and his/her partner—explaining that each had affairs in the past but still “remain committed to each other”— Marano (who is not actually a psychologist), replied "no." She went on to accuse the letter writer of being in search of “Peter Pan escape(s),” closing with the snide line that staying in a monogamous marriage “takes guts; it’s much easier to look outside for excitement than to find the source within.”

But what’s so gutsy about living a life full of self-denial and insecurity, where the person you love most is also the person you most need to limit?

Janet W. Hardy, co-author of The Ethical Slut, is quick to point out that being “open” is not necessarily the path of least resistance, and that moving away from monogamy takes courage: “The difference between polyamorous people and monogamous people isn't that poly people never feel jealous -- we do. The real difference is what we do with our feelings of jealousy. […] By blaming the [unhappy] feelings on their partners, [most monogamous people] are able to make problems someone else's fault. That way, they don't have to feel responsible for figuring out what's causing the feelings, or for finding a solution.” Those who have elected to allow their partner extra-relationship sex don’t “have that luxury. You don't get to distract yourself from your feelings of loss, sorrow, insecurity or whatever by diverting them into anger toward him [or her.]”

This is part of why an open relationship can be such a challenge. In an article that came out earlier this year about one couple’s history of their open marriage, wife Cate specifically said “it seemed worth it to me to push my psychological limits, to just work through it. I wanted to get to a better self […] There were a million -- not a million, but many -- painful challenges. Enormous, terrifying. But if you have relationships that have real emotional depth to them, which is what we aspire to, then it is never safe. You're terrified about losing the person. It's high risk.”

 
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