The Case for Open Relationships
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Matt Titus's recent post "How to Be Faithful" struck a nerve with readers. And it's something I've thought a good deal about, so I decided to look not at monogamy as a goal, but as a social construct. First let me say that if you are in a monogamous relationship, I encourage you to stay within the rules of your relationship, or speak to your partner, rather than simply cheat. But I do believe that monogamy has become fetishized as the only answer to a large degree, with the result being that many people are either locked into relationships they aren't happy with, or are conducting affairs on the side and feeling guilty about it (or not).
This was all brought home to me last week, when I had one of the strangest dinner conversations I've ever had. A guy I'd never met, but who knows some friends of mine, started contacting me by email. He was very persistent, and charming, so I invited him to a reading I was giving. He showed up, and we went for dinner afterward. I wasn't sure if it was a date -- it could've been, but was unclear -- or whether I wanted it to be. Until, that is, he told me he has a girlfriend. He said it matter-of-factly, like it was just a simple fact, dropped as nonchalantly as his hometown. As it turns out, although they live together and have been a couple for six years, he gets around, and often. He seemed utterly unconflicted as he estimated that, on average, he sleeps with another woman once a month. To his credit, he has no misperceptions about what he's doing. "I'm not a swinger, I'm a cheater," he said. Sadly, I'm sure he is far from alone in his extracurricular mating habits.
I asked my friend Suzanne Portnoy, author of The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker: An Erotic Memoir , which chronicles her racy sex life filled with multiple partners, about her take on monogamy. She says there "was never a 'light bulb' moment. Following my divorce and then getting into the swinging scene, I started juggling partners and realized I preferred having a variety of sexual partners to just one." Another friend, Tess, is in an open marriage; she doesn't have sex with her husband anymore, but takes outside lovers. He's free to as well, but as far as she knows, he doesn't. She recently blogged about why she's still in her marriage, despite these constraints. I know a married couple where they're allowed to make out with other people, and take advantage of this rule. I know a triad (one man and two women) who live together quite happily, and are raising children together. One friend described her multiple committed relationships as being "like Big Love, without the patriarchy."
Many who've struggled with monogamy's constraints have concluded that, for various reasons, it's just not for them. As Susan Mernit wrote recently at BlogHer:
You see, even if I ended up getting super-serious with the person I am seeing, and decided to move in with him and make a long-term commitment, I just don't think it would be truthful or wise to also agree to forsake all others. I don't feel an emotional need to make this sort of promise, because I've come to question, okay, I don't believe, that sexual exclusivity is a determinant for commitment. And I also don't believe that being in a serious relationship and deeply loving someone always precludes caring for -- and choosing to be involved with -- someone else. Or that not being sexually exclusive is going to wreak havoc with a committed relationship, no matter what.
What really seems important to me in relationships these days, is not choosing monogamy, but choosing openness, authenticity, trust and communication.
I agree with Titus, completely, that "fantasy is a good thing." And for many people, monogamy works just fine. But for others, both men and women, monogamy is not a perfect system and doesn't allow them to fully realize themselves. By that I don't mean "sleep with anyone they want," but rather that we may reveal different aspects of ourselves to different people. Think about your various close friends; the way you interact with them is likely different for each one. Some people have that same experience with lovers; they may be married or in a long-term relationship, but have someone else they see occasionally or frequently. Open relationships are not all about sex, either. We may want someone we can talk to, share with, who provides a different kind of support or energy or way of relating than our primary partner.
I've been in both open and monogamous relationships, and one thing I can safely say is that there are plenty of people in so-called monogamous relationships where there's all kinds of cheating going on. Or, as Betty Dodson told me a few years ago, "America practices serial monogamy with cheating on the side. It's never acknowledged and it's lied about." If you've been cheated on, you know the pain and heartache this can cause, likely fostering distrust that can stay with us in future relationships. Even if there's not cheating, it's likely that one person may be up to something the other wouldn't necessarily approve of (flirting, for instance). Furthermore, when we make monogamy the be-all and end-all in relationships, in some ways we make the letter of the law more important than the spirit. Would you rather your partner make love to you every day, even though their heart's not really in it? Therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, recently said:
The way I see it is that I meet many couples in my practice who may be sexually faithful and are betraying each other in so many other ways. Neglect, indifference, contempt, lack of respect, stonewalling, disqualifying, devaluing, ridiculing, lying, deceit and so on. There are so many ways that people let each other down, betray each other, tear the trust, demean each other, all the while they are sexually faithful. So why is it that we think sexual betrayal is the mother of them all?
Perel's point, again, emphasizes that sex is not the only important part of a relationship, which should be obvious, but isn't always.
For those interested in more information on the topic, two books coming out next year will explore the topic in more depth: Tristan Taormino's Opening Up: Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships (Cleis Press) and Jenny Block's Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage . (You can read Jenny's take here on the Huffington Post in "Portrait of an Open Marriage.") For anyone considering non-monogamy or wanting to learn more, the classic 1997 volume The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Lizt is truly a must-read. The very idea that you can be "ethical" and still, in some way, a "slut" is still highly provocative ten years later.
Before you think I'm advocating you rush off and beg your spouse to open up your marriage, please note that open relationships aren't for everyone. It's not as simple and easy as it may look from the outside. The polyamorous people I know put a lot of time and effort into all of their relationships to make sure everyone's on the same page. Lastly, this is not an either/or choice you must make now and stick with forever. Some couples drift in and out of monogamy depending on what works best for them at any given time. And polyamory is not a panacea; if you think you'll cure any and all sexual longings or be free of jealousy simply by taking on new partners, you're probably in for a rude awakening. I can't say whether monogamy's right for you or not, only that monogamy clearly isn't right for everyone, or we wouldn't have the levels of cheating and divorce that we do. Titus rightly acknowledged that monogamy can be a struggle, and a worthwhile one, for many, but it is not the only option out there.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an author and editor of over a dozen erotic anthologies, most recently Hide and Seek and Crossdressing. She hosts In The Flesh Erotic Reading Series and is a former sex columnist for The Village Voice.