I’m in an open relationship. I’m certainly not the only person in a non-monogamous relationship these days; my open status doesn’t score me nearly as many cool points as it once did, nor is it as controversial as it once was. Everything I read about non-monogamy is like “Yay! So much sex! Whoopeeee!”
Meanwhile, monogamy is written about like “Snoooooze fest. Divorce says it’s not working anyway. I am bored to literal tears.”
In my personal experience — which includes a failed marriage, several long-term monogamous relationships, some epically disastrous open relationships, and my current relationship that waffles between open and closed — I’ve found that stereotypes around these storylines have left us all with some expectations that could use adjusting.
NON-MONOGAMY: You’re doing it wrong/That shit’s hard.
Four years into our relationship and one year into our marriage, my wife Chris and I decided to open our relationship. A Capricorn and an Aquarius who’d had a bi-coastal relationship for our first year, we were already cocky, low-jealousy, “sharing” types who had cracked open the door to our relationship before — allowing casual make-outs and dates with people we affectionately called “randos” we thought we would probably never see again. But this time, when we said “open relationship,” we really meant it.
Not only did we mean it, it was my idea. Chris was working as a bartender and I was working a day job in the human services industry. Our schedules were completely opposite. When I decided to retreat to the cell service-less mountains for a month to direct a youth summer camp, it became clear that Chris wanted some…company. Her co-worker Alex had been interested in Chris for a while, so she seemed like the natural choice. Wanting to focus on my own personal growth, attracted to the freedom of disappearing to summer camp without worrying about Chris’s lack of company, I jumped at the opportunity to open our relationship. I had dabbled in non-monogamy previously in more casual relationships, so it wasn’t a hard leap for me to make. The diamonds latched to my ring finger certainly helped out in the security department. And as far as Chris was concerned, she was entering into a life with a girlfriend and a wife, so things weren’t looking too shabby for her, either.
Many have written compellingly about why humans are better suited to be non-monogamous, and how to do it ethically. Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up is my personal open relationship bible. I don’t need to re-write her theories here about the non-monogamist belief that one partner can’t meet all of our needs, or how non-monogamy’s emphasis on consensual choice differentiates it from cheating. I want to talk about what it’s like to practice what writers like Taormino preach.
Sure, you can read Taormino’s book and totally agree with her theories: I don’t own my partner! She’s her own person! Society can’t put me in a box! Then one night you find yourself at home, cleaning up dog vomit after a tough work shift, while your girlfriend’s off with her other partner Hot Motorcycle Guy — and in your jealous, puppy-puke-ridden mind, they couldn’t possibly be doing anything other than feeding each other expensive steaks before having simultaneous orgasms at sunset. Suddenly monogamy starts looking real nice.
The most common pitfalls in open relationships exist in the big ol’ gap between people’s expectations of non-monogamy in theory, and the hard reality of non-monogamy in practice.
Waaaitttt, where’s all the sex?
Despite its most prevalent stereotype, non-monogamy is not all sex, sex, sex, but is actually mostly talk, talk, talk. Compared to monogamy, there aren’t as many predetermined rules of open relationships, so you’ve gotta make your own.
Many do this by designing a “relationship contract,” a verbal or written understanding of agreed-upon relationship boundaries. At first, this sounds really fun and cool, but once you start considering one, two, or ten other people’s wants, needs, insecurities, and boundaries, suddenly there’s not enough paper in the world. Throw in post-date check-ins and multiple PMS schedules and you’ll find your mouth isn’t exactly being used for the things you were hoping for.
When deciding on the structure of my non-monogamous relationship with Chris, I did what any studious, anal-retentive writer would: I assigned Alex and Chris Taormino’s book as required reading and created a due date for a draft of their hopes, dreams, and boundaries for our little arrangement. Once the assignments were completed, we scheduled a meeting with the three of us.
Pre-meet-up, Chris and I hashed out our own terms, separate from Alex: “Don’t take our dog to the park with her, because he’s like our kid” and “I don’t care how busy you are with your girlfriend and your wife, you still need to do your share of dishes and laundry.” By the time the three of us met at a cafe to hammer out the details of who got Saturday as a date night, we had put in what felt like a semester’s worth of open relationship homework. Terms were laid out, vetoed, negotiated and agreed upon. We had five typed pages when we were done.
Contract be damned, you’re just not psychic.
It’s crucial to get specific when building your relationships agreements (Who’s on-/off-limits? What activities are okay? Romantic dates? Just sex? Can you only have one-night stands, or can you date someone continuously? Will you kiss and tell or would you prefer ignorant bliss?). But you can’t predict the future.
Many newbie non-monogamists try to to build a contract by envisioning themselves in every possible scenario and conjuring up every possible emotional reaction. But it’s impossible to prevent occasional yuck in any relationship, especially an open one. Making your intentions clear and your agreements mutual and consensual is your strongest defense, and the contract process is a valuable one. But still, feelings will get hurt.
Spoiler alert: Chris and I got divorced six months after opening our relationship to Alex for reasons both related and unrelated to their extramarital canoodling. More recently, I’ve gotten back on the non-monogamy horse I fell off of with Chris, and am now on the other side of an open relationship with my current girlfriend, Sage. Our relationship door opened specifically to a friend of mine, Sebastian, who I wanted to casually sleep with a couple times a week. Busy at a new, demanding job, Sage wasn’t interested in pursuing outside sex with others, so we jumped into negotiating the terms of my sleeping with Sebastian while continuing to date Sage.
Things were different this time around. More fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants than Chris and I were, Sage wanted to lay out definite “no”s for my sexual interactions with Sebastian but then adjust the terms over time, according to how she felt. Sage is a feelings-driven, on-the-spot processor and experiential learner, so this seemed to work for her and for us.
Being in an open relationship with her showed me that no matter how much you talk about or type up the situation, your feelings about what happens when it happens can and will change. Sage taught me that the hardest part of being in an open relationship isn’t my own jealousy; it is actually being present and available for your partner to express their hurt, jealousy, and other challenging feelings raised by your fun and exciting extracurriculars. Yes, feelings get hurt. So, be a compassionate and validating partner when they do.
Don’t deny Darwin.
You can’t predict how your romantic/sexual relationships are going to make you feel. Opening up your relationship with your partner with the promise that you’ll never develop loving feelings for another can lead to self-denial, confusion, and broken agreements.
This was a lesson hard-learned in both my open relationships. Simply making space for feelings to grow and change, or at least acknowledging that they might, can prevent a big mess down the line. The fear that your partner will fall in love with their secondary playmate is highest on the list for many non-monogamous types. While it’s tempting to write in big, hulking block letters on that contract “NO FALLING IN LOVE,” this puts your partner (and yourself) in a bind.
The evolution of desire is a natural and chemical part of human sexual interaction. Falling in love is an organic, uncontrollable process. Asking your partner to control the uncontrollable can lead to guilt, resentment, shame, and, in some instances, bad behavior. Listing falling in love under the “Deal-Breakers” column tells your partner that if they feel these feelings, they must squash them or hide them from you in order to maintain the relationship(s) at stake.
Instead, make space for all feelings to be confessed. Be willing to embrace change in your primary and secondary relationship agreements in order to maintain the balance of work put in and happiness realized for all parties involved.
Unlearn life lessons in limited love.
Seeing multiple people might sound great, but thinking about your partner(s) doing the same can be scary. It’s hard to shut off the nagging voice telling that you must not be “enough” for your partner(s).
Love and affection isn’t limited like a glass of water that can only be distributed to so many different vessels before running out. But the fear that our partner’s love comes in a limited quantity is real. Give yourself permission to voice your fears, to yourself and your partner(s).
The free-loving poly community will sing the jealousy-fighting kumbaya of “compersion,” loosely defined as taking joy in your partner’s sexual and romantic relationships with others. Sounds great! But when your partner comes home glowing from a hot roll in the poly-hay with someone who isn’t you, jealousy can punch you in the gut. Sometimes all of the positive reinforcement and patchouli incense in the world can’t fix it. Create self-care strategies to help ride it out, and end any relationship if the jealousy isn’t balanced with happiness.
You can still cheat, and you still shouldn’t.
Just because something’s “open” doesn’t mean anything goes. Relationship boundaries can still be violated and trust can still be broken. Don’t use openness to justify your shitty behavior. (You know who you are.)
You can still get dumped.
When fantasizing about non-monogamy, it’s exciting to think about all of the positives that can be multiplied by your multiple relationships — orgasms! dates! emotional support! another set of hands to make grilled cheese sandwiches! Non-monogamy’s indulgence of all your hard-ons and heart-ons can make for lots of sex, love, loving sex, sexy love and all the other terms you wanna slap on your sweet time with your sweeties. But multiple relationships can also present multiple opportunities for heartache and heartbreak.
Sage and I had finally normalized Sebastian’s role in my life as a close friend and casual sex partner. We had finally stopped talking each other in circles about polyamorous theories, our fears, our jealously contingency plans, and who would walk the dogs on Sebastian’s Date Nights. Mere days after, Sebastian decided to take himself out of the equation. I didn’t blame him — having your friend ask you if you want to be part of her open lesbian relationship (but only on specific nights of the week, and only when her girlfriend gives the green light) was a lot to ask. Being asked to do all of this and not form any emotional attachment was another request entirely. So, I got dumped.
Getting dumped by a secondary partner is a strange experience. You would think their secondary nature might lessen the impact of getting dumped, but it doesn’t, not entirely. I cried on my couch in the dark for one dramatic minute, and then fought the impulse to call Sage and indulge the selfish wish of leaning on her because I had sad feelings about someone else.
Eventually, Sage and I talked about it, Sebastian and I talked about it, and once again, non-monogamy became more talk, talk, talk than sex, sex, sex. Sebastian and I remain friends without the sex, and Sage and I remain somewhere between non-monogamous-by-theory and monogamous-by-practice.
MONOGAMY: You Can Still Be Progressive. Promise.
For the majority, monogamy is the cultural de facto: boy marries girl, boy never flirts at work or masturbates in the shower or even thinks about watching porn because girl is all boy will ever need. There are also 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. De facto monogamy doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of non-monogamy. It was built on social constructions and is supported by laws involving tax breaks and idiots fighting against marriage equality. It’s notorious for ending in cheating, divorce, child custody battles, and jealousy-induced violence.
Because monogamy is “just the way things go,” we rarely think about it as a specific relationship style that we can choose (or not) with its own positives and negatives. When explored in terms of what a couple wants, instead of what a couple should do, a closed relationship or “chosen monogamy” can be just as intentionally constructed and progressive as an open relationship. While tired phrases like “the old ball-and-chain” put monogamy’s apparent drawbacks up front, monogamy has its perks:
Less time wasted with the green-eyed monster
Jealousy crops up in every relationship, but it’s a larger, more persistent beast within open ones. Constantly processing your value to your partner while they’re out on dates with others is emotionally draining. If you’re monogamous, you can save your jealousy for your best friend’s new car or your co-worker’s promotion instead.
More focused free time
Polyamory preaches that “love is limitless.” But time isn’t. Having one partner is high-maintenance enough. Once you’ve got several relationships the calendar really starts filling up. When practicing monogamy, the amount of extra time I have for yoga, schoolwork, and sleep is borderline-magical.
Having a weekly date night with three partners is just downright pricey. Plus, if you love being spoiled like yours truly, it’s nice having all of your partner’s resources instead of a measly third.
Fewer trips to the clinic
Monogamous sex isn’t inherently safer sex, but having one partner does mean there are fewer variables to consider in the safer-sex element of your life.
We heart stability
Humans are habitual creatures. We like to order the same double latte at the same cafe every day, and sometimes we like to have the same person to have dinner, sex, and vacations with. Especially if you’re a busy professional, dealing with personal or family illness, or just love alone time, you might have other priorities besides juggling multiple, moving pieces in your romantic/sexual sphere.
Since Sage and I have found ourselves back in Monogamyville, we haven’t talked much about leaving it, aside from casual jokes made about making my two-hour commute to graduate school easier by finding a partner in my school’s state to spend the night with (after all, sex and practicality are two of my favorite things). While I’m sure we’ll eventually return to non-monogamy, the hustle-and-bustle of grad school, dog care, demanding day jobs, and oh yeah, finding some alone time in the midst of it all makes monogamy the best choice for us at this particular time.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN RELATIONSHIP ADVENTURE
The truth is, all relationships — open, closed, or slightly ajar — have the potential to exist somewhere on the ever-sliding scale between totally blissed out and totally fucked up. While it’s easy to imagine an open relationship exploding into a tearful tornado of jealousy, self-doubt, and hurled iPhones, anyone who’s ever been monogamous can certainly say the same.
Instead of blindly following the age-old monogamous screenplay laid out for us by our parents, movies, and tax structure, we can consciously commit to one person in a way that works for us, because we want to. Instead of being up on our “evolved” polyamorous hipster high horses, unaccountably sleeping with half the town in the name of the New Age without any thought to the real feelings of our multiple partners, let’s look at both open and closed relationships as two equally valid, messy, complex choices. Then, let’s all make our relationship choices with a strong commitment to the happiness of ourselves and our partner(s), whether we’ve got one or one hundred.
Yana Tallon-Hicks studies Marriage & Family Therapy at Antioch University in the hopes of becoming the best damn queer sex therapist in the land. Yana received her undergrad in queer studies & sex education, and her written sexpertise has appeared in Curve, Bitch, Autostraddle.com, and her sex column in the Valley Advocate.