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The Dirt on Dating: My Open Relationship
Several years ago, I decided to challenge the idea that the only way to a loving, committed relationship was to be monogamous. My then-boyfriend and I decided to try an open relationship. We were committed to each other, referred to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, and were both allowed to date and be physically intimate with other people. We eventually broke up (for various reasons, most of which weren’t related to our openness), but since then I’ve remained interested in rethinking relationships — and it turns out I’m not alone.
Nonmonoga-me — Current Trends
Estimates suggest there are more than half a million openly polyamorous families in the U.S., and in 2010, an estimated eight million couples were practicing some form of nonmonogamy . Even among married couples, open relationships can be successful; some studies suggest they're common in gay marriages .
For today’s 20- and 30-somethings, these trends are meaningful. More than 40 percent of millenials think marriage is “becoming obsolete” (compared to 43 percent of Gen Xers, 35 percent of Baby Boomers, and 32 percent of people aged 65-plus). And almost half of millenials say they view changes in family structures positively, compared to only a quarter of elderly respondents. In other words, monogamy — though a perfectly viable choice — doesn’t work for everyone.
It certainly wasn’t working for me. Blame it on a couple unhealthy relationships in my youth: For whatever reason, in my mind “monogamy” had come to be associated with possessiveness, jealousy, and claustrophobia — not quite what one desires from everlasting love. I wanted to care about someone without feeling owned by them, and I wanted that someone to feel the same way. Add to that the fact that I’d been single for a while (after having been in a monogamous relationship for even longer) and — I’m woman enough to admit it — wasn’t ready to give up the freedom to flirt with strangers. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted, exactly, but I knew I didn’t want to feel suffocated by a partner. So when I started dating… let’s call him “Bryce”… I geared myself up for hurt feelings, got over my own awkwardness, and broached it: Have you ever thought about having an open relationship?
Open relationships tend to fall into two general categories, says Greatist Expert and sex counselor Ian Kerner: Couples might negotiate a nonmonogamous arrangement like the one I had with Bryce, in which each individual has the freedom to date and/or have sex with people outside the relationship. Or couples will choose to swing, adventuring outside their monogamous relationship as a unit (having sex with other people together, as in a three-or-more-some). But these categories are pretty fluid, and they shift depending on a given couple’s needs and boundaries .
Monogamy = Monotony? — Why Couples Go Rogue
The tricky thing about relationships is they’re all different, so there’s no "one reason" why people decide to explore alternative relationship models .
Still, there are a wide range of theories about why monogamy hasn’t proved universally satisfying. Some experts say it has roots in genetics: About 80 percent of primates are polygamous, and similar estimates apply to human hunter-gatherer societies. (Still, it’s not useful to get caught up in the “is it natural” argument, says Kerner: Variation is what’s natural, more so than monogamy or nonmonogamy.)
Other research suggests different people have different needs for a satisfying relationship  . In The Monogamy Gap, Eric Anderson suggests open relationships allow partners to meet their respective needs without demanding more than one partner can give. There’s also a cultural component: Fidelity stats vary widely among cultures, and evidence suggests countries with more permissive attitudes toward sex also have longer-lasting marriages. In Nordic countries, many married couples openly discuss “parallel relationships” — ranging from drawn-out affairs to holiday flings — with their partners, yet marriage remains a respected institution. Then again, sex advice columnist Dan Savage says nonmonogamy might just come down to plain old boredom.
In short, there are as many reasons to be nonmonogamous as there are nonmonogamous people — and therein lies a bit of a problem. Even if a couple agrees to be nonmonogamous, their reasons for doing so might be in conflict. In my case, I wanted to be in a nonmonogamous relationship because I wanted to challenge social assumptions about love; Bryce wanted to be in a nonmonogamous relationship because I wanted to be in one, and he wanted to be with me. Perhaps not surprisingly, this stirred up conflict between us when I actually started seeing other people. While I was fine when Bryce made out with a mutual friend, he couldn’t stomach the thought of me doing the same. This eventually led to resentment on both sides and jealousy on his — and suddenly I found myself back in a claustrophobic relationship, arguing about who belonged to whom.
Should You Put a Ring on It? — New Directions
Not surprisingly, the green-eyed monster is a common challenge for nonmonogamous partners across the board, regardless of gender or sexuality   . The best way to deal? Honesty. In numerous studies, open communication is the prime driver of relationship satisfaction (this is true in any relationship), and the best coping mechanism for jealousy    . For couples venturing into opendom, it’s important for partners to communicate their needs and work out an agreement in advance of any rendezvous.
In retrospect, I should have been more honest with myself, and acknowledged that (regardless of what he said) Bryce didn’t really want to be nonmonogamous; it would have spared us both some heartache. It’s easy to be attracted to nonmonogamy’s sexier side, but it actually requires incredibly high levels of trust, communication, openness, and intimacy with your primary partner — meaning that just like monogamy, open relationships can be pretty stressful, and they’re certainly not for everyone. In other words, nonmonogamy is by no means a ticket out of relationship problems, and it might actually be a source of them. It can also be thrilling, rewarding, and enlightening.
No matter what, say experts, whether a couple decides to be open or monogamous should be a matter of choice. “When there is no stigma to having an open sexual relationship,” writes Anderson, “men and women will begin to be more honest about what they want … and how they desire to achieve it.”
As for me, these days I’m a one-man kinda gal — which I learned by being open.
Have you tried being in an open relationship? Do you believe that a committed relationship is between two people and nobody else? Share in the comments below, or tweet the author @LauraNewc.
- Genetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPRI1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans. Walum, H., Westberg, L., Henningsson, S., et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Neuroscience, September 16; 105(37): 14153–14156⤴
- The Neurobiology of Pair Bonding: Insights from a Socially Monogamous Rodent. Young, K., Gobrogge, K., Liu, Y., et al. Front Neuroendocrinology, 2011 January;32(1): 53-69⤴
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- Sexual and romantic jealousy in heterosexual and homosexual adults. Harris, CR. San Diego Department of Psychology, University of California, La Jolla. Psychological Science, 2002 Jan;13(1):7-12⤴
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Comments Leave a comment
The relationship that I have with my spouse is more honest and trusting now than it's ever been before, and I think that it is in part because of the fact that we have opened up our marriage, so to speak, as backwards as that might sound to many people. Before I opened up to him about my feelings for "X", I struggled with what the feelings meant - was I being a bad wife? What could I possibly do to turn them off? Why did I feel so much love for more than one person? Was that ok, or was I just fooling myself? I didn't want to leave my spouse, but I didn't want to cut X out of my life, either. So I opened up about it, and surprisingly enough, my spouse was incredibly understanding and level-headed about it, and reassured me that it was alright. Soon after, the three of us began to engage in, well, physical acts, at the suggestion of my spouse. We haven't struggled with jealousy or bitterness, nothing is weird, life continues as usual, I just have the love of two people and am able to fully love them both, which is incredibly satisfying. I know that I'm incredibly lucky that things have worked out like this, as I feel that most people would have been really upset at the revelation that their spouse also had serious feelings for someone else. As for the future, if my relationship with X were to come to an end, I don't know if I would want to look for someone else. This somewhat "poly" relationship I'm in has so far been my only experience with it, and it's only come about because of my specific feelings for X, so I don't know if being in a poly relationship is something that I would always crave and go after, if that makes any sense. At the same time, if either of my partners met someone that they also developed feelings for and wanted to be with, I would be very encouraging, and would really hope that everyone would be able to get along at the very least, and at best, be with everyone else (although, my partners aren't into each other as anything more than best friends, which is what they were before all of this, which added another dimension of freak-out for me at first, and trust and stability once everything had been aired out.)
" 40 percent of millenials think marriage is “becoming obsolete"" Aren't these the same folks that think that giant loop earrings and hip huggers look good on men? And who think Just Bieber and the Twilight movies are awesome? Seriously, when they're old enough to have kids, when they have a job, and when they don't think a $600 cell phone is a "must have" item, they'll probably see things differently. I think what you folks have is a growing-up problem. You're not satisfied with anything and think that going after all your momentary desires is the road to lifelong happiness. You'll learn, it's not.
I think you're generalizing a bit much here. Also, did you read the rest of the statistics that were given? That number (40%) isn't that far off from the rest of the generations (and is, in fact, lower than the Gen Xers, who are "old enough to have kids...have job[s]...etc.,) I don't think that being open and honest with who you are and/or what you want equates to being dissatisfied with the accepted "norm", but opens the doors to exploring the fact that people are all different, and that we can't be fit neatly into pre-labeled boxes of what should or should not be expected of us. I don't think that the changing social standards means that people have a growing up problem. Every life experience is something that we can learn from, and I think that having the opportunity to explore and perhaps change the definitions of what are accepted forms of relationships between loving and consenting adults is a wonderful thing.
I'm definitely being a bit humorous, but I really don't think it's a great thing for people, no. I'm not one of your anti-gay-marriage nutjobs, but I think there's a very real and logical reason that people join together in monogamistic relationships. I think it has to with raising children and having families. I think that those kind of units are way stronger, and engender much more trust, than ad-hoc relationships which have no structure or form at all. I think that most people that are screwing around on each other are doing it to satisfy guys that aren't worth satisfying in the first place. I think that most women who are doing it are fooling themselves. I think that people that have kids and continue to screw around are fooling themselves and hurting their children and families. And I'm an atheist and a liberal.
And I've known my share of swingers and cheaters and open relationship folks. And I can't say that any of it ever came off as anything less than sort of addictive, acting-out kind of behavior. And I can say that they put their families and themselves through hell. Exploring the boundaries of cultural norms is good. But also respect that these forms have evolved over centuries and work well. Because you're young and horny and can find other damaged people to facilitate your lifestyle doesn't necessarily make you ahead of your time. And this wealth of statistics comes off a bit like "Methinks though doth protest too much."
@DrQuakenbush I wouldn't say that there aren't people in nonmonogamous relationships who are participating in them for purely selfish reasons, just like I wouldn't say that all people in monogamous relationships are in them for the right reasons. It depends on the individuals. Being polyamorous is not about being "young and horny and...find[ing] other damaged people to facilitate your lifestyle" any more than being monogamous is about being old and stuck in a rut, physically. Again, I feel there's too much generalization going on here. Not all polyamorous women are trying to satisfy guys who aren't worth it, nor do I believe that they are all fooling themselves. Being in a functional and stable poly relationship requires copious amounts of honesty, love, and trust, just as being in a monogamous relationship requires.
And I think that you're failing to want to generalize at all on this one, i.e. draw no conclusions and be hopelessly vague rather than admit this is about your feelings. And IMHO trying to justify these kind of decisions with a bunch of statistics shows a spiritual emptiness. And I think that this kind of crap is hurting our kids and families because you can't turn on the TV anymore without someone hooking up or being friends with benefits. And I can show you millions and millions of kids in Africa who are screwed by this kind of attitude toward sexuality every single day. You can describe monogamy all day as being "stuck in a rut" or boring. My point is that life is that it you look at life with that kind of idealism you're never going to be happy, no matter how many people you do.
@DrQuakenbush I didn't describe monogamy as being "stuck in a rut", at least, that wasn't my intention. I was merely drawing a parallel as to how it is sometimes described versus how you were describing polyamory. In fact, I was saying that monogamy *isn't* about being stuck in a rut. Also, I don't think that the author of the article was trying to justify any decisions with her use of statistics, but that she was merely showing examples of how attitudes towards the topic at hand might be changing, or why they might be changing. If you want me to be personal, alright, my polyamorous relationship isn't about hooking up, being friends with benefits, or doing people. I am deeply loved, and I love deeply. The relationships that I am in have been long term and committed, and were both born out of friendship first.
This is an old article but I will leave a comment anyway. Statistics such as x% of people feel marriage "is becoming obsolete" are meaningless with regards to monogamy. I know this because I fall in that category. That doesn't mean I think commitment, sacrifice and monogamy is going out of fashion. Marriage is merely a legal structure within which to raise children and give them a stable, balanced upbringing, especially back in the day when there was no birth control, poor education, women had little financial clout etc.
Marriage without children is meaningless from society's perspective. You might as well just date. And even if you have children you don't need to marry to provide the same environment a legally married couple could. It is just paper work. The important part is the commitment and I think that is what most people mean when they say marriage is becoming obsolete. They are certainly not saying marriage obsolescence = open relationships. That is a false and wild assumption on this author's part to support a fringe article.
Non-monogamous relationships are fine in principle if both parties are comfortable with it but it will ALWAYS be a small minority that can maintain such a lifestyle because the average human will experience jealousy, sexual competitiveness etc. At best I think most people that try it give it up after a while because it is not really sustainable.
The problem with articles like this is that it tries to make the case the non-monogamy is somehow becoming the norm no matter how much you say "it isn't for everyone". Because I would also like to check how many of those "8 million US couples" practice "some form of monogamy" are with older or with no children. Completely meaningless statement. Nothing can be inferred from such a vague statement. How many of them are 20-40 year old's raising a family? I seriously doubt there are many that will survive non-monogamy.