by aengelson | October 6th, 2012
Not long ago I changed my Facebook relationship status from “married” to “in an open relationship.” The reaction from my friends was swift: “Huh?” “Holy cow!” “What the…?” Some friends thought I was kidding. Others were bewildered. Gossip twittered behind the scenes about my new status.
With the click of the mouse, my partner and I had stepped from a world of normal expectations into a realm that might seem exotic, radical or just plain weird.
But yes, it’s true. My wife Joanie and I are in an open, non-monogamous relationship. I’d like to explain what that means.
Don’t worry, I won’t go into all the details. And my apologies to friends or associates who feel this is Too Much Information. But Joanie and I have decided that being upfront about our relationship is important, as I hope I’ll make clear.
First, some background. My wife and I met and fell in love in college in 1987 at the age of 19. Since that time, we’ve been in a committed relationship, and we were married in 1995. This year marks 25 years since we first kissed. Before we met, we had only a few other boyfriends or girlfriends. During these many years together, Joanie and I had been almost completely faithful to one another.
In 2009, we moved from Seattle to Hanoi with our two daughters. We came here for Joanie’s job, and I’m taking a break from a journalism career to write a novel. At the time of our move, our relationship was in a slump. We still loved each other, but things were tense and tired. Unknown to each other, we had become attracted to other people. These crushes were intense, and though I wasn’t unfaithful, I was prepared to cheat. My wife had a similar experience.
One evening two years ago, after the kids were in bed, my wife asked me: “are we in an open relationship?” The concept wasn’t unfamiliar to us. I’d been a regular reader of Dan Savage’s sex advice column, where he’s talked extensively about non-monogamous relationships. We’d also recently read several novels featuring characters grappling with the issue of faithfulness in long-term relationships. And our love life was in a crisis we knew demanded action.
I was surprised and relieved to hear her question, and we decided to take the next step. We agreed to honestly tell each other about our previous sexual interests and infidelities. It was hard, but frankly, there wasn’t much to confess. Then, over the next few weeks, we began a process of sharing with each other and learning what being non-monogamous might mean to us.
We have now been in an open relationship for over two years. It hasn’t always been easy—in fact, sometimes it’s been quite difficult. But we’ve arrived at a place in our relationship that feels comfortable and much stronger. We’ve preserved a 25-year partnership as lovers, parents, household partners, and friends. And we’ve also honestly acknowledged that each of us is a human being with our own needs for sexual and emotional variety. Rather than address those needs individually and in secret, we’ve chosen to do it honestly and openly.
Both of us have read the book Sex at Dawn and agree with its central premise: that humans are not inherently monogamous, and that our society’s expectation that men and women should remain faithful over the course of a lifetime is unrealistic. Not impossible, and in fact very admirable. But we believe that society’s insistence on fidelity is in direct conflict with our nature as a species. We may be highly evolved, intelligent, and even ethically-minded creatures. But humans also have powerful basic urges and a need for sexual variety.
The evidence is plentiful: political and celebrity sex scandals fill the news every week. So many of our friends and friends-of-friends in their forties are now in marital crises. Divorces abound, and the children are left bewildered in the wreckage. Is there a way, we wondered, to preserve what is good and lasting in our relationship, while also acknowledging our need for variety, for excitement, and for connection with others?
One caveat: we believe our particular relationship is uniquely suited to the non-monogamous model. Joanie and I have a long history together as partners and parents. Though we don’t regret meeting each other at 19, circumstances denied us the life experiences of dating and other relationships. Neither of us sowed our wild oats. Plus, we’re not especially jealous people. And we have a deep, meaningful love for each other that we want to preserve. We recognize that an open relationship isn’t for everyone, and it’s probably not a strategy to save a troubled relationship that has serious unresolved issues. But for us, it was a challenge we were willing and happy to explore.
So, the number one question we hear from people is: how does that work, exactly? It’s a good question, and the answer is one that’s continually evolving for us. In Tristan Taormino’s excellent book, Opening Up, she interviews people in a dizzying array of non-monogamous relationships: polyamorous, gay and straight, young and old, swingers and S&M practitioners, threesomes and foursomes, radical honesty couples, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” open relationships.
Contrary to what you might imagine, I have to report our experience is rather prosaic and ordinary. In some ways, we’re like other sexually active single people, with the difference being we’re also in a committed primary partnership. Joanie and I give each other the space to develop relationships with other people. In reality, these relationships usually manifest themselves in new, deeper friendships, often without any sexual component. We’ve become less possessive and recognized that even though we are spouses, we are also autonomous individuals with our own needs and desires. There are parts of our lives that lie outside of our marriage. And yes, that can include sex.
Is it easy? Not always. But we’re not doing this because it’s easy. We’re following a path in opposition to years of tradition and established rules of courtship, marriage and family. And let’s face it, it’s not easy to find people interested in playing by our new rules. It turns out most single people aren’t interested in having a fling with someone who also has a primary partner. And most married couples our age are in the traditional monogamous model, so they’re off limits too. When I’ve been out for a drink and explained “my situation,” I’ve experienced just about every reaction imaginable, from shock to curiosity, from fascination to revulsion. One woman, after hearing my story, turned pale, said “excuse me,” and ran off to the restroom.
So how does a relationship like this work? We believe the key elements to making an open relationship succeed are honesty, communication, agreements, and respect for boundaries. We’ve learned this from talking with other non-monogamous couples, reading books, and from personal experience.
Honesty is paramount. An open relationship requires that you honestly discuss needs and limits–both for yourself and what you expect from your partner. And that honesty requires a healthy dose of self-confidence and plenty of trust. Paired with this honesty is communication. Having confidence that your partner is committed to you–even when she’s intimate with someone else—requires a huge leap of faith and frequent and respectful communication. A third element is willingness to take ownership of your own feelings and behavior. Engaging in this type of relationship can bring up a lot of emotional baggage, so you need to be prepared to manage your reactions and feelings in an honest but respectful way.
We’ve also found that agreements help us navigate our relationship. Tristan Taormino, author of Opening Up, believes that making agreements is essential to a successful open relationship. That means discussing what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not. It’s about setting rules of conduct, and clearly agreeing on what things you will or won’t allow in your relationship. And by occasionally reviewing and revising the rules as we go, we’ve learned to grow as a couple, and as individuals.
For us, an open relationship doesn’t mean anything goes. We’ve pledged to act in a way that is open and honest, causes no damage to others, and is respectful of other people’s rules. The title of another book on open relationships sums it up pretty well: The Ethical Slut. The title overstates things a bit, but the concept is right on: explore your sexuality, but do it with honesty, respect, and thoughtfulness.
Being open also requires honoring boundaries. In our culture, a spouse traditionally has to be everything: a best friend, a lover, a co-parent, and a psychological support network. Being non-monogamous requires that you grant your partner the freedom to explore new things. You begin to let go of trying to be everything for your partner. This requires emotional space and privacy, which can sometimes be difficult—but also liberating. We’ve found that when you grant this space, the primary relationship can actually flourish and grow stronger. It’s an example of the old cliché: if you love someone, set them free.
But. What. About. Jealousy.
That’s the Big Number Two question our friends ask. And again, there’s no simple answer.
Jealousy is a primal thing. It’s destroyed many otherwise healthy relationships. It’s started wars, inspired duels, and is the subject of a long tradition of popular songs. Hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman down. Yes I did, I caught her, caught her messin’ round town…
We’ve all felt jealousy, and it’s no fun. So, you might reasonably ask: how can you make a relationship work when your partner is intimate with someone else? Don’t you get jealous?
In Opening Up, Tristan Taormino describes jealousy as not one emotion, but a complex sum of emotions. So I might feel envy that my partner is having an experience I’d also like to have. Or I might feel competitive with a partner’s lover, making me to wonder if I’m as handsome as he is. I might have anxiety that she’ll fall in love with another man and leave me. Or I might experience uncertainty about my partner’s intentions or my own self-image. All of these emotions are facets of jealousy.
One thing that makes jealousy challenging is that all these emotions are rooted in a lack of self-confidence. Yet in our experience, we’ve observed that if you and your partner are truly committed and build trust with each other, you can begin to confront and deal with these emotions. Do non-monogamous couples experience jealousy? Yes, sometimes. But our experience is that it gets easier as you begin to let go a little bit, and each experience establishes trust. The second time that one of us had a connection with someone else was easier for the other partner than the first time. And the third time was even easier. Practicing non-monogamy forces you to face your fears, your own doubts about yourself: Am I sexy enough? Am I an attractive, caring partner? Am I happy and confident in my career? Do I trust my partner to stay with me?
One reason non-monogamous relationships aren’t common is that they are difficult. But whether you’re monogamous or not, you’re also going to have to deal with these same issues of self-confidence, desire, trust, and boundaries in your own relationship. Non-monogamy just brings those issues to the forefront in an incredibly powerful and direct way. And over time, we’ve begun to realize that sex is just sex. Having sex with someone else doesn’t have to be a threat to a loving, committed relationship.
In the two years since we’ve been non-monogamous, our relationship has grown and developed in surprising and profound ways. It has not always been easy. Much of it has been exciting and fun. Our own intimate life has flourished and evolved. We’ve had moments of anger and we’ve made mistakes. And we’re beginning the process of explaining our relationship to our daughters in a careful, but straightforward way.
Neither of us wants to go back to the way it was. We feel like explorers of some vast, unknown continent. A place where we make our own rules, explore our sexuality in an ethical way, and meet each new challenge with patience and kindness. And yes, we realize it’s an experiment that might fail. But that risk also exists in every traditional committed relationship. We simply choose to confront those challenges head on, honestly and together.
So why tell the world? For most couples, yes–it’s a private matter and there’s no need to share. For us, though, it feels like being “out” as a non-monogamous couple is important. We’ve already told many of our friends and family. And now we’re sharing in a more public way. We’ve observed that many couples in our stage of life are struggling in one way or another. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could all talk about this stuff a little more openly? Why is it that we find it so difficult to talk about sex when it’s something so present in all our lives? And frankly, we could use a little more wisdom from others in this regard. We hope that putting our non-monogamy out there will encourage a little more open discussion.
In our society, it’s incredibly difficult to talk honestly about the challenges of fidelity and desire. Many of us go through these struggles alone, not knowing something else is possible. Joanie and I believe there is an alternative to the traditional choice between fidelity and cheating. We feel fortunate to have discovered a way to preserve our long-term relationship while granting each other the freedom to explore new experiences in life. And though we realize it won’t work for everyone, we want to share with others that an alternative exists.
I’m grateful to have a partner who is brave and loving and adventurous and trusting and communicative and forgiving and playful and calm and sexy. I’ve learned from her that in love anything is possible, so long as you each agree to face things together and talk things through. It’s about looking deep inside yourself and discovering who you are, and what you need, and how you can support one another on this journey together.