How I Liberated Myself from Monogamy

Sleeping with Other People 101

A lone person lies naked on a bed with the light streaming in from a window - lens flares obscuring the view

Last Saturday night I picked up a stranger at a bar. There were drinks, a lot of dancing, and a lot of kissing up against a wall. It took courage to do, and I’m so happy I did it. I talked with M, my partner, the next day, and he was happy too.

M and I have been together since 2007. Since then we’ve lived together in a handful of different states, changed jobs, bought a car, and made all sorts of decisions together. About six months ago we decided to open up our relationship. Or rather, about nine months ago we decided to start talking about opening up our relationship. And last week I finally got a few gin and tonics in me and went to town on a very nice stranger.

Yes, open relationships. I’d like to talk about mine. Why we did it, how we did it, how it’s been.

Why WE’RE DOING THIS: Why sleep with other people when you’re in a committed relationship? Well, it can be fun and it can be interesting. Also, we found it can really pull you together as a couple because it means you have to really communicate with each other and yourselves about what you most want and need, and what you need to do to make your partner feel safe and secure. For M and I, one reason to open things up is that we identify as opposite genders, but are also attracted to people of the same gender; or rather, to people all along the gender spectrum. But really, the main reason was that we were interested, and interested in talking about it.

How we approachED the conversationWe were lucky in that M and I were basically on the same page, once we started talking about it. We were both very into sexual non-monogamy, very hesitant about emotional/romantic non-monogamy. If one person in the relationship is much more interested in opening up the relationship, I can imagine it would feel very threatening or confusing for the other person. For us, we both felt like it might be fun and interesting to try, and that it wasn’t incredibly important to us either way, so we were both ready to call it off if the other person got uncomfortable.

Emotional Non-Monogamy versus Physical Non-Monogamy: How does one go about being sexually involved but not “emotionally” involved with other people (without being a total dick to said other people)? Logistically, for us, M has to travel for work, so for the past six months, when he’s away, we are non-monogamous. Being faithful to one another needn’t have anything to do with how many people you sleep with; it has everything to do with honoring spoken and unspoken promises between you. 

Deciding on rules: What makes you feel most threatened? The act of your wife receiving sexual pleasure from someone else? Giving it? Confiding in that someone else? Cooking her breakfast? Introducing her to friends? What is the meat of your marriage? What can be changed, and the house will stand? Walking through that discomfort helped us put our fingers on the pulse of what’s most important, what is precious and must be exclusive versus what is uncomfortable but totally possible. Plus, it can teach you how to talk through these most delicate things (which always bring up past hurts and deep fears).

when someone gets hurt: We planned it that way. We were prepared for things not to go great at every turn. As M told a good friend of ours back when we were still just talking about it, “We’ve basically decided that we trust each other enough to go into this situation where someone’s feelings are definitely going to get hurt at some point. So really what we’re agreeing to is that we’ll be really nice to each other when that happens, and we think it’ll be okay.”

jealousy: Oh, the world-consuming thing that is jealousy. Your chest is being pressed, you can’t work because you’ve got to track down X and Y on Z social network. The boundaries of your relationship become quicksand and it’s easy to lose your footing: How do you know when you’re being wronged, when you’re renegotiating the right and wrong of your relationship? Things can feel wrong, but they’re growing pains. Or things can feel wrong because they are wrong. It can be helpful to think through the ways in which we’ve all been taught that possessiveness or jealousy is romantic, and thinking about those traditional ideas can help you distance and name your feelings. But you also have to do what makes you feel safe.

Opening Up by Tristan Taormino and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy helped me tease out some of the different things I was feeling that can all fall under the jealous-umbrella. It helped me push myself beyond just “I feel bad.” Feel bad in what way? About what specifically?  Don’t trust his judgment? Insecurity about my own body? Feeling left out? One of the most valuable things I’ve really committed to is that, even when a feeling is irrational and I’ve already explained to myself that and how it is irrational, it can be very helpful to still acknowledge that feeling and voice it.

No one expects you to be a robot who is only moved by the rational, and your partner loves the messy guts of you. So a good, “Of course I know you’re not going to run off with some hussy you just met, but the fact that you didn’t tell me about it until now makes me feel…” Those books also have some great things about how to comfort a partner, or ask for comfort. Sometimes a good, “I love you, I want you,” can go a long way.

What it’s been like: Upon liberating myself from monogamy, I turned to the world to realize… I was terrified—of rejection, of explaining that I was semi-on-the-market again, but really, of new things. I tried online dating, I tried to change my rhythm and make time for it, but I just felt myself not caring enough to put myself “out there.” Then, with the help of some true friends, the Hella Gay Dance Party in Oakland, and a great shirt, it happened. The music was good, she was beautiful, and I overcame what felt like a million insecurities (hello time travel back to my past-self, very humbling), and I made it happen. Talking with M about it the next day on the phone was nice too, I could tell in the tone of his voice that he was really happy for me, the same way I was happy for him when he’d spent the night with this beautiful bearded musician. I wanted to hear all about it, I wanted to tell him I was proud of him. I was also pretty aroused, and it made me miss him.

M has had three encounters, two of which were great for him and were fine for me to hear about, the third ended up being with a person who didn’t respect the boundaries of our relationship so well, so that led to some not-so-great feelings and overtime relationship-processing. (See “jealousy,” above.)

Expectations versus reality: It is not all that different than our expectations, except that things in the flesh are and feel different than they do in the planning stage. The things that pushed our buttons turned out to be slightly different than we expected. But in so far as you can know what to expect, we went into this with eyes open.

Why AN OPEN RELATIONSHIP IS WORKING (SO FAR): It really has helped us talk through the things that make us feel threatened, how can we communicate that, and how can we each comfort each other and make each other feel loved. There are a lot of things that make me feel insecure, and we have had to do a lot of processing about past perceived wrongs, things that were never talked about before. As two very conflict-averse people, this has been a really great way for us to talk about things we don’t generally like to talk about.

if one of us wants out: We both have the shut-it-down power. If either of us is feeling queasy, because of the relationship or just because work-stress left one of us at the end of our rope or because we just need to feel safe, we can just call a shut-it-down. That shut-it-down can be a week or indefinitely. Neither of us has called this yet, but we both know it’s always on the table and would be happy to shut-it-down no questions asked. More broadly, before each of M’s big trips for work, we have a check-in and decide again if we want to do it.

why taking on the work of an extra relationship is worth it: Ever feel like the long march of time and society’s expectations are running your life for you? We were starting to feel the pinch of procreation and down payments on houses, and this was one of the many ways we felt like we could feel like we were in charge of what our relationship is and what it means. Also M was spending more time traveling for work and this was a way to think through that hardship.

the risks our partnership faces: Having sex with other people can inflame the insecurities and sore spots that already exist in every relationship.  A small slight can suddenly feel like a punch in the gut. It’s risky to change the outlines of what your love means, and what it entitles you to. It’s worth it because it’s incredibly freeing to have power over what your relationship means. Also, it can be worth it if you or your partner is interested in having sex with other people—that desire needn’t be a reflection on you or your relationship. If you can get on the same team figuring it out, you can feel like you’re sailing new uncharted waters together, and that’s exciting. And if it’s something your partner wants and you’ve never thought about, it’s worth talking through (no matter what you decide), because don’t you want to understand that desire enough to not feel threatened by it?

This post originally ran on APW in June 2014.

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  • PREACH (anon for this)

    The big talks to have with your partner before opening your relationship that aren’t about emotions:

    a) what to happen if someone gets pregnant (the “out” person of the open relationship or a member of the main partnership or various combinations thereof)

    b) STIs. Smart and safe relations.

    Partner and I are closer to “monogamish” than open – we’ve mostly had fun with others when we’ve both been present in the same room. It forces us to be more communicative and it’s been really fun. Our marriage vows don’t mention monogamy and I like that. A HUGE amount of couples cheat given enough time together or the right situation, and sleeping with the same person forever sounds boring to my partner and I…. knowing that it is likely that your partner or you will eventually cheat, why not push that front and centre and not force someone to feel trapped? Being open in thought can be almost as satisfying as being open in practice – knowing that you’re not trapped makes the feeling of being confined in a relationship… less confining. The value can be in knowing it’s there if you need it.

    Opening dying relationships to save them is a losing battle. Open them when you’re strong.

    Some people are fine with only each other. I know my partner and I are very monogamous emotionally. Dan Savage has a quote – “I don’t care where you get your appetite, so long as you come home for dinner”…. flirting and kisses are fun! But the real “meal” for us, is us…. it’s not the same for everyone. Different strokes for different folks. It has been an amazing choices for us though.

    • penguin

      I disagree with the idea that ‘everyone is likely to cheat eventually in a monogamous relationship, so you might as well open it up’. If both people are interested in an open relationship of course that’s totally fine, but doing it just because “well you’d probably cheat on me eventually anyway” is… not great.

      • Jess

        In my life, I think about it less as “this is going to happen anyway so let’s get it over with” and more as “let’s talk about the reality of what happens when one of us wants someone else”

        I find the “everyone cheats” framing to be kind of defeatist, sad, and frankly uninspiring, but there is an element of “you should get in the habit of talking about this, because it’s likely to come up as a desire for one of you” that I can respect.

        • PREACH (anon for this)

          ^ this is what I meant.

          • Jess

            I figured as much!

            It’s tough, because a lot of the advice columnists out there and people in open relationships get in situations where they have to kind of… defend what they’re doing? Make it seem less out-there? And stats about cheating tend to be a really easy fall back to say “Well, it’s better to be upfront about it than do what lots of people do, and go behind the partner’s back”

            It’s also something that I hear from people who are kind of being strong-armed into an open relationship by a not-great partner. Like, “Statistically, this is going to happen. She’s just being a better person by not sneaking around.”

            So there’s kind of this common refrain that goes along those lines, and I think that’s really sad because the reality is a lot of people can find it really exciting, even if they never actually do anything and only talk about it with their partner (see: me, currently)!

        • SarahRose472

          I like this better as the distinction between dealing with desires (which I don’t believe we can consciously control) and actions (do we choose to follow our desires or not — which I think we are very much responsible for controlling).

          • Pterodactyl111

            Yes. It’s not like people in monogamous couples aren’t attracted to anyone but their partner, they just choose not to act on those desires.

      • Katharine Parker

        This also seems to sell short or misconstrue why people pursue open relationships to imply that it’s like cheating out in the open. Like for some people, ok, but other people don’t view it that way.

      • I think that someone realizing 100% long-term monogamy isn’t realistic for them is fine, but yeah, don’t open your relationship because it’s likely someone will cheat anyway is ehhhhh.

      • Pickle

        I agree that “everyone is likely to cheat eventually” is a lame thing to say, but I WOULD say that “it might not be healthy to believe that flawless execution of lifelong monogamy is the absolute basis for your relationship, no exceptions”. I think all couples, monogamous or not, have to realize that they are going to make mistakes and hurt each other throughout the course of their relationship, and be prepared to stay together through thick and thin without having to think ‘you cheat in any way we’re over forever’. For me, non-monogamy does keep some of my unhealthy jealous tendencies in check. I’ll have a temptation to look through his phone to see who he’s texting and then remember ‘oh, he’s texting whoever he wants!’. There are still important boundaries within our non-monogamy that to me are just as important as the boundaries of monogamous relationships, but non monogamy does help me keep things in perspective.

        • SarahRose472

          Eh, I guess this is where it’s important to have talked about this kind of thing with your partner so it’s very clear what those boundaries actually are. My partner is in fact pretty close to the “you cheat in any way we’re over forever” — like a kiss would probably make him want to discuss divorce. Which I think to many people sounds extreme, but having established/accepted that, jealousy doesn’t really enter our relationship anywhere else? We are both friends with people we might in theory be attracted to (I’m bi), and there’s full trust on that front — maybe in fact because our standards for monogamy are fairly extreme compared to most people.

          So I can see how non-monogamy can help people manage some of these natural feelings/issues, but our version of “extreme” monogamy works for us too.

        • Amy March

          I disagree. I don’t think all couples have to accept cheating and betraying their vows and need to be prepared to stay together through cheating. That’s nice for you but some of us think the whole point of marriage is monogamy and not cheating and no, we dont have to accept it. It is possible to just be faithful.

          • PREACH (anon for this)

            Possible, but way the heck harder than many people expect it to be. It’s also interesting to explore what constitutes cheating – a surprising amount of couples I’ve talked to throughout my life haven’t had this discussion. Is having a close friend or emotional confidante of the opposite sex cheating? Is a quick “friendly” kiss hello or goodbye cheating? Is thinking about your desires for someone else but not acting on them cheating? Is making out once with someone that you have no romantic feelings towards cheating? What kind of cheating is most painful, physical or emotional?

            We all think that our personal definitions of cheating are universal. They aren’t. These discussions about “what happens if one of us cheats” also allow couples to define what cheating is. A lot of “cheating” mistakes, as mentioned by @paddlepickle2:disqus, are not malicious but simply because these conversations didn’t happen, or they weren’t deep enough and thorough enough. Maybe giving your opposite-gender friend you’ve known for 15 years a quick goodbye kiss on the lips is ok, but not the friend you’ve known for only 2 years.

            The “what if one of us does something outside the bounds of our relationship, regardless of whether it was done with intention to violate the relationship” talk needs to happen way more in our society. Saying “we don’t have to accept it”, or any other way to say there’s zero tolerance, can really mess up stuff in the future because zero tolerance of WHAT…. hugs to the opposite gender? Going to coffee with the oppposite gender? Getting drunk then going to the movies with a friend of the opposite gender?

            I would also say that cheating isn’t betraying vows for everyone. “That’s nice for you” but many, many people don’t have that as part of their vows. Even Italy just removed adultery as sole grounds for divorce. You may think we are too far in one direction, but you are equally far in the other and centre is somewhere in the middle.

          • H

            Completely agree with Amy! I would not stay with my husband if he cheated. He knows this, and it is what it is. If he wants to be with someone else, emotionally or sexually, he knows it means ending it with me – which is what I’d prefer. I did NOT sign up to “be prepared to stay together through thick and thin” if “think and thin” includes cheating. It’s one of the main reasons I didn’t have any “forever” language in our wedding ceremony.

          • Pickle

            So. . .let’s say 15 years from now, you two have little kids, stressful jobs, maybe a family health crisis going on, and because you’re so stressed you haven’t really been connecting emotionally or sexually. You have a really bad fight one night, and your partner goes out with friends, has a bit too much to drink and kisses someone in a moment of anger and weakness. They tell you about it immediately after it happens, apologize profusely and say that they want to get into counseling immediately to deal with this and the other issues in your relationship. Is that really. . .it? Marriage over? I guess ‘that’s nice for you’, but it me it sounds like you’d be ignoring everything in your marriage vows other than ‘forsake all others’.

          • PREACH (anon for this)

            I think that’s part of the bias of a website based on wedding planning. People are literally in a honeymoon period. Lots of comments here are flat out zero tolerance and i find that interesting and….. unrealistic. Twenty years into a marriage, will cheating actually be a dealbreaker unto itself? For most couples, no. And most couples do engage in some degree of infidelity so this does come up.

            But unless it’s a “straw that broke the camels back” situation where there were already some deep issues brewing…. the whole idea of zero tolerance for cheating seems really immature, naive and juvenile. Ask anyone who’s been married for 20 years what they think… THAT is where the truth lies. Most people here who came for wedding planning are still getting laid 1-4x a week and don’t have teenage children. Life changes. Relationships change.

            What is worth sacrificing those relationships for changes.

    • I think that bringing up practical concerns like STI’s + Pregnancy is a great point, but I disagree they’re preeminent over emotional issues. A lot of us have been dealing with STI/Pregnancy management since our teens, whereas dealing with the emotions that come along with non-monogamy is often both new & not something there are a lot of mainstream resources for dealing with, so I think for a lot of people those conversations are going to be front and center.

      • PREACH (anon for this)

        I know a fair amount of Burners and they are big on poly/ethical nonmonogamy/etc and i have to say….. they are also some of the worst at having safe sex. Everything is about Consent and there are little buttons at events encouraging good communication…. but not a jar of condoms to be found.

        You’re right that the emotional side is huge, but it’s what most people concern themselves primarily with. A lot of people don’t realize that the logistics side is just as big a deal The other side is “what if you bring home something you can’t get rid of?” – e.g. the “other women” gets pregnant and decides to keep it…. or you get pregnant from the “other man” and want to keep it….. the logistics of 3+ people get complicated quickly. What if you guys all get some sort of STI? It’s something that’s often overlooked because it’s overshadowed by “but I may get jealous”

        • Ha, I do see your point… I’m honestly shocked on regular about some of my peer’s aversion to condom use.

          I guess in my experience safer sex/pregnancy are shorter conversations because the parameters are more established, whereas emotional conversations are a lot more amorphous so they take more time/energy/focus in order to get a handle on things? But also I guess I shouldn’t think of it as an either/or… “What will it be like if I catch an STI from you because we are now open” certainly has plenty of emotional stuff wrapped up in it.

    • e.e.hersh

      “Being open in thought can be almost as satisfying as being open in practice – knowing that you’re not trapped makes the feeling of being confined in a relationship… less confining.”

      Huh. This is interesting. I am not sure if, when or how it would ever be applied to my own marriage, but it jumped out at me. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • savannnah

    I would love love an update from this author!

    • Jess


  • ruth

    I have great admiration for couples in open relationships, because of the incredible amount of communication I know that it takes. Personally, working two jobs – a full time day job plus being an author – I’m just too tired. My hubby and I have always been open minded to the idea of opening up our relationship, but the realities of life are that we that we’re too sleep deprived to make that happen. We have just enough time / energy for good sex with each other about once a week – there really isn’t enough time / energy left to give to a 3rd or more person. I’d be curious to hear from non-monagamous couples with kids or other demanding obligations – how does it work for you? Does it still work when life is full to the brim? It seems like people’s first question when discussing non-monogamous relationships is always “how do you deal with jealousy?” – mine is always “how do you find the time?”

    • SarahRose472

      Yes, this is my main reaction too! It’s not really a relevant question for me, because my partner definitely uninterested in anything but monogamy (and I knew that signing up) but I have several good friends who are poly and it is a REAL time and energy commitment. For one of them, I think one of the time management effects/strategies has been that her socializing with friends/partners overlaps quite a bit — there’s a lot of mutual friends and partners within her social circle, so in her case it seems to lessen the need for separate time commitments to “friends” and “romantic partners” that a non-poly person might have.

    • Emily

      A friend in a polyamorous relationship always says you find the time and energy because you *want* to be there; so I guess if you really wanted it, you’d make it work? On the flip, I guess I know I really don’t want it, because the very idea is exhausting.

      • Jess

        That makes a lot of sense to me, actually! Because that’s how I always looked at dating before I was married. Like, if I don’t *want* to make time for this person, maybe I don’t want to be with them?

      • Irena Belaqua

        The relationship described in the article is not polyamorous. (if your friend is actually polya, that’s worth clarifying what you mean by that, because I’m seeing tons of assumptions and misconceptions in these comments).

        • Emily

          I didn’t say the relationship described in the post was poly, and the topic is non-monogamy. My comment was anecdotal about a non-monogamous person’s stance on having the time/energy to be in more than one relationship.

    • Pickle

      We have a non-monogamy pretty similar to the arrangement this writer has, but my partner is way more interested in sex with other people than I am and so makes the time for it even though we’re both pretty busy. My feelings about non monogamy are kind of like “well it’s nice to have the option, but why would I go out and meet some weird stranger when I could sit at home and knit?” (which honestly was kind of how I felt about dating even before I was partnered, soooo).

      But, I think the reason it works is that he does a good job of making sure that I never feel neglected and anyone else he’s hooking up with is not as important as me. If we’re having a busy time when we’re having less sex than usual, it correlates to him not hooking up with other people either. So, I think for very busy people it can work as an occasional and fun thing, but maybe not as a full-on polyamorous thing.

    • zero

      Not yet in an open relationship, but we are talking about the possibility of it. The way I see it, both monogamy and non-monogamy require a high amount of energy and devotion, just in different ways. For me, maintaining a relationship that has the expectation of forever monogamy attached to it actually creates its own set of stressors, for example the energy that goes into avoiding flirtation and situations of temptation with others and into keeping the sexual relationship with my partner exciting, which also requires a lot of communication in its own right. Sex with others can also bring energy to the primary relationship rather than taking away from it, I’d probably have more sex with my partner if I also slept with others!

      If we were to attempt an open relationship what it would look like is that I would sleep with others if the opportunity arose, so it would not really take that much time. It would probably be more like a once every few months thing, and it would be one night stands or short-term “affairs”. Possibly also some group sex situations if we found people interested in that. So to me it looks more like a an additional hobby, similar to if I were to go on a weekend trip every 2 or 3 months.

      But basically I think it comes down to whether you attach value to sex with different partners or not. If it does not add anything to your life, obviously it’s going to seem more like a chore that you have to add to your calendar. But if you’re a person who thrives on sexual connection with different people, it’s more like the hobby that you would never give up and that adds spice to your life.

  • sededed

    A partner hinted at this but when I looked into it, I noticed that a lot of ethical non-monogamy seemed to get significantly less ethical over time. A good example of this is Dan Savage. I’ve read him for a long time and I’ve noticed that he’s gone from advocating for ethical non monogamy to just advocating cheating whenever you like and admonishing partners that being cheated on is better than being single. Seriously. Same with online polyamory communities. I don’t know if I’m being unfair but whenever polyamory is being “sold” to anyone who is on the outside, it’s all “boundaries” and “consent” but when people discuss it amongst themselves it’s all pregnant women sitting at home alone being told to stop nagging their partners and respect the power of “new relationship energy”. I dunno.

    • Julie

      I don’t think that’s what Dan Savage advocates at all? His “do what you have to do to stay married and stay sane” creed has been around for a long time, and he always calls this a last resort. I think his advice can air on the side of too nonchalant, but ultimately it seems generally very practical given the realities of long-term monogamy.

      • Dan Savage’s writing on being monagamish etc. played a big role in shaping how I think about monogamy and even why I choose to be non-monogamous. That said, even though he does present it as a last resort I honestly agree his “cheating is better than getting divorced” stance can get pretty dang morally dubious.

      • sededed

        Unfortunately this is what he now advocates.That’s the point. He used to see cheating as a last resort but now is pretty pro behavior that used to get someone labeled a “cheating piece of shit”.

        Sorry I can’t be as “nonchalant” and “practical” about cheating as you are but at least you seem to be confirming that a lot of non-monogamy is ethical only in theory.

        • zero

          That’s not true, I listen to his podcast and he admonishes someone for cheating about every second week.

        • Irena Belaqua

          Not accurate at all. He does not advocate cheating; if anything, he advocates for doing anything you can to work through minor infidelity and cope with attraction to others, and not view it as necessarily relationship-ending. I have been a weekly listener for years… so I’m having trouble seeing where your claims are coming from, and it seems you’re just looking to vent/pin these ideas on a scapegoat?

        • bananafanafofana

          Sorry but that is NOT in fact what Dan Savage promotes. The “do what you have to stay sane” policy applies in unusual and challenging situations. For example, say you are taking care of a partner who is seriously ill and requires your financial support and care, but in a relationship that is emotionally and physically dead. That is NOT the average sort of situation. In the average situation, Savage believes in open communication and honesty. He regularly berates callers and writers who wish to hide extra-marital activities from their partners or go outside the bounds of their explicit agreements with their partners. Your comment seems to reflect your own biases–it is not grounded in Savages’ statements or philosophy (And I say this as a person in a strictly monogamist relationship, if that somehow matters for my credibility, which it shouldn’t.)

    • Anon Y. Mous

      I am solidly monogamous, BUT my two best girlfriends are various degrees of non-monogamous (one is poly and the other swings with her partner).

      The poly one is in an unhealthy relationship. She’s not currently seeing anyone seriously besides her boyfriend who has one other partner. He is needy, possessive, whiny, unmotivated, etc. etc. He also gets pissy when she goes on dates with other guys, but expects her to not say anything to him when he goes on casual dates with other women. He is the type of person who would be a bad boyfriend regardless of his views on monogamy. From how she talks about their relationship, polyamory seems to be a smokescreen for my friend that allows her to rationalize his shitbag behavior (“jealousy is normal in our situation, he’s just not great at dealing with it;” “sorry to cancel plans, but when you have to schedule time around other relationships, it’s natural that on our night, he just wants me to himself”).

      The swingers have an amazing relationship. They are communicative, open, loving, and when either of them do step outside the boundaries, they have productive conversations and find ways to fix the problem and prevent it from happening in the future. Even if they were monogamous, they would still have a strong, wonderful relationship.

      TL;DR while there are people who abuse non-monogamy and its conventions, there are also people who do it right. And from my vantage point, doing it right takes a TON of work.

    • Because there are no common unethical behaviors associated with monogamy you can find a million examples of online? ;)

      I can think of genre-specific ethical pitfalls for monogamy, open, & poly, Relationships are ethical when people behave ethically.

      • sededed

        Right but it’s odd how “progressive” advice seems to have come full circle to telling women to stop being nags and to put out or shut up. Much of what Dan Savage now advises would be excoriated if it was coming from some surrendered wife type but it’s the exact same advice.

        • I mean, I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of Dan Savage being some epitome of progressive sex advice — I remember back in the day reading columns where he’d advise parents who were trans not to transition because it would “terrorize their kids” so he’s always had some horrifically regressive views and that’s something that’s been pretty widely talked about.

          If someone is using the language of sex-positivity to tell you that you are “supposed” to put up with something that you hate, please bounce and bounce fast. But I promise you that a lot of people are in non-monogamous relationships not because we don’t want to be nags but because… We like being in non-monogamous relationships.

        • bananafanafofana

          Would you care to point to something specific. An actual call he responded to in this way? Because your comments seem to entirely mischaracterize his views.

    • toomanybooks

      Yes, tbh, I have a problem with people who make a big deal over their non-monogamy being “radical” or “liberated” or “e t h i c a l” like… you can say that all you want but I’ve seen horrible, predatory, abusive, misogynist behavior (from both men and women) come out of poly communities, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff get excused because it’s juuuust toooo radical to fit into your usual idea of what’s an acceptable way to treat a person! I’m not going to say it’s *because* they’re poly, but I am going to say it’s not somehow a superior relationship model the way a lot of people will talk. Like – works better for you? Sure. Is it inherently better than monogamy? Nope.

  • savannnah

    My sister and her wife are poly and it has absolutely been an eye opening experience to reflect about my initial reaction to it and my feelings now after years of meeting their secondary partners, some of whom they lived with. My initial reaction was poor and I’ve been working on getting better about thinking about what it means to be married for me isn’t what it means to be married to other people and that’s just how life exists. For the most part they seem really happy and even dealing with a situation where one of their mutual boyfriends broke up with one of them and wanted to keep dating the other. They are not out to my parents, which is their choice of course. It can lead to feeling awkward when they bring over a ‘friend’ for family thanksgiving and I find out later that’s one of their or both of their girl/boyfriends but that’s how they are choosing to deal with secondary partners at family functions.

  • ssha

    “What can be changed, and the house still stand?” This question really stood out to me as an interesting question for anyone in their relationship. As well as opening up relationships, what about cheating? Illness? Children? I don’t mean to make this a rabbit trail from the point of the OP, but I know that’s a phrase that will continue to run through my head.

    • penguin

      I really liked that line too.

    • Pterodactyl111

      I think that’s a great question for all long-term relationships, polyamorous or not.

      • Irena Belaqua

        The relationship structure described in this article is NOT polyamorous. Cringing to see this misconception.

    • suchbrightlights

      Yes- I loved this piece’s thoughtful approach to distilling a relationship down to its heartbeat and I think that that line was the money piece.

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  • EF

    I’m really glad you guys ran this again! a great piece.

  • POLYanna

    My partner and I are non-monogamous.

    Our first few steps were a huge learning experience and incredibly painful, but ultimately worth it.

    I am often frustrated by the accounts that I see which only depict either one night stands/hooking up or true-blue poly.

    Neither of my partner nor I are interested in “hunting” for another person, but we also understand that sometimes, people come into your life that you connect with in a sexual way and that often times, those friendships can be deepened by being honest with yourself, your partner, and the other person about your feelings. So for us, a certain kind of non-monogamy works.

    That being said:

    It isn’t for everyone and it should NOT be treated as a tool to fix a bad marriage or to prevent a bad marriage.

    Someone else in this comment thread brought up Dan Savage’s “do what you have to to stay married” concept.

    I grew up in a household where one parent basically forced the relationship open to try to preserve the marriage. (There were gender identity issues at play for one parent; the general idea was “Well, I’m not actually the gender you’re attracted to or that you thought I was when we got married, so *you* have to go find another partner of that gender so that you can be satisfied and our marriage can start to work again.” It was very frustrating and put the brunt of the responsibility for saving the relationship on one parent, rather than attempting to tackle it as a team.)

    This ended up being incredibly painful for my family and this kind of mentality did a SERIOUS number on the sense of security my siblings and I had. My parents opening their relationship to save their marriage was like trying to patch a leaky pipe with hammer and nails. They came up with *a* relationship solution, but it was a solution that wasn’t designed to fix the problem that they were facing.

    Non-monogamy is NOT something that is for everyone and it is NOT the defacto common sense solution to keeping a relationship alive. Sometimes, divorce IS the optimal solution. It felt like a weight was lifted from my family when my parents separated. (Incidentally, the parent that was told to go find a new partner did, and they’ve been very happily monogamous with said new partner ever since the divorce.)

    As my econ professor used to tell us, “Everything is relative.”

    Take the thought behind this idea and make it fit you and your relationship.

    The idea is that this should lead to openness and honesty with each other in a supportive and caring environment. The idea is that you *should* be able to talk to your partner about your wants and needs without the risk of it blowing up into an argument. The idea is that the conversation is always welcomed and it will be treated with respect and love and that you both will check your egos at the door until you find a solution that makes both partners comfortable.

    Wrenching open a relationship for the sake of wrenching it open is a bad idea.

    Wrenching open a relationship because one person said it made their marriage into a sex-filled wonderland is also a bad idea.

    (Good god, I could write a book on this subject.)

    If poly/non-monogamy is something you are interested in, be prepared for:

    – Crying on your own
    – Coming home to find your partner crying on their own
    – Feeling like you’ve slipped into an alternate Alice in wonderland upsidedown universe
    – Feeling like you and your partner have never been further apart
    – Feeling like you and your partner have never been closer together
    – Feeling like you’ve figured out an awesome new communication space for you and your partner to better understand each other
    – Coming home to your partner being full of joy
    – Feeling a sense of joy that is not connected to your partner, but that your partner is thrilled to see you experience

    Non-monogamy of any kind will be painful. Eventually, someone will make a mistake or there will be a communication mishap. So much of what my partner and I read before trying it out gave non-monogamy a rosy “everything is perfect” glow. It has rosy moments, but it takes A TON of emotional work and it takes being able to set your ego aside for long enough to hear your partner express their needs.

    I would also posit this:

    Your relationship is not a light switch or a circuit board.

    It doesn’t have to be on/off, open/closed.

    Telling your partner that you would like the space to discuss being generally attracted to other people and that you would like to hear about the people they are generally attracted to in a safe, non-judgmental space might be the exact right amount of non-monogamy for you guys.

    Or, you both might be happier if you meet someone together, fall in love, and incorporate them into your household.

    That’s also great.

    The bigger point that so often gets lost in these discussions of fidelity and open sexuality is that this serves as an opportunity to grow and to better understand each partner’s emotional limits.

    It is wonderful that the writer of this piece has found a system that works for her and her husband.

    Non-monogamy and monogamy are not one size fits all dresses. They come in a million different lengths, colors, and silhouettes, and they should ALWAYS be tailored and re-tailored to fit you and your partner’s changing needs.

  • Possibly sounding paranoid

    Honestly, my thoughts on sex outside of my marriage in imaginary perfect conditions (perfect conditions being that my spouse is 100% on the same page as me about every aspect of this) are that I would love to have something like this in every way except one huge one- possibility of STIs. Basically, I’m not naturally inclined toward monogamy, polyamory or any particular setup, I’m down for whatever works and we’re only monogamous in real life because my spouse is hardwired for monogamy. But the benefit of being in a monogamous relationship for me is knowing that as long as my spouse and I follow the boundaries we set for ourselves, we will [pretty much] never have to worry about STIs. I think I would enjoy my sex life a bit more with the option of encounters with other people, but not enough to lose my STI protection now that I’m used to that security.

    • zero

      Just as food for thought: Why think about STIs differently than about other viruses or bacteria? You can’t really avoid coming into touch with influenza or the common cold or stomach bugs, but people usually are not too worried about that. Some STIs are like the equivalents of these kinds of infectious diseases. If you use condoms, the big ones like HIV are very unlikely to get you, and the less serious can be easily treated.

      • Not so simple

        Because it is different from a cold, though! Like sure I’m all for destigmatizing STIs but there’s a huge difference between catching a bug that lasts a couple days that you know how to treat, and having some sort of pain/discomfort around your genitals. And not all STIs just go away! And guess how easy it is for a woman to access health care having to do with her zone? I’ve only had experience with STIs that are recurring nightmares.

        I never had a yeast infection before having penetrative sex. Over the counter remedies aren’t all that successful for me. So I have to pay to go to a doctor who is going to mansplain vaginas to me before I’m allowed to get my prescription. Many tests for STIs (or treatments) involve something like a vaginal swab/something penetrative, which is super uncomfortable for me. And I feel like I just keep getting infections despite not even having penetrative sex anymore really. It’s a pain. I also have oral herpes and the first outbreak was genuinely terrible for me. It involved days of nonstop burning, itching, pain, blisters covering my mouth, and I had gone to the doctor and gotten treatment! Now, for the rest of my life, my mouth is frequently itchy, sometimes burning, the only lip product I can use is medicated Blistex, and I can’t make out with my spouse anymore because it makes my mouth itch.

        So like… I get what you’re saying but actually? STIs really suck. And this is my life after being super careful, super proactive about STIs, and only two sex partners in my life.

        • Possibly sounding paranoid

          Thanks for sharing. I went extra simple in my response and didn’t deal with the fact that some infections are easy to deal with and others aren’t, sexually transmitted or otherwise, but I think it’s helpful for those of us who haven’t personally had STIs to hear negative experiences which aren’t blaming and shaming. I think the blame and shame culture makes it easy to accidentally downplay real difficulties when trying to destigmatize (though destigmatizing is important!)

        • zero

          Oh yeah, they definitely suck, and I would pretty conservative if I chose to have sex with more partners (probably like not having penetrative sex at all conservative). What I am saying is that it’s all about risk management, and that stigmatization seems to make people feel a lot worse about herpes or HPV than if those were not STIs.

      • Possibly sounding paranoid

        The whole thing is hypothetical for me anyway because my spouse wants to be monogamous (which I knew before we partnered up and am fine with*).

        That’s good food for thought, and this might be weird because I’m not a germaphobe but I do think if I were able to make a small lifestyle change (like maybe never eating a particular food which I like) in order to gain near immunity to the common cold or staph infections or some such, I would do it. I don’t think STIs are any worse than other infections, just that I have more easy ability to avoid them.

        A key thing is that it’d have to be a small change like that. For me personally, being monogamous is a tiny thing. I recognize that for many others, it’d be a much larger thing and the equation would change. I think it’s kind of like the discussion upthread in which people are talking about having/making the time and energy for encounters outside of their relationships and the idea that if it’s something you really want, you’re happy to make the time. I think sex with other people isn’t something I personally want enough to make it worth reentering the arena of a subset of possible infections that I’m mostly protected from now.

        I’m a believer that we can’t know what we’ll want or how much what may matter to us in the future, so my equation may change. Who knows.

        *My spouse and I talked through this stuff before we settled down together and at each new phase, and we agreed that we both would rather have this relationship with whatever agreed upon modifications are needed to keep us fulfilled while keeping our base strong than use a monogamy or bust model, even though my spouse is monogamous by nature and doesn’t feel any desire toward or even capability of enjoying being with more than one person. I’m fine with monogamy for now and quite probably forever, but I didn’t want to be blindsided if I possibly found myself strongly desiring nonmonogamy in the future.

  • Irena Belaqua

    If you’d like some thoughts on the experience of long term polyamory (emotional, and romantic as well as sexual non-monogamy, that is free of “rules” and destructive ultimatums/veto power, and doesn’t treat newer partners as disposable)… well I’ll be here.

  • H

    Here’s the real crux of the issue for me:

    “How does one go about being sexually involved but not “emotionally” involved with other people (without being a total dick to said other people)?”

    I don’t feel like this ever gets answered in this piece – how do you have a hot sexual encounter with someone while also stating very clearly and upfront that you really only want them for their body, and are not interested in an emotional connection?

    • Irena Belaqua

      Exactly. The pursuit of that question is what took me from identifying as “open” to now, for several happy years, polyamorous. You have to think verrrry carefully about whether you can call yourself ethically non-monogamous if you have a policy of “pulling the plug” any time newer partners’ feelings get inconvenient.

    • Anon

      By doing exactly that? That seems like the easiest part of this. “Hey wanna bang? No strings attached, one night only, I’m in an open relationship.” That’s a convo had drunkenly at bars all the time.

    • bananafanafofana

      I mean….is honesty that impossible for you? If so, then you probably shouldn’t engage in these behaviors, because you won’t be able to live up to it. How do you have a hot sexual encounter while stating that you are not interested in an emotional connection? You say, “I’m interested in having a sexual encounter with you but I am not open to furthering an emotional relationship. Are you ok with that?” Honesty is what makes the difference between being ethical or not.

  • Alison Lysakowski

    Not cool. People who want sex with more than one person have not felt the super-charged connection that only comes with pure monogamy, including heart, body, mind, and spirit. Monogamy is not just a physical thing. When you even look at someone lustfully, and allow your mind to linger there, you are opening the door to wanting more, and keeping yourself from fully binding with that one person. It’s sad really, people thinking sex is pure pleasure. It’s a bonding agent actually, and the more people you share it with, the less you can ultimately bond with one person, and you’re probably going to be a lonely old person one day.

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