Last year I entered into an open relationship, partly out of curiosity and partly because the man in question knocked my socks off. Both of us had the occasional other lovers who we wanted to continue seeing, very occasionally, and we lived two hours apart, so neither of us was intimidated by the idea of being non-monogamous. Because we fell in love, we considered ourselves ‘primary’ partners, making all others secondary in a nod to the comfort of our biological drive to pair bond.
Saying you’re open can come across as a justification for sleeping around, imply you don’t have the emotional skills to commit to a ‘real’ relationship, or that you’re so bent on living a life less ordinary that you’re willing to suffer through the heart stomping emotion of knowing your partner is fucking someone else. Why did we choose to be open instead of just discreet? Because I never wanted to have to lie to a person I loved, even if a lie was the kindest thing to do. I don’t disagree with the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude which pragmatically prevails in Europe. However, having grown up in the U.S., I’m genetically programmed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me god. It’s a terrible burden.
But being open can evolve to be just as secure as an exclusive deal. Because what is more important to a thriving relationship is fidelity, not monogamy. The definition of fidelity is a faithfulness to a person, cause or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support. Whereas monogamy is defined as the practice or state of having a sexual relationship with only one partner. Many people I’ve asked didn’t initially believe there was a difference between the two words, likely due to the fact that infidelity denotes sexual transgression. But fidelity and monogamy are very different and I believe only one is truly crucial to a successful long term relationship.
Since the beginning of time, people have been having affairs. It’s only our attitudes towards them that have changed. When marriage was essentially an economic contract, lovers outside the marriage were expected and tolerated (for men at least). As the notion of romantic love grew, we started to believe that love should put limits on sexuality, and so marriage became associated with monogamy. But monogamy in the age of feminism, economic prosperity, and unprecedented longevity, combined with raising families in tiny houses, is a tenuous proposition. Wanting to get physical with someone outside the confines of our domestic drudgery is not a weakness. It’s an escape valve that can be used responsibly.
Alas, affairs are viewed by most as an affront to a healthy relationship. They certainly are if the two of you are operating under the assumption that sex outside the partnership is forbidden. But what is at the root of indignation over the affair? I think it’s fear. As I wrote in my article about jealousy, the thought that an affair may blow apart the home, kids, and economic stability of all parties, is enough to make anyone’s autonomic nervous system go into overdrive. It’s not so much the sex as it is the fear of what the sex may lead to that causes us to go wild with despair and decide our mates are untrustworthy scoundrels. What we fear losing is the fidelity of our partnership, that copilot to help raise the kids, a mate with whom we’ve had more laughter than tears at the end of a very long decade. Even without kids, it can be deeply satisfying to have a number one fan to come home to at night. A mutual fidelity to this can create a foundation from which we thrive.
Having an open relationship was a challenge mostly because it tested the concept of fidelity. Can two people really have something special if they get naked with other partners? I think so. There were fits and starts for us. Some evenings the hanky didn’t cut it and I had to blow my nose into a t-shirt. But what we were able to do over time was create a fidelity that felt unassailable. We prioritized each other, we laughed and loved and had spine tingling sex. We always wished each other goodnight even when apart and with other people. It took effort but so does any satisfying relationship. It’s a different kind of work to accept that your number one fan is rocking his hips between another woman’s legs.
I never doubted my partner loved me. And that was oodles more important than his drive to have sex with other women. Certainly, people get closer when they have sex with each other and it’s possible my lover would fall in love with someone else. But we had freedom and we had trust and ironically we started sleeping with others less the longer we dated. Show a partner your love for them by giving up your need that they ‘love’ only you, and you’ll find yourself with many moths, or just that one, dancing around your flame of generosity.
One big irony was that we did much better the less we spoke about any of our other encounters. I’ve read books about how people in non-monogamous relationships should over communicate in order that everyone’s feelings get heard. But if you’re truly devoted to a primary partner, treat that relationship with the respect and kindness it deserves by not bringing up the others. I wouldn’t enjoy hearing my partner wax blissfully about his other lover. Surely, creating an unshakable fidelity means using your time together to say and do things that only reinforce the importance of the bond between the two of you. If you’re not explicitly open and are thinking of having an affair, be sure you can say to yourself that your loyalty to your current relationship is paramount. Otherwise pick up the phone and book a therapy appointment, because you’re going to use an affair to ignore the festering problems you already have.
Admitting the significant difference between fidelity and monogamy could go a long way in avoiding a family bust up when two people find themselves confronted with sexual infidelity. And though I’m not advocating open relationships, having one is certainly a fascinating exercise in figuring out your own relationship style. Monogamy is easier because the rules are well established. But I’d rather have a rock solid partnership without exclusive rights to another person’s body parts, than a mate who feels trapped within the expectations of tradition. If you have any experience with an open relationship, I’d love to hear from you, what your challenges have been and why it’s a choice you’ve made.
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