The Open Marriage

Dr. Rob, you’ve bashed monogamy in the past and my wife and I completely agree with you. We’ve only been married for two years but we’ve decided that we’d like to try an open marriage. The problem is that we don’t know what, if any, rules there are to live by with a lifestyle like that. Any thoughts?

Wait, back up a bit. I never bashed monogamy. I’m not some family-hating Antichrist. I only said it was a man-made concept, not a natural one, and therefore was a contributing factor in the dissolution of some marriages. That wasn’t intended to be a rallying cry for open marriages, far from it. It was just a statement of how things are. Don’t even think of using that post as the basis for your carnal decisions because I have enough people yelling at me due to bad advice.

If we are defining an open marriage as one that allows for the individuals to have sex with other people, then make no mistake: this is an extremely difficult phenomenon through which to navigate and it is intended only for specific individuals. The very act of having intercourse with other people can run counter to the concept of intimacy and can inherently damage the marriage, which is inherently built on exclusivity. If sex is one of the most vulnerable experiences one can have, the idea of sharing that type of moment with others can emotionally destroy many people.

If you read the piece I wrote about pornography, you know the woman in the vignette I presented had a more liberal take on sexuality. She was someone who viewed sex as simply fun and not much more than that. While she loved her husband, she didn’t really view sex with him as a symbol of love or a forum to deeply connect with him. She did that in other ways (e.g., conversation, shared activities, a mutual value system). She was essentially having casual sex with just one person. Now feel free to view that as pathological if you so choose, but the reality was that she was a reasonably happy person without a lot of sexual hang-ups. She is someone who could probably pull off the open marriage and not be troubled by it. The husband was essentially the complete opposite, and even the idea of her watching others have sex led to feelings of doubt and insecurity within the marriage. Again, call it unhealthy if you like, but if an open marriage were foisted upon him, he might literally need to be on suicide watch.

When individuals or couples talk to me about an open marriage, they usually point to highly specific ground rules that are part of the relationship. These are designed to provide assurances to each partner and a foundation for the rest of the partnership. Each couple has different arrangements, but the theme I noticed in some involved a distinct separation from sex and other aspects of romance. In other words, most couples who maintained open relationships trusted their partner not to engage in any other aspect of intimacy – holding hands, deep conversation, sometimes even kissing – with the other person. In fact, some couples went so far as to showing pictures or even meeting the third party before any sex occurred so that the spouse could, as one person put it, “get a read on her to make sure she wasn’t a threat to the rest of my relationship. In short, it seems as though sex with others for these individuals was completely divorced from any sort of courtship, romance or intimacy. For the open marriage, sex was sex and nothing more. They wouldn’t allow it to be.

Since marriage work isn’t my particular area of expertise, here is a quote (under the condition of anonymity for no real reason whatsoever other than sheer paranoia) from a shrink who does a lot of couples therapy:

“First and foremost, couples should decide WHY they want to have an open relationship, not unlike thinking about having children. It’s not enough to simply say, ‘having sex with multiple partners is natural.’ That mind set will take you nowhere quickly. There needs to be a mutual understanding that the goal is to enhance each person’s sex life, ideally both in and out of the marriage. Some couples use the open marriage as a way to simply avoid intimacy with each other (e.g., ‘if I throw myself into the practice of having multiple partners, I’ll never have to deal with the problems at home’), and this usually leads to an unsatisfactory relationship. The goal is to have a deep connection with each other and to not lose that when having sex with someone else.

If a couple decides that monogamy is not for them, but other aspects of marriage are, then one can’t be meticulous enough when it comes to the ground rules for an open relationship. That line between faithfulness and betrayal is so thin in these types of relationships. Whether it’s the number of times a person can have sex with a specific person, what days of the week, body type, or even specific sexual positions that are allowed, any couple that is considering this is better off becoming completely OCD and creating a 200-page manual rather than figuring it out as they go along. Improvisation is a recipe for disaster.”

The fact is that only a small percentage of people can benefit from this type of arrangement. Just like other animals, humans are possessive and territorial by nature, and the vast majority of couples see sexuality as far too intimate and private to make it something to be shared outside of the duo. You couldn’t pay me enough to be in meaningful relationship with this twist. My jealousy would simply run amok. Spousal betrayal is one of the more difficult events for a person to overcome so it takes a unique individual to not only have it be not troublesome, but to actually invite this course of action. * So anyone considering this needs to proceed with extreme caution, because once you’ve taken such a critical step, it’s indelibly pasted into each other’s minds. In other words, once you’ve crossed that line, you can’t truly go back

* Granted, if you indeed agree to an open relationship the act in and of itself isn’t a betrayal, but the reality is that you won’t know how you feel about it until it actually happens. You may not be able to accuse your spouse of cheating in this scenario, but that doesn’t mean it won’t FEEL that way. Emotions and reality don’t always align the way we would like.

Related Post: Sex, Drugs and Death: A Trifecta of American Hangups

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22 Responses to “The Open Marriage”

  1. kk says:

    marriage is, to me, such a loaded thing. it’s not just the sex aspect; i think people carry into it all sorts of expectations, borrowing off of probably every marriage they have ever seen. i hate to think of my own marriage as being built on the foundations of others , but it is, in all probability. I find out new ways in which my expectations are potentially warped on a fairly regular basis, so it would take me a lot to feel like I was OK with something like an open marriage. you are right – it is hard to go back. something to seriously consider before taking the plunge, no matter how open minded i think i am. open minded, personally, is open to interpretation, and my interpretation of just about everything fluxes quite a bit as I feel my way through. I appreciate a little consistency as my bedrock, thank you. I’ll practice open mindedness with things that are a little less loaded.

  2. I agree completely with the fact that open marriages are only for a very select group of people. To me it seems that even if you are simply having sex for the release of stress, for the fun of the orgasm, or anything else, there is a risk of attachment.

    Emotionally speaking, at least from my own view, people can become attached from far less than the act of sex. If one partner in an open marriage isn’t ready for the attraction that comes with the act of intercourse, issues are bound to come up. I feel that open marriage might be right for some people, but far too many people experiment with it with negative consequences.

  3. Lindsey says:

    Hrmm, I don’t have much experience with marriage (and by that I mean, I am not married, nor have I ever been married), but I’m one to think that this is a terrible idea. Case in point: I’ve tried it, but I’m pretty sure that sex WITHOUT emotion becomes impossible at some point. Maybe this is because I’m a woman, and I have evil hormones screaming “OMG time to get attached!”, but I think this brings up two big points for me:

    1. I don’t think sex with random people is good. It’s just awkward, and generally bad. There is something to be said about consistent sexual partners who know each other well. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t recall a time I really thought it was worth the awkwardness.

    2. If the person isn’t random (i.e you know them, or you have slept with them multiple times) chances you’re going to be somehow emotionally attached to them, and that is where shit hits the fan.

    Mild Sedative, I agree, people can certainly become attached on far less, but there is something very powerful about the attachment that comes out of sex. From my non-married point of view, it’s something to be very very careful about.

  4. Alissa says:

    Hello, Dr. Rob! Thanks very much for bringing up the topic of open marriages.

    I’m a happy newlywed in an open relationship. We’ve been open for 4.5 years, and married for about a year. I couldn’t agree with you more, open marriage is certainly not for everyone, and like any meaningful relationship, it requires lots of communication, respect, and maintenance. However, if any readers are interested in trying out the whole open thing, Here are some pointers that have been greatly beneficial for my husband and me.

    Decide why you want to try an open relationship in the first place. We decided to be in an open relationship for several reasons. I was with a controlling partner before my husband, and his previous partner depended on him for a lot of things, so when we first met, we wanted more independence and less jealousy/possession in our relationships. We are both openly bisexual, and try as I may, I will never grow a dick and he will never have a pussy, so we both have needs and desires that biologically the other person can’t fulfill. We also were hurt by people lying in relationships before, so we agreed that a betrayal of trust (lying about having sex with someone) was far more harmful than the actual sex.

    Decide what kind of open relationship you would like. Open marriage seems to be an umbrella term for a continuum of different activities and rules. It can be as casual as being swingers, where you swap partners as a couple and engage in very casual sex activities, or it can be as serious as being polyamorous, where you and your partner are free to pursue other romantic relationships. My husband and I fall in the middle, where we are committed to each other and happy with each other, but we’re free to casually date and fuck whomever we please. Ideally, we would both like another partner that was a friend with benefits.

    Talk about the exact role sex plays in your relationship. One of the reasons an open marriage works well for me is that I have always thought of sex as a very casual activity, so I don’t really associate sex with intimacy. I think that sex with my husband can be intimate, but it’s more about my relationship with him and less about what we’re actually doing. I think of sex partners as activity partners, kind of like having friends I go to the movies with, friends I go bowling with, etc.

    Communicate as much as you can with your partner, and immediately disclose when something feels wrong to you, so that it doesn’t fester into resentment. If you or your partner try something and you don’t feel happy about it, talk to your partner about what exactly you didn’t like. Your partner may have no idea what is bothering you, and may keep doing the same thing. Also, your partner may feel betrayed by you keeping a secret, even if the secret is you don’t really like watching your partner with another person. When my partner did something I didn’t like, I told him I wasn’t mad at him, since we hadn’t discussed the issue, but that I would feel hurt if it happened again and he knew that I had objections.

    Make sure there is reciprocity in your relationship. If you have a rule for your partner, like no kissing other people or whatever, then make sure you follow that rule too. If you don’t want your partner to have oral sex with another person, you are indirectly communicating that oral sex is something you cherish between you and your partner, therefore your partner may assume that you will hold your own actions to the same scrutiny. If your partner finds out that you aren’t willing to live up to your own standards you’ve set for them, they may feel hurt or resentful. If you want to do things with other people that you won’t let your partner do, then you may have an underlying issue of jealousy and possession of your partner, which may lead to controlling your partner, and that kind of defeats the point of trying an open marriage to begin with!

    Remember any long term goals, feelings, or appreciations for your partner. I love my husband for the sex, sure, but I also love him because he is my best friend, he is an ideal roommate, he has a sense of humor that’s very compatible to mine, we have similar interests…. I am not willing to throw away so much good stuff because of sex, which I think of as something that’s pretty fun, but certainly not the backbone of a relationship. I have a partner that my husband likes, but finds slightly irritating, and my husband has a partner that I like, but I think she’s socially awkward at times. However, we know that a 5 or 6 month fling with someone else is really short term compared to a marriage that will hopefully be 20 or 30 years.

    I hope that someone finds this helpful!

  5. April says:

    Wow, I am impressed with Alissa’s answer.

  6. Rob Dobrenski says:

    I’m impressed too. Alissa, do you think a lot of what you’re saying is relevant to all marriages? Not the “dating and fucking” whomever you please but, like, the other stuff?

  7. Alissa says:

    I think that in an ideal, healthy relationship, a lot of what I talked about would be present. I think that for most meaningful relationships to work in the long run, there is a need for mutual respect, open communication, full and immediate disclosure of any problems, remembering why you got into a relationship with your partner to begin with, etc. I think that sex in an open marriage often is an indicator of an underlying issue that could present itself in a number of ways. For instance, if I had a problem trusting my partner, I may worry about him cheating or not finding me as attractive, or I may worry about him spending too much money on frivolous stuff, or I may worry about him being a good parent for kids.

    I think that one way that open marriage is a little different is the role of sex and being independent in your relationship. In order for an open marriage to be healthy and happy, I think it’s imperative for you to have an identity independent of your relationship. If I only thought of myself as a wife and possible mother, I would be miserable, because my happiness and my identity would be dependent on the quality of my marriage, and implicitly, my sex with my husband. I don’t mind finding other sex partners or my husband doing so because I define myself through my profession, my humor, my different interests, my relationships I have with lots of people, and a ton of other things, so sex is really a very small part of who I am.

    I think that another thing specific to open relationships is that there is somewhat of a taboo around extramarital sexual behavior. I find that people that are insecure in their relationships see me, my husband, or our marriage as a possible threat. I’ve asked people if they wanted to fool around before, and I get “what does your husband have to say about all this???” or “I could never share, and I find you offensive, go play with your other toys.” I’ve also had a person whom I thought of as a friend boycott my marriage on moral grounds. I think that it sucks to go through those moments, but I would rather someone accept or reject me as I really am, rather than have everyone accept some false portrayal of me. I think that’s an issue for lots of people in open marriages, and you see it in how discreet they try to be about the nature of their relationship.

  8. Tracie says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful replies, Alissa. It was really refreshing to read an honest and open description of “the lifestyle” in such a public forum. I have a lot of respect for those who are able to maintain healthy and respectful relationships such as yours in the face of the judgments and criticism. Open relationships are definitely not my style (I’d go all bunny-boiler over it) but, having had many friends who had open or poly relationships, I understand that it involves a delicate balance which can be very fulfilling for both partners when found.

  9. Alissa says:

    Thank you for providing a supportive environment! A lot of people seem really adversarial when discussing this subject, so it’s refreshing to talk in such an open manner. 🙂

  10. Tina says:

    Reading Dr Rob’s post I was formulating my reply and trying to decide how best to state my opinion. After reading the replies, I think the best way is to say “Yeah, what she said” (Alissa) LOL.

    My husband and I also have an open marriage. We’ve been together for 11 years, married for 9 and “open” for about 5 or 6. Before we decided to “try it” we talked. and talked and talked and talked. We discussed ground rules and “what ifs”, tried to cover every possible scenario and decide, ahead of time, what we would do or how we would handle it.

    I think the bigest factor, for us, is that marriage isn’t about sex. So often, when you read articles about open marriages, invariably one of the replies is “well, if you’re going to have sex with other people, why get married”. To me, that just seems so sad. Is the only thing that makes your partnership a marriage the fact that you don’t have sex with other people? For me (us) marriage is about more than who we are having sex with. We are there to support each other and love each other and stick together when the rest of the world sucks. We’re together to share the good times and the bad, through sickness and health. My husband and I, in the 11 years we’ve been together, have shared moments that were absolutely, amazingly, life changing and we’ve also weathered times that were gut wrenchingly horrid. That’s what makes our marriage. Not the fact that we do or don’t have sex with other people.

    As stated by just about everyone else, this arrangement isn’t for everyone. I would never advocate it for any other couple. If asked, I will talk openly and honestly about how we do it but I won’t even answer the question “Should we try it”. It’s such an individual decision and something only the people involved can decide on. I do wish it was a little better understood and accepted and we didn’t have to fear being “outted” do friends and family (some know. most don’t). Basically, we’re just the typical married couple. Work, kids, bills, pets, day in, day out. We just happen to have “friends” that we have sex with.

  11. Dr. Rob says:

    Tina and Alissa, when you and your husbands meet a prospective partner for sex or dating or anything that is within the realm of your marriages’ parameters, are you completely honest about your situation? A colleague and I were talking, and we were thinking that many men in our practices don’t really care if a woman is married or not. They still would sleep with her. The women we see, on the other hand, tend to get involved with men with the hope (at some point) that he will leave his spouse for her. In an open relationship, that seems highly unlikely, and therefore many not be interested in a man in an open relationship. Is there an agreement within an open relationship that complete disclosure is required to ALL parties potentially involved.

  12. Aron says:

    Without touching on the merits of open marriages: it seems like an unreasonable risk to take on when you have kids. Whatever the “point” of marriage is in society, once a couple have kids that should be their most important priority for the next 18(ish?) years.
    I was nodding to most of Tina’s message until the end:
    ‘Basically, we’re just the typical married couple. Work, kids, bills, pets, day in, day out. We just happen to have “friends” that we have sex with.’
    Out of the entire post, the kids only come up once and that scares me.

    I guess my point is that if you as a parent exist to give your children a stable environment while they are growing, at what point is it inappropriate to take risks like this?

  13. Tracie says:

    Aron, I think it’s best that perhaps the kids only came up at the end; a parent’s sexual habits aren’t the kind of thing that should necessarily be dinner table talk for a long, long time. Of the open couples that I’ve known, they’ve kept their sexual behavior just as private as the “vanilla” couples: the kids were always the highest priority, and the sex was something that was done on the side without the knowledge of the children. All the parents had to say was that they were going on a “date night” and that was the end of the story. The kids didn’t have to know that that “date” was with someone other than the other parent. Any contact with other couples was kept very private and every angle of the encounters was analyzed to make sure that the children would not become involved in any way.
    As with any behavior, if the kids aren’t being put in harm’s way and the parents are being responsible (not bringing other couples over while the kids are there, having safe sex, not using drugs or alcohol irresponsibly), why would it be inappropriate aside from those who have a moral objection to it? Sure, if it finally does come out when Junior’s 20 that those “bridge games” weren’t quite what they purported to be, things could get awkward. I think there are many ways, however, to have an open relationship and still be a great parent. I’d love to hear what the others have to say on the subject.

  14. Tina says:

    Dr Rob – yes, my husband and I are both completely honest with any potential partners about the situation. We make it clear that we are married and are not looking to leave our marriage. While we sometimes have problems (like any married couple) we are happy where we are and aren’t looking to change that. Interestingly (at least in my opinion), when we’ve had rough times and weren’t getting along so great and things weren’t necessarily peaceful, at those times I’m much less likely to see someone else. I guess you could say we “close ranks”, so to speak, and get the core of our relationship back to where we want it before we even think about being with someone else.

    Also, in our experience, it’s very true what you’ve observed. 95% of the time, when I tell a man I’m married, he couldn’t care less. For my husband, it’s the opposite. He’s met a lot of women that were interested until they realize he’s married. Neither one of us tries to hide that fact and both of us will make it very clear in the first conversation with someone. We’re both open to having platonic friends but I don’t want to waste someone else’s time if that’s not what they’re looking for.

    Aron – The reason my kids only came up once is because I was discussing my relationship with my husband and whoever else I may choose to see. If you met me, or talked to me under any other circumstances, you’d never guess our “dirty little secret”. In fact, I live my life 99% of the time, for my kids. I’m a stay at home mom and left a very satisfying, high adrenaline job to be with my kids 24/7. None of them have ever been in day care or left with a “sitter” that wasn’t a trusted relative (and that’s happen, oh, less than a dozen times since I became a mom). When I do go to see someone else, my kids certainly aren’t aware of where I’m going and I will only set a date if I know it is a time my husband can be home with the kids. I will not leave them with someone else so I can go out. Someone else mentioned “ground rules” and one of our biggest (besides safe sex, always, absolutely) is that we don’t bring anyone to our house, ever. Not when the kids are at school. Not when we think we’ll be home alone for hours. Never. To anyone who knows me, I am the typical “soccer mom”. I volunteer at school. I bake cookies for the bake sale. I read bedtime stories and play hide-and-seek and do all the typical Mom things the majority of the time. My priorities are my kids, then my husband, then everything else.

    Any married person, even parents, needs time to do whatever it is they enjoy. Sometimes I just happen to enjoy playing with someone else. It only affects my kids to the extent that I go out sometimes. They have no idea where I’m actually going. I’d be willing to bet that the amount of time I spend away from my kids is considerably less than most women who have “girls night out” with their friends or men who have a “poker night” once a month. I’d also be willing to bet that the “lifestyle” portion of my life takes up much less time than most people envision. I think when most people hear “open marriage” they picture the 1070s-ish swinger type and that is certainly not us. I probably “date” less than once a month, on average. The number of people I’ve been with is probably staggeringly small compared to what most people would imagine.

    I’m glad for discussions like this where people are willing to ask honest questions and maybe be open to hearing how an “open marriage” actually works. I think my situation is much more typical of most open marriages than the partying, “swinging” couple that most people think of. My husband and I are the average couple. Our kids factor much higher than my original post may have made it seem but, as Tracie pointed out, that’s only because it wasn’t something my kids have any involvement in. If we were a “vanilla” couple my kids would still have no knowledge of our sex life (other than the “ewww, my parents probably did it once” thoughts when they reach the teenage years when it’s gross to anyone when they realize that their parents probably had sex at some point). My kids are the main focus of my life. Dr Rob’s post about open marriages just happened to touch on one small aspect of my life so that is what I commented on.

  15. Alissa says:

    Tina, you took a whole bunch of words right out of my mouth! 🙂

    Dr. Rob – My husband and I are as open and honest about the nature of our marriage as possible, especially when talking to people we might want to date or play with. As much as I enjoy casual sex, I prefer to play with someone who may become a friend later, regardless of whether or not they will be friends with benefits, and I personally would never want to start the beginning of a friendship with deceit. Also, although our marriage is far from perfect, we are happy and emotionally secure, and we both think that propositioning someone who may be more emotionally vulnerable can be exploitative, so by being honest, we’re trying to avoid coercing someone else. I don’t just bring it up on the first date, I explicitly say I’m in an open marriage on my dating/social networking sites, or if I contact someone in another way, I let them know while we’re online chatting or texting or whatever, so the other person can decide if they even want to meet to begin with.

    That said, I do notice a difference between men and women that I talk to about playing. If I’m talking to a guy, more than likely he will want to have sex, and how confident he is plays out in if he wants to meet my husband. A confident guy I talk to usually hangs out with both of us for a while, and then he and I slip away to another part of the house for a while, while other guys feel shy about meeting my husband, and then they will host rather than coming to our place. Usually, if a guy has a question for me at all, it’s something like “you SURE you’re in an open relationship? Your husband won’t come after me?” Most of the time, women I proposition see that I’m involved but it’s okay, because they just want a casual thing. With some women, I see a lot more emotional vulnerability. I’ve always kind of figured that women use sex for emotional connection or validation more often than men, but I could be totally wrong. Regardless of the cause, some women feel fine playing but then want me to leave my husband or they feel frustrated when I don’t feel as romantically involved as they do. For instance, one lady, after chatting a few times, demanded to know where she stood in my “lineup of sluts.” I wasn’t sure what to say, because I was completely honest about my situation out of respect for her independence and free will, not to gloat about jerking her around.

    Aron – I can’t really talk about the role of parenting in open marriages, because I do not have children and have no personal experience in juggling the needs of a child with other aspects of my life. However, it seems like most people differentiate between open and typical marriages by the extramarital activities we do, so it seemed most appropriate to talk about our sexual behavior. I think that Tina and I agree with you that a person who places her own needs above children dependent on her is at best selfish, and at worst neglectful, but I also think the same thing about any parent, regardless of what they do in their spare time.

    If you are stating that you think it’s risky to try something that will jeopardize your marriage when you have dependents, then I agree with you, as long as we’re talking about people who take risks without talking about them and planning for them first. It’s imperative for people to weigh out every benefit and risk of being in an open relationship, just as I would assume someone would do when talking about moving to another state, adopting another child, putting a large chunk of their savings into the stock market, etc.

    However, if you’re stating that an open marriage will inherently lead to a divorce which can harm the kids, then I have to respectfully disagree. Lots of people break up or have an affair because there is a difference between their sex drives, or because they’re bored or feel there is no more romance in their marriage, and that happens regardless of whether or not there are children involved. In an open marriage, my husband and I are trying to avoid feeling bored or restless. If anything, it brings us closer together. If I have a good date, then I’m excited and I bring that excitement home, and we can be happy together and share in that good experience. If I have a bad date, then I feel a new sense of appreciation for my husband! Either way, we feel emotionally closer with each other, and more often than not, we end up having sex after a date because we introduced more passion into our lives. This approach certainly isn’t for most people, but we have found a way to make our marriage more secure.

  16. Scootah says:

    I’m just going to drop a quick note in 0 most of the meaningful contribution that I could make has already been made. But Alyssa’s comments regarding reciprocity I think deserve some more attention.

    I’m not sure if this is masturbatory – but just to establish where I’m coming from, I’m currently in a long term (12 months+) relationship, which has included sex, sexual contact and cohabitation with my wife and a third party. We have a variety of play relationships with people outside of our dynamic. We self define as a ‘Leather Family’ due to the BDSM/Fetish connotations with our relationship and we are closely involved as friends, family and former lovers of a large number of people in varying types of open relationships. My wife and I have been together for more then 5 years, but we’ve also both been involved in a variety of way, with a significant number of open relationships prior to our own relationship.

    Fundamentally, the thing I see that builds the most resentment and the most unhealthy interaction in open/poly/non binary relationships is the lack of equality or the lack of fairness. There needs to be a pre-negotiated set of rules for any poly relationship, like there are for a standard binary relationship. The thing is – a binary relationship has rules that were debated and defined by dozens of generations of western culture, Dr Phil, Oprah, Cleo Magazine and hair dressers around the world.

    In a non binary relationship, the framework for those rules isn’t so pre defined. There’s no clarity about ‘Cleo says going to a strip bar isn’t cheating unless there’s touching’ – it’s all about what the two of you want and can make work. The problem is – a lot of non binary relationships occur between people who don’t have a good grasp of what challenges they’re likely to come up against. They don’t have a lifetime of tested self assessment of what they personally can tolerate and what crosses their boundaries. And fundamentally – it’s much more common to want to be in a poly relationship then to want your partners to be in a poly relationship. Greed and lust are a pairing that almost everyone is tuned to understand. Lust and sharing is much less culturally prevalent.

    When the rules get set up – there’s almost never real reciprocity. One partner is willing to share more then the other. One partner wants more security then the other. One partner wants their cookies but is still too culturally influenced to see their partner get cookies from elsewhere. And envy and a sense of unfairness kills poly relationships in a slow, painful way.

    I don’t know how many people I know who are in a poly relationship where one partner either doesn’t have, or can break the rules – and the other partner is willing to let it slide, but if the willing and comfortable partner looks at one of those same rules funny – the relationship will explode.

    I know a couple who devolved into a massive melt down and public explosion because the female partner of the couple sent an enticing email to the male partner and he responded positively. She knows his every trigger and button and wrote the email explicitly to appeal to him as a trap and their relationship went straight to hell because of it.

    The same woman fucks on average a dozen different guys and a few girls in an average week. The male partner enjoys that dynamic and that play. But he’s not allowed to fuck any of those people. Only she gets the window. Fundamentally – he’s got no issues with her being physical with others – but he gets no reciprocation of that trust. He gets bear traps set for him instead.

    I know another couple where the female partner set all the rules about no vaginal penetration and no kissing and no fluid exchange and etc, and ran the male partner ragged with her paranoia on the few occasions when he explored his options – then turned up pregnant to another man who she moved into the home. Her male partner has his own set of problems that motivate him to not leave despite the breech of rules and trust – but he’s years into a passive aggressive dynamic that he never agreed to – where he scrubs the toilets with the other man’s tooth brush and he’s forced to be the provider for his wife and a man who he doesn’t like. And he’s still not allowed to kiss another woman.

    I know DOZENS of couples where ‘Open Relationship’ is another word for ‘We’re fuck buddies, but you’re only allowed to fuck me while I fuck anyone I want, and you get none of the consideration that you’d expect from a relationship while having all the obligations’ – usually with a man controlling the relationship.

    I watch so many of these relationships where I can only wonder if the guy involved has a vibrating dick made out of chocolate? If the self esteem issues of the involved parties are what drives the continued participation and how they’d react if they actually had a positive self image? I don’t believe anything more then a fractional minority of those sort of massively unbalanced relationships are healthy.

    I think that fractional minority are almost universally made up of relationships that are balanced in other ways. I don’t think relationships that are fundamentally unfair can ever really work.

  17. Alice says:

    For a while I’d been hanging out in circles with a kind of easy, liberated attitude to sex as part of a wider set of political views. Maybe see the tag “Action” on my blog for an idea of the background of this crew of people. I’d had a few really nice relationships where we were friends for ages and occasionally had sex, and was doing this with I guess three or four different people over two or three years.

    All of us saw other people too, there was no secrecy, and I loved just being able to make it up as we went along – no obligations, no assumptions, but good friends too who weren’t just one night stands. Then I met M.

    We’d known each other vaguely for years, but really talked properly at a party just over a year ago and just “clicked” – it was obvious right from then that this was the start of something much more intense than the other relationships I had.

    M already had several other relationships, one of twelve years, one of three years, and several others of various degrees of intensity, sexuality, on-and-off-ness, etc. M and I have a rough pattern now of spending two days or so together each week either at his place or mine, and we also often hang out with his other lovers and their other lovers too, which is great. He keeps a diary to help organise his time between seeing different friends and lovers, and shows such love, trust and honesty that I’ve honestly never felt jealous or unloved. It’s the best and I think healthiest relationship I’ve ever had.

    There is a vague possibility of a threesome with one of his other lovers, maybe one day… But that really isn’t the point as lots of people assume. He has really good taste in women and it’s been amazing to meet all these other people who are so cool.

    The whole thing has made me notice how much monogamy is an unquestionned social norm, how much trouble it causes, how we avoid dealing with our own internal conflicts by blaming them on jealosy “caused” by other people… all kinds of things…

    You really have to own your own emotions and deal with them, e.g.”I’m feeling Jealous” rather than “You’re making me feel jealous”. I feel like I’ve really grown up in the year or two that I’ve been consciously polyamorous.

  18. Alice says:

    I also wanted to post this link to “With Open Hands”, a guide to open relationships. Partly to explain the intricacies a little, and partly because there’s so little advice and help out there for people doing non-monogamy.

    http://www.twinoaks.org/members-exmembers/members/paxus/openhand.html

    There’s lots said above about rules. I tend to set down as few rules as possible because it’s impossible to forsee every possible future situation and my relationships are built on love and trust. Whatever situation my lovers find themselves in, I trust them to honour the love and trust I have with them and to act accordingly, and that’s enough.

    Safe sex I guess might count as a rule, but only while retaining the ability to say sorry, I screwed this up the other day, we better both get a checkup.

    Equality is important too… but all this kind of thing is more cultural than contractual. I think I’d only really get into relationships with people who basically shared my beliefs anyway about equality, the importance of safe sex, how to treat others with love and respect. So then I don’t feel the need to set down rules to make a partner behave the way I want them to.

  19. Shane Mosley says:

    I really like what you wrote here – it’s informative. Thanks for posting this.

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  21. Evangelina Bonomo says:

    I’m sure certain parties would be in complete agreement.

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