“So how does that work?” ask casual acquaintances when I reveal that, because of our jobs, my wife and I live almost 3,000 miles apart for most of the year. I explain that she and I talk practically every day, we don’t go more than six weeks without rendezvousing somewhere fun, and we frequently check that our dreams and aspirations are aligned—or at least compatible. And lately, as more and more of my peers acquiesce to normalcy, I’ve been throwing in a fourth, fuck-you tidbit: “Oh, and we can hook up with whomever we want.” Generally the nodding stops at that point. Eyebrows shoot skyward, people lean in and pose many more questions. What follows is how I wish I’d answered.
1. Open relationship? Wait, you’re kidding, right?
No, I’m not. In fact, people who practice some form of conceptual non-monogamy are more common than you’d think. Reputable research estimates that more than 10 million North American individuals are non-monogamous. Dr. Edward Fernandes of Barton College suggests that the figure in Europe is much higher. That’s 10 million individuals who have decided, quite courageously in my opinion, not to be sketchy about the enduring appeal of “getting some strange.”
2. Courageous? Why?
Because it’s stigmatized. It freaks people out, this idea that you can be in a relationship yet share the fun. Amy C. Moors, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, has published several studies on non-monogamous arrangements. One found that people view monogamous relationships more positively than non-monogamy in 21 different ways. A common belief was that monogamous people are better at avoiding sexually transmitted infections. However, Moors found that those in consensual non-monogamous relationships are more likely to use protection, use it correctly, get tested for STIs regularly and—of course—are more likely to tell their partners they’ve had sex with someone else.
How did I convince her to do this, you ask. What makes you think it was my idea?
3. So cheating is an inevitability, and we should all start screwing in the streets?
The number of Americans who cheat varies wildly from study to study. But the consensus is that unfaithful spouses vastly outnumber more ethical philanderers. Other recent research shows that younger people are the least jazzed about the prospect of having one partner for the rest of their lives. I mean, really—what kind of a narcissist looks in the mirror and thinks that someone would be psyched to “hit this” until his or her dying day? Monogamy might have seemed like a more exciting prospect when life expectancy was lower, but futurist Ray Kurzweil says that by 2045, technology will enable people essentially to live forever.
4. Forever ever?
Forever ever. When you’re looking down the barrel of the same piece night after night, that’s going to feel like a very long time indeed. “Thinking relationships are the way of the future,” says Jenny Block, author of Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage. “No more of this, ‘Heterosexual, monogamous marriage is just what you do so I guess I’ll do it too’ nonsense.” Block adds that happy, healthy relationships have to be about what you want and what works for you and those with whom you are involved. “It’s about living your personal truth—even if that has never been modeled in a blockbuster rom-com or a Disney tearjerker.”
5. So are you like … swingers?
I guess that there are two main types of consensual non-monogamy. There’s swinging, which is sex-focused, and polyamory, which literally means “many loves.” Maria and I have had adventures—together and separately—that fall within each of these terms. But the words “polyamory” and “swinging” conjure some pretty grim imagery. That’s why Dr. Katherine Frank, author of Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, says that the younger people don’t necessarily use, want or need the labels that older generations used to describe various non-monogamous behavior. “[In my research] I’ve found lots of young people saying they “play” or “party” but who would never identify with those [other] labels,” says Frank, adding that many modern arrangements don’t fit neatly into time-honored pigeonholes anyway. “Those categories actually break down for every generation,” adds Frank. Sociologist Eric Anderson, Ph.D, agrees: “In my book The Monogamy Gap, I show undergraduates aren’t doing monogamy whilst saying they are.” (Incidentally, in my research I was gently chided for using the term “non-monogamy.” “It sounds a bit like the term ‘uncircumcised’,” said independent researcher Jono Poff. “It describes a default condition as marginal from the perspective of an imposed normative intervention.” Put another way, “non-monogamous” is a loaded label that implies that sexual monogamy is homo sapiens’ natural state of being. “Not so!” suggests oodles of research, most of our fellow animals and D.C. urologists.)
Early on, I realized that I actually enjoyed hearing the excruciating details of my wife’s sexual adventures.
6. So come on. [Hushed voice] How did you convince her to do that?
What makes you think it was my idea? Signing away the agency to guiltlessly indulge in one of life’s greatest pleasures seems bananas to me now, but when I met my wife almost seven years ago, that’s precisely what I was ready to do. Maria is fun as hell and smart as a whip. She has a smile that can light up a room and a bubble butt that has to be seen to be believed. When she took an unexpected shine to me, I was overcome by a primeval urge to lock her down right quick. She, on the other hand, was in no such hurry. Maria wanted to try a relationship that permitted her free reign to do anything—and anyone—she wanted.
7. Another guy’s … in your wife’s … Dude! How do you deal with that?
I’ll be honest with you. I used to be a very insecure, jealous person. When I met Maria, I was just growing out of that. I’d turned 30 and was beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin. But even so, her forthright request for an open relationship made me feel terribly uneasy; uneasy enough to ask her to table the idea until I was used to it. Then we got married, and I was certain that she and I were in it to win it. That feeling of security made it theoretically okay that she wanted to sleep with other people. When it happened months later, I barely felt a twinge. In fact, I really loved hearing about her experiences.
The word often used by people in non-monogamous relationships is “compersion.” Think of it as the opposite of jealousy.
8. What? You don’t have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy?
No. And as a rule of thumb, I don’t recommend applying failed and inhumane Department of Defense directives to romantic relationships. Early on, I realized that I actually enjoyed hearing the excruciating details of my wife’s sexual adventures. First, it turned me on. I liked seeing my wife as a sexual person who was free to act upon her instincts. After all, she was in that very mode when she got mixed up with me. Plus her lurid debriefing sessions are always a fascinating window into how other people have sex; insights that you simply can’t get from porn, Cosmo or the self-aggrandizing fictions your buddies will spout. I also got a lot of nonsexual enjoyment from seeing how much Maria was enjoying these auxiliary relationships – we rarely have one-night stands – and enjoying her sexual autonomy. The word often used by people in non-monogamous relationships is “compersion.” Think of it as the opposite of jealousy. Maria’s happy to hear the broad strokes of my adventures, though she’s not nearly as titillated by the blow-by-blow as I am. Oh well.
9. So neither of you get jealous? Come on!
It’s happened, though very occasionally and less as time goes on. It’s funny how much mental bandwidth I used to spend fretting over whether my girlfriends were fooling around with other guys. Now I celebrate my wife’s extramarital playtime with the same enthusiasm that I celebrate my own. When we quarrel, it’s about the most banal stuff, I assure you. Interestingly, a slew of research has shown that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships report higher levels of trust, honesty, intimacy and satisfaction, as well as lower levels of jealousy within their relationships than people in monogamous ones. But at root, here’s how I look at it: As partners, Maria is the best fit for me and I for her. However, we have different interests, preferences and sexual proclivities, and we’re on opposite sides of the country much of the time. So she has a boyfriend who actually enjoys bike rides in inclement weather. I have a girlfriend who doesn’t balk at the idea of binge-watching American Horror Story all weekend. It’s a relief not to feel pressured to meet or exceed your partner’s every requirement. Also, hooking up with other people is a fun way to realize why your main squeeze is your main squeeze. See, it’s sort of romantic, right?
10. Sort of. Surely these things don’t last.
Well, we’ve been together and open for six years. Most of the people I know who practice non-monogamy are still together too. There seems to be a perception that when a non-monogamous couple does split, their non-monogamy is the cause. I’m more inclined to think that if people could be more pragmatic about wanting to have sex with other people in some form or another, fewer couples would break up. I think that even addressing the reality that both of you will want to get down with other people may be all the openness you need to keep your relationship healthy.