Clopen Relationships: Love Advice from a Polyamorous Monogamist
I’m in an open relationship. I’m certainly not the only person in a non-monogamous relationship these days and my open status doesn’t score me nearly as many cool points as it once did nor is it as controversial as it once was. Everything I read about non-monogamy is like “Yay! So much sex! Whooopeeee! Nothing is hard!”. Meanwhile, poor little monogamy is written about like “Snooooooooze fest, I’m bored. Divorce says it’s not working anyway. And I am bored to literal tears”.
In my personal relational experience — including a failed marriage, several long-term monogamous relationships, some epically disastrous open relationships, and my current relationship which waffles between open and closed — I’ve found that these stereotypical storylines have left us with some expectations that could use some adjusting.
Non-Monogamy: You’re Doing It Wrong/That Shit’s Hard
Many have written compellingly about why humans are better suited to be non-monogamous and how to do it ethically. Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up is one example and is also my personal open relationship bible. I don’t need to re-write her theories here about the non-monogamist belief that one partner can’t meet all of our needs or how non-monogamy’s emphasis on consensual choice differentiates it from cheating. I want to talk about what it’s like to practice what writers like Taormino preach.
Sure, you read Taormino’s book and totally agree with her theories: I don’t own my partner! She’s her own person! Society can’t put me in a box! Then one night you find yourself at home, cleaning up dog vomit after a tough work shift while your girlfriend’s off with her other partner Hot Motorcycle Guy and, in your jealous, puppy-puke ridden mind, they couldn’t possibly be doing anything less than feeding each other expensive steaks before have simultaneous orgasms at sunset and suddenly monogamy starts looking real nice.
Yep, the most common pitfalls of open relationships exist in the big ol’ gap between people’s expectations of non-monogamy in theory and the hard reality of non-monogamy in practice:
Waiiiitttt, where’s all the sex?: Despite its most prevalent stereotype, non-monogamy is not all sex, sex, sex, but is actually mostly talk, talk, talk. Unlike with monogamy, there aren’t many predetermined rules of open relationships so you’ve gotta make your own.
Many do this by designing a “relationship contract,” a verbal or written understanding of agreed-upon relationship boundaries. At first, this sounds really fun and cool (and it is) but once you start considering one, two, ten other people’s wants, needs, insecurities, and boundaries, suddenly there’s not enough paper in the world to make an agreement long enough. Throw in post-date check-ins and multiple PMS schedules and you’ll find your mouth isn’t exactly being used for the things you were hoping for.
You’re not psychic: It’s crucial to get specific when building your relationships agreements (Who’s on/off limits? What activities are okay? Romantic dates? Just sex? Can you only have one-night stands, or can you date someone continuously? Will you kiss and tell or would you prefer ignorant bliss?) but you can’t predict the future.
Many newbie non-monogamists try to to build a contract by envisioning themselves in every possible scenario and conjuring up every possible emotional reaction. It’s impossible to prevent hurt and jealousy in any relationship, especially in an open one. Making your intentions clear and your agreements mutual and consensual is your strongest defense but feelings will get hurt. Be a compassionate and validating partner when they do.
Don’t deny Darwin: Similarly, you can’t predict how your romantic/sexual relationships are going to make you feel. Opening up your relationship with your partner with the promise that you’ll never develop loving feelings for another can lead to self-denial, confusion, and broken agreements. The evolution of desire is a natural and chemical part of human sexual interaction. Be willing to embrace change in your relationship(s) and agreements.
You can still cheat, and you still shouldn’t: Just because something’s “open” doesn’t mean anything goes. Relationship boundaries can still be violated and trust can still be broken. Don’t use openness to justify your shitty behavior.
Unlearn life lessons in limited love: Your seeing multiple people may sound great, but thinking about your partner(s) doing the same can be scary. It’s hard to shut off the nagging voice telling that you mustn’t be “enough” for your partner(s). Love and affection isn’t limited like a glass of water that can only be distributed to so many different vessels before drying up. But the fear that our partner’s love comes in limited quantities is real. Give yourself permission to voice your fears to yourself and your partner(s).
Jealousy sucks!: The free-loving poly community will sing the jealousy-fighting kumbaya of “compersion”, loosely defined as taking joy in your partner’s sexual and romantic relationships with others. Sounds great! But when your partner comes home glowing from a hot roll in the poly-hay with someone who isn’t you, jealousy can punch you in the gut and sometimes all of the positive reinforcement and patchouli incense in the world can’t fix it. Create self-care strategies to help ride it out and end any relationship whose jealousy isn’t balanced with happiness.
You can still get dumped: Non-monogamy’s indulgence of all your hard-ons and heart-ons can make for lots of sex, love, loving sex, sexy love and all the other terms you wanna slap on your sweet time with your sweeties. But multiple relationships also make for multiple occasions for heartache and heartbreak. Trying to patch up a hole left by one ex-partner with a current one doesn’t help, either.
Monogamy: You Can Still Be Progressive. Promise.
For the majority, monogamy is the cultural defacto; boy marries girl, boy never flirts at work or masturbates in the shower or even thinks about watching porn because girl is all boy will ever need. Somewhere in there there’s also 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. Defacto monogamy doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of non-monogamy. It was built on social constructions and is supported by laws involving tax breaks and idiots fighting against gay marriage. It’s notorious for ending in cheating, divorce, child custody battles and jealousy-induced violence.
Because monogamy is “just the way things go”, we rarely think about it as a specific relationship style that we can choose (or not) with its own positives and negatives. When explored in terms of what a couple wants, instead of what a couple should do, a closed relationship or “chosen monogamy” can be just as intentionally constructed and progressive as an open relationship. While phrases like “the old ball-n’-chain” put monogamy’s apparent drawbacks up front, monogamy has its perks:
Less time wasted with the green-eyed monster: Jealousy crops up in every relationship but it’s a larger, more persistent beast within open relationships. Constantly processing your value to your partner while they’re out on dates with others is emotionally draining. Save your jealousy for your best friend’s new car or your co-worker’s promotion instead.
More focused free time: Polyamory preaches that “love is limitless”. But time isn’t. Having one partner is high-maintainance enough. Once you’ve got multiple relationships the calendar really starts filling up. Imagine how much yoga, gardening, and sleep you could catch up on by having just the one.
It’s cost-effective: Having a weekly date night with three partners is just down-right pricey. Plus, if you love being spoiled, it’s nice having all of your partner’s resources instead of a measly third.
Less trips to the clinic! Monogamous sex isn’t inherently safer sex, however, having one partner does mean that there are less variables to consider in the safer-sex element of your life.
We heart stability: Humans are habitual creatures. We like to order the same double latte at the same cafe on Saturdays and sometimes we like to have the same person to have dinner, sex, and vacations with. Especially if you’re a busy professional, are dealing with personal or family illness, or just love alone time, you might have other priorities besides juggling multiple, moving pieces in your romantic/sexual sphere.
Choose Your Own Relationship Adventure
The truth is, all relationships — open, closed, or slightly ajar — have the potential to exist somewhere on the ever-sliding scale between totally blissed out and totally fucked up. While it’s easy to imagine an open relationship exploding into a tearful tornado of jealousy, self-doubt and hurled iPhones, anyone who’s ever been monogamous can certainly say the same.
Instead of blindly following the age-old monogamous screenplay laid out before us by our parents, movies, and tax structure, we can consciously commit to one person in a way that works for us, because we want to. Instead of being up on our “evolved” non-monogamous hipster high horses, unaccountably sleeping with half the town in the name of the New Age, let’s look at both open and closed relationships as two valid, messy, complex choices. Then, let’s make all of our relationship choices with a commitment to the happiness of ourselves and our partner(s), whether we’ve got one or one hundred.
Yana Tallon-Hicks (yanatallonhicks.com) is a pleasure-positive sex writer & educator living in Amherst, Ma. She geeks out about lube, practices often to achieve perfection, and just wants you to have an orgasm. Her written sexpertise has appeared in many national feminist & queer publications and can be found weekly in her sex column, the V-Spot, in the Valley Advocate.