Being in an open marriage is a lot like being on fire, insofar as everybody who finds out about it immediately feels the need to tell you you’re in grave danger. The assumption is generally that you have no idea what you’re doing, that you haven’t really thought about the implications (“What about kids? STDs? Jealousy?”), and that the life you’ve been living for the past 8 ½ years must be incredibly stressful, constantly unraveling, and/or taking a brutal toll on your self-esteem.
I recently listened to an interview I did for a podcast on this very topic. As the host rattled off her questions, which seem to be everybody’s questions, I came to realize that the openness of my relationship with my husband isn’t just a good thing; it’s also not really a source of stress or conflict in our lives. We obviously have our problems, like our divergent planning styles or our different ways of managing money. But we don’t hash out the details of hooking up with other people with any real regularity. It’s like if somebody were to ask, “What about the laundry? Do you do the laundry? Does he ever do the laundry? What if he does the laundry in a way you don’t like? What if you come home and find him doing the laundry when you didn’t know he was going to be doing the laundry? Do you fight about laundry? Have you ever thought about stopping doing laundry altogether, like when you have kids?” Um. No. No, it’s not really a problem. It’s not like that.
Here’s what it is like: I’m married to and live with my best friend. We cook for one another, laugh hysterically together, and have tons of sex, the vast majority of which involves just we two. Occasionally, one or both of us might make out with or even go to bed with somebody else. When this happens, communication is clear, standard precautions are taken (you know, like the ones single people use), and a good time is generally had by all. I have no doubt that we are committed to each other, because we’re building a life together. Could he fall in love with somebody else? Sure, but our non-monogamous status doesn’t have much of an effect on that fact. He could also decide to run away and join the circus. There are no guarantees in life.
I think the most bizarre thing about monogamy to me is how often sexual exclusivity serves as a proxy for a real commitment. “Yeah, we’re together, I guess, because I’m not doing it with anybody else.” And the illusion that a monogamous commitment somehow makes a relationship more secure seems upended by the disruptive, obsessive, guilt-ridden emotions a monogamous person feels when he or she is (inevitably) attracted to somebody other than his or her partner.
My tone tends to be somber and straightforward when I talk about this topic, mostly because I don’t want to sound like I’m sensationalizing it. (Even though it’s the fu-king best. Seriously.) I’ve spoken to close friends who are sure monogamy is right for them, and I’m convinced they can pull it off, that they know what they’re doing. But most people I talk to fear non-monogamy because they’re afraid of their own insecurity, their own jealousy. And in truth there’s a pretty strong non-attachment practice built into it. In all the ways society tells me I’m supposed to own my husband, the fact is I simply do not. Does it always feel super easy? No. But it always feels true.
I’m a huge fan of the Sex and the City television series. The movies, not so much. But I always think about the second film (“Samantha Rides a Camel,” as my husband and James Wolcott both call it) and how it deals with marital non-monogamy the same way I Love Lucy deals with women working outside the home. The idea gets raised, some blundering version thereof ensues, and in the end everybody’s happy and relieved to return to the status quo. Phew! That was close! We almost had to question our assumptions and jettison a system that doesn’t work for everyone, but in the end we all chose to be normal instead! I’m sure glad that’s over!
Based on all of the casual ignorance I absorb from people who know about my relationship, I can understand why a lot of people who are in open or non-monogamous relationships remain closeted about it. But I was raised in a closeted gay household; I wasn’t allowed to talk about my mother’s relationship to her female partner with anyone. As a result of that, I’m very anti-closet in my own life, and I believe that being open and honest is the best way to challenge negative stereotypes of unconventional marriages like mine.
I met my husband when I was 22. If I felt at the time that I would have to spend the rest of my life having sex with him and only him, I wouldn’t have married him. I would’ve gone out into the world and gallivanted around until I felt like all the sex was out of my system, and I would’ve missed out on sharing my life with the best human being on planet Earth. But in our relationship, we don’t have to get anything out of our systems. Our sex drives are allowed to stick around, to accompany us throughout life, to remain a part of our individual personalities as well as our relationship as a couple. So in that way, I guess we are on fire. But please, don’t assume that we need to be doused.