In my previous blog entry, "Here Is Conflict: Why Nature Has Us At Odds With Ourselves," I unpacked the sociological and evolutionary reasons we so often end up forming monogamous relationships and then cheating on them. Essentially, we are programmed to pairbond, and then to stray. My hero Dr. Helen Fisher explains in her book The Anatomy of Love that throughout human development, cheaters were naturally selected. Humans who possessed the ability to spread their genes widely without getting caught, thereby avoiding ostracization from their societies due to their violations of its moral strictures, were likely to produce the most offspring and to genetically pass on their abilities of amorous deception. With the agricultural revolution and its culture of ownership more or less developing into today's normative mores of monogamy and marriage, we as a culture have evolved ourselves into an unsolvable puzzle.
My previous blog entry was rather depressing. But in some ways the information I discovered was also very freeing, because to me it demonstrates that the failure of so many monogamous relationships is not to be blamed on the individuals who comprised them. We have so many biological odds stacked against us -- and so much of our culture miseducating us -- that it's no wonder that most people enter into relationships blindly and with unrealistic expectations.
But I decided it's not enough to merely tell you guys we're all fucked, because as a so-called relationship "expert" (I put "expert" in quotes every time I write it -- I even put it in air-quotes when I say it -- because we all suck at these things and the only way that I'm different is that I'm good at articulating what has and has not worked for me), I consider it my responsibility to be a part of the solution. I may not have all the answers, but I'm definitely not going to give up on finding them.
I decided to start thinking about what would happen if we took the unrealistic expectation of eternal monogamy out of our pairbondings. The trouble is, however, that I've been in open relationships before, and they haven't always functioned merely as a result of removing monogamy from the equation. I once dated a man who, less than an hour after I'd been mugged, said he had to run back to his apartment instead of staying with me because (as I later found out) he had another woman waiting for him there. I dated another man who tried to sneak-text another girl he was attracted to while he was in bed with me -- and not in a sexy "hey watch me seduce this girl" kind of way, but in a douchey "I don't need you, I have other people I like" kind of way. Monogamy may be an inherently flawed approach, but nonmonogamy isn't a silver bullet either. So what are the key factors in making a relationship work?
I went out this weekend and interviewed three couples whom I knew to be in successful, happy, open relationships. I asked them to tell me about the structures of their relationships, how they avoided typical pitfalls, and the basic guidelines they would prescribe to other couples who might want to model their own relationships after them.
I'm not going to go around saying I solved the problem of our sucky evolutionary biology, but I am going to offer you here what seem like a few viable alternatives to monogamy when monogamy is so difficult to sustain, alternatives which do not sacrifice relationship essentials such as love, loyalty, and trust. You can thank me later.
Matt & Rachel
I'd met Matt and Rachel a couple times, but when a mutual friend described their relationship as one of the only functional open relationships she'd ever seen, I asked if they would talk about themselves with me over lunch. They've been together for twelve years and married for six, and they define themselves as polyamorous. When I asked them what they felt the difference between polyamory and nonmonogamy was, they said essentially it's an attitude of love and emotional connection that they extend to their other lovers, and a culture of inclusion, honesty, and communication in their relationship with each other. They said they're not looking for their partnership to be a free-for-all, and that polyamory seems a more fitting word for the presence of emotion they sustain with one another.
One of the first things they mentioned as a key to their happiness was the word "compersion." (I've linked to its Wikipedia entry for you here because I'd never heard of it either.) They defined it as the opposite of jealousy, of the feeling of joy one has in seeing a partner happy, whether it means they're happy going out playing a round of golf or happy going on a date with another person. I asked how they prevented jealousy, and they said they do it by checking in with each other. They never see other people behind each other's backs, always let each other know what they're up to, and make sure that their partnership is always their main priority. Each partner has a "veto" if they truly need the other to choose not to pursue a course of action. Their "secondaries," as they referred to them, must never come before their primaries. They even mentioned needing to manage the expectations of their secondaries, as they care about them and don't want to see them getting hurt either.
Rachel went further in unpacking the benefits of an open relationship. (Even beyond my simplistic but important justification of "the other way doesn't work.") She cited how many women don't reach their sexual peak until their early 30s, and how limiting it would be to experience the sexual exploration of those years with only one partner.
"How can you expect to be everything to someone all of the time?" she posed. "How can you expect to meet someone's every need and be happy about that?"
Matt noted the fact that he was out to lunch with three beautiful women (Rachel, myself, and the mutual friend who set us up), and that even regardless of the sexual component, how could he not be thrilled to live a life where he could be free to have such great people around and not have a partner feel jealous about it?
I asked them how they might prescribe their structure to other people looking to model a relationship after theirs. They gave me some key tenets.
- Always treat your partner as your priority.
- Check in with one another to promote honesty and communication.
- If your partner has an objection to something you're doing, trust their judgment and that they're looking out for your best interests, not that they're doing it out of possessiveness.
- Understand that your partner's attraction to someone else does not mean they're less attracted to you.
- Allow your partner to be an autonomous individual and trust them to go about their life.
I could see visibly how happy Matt and Rachel are with each other. I also couldn't help but think that their relationship structure required a certain enlightened attitude in both partners, an attitude they both possess but which is pretty rare among most people. I remember being in a place of insecurity and jealousy myself a few years ago, and thinking that at that point in my life, trying their relationship structure would have scared the shit out of me. I wouldn't be surprised if many people who are as secure as they are in themselves and in each other would probably have a pretty great relationship regardless of its rules.
Lawrence & Leah
Later that day, I met up for drinks with Lawrence and Leah, two friends from Santa Monica I'd met last month. They've been together for five years. Leah and I had talked about their relationship before, and I had found it an enviable configuration. I asked whether they identified as polyamorous or nonmonogamous, since it had seemed to be an important distinction to Matt and Rachel, and they told me that they chose not to label their relationship since so many schools of thought that fall under those labels try to foist their own rules on others.
The first precept that came up as foundation of their relationship was to treat each other like adults and trust in one another to make their own decisions.
"I will never ask you to change your behavior, because your behavior is your behavior," Leah said. "I will either learn to adapt, or I will leave."
"I consider it my responsibility to manage my emotions," Lawrence added. "Whatever you're pursuing is feeding you in some way, and I trust you to know what's best for you."
"Like, follow your bliss?" I asked.
"Like follow your dopamine," he answered in a reply that could have easily been on the other side of a phone sex call for someone like me.
They distinctly do not have the veto function that Matt and Rachel have. They don't ask each other's permission, but they do check in with one another to stay connected. I asked if they told each other about their other encounters or purposefully kept them hidden, and they said they maintained a middle ground. There were no secrets, but they didn't feel the need for full disclosure either.
I asked if jealousy ever came into the equation and how they dealt with it. Leah told me that for the first two years they were together she felt a fear of being lied to, but she learned to trust Lawrence's intentions in time. She also once told me she stopped looking at his Facebook because she didn't need to stress herself out worrying how many other women might be pursuing him. Again, they both mentioned the importance of treating one another as a priority, managing the expectations of your secondaries, and being happy for your partner's happiness.
"I have an amazing woman," Lawrence said, "and I believe others should be able to experience her if they both want. Why wouldn't I want to share that with other people?"
Their basic relationship tenets are:
- Treat your partner like an adult and trust them to know what's best for themselves.
- Don't parent your partner or make them ask for your permission every time they want to do something, but don't keep secrets on purpose either.
- Trust each other's intentions.
- Always treat each other as the priority.
- Be happy for your partner's happiness.
Lawrence and Leah also struck me as being particularly enlightened. Again, I wasn't sure that I wouldn't have found their ideas threatening in my early 20s, and wondered if the success of their relationship didn't rest on their degree of security in themselves.
Mick & Bianca
I met with Mick and Bianca the following night at a bar where they dj together once a week. They've been together for a year and a half, and I had met them through my social circle where they had been forthcoming about the nature of their relationship. I asked them if they felt their relationship was best defined as polyamorous or nonmonogamous, or as something else.
"I don't know, modern?" Mick replied. "We're not technically open, but I guess you could call us nonmonogamous." I asked them how they came about having this relationship structure.
"Well, because Mick doesn't have tits and a vagina," Bianca giggled into her Jack & Coke. They explained to me that Bianca's bisexuality was the impetus behind their relationship and that Mick certainly hadn't objected to their having other women. They did mention that there are no other men who factor in their relationship. I asked if Bianca was ever tempted by other men, but she affirmed that she wasn't.
Mick stressed the importance of having some rules to play by. "I insisted we have them, because I didn't want to fuck up a great thing. So I figure I better stick by them because I'm the one who made them." They told me that they don't ever sleep with strangers, that they get to know a person before they invite them into their relationship. I asked where they drew the line with when a person went from stranger to trusted partner, as it seemed there could be a lot of grey area in between. They told me that it's a case-by-case basis, but that as a rule they always sleep with a new person together the first time. After that, they generally trust each other to be with them as individuals, but they emphasized that that's on a case-by-case basis as well.
Mick's previous relationship was an open one of the non-functional variety. He confided that his ex couldn't get over her jealousy. When she asked for a don't-ask-don't-tell policy, Mick obliged, but six months later she wanted to ask and tell, and was upset when she found out. This seems an obvious bad ending to avoid setting yourself up for. Mick expressed how happy he is at Bianca's security in herself, that she knows she's always his number one.
Their basic relationship tenets are:
- Always treat your partner as your priority.
- Always bring in a new secondary together for the first time (all secondaries are female).
- Check in with your partner to allow individual encounters on a case-by-case basis.
- Make sure you get to know and trust your secondaries before bringing them in.
- Trust in your partner and don't be threatened by their attraction to other people.
Mick and Bianca don't have quite as open a relationship as Matt and Rachel or Lawrence and Leah do, and obviously for a relationship like this to work, the female partner must be bisexual, or else by having other women involved and no men she would likely feel she was getting an unfair deal. I noticed that their structure was more distinct than those of the other two couples I interviewed; their rules, more definite and less spiritual. But they too stressed the most of the same values.
* * *
In all three couples I interviewed, the overarcing themes were treating your partner as the priority, being secure in yourself and in the relationship, desiring your partner's happiness, and trusting your partner's judgment and intentions. These are all great things and should not be confined to alternative relationships. It's even possible that the success of the open relationships I've encountered is due not so much to their openness as to the enlightened character necessary to be secure in an open relationship. Perhaps the success of the three relationships above is correlative rather than causative.
Oh, and for the record, all three couples also stressed to me that no matter what other circumstances they would absolutely stay the night with their partner if they'd been mugged, and that they would never try to sneak-text a potential lover while in bed with their primary. (I made a point of asking. Hey, what's the point of having a writing project if I can't somehow justify my righteousness with it in some way or another?)
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
I found it very interesting that none of the three couples I interviewed subscribed to the don't-ask-don't-tell policy that seems so popular in the theory of open relationships. It's popular enough that I feel compelled to dedicate a section to it in this blog entry, but since none of the couples I interviewed fell into that category (maybe by virtue of "don't ask, don't tell" a couple wouldn't be able to talk to me about it?), I did a little research on my own.
One person I did speak to who subscribes to that approach is Guy Blews, author of Marriage and How To Avoid It. I'm not sure it's de rigueur for every relationship he has, but when we met up for dinner last month, he said it applied to his current one.
I asked him if his relationship was an open one, and he paused.
"That means it's not," I quickly commented.
"Well, it's like this," he explained. "She asked me if I would tell her about the other women I get involved with, and I said, 'No, I won't.' And then we dropped it."
Guy, for the record, said that if his girlfriend had been mugged while another woman was waiting for him at his apartment, he would have told her, "Hold on, honey, I need to run back to my apartment because I had a few friends over and I have to see them out, but I will be back to you in less than half an hour and will stay with you til you feel safe." He would have lied to protect her from a reality she didn't want to know about, but he would have still treated her as his priority. "The other women in your life have to know about your girlfriend, and they have to know that they'll always come second to her. If they can't live with that, then the situation isn't right for them."
Elaine Sciolino's book La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life includes a list of precepts written by a Frenchman for "the unfaithful but loyal husband." I'm including it here as a photo since I am way too lazy to type it all out myself, but it does seem to represent a surprisingly honorable approach to the DADT method of open relationships.
I'm assuming this set of rules was written as instruction for a marriage in which the other partner actually has no idea that an affair is going on. I can't conscientiously condone nonconsensual nonmonogamy, since each partner in a relationship should know exactly what they signed up for. But since it was designed for a situation in which the stakes of discovery are even higher, it seems like a good code to apply to ethical, consensual relationship DADT. After all, in that relationship structure, it's not only important that you not tell your partner about your affairs, it's just as important that they don't find out through other means.
Basically in the honorable version of DADT, the principles of always treating your partner like the priority, being secure in yourself and in the relationship, and desiring your partner's happiness still seem to mostly apply, but honesty, communication, and trust get a little bit fudged. Perhaps there's trust inherently built in: you are trusting your partner to do what they want to do on their own time and trusting that they are not going to do anything that impedes the relationship's ability to function.
* * *
Can I vouch that any of this works? Of course not; I've never consciously tested any of the structures myself. Honestly the only thing I can personally vouch for is that being in a relationship where your partner doesn't treat you as the priority really sucks, whether it's monogamous or not. But the couples I talked to all seem genuinely happy and in love with one another.
My goal in this blog entry is to offer you a few different relationship models so you can see that the normative, monogamous, marriage-oriented relationship is not the only way of going about things. Perhaps something here will resonate with you and you'll try it out with your next lover. If you do, write to me and let me know how it goes.
Before I sum up, I'll add one thing more. All of the women I spoke with were beautiful -- not just genetically, but also in keeping up their grooming and appearance. Their looks were each different -- Rachel sported blonde curls and a sundress, Leah wore heels and a black cocktail dress, and Bianca had fire-engine red hair and fishnet stockings -- but they each put effort in. The men were sexy too. I noticed as a distinct pattern that each person in each relationship maintained a well-groomed, attractive appearance. This goes back to a principle that I wrote about in this blog entry nearly two years ago, where I stated that one of the benefits of non-monogamy is that it forces each partner to actively work on the relationship:
"In a non-monogamous situation, we are aware that we must constantly strive to earn our partner's commitment, and it makes us better at being in the relationship. We wake up every day knowing that we owe it to our partner to be their best option, just as much today as the day we first won them, and we have the confidence to know that our partner is spending his time with us because he chooses to, not because his word obligates him to it."
The amount of vibrant glow I saw coming from each person I interviewed is rare amongst most people I know. I can't say if it came from actively continuing to seduce their partners, from the freedom they felt in getting to explore other lovers, or if it's just that it takes a remarkable kind of person to sustain a successful open relationship in the first place, but their positive energy was palpable, and they were all incredibly attractive in ways that do not depend on genetics alone.
And as I see it, the energy that comes from that kind of happiness is alone an enviable reason to give something like this a shot.