Even if you indubitably know where you stand on the question of monogamy, you do know it’s An Issue — right? As the Facebookians say: It’s complicated, which may have more kinds of meaning than “I fool around on my partner” or “Looking for another relationship status designation here, the ones available to me don’t quite do it” or even simply “Polyamorous and proud”--but if it means something aside from fuzzy relationship talk, I don’t know what. And I don’t necessarily mean “warm and fuzzy,” though it can be that, too, with some practice.
Maybe you’re the monogamous type. Maybe you, flagrantly or sneakily, drunkenly or soberly, calmly or full of drama, forthrightly or guiltily, are not.
This last sentence is just a little taste of the many ways not sticking to one relationship can go — and you do know that the majority of people, and peoples, in the world do NOT all stick to one partner, one lifetime, right? Even in the hallowed halls of monogamy, serial monogamy is extremely common. In fact, some folks would argue it’s a struggling non-monogamist’s way of negotiating with the space/time continuum. The sexual variety you craved, one at a time rather than trying to stack ‘em up like cordwood.
In this society, probably more people sneak around or occasionally slip than are poly and proud; it may be more common to be drawn inexorably into an affair than to attend a swing party or one of those get-togethers like you saw in Short Bus. But it’s no more San Francisco than Boston to meet a cute new person and pretty much announce right away that you’re into open relationships; this is a bicoastal thing, I mean, and it’s way more midwestern than folks on the coasts might be aware. One of my friends calls it “Modern Love,” the ways people nowadays negotiate the complexities of relationship. Of course, if you do a little digging about the Bloomsbury Group (England, early 20th century), you’ll find it was modern then, too. One polyamory advocate is Deborah Anapol, who wrote a book about this particular open relationship style (in which one “loves many,” source of the term, and often configures into simultaneous relationships with more than one significant other); I heard her speak years ago and have repeated many times something she said: Some people may be naturally monogamous, others naturally not, “and it’s the mixed marriages that get into trouble.”
Well, yes. While it’s perfectly possibly to be a lying sneak who cheats on your honey, I don’t recommend that, nor do any of the open relationship advocates in their books, podcasts, and other modern communications sources. (I’ll recommend some of these in a bit, in case any of my readers want to get ready for their New Year’s resolutions.) Instead, just as we’d like to make sure Herman Cain understands, this and all other sexual options can be chosen consensually.
In other words, it’s nice to let people know what they’re in for and what your expectations and values (and sexual preferences, for that matter) are when you date and mate — and even nicer to choose partner/s who are in synch with you.
Of course, to do that, you have to know how you’re wired in the first place; this can take some trial and error.
Still, I know many people who have never succeeded in living monogamous lives but have been perfectly happy in open relationships (or single with some or many temporary or ongoing companions — that’s a variant that works well for some) who didn’t have to go through a period of monogamy to determine they weren’t cut out for it. They gravitated from the beginning to multiple partnerships, casual connections, or other variants of openness. I’m one of those people myself — never wanted monogamy, even though I found as a young woman that it was challenging to find the right partners and learn the requisite communications skills to make relationships go smoothly. (I note, though, that monogamous folks too have to learn coupling skills on their way to smooth sailing.)
As Christopher Ryan and Calcida Jethá, authors of Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, argue, all of these open relationship variants-- and even the sneaky-snake cheating version of the 21st century card-carrying Polyamorist lifestyle choice--may be much more historically common, natural, even hard-wired than the direction in which our Western mores and social science has pointed. Their book is an entertaining and exhaustive look at sex, reproductive advantage, frisky bonobos who tend to solve conflicts through erotic play rather than fighting, penis size, relationship configurations in traditional societies — way more fun than most science books, and very relevant to all questions of mating, monogamy, its many alternatives, and its long-term success rates.
Ryan was at the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco last month, with Good Vibrations as the kind sponsor. And I joined him and a group of people with a lot to say about “modern love” on November 9th, at a special shindig at SupperClub. Check out the stellar guest list!:
Christopher Ryan, author of Sex At Dawn
Carol Queen, co-founder Center For Sex & Culture
Reid Mihalko, sex and relationship expert
Marcia Baczynski, relationship coach, sex educator, author, Asking for What You Want
Polly Pandemonium, founder of Kinky Salon
Sara Kiss, hostess Club Kiss
Philippe Lewis and Jocelyn Agloro, co-founder Club Exotica
Wendy-O Matik, author of Redefining our Relationships: Guidelines for Responsible Open Relationships
We had a Dossie Easton sighting too (psychotherapist and author of The Ethical Slut)!
I know many readers are Boston-area residents who cannot commute to San Francisco for such gigs, and at this point, going back in time is also a challenge for all but the post-doc MIT students in my readership. For everybody else, a reading list! I’m working on something too, based on my Oxford Union debate a couple of years ago (“This House believes that promiscuity is a virtue, not a vice”) — I’ll let you in on some of my arguments in a future post, not that I am urging YOU to be promiscuous, since you might be one of those people who’s cut out to be monogamous. And I’ll give you this — even one relationship takes time: multiple ones? Invest in a good smartphone, because you will certainly need the calendar function.
Here’s your additional booklist, open relationship-curious reader:
Dossie Easton, The Ethical Slut
Jenny Block, Open: My Life in an Open Marriage
Tristan Taormino, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships
Deborah Anapol, Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits
And brand-new: Kathy Labriola, Love in Abundance: A Counselor’s Advice on Open Relationships