The Fact and Fiction of Open Relationships
Welcome to Elle Oh Elle, where Portland-based writer and entertainer Elle Stanger takes your sex life from subpar to subversive. Find more of her musings here.
You’ve heard it before. The words and phrases have probably escaped your lips: “happily ever after,” “together forever,” “the one,” “soulmate.”
Our culture raises people to expect a state of perpetually romantic monogamy from their partner.
Maybe blame Disney. With slight, and very recent, exceptions, the tales always center on a conflict between a beautiful protagonist and her handsome “true love.” Millions of us have been raised to think of no other outcome than “happily ever after” once we meet "the one."
Real life is not a fairy tale. The recent scandal involving cheater-website Ashley Madison shined a very hard spotlight on the fact that millions of Americans seek sex and affection outside of their nuptials. And people are finally faced with the notion that monogamy might not be a fail-safe lifestyle.
What happens after Cinderella starts working night shifts and her Prince feels neglected? What happens when Sleeping Beauty decides that she doesn’t want to have children, much to her Prince’s chagrin? What if Aladdin and Jasmine actually aren’t sexually compatible?
Maybe it’s time to consider non-monogamy.
What is non-monogamy?
There are a million ways to love, and “non-monogamy” is an umbrella term for a few other arrangements. Many of us have heard the term “swingers” before, although swinging implies sex without strings during party events, with or near our primary partner. “Polyamory,” which loosely translates to “many loves,” can mean maintaining more than one romantic relationship, to the extent that a household might contain a triad of partners, or more. I get asked about non-monogamy all of the time, and usually by women. That will happen when a lifestyle is shrouded in mystery and myth. Here are the biggest misconceptions.
Myth: Non-monogamous people are part of a wild lifestyle
Truth: Eh, maybe. I just cooked a big casserole and I’m sipping green tea as I type this on a Saturday night. However, last Wednesday I was asking my next-door neighbor to jump my bones, so I suppose it depends upon your definition of “wild.”
But really, non-monogamous people exist in all walks of life: the very educated, the soft-spoken, the restaurant tycoon, the kindergarten teacher, even. In all of my bedroom adventures, I’ve yet to find a correlation between the quality of a person’s character, and their sexual proclivities.
Myth: Non-monogamous people are “insecure” and need various people to fulfill them
Truth: Most Americans are insecure, because most of us aren’t honest with ourselves. Do you know how brave a woman must be to admit that she loves munching hairy man-butt? Or the teasing that attaches to any man who states that he likes to get pegged?
I prefer two partners, because I’ve yet to find someone who covers all of my bases. For example: James* and I will eat pizza and talk about work, light some candles, and have very vanilla sex. Matt* and I will engage in various role-play scenarios, and go hiking once in a while. Sasha* and I will drink wine and complain about our neighbors, cuddle and get down, and take our dogs to the park once a week.
All of these people are lightly aware of the others, and our various wants are fulfilled, while our independence remains intact. It does not mean that I don’t truly love James, or thrill Matt, or appreciate Sasha.
Myth: Non-monogamous people lack the discipline or self-control to be with one person
Truth: Quite the opposite, it takes a great deal of mindfulness and honesty to communicate with multiple partners.
Last week, Matt was peeling off the condom and dropping it in the trash while I made the bed. “I put the condom in the trash, I hope that is okay,” he said.
Pausing, I asked, “Where else would you put it?”
He faltered, “I just don’t know if anyone isn’t supposed to see it.”
Laughing, I felt zero weight on my shoulders when I told him, “I have nothing to hide, from anyone.” How many monogamous people feel that way?
Have you ever suddenly been ignored by the person you are dating? Or felt the sting when seeing that another person was texting them? Did you feel replaced? Abandoned? Rejected? People who practice non-monogamy strive to avoid those sour feelings.
Sex educator and author of The Ethical Slut, Janet Hardy, explained to 400 listeners in a packed theater last year, “Non-monogamous couples don’t make rules, they practice agreements.” Meaning, that a “rule” implies that one person has set a boundary for the other, whereas an “agreement” has been mutually reached. In order to avoid jealousy or anger, it behooves all adults to mindfully exercise honesty.
Myth: Non-monogamy destroys monogamy
Truth: Monogamy destroys monogamy.
Marriage statistics tell us that infidelity occurs in 30-60% of all American marriages. So why can we not accept that so many of us want to keep our current partner in the household, but to also engage in some recreational sexual escape?
To further explain, Dr. Chris Donaghue says, “Cheating is an expected state of every relationship. It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ ‘Cheating’ needs to be downgraded from a relational act of emotional violence to one form of many relational injuries to be expected from well-meaning flawed humans. Cheating doesn’t injure. How cheating is conceptualized and dealt with, does.”
Myth: Non-monogamous people have better sex
I love pizza. I could eat pizza three times a week. However, I also love Thai food, salads, steak, sushi, fruit... Keeping a balanced food diet satisfies my palate, and I’m usually up to try something new. Sex is similar. If you like to eat your partner, and only your partner, more power to you! However, I crave more than one flavor, and it is healthy for people to do so.
“The world would be a better place if all people treated sex like they treat food. As a commodity, which it is,” says Buster Ross, a LGBTQI counselor in Portland, OR.
Having varied likes is not the bereft of anyone else, and besides, I learned a new tongue trick from my secondary partner that my primary partner loves. Everyone is the happier! And no one is hurt.
So, is non-monogamy for you?
Are there motivators to open up your relationship? Are one or both of you away from home for long stretches of time? Are you sexually adventurous? Have you been together a long time and are both looking for something new? Does one of you have a health complication that limits sexual activity? There are limitless reasons that people find themselves wanting to responsibly seek out other sexual stimulation, without minimizing the closeness with their current partner.
My path to non-monogamy came after the birth of my daughter. I realized that my patient husband was sexually frustrated, because I hadn’t felt confident enough to have sex in months. After much conversation, I gave him the go-ahead to have a sex date with a mutual friend.
After he returned home (and showered), we hugged and giggled at our mutual delight. We realized that I had just given him the gift of pleasure, which turned out to be very arousing to both of us. My sex drive returned. And I’ve never looked back.
As for Jasmine and Aladdin, I like to think that she was banging Genie on the side, and Aladdin was fine with it. Cinderella filed for divorce after finding that Prince was perusing AshleyMadison.com. Sleeping Beauty fell in love with Snow White, and the Seven Dwarves maintained their orgies in the forest. The end.
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Elle Stanger is a mother, stripper, feminist, activist, and author who entertains the masses in Portland, OR. She holds two university degrees, neither of which she utilizes in a conventional fashion. She prefers organic food, dark beer, and self-actualized individuals. Don’t ask her about her tattoos; she’s run out of clever retorts. Find her online at EroticMusePDX.com.