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On Non-Monogamy: Do Open Relationships Work?

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Non-monogamy is about one thing—sex. And sex is good. And sex with different people—either concurrently or over the course of a lifetime—is good too. Sex is so good that some people are addicted to it. (Have you ever heard of someone being addicted to something that isn’t good for you? Addiction = bad.) Sex makes people do crazy things and it makes people feel amazing things. I love it just as much as anyone else, but there is more to life than sex.

I am pretty sure that the words on your deathbed won’t be “I wish I had had more sex with more people.” Maybe if you are a pervert, or if you didn’t get much action in your life, you would say that, but most people wouldn’t. Most people would say that they would have spent more time with their families, or that they wished they had worked less. They want more time with their wives, or they regret not pursuing a dream. Unless someone is being a smartass on his deathbed, he’s not going to even think about sex when his number’s up.

I live in San Francisco. Non-monogamy (or polyamory as it is called here) is a big topic in the city. It’s not just the gays talking about it; straight folks are into open relationships too. Polyamory is not just a straight, gay, queer, bi, or trans issue. Out here, everybody’s doing it. And if everyone is doing it here, then it’s probably already in or coming to a town near you.

Here’s the definition of monogamy:


1 archaic : the practice of marrying only once during a lifetime 2 : the state or custom of being married to one person at a time 3 : the condition or practice of having a single mate during a period of time

Notice anything? Right off the bat, Webster’s is linking monogamy to marriage, and they should, because monogamy comes from monos (alone, single) + gamos (marriage). Monogamy used to be about being with one person forever, and now it’s been updated to mean the state or “custom” of being married to one person at a time. The logical opposite of monogamy is polygamy, being married to more than one person at a time, and not very many people (publicly) support that.

So, then, what threatens monogamy? Certainly divorce, but what causes divorce? Lots of things, but the thing that I am concerned with most is—you guessed it—sex. More than anything else, sex with other people seems to violate the contract of marriage, and, in turn, monogamy. Sure, people still associate monogamy with marriage, but most people nowadays associate monogamy (or open relationships) with sex. And the majority of people also throw in love. If you love someone, you don’t have sex with someone else. If you are married, you don’t have sex with someone else. If you are monogamous, you don’t have sex with someone else. So, bottom line—love, sex, and marriage are all implicated in monogamy.

Look, I'm old-fashioned; I'm okay with it and not hiding it at all. I want the lifetime partner, “the one,” the soul mate. I want the house. I want the dogs. I want the kids. If I had a white picket fence…well as long as it doesn’t enclose a yard in the suburbs, I would smile every time I looked out my window.

But I am not an idiot. I am not waiting for the knight in shining armor to save me so we can ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. I know marriage takes work. It takes mind numbing, backbreaking work. Marriage is only a few words. It’s a promise that you won’t go anywhere, and you can’t. No matter what happens, you have to stick around. Well, that’s what it means to me.

Maybe not everyone is as old fashioned as me, and maybe there are many people who don’t want to get married, but I bet every person in the world who was offered a chance at true love would take it in a heartbeat and never let go. So why have some people given up on the possibility of being with one person forever, or at least at a time? Do we really believe monogamy is dead? Or impossible? Or is there something else going on here?

Our culture believes in love. Sure, people are getting divorced left and right, but we still believe in love. Love is in our stories, and our dreams. Love is in song and prose, in our poetry and art. It makes people feel more intense feelings than anything else does in this world, barring the feeling when you lose someone. But ever when you lose someone, the reason you hurt so much is because you loved him. Love is still the reason. Love is the reason for reasons.

So, again, San Francisco. A lot of people here try and fail at open relationships, just like they do in monogamous relationships. Some succeed. I hear stories all the time. One couple has been together ten years, and open in the last three years. Some couples break up and get back together over and over again. I know a woman who has two kids with her partner, and gets her “night out” every two weeks so she can hook up. I know a couple where the woman is permitted to sleep with other women, not men, just because they see that as something totally unrelated to their marriage. I know another woman who is in a relationship of over ten years, who talks longingly about the time her and her partner had their husband living with them. Apparently, they took him home one night, and he didn’t leave for two years. The three of them slept in a king size bed together.

But no matter what I hear, I still don’t see that any of them are actually happier than couples in monogamous relationships. And I don’t see them staying together longer than their monogamous counterparts. And even if a true-love-non-monogamy thing was possible, why would we even want it? If we see and believe the connection between sex and emotions and love, why would we want to toss it around so casually?

Again, love, people. We are obsessed with it. It’s everywhere, all the time. Everyone wants it. Love is beautiful, all we need is love, (insert the millions of sayings about love here), love is a much splendored thing. Not even death can stop true love, Wesley says in the classic and hilarious The Princess Bride. Death can only delay it. It is the only reason Wesley lives, and the only reason he is brought back from the dead. Love transcends everything. Even the Christians agree—God is love.

So, to sum up so far. Sex=emotions=love=beauty=the only reason=transcendence. But that line started with sex, and though sex can make you feel hella transcendent, it isn’t transcendence itself. If love is protected and respected for the amazing and beautiful thing it is, then we need to honor that, and doing Susie in the bathroom at Ruby Sky with Donna at home watching CSI is not honoring love. It is belittling it. It is diminishing it. It’s not cool.

But there are firm believers in open relationships. They say it keeps things fresh. They say it is realistic. They say it is honest and practical. They say they don’t believe in monogamy, and as long as you are honest with your partner, open relationships work. They say a million different things, but just about all of them say this: being non-monogamous is what keeps them together. This implies that without the joy of screwing other people, they would not be together. Basically, they are saying that they would leave each other if they couldn’t have sex with other people. If staying together is marriage=love, then how could fucking other people truly contribute to its sanctity?

Oh Amy, when I was going down on Trish the other night, I couldn’t help but think of our two-year anniversary party. Oh Michael, when you were at Scott’s party giving Ben a blowjob last weekend, I was just home thinking how great thing are going between us. Baby, when I was screwing Carla the other night, she started moaning just like you! Darling! I love you so much. Please use a condom, I am not so sure that I didn’t catch Rob’s Herpes. Sorry I’m so tired, Sweetie, that three-way last night really wore me out. We’ll talk about the vacation tomorrow.

How does this honor love and commitment to each other? If your life is dotted with random sexual partners while building a solid relationship, then what is your relationship really about? Is it precious? Is it fulfilling? Is it beautiful? Is it real?

What makes a relationship something that people want to hold onto? What makes it special? Intimacy with your partner? Shared goals? Sex? I think the thing that makes a relationship special is that you are with the person you love. It’s special because it is two people doing something together that they are not doing with anyone else. That’s what marriage is, and the reason we outlaw polygamy is to preserve the sanctity (specialness) of marriage (love and sex).

Why would you want to preserve something that isn’t special and beautiful anyway?

Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe because I am a woman, and have a hard time separating sex from emotion (love), I can’t possibly see the awesomeness of open relationships. And certainly, I want people to do what they want to do. I would never judge others for being non-monogamous, I just won’t date them.

I just feel—and it’s a gut feeling—that there’s something larger going on beneath the surface. It’s just a hunch, but I really think that it’s not monogamy that people don’t believe in. People who are into open relationships will tell you that they don’t believe in having sex with one person and that same person forever. But I don’t believe it. I think they don’t really believe in love, and I think they force themselves to deal with the thought of the person they love having sex with other people because they think that’s the only way to really hold onto their love.

I think what motivates people is often fear of loss or getting hurt, so they dumb down their relationships in order to protect themselves against pain. But people who do all they can to avoid pain, and I am often guilty of that myself, never truly get all the great feelings because they are constantly worried about the bad feelings. Pain and loss exist to make happiness and love feel even better.

If you don’t believe in “the one,” can you at least respect the one you are with right now enough to not sleep with everyone else? If non-monogamy is practical and “saves” relationships, then why do they break up just as often as monogamous couples do? If you are probably going to break up anyway, then why not at least have something special along the way? There is nothing you can do to avoid pain, so why not truly value joy while you have it?

Again, from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” And folks, I did not get paid to write this article. I work for love.





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