Why are People So Threatened by Open Relationships?

open relationship


 got married recently. The wedding was, if I may say so myself, almost criminally perfect. There was very good wine and everyone cried. I spoke about luck in my vows — the luck that webbed its way between us, that brought us to the same place at the same time — but I could, I suppose, have also been talking about the luck that allows us to speak freely about our love, to express it in a way that raises few eyebrows. We are a monogamous, heterosexual couple, and despite our racial differences (my husband is Indian, and I am a ghost), our relationship looks and feels like one that mainstream society can easily understand.

There was another lovely wedding I attended a few years back. Electric blue fish darted around glass bowls on each table, and both my friend and her soon-to-be husband were surrounded by their loved ones — loved ones that included their secondary and tertiary partners. Theirs is a mostly closeted, consensually non-monogamous relationship, each of them engaging in at least one, often many, romantic and sexual relationships alongside their own. They now have a beautiful baby who recently learned how to eat broccoli one tiny flower at a time.

We’re both ordinary and in love, my friend and I, but I get to talk about my love more freely than she does, and when I tried to explain their arrangement to another friend, that friend (also married, generally very loving and accepting) protested the very idea of non-monogamy so violently that she burst into tears.

All of this is to say that romantic love is wild and varied and looks very different to different people, but consensual non-monogamy — a relationship in which one or both partners carry on other romantic and/or sexual relationships with the full knowledge and consent of the primary partner — remains a marginalized and stigmatized form of love, filed away by many as an incomprehensible kink, disrupting mainstream society’s understanding of what a loving relationship should look like.

While exact numbers are difficult to pin down (especially since many are hesitant to reveal their relationship status), researchers estimate that “4-5 percent of Americans participate in some form of ethical non-monogamy” — and those numbers are growing. Yet two recent studies revealed that the majority of Americans view non-monogamous relationships significantly worse than monogamous ones when it comes to trust, intimacy, respect, honesty and closeness; another showed that consensually non-monogamous relationships (CNMs) were perceived as “dirty” and “immoral.” It seems an odd hill to die on when you consider that a survey of 70,000 Americans found that one in five had cheated on his or her current partner. Monogamy is somehow both a necessary virtue and one that many people struggle to uphold; remove it from the equation entirely, however, and the relationship gets tagged as obscene. So why is society so threatened by non-monogamy?

“These days, if you have two temporary relationships sequentially, you are normal. If you have two permanent relationships simultaneously, you are a ‘degenerate, herpes-infested whore.’” Those are the words of philosopher Carrie Jenkins, who has written openly about her polyamorous marriage. She’s become accustomed, if not inured to, the abuse lobbed at her, her husband and her boyfriend. In her book What Love Is: And What it Could Be, she investigates the shifting nature of romantic love and the various arguments for and against monogamy.

“Non-monogamous love,” she writes, “poses distinctive destabilizing risks that strike directly at the heart of romantic love’s social function.” Many of us are incapable of conceiving of a model of love that so assertively deviates from that which places the nuclear family at its center; this makes poly love, according to surveys, the subject of more vitriol than same-sex or interracial marriage.

Sharon Glassburn, a family and marriage therapist in Chicago, believes some of her poly clients are “more stigmatized and closeted” than some of her gay and lesbian clients. “These relationships smash apart false securities and binaries,” she says — the societal rules we depend on to create a structure in which we can feel secure.

For Laura, 34, getting involved with a married man in a CNM meant confronting her friends’ attitudes. “The people who were usually rooting for me and checking in about my relationship status were suddenly absent,” she told me. “My married friends, who love living vicariously through my single girl life, were completely silent. When we did talk about it, they just seemed very confused, projecting their own understandings and arrangements around fidelity onto the situation. There was a lot of, ‘I just can’t understand how that would work,’ or ‘I would never want something like that.’” Laura’s own reservations lessened dramatically when she met her partner’s wife.

“It was clear to me how much his wife’s opinion of me mattered to him,” she says. “We met for a drink near their house, and afterward she gushed about how much she liked me. I could see the change in him immediately. He was almost giddy. He became much more sweet and excited about our relationship. It was almost as if her approval made him like me even more.” This openness, and the clear respect he had for his wife, brought him and Laura closer.

Their meeting also refuted what Laura’s friends had been telling her — that this dude was clearly lying about his wife’s feelings; that he had been the one to instigate opening the relationship; that his wife was “the long-suffering one, alone and insecure.” In Susan Dominus’ lengthy 2017 New York Times piece on CNM, only six of the 25 heterosexual couples she interviewed were opened up at the man’s suggestion, and, in general, the women were more sexually active outside the relationship. This is supported by a 2012 study of 4,062 poly-identifying individuals: 49.5 percent of respondents identified as female, and 35.4 percent identified as male (the remaining 15.1 percent either declined to choose or wrote in other genders).

The fact that more women appear to be both the instigators of and the more active participants in CNM is counter to traditional beliefs about gender divisions, an understanding that has itself been shaped by centuries of conditioning about the position of women as child-bearers and homemakers. Esther Perel’s work draws on studies that demonstrate that women are not, in fact, biologically conditioned for monogamy: They are much more likely than men to experience a loss of sexual desire in long-term relationships and are more aroused by novelty than men. And while the historical conception of polyamory tends to be that of a polygamous structure in which men are religiously or culturally empowered to take multiple wives (leading many to feel that poly relationships privilege men), many of the earliest proponents of contemporary non-monogamy (such as philosopher Bertrand Russell) believed CNM would destabilize traditional patriarchal relationships, which he believed were created to give men reproductive control over women.

Erica and her partner were monogamous for eight years before she began dating another woman. She had been clear with him since the beginning about her queer identity, and “it was always on the table that I might feel the need to explore that someday in the future.” His ability to accept that possibility, she says, was one of the reasons she felt comfortable choosing him as a partner.

“I tried very hard to accept the societal standard of ‘mating for life,’” she tells me, “and it caused me a lot of stress. Investigating the religious and biological background of the idea made me feel even more like it was not what I wanted. Unlearning the unfair ideals that society sets up for women and the ideas about love that are taught to us from birth is a huge challenge, one that I am constantly working towards.”

Their marriage has evolved since they embraced nonmonogamy. “I think we both feel a lot more independent and able to express our needs in respectful ways. It has become more important to see each other as individual people, rather than place expectations on each other as romantic partners,” she says. “He has other partners, romantic and sexual, and tends to have involved relationships with women that last a long time. I have found that I am more of a free spirit. This has allowed me to really strengthen some of the other types of relationships in my life and explore new ways to connect with people outside of the realm of what is considered dating. Our intent has always been to make strong personal connections and have more loving relationships with people. If sexual connections happen, great, but it’s not the main goal.”

And while they have been open with their friends and family about their relationship dynamic, they’ve faced skepticism. “My family’s reaction was somewhere along the lines of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ though they made sure to let me know that this did not align with their religious beliefs,” she says. “Some of my husband’s male friends reacted with a sort of, ‘Hey, now you get to sleep with whoever you want!’ kind of attitude, which is really not what he wanted from this change at all.”

Erica and her husband are, for the time being, “platonic partners,” no longer sexually involved with each other. She’s unequivocal in her belief that an open marriage was the right decision. “It makes me very happy to see my partner grow as a person, be better able to express himself and to feel more confident. I feel like I have also grown and become happier, and learned a lot about myself. The duality of having your own independent self-worth, and also the ability and freedom to explore your own needs and desires in turn, gives you a sense of security that I think a lot of monogamous couples lack.”

So what’s so scary about that?

“I think it comes down largely to the science of human attachment,” says Sharon Glassburn. Romantic bonds — their inherent vulnerabilities and the intensity of emotion they involve — draw on primal feelings of safety and trust, and yet the structures society has created to shore those up (monogamy, marriage) are neither biologically- nor historically-informed. “Permanent monogamy” is unique to both our species and our cultural moment. Additionally, says Sharon, most people don’t make it through their 20s or 30s without encountering infidelity, either by experiencing it themselves or watching it destroy other relationships. “The idea of non-monogamy summons a very visceral and protective response, not to mention a PTSD response if prior infidelities were in the equation,” she says. “These protective or trauma responses put us in our ‘lizard brains’” and make imagining a relationship structure in which our partner doesn’t solely belong to us entirely difficult and frightening.

“Nearly everyone has feelings for other people,” says Sharon, “but an open or non-monogamous structure brings repressed or suppressed feelings up that some folks would rather compartmentalize.”

Erica agrees: “I think jealousy comes from fear and insecurity, and people would rather project that onto others than face what they are really afraid of.” In fact, studies have found that people in CNM relationships experience lower jealousy, higher trust and higher sexual satisfaction with their partners. Which is not to say that non-monogamy is for everyone, but rather that those who have found it right for them have found something very good indeed.

Interrogate each of the arguments against CNM (the high rates of infidelity and divorce in monogamous couples; the research demonstrating a wide-ranging social community leads to greater happiness and a longer life; the fact that a collective approach to child-rearing has historically been the primary model of family-building) and it begins to seem as if a fear-based moralizing is at the heart of why those committed to the current model of monogamy are so bewildered by or opposed to poly relationships. But if “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love” — why not be greedy for more of it? After all, no one can reasonably argue that having more than one friend diminishes the love you’re capable of giving each. Why can’t the same be applied to relationships?

The truth is, partnership is tenuous, and the current prevailing model was constructed only after thousands of years of different examples, most completely unrelated to a modern understanding of Western marriage, and which for a long time excluded interracial and queer couples. My in-laws, together over 45 years, were brought together by their families in an arranged marriage, and their version of partnership, love and happiness is very different than my own. They have raised two children and still hold hands when walking over uneven terrain; who’s to say their love is less than mine or yours? Who’s to say that any love isn’t worthy of awe?

When my now-husband and I were in our early days, I told him I’d been cheated on in the past and that infidelity was, for me, a deal-breaker. While I have no desire to bring non-monogamy into our marriage as it is now (after 5+ years of online dating, I want only one man, one contractually obligated to listen to my weird dreams), I want, above all else, a marriage that thrives on honesty. And to me, being honest requires acknowledging the very real possibility that at some point in our (hopefully long) life together, one of us will want something that the other person can’t give. When that happens, I told him, I want there to be a window, not a door: a space through which we can look, together, at another shape our relationship could assume. Accepting that possibility means being excited about, and not threatened by, the mutability of love, its expansiveness and strength.

Illustrations by Cynthia Merhej. 

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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