I think most of our friends have known this for a while now, but it’s time to come out with it for various reasons: My partner Nicole and I have had a wonderful, strong, hilarious, subversive, and tremendously loving marriage for almost eight years, and the last three of those have been ethically non-monogamous.
One of the most difficult parts of being in an open marriage / ethically non-monogamous / polyamorous situation is that when we are out with other people, and we happen to run into someone we know but not well enough to know our situation: yeah, people might assume we’re cheaters. If we flirt with others, or date others, or travel with others, people wonder and ask if “things are okay”.
The reason it’s important to come out with this and open the floor for discussion is that open marriages, polyamory, and ethical non-monogamy need to be normalized and accepted by society at large, and the more visibility that this paradigm gets, the less troublesome it will be for those who decide to open their marriages.
One of the more difficult parts of having a “secret” non-monogamous marriage is that it can have a truly negative effect on one’s personal and professional relationships. If the people you work with think you’re a cheater, that could have a direct effect on your career progression or prospects. It can also affect friendships and create awkward and tense social situations. This is why one of the first places I ever came out with this is at work, before many of our friends even knew. Luckily, my company has internal groups for alternative lifestyles, and I was able to connect with others who were also poly or ethically non-monogamous in their relationships, which makes normalization at work easier (strength in numbers!).
Before we break it down further, though, let’s talk some terminology:
“Open Marriage” is mostly about sex: in a traditional open marriage, each partner is free to have sexual relationships with other people outside of the bounds of the marriage without guilt or jealousy. A lot of older people may call this “swinging”, which is still a term that some people use.
“Ethical Non-Monogamy” is more encompassing; each partner is free to have sexual and romantic relationships with other people outside of the bounds of marriage without guilt or jealousy.
“Polyamory” is a relationship paradigm in which multiple people may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other in a mutual, consensual fashion; this can include “triads” or “polycules” with no upper limit of how many people are involved in the relationship (though one could imagine how complex it can get with more than three or four people). There are a lot of “flavors” of polyamory, including things like “solo polyamory” which means each partner in a relationship dates separately, and “hierarchal poly” which is where people have a “primary” (usually someone they live with, often called a ‘nesting partner’), and other partners that aren’t as entangled (financially, parentally, or otherwise).
It is important to note that these relationships have existed as long as humans have existed. It is also important to note that the reason non-traditional relationships may seem “taboo” is that monogamy in the traditional sense is a stricture of religion (and thus, patriarchy), as well as capitalism (protection and growth of personal wealth), and things that are harmful to capitalism and patriarchy are almost always made to be taboos. There are many articles and studies about why marriage and forced monogamy is actually a harmful construct, and the religious among you will argue that there are just as many articles and studies about why monogamy is the only righteous path; but also must recognize that those arguments are valid only if you believe in god, and believe that people should be forced to follow what men wrote in the bible.
If you turn your attention to biology and psychology, there is a much more compelling body of evidence that shows that monogamy is really only “natural” for a select few species, and that actual “genetic monogamy” is quite rare in the animal kingdom. Most species who do practice a form of monogamy (i.e. mating for life), are actually “socially” monogamous.
From a social perspective, if you think critically and try to remove your religious bias, one would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that marriage and a lifetime of monogamy are actually the only correct choice. You can do lots of digging, but the easiest statistic at a glance is to just look at the divorce rate—and that’s before we factor in the staggering evils of abuse and spousal rape.
Regardless, anyone with critical thinking skills can see that monogamy is really just a structure of religion, and yes, patriarchy. That’s not to say that monogamy isn’t right—for many people monogamy is comforting, loving, and supportive, and having that one partner to devote yourself fully to for the rest of your life is perfect… and that’s totally cool! All we ask is that those who prefer monogamy recognize that it is a choice, and that it’s okay for others to not have the same ideals.
The journey to non-monogamy is fraught with tense, nerve-wracking, and loving conversations. Each couple’s journey will be different and personal; for us, the conversation started (like so many of our conversations do) with humor; we would joke around about it. Our bond is peerless; we trust each other completely, and have always been radically honest and transparent with each other. These are the fundamentals. If you don’t have complete trust in each other, and cannot communicate properly with each other, then you definitely cannot make non-monogamy work. Hell, you probably can’t make your monogamy work either. You have to have the foundations of love in order to build something that won’t collapse when you add to it.
Nicole and I, like probably many couples out there, experience intimacy in different ways. I experience intimacy through affection, emotional connection, and validation through physicality and attraction. She finds intimacy through shared experiences, shared goals and accomplishments, mutual security, and trust. These are not our only love languages, but for the purposes of this conversation they’re the relevant ones. There are many ways to express these love languages (and we clearly do for each other), however, other manifestations of our intimacy-seeking sometimes fall into different buckets: I like physical intimacy, and she likes mutual physical activities like hiking, kayaking, climbing and travelling.
Nicole is asexual, and I am pansexual with a high sex drive. Nicole is physically fit and athletically ambitious, and I am not very outdoorsy or fearless. It’s not a great stretch of intellect to see why these facets of our personalities may preclude us from being the only partner the other one ever needs.
It happened on one of our many road trips: We had long stretches of hours to just sit with each other and talk. We often talked about our divergent sex drives, but at the time we didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-awareness to really understand what was happening. Nicole hadn’t yet really come out as asexual and I didn’t know how to explain the lack of intimacy I felt. There came a point where Nicole simply turned to me and said “If you want to have sex with other women, I don’t care”. That was a stunning revelation, and it opened the doors to an entirely new direction for our relationship.
When we got home, we started reading, a lot. We discovered the polyamory community, and articles, and webcomics, and books, and talked to friends who were polyamorous. It wasn’t long before we laid out some parameters and boundaries, some rules, and began to explore how a marriage works when freed from arbitrary and archaic constraints. We settled on some basics, and kept in constant temperature checks with each other—is this okay? Are you okay? How does this feel? How much do you want to know? How little do you want to know?
The constant communication is key: every time I meet someone or go on a date with someone, I talk to Nicole about it a lot; I ask her how much she wants to know or how little she wants to know. If a single date turns into multiple dates, I ask if Nicole wants to meet them.
This has to work with all parties involved—radical communication and consent doesn’t just happen between the two primary partners. When I ask someone out on a date, they definitely already know I’m married and that my partner knows about this. That’s where the “ethical” part comes in, too: It would be highly unethical to surprise someone you’re dating by letting them know you’re married after they agree to go out with you. It actually works out really well though, because that mature level of communication is pretty attractive to a lot of people.
We’re not breaking any ground here, and we’re not any sort of pioneers. As it turns out, when you come out as being non-monogamous, you may suddenly find out that others in your life are also non-monogamous. It’s probably much more common than most people think, but it’s probably also something that most couples keep secret for fear of upsetting their families or communities. Which brings us back to the normalization part. The more normal it becomes, the less awkward it becomes.
There are endless articles, books, and entire fields of study devoted to defining and understanding the nature of love—but it is incredible how many of these things are written and viewed through the lens of monogamy. It sometimes seems like every movie, song, poem, book, short story, play—literally any kind of art—are usually meant to be viewed through the lens of monogamy. It’s quite comical how many plot devices would completely disintegrate if the people in the story were non-monogamous. Sometimes we’ll watch a movie or a show together and laugh and say things like “This only sucks because you’re monogamous! Just open your relationship up and be with them both! Jeez! What’s so complicated?”
And what is love, at any rate? Love is complex and can take many different forms; I believe humans are capable of infinite expressions of love and loving. Just my own personal life is a fine example of what I mean: Many of you know that I lived with a man who helped raise my kids for years; he is a part of my family. Do I love him? Absolutely. Is it romantic or sexual? Not at all. I have friends (and partners) that I am extremely affectionate with. Cuddle buddies. I have friends that I’ve been sexual with. I have friends that I’ve played music with (and I would argue that really clicking and vibing musically is a form of love). Relationships are fluid, the love we express for each other is fluid, and there is no reason to impose rules upon how or why, where, or when we should express that love. You can love someone else any way you choose, any way that feels right.
When you hear people say that non-monogamy is incredibly liberating, it’s mostly because we are socialized for our entire lives, from early childhood, about the way things are “supposed” to be, even though it doesn’t feel natural or right to a lot of us… so breaking free from that construct is a chance to zoom out and get the bigger picture, and see monogamy culture from the outside, and to understand how restrictive, arbitrary, and strange it actually seems.
Who knows what the future holds? Marriage is one of the most intense legal contracts two people can enter into in our society. Marriage creates a legal entity, it generally combines finances and assets, and sets up a partnership in which one person can speak for the other in times of tragedy. Will Nicole and I ever fall deeply in love with someone else in addition to each other? It’s always possible. Will that new person or new people have a say what happens in old age? There are lots of unknowns; these questions and big discussions are definitely not new to anyone who has ever bucked the norm (and that includes all of our queer elders who have paved the way for so many freedoms we experience today and to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude), but they are still unanswered and uncharted for most of us; that’s why normalization is so critical. For now, we just take things one day at a time, as they come, which is really all any of us can do when there is little precedent for the life we’re living.
Well this was all an extremely lengthy and complex way to say that if you ever wanted to ask Nicole (or me!) out on a date, here’s your chance—but be warned that one of the primary rules of our open marriage is that we each reserve the right to tease and make fun of the other one, but if you know us, you probably already understand that. Go get ’em, tiger (with consent and communication, of course!)