So today it’s time to talk about a tricky subject: monogamy.
We’ve talked about monogamy before and why it’s not our natural state, but it’s worth addressing again. Life – when stripped away of any philosophical or intellectual meaning or value – is solely about making sure that we survive long enough to spread our genes. Ideally, we hang in there long enough to ensure that our offspring live long enough to spread their genes even further, but once we’ve raised children to puberty our job as a living organism is technically done. Most of our biological drives are oriented towards that one goal. Males want to ensure the survival of their genes at the expense of their competitors; if it’s possible for them to con another male into raising their offspring, so much the better. Females also want to spread their genes; because the investment (and subsequent risk) is much higher, they will want someone who will help provide and support their child and those traits don’t always match up with the genetic traits that will her theoretical children survive. As a result, sometimes the father of the child isn’t necessarily the one raising it.
Our very bodies evolved with the idea of multiple sexual partners in mind. Scientists theorize that part of the point of a woman’s orgasm is the vocalizations it causes, which attract other men. Our entire reproductive system is designed with sperm-competition in mind. The penis’ flared head acts like a squeegie inside the vaginal canal, scraping out seminal fluid from a competitor. Men who believe that there is a chance that their partner has had sex with another man will actually produce a greater volume of ejaculate in order to flush out a competitor’s sperm. Hell, there have been studies that suggest that humans have goddamn hunter/killer sperm cells – ones that can’t actually penetrate the ovum but instead serve to block other people’s sperm like tiny Terminator linebackers.
Once again: this is strictly a strictly value-neutral observation. The fact that monogamy is not our natural state does not mean that monogamy is inherently bad or a poor choice, nor am I saying that it is one way or the other. What I am saying is that it’s goddamned difficult. Being monogamous means that you’re not having sex with other people, not that you don’t want to.
And for some people, monogamy is a poor choice, the sexual equivalent to trying to shove a bear into a tutu and trying to make it dance. It might work for a little while, but it’s all going to end in blood and tears.
So let’s say you’re one of those people who understands that they’re just not cut out for monogamy. Or perhaps you’re someone who has been happily monogamous for years but now you’re feeling the need for variety. Can you be non-monogamous without being an asshole who cheats on his or her significant other?
Yup. As long as you follow the rules.
Rule #1: If You Are Non-Monogamous, You Must Be Up Front.
A lot of people who know that they’re bad at monogamy – or who aren’t interested in it in the first place – will frequently hide this fact from their prospective partners; they’re thinking (correctly) that this is going to be an immediate deal breaker to a sizable number of potential dates and therefore they should keep it to themselves until the other person is emotionally invested and will thus have a harder time objecting.
I really hope I don’t have to explain just how shitty this behavior is, but just in case: it’s incredibly shitty. You are lying to someone about who you are and what you have to offer, and a lie of omission (“Well, the subject never came up…”) is still a lie.
I’ve found that it’s best to establish early on – that is, before sex – whether or not exclusivity is on the table for the future. It can be hard to bring up without sounding a little abrupt or presumptuous, but being direct and up front about making sure that the two of you are on the same page can save a lot of heartache and recriminations in the future.
If you’re in an exclusive relationship and you are interested in opening things up, you need to have an open and honest conversation about it with your partner. It will be tricky – it’s hard to tell someone “I want to have sex with other people” without making them feel hurt or somehow inadequate. Paradoxically, a long period of sexual exclusivity can actually make opening up a relationship easier – being able to prove that you don’t need outside partners and that you’re enjoying the sex you’re already having can make opening the relationship less threatening to both your partner’s ego and to your relationship itself.
Rule #2: Find The Level Of Non-Monogamy That Works For You
The first thing that people need to realize is that monogamy isn’t a binary state; it’s not just a case of either you’re having sex with one person for the rest of your life or you’re taking on all comers1 with an “any hole is a goal” attitude. There are varying degrees of being non-monogamous, monogamish (to steal a term from Dan Savage) if you will. A couple – or triad or several involved people – may switch between them repeatedly. For some, it’s a case of just not dating anyone exclusively, leaving both parties free to date – or bang – anyone they see fit. For others, it’s a case of opening up the relationship to varying levels – only permitting oral sex with other people while reserving full penetrative sex for their primary partners for example, or allowing one’s partner “off the leash” on occasion for an extramarital dalliance. Some may invite others into their bed as an occasional guest star while others will embrace polyamory and welcome more than one love into their hearts as well as their bed.
The point being is that non-monogamy – or transitioning from a monogamous relationship to an open one – is not an all-or-nothing state. Both (or all) partners should be in agreement as to the degree of outside involvement that’s permissible.
Rule #2a: You Always Err on the Side of The Less Open Partner
Any relationship is a matter of compromise and a non-monogamous one is no different in this matter. However, because this involves sex and sex can frequently be a minefield of known and unknown insecurities and hang-ups, you will always err on the side of less openness. If your partner is interested in everything but penetration and you’re only comfortable with hand-jobs or manual stimulation, then handjobs are the outer limit of what you are both permitted. Similarly, if you’re interested in full-on sex with strangers but your partner will only be comfortable with make-outs and oral, then your limits are blowjobs and sloppy make-outs.
Side note: This doesn’t necessarily mean that there can’t be uneven degrees of openness if both parties agree to it, or that both parties have to partake in the full spectrum of what’s allowed. Some people are OK with letting their partner off the chain while remaining monogamous themselves. Others like the power exchange inherent in only being allowed a certain degree of play outside of the relationship and get off on it.
Rule #3: Establish Ground Rules
You want to establish certain rules regarding your relationship in order to ensure the comfort and safety of everybody involved. For some this means no sex in your marriage bed. For others it means that partners are only allowed off the leash once per year or on months that end in “Y’. You may both agree not to bring someone home with you, to only allow for outside partners while you are out of town or to not see the same person more than a limited number of times. If you have threesomes, you may forbid sex with your third except when everybody is present. These rules apply to both of you unless you agree in advance to a lopsided agreement. What’s good for the goose, etc.
Rule #4: You ALWAYS Practice Safe Sex
This is one rule that is a core part of any open relationship. If your relationship is open to any degree beyond oral (and possibly even before), condoms aren’t just a requirement, they’re a sacrement. Sex is a full-contact sport with inherent risks; increasing the number of partners means that you’re increasing the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Condoms are the only form of birth control that protect against HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis and lessen the risks of herpes or HPV exposure. An open relationship requires trust. Part of that trust means your partner is trusting you with his or her health.
By the by: this means you’re using condoms when you’re with your primary partner as well. Sorry. Once you step out of a mutually monogamous relationship, doing it raw is officially off the table.
Rule #5: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Full and open communication is a critical part of any relationship. When you’ve opened things up to outside partners, with all the possible jealousy or insecurities that can come with it, it’s doubly so. You don’t necessarily need to share the nitty-gritty details (although there are plenty of people who actually get off on that), but you do need to be providing updates on who and how often (for safety’s sake, at the very least) as well as how you both feel without feeling as though you have to hold back or choose your words carefully. If you can’t have a frank and honest conversation about stepping out of your relationship without feeling pressured to go along with it, you have no business opening it up.
Many potential problems can be nipped in the bud if you’re willing and able to communicate clearly. Ever watch a romantic comedy and think to yourself how everything could have been fixed with a simple conversation? Same thing applies here.
One Sole Exception:
If the relationship was not monogamous in the first place (i.e. you’re dating casually with no expectation of exclusivity) you may be best served by a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy regarding other partners. Even so, open lines of communication can keep problems – such as changing expectations – from cropping up in the first place.
Rule #6: Both Partners Have Veto Power
If your partner is going to trust you with non-monogamy, you have to show that you’re worthy of that trust by giving him or her a certain degree of control. Even the most open of relationships will set boundaries as to who everybody can and can’t play with, whether it’s close friends, co-workers or people that either partner might think are a legitimate threat to the relationship. Both partners can veto a potential playmate, no questions asked or answered. If your partner drops the hammer on someone then they’re off limits. Sorry. You have to show that you’re willing to abide by your partner’s comfort level. That’s part of what this trust business is all about.
Keep in mind: trust works both ways. Just as both partners have to respect the other’s veto, they also have the responsibility to not abuse the power. A person who continuously vetos his partner’s potential playmates is not acting in good faith; this necessitates another long conversation about the relationship.
Rule #7: Cheating Is Still Cheating.
Just because you’re in an open relationship doesn’t mean you can’t cheat on your partner. Going farther than you’ve both agreed upon is cheating. Ignoring your partner’s veto is still cheating. Breaking the ground rules you’ve agreed upon is cheating.
Cheating is grounds for immediately closing the relationship again. Cheating proves that you aren’t trustworthy and a lack of trust is poison to relationships, non-monogamous ones.
Rule #8: The Level of Openness Is Up For Renegotiation At Any Time
Like I said earlier: couples will frequently transition between different levels of openness over the course of a relationship, in both directions. You and your partner may decide to open your relationship just a crack at first, only to decide that you’re both comfortable with a greater degree of play with outside partners. Alternately, you may start off with a greater degree of openness only to find that one or both of you are less than comfortable and want to dial things back. This renegotiation can be initiated at any time and isn’t finished until both partners agree (as subject to Rule #2a.)
The only exception is that either partner can close the relationship unilaterally for any reason. If, for example, only one of you is able to find an outside partner (as is often the case with hetero couples; the woman frequently has an easier time finding sex than the man does) and the other resents the one-sidedness of the arrangement, it is well within his or her rights to shut things down until a later date.
Can this be unfair at times? Yes. But it’s also an indicator of the trust the two of you are placing in one another – the right to pull the plug on the experiment is a critical one, especially if either of you have doubts or second thoughts. Your willingness to abide by your partner’s comfort level is a sign that you are willing to place his or her concerns above your own desires… which is a key component to any happy relationship.
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