The Lust Frontier: Why Can't We Make Open Relationships Work?

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz

It started with a little pillow talk.

“Would you ever be down to have an open relationship?” Eva* asked her boyfriend.

Sam hadn’t thought about it before, but they both agreed it made sense. They were 26 and had been living together for about a year. It was a few days before Eva was moving away to take a job. Sam planned to meet her in her new city in six months, but they were going to be a plane ride apart until then. They had both gone to a lefty liberal arts college where people don’t exactly rush each other to the altar. Eva was a feminist who believed in sexual liberation; Sam had read everything sex columnist and non-monogamy evangelist Dan Savage had ever written. They were too young to have slept with everyone they ever would, they reasoned. And they both felt that the impulse to be with other people was natural and healthy, and might even bring them closer.

They set some ground rules. “No sex with some one more than three times,” Eva suggested. “That might lead to a relationship.”

“No hooking up with mutual acquaintances,” Sam said. “Too weird.”

They each had different priorities, and patted themselves on the back for being honest and listening to each other. When Eva left, they were secure in their relationship.

Three weeks later, Eva brought someone home and had a fun, drunken time. But when she got on the phone with Sam the next day—they had agreed to tell each other everything—he got silent, then resentful, then outright angry.

“Sorry, I thought I was down,” Sam said. “But I don’t like this. I guess I’m not.”

In theory, non-monogamy makes all the sense in the world. We’ve seen the statistics: up to half of both men and women end up cheating on their partner at some point in their lives. In her new book, Marriage Confidential, Pamela Haag cites research showing 80 percent of men and 65 percent of women would sleep with someone other than their spouse if they knew they’d never get caught. We all know someone who’s cheated, been cheated on, been the “other” woman or man. We know that vows of monogamy are frequently broken.

But when it comes to applying this knowledge and changing up traditional ways of constructing our own relationships, we have a tendency to hesitate, or make excuses, or  flat-out say “no, thank you.” We've come to accept that forever-and-ever may be unrealistic—just look at divorce rates and the rise of serial monogamy. Yet while we're in those relationships, exclusivity is still the standard. There’s a strange split between what we think and what we do. Will we—the portion of the population that is not wedded to the idea of monogamy—ever stop sneaking around and start changing the way we conduct our relationships?

I decided to investigate. I sent out an e-mail asking for testimonials from people—mostly straight and young, a mix of races and backgrounds—who were not totally averse to the idea of open relationships. When I asked who came to mind when they heard the word “non-monogamy,” the responses spanned several subcultures: “Burning Man hippie types,” “people who live in communes,” “the Grateful Dead,” “gay men in the club scene.” The HBO show “Big Love,” which is about a polygamous Mormon family, popped up a lot. I got few celebrity names: Will and Jada, Mo’Nique, Charlie Sheen and his “goddesses,” Tilda Swinton and her pair of lovers.

Despite the fact that I roll with a super feminist, progressive crowd, nobody named a friend, a neighbor, or a co-worker who was in a successful, heterosexual open relationship. A handful mentioned committed gay couples with open arrangements, but those didn’t seem to resonate as role models for their own lives. Very few people admitted that they had tried non-monogamy.

When I told this to Christian Rudder, co-founder and editorial director of OK Cupid, he wasn’t surprised at all. He says that among younger straight couples in the U.S., he’d estimate that “fewer than 1 percent are in publicly open polyamorous relationships,” and that those numbers were not much higher on OkCupid. He added that even for the site's users, who tend to be liberal and open-minded, “it feels deviant.”

In Marriage Confidential, Haag explains that our idea of monogamy has actually gotten purer even as the divorce rate has increased. In the 1950s, cheating was just as common, yet people were much more tolerant of affairs. There are myriad reasons for this—including the fact that divorce could prove financially devastating to a woman—but there was less pressure to actually stick to exclusivity.  Her book profiles the new “marital rebels” who are combining a “free love” 1960s ethos with a 1950s nonchalance. She argues that couples are quietly rewriting the rules of marriage. Problem is, nobody talks about it.

“It’s very similar to the LGBT movement,” says Tristan Taormino, feminist porn star and author of the book Opening Up. She says that in order for non-monogamous relationships to become accepted in the mainstream, people have to “come out” despite the social and financial risks. “At one point, it was okay for celebrities to be gay—like ‘Oh yeah, of course Elton John is gay, he’s a rock star. He’s larger-than-life.’ But it wasn’t accepted generally. Nowadays, everyone knows someone gay, but 20 years ago they thought they didn’t. Awareness was raised, education was done, and all of a sudden it wasn’t some weird person I read about in a magazine—it’s the guy I’ve been playing softball with for ten years.”

But it must not only be a matter of role models and societal acceptance, because many people who like the idea of non-monogamy in theory told me they doubted they could actually go through with it, no matter how socially acceptable it was.

“My rational mind says ‘girl, its natural’ but my heart and gut jolt, and it makes me wanna cry,” wrote Gina, a 26-year-old from New York City.  I got a dozen similar responses, like Dahlia’s: “Intellectually, I totally get it. People need lots of things, and no one other person can possibly be expected to provide all those needs.” But when it comes to her own life, she explained, “I'm way too needy and kind of raw to tangle myself up in multiple peoples' relationship stuff.”

Over and over, people began with, “I get it,” and then traced their monogamous impulses back to their personal issues. They were too “possessive” and “jealous.” They “need a lot of attention.” They would feel “out of control in that situation.” They would start to think they “weren’t good enough.” One 27-year-old living in San Francisco summed up her views on open relationships simply: “They make people insecure.”

Ah, yes—nobody wants to feel like they’re being played. In my small sample pool, it seemed that heterosexual men were more likely to feel threatened by their partners having sex with another man. “It would have to be an ideal situation,” one 32-year-old from Chicago wrote. “I couldn't deal with other guys being involved. And that's just not fair, but...”

Women told me the same thing. “When my ex-boyfriend and I used to talk about ‘taking a break,’ it was clear that he imagined hooking up himself but never actually acknowledged that it meant that I would, too,” wrote 30-year-old Christina, whose experience was representative of several women I interviewed. “I'd have to remind him and then he would be like, ‘Never mind, I don't want to do that shit.’”

There’s not much information out there on how men react in open relationships, but when it comes to cheating, studies have shown that men are more likely to leave their partners over infidelity than the other way around. They also get more upset over heterosexual affairs than homosexual ones; perhaps this is why straight people didn’t consider gay couples as models.

Even guys with progressive views struggle with this. Just look at how Sam reacted to Eva’s recounting of her one night stand. When I tried non-monogamy, it was also my partner who had the problem. He seemed tentatively down for opening things up, but he had his doubts. “It’s not fair—any woman can have sex at any given time,” he said. “Men have to work harder. The odds are skewed in your favor.”

For the record, this is bullshit. It might be true that we can probably get a random, horny guy off the street to have sex with us, but I don’t know one woman who’s trying to sleep with just anyone, particularly if she already has a loving partner. Still, that doesn’t change men’s perception that the sexual marketplace favors women. This combined with sexual possessiveness—on both sides, but especially men’s—can make polyamory even harder to negotiate.

A few people who emailed me implied, or said outright, that having time to deal with complex emotions and relationship arrangements was a privilege of the wealthy. Carlos, a 24-year-old Latino man from Cleveland, didn’t mince words. “I think of polyamory as a thing that rich, new-agey white people do when they have too much time on their hands. I have two jobs and a kid. If I ever had sex with someone from outside my marriage, it might be because something ‘just happened’ by accident, not because I had laid out millions of rules with my girl and went to swinger clubs and stuff.”

One woman, Katie, used author and “pro-sex” feminist Susie Bright’s term, “busyogamous.” Demographically, she couldn’t be more different from Carlos; she’s 40, white, affluent, and lives in New York City. Still, with two kids and a demanding job, she felt like she was monogamous almost by default. “There doesn't seem to be enough time and headspace for the affection and sex that my marriage deserves as it is,” she wrote.

Carlos and Katie both seem to be saying the same thing: monogamy is just simpler. People know the rules, even if they sometimes get broken. Our generation may talk a big game about acceptance but we are still married to categories and intimidated by nuances. Not to mention that open relationships hardly preclude people from “cheating.” Actually, it’s easier, since there are so many rules to be broken. The handful of people who had tried it explained a whole host of scenarios.

“There was a period of time where my ex-girlfriend wasn’t sleeping with me, but she was letting me run around in secret, and she could theoretically do the same,” wrote Jason, a 29-year-old from Delaware. But “I wasn't allowed to ‘get it in’…The result was a lot of pent-up sexual aggression and ultimately two broken hearts, when she wound up sleeping with someone after icing me out for over a year.”

Lisa, 26, said that her open relationship worked fine, “until I found out he was not obeying a fundamental agreement that we only hook up with people the other one doesn't know.” I also heard from several people that it sucked to be the third person. Rachel said the problem was TMI. “You're never just dating or sleeping with the person you're interested in,” she said. “Their partner is going to creep in, and I wound up learning highly personal information that I didn't necessarily want to know.”

“The thing is, there’s consequences of getting into bed with someone that are unpredictable,” says the feminist writer Laura Kipnis, whose polemic Against Love makes the case for completely dissolving marriage and monogamy. “There is usually this dropping of a cherry bomb into the domestic scene. In some ways that’s a good thing, if you think that exploding traditional marriage setups is good, but it can also be a devastating thing, no matter how enlightened you are.”

When it comes down to it, risk is part of what makes human relationships exciting, passionate, and rewarding. Even if we do evolve into a culture without sexual shame and manage to rid our psyches of jealousy, sex will probably never be uncomplicated and easy to understand. Even with candid pillow talk and steadfast ground rules, we may still get hurt. And that’s the hardest thing of all to accept.

*Couples' names have been changed.