Though it’s 9 months old, I just got pointed to the article The Lust Frontier: Why Can’t We Make Open Relationships Work? by Meghan Murphy. I have to admit that I was a bit surprised by the tone of the article, which is all about how many people try open relationships and have it not work. But then, I’ve been with my partner for 20 years and we’ve never been monogamous, though there have been at least three times that we decided to not have other partners because we had a lot on our plates and needed to focus on each other. But I get ahead of myself.
Right at the start of the article, it’s easy to see where it’s going:
Sam hadn’t thought about it before, but they both agreed [an open relationship] 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.
I often enjoy Dan Savage’s writing (at least, when he’s not being transphobic, denying the existence of bisexuals, or taking bitchy queen a bit too far), but reading his stuff is hardly going to prepare you to put non-monogamy into practice. Though it sure would be great if that’s how things worked- I could read some foodie articles and become a master chef!
Sam and Eva did what most couples exploring opening up do- they came up with some groundrules and figured that would be enough. Unfortunately, when it came time to put it into practice, it didn’t work as well as they’d hoped and jealousy reared its head.
I see this sort of thing quite often and there are several different threads that the writer of this article didn’t delve into. I’m going to assume that it was out of ignorance, given how much of that there is in the rest of it.
First, successful non-monogamy requires relationship skills. I know because I’ve spent that last 20 years working on them and I expect to continue doing so for the rest of my life. Some of the skills you need include:
a) The ability to self-regulate your emotions, both positive and negative. Getting caught up in New Relationship Energy can strain your pre-existing relationships. Sinking into jealousy, abandonment fears, or anger causes problems, for obvious reasons. Being able to both feel your emotions AND talk about them with your partners isn’t easy.
I have to say that when I was 26, I didn’t know how to do it all that well, either. Fortunately, I had a great therapist who didn’t assume that my total lack of interest in monogamy was a problem. Here’s a good place to start looking for one.
b) It helps if you have the language to talk about polyamory. Like anything else, there’s a lingo that people have developed to make it easier. Fortunately, these days, there are some excellent books like Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships and The Ethical Slut: A Roadmap for Relationship Pioneers. At the risk of sounding like my grandparents, when I was trying to figure this out, there weren’t nearly as many resources and there wasn’t an internet to turn to. Trial and error included a lot of error.
c) In addition to having the language, open relationships are also made easier when you know what your options are. As Kathy Labriola says in Love in Abundance: A Counselor’s Advice on Open Relationships, the most common way people try to move into polyamory is by opening up a pre-existing relationship. That’s certainly what we hear the most about.
But in those situations, you’re usually talking about at least two people who don’t know what they’re doing. In fact, most commonly, their other partners are novices, as well. So not only are they dealing with a situation that is fraught with intense emotions, nobody knows what to do! It’s no wonder that so many folks decide it’s not for them. In both my experience and my observation, it’s much easier to find your path when at least one person knows how to read the map.
Though I’m a big fan of the books I’ve mentioned, I have to say that having a community of other polyamorous people has also been a big influence for me. Being able to compare notes, share stories, get support, and vent with others has made it much easier. These days, you can find that online if you don’t live somewhere with a poly crowd. Though you may also be surprised at what local resources there are, if you look for them.
In a way, what all of these skills boil down to is that you need to be able to process efficiently and quickly. That’s because there are a lot more variables to keep track of. Here’s what I mean:
Let’s take a single relationship between A & B. Some people think of it as simply a short line connecting the two of them. But in reality, there are lots of meta-relationships going on. There’s what A thinks of the relationship, what B thinks of what A thinks, and so on. Or more concretely, if A is scared about the relationship, and B is angry that A feels scared, and A feels hurt that B feels angry, etc., you can see how what looks like a simple line is really a cloud of interconnecting curves. Of course, if A & B are both happy about the relationship, those different curves are likely to be positive.
But now, let’s add C. There’s a relationship between each pair, making a triangle. And each individual has feelings and thoughts about the relationships they’re in, the relationship between the other two, what each of the others feels about the various relationships- it quickly starts to look more like a ball of yarn than a geometry problem.
So with all of these relationship clouds, there are a lot of things to keep track of. Unless you can work through things both efficiently and quickly, polyamory soon turns into a big processing session and nobody has any fun, much less sex! It’s no wonder that there are so many workshops that teach people how to communicate with each other.
I think that’s reflected in this statement from that article:
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.
It’s not so much a function of wealth, as much as having the time to learn how to do all that processing. That’s a steep learning curve and it takes a certain amount of dedication and practice. If you’re juggling two jobs and raising kids, how are you supposed to fit that in?
I’ve also noticed that many of the men in successful poly situations tend to be, in the words of the article, “Burning Man hippie types.” Though I’ve never been to Burning Man (I don’t do hot, dry, or dirty), I move through a lot of those kinds of crowds and I’ve noticed that there’s a higher percentage of men who can identify and talk about how they feel than in the general population. There are more men who can hold space for other people’s emotions. And there are more men who understand how to work with feelings instead of hiding from them. Personally, I’d love to see those skills spread to other communities. I think it’ll make the world a happier place.
The big problem that I have with this article is that it reinforces the idea that open relationships are impossible. But believe me- they aren’t. I’ve found polyamory to be amazingly fun, incredibly challenging, and ultimately rewarding. They aren’t for everyone and I 100% respect any and all relationship choices that people make. I just wish that this article had done that, too.