Many “veteran” polyamorous couples warn that heartache and even divorce can result from couples not having clear guidelines spelled out in advance.
Some couples agree that only casual affairs or short-term relationships are acceptable. Others decide that a serious outside relationship is fine but agree to end any relationship that starts to threaten the primacy of the marriage or demand so much time and attention that the spouse feels neglected. Others agree to have sexual encounters only at “swing parties” or sex parties, so there is no expectation of an ongoing relationship. Some couples “play” together with other individuals or couples, others have separate outside partners.
However, many couples who make these rules have discovered that they are not always easy to keep in practice. David and Helen, a Los Angeles couple in their 40's with two children, warn that when you get involved with a new person, you can't always predict what will happen.
David says, “I can tell you from experience that one can promise that their feeling won't change. I was married to someone else when I met Helen. My marriage was stable but unfulfilling. I told my wife the relationship with Helen was a casual affair, and I meant it. But as time went on, I fell in love with Helen and left my wife for her. This is an occupational hazard of non-monogamy. When you open yourself up to a new relationship, you are opening a door, and you don't know where that will lead. Things might shake out a lot differently than you thought.”
It is for exactly this reason that so many couples fear opening up their relationship to other partners, and prefer the simplicity and security of a monogamous relationship. However, research has confirmed that a significant percentage of “monogamous” married couples cheat.
Many polyamorous couples say that cheating is much more likely to lead to divorce in monogamous couples than couples having an open relationship. While no hard data comparing the two cohorts exists, many experts say that the betrayal and deception of secret affairs is much more damaging to a marriage than having open and honest outside relationships. The loss of trust caused by lying can destroy the closeness in a marriage, while honesty and transparency about outside sexual partners can actually enhance trust and deepen the couple's intimacy.
The jury is still out about whether you are more likely to lose your husband or wife to someone else by being in a monogamous relationship where a spouse cheats if they are attracted to someone else, or in an openly polyamorous marriage where outside relationship are negotiated and discussed.
My experience counseling couples has convinced me of one thing regardless of whether your marriage is explicitly monogamous or polyamorous: If your relationship is strong, stable, and happy, your spouse is unlikely to leave you for someone else, even if they have outside partners. People generally leave their marriages because they are unhappy, not because they have another lover.
And here is an interesting note for women to consider. Many women complain about a perceived double standard that allows men to have lovers, but women find it much more difficult. For instance, Sheila was married and had three children, and divorced her husband when she discovered he was having a secret affair with a co-worker.
She says, “I'm too busy and stressed with my life, my job, and my kids to be looking for other sex partners or worrying about who my husband is sleeping with. He wants the freedom to have affairs with other women while I'm rushing home from work to cook dinner and change diapers? When would I have time to have affairs? I got married and promised to be faithful and I expected him to live up to those same vows. I want a monogamous marriage: no trips and no surprises.”
And Clara, a 34-year-old nurse in Chicago, recalls bitterly that her musician husband insisted on an open marriage when she was pregnant, and he started sleeping with a much younger woman he met at a nightclub during a gig.
“I went along with it because I was feeling very vulnerable being pregnant, I was bloated and feeling rotten and sick most of the time, and I didn't feel sexually attractive.”
After the baby arrived, her husband's girlfriend ditched him. “Ironically, she wanted a monogamous relationship, and got tired of dating a married man!” They had agreed to keep the open marriage secret, since her parents are evangelical Christians and she was terrified that they would reject her and possibly try to get custody of their infant daughter.
“However, a single male friend of mine, who knew about my husband's affair because he bragged about it after having a few drinks, made a pass at me and I thought, well, now it's my turn. My husband was insanely jealous and accused me of being a slut for dating another guy when I had a baby at home. He thought it was fine for him to screw this young girl while I was pregnant, but he accused me of abandoning my baby and sleeping around! Eventually we decided to go back to a monogamous marriage since my husband just couldn't handle me having another lover, when the whole thing was his idea in the first place. Go figure!”
Many people are reluctant to try an open marriage out of fear of the many sexually-transmitted infections out there, from herpes to syphilis to HIV. The AIDS epidemic has been used by conservatives to preach the virtues of monogamy. However, gay men, who have been the most heavily affected by HIV and AIDs, have a different approach, namely having openly non-monogamous relationships, and practicing safer sex with condoms.
Daniel, a 38-year-old gay man in New York who has an open relationship with his domestic partner of 15 years, says, “What's the point of monogamy? Your'e much better off having safer sex with 10 people than being monogamous with one person. The straight people are out having affairs, lying to their spouse, and not using condoms, they're the ones that need to worry about STD's and AIDS.”
Carlos is a 40-year-old gay man in San Diego who has been married to his partner, Ted, for10 years. Carlos says, “Lust is a strong desire, and a hard dick has no brain and no conscience, whether you're a straight guy or gay. Gay guys are just more open and honest about it, we tell our partners when we sleep with someone else. Gay men know the difference between sex and love, and we don't confuse the two. The straight guys sleep around as much as we do, but they lie about it, and they don't use condoms, and then they give their wives gonorrhea and herpes.”
Perhaps there is some wisdom here for the heterosexual community to consider.
In any case, after reading this, you may start to look at the people you know with a more questioning gaze, wondering if they are the polyamorous couple next door!
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For more on polyamorous relationships, read Kathy's new book: Love in Abundance: A Counselor's Guide to Open Relationships