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A New Monogamy? A Fresh Look at Open Marriage for 2016

01/07/2016 01:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2016
  • Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. Sex and relationship expert; Psychotherapist; Author of The New Monogamy and Getting the Sex You Want; International speaker
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Rules? What are rules? They no longer apply.

Today marriage can mean many things. It may mean that you marry someone of the same sex. Or that you divorce before death do you part. It could mean that a cheating spouse wreaks havoc when they break your monogamy agreement. Or, it could mean that you make your marriage work in a way that is more open and honest -- but may include more than one partner.

It seems like monogamy, traditional marriage, and being committed to one person, is downright old fashioned and even backward in some circles. Monogamy, in fact, has become synonymous with "traditional" (which somehow makes me feel old).

Is the younger generation today -- what we call the millennials -- really so fed up with being in committed relationships that they cannot tolerate being with the same person for longer than it takes to go online and find someone new? Recently Rolling Stone talked about the new monogamy,

"The New Monogamy... it's a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner's emotional and sexual needs for all time. Or, more specifically, that going outside the partnership for sex does not necessitate a forfeiture of it. "

This type of relationship doesn't have to disconnect the primary couple. These couples are creating their own lives. They are ".... negotiating what their brand of monogamy can be. They are opening up to having an open relationship, either in totality or for periods of time."

Pew Social graphics says that people are living longer, to an average of seventy eight years, which means marriage can last for up to half a century with the same person, all with the expectation of monogamy and sexual fidelity. Some couples are managing the lengthy and somewhat confining boundaries of marriage by negotiating outside partners, but within certain guidelines. This is creating a new partnership mentality that seems more open, more fluid and either way more mature than I had growing up or way more idealistic. Can couples really have it all? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

The last time we saw such a wave of sexual openness in this country we called it the "sexual revolution." But we only realized what was happening in retrospect. We didn't notice the total recklessness and abandon that was going on in the bedrooms and living rooms and rumpus rooms of the 1960s and '70s when we looked back and realized that the "swinging" generation had created a new language of switching partners and sexual openness that widened the boundaries of sexual fidelity and shocked us out of our puritanical 1950s housewife decade of the previous post-war generation. Yet, orgies and debauchery have been around forever. We, clearly, didn't invent them.

And we haven't invented open marriage. Having an "arrangement" was a term often used in past centuries to describe a marriage with affairs negotiated on the side, but kept respectfully quiet so as not to offend the spouse's sensibilities. Today, instead of affairs on the side, or on the down low, or behind one another's back, we are seeing a new wave of transparency, and a new type of revolution. Not unlike the sexual revolution of past decades, this radical shift in our thinking starts with the younger generation, those who are pre-children, and those couples and singles who set the tone and pave the way for the rest of us. It is a revolution of monogamy.

We are seeing a new type of monogamy, or an alternative form of monogamy; a committed partnership of more than one, a group form of marriage or relationship that is a shift in the way commitment is negotiated. The key is not a, "hey, anything goes" mentality. The imperative is honesty, integrity and trust. The open in "open relationship" is about being open to a variety of lovers and partners within the monogamous structure, and it also means being open about feelings and consistently sharing needs and desires.

This is the beginning of a new wave of transparency and of negotiation in relationships that is antithetical to the lying and deceit of affairs and cheating. Within this openness is a new level of commitment. Honesty is the consistent imperative in this world.

I recently interviewed over twenty-five families, couples and singles that are currently in some type of "new monogamy" relationship for this series of articles on open relationships. Each group partnership is structured differently. Each has its own rules. Each has come by its rules differently. Each insisted it has no rules.

I found Josh, Alyssa and Mary Ashley through a website called OpenMinded.com. It is a dating site for polyamorous and open relationships. With over 180,000 members worldwide, they claim to be the "premier" online space for non-monogamous relationships. The dating site is for people in open relationships that may be looking for more than a casual hook up.

Although acceptance of these types of nontraditional alternative relationships is becoming more common, the public is still somewhat rejecting of these lifestyle choices. I wanted to know what it was like for these three young people in an open committed partnership and if they had to hide their relationship from their family and friends, and if they felt that they were naturally more prone to being polyamorous.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the term polyamory, it comes from poly meaning "many" and "amory" meaning, "love." The idea of "many loves," means that poly couples are not just into swinging or into sex with other people but want key relationships with multiple partners to be welcomed and integrated into their main partnership.

Coming out to their community, family and friends about these alternative but monogamous structures? Complicated at best. Being committed in these partnerships means no outside partners unless they discuss and negotiate with each other. Or have as many partners as you want. Rules? What are rules? Forget the rules. They no longer apply.

Similar to a two partner structure, the same expectations of honesty and openness apply but not to the traditional two person partnership but to a three person, or four, or five, or however many are in your relationship group. Take a traditional partnership and add some more variety, shake, stir, and multiply the number of partners and voila -- create your own ideal love life.

The expectations may be different for each polyamorous group, but the implicit and explicit expectations still exist. They may not call them 'monogamy expectations' and they may assume that they are open to a 'no rules' kind of relationship, but when asked if betrayals happen, all partners agree, this is about commitment, not about cheating.

Founder and CEO of OpenMinded.com, Brandon Wade says, "The stigma surrounding these relationships is rooted in ignorance, and that needs to change.... Commitment doesn't necessarily equate to monogamy, and society should be more accepting of that," says Wade. "People need to be informed that monogamish relationships are a valid choice, and aren't necessarily associated with kink or cheating."

Everyone has boundaries and when I asked Josh, Alyssa and Mary Ashley, they seemed to agree that what prevents hurt in their poly relationship was consistent honesty and openness.

I spoke with Joshua, 32, who has been living a poly lifestyle for four years. He is currently in a committed three-way relationship with Alyssa and Mary, which he likes to differentiate from "just being in an open relationship." He says,

"In my view an open relationship is more casual and is mostly about openly and honestly 'having some fun' while being still committed to one person, while being polyamorous adds the possibility of love and commitment to more than one person at a time."

I asked about his past relationships and if he felt he had been "born this way" and he said he has "always been polyamorous and simply was too caught up in trying to please other people to express it."

One of Joshua's partners, Alyssa, who identifies as bisexual, is currently 19 years old. She told me that they used to have four people in their relationship; their prior girlfriend had a child. Alyssa talked about their ex girlfriend Sarah's child,

"I think it was great for the child to have so many positive influences and role models in her life and always have someone to turn to. Plus it makes parenting a lot easier when you don't have to do it on your own."

Now, with no children and with just the three of them, the rules seem somewhat simpler. She says, "Now we are all able to date/sleep with whoever we would like outside of our relationship. We don't have a structure such as primary, secondary, etc. We are all equal in the relationship."

She describes the difference between an open marriage and poly as a commitment to more than just sex outside of the relationship. She says, "With polyamory you actually date and love more than one person. I feel like an open relationship/marriage is a very clearly defined thing, but polyamorous relationships can take on many different forms."

Coming out about her polyamory status is difficult, although Alyssa doesn't hide her poly relationship from the people in her life. She said, "It can be hard to be in a polyamorous relationship. Many times family and friends don't understand." She is also concerned that her co-workers may even hold it against her. All of her close friends and family know but she doesn't share it openly with her relatives, or colleagues. For employers, seeing the status of an employee's relationship shouldn't effect how they judge performance or capacity for advancement, yet the fear is there.

For Mary Ashley, 26 years old, partners with Joshua and Alyssa, working at a large corporation, she feels the need to keep her personal life hidden from most of her coworkers.

"I am afraid of being judged and perhaps even experiencing repercussions for being open about my life. Some of my close coworkers who I know well personally are aware of my partners and lifestyle, but I do not openly share it with just anyone at work, and I certainly do not tell management or even talk about the fact I am dating anyone with them. I think this is highly influenced by where I live in the South, but also with my company being so large it is hard to get to know people personally and I feel things are best left unsaid professionally. It is disappointing to me because most people can openly talk about their wives or husbands and no one judges them or minds discussing their spouses, but I don't even tell them I have one partner because I feel it is unfair to not mention the other and so I just don't bring up that I have any. It makes for awkward conversations, and I feel like people already judge me because I make such a point to not bring up my personal life."

Josh says,

"Remember that you don't have to please anyone else. We spend so much of our lives doing things to make other people happy, be it our parents, family, coworkers, our friends, we do things because people "expect us" to do things a certain way, to fit into a social construct. But the truth is that you can't make anyone else happy and often we make ourselves miserable trying to do so. So stop living for everyone else and start living for you, it's your life so take control and enjoy it."

When I asked Josh about his experience of "coming out," he said he doesn't hide it anymore, although he doesn't advertise it. He does identify on his Facebook page, however, as being "in an open relationship." He pointed out that Facebook has an "open relationship" status but that the status does not allow users to add more than one person. He hopes that someday they will consider amending this option. What good does it do to have an "open relationship" status if you are poly and can only identify one partner?

Mary Ashley has been living a polyamorous lifestyle for about 8 years now. When she is in town, she lives together with Josh and Alyssa, although she says each of them travel for work or school some of the time, and they each get time alone and with one another. This is not her first alternative relationship. Her first poly relationship was with two men with whom she had a live-in relationship.

She considers her boyfriend Josh and girlfriend Alyssa to be her "two committed relationships," and also sees people casually outside of her main relationships. She says that everyone is informed about everything and "it works well for us."

How does Mary Ashley manage such a full relationship life? She says, "In polyamory, the possibility for love and a committed relationship is always there, though I find it helpful to put a limit to the number of people I can realistically date at a time." She says that, "Being bisexual, having one girlfriend and one boyfriend at a time works well for me."

Sometimes people come to polyamory as a result of a restrictive relationship in their past. For Mary Ashley,

"I believe I was always poly deep down, though at first I didn't know such a thing existed. My first relationship was strictly monogamous and even abusively controlling, mainly due to my partner's excessive jealousy and fear of me cheating. I never dreamed of cheating on him, but oddly enough I didn't feel any emotion at the thought of him sleeping with other people. I have never been a jealous person. I think that anyone can be poly, but certain people are more inclined, just due to them being generally more open minded."

She says that she grew into polyamory with her second boyfriend, "mainly because we were both bisexual and saw the need for each other to explore the other side of our sexualities."

Mary Ashley's coming out? She is blessed with a family who is "amazing" and who are all completely aware of her lifestyle. They have even recently opened their home to all of her partners and have met them all. She recognizes how rare this is. "I am very lucky to have such a loving and accepting family, as a lot of poly people I know [do not.]."

Yet work, for many poly people or those in open relationships, can be a very different story. Keeping their private life separate from their work life can be a challenge.

To anyone wanting to try and make a polyamorous lifestyle work, Mary Ashley gives this advice.

"Do not expect this to come easily or naturally at first, the years of ingrained monogamy and jealousy can take years to undo. And always be honest about your wants and needs, polyamory necessitates EXTENSIVE communication, and you better get good at talking if you expect to make this work which is something I have really had to work on. And if it doesn't work for you do not feel ashamed to admit that, just do what works best for you and your partners and don't feel like there is any rulebook you have to follow to do polyamory the "right" way. That is the beauty about this lifestyle, the flexibility. And always be true to yourself and your needs. Do not feel like you have to be apologetic for your dating preferences. I may hide my life from work in the interest of professionalism and keeping my job, but if I am ever confronted personally about my dating life I am open and honest about it and unapologetically so, because I want people to get exposed to the possibility and the existence of polyamory, and we need more good representatives out there telling their stories. And as soon as I feel safe discussing my lifestyle with everyone in my life, I will be the first person to bring it up!"

Alyssa's main piece of advice for people just starting out in a poly relationship is to communicate. She says, "You're going to have doubts and questions, so talk to your partner about them. There are going to be things that come up that you hadn't thought about beforehand -- discuss them thoroughly until everyone is on the same page. It will not work if you can't talk to each other honestly. Couples or singles looking to move into a poly relationship just need to be really aware of the differences."

Josh says he is not afraid of anyone finding out that he is polyamorous, however, he understands that this can be a real concern for many people. And it takes a special skill set to balance the boundaries of an open life. He says,

"Interestingly, being polyamorous requires most of the same skills as being successfully monogamous, except I would say even more so. Everyone says "communication is important" when giving advice to couples, but when there are more than two people involved in a relationship the dynamic is a bit more complicated. Therefore, sweeping problems under the rug or not saying anything if something bothers you, or not expressing your needs and expectations, or failing to shut up and really listen when one of your partners is trying to say something, will quickly cause a polyamorous relationship to collapse. However, when a polyamorous group is open about their feelings, the lines of communication are flowing freely, and everyone feels comfortable talking about even difficult topics, things can work so incredibly well. Not only that, but once you reach that level of comfort, or perhaps competence, of articulating your feelings and your needs you feel so much more powerful and in control of your life. You can create the reality that you've always dreamed of. Being part of a loving and open polyamorous relationship is an amazing feeling, and the amount of love and support you can give and receive is...words fail me. It's incredible."

Monogamy is no longer the traditional explicit agreement of past generations. There are new forms of commitment forming now, where each individual creates a relationship that works for them, regardless of old cultural norms or expectations of a couple as the primary structure. Today, agreements are more explicit, and have to be revisited often in order for the partnerships to work. These relationships are based on a group strategy where people have to work together. Perhaps it does take a village.

For marriage as we know it to survive in the future, we will all have to catch up. Things are shifting dramatically in our society. We are learning a new form of relationship -- not based on sex, or swinging or adventure -- but based on integrity, a new concept for many of us. Being out in the open about our real feelings many be a new and creative style of relating. This type of relating is not founded in following our lust or our impulses, but is the basis of forming a new style of relationship that is honest -- honest with ourselves about what we really want and desire and honest with our partners about what we need. There is an inherent maturity in standing up for what we believe is our truth -- even if it is the need to love more than one person at a time.

And this is a dramatic shift in the century's idealism about romantic love. Yes, it smashes the soul mate fantasy -- the romanticized vision of finding that special "one" that will fill all of our needs for the rest of our life. But perhaps life is too long, and there is too much pressure on finding one person to fill all of our needs, or maybe we just have too many needs. Either way, open marriage is a form of negotiated non-monogamy among consenting adults. It means that having outside partners for love, emotional connection and/or sex as a possibility within committed partnerships. These options are discussed openly. And it happens before there is sexual contact, not after. The goal of an open marriage or polyamory is always honesty and transparency. This type of relationship works for some people, because it doesn't involve lying or hiding the truth.

It is not for everyone.

If you want to have a relationship with someone who is not your partner that you think will bring more energy and excitement to your life and perhaps the life of your partner, then having an open marriage might work for you. For other people, balancing a sexual or emotional relationship with more than one person can seem impossible. (Who has the time? I barely have time for one partner, much less two or more. ) The families who do make an open relationship work? Of the almost twenty families, couples and individuals I interviewed who are doing it well, all of them are creating rules that determine how they can live with and have a balanced and full life with all of their partners and at the same time explore other relationships outside of their marriages or commitments.

What they have in common is that they communicate about their feelings, fears and issues but what I found interesting -- the central factor about these open relationships is that each individual is working on themselves, and not just on their relationships.

The families that seemed to be happy, well adjusted and describe themselves as content, consisted of partners who were committed to their own growth, their own insight and many times their own therapy.

This is an important lesson for all of us; traditional or nontraditional, alternative or single. Working on our own stuff is the key.

Watch for the next article in my series on A New Monogamy and Open Relationships, coming soon.

Dr. Tammy Nelson is the author of The New Monogamy and can be found at www.drtammynelson.com

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