We’ve always said that if you want to be in an open relationship, it helps if you’re the kind of advanced human being who is missing the jealousy gene. (Neither of us comes even remotely close, for the record.) It just seems like, if you’re going to be cool with your one-and-only kissing someone else or going down on someone else, then the Green-Eyed Monster is an unwelcome guest at the sex party.
So we were surprised to read a personal essay in the New York Times last weekend by a woman who claims that her open-ish relationship helps her husband handle his fears that she will cheat on him or leave him.
It may seem eccentric that my husband has translated the common fear of being cheated on into enthusiasm for the idea, but he’s not alone. Type “cuckold” into a pornography search engine and you’ll be greeted with countless scenes in which people play out that exact fantasy.
The writer, Ada Calhoun, explains how, of the two of them, she was the sexual adventurer before they met, the one who’d had more sexual encounters, more fleeting encounters, more casual sex.
Because of this, my husband has at times fretted that I might leave him. What should he do with that anxiety? Maybe eroticizing it isn’t the worst strategy, especially if it gets us talking about what turns us on and keeps us in the loop about each other’s lives. Surely it’s better than the more mainstream reactions to jealousy: becoming paranoid or controlling.
In theory, it sounds kind of awesome. It’s not entirely clear — even to the author herself — how far she is permitted to go. The only real rule they have, it seems, is that she always be completely honest. In other words, her husband never has to worry about what she’s really thinking or what she really desires to do, because he’s given her permission to explore her desires and she has promised to tell him everything. It’s the rubber band vs. ball-and-chain theory of marriage.
And yet. We still can’t imagine how this works in practice, when the husband in question is already jealous and insecure. Sure, this approach could cure his jealousy, kind of like shock treatment — but could it also lead to years of pent-up jealousy and resentment?
Also, it’s not entirely clear whether he’s allowed to kiss and tell too. Which seems odd until you get to this, more than halfway through the article:
Years ago, my husband told me he had fallen in love with someone else. He was deeply confused and scared by it. I didn’t even know who he was talking about; that’s how much of a secret he had kept his growing feelings. When he told me who it was, a co-worker, I felt as if I had been shot. I broke things. I threw him out. He ended the affair. Since then, I’ve forgiven him, and we’ve worked hard to figure out why it happened and what it meant.
Um, WHAT??!! Talk about burying the lede! Is this why she gets to kiss other people, because he once cheated? Is he afraid she’ll leave because he is a cheater? Did he feel like he owed her something after this? Suddenly the open-ish relationship seems a whole lot messier and unresolved. An affair seems like a pretty shaky foundation to build this kind of modern, break-the-rules relationship on (unless the affair came after the agreement to be open and monogamish, which is even worse). And yet, we can kind of get the explanation:
The main thing that helped me get over the affair was realizing that attraction to other people isn’t necessarily a sign your marriage is bankrupt. In the course of being together forever, especially if you’re out in the world meeting new people, it happens. One of the challenges in a marriage, in addition to deciding whose job it is to do the dishes and how to balance the budget, is to figure out how to deal with lust or love for other people.
YES. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. We couldn’t agree more! We wish more people understood that attraction to people besides your spouse is normal and usually fleeting and nothing to fret about at all. If you can understand that — whether or not you want to pursue those attractions — your marriage will be so much more robust.
In the meantime, though, it sounds like this particular open relationship could use a few more rules and guidelines. That’s the problem with open relationships: When you bust out of society’s expectations of monogamy — and believe us, we applaud the couples who do — and forge new ground, you can’t rely on tradition or precedent to tell you how to behave. You need to work to get on the same pages as a couple, and we don’t care if doing so involves a dorky list of rules*. Or maybe a Google doc that you can edit and share — there’s a nice metaphor for your relationship! Your marriage, however you define it, is worth it.
* Then again, we suppose that publishing an article about your vague open relationship in a national newspaper that will be read by your parents and your in-laws and your co-workers and your childhood friends and pretty much everyone you know is another good way to figure things out!
This article originally appeared on EMandLO.com.
More from Em & Lo:
Top 10 Reasons for Being — and Staying — Non-Monogamous
Top 10 Reasons for Being — and Staying — Monogamous
Would Most Men Accept a Free Pass for a One-Night Stand?
Em & Lo like to consider themselves the Emily Posts of the modern bedroom. They have co-authored six books on the topics of sex and love: Sex: How to Do Everything, three A-Z guides, Buh Bye, Rec Sex and Sex Toy, the sex manual The Big Bang: Nerve’s Guide to the New Sexual Universe, and the handbook Sex Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. They have contributed to numerous magazines including Glamour, Details, Allure, Marie Claire, and GQ, and wrote columns for New York magazine and The Guardian in the U.K. They currently post daily on their own blog, EMandLO.com, as well as on SUNfiltered, the Sundance Channel blog. You can follow them on Twitter at #EMandLO.