Confession time: I fall in love and have sex with many other people besides my wife.
No, they’re not extra-marital affairs like the 70 percent of married people who cheat according to a quick search on Google. (Science warning: it’s probably not wise to take Google’s [or my] word on that stat). My extra-marital affairs are intended to be thoughtful, considerate, and fully consensual relationships that are pre-negotiated between my wife and me, and whomever we may be seeing.
You may have heard of the terms “polyamory” or “non-monogamy” to refer to these types of relationships. Or perhaps you’re aware of swingers, sex clubs, or kink culture. Although Psychology Today took a crack at defining the various permutations of multi-person love, the definitions are far from concise. After 10 years of participating in varying types of non-monogamous queer relationships, I’m still not entirely sure on any given day where I fall on this spectrum, in sexual identity or in practice. My understanding of the fluidity and ever-shifting nature of my own sexuality is primarily why I don’t have a strong identity of my own. But regardless of the direction of my desire, or what causes it to ignite, I deeply value the freedom for consensual sexual exploration and experimentation that comes with being in a non-monogamous, polyamorous relationship with my wife.
What I do know about my identity, or at least about our lifestyle, is that my wife and I discuss our outside relationships with each other and prioritize our marriage and our commitment to our family, our careers, and our vision for our shared future above any of our individual desires. On paper, it’s pretty simple. We are committed to one another for life, intentionally on a journey to build a home together; blessed to, hopefully, one day care for our future children; and responsible for helping our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives, friends and, of course, ourselves seek fulfilling and happy lives full of abundance. Our relationship style is driven more by wanting to be honest, intentional, and up front with each other about our sexual desires and social needs than it is getting laid. Luckily for us both, having sex with other people when it feels right and good and full of care is just one of the positive by-products of choosing to practice this type of open marriage.
Our relationship style is driven more by wanting to be honest, intentional, and up front with each other about our sexual desires and social needs than it is getting laid."
Commitment, on the other hand, is a concept that I have come to understand as separate from desire. It goes beyond the compulsions of my ever-fluctuating sex drive and helps to build a meaningful existence outside the fulfillment of my own selfish interests. Commitment, unlike the very physiological experiences of attraction and desire, lives primarily in the world of power and status. It is about the merging of self-interests and stating the intentions we want to broadcast to our peers. When commitment intersects with power in polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships, that’s when things start to get really interesting. This is also where my thinking begins to get a bit messy, so please bear with me here.
As individual sentient beings, our decisions and behaviors are guided by our own self-interests (psychological, philosophical, or spiritual discussions aside, lets basically just start here). By intentionally making commitments to others, we are being asked to consider their interests as our own. All relationships depend on this expansion of self-interests, and all will eventually reach a limit, boundary, or breaking point if the cost to our own needs is too high. In most relationships, we are finely attuned to the unspoken boundaries of our partners, yet fearful that we’ll overstep and cause discomfort or cause for them to leave us. Exploring and understanding our own personal needs and the pull of our individual self-interests is the most important prerequisite for any truly intentional relationship with another person. Once those needs are at least somewhat personally understood, it gets much easier to find alignment and negotiate mutually beneficial relationships that don’t leave either partner mired in disappointment or resentment when their needs aren’t matching up with their partner’s behavior.
With marriage (or life partnership), in order to ensure a stable and lasting union, we’re expected to transform this intentional expansion of mutual interests into an innately tuned set of needs shared by both partners. We seek a merging of interests that is as natural and as simple as the selfless love from parent to child. We expect this to make commitment easy and for marriages to last ‘til death do we part. But like with everything, the only way to accomplish a true merging of personal interests is with a lot of hard work and much negotiation.
The ability to merge individual interests with a partner becomes skewed when differences in power dynamics are also at play. In a society of particularly disparate power relations, as is the case with gender, class, and race dynamics in America, the stability of a marriage can easily be impacted by different degrees of power in a partnership. The partner with more social power has more latitude to get what they want out of the relationship, and is less accountable for the transparency of their actions and intentions. Additionally, because we are a communal species, regardless of whether we belong to one of the most or least marginalized communities within our society, these power dynamics intersect all of human existence and are present in all of our relationships.
As an activist seeking to dismantle systems of oppression, I’m faced with the very real difficulty of negotiating these power structures in both my marriage and with any of my additional relationships. Established power hierarchies exist to consolidate power for certain types of people and make their lives and decisions simple. It is much simpler to negotiate the mutual agreements of a marriage between a man and a woman because each individual’s roles and needs have already been categorized for us (or at least that has been the idea). The simplicity of those power arrangements is what social conservatives believe is foundational to America’s past greatness, and in many ways, they are not wrong.
Traditional marriage between a man and a woman does not require the type of deep intentional negotiation that exists in queer or non-monogamous relationships. That does not mean it does not exist in traditional marriages, it simply means that power is a mitigating factor in any contract, marriage not excluded. Without power distinctions, in a truly equal society, it requires a much deeper investment to build strong powerful partnerships that are not stabilized through a power structure of coercion or domination.
Traditional marriage between a man and a woman does not require the type of deep intentional negotiation that exists in queer or non-monogamous relationships."
As equals, our partnerships rely solely on the depth of introspective understanding of our self-interests and needs, our ability to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement, and our intentional commitment to that agreement. But of course, we do not live in a society of equals, so the stability of my non-monogamous marriage then (and really any relationship I engage in) depends both on the depth of that intentionality in the merging of self-interests, and in the relinquishing of privilege in the negotiation of our commitment to one another.
Sounds like a piece of cake, right?
Maybe it would be simpler to just wear one of those red hats everyone’s got on these days. […]
All of that is to say nothing about the depth of meaning that comes along with committing yourself to the shared interests of your life partner rather than following a path of selfish pursuits.
My commitment to my wife is the most intentional, visionary, and sacred agreement I’ve ever made, and will ever make, in my life. It is a melding of both of our self-interests, needs, future visions for our life, and it embodies a deep commitment to prioritize our marriage contract (ketubah), which was not only negotiated between our two individual parties but was witnessed and supported by both of our families and our larger community.
Contrary to popular cultural beliefs, though, what that commitment to our marriage doesn’t encompass for us is an exclusion of all other consensual sexual, romantic, or social relationships from our lives. There does exist a fundamental shift in our understanding of these outside relationships from before our marriage commitment to one another, as now both of our needs are part of any negotiation with any of our outside partners. But the beauty of living a life open to experience, to conversation and discussion, to change and growth, and ultimately to the abundance of love, is that our commitment to one another is renewed with each passing day. The rooted core of that bond will outlive an army of red-hatted fascists by being flexible to life’s tribulations, buoyed by love, and bound by our never-ending faith in one another.