When I tell people I’m in an open relationship there are a small variable of answers spit back out at me. Generally it’s a combination of “what does that mean?” and “I don’t think I could do that.” I’m wary that anyone recognizes the significance of admitting ignorance and preference in the same sentence, but I don’t blame them. We have to tuck these things into our heads somewhere, and ethical non-monogamy usually gets tucked away with the cast of Big Love and incurable STDs. If that’s what I’m doing, I’m doing it horribly wrong.
I decided to ask some of my monogamous friends if the concept of meeting their life partner tomorrow was more “exciting” or “terrifying.” Most of them said it made them excited, although they wouldn’t necessarily know they were the love of their lives at first-meet. Fair enough.
Having been monogamous for most of my life (serially monogamous, even) I think I have an understanding of how both kinds of relationships work. Thinking about it, I decided that I too could be monogamous again.
“I’d want to be able to hang out with whoever I wanted” – I thought – “and I’d like to be able to be friends with men, and women.” In addition, “I’d like to be able to have intimate friendships.” I didn’t want monogamy to mean that I had to obey by the same strict guidelines I had previously. “I’d want to be able to be alone with someone I felt intimately towards and not have it be a precursor to infidelity.” Basically, I wanted the freedom to have feelings. Even if within the confines of the monogamy I wouldn’t be able to follow them through.
I think there’s a misconception that small bits of freedom cascade into horrendous plane crashes of emotional hellfire. As though a peck on the cheek to someone you find devilishly handsome could snowball into a full-blown cheating scandal. There is also a misconception that telling your partner “hey, don’t do any of these things” is going to prevent infidelity from happening. At the end of the day, each partner has to feel comfortable within the relationship. They have to feel satisfied. They have to be happy. There are a lot of things that get put into that to make it happen. It’s the responsibility of each partner to communicate their needs. If you can’t create a framework where you’re both going to be happy, these little things can and do cascade into something bigger. The difference is this: are you looking for excitement outside of your relationship? Are you trying to fill some gap that isn’t being filled? Or are you letting relationships become stronger and more intimate while still staying within the boundaries of what you and your partner have deemed acceptable?
I don’t believe that allowing more freedom within monogamous relationships leads to catastrophe. I think that sort of freedom can allow for greater respect and trust within your relationship. I think it can allow you to feel a sense of ownership over yourself and your body. I think it can allow more flexibility in your day-to-day interactions. I think that you can have a monogamous relationship that is this way. I don’t think a monogamous relationship has to be something that restricts your freedom or prevents you from having new experiences or limits how close you and a friend can be. I think it is narrow-minded to believe that there is only one model for monogamy.
This isn’t to say that anyone is “doing it wrong” if they feel comfortable with a more strict set of guidelines within their relationships. For some people there is a security in knowing that their partner is so intwined with them that they nearly function as one. There is no reason to negate that experience and I think it can certainly be romantic. But I don’t think that it should necessarily be the standby, either. It doesn’t work for everyone.
I could be monogamous if my partner recognized my autonomy and I recognized theirs. I could be monogamous if I felt that the relationship was strengthened in that way. I could be monogamous if the ability to have new experiences together was a possibility. “Monogamish” relationships, as they’re called, can be a fluid alternative to monogamy and polyamory. You’re monogamous spare those occasions you share together.
Mostly I find it depressing that monogamy has been associated with ball-and-chain mentality and non-monogamy has been associated with casual sex. Relationships of any kind should be based on communication and mutual respect. They should grow through trust that develops over time. They should be flexible enough to change if need be. They should focus on bringing two lives together as one, while allowing enough room for each partner to continue growing as individuals.
Whatever you decide to call your relationship, it should share these things.