When I first started practicing as a sex and relationship therapist nearly 15 years ago, the idea of open relationships was something my clients brought up once every six months or so. These days, the question about whether to explore consensual non-monogamy comes up nearly once a week.
Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term that we use to describe a variety of open relationship structures. Regardless of the structure a couple chooses, one thing is clear — the couple mutually agrees to open, honest communication. This means no lies, no secrets, no sneaking around, and of course … no cheating.
Lots of couples assume they’re in monogamous relationships, but the cold hard truth is that infidelity, or cheating, is more common than we’d like to admit. It used to be that men cheated more. This was primarily because men worked outside the home and had more opportunities to fool around. But these days, with more women working outside the home too and how easy the internet makes it to meet potential partners, both men and women find themselves tempted to orchestrate a secret tryst.
Infidelity is more complex than many think. It's hard to comprehend how someone could do such a thing despite claiming to still have feelings of love and attachment to their primary partner. This begs the question, Could it be that maybe we're just not meant to be monogamous?
This was the question that Timothy and Rose wanted to explore as part of their marital therapy. They’d been happily married for 18 years and had a 14-year-old daughter. Despite maintaining a mutually satisfying sex life, they both felt like something was missing. They’d recently watched a TV show that depicted a couple going to a sex party, and even though things went horribly wrong in the show, it sparked a conversation between them. Could they have sex with other people without getting jealous, feeling betrayed or breaking up their marriage?
“Let’s start with the why,” I told them. “It’s always good to be very clear about your motivation.”
Rose began. “We married fairly young and neither of us had very many sexual experiences before committing to each other. I think we agree there’s a part of us that feels curious about what it would be like to have sex with other people at this stage in life. I was so young when I was experimenting before meeting Tim. I didn’t know my body. I didn’t know how to express my desires. Tim has been incredible, and I’ve grown so much with him over the years. I think he’d say the same about me. But I couldn’t stop fantasizing after seeing that TV show. When I confessed my thoughts to Tim, he surprised me by admitting he entertained the same curiosity from time to time as well.”
“I’m not going to lie,” Tim said. “It’s painful for me to imagine Rose with anybody else. I’m certain I couldn’t watch her like that TV couple at the sex party. But what I do know is that I would never cheat on Rose, and I know she’d never cheat on me. If this is something we’re going to explore, we want to go about it the right way. We’re here to get some information so we can figure out if this is something we should keep talking about.”
“Well,” I told them, “I commend you for being so mature about this. It can be challenging to have these conversations, but you’re already clear about your commitment to one another. You’re able to communicate effectively, and that’s half the battle.”
“Does this actually work for people?” Rose asked.
“It does for some and not for others,” I told them. “Up until recently, we didn’t have much research that examined the effect that non-monogamy had on marital happiness. But some interesting studies have come out recently. According to open-relationship researcher and therapist Martha Kauppi, whom I interviewed on my “Love and Libido” podcast, a recent small study indicated that open relationships may not have a negative impact on relationships and may enhance sexual satisfaction between the primary couple. Lots of people discover that they end up experiencing something called compersion, which is wholehearted joy knowing their partner is experiencing pleasure even if it doesn’t include them. Of course there are others that find they get wildly jealous and possessive.”
“So, what do you think, doc? Are humans meant to be monogamous?” Tim asked.
“I wish I had a straightforward answer,” I said. “It’s complicated, and the science is mixed. We know there’s enormous variability in people’s gender identity and expression and sexual orientation, and I think there’s also variability in how people choose to have relationships. Some social scientists and anthropologists argue that monogamy became a socioeconomic arrangement between couples as humans evolved from living nomadically to farming. Women needed resources from men, and men needed to be sure that the children they were providing resources for were theirs. Now that women can provide their own resources and men can request a paternity test to confirm offspring, we don’t really need this arrangement.
“Other studies suggest that humans are hardwired to pair-bond and fall in love with one person at a time. But we all know that the honeymoon period eventually ends. This leads some scientists to argue that maybe we’re designed to be serial monogamists. Furthermore, there are some species in the animal kingdom that maintain monogamous relationships for their entire lives.
“I personally believe some humans are not designed to have monogamous relationships, while others feel completely fulfilled with one partner for their whole lives — and others fall somewhere in between.”
“Interesting,” Rose said. “So how do we determine what might work for us or even begin to experiment with this?”
“I think it’s important to first identify what kind of non-monogamous relationship structure you’re comfortable with. Like everything else when it comes to sex, there are a lot of options. There’s polyamory, which is concurrent ongoing romantic and sexual relationships, sometimes separate from the primary partner and, other times, relationships that include the primary partner; swinging, which is usually defined by couples having sex with other couples; and open relationships, where having sex with other people is permitted and not considered to be cheating, just to name a few. You can spend some time exploring these options, but the key to making any open relationship work is having open, honest communication. You may also find that you need to adjust boundaries as you explore.”
Tim and Rose decided to start a trial period for an open relationship. They set boundaries, including always using sexual protection, never sharing their home address with people they hooked up with, and checking in with each other weekly to make sure they were both doing OK emotionally and as a couple.
Every couple’s story is different. Tim and Rose discovered that a few casual hookups made their sex with each other even better. It seemed to fulfill whatever had been missing. But, after a few months of exploration, they decided to go back to monogamy. Who knows if they’ll choose to open things up again in the future, but they left therapy feeling informed, empowered, and equipped with tools to make changes as they needed them.