Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I was at a bachelorette party about two years ago, chatting about phallic accessories and strategizing song requests, when a maid of honor put down the drink she was sipping and leaned toward my ear.
“So, I hear you’re in an open relationship,” she said, apropos of nothing.
“Yeah,” I replied warily. I hadn’t told her that. My skin prickled with suspicion that she and the bride had already discussed this at length. Near us, a beer bottle clattered to the floor; this didn’t exactly feel like the ideal place for this particular chat.
“How’s that work?” she asked.
With a deep breath, I presented my go-to rapid-fire synopsis: My boyfriend and I have known each other for almost a decade; we live in different cities but are soon moving in together; once in a while we separately go on dates with or have safe sex with other people; our relationship has been open since its start because we find casual dating and sex enjoyable, but are emotionally committed to and in love with one another, and no one else. “That’s, uh, about it,” I finished, lamely.
Then I cocked my head to one side, waiting. This was what I had come to think of as reaction roulette time: Would she be scandalized? Supportive? Ask me how to broach the subject with her husband?
Or, as it turned out, none of the above. “Don’t you think,” she said, her face a mask of concern, “You’re not actually committed to each other?”
I was stung. Of course not, I told her. He’s my partner. I’m in love with him. We’re about to share a home, merge our lives. I felt like stamping my feet. He comes to my family’s holidays! That is commitment!
She pursed her lips, took another sip of her drink, and said only: “Hmm.”
The exchange felt like a slap, but it wasn’t the first time I’d felt that way — I’d had plenty of these conversations. Like the time another friend asked me, “Why would you do that with someone you’re actually serious about?” Or when my boyfriend told me a woman he was on a date with asked him, of my part in our mutually established relationship style, “Why would she want to do that?” In other words: What kind of woman lets her boyfriend sleep with other women? What could possibly be wrong with her?
When it comes to my relationship, questions are everywhere. Some are things my partner and I asked each other early on and continue to revisit: Do we want to keep this relationship open? Do we need to do anything differently? How do you feel? I credit these questions for helping us build the most contented, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying relationship I’ve ever had — exploring non-monogamy means we have to be honest, vulnerable, and communicative with each other.
But then there are the questions other people ask me. I get the same ones so frequently — What about jealousy? What do you get out of it? How does it all work, exactly? Do you tell each other everything? What will you do when you have kids? — that I sometimes worry people will think I’m speaking for everyone in non-monogamous relationships when I respond. But I’m not Open Relationship Alexa. My answer to that broadest of questions, how it all works, is only about how it works for me, for us, right now.
There is no one way, or right way, to be open, or poly, or monogamish. The only requirement in consensual non-monogamy in general is right there in the name: that it’s consensual. You both agree to be something other than completely monogamous; beyond that, the terms, which have the potential to change at any time, are up to you. That’s really all I know for sure.
So here’s what I tell people. For the questions about jealousy: I’ve experienced it, like any other emotion; I told him how I felt and we processed it together. What we get out of it: the ability to experience the fun of flirting, dating, and hooking up, things we don’t feel we have to give up to have a committed relationship that feels healthy to us. How it all works: every once in a while one of us meets someone out and about or on an app; sometimes we date and have sex; no one comes to our place; we’re not looking for other boyfriends or girlfriends. What about when you have kids: A better, less presumptive one might be whether I want to have kids. But there’s one question I don’t know how to answer, and when I can’t, people are perplexed, even shocked: “What happens if one of you falls in love with someone else?”
Because I’m in a relationship that’s outside our culture’s default setting of monogamy, some people perceive it as dangerous. They wonder if the approved exposure to other people’s charms on a date, or other people’s bodies in a bedroom, means the chances are higher that something — someone — will rip me and my partner apart.
They want to hear my contingency plans, how I’ve disaster-proofed my life. If I’ve made this choice, people assume, I must be an expert — I’m playing the relationship game on a very high difficulty setting, aren’t I? But what if I’m not an expert? Am I then only a fool?
When it comes to jealousy, to boundaries, to logistics, the best disaster-proofing I know is talking. For some things, we anticipate scenarios and come up with action plans. But if he falls in love with someone else and out of love with me, what will I do, beyond grieve? I don’t know. Does anyone?
My relationship being open doesn’t seem inherently more dangerous to me. In fact, one of the reasons I love my partner is because I feel safe with him. But relationships fail even when they’re monogamous — people leave each other, fall in love with someone else, let things wear away or implode. Shit happens. It could happen to us. I know what I know now, but I don’t know everything. And when I am expected to know everything — to explain everything, to have it all figured out because my relationship is so unusual and risky — I feel tired. I don’t at all condemn monogamy, but when my monogamous friends ask these questions, I think: Do you have it all figured out? Are you monogamous because you’re an expert in monogamy, or are you monogamous because you just are?
I don’t want to be an expert or a fool. I want a middle ground of just being a person in love, trying things, learning about myself and my partner, discovering what works for us. As relationships of every conceivable style are becoming more a part of the public consciousness (thanks in part to open relationship plotlines on shows like HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s Easy), it’s my hope not that questions go away entirely, but maybe that they become different ones. I like to imagine a conversation over drinks where someone asks, “What’s something you’ve learned about yourself from being in this kind of relationship?” I like to imagine questions that feel more like “Tell me about that,” than “Defend that to me.”
It’s also my hope that when anyone is honest about their relationship style, they experience this kind of reaction: Toward the beginning of my relationship, I was sitting on the couch with my 58-year-old mother, who is going on more than 30 years of marriage to my father. Tentatively, I told her that my partner and I “date each other … I mean, he’s my boyfriend … but we date other people, too.”
She paused a moment, and then said simply: “Cool.”