The Monogamy Dilemma


My boyfriend and I are very committed but he recently told me he wants to try an open sexual relationship. We know a couple who have been doing this for several years and although they have some issues, they seem happy enough. I’m much more concerned that this could break us up than I am excited about having sex with someone else. Any suggestions?

He Said: Yes I do have a suggestion: Ask yourself what it is that you are committed to. If the answer is committed to being a couple, which it sounds like, then do not have an open relationship. Outside action is usually a symptom that something central is missing and if you want to stay with your boyfriend, find out what the real need is and fill it.

But maybe your answer is that you are primarily committed to being a whole and complete person who comes to a relationship out of a healthy individuality. That you love this man but don't need him. Then maybe an open relationship is the next step in your development.

Still, sex, when done right, connects two people romantically, hormonally, spiritually and in innumerable, ineffable and life altering ways. This is why, as a species, we are deeply wired to want monogamy and why, when all that goes south, we record the pain of those losses in some of the finest art ever created, as well as Shaggy's It Wasn't Me. If you have great sex with someone, you want to have it again. If you repeatedly have great sex with someone, the lower brain engages and you want to own that person exclusively. A timeshare may be great for a vacation home, but it often makes for an unhappy relationship.

She Said: Oh boy. To put it simply, I don't recommend this for any but the very strongest, most mature and resilient marriages. (And one could argue that those marriages are the exact ones that don't need it.) We could go into the whole monogamy vs. polyamory discussion, and compare our mating habits to fellow mammals, but that would make this an intellectual discussion, and sexual attachment is anything but. At the risk of sounding a bit jumbled, here are my main suggestions:

1.    I would first ask your boyfriend why he wants this. Is he bored? Did he not have enough lovers before you met? Does he want some sexual energy or experience you are unwilling to give? Or maybe he just doesn't believe in, or want, monogamy in the long run. Any answers you both uncover to these questions will serve you well regardless of what kind of sexual relationship you create. If you can fill his underlying need within the relationship, try that first.

2.    On the con side, the risks are great. And you already know and feel that. If your "very committed" relationship has any holes at all, be they underlying resentments, unsettled power struggles or stale sexual routines, then inviting other lovers into the ring will probably bring them to the surface. People mistakenly think of polyamory as some kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too party, when in actuality it can be more like an ongoing couples' therapy session.

3.    On the pro side, long-term monogamy can naturally begin to feel like somewhat of a pressure cooker. Here you both are, forever and ever: same habits, same skills, same interactional patterns. Introducing new energy via other lovers can be like lifting the lid off to let some steam escape, or like letting fresh air into a cooped-up room. If you can use non-monogamy this way—to introduce new energy, shared experiences, and emotional and sexual exploration in the primary relationship—well, sure, it could work. You say it works for your friends. Talk to them and find out why, what they’ve learned, what mistakes they’ve made. I also recommend you and your boyfriend read Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships before proceeding any further.

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