When I started practicing as a sex and relationship therapist almost 15 years ago, the idea of open relationships was something my clients brought up once every six months or so. These days, the question of whether to explore consensual non-monogamy comes up almost once a week.
Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term 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 and honest communication. This means no lies, no secrets, no evasiveness, and of course… no cheating.
Many 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 mainly because men worked outside the home and had more opportunities to waste time. But these days, with more women working outside the home and how easy it is to meet potential partners online, both men and women are tempted to orchestrate a secret date.
Infidelity is more complex than many think. It is difficult to understand how someone could do such a thing despite claiming that they still have feelings of love and attachment for their primary partner. This begs the question: could it be that we may not be meant to be monogamous?
This was the question that Timothy and Rose wanted to explore as part of their marital therapy. They had been happily married for 18 years and had a 14-year-old daughter. Despite maintaining a mutually satisfying sex life, both felt that something was missing. They recently watched a TV show that featured a couple going to a sex party, and even though things went terribly wrong on the show, it sparked a conversation between them. Could they have sex with other people without becoming 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 got married quite young and neither of us had many sexual experiences before committing to each other. I think we agree that there is a part of us that is curious about what it would be like to have sex with other people at this stage of life. She was very young when she was experimenting before she met Tim. I didn’t know my body. I didn’t know how to express my wishes. Tim has been amazing and I have grown so much with him over the years. I think he would say the same about me. But I couldn’t stop fantasizing after watching that TV show. When I confessed my thoughts to Tim, he surprised me by admitting that he, too, felt the same curiosity from time to time.”
“I’m not going to lie,” Tim said. “It’s painful for me to imagine Rose with someone else. I’m sure I couldn’t see her as that TV couple at the sex party. But what I do know is that I would never cheat on Rose, and I know that she would never cheat on me. If this is something we’re going to explore, we want to do it the right way. We’re here to get information so we can determine if this is something we should continue to talk about.”
“Well,” I told them, “kudos to you for being so mature about it. It can be challenging to have these conversations, but you are already clear about your commitment to each other. You can communicate effectively, and that’s half the battle.”
“Does this really work for people?” Rose asked.
“Some find it useful and others don’t,” I told them. “Until recently, we didn’t have a lot of research examining the effect that non-monogamy had on marital happiness. But recently some interesting studies have appeared. 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 improve sexual satisfaction between partners major. Many people find that they end up experiencing something called compersion, which is a sincere joy in knowing that their partner is experiencing pleasure, even if it doesn’t include them. Of course, there are others who find that they become wildly jealous and possessive.”
“And what to do you think, doctor? Are humans meant to be monogamous? Tim asked.
“I wish I had a straight answer,” I said. “It’s complicated, and the science is mixed. We know that there is enormous variability in people’s gender identity and expression and sexual orientation, and I think there is also variability in how people choose to be in relationships. Some social scientists and anthropologists argue that monogamy became a socioeconomic arrangement between couples as humans evolved from nomadic living to agriculture. Women needed resources from men, and men needed to be sure that the children they provided resources for were theirs. Now that women can bring their own resources and men can request a paternity test to confirm offspring, we really don’t need this arrangement.
“Other studies suggest that humans are programmed to 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 perhaps we are designed to be serially monogamous. In addition, there are some species in the animal kingdom that maintain monogamous relationships throughout their lives.
“Personally, I believe that some humans are not designed to be in monogamous relationships, while others are completely satisfied with one partner throughout their lives, and others fall somewhere in between.”
“Interesting,” Rose said. “So how do we determine what might work for us or even start experimenting 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 many options. There is polyamory, which are simultaneous and continuous romantic and sexual relationships, sometimes separate from the main partner and, other times, relationships that include the main partner; swingers, which is generally defined by couples having sex with other couples; and open relationships, where having sex with other people is allowed and not considered cheating, just to name a few. You can spend some time exploring these options, but the key to making any open relationship work is open and honest communication. You may also find that you need to adjust the limits as you explore.”
Tim and Rose decided to start a trial period for an open relationship. They set limits, including always using sexual protection, never sharing their home address with people they associated with, and checking in weekly to make sure they were both doing well emotionally and as a couple.
The story of each couple is different. Tim and Rose found that a few casual hookups made their sex with each other even better. It seemed to fulfill what was missing. But, after a few months of exploring, they decided to return to monogamy. Who knows if they will choose to open things up again in the future, but they left therapy feeling informed, empowered, and equipped with the tools to make the changes they needed.