To tell you the truth, I thought about calling this blogpost "Coming Out as Monogamous," because that is exactly what writing the following paragraphs felt like. In the last year, many things have changed in my life, and my views of the world - and of myself - have been challenged in ways I had not anticipated. I broke up with my ex because he expressed his unhappiness about not being allowed to sleep with other people; I fell in love with a man who felt justified in lying to me about the extent of the openness of his relationship because his girlfriend has a (previously agreed upon) girlfriend; I was called conservative (and worse) because I expressed my desire to find someone to be exclusive with; and, altogether, a significant percentage of the people I have slept with are (or were) in open relationships compared to the singles with whom I get intimate. I am a chronic self-doubter, but never, I think, have so many different situations and circumstances forced me to doubt anything so important (and so integral) to me as my love for exclusive love, and doubt it with such vehemence that I steered myself headfirst into a serious crisis. I am only now beginning to break free of the "what-is-love"-shackles I stupidly put on myself because of others' decisions, others' opinions, and others' ideas and ideals. As is always the case with me, this process of breaking free has been and is accompanied by lots and lots and lots of writing. Because I feel like the results might be of more social relevance than I could have foreseen, I have decided to turn my findings into a new post for my blog. Please know that the following text is brutally honest and, in parts, a little explicit. Or at least a little vulgar.
What has become the tip of the iceberg, and the trigger for my decision to finally get my doubts and my thoughts about romantic and sexual relationships organised, was a very recent and, on the surface, very unimportant incident which harmed me in ways I did not immediately understand, as I did not at all consider the incident worthy of fretting over from a rational perspective.
A few days ago, I chatted politely with a sexual interest who is in an open relationship and has been in this relationship for ten years. (I don't know whether it has always been an open one.) The twenty-eight-year-old informed me that if the relationship weren't open, he'd have slept with someone new at eighteen years of age for the final time, and that would have been - his very word, not mine - sad. He also said that seeing others, snogging with others, and sleeping with others was of course no problem, because he and his boyfriend weren't "Christians from the 1940s."
In my mid-twenties journey of sexual discovery, this man was neither the first nor will he be the last subchapter which, while flirting, chatting, or sleeping with me, actually has a loving and beloved partner at home who might simultaneously be flirting, chatting, sleeping with someone else. While it has been unimaginable for me only a few months ago, when I was still caught up in the relationship which I thought was the only one I'd ever be in (and which I thought was basically me having won at life), by now, open and polyamorous relationships have become as mundane for me as exclusive ones. While all partnerships in my close circle of friends and family are monogamous, one of the largest groups of my extended social circle is now that of my sexual acquaintances, and the number of open partnerships in this circle is so great that I have begun to wonder whether there even were exclusive couples in my age-group beyond those I am already lucky enough to count among my nearest and dearest. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has forced me to ask myself whether I now had to warm up to the idea of one day living in such an open relationship myself, were I ever to wish to return to the status of "taken" - whatever that status means if the relationship is not exclusive sexually or even romantically.
The fact is, this status - or any other status - doesn't mean much of anything anymore. This is the most marvellous aspect of the "rise of openness," if you will: labels become less and less applicable, thus less and less useful, and an era of recognising individuality and difference rather than descriptiveness and arbitrary discrimination in all manners of sexuality might be in the making. I am all for this. And in theory, I also cherish open relationships and polyamory: if two or more people have decided together that they wish to be in a relationship with each other, but interact sexually (and even romantically) with other people as well, then that is perfectly wonderful, and the relationship that results from it can be as happy, and full of trust and respect, as any monogamous relationship out there. However, what makes the relationship wonderful and happy is not the fact that the partners are allowed to sleep with others, but the fact that they have decided this together, consensually, in trust and in respect, that the parties involved agree to give each other sexual freedom or, rather, the chance to fulfil their sexual desires, no matter what they may be.
But now, hear this, Mr "We Are Not 1940's Christians" and all who think like him: sexual freedom is not the same thing for everybody, and desires differ.
When I am in a relationship, I do not want to sleep with other people. This is not an exaggeration, and it is not an expression of some higher will over my instincts and Triebe. When I love someone, they are the only person I want to be with sexually. And yes, if I enter into an actual relationship, I do so on the condition that they feel the same for me or are ready and willing to try monogamy with me. If the person I am courting or who is courting me does not believe themselves capable of such, there will be no partnership in any strict sense of the word.
Just as openness in polyamory, open relationships, or related forms of partnerships can be an accomplishment of the partners - and just as this accomplishment is what makes the relationship a successful one - in monogamy or exclusive relationships, the exclusiveness can be an accomplishment.
I, in strict contrast to Mr "I Love My Boyfriend But I'll Be Damned If I Don't Get To See Other Naked Bodies," do not think that sleeping with one person and one person only for the entirety of one's adult life is "sad." To me, it's the height of romantic achievement. Loving each other enough to stick together, through good times and bad, and be exclusive from the moment you first become involved with each other to the moment one of you dies is basically my idea of ideal love - unlikely as it may be that anyone manages to be with only one person from the moment of their sexual blooming to the moment of their death. It is what I was heading for with my boyfriend of seven years, who would have been the only person I ever slept with at all if things had gone my way. Unfortunately, I had to break up with him.
And regarding my interesting and very pleasant, but somewhat judgemental acquaintance's other "argument": as anyone who knows me will tell you, I most certainly do not have the mindset of a typical 1940's man - and I am definitely no Christian. I do not prefer monogamy because it is what any society tells me to do, or because I have been taught by anyone in particular to prefer exclusiveness, or because I believe that it is the "good" way of living as opposed to any "worse" alternative. I prefer monogamy because it is what makes me feel best about myself, what gives me the satisfaction and happiness anyone seeks from their sexual and romantic life. I do not prefer it because it is easier, as many claim (falsely, in my opinion), but because I derive pleasure from getting through the bad moments and bad stretches in a partnership together with my partner, to find out with my partner what pleases us sexually and learn together how to try and provide pleasure for each other rather than seek certain kinds of pleasure from other people because I or the partner I love has not (yet) mastered one technique or another. And if I have to forgo certain kinds of pleasure because my partner would not enjoy or simply cannot provide them, it does not feel like forgoing or renouncing anything at all to me: it feels like having sorted out my priorities, having sorted them out well, and gaining the ultimate price.
I do not deny that plenty of people are basically caught up in monogamy when they, in truth, long for something else. As a matter of fact, I am sure of it. But there is something else I say with the certainty of statistics and common sense on my side: just as there are people in exclusive relationships who are unhappy with the situation and people living in monogamy only because it is what their parents or that mysterious spectre "Society" has taught them, there are people in polyamorous and open relationships who secretly (or openly) long for exclusiveness - and people who live in polyamory because the very same spectre, contemporary Western society, has taught them that monogamy is old-fashioned and conservative - and who would want to fit those two bills, right? (There is even an awesome current TV-series that deals with a variation of this scenario: "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story" retells the tragic events surrounding Versace's murder and also highlights personal circumstances in the designer's life - such as his relationship with Antonio D'Amico, whose need for sexual versatility Versace indulges because he loves him too much to risk losing him, until one fateful night when Antonio decides that he, in turn, loves Versace enough to give him what he wants; loves him, in fact, so much that he, Antonio, wants the same thing: monogamous marriage.) I personally know two people who begrudgingly agreed to open relationships out of love, and who now suffer the consequences. I'll eat dirt if there aren't more.
One also has to keep in mind that people change over time.
You might happily live in an exclusive relationship one day, then wake up and
realise that you are lusting for another body, and in such a way that you feel
depleted and depressed if you do not act according to your need. You know what
you should do, if you really think this is not a passing phase? Talk to your
partner about it. You can always, together, arrive at the decision that, after
so and so many weeks, months, or years of sleeping only with each other, you now
want to allow each other to enjoy sex with others, but do not wish to lose each
other in the long term, and so open up the partnership - until such time, that
is, as one or both of you feel that you want to return to monogamy. This might
actually strengthen your relationship. It might, of course, also be its end: if
one person wishes to return to the way things were and the other does not, this
might be where you stop being a couple. Or it might happen much earlier: your
partner could react aversely to the very idea of either of you sleeping with
others, so aversely, in fact, that they leave you simply because you suggested
it. Of course this risk is reality. The story
is reality, actually: it's what happened with my first boyfriend and me. What
you need to decide is if you are willing to take that risk. In other words: you
need to sort out your priorities. This is what any relationship, and not only those
of the sexual and romantic kind, is about when a critical circumstance arises
Whether or not you prefer exclusiveness or openness can not only change with time, but with encounters, as well. As stated above, I have broken up with my boyfriend of seven years because, one fine Sunday in spring, he revealed to me that he did not like the monogamous lifestyle, that he did not understand why I "demanded" we live it, and that he sees no problem, not only with having sex with others, but even with falling in love with others. He did not come right out and say it, but what he was trying to do was to get me to invite him to go suck other penises. Pardon the crudeness. But the most important thing is: he impressed upon me that he was unhappy with the way things were. I, on the other hand, knew that I would be unhappy if I gave in to his change of tune which, to me, was very sudden and unexpected (may I remind you: seven years). I also knew that he was financially and emotionally dependent upon me, and that likely wouldn't have changed very soon; thus, I had to imagine that my prospective future with him would have looked something like this: I would have continued to make sure that he had a roof over his head and food on his table and money to occasionally go out and have a few drinks, while he would have spent a number of nights under someone else's roof, eaten someone else's food, and spent his nights out flirting with other men and ending up in their beds; while I was out working a regular job to get our bills paid, he would have whiled away his days off with other dudes and their genitals; while I was in bed sleeping, tired from another day of work and of writing my way towards my greatest goal and dream - that of making work and writing one and the same thing - he would have been in another bed, enjoying the sexual abilities of a stranger.
I will be the first to admit that this outlook of mine was tainted by hurt, anger, fear, and misunderstanding, and might have had nothing to do with what my ex's and my life together would have looked like, had I decided differently. But knowing that this is what I anticipated, can you blame me for breaking up with him? Should I seriously be called conservative, old-fashioned, and narrowminded, or even an irrationally jealous, controlling type, for ending this relationship? I honestly don't think so.
But: could you have blamed me had I tried to force him to keep on living according to my way of things? Yes. That would have been abusive. He would have been unhappy, I would have been unhappy knowing he was unhappy, and it probably would have ended with him cheating on me sooner or later.
However, there is another, an even more important - a truer, if you will - reason why I decided to break up with him: I was not willing, could never have been willing, to share him, or allow to be shared by him. I never desired and, being with him, likely never would have desired other people. It simply wasn't part of my emotional connection to him and thus of the layout of my entire emotional condition, part of the makeup of my feelings and my desires. The relationship with him was, to me, an exclusive one - and either it remained thus, or ended. It ended.
Not that much later (and believe me, this itself came as much as a surprise to me as the rest of this story), I met a man. And I fell completely, truly, irretrievably in love with him. Only issue was: he had (has, for all I know) a girlfriend. I didn't tell him I had feelings for him at first, because we got along so amazingly well as friends (at least I considered it amazing, which I think is understandable from my point of view, when you consider that what I really wanted to do was rip off his clothes, enter him, and stay like that for the rest of our lives). A month into our "friendship," he offered me his bed for the night, because we'd been out together way past my train-time and I had work the next morning. Imagine my surprise when he put one questing, hopeful hand on my body. "You have a girlfriend," I reminded him.
"She has a girlfriend, too," he said.
Turns out his girlfriend of several years had a girl on the side, a friend she liked very much and she occasionally had sex with, and he was more than okay with that. Turns out she also invited him to go for it if he ever met a man who made him curious about homosexual intercourse. Yay for me.
Also turns out: if he had agreed to keep me around like his girlfriend keeps her friend around, I would have been okay with that, as well. I truly loved this man, I am not kidding. Just like I truly loved my ex-boyfriend. And yet, while I literally preferred never seeing my ex again to sharing him with others, I was willing to engage in a complex web of polyamory with this new one, if that was what was required of me in order to keep him in my life.
It didn't happen one way or the other - sadly, this joyous love of mine has now also ended, partly because of a number of half-truths I was told so I would show this man the wonders of homosexual intercourse, half-truths which made me wonder how many other more or less "open" relationships are actually built on lies, deception, and secrets. But what I take away from this short intermission of being someone's guinea pig is a new piece of valuable information about myself: with certain people, I could willingly try living in an open relationship. With others, I cannot.
Does that mean that I can enjoy open relationships as much as exclusive ones, after all? That I am not monogamous at heart? That the only reason I strive for exclusiveness is some society-driven sense of what is right, or maybe even irrational jealousy and possessiveness?
I'll discuss the third question in a second, but first let me deal with the other two, because answering them is a lot simpler: the answer is no. You want to know how I know that? You want to know how I know, with absolute certainty, that once I fall in love, I fall in love for good, and that when I am in a relationship, I do not want to sleep with anyone else, and would not want my partner to sleep with others, either?
Because of the same story I just told you about me discovering this different side of mine, the story which gave rise to the questions in the first place.
What I left out is this: when I fell in love with the man-who-unfortunately-has-a-girlfriend, I fell for him the very same way I fell for my ex-boyfriend before him. I longed to be with him, and him only. While I would have agreed to an open relationship, was even happy to engage in the experiment, I did not feel the slightest inclination to so much as look at anyone but him as a subject of sexual interest. The open relationship, while I would have given my consent (out of curiosity as well, I'll admit that much), would not have been what I wanted at first, not my original impulse and desire, and I doubt it would have made me very happy for long.
Which brings me to the actual point I am trying to make here, and the answer to question number three: it does not matter where this impulse and desire come from. It does not matter whether "Society" or parental idol or an inherent quality in my genetic or epigenetic or hormonal or whatever makeup shaped me into a person who prefers monogamy. Just like it does not matter which of these ghosts made an individual polyamorous. One can waste hours, days, weeks, years wondering about why one desires what one desires. Search long enough, talk with a psychoanalyst long enough, and they'll find a darned psychosis resulting from childhood trauma behind any of these three: your wish or willingness to be in an exclusive relationship ("after his father betrayed his mother and the mother reacted badly, the patient has learned that having sex outside of the relationship is bad and developed an urge to control and possess the partner"), in an open relationship ("after his father betrayed his mother and the mother reacted badly, the patient has learned not to commit themselves to exclusive partnerships"), or even to be single ("after his father yada yada, the patient has learned that being in a relationship leads to trouble"). Suggesting that someone is conservative, immoral, or even in need of therapy because of their entitled and jealous impulses in a monogamous relationship, or is volatile, inconsequent, immature (or, again, immoral, and in need of therapy) because of their urge to be allowed the freedom to sleep around, or a reclusive coward because of their complete unwillingness to enter into any kind of commitment, is a very similar line of thinking to that which concludes that someone needs therapy because they feel drawn to the same sex. It's denying someone their right to their own desires and way of living.
To me, being exclusive is part of what establishes a romantic relationship in the first place - and part of the attraction, actually. Subscribing oneself completely to one other person, and feeling that one other person subscribe themselves to one in return, being able to tell each other that, yes, one belongs to one another, in a very literal sense, is by far the most amazing and beautiful feeling - the most wondrous transformation - I know of in the spectrum of possible human interactions; and even though the one person I accomplished this neat little trick with is no longer part of my life because he withdrew his subscription, I still remember him fondly as the first source-and-target-combo of not only the greatest love I have ever felt, but the greatest feeling in general my body has ever proven itself capable of. Having felt this once, I know that I want to feel it again, and I hope to one day find someone with whom to feel it for the rest of my life. Thus, I will not enter into a committed relationship unless the other party wants the same exclusiveness I long for. Casual sex can be great, and it is a wonderful way of meeting new people and having social and enormously pleasing fun with others - but to me, it is part of the single life. And as much as I enjoy my single life, I would commit myself again if I fell in love with a suitable person. Any potential suitable person, however, wants me, and only me, as much as I want them, and only them. There is nothing old-fashioned about this. Just as there is nothing progressive about open relationships and polyamory. It's something one either wants or does not want. It is one's freedom to find someone else who wants the same thing and with whom to want it. As long as everyone involved is a consenting adult, any possible kind of happy and stable relationship - between two or more people - is an accomplishment. In shared love and in consensual sex, no way is better than the other. Not wanting the partner to sleep with others is not "lame," as my acquaintance mentioned above (the one who insinuated that I think like a 1940's Christian) would have it. In equal fashion, a relationship isn't less loving if the girlfriend has a girl on the side and the boyfriend knows about and is okay with this, as is the case with my first great love-after-love. And my ex-boyfriend gathering the courage to tell me the truth is just as admirable, brave, and "right" as was my decision to end things with him because of the truth with which he presented me.
This is what sexual freedom is about. And it is what relationships are about. Priorities and choices - but, just as much, insurmountable desires and needs. And desires and needs can never be "right" or "wrong," "true" or "false." Ethics come in when the desires and needs are acted upon - or not acted upon. And I'm not talking about unwavering, universal ethics, this myth philosophers like Kant are trying to establish (or, as some of them would have it, "discover"). I'm talking about the basic ethics of treating others, most especially those you love, with respect, good will, and honesty. If you can do these things in your romantic and sexual relationships and still be happy, then those relationships, no matter what shape the intricate and private details take, are beautiful. If you cannot be respectful and honest and happy at the same time in your relationship, then you should consider ending it, no matter whether it is exclusive or open. In this regard, at least, there is not much difference between the two.