Last week on Facebook, I posted an article from Queerty about the results of a study conducted through Hunter College in New York that found that of the 800 gay and bisexual men surveyed, “many subjects received physical and mental health benefits from relationships with some degree of openness.”
The article ignited quite a good conversation, the emerging theme being some surprising indignation over monogamy bashing. I can understand how someone in a monogamous relationship might feel affronted over some labeling them sexually repressed, prudish, vanilla, or old-fashioned. The latter term I find particularly humorous as someone who considers “old-fashioned” anything relating to pre-agrarian society, and thinks of “oldies” as music written before 1600.
And I should say up front that the results of this study should not be taken to mean that all relationships should be open, that monogamy is unrealistic, or anything of that sort. Studies of this kind are always descriptive, not prescriptive – sort of a This is what we see rather than This is what should be. This is also a study of gay and bisexual men, and has little (if anything) to do with heterosexual relationships.
So I thought I’d take a moment to discuss open relationships and what they are (and are not), because there seems to be confusion over what “open” means.
First, it’s not a synonym for “polygamy” or “polyamory.” It merely means that a couple is not sexually exclusive, strictly speaking. This openness takes diverse forms, from a couple simply including a third person, to each partner having one or several outside partner(s), or a combination. And the degree of openness varies widely. A couple may be more (or less) discriminating about who they invite in. There may be one other person, or many. It depends on the couple and each partner’s comfort level and sense of trust and security established in the relationship. Each relationship is as unique as the people in it.
In other words, this is all about practicing good communication and doing what’s optimal for your relationship, and for yourself. If you’re the sort of person who’d experience emotional distress over entering into a sexual relationship with someone outside of your own marriage or partnership, then it’s not a good choice for you. But if you and your partner have both expressed an interest in other people, have talked about it and set parameters that you’re both comfortable with, and are pursuing those relationships in a safe and healthy way that doesn’t harm anyone – why is it even an issue?
I should talk briefly about my own experience with open relationships. Readers of this blog may know that I was raised in a Christian home where sex was barely ever talked about, and that sex outside of marriage was a serious sin. Because our God was the kind who enjoyed micro-managing, and because the Calvinist sect of Christianity that my parents ascribed to believed in predestination, I was taught growing up that from the dawn of time God had chosen one person [of the opposite sex] for each of us to marry (except, of course, for those who God had predestined to be celibate – i.e., homosexual). So the paradigm I had as a child and young adult was exclusive, one-person-forever monogamy.
My first encounter with an open couple happened a couple of years ago when a friend told me that he and his boyfriend were interested in me sexually. Now, even after I came out gay, my relationship paradigm was still exclusive, one-person-forever monogamy. I should also say that my first sexual encounter was with my first boyfriend – and I mean first everything – first kiss, first time being naked with anyone, etc. We dated for about six months, and in that entire time I was faithful to him.
After we broke up, I started to wonder if I could really commit myself to just one person for the rest of my life, now that I’d actually had sex. My parents have been faithful to each other all the time they’d been together. Most of the couples I knew had been faithfully monogamous, and we tacitly considered those who got divorced or cheated on their spouses less Christian for having broken their marital vows.
So there I was, being propositioned by a friend of mine and his boyfriend (who are married now and still happily together), and the odd thing was that it wasn’t that weird once I was actually face-to-face with the question. And since then I’ve got to know many other couples who are at different points on the monogamish spectrum.
I should say at this point that “open” is not a license to cheat, or have whatever you want. (My parents were fond of the saying, “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?”) Cheating implies sneaking around, which itself implies that something is not right in the relationship. All the open relationships I’ve been involved in have had the full blessing of both partners, and I’ve turned down guys whose boyfriends or partners didn’t know what they were doing.
And in a way, the friendships I’ve had with guys in open relationships (at least of the couples I’ve become involved with) have felt closer and more honest, mainly because we’re not tripping over all that dratted sexual tension. No one’s worrying about what’s okay or acceptable because we’ve talked about it.
Are all my friendships with couples in open relationships sexual? No. Only a handful, because I’m discriminating about who I get involved with. Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences and standards!
Next time I’ll cover another subject I’ve been thinking and talking about lately – monogamy.
In the meantime, if you want to share any thoughts about open relationships, experiences, or angry notes, you can do so in the handy contact form below. Or leave me a comment!
Hugs and kisses.