It’s fair to say that with ever increasing divorce rates (the median duration of marriage in Australia is only 10 years) and louder and louder laments about cheating spouses, the concept of just ‘opening the relationship up’, while challenging, is an idea not without its merits.
So much so that even Hollywood got in on the action by releasing the movie Hall Pass at the start of this year, which was built on the premise of two ‘tolerant’ wives giving their husbands a week of total freedom from their marriages in order to pursue other women.
Panned by critics, the movie was pretty much a flop – and not because of the typically sexist slant of having women grant men freedom, with no reciprocal freedom in return, or for the fact that it was yet another thinly veiled disguise by Hollywood to defend traditional family values.
However, given that half the people interviewed in the latest Relationships Australia Survey felt that a reason people don’t marry is because of the desire to have multiple relationships, the premise of ‘freedom’ that the movie was built on is an interesting one.
Sometimes, the first people to shoot the idea of open relationships in the foot are the very people practicing it.
When I was twenty I had the good fortune to live in a house full of motley lefties, feminists and activists. During this time I developed a flatmate romance that blossomed, conveniently, over the sharehouse hallway. Then I turned up to a festival one day and found him in bed with the local bongo player.
This, he said, was the wonderfully progressive world of polygamy.
I was young and open to new ideas, and if my peers said sleeping with more than one person at a time was liberating and progressive, I naively and unquestioningly went along with things, which is how I ended up nursing a broken heart in private, all the while wondering how the aching hurt made me conservative.
But if I had thought about it then, I may have noticed that my ‘relationships guru’ was a dopey, long haired hippy that drooled at the thought of sleeping with heaps of women while being labelled a noble pursuer of free world ideals. And while such an inaccurate introduction should have turned me off for life, I fortunately grew to have a much deeper affection and understanding for what is ultimately a complex, but potentially incredibly yielding, concept.
Especially when we talk about ‘polyamory’ – often described as consensual, ethical or responsible non-monogamy – as opposed to ‘polygamy’, which is usually patriarchal, and practiced in accordance with religious beliefs.
For many of us, it can be difficult to imagine what polyamory might look like. Without the usual pop culture cues and media representations afforded to more common relationship structures, our reaction tends to be that it is all a little bit, well, shocking.
On the occasions where profile pieces of open relationships do occur in magazines, the approach is usually shock and awe – it suits the media’s sales interest to play the outrageous and outlandish card, and so more considered pieces remain largely invisible.
Yet when I immerse myself in the world of mainstream media and websites, there is a wealth of material on the ‘crisis’ of monogamy; columns on settling versus not settling, comic pieces on dates nights and the need to keep romance alive, to laments about the heartbreak of cheating partners, and life after divorce at 40.
Reading these pieces, I can’t help but wonder: could polyamory, which is built around gender equality, free choice, mutual trust and equal respect, be a happy alternative to the flailing institution of long-term monogamy?
And is the very community that embrace it, sometimes doing the idea a disserve with its own muddled understandings, lack of clear communication, and righteous indignation it flings at anyone who dares struggle with the confronting feelings that can come with having an open relationship?
Because, like my twenty-year-old self, people’s first experience with open relationships can sometimes consist of almost everything being open, except for the communication. Then once the communication channels do open up, all it does is pave the way for a swift dismissal of any emotional turmoil, hurt or jealousy that is felt as an indication of your failure to ‘evolve’ beyond right-wing and conservative concepts of possession and ownership in relationships. Which basically translates to ‘not cool’.
There were overtones of this when I spoke to an old friend about her experiences with an open relationship, which had some remarkably similar aspects to that of my bongo player in the tent experience.
‘When we got together, unbeknownst to me, I was entering an open relationship,’ she says. It wasn’t until her partner wanted to ‘go away’ one weekend that she started digging around and found out there were ‘romantic intentions’ behind his visit. Despite this rocky and covert start to things, Susanne eventually agreed to give the open relationship a go: ‘At first it was domestic bliss, because we were in this open relationship but it had not been put to the test. But then it came to a head when he told me he was attracted to a friend of mine.’
Compounding some already tricky circumstances was the fact that Susanne felt there were certain expressed ideals in the alternative community about ‘free love’ and being open to new ways of being in relationships that made it difficult for her to express what she was experiencing.
‘It was all really difficult, but I was trying to be equanimous and magnanimous about it all. I felt guilty for feeling jealous. Like I wasn’t “evolved” enough, or mature enough, or hadn’t meditated enough, and I felt bad about my reactions,’ she explains.
But if the stumbling blocks of poor communication and harsh judgement of natural human emotions were removed, what potential lay in openly and consensually being involved with other people within the confines of a relationship?
Louise, another friend I spoke to, has been with her partner for over 4 and a half years, and in that time they have both had relationships, or ‘things on the side’, from a passing fling, to something that has gone on for months, or even up to a year. ‘I had been wanting to have an open relationship for a really, really long time, but everyone I had been in a relationship with was not up for it. I’d been cheated on heaps of times and found it so frustrating that they didn’t want to be in an open relationship but were happy to cheat on me.’
This notion of people being ‘happy to cheat’ is what polyamorists cite as proof that human beings enjoy being with more than one mate in life, which is why they call for acting on these desires with openness and honesty.
But crucial to that, I believe, is also acknowledging that jealousy, and other difficult feelings remain a reality. A reality that becomes increasingly obvious when talking to people with direct experience of openness in relationships.
In the case of both Susanne and Louise, the beginnings of their open relationships were not ‘put to the test’, but once they were, difficult feelings naturally arose.
‘When we first got together,’ says Louise, ‘in theory, we could have been with anyone else, but we were so caught up in each other that neither of us saw anyone else during that time. It was while I was living overseas that we both started to see other people, which in some ways I think made it easier to deal with because there was a bit of distance involved, you didn’t have to “watch” someone seeing someone else.’
Implicit in this kind of response is what most of us find so obvious – that it is jarring, it requires effort. That it is not easy to know about, let alone ‘see’, your partner being with somebody else.
‘It’s not like you can say, “I don’t want to be jealous” and suddenly you’re not jealous,’ explains Louise.
A mistake I believe many advocates of polyamory make. Even Jen Angel, the contributing editor of progressively minded YES! Magazine, wrote an article on open relationships with the headline, ‘Sex Without Jealousy…’, as if to discount the fact that jealousy is a likely, natural reaction.
This kind of mentality fails to acknowledge that it is how we deal with the jealousy that really matters, but it also potentially frightens people away from experimenting with openness because they are scared they will have ‘failed’ when natural emotions occur.
Far better would be acknowledging the difficulty. ‘There are definitely challenges,’ admits Louise. ‘It’s just not always smooth.’ But, she adds, ‘that is the off-side of having the freedom.’
And therein lies the rub, that even if we practice polyamory with the right amount of open communication, trust and respect, it still might hurt. But is the freedom it grants us worth it?
Again, judging from the latest Relationships Australia Survey – in which three-quarters of respondents stated that people don’t get married because they want to maintain a ‘singles lifestyle’ – freedom is something that matters. And far too often, the only way it is granted is by ending the relationship.
An outcome that thankfully did not occur when, years after the bongo player incident, the issue of wanting to be with another person surfaced in my current long-term relationship.
It was something we discussed almost endlessly and we laid everything out on the table. Then, with a great deal of care, love and gentleness, a freedom was able to be afforded to each other, that if hadn’t, could have spelt the end of us.
Given that we continue to afford each other that freedom and understanding, and yet it has rarely been sexually acted on since, I have grown to have a greater understanding and respect for the breadth of polyamory.
While for many people it comes to mean that they don’t act on their sexual desires ‘behind closed doors’, sexual freedom need not be the primary focus of open relationships.
How it looks is up to you, and this, sadly, is a point all too often overlooked, compounded by a misconception that no one really bothers to correct: that open relationships are just about rampant sexual appetites, or notions of just doing ‘what you want, when you want’.
And so I can’t help but wonder that if, for once, people seeking alternative ways of living, in this case, polyamorous relationships, acknowledged the difficulties behind some of those expressed ideals without the usual dose of pack-a-punch righteousness, would it soften the reception of such ideas in the wider community?
And could that then mean, that when the next magazine article asks, as it surely will, how to ‘go the distance’, or, alarmingly, ‘how to catch “Liars, Cheats and Bastards”’, that more people might consider ‘openness’, as the missing ingredient for real, long-term sustainability in relationships?
I guess the answer is: maybe, maybe not. But with 32 percent of marriages expected to end in divorce, and that figure predicted to climb to as high as 45 percent in the coming years, along with the proliferation of hundreds and hundreds of websites dedicated to the surveillance and capture of cheatings spouses, it’s an idea worth thinking about.