We are in the midst of a second sexual revolution, one that is taking place with astonishing rapidity. A decade ago, it was almost inconceivable that marriage equality would be the law in so many states and that a substantial majority of Americans would support it. It would also have been hard to imagine that Time Magazine would feature a transgender television star on its cover while calling the trans movement “America’s next civil rights frontier.” A similar but somewhat less visible shift is taking place in cultural attitudes toward alternative relationship styles.
When Nena O’Neill, co-author of Open Marriage, died in 2006, the New York Times opined that the 1972 book read like “a period piece” with ideas that seemed “quaint” and “naïve”. Since that obituary appeared, dozens of books on various forms of open relating have been published, and even Dr. Drew Pinsky acknowledged on The View that polyamory works for some people. In April, we were interviewed as experts for a segment on Breakthru Radio/FoxDC. The reporter informed us that approximately 40% of her “person on the street” subjects thought that open relationships were a valid and viable option, even if not for them personally. At least one of the Fox hosts agreed. Eight years after O’Neill’s death, the ideas expressed in Open Marriage, or at least in its one chapter on sexual non-exclusivity, seem more seminal than quaint.
The current shift has been influenced by a wide variety of cultural factors – the growing and politically active polyamory community, the emergence of the sex-positive movement, the increasing popularity of both swinging and kink,and the work of psychologist-authors like Christopher Ryan, Esther Perel, and Tammy Nelson. A recent article in The Daily Beast suggested that marriage equality may also be playing a role, since pair-bonded but non-exclusive relationships are commonplace in the gay male community, a fact that’s reflected in sex columnist Dan Savage’s very public self-identification as “monogamish”.
Social conservatives will no doubt bemoan this change and blame marriage equality for what they perceive to be immoral behavior. Their concerns are misplaced. Conventional relationships aren’t in trouble because alternatives are proliferating; they’re in trouble because they’re failing large numbers of people. The truth is that conventional monogamy – one man, one woman, ‘til death do us part’ – is rare. Serial monogamy, with or without cheating has been the norm for decades. People typically embrace monogamy as a default mode, without even thinking about what it means or defining it for themselves. This often leads to dissatisfaction, both emotional and sexual, with various forms of cheating and unhealthy sexual behaviors as an upshot; cheaters are significantly less likely to practice safer sex than are people in consensual open relationships.
The change that is taking place enables people to develop relationships based on their own sexualities, understandings, and agreements. This means they can create what Dr. Ken Haslam, founder of the Kinsey Institute’s Polyamory Archive, has called “designer relationships”. We feel this term reflects a much healthier and nuanced approach, one that moves beyond the binary thinking that deems monogamy and polyamory to be irreconcilable opposites. It also transcends the subcultural identification that sometimes creates friction between those who identify as polyamorous and those who say they’re swingers.
A designer relationship may be sexually exclusive or not exclusive; it may involve multiple partners where long-term bonds exist among all or some; it may involve more casual kinds of interaction; it may include kink or make room for someone to explore kink when a partner is ‘vanilla’; it may encompass all of these. The possibilities are limitless, and thinking about a partnership as something people design or craft allows for flexibility and change. Relationships can open and close or have varying degrees and kinds of openness as circumstances demand. In the context of a designer relationship decisions are made consciously, carefully, and deliberately. In contrast to what often takes place in unconscious monogamous relationships, agreements are discussed, arrived at, and honored, and when agreements no longer serve, they can be renegotiated.
Rather than eroding “traditional” marriage, this panoply of relationship options can also benefit those who choose to be sexually and emotionally exclusive. The benefit lies in the fact that they’ve been exposed to the available options, have genuinely thought them through, and have chosen what is truly appropriate for their partnership. Even in the context of total exclusivity, people change and evolve. They may experience new desires and interests. Being able to discuss these issues freely and fully is likely to make partnerships more durable, enhance feelings of connection and interdependence, and reduce the likelihood of infidelity and other clandestine behavior.
Despite the changes that have been taking place in recent years, there remains a very common belief that people in non-exclusive relationships are afraid of intimacy, unable to form attachments, or unwilling to go deep with a specific individual. Based on our own experiences and on our interviews with numerous people for Partners in Passion, we believe the opposite to be the case. People who are in non-exclusive relationships are often very deeply bonded, and the available studies suggest they have a higher level of life and relationship satisfaction.
In some respects, having an open relationship is far more demanding than having a closed one. Being non-exclusive requires good communication skills, self-awareness, and a level of transparency that is rare among more conventional couples. It also requires a far more thoughtful approach to relating than is typical in mainstream society. Virtually anyone in an alternative relationship, including those who are sometimes dismissed as engaging in strictly recreational sex, can attest to this. As one Amazon reviewer of Partners in Passion pointed out, people in more “mainstream” relationships have much to learn from those who prefer to design their own – whether they identify as kinky, swingers, or polyamorous and regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The concerns of social conservatives aside, the rise of the designer relationship may also be monogamy’s salvation.