It’s called ethical non-monogamy, or an ‘open relationship’, and it’s becoming more and more commonplace as people rethink social norms and explore alternative relationship styles.
Basically, couples who decide to practice ethical non-monogamy are allowed to have sex with other people. It’s different from polyamory, where people have multiple emotional and physical relationships at once. Rather, openness is usually a purely physical thing.
That said, someone in an open relationship might have a regular sexual partner outside of their primary relationship, with whom they develop a friendship over time.
Alexandra Jones (below) and her boyfriend decided to try ethical non-monogamy, and she wrote about it in a candid piece for The Guardian.
Sam and I have been together for almost a year now, and I don’t think he took me seriously when I first, briefly, mentioned that perhaps monogamy wasn’t for me (“I thought it was just one of your affectations,” he said). But as time has worn on, we’ve butted up against my resolve like rubber ducks against an iceberg. “I feel like you’re doing it because it’s…” he looks disgusted… “trendy.”
Non-monogamy is having a moment right now as an umbrella term used to describe a number of different relationship configurations that deviate from commonplace monogamy. Although it might be ‘trendy’ right now, ethical non-monogamy isn’t for everyone.
It either works or it doesn’t. For Jones, non-monogamy felt natural.
I’ve never been a hardline monogamist. In my last (monogamous) relationship, I always contended that if my partner slept with someone else, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that it was, y’know, done. It seemed reductive to boil down the suppers, red-wine-stained kisses, whispered secrets, adventures and grievances and confidences we shared, the sheer everything of a relationship, to a shag. If our relationship existed on so many levels – friends, teammates, confidantes, lovers – then it couldn’t be undone by one act; and that’s quite a noble thought, isn’t it?
My preferred configuration isn’t actually that radical: ethical non-monogamy is basically a good old-fashioned open relationship.
There would only ever be two of us in it, but I’d like to trust that person so implicitly, and value them so wholeheartedly, that if they slept with someone else it wouldn’t damage us. I’d like for the other person to trust and value me just as much so that if I did the same, we’d be able to look at it for what it is: a banal act that is fun or weird or intimate or exciting, but ultimately not a threat to our harmony.
Her boyfriend Sam wasn’t convinced. He wanted to maintain a strictly monogamous relationship at first.
Finally, he admitted to me: “Maybe because of the traditional expectations that are put on men, it’s more difficult for us to be open about it. There’s something a bit embarrassing about the woman you’re dating wanting to sleep with other people; as if maybe you’re inadequate.”
As an aside, South African men have been proven to be particularly conservative when it comes to open relationships. The patriarchal core of our society tends to equate manliness with a man’s role in his relationship, which leads, as you can imagine to all sorts of toxic masculinity.
Back to Alexandra and Sam:
Earlier this year we’d reached something of an impasse, so I took Sam to a talk that Wilby was giving above a pub in London. Soon enough, we were packed in with 83 others – mainly slightly older couples and groups of female friends.
“It’s quite a scary concept,” Wilby said. “Because we don’t like the idea of our partner being with someone else. But generally, it’s because we’ve been taught to believe this means that our partner will leave us. Of course,” she continued, “the key point of non-monogamy is that even though your partner might be with another lover, they’re actually coming back to you. And that extra joy and love and happiness might even fuel and rekindle the relationship they have with you. We’ve been conditioned to believe other people are a threat to our relationships, but what if they aren’t?”
After Wilby’s talk, they decided to try ethical non-monogamy – something that proved trickier than Alexandra initially anticipated.
As Wilby points out, though: “Having the conversation, instead of just tacitly accepting monogamy as the only option, is really half the battle.” And we have had the conversation, over and over with each other, but also with others – incredulous friends who can’t quite believe that it’s “a thing”. We field the questions in turn: no, it’s not perfect; yes, we do row sometimes; yes, there are rules; no, we don’t know how long it’ll last. But it is “a thing” – although, after almost a year together, not in the way that I thought it would be.
Sam has slept with more people than I have. Despite pushing for it, when the opportunities have arisen I’ve found it oddly difficult to switch into the necessary head space. There’s still a faint feeling of betrayal; and I wonder whether the deed will be worth the emotional cost. More often than not, I realise it won’t be. I’m not sure he feels it in quite the same way. And, yes, sometimes I get tense and irritable when we sit down to eat and he’s too tired to talk because he spent half the night with someone else.
You can read the full account here.
While non-monogamy might not be the answer to any of this or the right thing for everyone, at least it’s asking the question.
It’s important for us to interrogate the things that we accept as natural. Just because something has been done forever, doesn’t make it right.
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