Monday, May 24, 2010

What is an “Open Relationship”?

Seattle has been called the “Land of Open Relationships”, which is to say that in many couples here, the partners are non-monogamous (to some degree), free to create secondary amorous relationships of various lengths and intensities.

(Or to put it crassly, they are free to sleep around.)

I’m referring primarily to gay male relationships here, but it extends to sex-positive straight couples in the area as well.  (And maybe well beyond that.)

In part, this may be attributable to Seattle’s (and Washington’s) rankings in terms of percentage of the population that is gay and the like.  (See this page.)  Some of its is also attributable to the high profile of the Center for Sex-Positive Culture, which embraces a broad swath of forms of sexuality.  And to sex-positive columns like “Control Tower” (by Mistress Matisse) and “Savage Love” (by Dan Savage) which run in The Stranger (with the latter column also being syndicated nationally), both of which have abundantly discussed the concept of polyamory and GGG (Good, Giving, and Game).

You could say that the idea of the Open Relationship is in the water around here.  (And we’ve got a lot of water around here!)

What is an Open Relationship?

In its simplest form, an “Open Relationship” is recognition within a couple that some form of sex outside the bounds of their relationship is acceptable; in particular, it is not “cheating”, since cheating requires such sex to be unacceptable.  This can have a broad range of possibilities, such as:
  • Just Don’t Tell Me: one partner turns a blind eye to the other’s extra-relationship activities, knowing that stuff occurs but not knowing the details of it (or not wanting to know).
  • When the Cat’s Away: when one partner is out of town, that partner (or both) is allowed to play with others.
  • Kink Exploration: a non-kink partner allows the kinky one to explore activities and grow in sexual areas that don’t work for the entire couple.
  • Three-Ways: a couple invites a third person to join them in sex on occasion.
  • Triads: a couple adds a third person to the relationship on an ongoing basis.
  • Secondary Partners: one or both partners develop secondary ongoing sexual relationships, often with the explicit knowledge of the primary partner.  “This is my husband, and this is my boyfriend.”  (This one is sometimes very hard for people to wrap their heads around due to our society’s inability to separate sex from love.)
  • And then there are couples who merrily go their own way and fuck in whatever way attracts them at the moment.  (“See you in the morning, sweetie!”)

How does an Open Relationship work?

Cribbing some from Wikipedia and adding my own thoughts, there are some things which need to be established in the relationship before an Open Relationship can be viable:
  • Fidelity vs. Monogamy: realize that there is a difference between the two concepts and embrace the idea that something can be “just sex”.
  • Trust: both members of the couple have to believe that the other is going to be true to the relationship and not damage or jeaopordize it (which includes that neither one is looking to break out of the relationship nor will do so if the opportunity arises).
  • Communication and Negotiation: open relationships don’t just happen, they should be created consciously (well, “Just Don’t Tell Me” ones tend to be created sub-consciously).  Rules and boundaries need to be set, need to be explicit (ideally), and need to be adhered to.
  • Non-possessiveness: jealousy about sex had with others cannot be allowed to intrude on the relationship.
Is all this really possible?  Hard to say.  Do you know anyone in an Open Relationship?  More to the point, do you know anyone who you know is in an Open Relationship?  (Do you actually know the relationship setup of the people you know?)  Odds are very strong that you do know people in one form of an Open Relationship or another, but relatively few broadcast the details.  (One study estimated 1/3 to 2/3 of gay couples are non-monogamous, although that includes both Open Relationships and “cheaters”.)

Of course, there’s also the question of whether Open Relationships actually work?  Many gay male relationships — and especially ones which don’t have the legal ties of marriage involved — break apart over time.  (This is a version of “Half of all marriages end in divorce,” which probably isn’t completely true.)  Sometimes Open Relationship issues are involved in the demise of a relationship, sometimes not.  (I have had two long-term relationship end which were Open to varying degrees.  One ending had nothing to do with the Open nature of things, while in the other, he found someone else and broke things off with me.)  Do Open Relationships work?  Probably no better or worse than any other relationship type, but they do manage to remove the big stumbling block of “I want to fuck that guy” causing relationship problems.  (What would qualify as “success” here, anyway?  Does it “work” only if the relationship stays Open and the couple stays together until someone dies?)

Rules for an Open Relationship

Years ago, I got these Rules For An Open Relationship (specifically for an Open Relationship where the couple plays individually with others) from a gay comic book artist I know:
  • Safer Sex Every Time: rather than just a pronouncement about protected vs. unprotected sex, this really means “Don’t bring anything unexpected back into the primary relationship, and don’t spread anything that is already there to unexpecting third parties.”
  • No Mutual Friends: this is a version of the straight world’s “Don’t sleep with your boyfriend’s best friend.”  No matter how hot he is.
  • No One More Than Three Times: because that starts to be a relationship, not “just sex”.  Unless you are wanting to go fully into the realm of polyamory and have discussed it and agreed to it.
I continue to think that those are good relationship rules, but I would add one more (from my own experience):
  • Don’t Bring It Home: if your relationship allows play while the partner is out of town, do it at the third party’s place, or a hotel, or a sex club.  “Don’t fuck in our bed while I’m not here.”
And a corollary for those who participate in group sex and anonymous sex:
  • The “Friends” and “Three Times” Rules Don’t Always Apply: if your relationship includes three-ways or going to sex clubs or group sex “play parties”, especially regularly held ones, it can be hard to avoid (or even keep track of!) those rules, so it is probably best to suspend them for such an event.  But only consciously suspend them, of course, and only within boundaries.  In particular, play party sex buddies need to stay as sex buddies within and only within the play party context.
(It’s worth noting as well that all relationships are fluid, changing over time.  What is Open this year should not necessarily be Open next year, as the couple’s needs change.  An Open Relationship which stops being Open does not indicate problems, just evolution.)

Will these rules and guidelines and proper communication ensure that your Open Relationship is successful and lasts for year and years?  Who can say?  Mine did not, but then again, the rules got broken: a play party sex buddy became a friend, and then became a non-play party sex buddy, and then became a “more than three times” sex partner, and then became the new boyfriend, and all this with communication of the situation only coming at the end.  (Ain’t that the way it always goes?)  On the other side, though, because we had an explicit Open Relationship, emotionally charged issues about “cheating” never arose in the final communication, just more analytic/process issues about “broken rules”, which means that the friendships involved have largely managed to survive the demise of the relationship, and that has to be considered a good thing.

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