What Open Relationships Can Teach Us About Fidelity

Is three always company?
Is three always company?

By Jo Piazza for HowAboutWe

Ask any woman to describe the three most important things in a relationship, and monogamy will typically round out the list.

Maintaining monogamy with a single partner can be incredibly important, but it can also be tricky. The deck is stacked against those looking to be with one person for the rest of their lives, both from a biological and an evolutionary perspective. Plus, well, there's the simple fact that so many people fail at it.

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If you're feeling hopeless about your prospects for monogamy, it's reassuring to remember that there are plenty of people in healthy and happy relationships that aren't monogamous.

The very concept of polyamory - engaging in open relationships in which a person can be involved with more than one partner - can seem terrifying to the lifelong monogamist (which most of us are). I met my first open couple about a year ago and it made me nervous in the way meeting steampunk enthusiasts makes me nervous: I didn't understand what made them tick.

In the time since, I've gotten to know several non-monogamous couples, and they not only seem very happy but also extremely devoted to each other.

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That's not to say I'm giving up monogamy anytime soon. But there are lessons to be learned about long-term fidelity and communication from couples who decide to bring in partners outside the relationship.

Here are takeaways from three polyamorous couples that are valuable for any relationship, open or no.

1. You are allowed to make your own rules for your relationship.

Open couples have a lot of rules.

You need to lay down the law on how far you can take a new relationship, how much you tell your primary partner, whether or not you can you spend nights away from the home and whether or not having a date with someone else excludes you from doing the laundry. Poly couples set rules for how many outside sexual partners they can, whether they can introduce those partners to their children and even where they can have sex with those partners.

Polyamory comes with a lot of baggage, but then, so does monogamy.

The difference is that monogamous couples don't think about the fact that they have the power to shape the rules for their relationship.

Diana Adams is a family mediator and family attorney who works with both monogamous and polyamorous couples. In her personal life, she has been in a happy open relationship for six years (both she and her boyfriend are free to see other people). She encourages all couples, monogamous or not, to create an intentional agreement about their relationship. "One of the most important rules that polyamory can bring to monogamy is that you don't have to take society's definition or your parent's definition of what a real marriage should look like," Adams explained.

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With an intentional agreement, you can determine how much time you spend together. You can choose to sleep together every night or spend one night a week in your own space. You can determine how you want to spend vacation time. Imagine the freedom of finally realizing, "maybe we don't need to spend every holiday in the same location with each other's families."

Sonya and Peter-both actors in their forties-have been legally married for ten years, but have been polyamorous for fifteen years. Each has a designated night each week as their "date night" with other people. Over the course of their decade and a half relationship each has become involved in two longer term relationships with other people. They evolved their rules for each new experience.

"We set boundaries and very clearly laid out exactly what we want. When I began dating a man outside of our marriage, we created time for me to be with him, we set aside one night a week for our primary relationship and we made a date to check back in with one another about the state of the relationships within three months of the time it got serious," Sonya explained.

2. Your partner doesn't have to be your sun, moon, stars, best friend, skiing partner and massage therapist.

Michael Buble was wrong: Your soul mate shouldn't be your everything. There is a pervasive idea that when we fall in love and choose someone to be our longterm partner that that person will be a tremendous lover, talk to with us about Tolstoy, take long walks on the beach with us, raise our children, manage our finances and have very long and serious discussions about the state of our soul. No pressure.

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Open couples are very aware of the fact that their partner does not have to be absolutely everything to them. Because they can go outside a relationship to have their needs fulfilled sexually, they are often more open to having other needs fulfilled by other people, instead of defaulting to the kind of codependence that grows between a monogamous couple.

"I just have more flexibility," Diana Adams says. "We don't expect that one person will be our everything. We can be on a journey with someone, but at the end of the day you are your own person with your own needs and you are responsible for having those needs met."

3. If you want a great relationship, embrace radical honesty and be an emotional ninja.

Open couples make an effort to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Because there is no room for jealousy in an open relationship, it is paramount to identify your personal insecurities and fears and take responsibility for your feelings. Even if you aren't in a relationship where you and your partner act on your desires, identifying your feelings about those desires and discussing them with your partner can only serve to strengthen your bond.

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Mara had been dating Mike exclusively for about a year when she began feeling an intense attraction to Erika, a fellow teacher at her school. Mara and Mike had both been in open relationships in the past and had discussed the possibility in their future. She was incredibly nervous about telling Mike that she wanted to explore her feelings with Erika. After several tequila shots, Mara blurted out her fantasies.

"After I said it, I didn't even really want to do it anymore. It became this intense desire because I thought it was so taboo. But once we talked about it, I kind of lost interest," Mara said. The pair have been together for five years and have since had relationships outside of their relationship, but Mara still credits that one drunken admission to keeping them together this long.

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It's counterintuitive, but being honest about having desires for other people can actually lead to less infidelity.

"I believe in radical honesty and radical listening. If your partner has a desire that you might find upsetting, you still need to take the time to listen to it. [Open relationships] require a level of emotional ninja skill. You have to work hard at being a self-aware person," Adams said.

Jo Piazza is the author of the upcoming novel, Love Rehab: A Novel in Twelve Steps. Follow her on Twitter @JoPiazza.