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Non-Monogamy: A Matter of Choice


Non-monogamy didn’t cross Marc’s mind until 10 years into his relationship. He didn’t even know it was non-monogamy he would consider when his girlfriend Tina, started mentioning marriage and kids. What did cross his mind and what he began to consider quite seriously was that he’d been sleep-walking through his life and wasn’t sure who it was he’d be bringing to a marriage, let alone if he wanted one at all.

Non-monogamy? Although deeply wanting to explore the edges of himself and his life, including love, intimacy and sex, Marc didn’t want to just throw away his relationship. When we started working together, I asked, “What if you were not confined to any particular model of relationship, but could co-create something that is an expression of you both? What if your relationship was fit to you, rather than you trying to fit into your relationship?”

Marc and Tina’s situation is more ubiquitous than most of us know. So, what to do if the plate that is set before you, piled high with the traditional fare of monogamy, perhaps rounded out with marriage and children, doesn’t look that appetizing to you? Is wanting something besides this “norm” selfish at best, immoral and deviant at worst? And if there were an alternative, what in the world would it look like and how would you go about creating it?

In the section Why ReDefine?, I speak more to this quandary, especially as it relates to choosing to re-define your monogamous relationship – or to considering non-monogamy. Gleaned through work with my clients and a series of recent in-depth interviews, I offer you some examples of non-monogamous relationships, the elements that has them be workable, the challenges that come along with them, and the reasons why the people have chosen to set up their lifestyles and love-styles thus.

A useful term within non-monogamy is “polyamory,” relatively new and admittedly meaning different things to different people. “Poly” means many, “amory” means loving; it includes the ideas that love is not a limited commodity, that it is possible and deeply fulfilling to love and be intimate with more than one (with the full consent of everyone involved), and that you can’t expect to get all your needs met from just one person. Just like it is possible to have multiple children, love them all and have them all be important, so it can be with polyamorous relationships. Polyamory doesn’t necessarily mean license for promiscuity, and “open” doesn’t always mean less committed.

When people think about non-monogamous relationships, jealousy is usually the first challenge that comes to mind. Bitsy is 23, just graduated college, and describes herself at the center of a “V” of two young male partners. One partner of 7 ½ years is away at law school and the other partner of 2 ½ years and she live together. Wise beyond her years, she says, “People give the emotion of jealousy so much sway; we believe that you can deal with and get over huge things in life like being abused as a child, but jealousy, no, it’s too much, it means you’ll just to have to leave. We’re afraid we might not be able to handle what comes up, but you can experience jealousy, you can sit there and it can hurt and that is OK, it’s not the worst thing.”

Reid Mihalko, a relationship and intimacy coach, sex educator and Cuddle Party co-creator, adds, “If people handle jealousy with themselves and partners in the same way they handle ecstasy and intimacy, sadness, love and grief, they would surprise themselves. You are saying yes to emotions when you get into any relationship, and you need to get excited, like bird-watching; quick there is a green-eyed jealousy bird! If you spend some time watching it and not trying to fix it, it can become beautiful; suddenly, nothing’s wrong.”

Some additional challenges of non-monogamy can include: lying, being reactive, being afraid and not taking action, not taking time to honor and take care of yourself, and acting from scarcity. As Reid says, “Being poly, there’s no way to ‘step over the garbage.’” Also, often, one or more lovers are long-distance, which can prove to be a huge challenge, not only because of emotionally missing a lover in between visits, but also for issues of complex scheduling. It can also be difficult to take care of yourself with only one partner, and it is exponentially so with many. And then there’s the lack of privacy and the large amount of emotional energy necessary to be ON with the many people you care deeply for. Of course, for anyone having multiple sexual partners, education around STDs and safer sex protocols are a must, as is being honest with everyone you sleep with, including what kind of sex you have and what is – and isn’t – safe for you. Personal boundaries are vital, since relying on others is not the most powerful or safe choice.

Another layer of complexity is admittedly added when raising children. Rebecca Reagan, a 35-year old relationship coach, offers her unique perspective of being raised by her biological parents in concert with another heterosexual couple, over 30 years ago. The four parents, along with one daughter each, functioned as a single family, sharing a single bank account and trips to the doctor and principal’s office, as well as their beds. Although generally wonderful, there was more tension and rigidity that was perhaps necessary, and Rebecca wishes her parents, with no like-minded community, had the tools she has now. “We were told to lie, and the secretiveness put my sister as risk for an unhealthy relationship with authority and abusive behavior. I felt disempowered and not considered as a person; it formed me as a being and had me not trust my parents to take care of me. I am an advocate for considering that kids are capable of discernment.”

And why, with all these challenges, would people choose non-monogamy? Tessa, a 35-year old psychologist, chose it years ago because the levels of communication and honesty it requires of her brought a kind of intimacy that was deeper than anything she had ever experienced. Getting really good at loving one person made Reid want to love more. Since the age of 14, Bitsy has wanted more than to be clustered off in a single family dwelling, and wanted an intentional family of those she could trust. Bitsy considers children in her future, but would never enter into monogamy. Erik Wilkinson chose to create his relationship with Betty Dodson out of a desire for a lifetime of exploration of human sexuality within long-term partnership. Betty is a woman 47 years his senior and famous, among other things, for her book, “Sex for One,” as well as her promotion of masturbation and female orgasm. Betty also offers Erik her time-won pragmatism and rationality; he’s learned from her that the first sign of strong feeling like connection or attachment isn’t a sign to leave the relationship. He adds, “I love the challenge, the intricacies and three-dimensionality.”

For Birgitte Philippides non-monogamy is about activism. She came to polyamory after having lost several key people in her life, including her father, which left her hating everyone in the world. “When I got introduced to this loving community, it just felt like home, even though it scared me. It is important to me to be vocal about it. There is only one model, monogamy, which works for some, but not everyone; the rest are lying cheating, un-self expressed, and not having relationship situations they desire. What if you knew there is another love-style that includes integrity, honesty, respect, responsibility, self-care, knowing what you want and need as well as a high level of clear, open communication?”

Jenny Block had to be brutally honest about the fact that her seemingly perfect monogamous marriage was not working. For a long time she was angry at herself for her dissatisfaction, but finally acknowledged the need for change, one that was partially based on her bisexuality. She recently wrote a book about her experiences with non-monogamous marriage, “Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage.” Jenny has now had a long-term girlfriend for over a year but wasn’t always so clear and articulate about her ideal relationship situation. She never believed the “myths” about love being a limited commodity or marriage being about sexual ownership, but now she has proven them not to be true. “I know I am not alone here. Happy, healthy, loving marriages don’t exist in the huge numbers we claim. I mean, the real infidelity statistics can’t be good. Because we want to fit in, we cling to a model that doesn’t work.” She adds, “I often wonder how people would really form relationships and how they would really have sex, if we lived in a vacuum. I have an 8-year old daughter, a happy, well-adjusted kid, in no way affected adversely by my lifestyle. We are all so much better off than if I were unhappy with my life. I don’t have a problem with monogamous relationships, although I have been accused of that. I do believe ‘to each her own,’ but not her ‘brainwashed own,’ not her ‘Disney own,’ but her actual own.”

Perhaps it goes without saying that there are no standards for how alternative relationships are configured: Reid has four main partners with many romantic and erotic friends; of his main partners, three are women, one is a man; one of the women is his business partner and two lovers live in far-off cities. Birgitte’s relationships form a kind of tribe: she has multiple non-primary partners, some as long-term as 12 years, 3 new ongoing dating relationships as well as a group of extended friends and lovers. Cynthia Frawley, an “out” bisexual 37-year old woman with a successful radio show, “Out Q In the Morning, with Larry Flick” on Serius 109, has two step children and a son with her husband of over 10 years. Dating women, Cynthia shies from promiscuity, and has a preference is for a “forever girlfriend.” Patricia, a 60-year old psychologist, also bisexual, is in an open marriage with her heterosexual husband of over 25 years. Originally, she was the only one having a relationship with another woman, but recently, he’s begun one as well. “For him it is about enhancing his life, for me it is about sustaining mine.”

For better and worse, with non-monogamy, there is no script, no default, no auto-pilot and no template; you have to make it up as you go along. Rules are co-created and morph and change as they get put to use. Thus, those practicing non-monogamy tend to hold those in their life to high standards, and hold themselves to even higher ones. They often have amassed a wondrously rigorous skill-set of self-awareness, self-expression, “black-belt level” communication, honesty, integrity, transparency and a commitment to grow and learn; a skill-set that isn’t much different, however, than that needed to make monogamous relationships workable, fulfilling and extraordinary.

Support, beyond the relationships themselves, is also key, whether it is an internal support system, a community of like-minded people, online resources, books or a relationship coach. To discover a definition that describes your situation or simply to know there are others just like you can make all the difference. For many, the book, The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt, is key. Also helpful are sites: the blog PolyamorousMisanthrope, the message board for married women in love with other women cmwlwdotcom, the dating site OKcupid.

Our culture promises a lot if we follow its rules, but that doesn’t mean we will be happy and fulfilled. This land beyond monogamy, where the rules are made up dynamically by the people applying them, is neither a better nor worse, but rather a matter of self-expression, honesty, freedom, and ultimately, of choice.

liyana silver, creatrix of http://www.redefiningmonogamy.com, works with couples and women to step out of painful relationship ruts into extraordinary, satisfying co-created partnerships – coloring both in and outside the lines of traditional monogamy.

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Listed: September 29, 2009 4:03 am