“Working with Non-Monogamous Couples” was held at a nondescript family services center in a nowhere neighborhood in Manhattan. Having attended a talk in the same series (“Sex Therapy in the City”) in the same venue about a year before, I knew I would be surrounded by therapists who were there for certification credits and to learn from an expert in their field about the best approaches to issues that were likely to come up in their work. I also knew a little bit about consensual non-monogamy: I knew that it was for people who didn’t want to be monogamous, and who didn’t want to lie about it.
As I checked in with Michael Moran, one of the program’s organizers, he described a recent uptick in his practice and in general of heterosexual couples seeking solutions to their monogamy quandaries. “It’s pretty incredible that people commit for life, that they get married, without even discussing the issue of sexual exclusivity,” I offered by way of chitchat, realizing as I said it that my husband and I had committed for life, and that we got married, without even discussing the issue of sexual exclusivity. Monogamy and marriage, for straight people in much of the U.S., go together like a horse and carriage. Or they used to. Or maybe not.
Featured speaker Mark Kaupp, a licensed marital and family therapist, defined consensual non-monogamy for us — it was, he said, an umbrella term for relationships in which all the partners involved agree that having romantic or sexual relationships with other people is acceptable. This makes it the opposite of what experts call undisclosed or non-consensual non-monogamy, in which someone does it without telling or discussing it beforehand.
Kaupp instructed us to break into groups of three or four, so I turned around to join two women in the row behind me. Kaupp put a slide up on the overhead projector. There were four bullet points, each ending in a question mark.
- What would it be like to watch your partner/spouse have sex with someone else . . . and see them really enjoying it?
- What feelings would come up?
- What meanings would you make from their enjoying the sex?
- What if they fell in love?
I turned back toward my group. We stared at one another in silence. I thought for a moment of the thrill I used to feel when the possibility of sex with someone new opened up before me like some kind of interpersonal Serengeti, vast and replete with delicious possibilities and potential peril. Then I flashed on how, on the kind of day when I am on a deadline, the dishwasher breaks, and I get a phone call that one of my sons is having an issue at school, it brings me to my knees. I imagined adding to the mix an evening of watching my husband having sex with someone else.
“You go first,” I said to the other women.
One of my group members and I decided that if we watched our partner having sex with someone else and really enjoying it, we might feel jealous, turned on, hurt, angry, curious, excited, gutted and more. We might derive meanings from it, including: I am not good enough; he/she is bored with me; something is wrong with me or our relationship; being with someone new is exciting and that’s no reflection on me. If our partner fell in love with this other person, we might feel confused, sad, threatened and devastated. I added that I might also feel homicidal.
When Kaupp asked each of our groups what we had discussed, I ended up going first. Kaupp listened attentively, seizing on what I shared about feeling murderous and turned on. He explained that the opposite of the jealousy that feels like a stab to your heart and a stone in your gut is “compersion” — a sensation of excitement in witnessing your partner enjoy himself or herself while having sex with someone other than you. In the beginning stages with this new person, you might experience “NRE,” or new relationship energy — that rush of feelings and hormones and neurochemical changes that comes when you are connecting with a person sexually and emotionally and it’s all giddy and hopeful and passionate.
Others in the room had insights and observations and questions. “The gender of the person — ” one man said, “I’m interested in how this would affect things.”
“People might reenact issues from their family of origin in a triad like this,” another therapist ventured.
“Does fairness come up?” a man with a European accent wanted to know.
Nobody seemed to really want to talk about how it would make them feel. The room went silent. Kaupp waited.
“It could be amazing, or it could be a complete train wreck,” a female therapist with dark hair finally blurted.
We all laughed uncomfortably, and Kaupp nodded.
He wasn’t done with us yet. There was another exercise: “Come up with some rules or guidelines that you might put into place if you and your partner decided to see others.”
We went back to our groups. “No seeing somebody we already know. And no seeing other people on the weekend,” I suggested, suddenly territorial about my friendships and protective of the sanctity of my Saturdays and Sundays with my hypothetically non-monogamous husband. One of my group members said firmly, “You have to terminate it if I ask you to.” Why hadn’t I thought of that? I had to admire her foresight.
Then the groups shared their rules.
“Use good oral and genital hygiene.”
“No documentation. No photos and nothing on social media.”
“No scratches or bite marks.”
“Only penetrative sex. No gazing into each other’s eyes or kissing.”
“You can have sex but not an orgasm.”
“If we have kids, don’t come out to our community about our lifestyle.”
“You can only see this person three times.”
“You can only see this person once. Then find another person.”
“You can’t talk about me or our relationship with this person.”
“You have to come home and tell me about it after.”
“You have to have sex with me after.”
“You can’t have sex with me after.”
“Don’t tell me about it after.”
That seemed to be it. Kaupp asked whether there were other rules that made sense to us. There was a pause.
“Bring home a trophy. Like a pair of underwear,” a woman who looked to be in her 60s deadpanned.
“Your new person doesn’t get to meet the dog,” the man sitting next to her said.
Kaupp quickly got to work puncturing our sense of what, exactly, might help us feel in charge of the imaginary situation we were confronting — us or our life partners seeing others, with all parties consenting and in the know.
“I very rarely see that rules create security in these situations. How can we possibly anticipate all the possibilities? It’s an attempt to control, but it might make people feel more out of control,” he said. He told us that in his work with couples practicing CNM, he kept the focus on their attachment bond and let them come up with the rules without getting too involved in that himself. In his experience, he said, the rules might change or even fade out in time if the relationship security is sufficiently strong. “My job is to help people who have decided not to be monogamous keep turning back to each other if they feel insecure or flooded with fear. That way a negative becomes a positive. What might weaken or sink a relationship strengthens it.”
Kaupp then told us there are three primary types of non-monogamy, and while they might overlap, their practitioners belonged to quite different tribes. There are people in “open relationships,” arrangements in which the couple agrees to see others but might not want to talk about it, or even know.
Meanwhile, swingers are committed to having sex with others, both individually and as a couple. They talk with each other about what they are doing, they do things with others together and sometimes separately, and they might go to conventions, cruises or sex clubs where they can meet likeminded others committed to what they call “the lifestyle.”
Then there are the polyamorous, or poly, people. Polyamory is the practice of having multiple romantic, sexual and/or intimate partners with all the partners’ full consent, Kaupp explained. Those who practice polyamory believe they can love more than one person and be in more than one relationship simultaneously. Sometimes those who practice it have verbal or written contracts — drawn up by lawyers and therapists who specialize in such matters — to keep things clear and fair. And polyamory requires conversation, ground rules and plenty of disclosing and “checking in.”
To state the obvious, non-monogamy is exercising a pull on us because monogamy isn’t working for everyone. Sure, in 2008, four-fifths of Americans polled in the General Social Survey (GSS) — a comprehensive sociological interview instrument that tracks social attitudes, concerns, and changes — said extramarital sex is “always wrong.” And 91% of more than 1,500 adults responding to a 2013 Gallup poll rated married men and women having affairs as “morally wrong.”
But 12% of married women and 23% of married men reported having had sex outside the marriage in a 1997 study in the Journal of Sex Research. The real percentage may well be higher, experts tell us, because we underreport our cheating.
And yet the difficulty of monogamy and even the fact of struggling with it can create tremendous pressure. “People wonder, What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this? That’s something my patients, particularly my female patients, struggle with a lot,” author of The New Monogamy Tammy Nelson told me. The stakes are high: studies tell us that infidelity is a commonly cited reason couples divorce.
We might be surprised to learn just how many of our assumptions about the whos and hows of infidelity are wrong. In fact, it turns out that when it comes to our sexual selves, women have been sold a bill of goods. In matters of sex, women are not the tamer, more demure or reticent sex. We are not the sex that longs for or is more easily resigned to partnership, to sameness, to familiarity. Nor are we goody-goodies relative to men when it comes to fidelity, after all.
From the book Untrue by Wednesday Martin. Copyright © 2018 by Wednesday Martin. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.