Consensual Non-Monogamy: A Relationship Choice
I’m recovering from ankle-replacement surgery* and watching far too much TV and far too many films. Why is it that mainstream TV shows and films never show ethical, consensual non-monogamy as a relationship choice that works for many? We only see sexual exclusivity as the gold star of relationships, and when someone strays from the monogamy agreement, love turns into hurt and hate — almost never into a renegotiation of what the couple wants the relationship to be going forward. (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” is the only exception that I can think of, and it’s not mainstream.)Don’t get me started on how rarely we see older-age relationships portrayed in any way other than traditional, if they’re portrayed at all! Even the new Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” made me cringe at the stereotypical portrayal of older people and relationships. Yes, the men came out as gay and in love with each other instead of their long-time wives, but even they lapsed into spats and pain when it came out that one of them had either a past one-night stand or a last-night tryst with his ex-wife. Why not just say, “Yeah, these things happen and will happen and because I love you, I’ll work to understand and accept — let’s talk”?And the sweet, vulnerable, free-spirited, hippie Frankie played by Lily Tomlin? Why isn’t one of those cute, ex-convict artists emerging from her bedroom from time to time? (I have to say that as much as I’m dumping on this series, Frank Waterston is wonderful and adorable and the sexiest person on the show. He’d be welcome in my house anytime.)
Back to reality: sex therapists, researchers, and educators know that the sexual exclusivity model works for some but not for all. For others, ethical and consensual non-monogamy (which isn’t cheating, because both partners agree to it) keeps many relationships strong. Pioneers like Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence and TED talk speaker on “Rethinking Infidelity,” and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, authors of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, have done brilliant work demystifying the causes and effects of infidelity and whether human beings are monogamous creatures.
My favorite podcaster, Dan Savage, talks about this often. He coined the term “monogamish” to describe couples who are committed, intimately bonded, and who sometimes have sex with others. The partner might want to know all the details or might not want to know anything, depending on the couple’s agreement. Savage also says that when a couple has a monogamy agreement — no sex with anyone else — and one of them strays once in a while, the strayer is doing “a pretty good job at monogamy.”
Please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not “promoting” non-monogamy or any sexual lifestyle. I’m just saying that I know many couples who stay together happily and intimately because they acknowledge that sexual exclusivity is not right for them. Let’s not judge them or say (as I’ve heard some people righteously insist) that they “don’t know how to be committed to another person.”
Those of you who are in consensually non-exclusive relationships, especially after age 50, I invite your thoughts here. Was this always the kind of relationship you wanted? Or did you come to it because you tried to embrace monogamy and it didn’t work? I hope you’ll share your views and experiences. (If you have trouble posting a comment, please email me and I’ll post it for you.)
* In case you’re curious about my surgery:I was in a near-fatal auto accident in 1979, which, among many other injuries, shattered my right heel and crushed my ankle. For the past 36 years, I’ve walked and danced on an ankle that barely moved and often caused pain. I sometimes described my foot as “a block of wood with nerve endings.” I am extremely fortunate that now a reliable procedure is available that replaces a damaged ankle with a new, mobile one! I had the surgery in November, and I expect to be back on the dance floor in February!
My partner and I have been together almost 25 years — he is over 50 and I am 47. We opened up our relationship about 10 years ago & have settled nicely into "monogamish" with intervals of polyamory. Communication is crucial, not just the big talks but the smaller details of logistics & scheduling.
I'm 61 and tried serial monogamy with one marriage and a few long term partners until I was 45. I always became dissatisfied after a year or so of living together monogamously and started looking for ways to end the relationship. I felt suffocated.
I started to read about non monogamy and embarked on tantra when I was about 45. The first partner I tried it with was willing but jealous, so that eventually ended, but it made me realise I only wanted open relationships.
10 years ago I met a man who was willing to try an open relationship. We married 8 years ago. The first few years were difficult because he was afraid of losing me and we needed to build up trust over a period of years. He seems more relaxed about it now. He is able to pursue other women but rarely does so. He prefers me to have several lovers rather than one special one. I prefer that too, so that is what I do.
For me monogamy just doesn't work. I think your marvellous interest in senior sex is such a neglected area!
I'm in a 20 year committed relationship. My partner has completely lost interest in sex, probably due to medications and other interests.
I've brought up the subject periodically, it usually results in hurt feelings and pointless arguments. So I'm sitting on the sidelines, haven't been touched sexually in over 10 years. Please don't tell me to leave the relationship, I can't do that. Any suggestions?
Yes, I've written about this extensively in The Ultimate Guide to Sex after 50. Have you read that book yet? It would be really helpful for getting at the reasons for your partner's sexual apathy, how to communicate about it, and what options to explore. I hope you'll read it.
@Anonymous Jan. 9th.
When my wife of three decades was no longer interested in sex, I bought a couple dozen books to see what I could do and not cheat or bail on my marriage or family: Read Mating in Captivity, More Than Two, Opening Up, Sex At Dawn, Ethical Slut. Get brave and just ask her if she would mind if you had a sexual relationship AND loved/stayed married to her. You might be surprised at her answer. You must start the conversation. 10 yrs forced celibacy is a crime; not fair that you let her foist it on you. Get busy. Your love and marriage just might get closer with this move.
Great article, I like the idea of defining a place somewhere between poly and monogamy!
I'm a young 72, who has been practicing free love long before it was called solo polyamory. I love living alone but do enjoy multiple lovers. I prefer other single people not couples because I don't want to be someone's "third". I've made some wonderful long lasting friends with sexual partners over the years that continue to today even if sex is no longer part of our friendship. Sex helps keep me young and vital. Might not be for everyone but I'm very happy with my life style.
I am solo poly. I have no desire to household or deeply intermingle my personal affairs with those of others. That does not mean that I do not want durable, intimate, and organically growing relationships with others. I certainly do. However, I am wary of individuals in long established couples. I am not just some play toy or a device to be used to save someone's flagging relationship. I also do not desire to be thrown under the bus in the name of protecting someone else's couplehood at all costs when some conflict arises. Some of us prefer a degree of autonomy and are not coming to polyamory from a couple-centric mindset.
One thing to consider here: polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy isn't just something that couples do; it's something that *people* do.
There are many poly/open people who are solo — that is, they don't identify as being part of "a couple," even though they may have one or more significant ongoing intimate relationships. Solo people generally don't have, and often don't want, a primary/nesting-style relationship with an intimate partner.
This is especially relevant to your request. Many, many older people (especially women) are solo and often happy to stay that way; and consensual nonmonogamy can be an excellent avenue to discover and explore a rich variety of physical intimacy.
I'd encourage you to check out the Solo Polyamory group on FB (https://www.facebook.com/groups/solopoly/). I co-moderate that group and am starting a thread there about your request.
Also, I *almost* qualify for your request: I turn 50 this year. I've been polyamorous for many years, and have considered myself happily solo poly for the last several years. It works quite well for me; I maintain my autonomy and consequently get to have considerably flexibility in my life and relationships. I've written about this experience at solopoly.net, and it is a topic in my soon-to-be-published book on unconventional relationships, "Off the Relationship Escalator."
Thanks for posing this great topic!
Your latest post on consensual non-monogamy hit home with me. I’m now 75. My wife is 63. I knew very early in my adult life that monogamy was not for me. The trouble was that I knew of no culturally acceptable alternatives. Raised in a very conservative family in a very conservative town sexuality was only a whisper, uttered in hushed tones. However, I never knew how to not look at other women. I had a lot of company but we would always deny it. I was very unauthentic, afraid to say what I really thought and act the way that I wanted. I am ashamed of that.
I followed the program: college, military service, professional career. By now I was in my 40’s, married, raising a family. And I cheated. Not once but a number of times. My wife knew (I think) but said nothing which I took as implicit permission. Our marriage was good; there was and is genuine love between us, but our conversations were superficial. It’s easier to avoid truth than to meet it head on and face the consequences whatever they might be. At that time the prevailing assumption was, and perhaps still is, that infidelity means divorce. Not so.
Terribly unhappy, I searched for some way to validate my ideas and opinions. Why could we love our friends and family but love only one woman . . . forever? Does it make sense that if you marry in your 20’s that you will never have sex with anyone else for the rest of your life? Really??? Why do we need to sneak around and hide the fact that we can be attracted to other women; or, in the case of wives other men?
One day I stumbled across a book on polyamory and open marriage. I blinked. My eyes opened and I devoured the words. I wasn’t the only person that thought this way. Many other similar books followed. This time it was out in the open. No more hiding. Conversations with my wife were suddenly exciting and electric. She was more hesitant than me but still very curious. We talked openly and candidly. It was fun and I loved her more for it.
In the years since our awakening we have achieved what I would describe as an open marriage. Although at this point in our lives it’s more descriptive than it is a reality. Nevertheless, it allows us to feel free. And, in the end, that is what I think most people want.
Thank you for inviting our response. We enjoy your writing and talking about issues that remain important to many.
@Dan – Not in writing, but I should. I told her many times that I would want her to enjoy all life has to offer. Then if she does and it gets public she can show people what my wishes. I am sorry about your friend. I have seen good people judged quite harshly for doing exactly what I would do, and what I would want my wife to do.
As a 65ish couple in a decade old 2nd marriage, we talked and fought about opening up for a year and have dipped our toe in this world just this last year.
We've read a dozen books and attended poly support groups in our area–the wife and a prospective girlfriend and I in one support group preplay, presex meeting. Yes. Very interesting! Our reason for exploring this road? Staying hot for each other thru the yrs, keeping our marriage alive, enjoying a meaningful love/sex adventure in the last trimester of our time on the planet; staying intimate and married.
After reading Sex at Dawn, Mating In Captivity, More Than Two, and Ethical Slut (and all your books, Joan!); and going on a few dates with others this last year, we've been shocked to arrive here. We actually feel closer, have better sex together as marrieds and better frequency because of this "experiment". Also, we fight about sex less now that we've started down this road. We are in no hurry for results here and our marriage remains primary. But we are starting to date some–ethical non monogamy. And, we talk about everything, that's the best part. It's like discovering anal; the talk and reading books about it all and leading up to it actually increased our intimacy; far more than the act; which we still do and like but don't do that often. What a journey!
What we found was that my first wife and I ended up finding very different things from our poly experience, all good. It literally saved our marriage. My first wife died in a car accident and my former partner stayed my best friend until she too passed away after having a heart attack. I still love and miss them terribly. Being poly taught me I could do that and also love again. I have a wonderful wife and a good life now. ~ Sam (age 60)
Have you encouraged your wife in your Advance Directive for Health Care (I have, long before I knew of poly) to find another lover and move on if you get dementia or become disabled and can't have that conversation? I watched a friend, a beautiful woman, live in conflicted abstinence for 10yrs (she was a Baptist) while her husband age 37 "lived" in a coma. What a wasted decade. There were small children; this would have helped them with mom's new lover, while dad was still alive.
I wonder how many of us who are, or have been, in poly or otherwise open relationships have lost spouses, nesting partners and or other significant partners to death? How did the grieving process progress when you had other partners, or past partners, in the mix? Were they a liability or an asset? – Sam (age 60)
Excellent question! I hope people will respond.
I don't really have a reply to Sam, but do encourage the question. I have done counseling with several poly families, none in a death loss situation, and would make wild guesses but would like to see the responses.
@David – When my wife died in a car accident I had no way to inform the other lovers who were significant in her life (her OSOs) but my OSOs were there for me for my kids and I. One drove through the night with her husband and they were both there for my family and I.
Robert Rimmer! We are an old bunch! Rimmer's books were an early part of the mix, along with Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", Jame's Ramey's "Intimate Strangers", and of course, The O'Neil's "Open Marriage."
But now it's the 21st Centure, and we have "The Ethical Slut", "More Than Two", "Stories from the Polycule", and perhaps 40 other books on polyamory, as well as many other books on swinging. The latest perspective on this is Relationship Anarchy. No books yet, but plenty of stuff on the web. They have meetings and parties, and are similar to a loose confederation of groups which call themselves Sex Positive (city name, search for Sex Positive Portland for example. Or the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle.
My life partner and I have been together since 1961. We began to explore polyamory around 1967, long before there was a name for us. We've both had many wonderful lovers, including relationships that lasted for decades, some of whom are still good friends. I'd write more, but she's waiting for me in bed.
Thanks Joan. I agree. I think people should live a life of workability that is honest & fulfilling no matter your sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship orientation.
I recommend reading some of the 20+ novels of Robert Rimmer in which he proposed and examined the ins and outs of several forms of non-monogamy. Several of his books made the best-seller lists and one "The Harrad Experiment" was made into a movie in 1973.