By Merle Yost, LMFT
One of the issues that I get frequent questions about is open vs. closed relationships. This used to be more of an issue for men, both married and single. Men often want the option of having additional sexual partners. As women are having affairs in ever increasing numbers, it is challenging the fantasy that we have been programmed with since childhood about relationships and marriage. Women are increasing considering this an option for themselves. It is making us as a society ask: What is the definition of a marriage or relationship? Does it include monogamy?
With gay men and women demanding the right to marry, it is forcing us as a society to examine our beliefs and values about marriage. So far, it is a monologue by the religious right. All other voices are being buried under their assault. Regardless of the law of the land, people and relationships will continue to evolve.
One of my strongest beliefs is that dishonesty breaks up relationships, not infidelity. The betrayal is in not telling the truth or in hiding. Trust is what must be restored. Trust is difficult to reestablish and for many relationships, impossible. Trust is the fabric upon which we build relationships. Without trust, there is at best a shaky, fragile foundation.
Most men and some women are able to separate emotional vs. physical fidelity. When caught in an affair or tryst, he will exclaim, ‘it was just sex, it did not mean anything.’ For someone who cannot or who chooses not to separate these fidelities, this statement does not make sense and is insulting, no matter how true it is for the other partner.
When choosing a partner it is very important to discuss issues like monogamy. Gay men have had more experience in this area. Not being as restrained by the social programming, they have had more opportunity to explore alternative relationships. Increasingly couples of all types are finding new ways to define relationships. For example, in the area of money, it was assumed that couples after marriage would combine their money, and it would become our money. However, in the 90’s, many couples are keeping their money separate. While in part this is an acknowledgment of divorce statistics, it is also a redefinition of what marriage is and how it is to be configured. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination of the partners.
The key to a successful open relationship is the agreement. How is this going to be open? What are the rules? When can you seek other partners? I have known many bisexual men to only have sex outside of their marriages with other men. Women other than their wives are off limits. The reverse is often true for straight men with bisexual wives. Threeways and outside relationships with other women is okay, other men may be too threatening. For some people one night stands are okay. No repeat encounters that could lead to an emotional attachment. Whatever the couple agrees to is okay. Living up to the agreement both in spirit and to the letter keeps the trust in place and the relationship together.
Another issue is the security of the couple. If jealousy or insecurity is a part of the mix an open relationship will not work. Open relationships requires more trust and more security than closed relationships. That is why it is not for everybody. If you are clear that you are not interested in an traditional relationship, it is imperative that you have a partner that holds the same belief and value system. Otherwise it’s an open invitation to divorce.
Sexually transmitted diseases are appropriately a major concern. HIV, herpes and syphilis are just a few of the things that can be brought home. Agreements and actions about protected sex will make this a safer and more relaxed process for all involved. Sex is fun, but it is not worth risking your life for or the life of your partner. If you don’t know what protected-safer sex is, find out.
As in most issues for couples, communication and trust is the foundation for working through problems and having a healthy relationship.