One of my exes once broke up with me with the immortal line, “My other boyfriend doesn’t want an open relationship any more and I prefer him to you.”
Retrospectively, through hindsight and my own experiences of dating people, I should have seen it coming. They’d been together for almost a year, whereas I’d been seeing him for barely two months. I was a stupid and naive eighteen year-old, who had been convinced by one too many romantic comedies that a man who cooks you Shepherd’s Pie and kisses you during sex is basically a ring and a hot air balloon ride away from proposing. I left for university two days after he ended things and spent the next four months getting dangerously drunk and telling anyone who would listen why he was perfect for me and how much of a twat he was.
That was my first experience of open relationships and a bit of a crash course in them as well. I’d known about my ex’s other boyfriend since before we’d started seeing each other – my ex had told me about their relationship himself. It was painful being dumped in favour of someone else and I wish I’d been just a tiny bit more emotionally mature before it happened.
So, to get to the point, why am I still convinced having an open relationship is both more rewarding and more viable than a monogamous relationship?
Much like yoga and listening to Radio 2, I can see why people do monogamy, but I find it a little boring. Why can’t a working relationship be between two people who don’t mind their partner having relationships with other people as well? Whether it’s them meeting someone from Grindr while you’re at the gym and having the sheets in the wash by the time you get home, or all three of you settling down to watch The Great British Bake Off, then a quick bit of mutual masturbation and off to your respective bedrooms before work in the morning. These shouldn’t be seen as somehow inferior to societal norms; washing the car on Saturdays and having other monogamous types over to discuss children, housing prices and how you now find your partner as sexually alluring as a wheelie bin.
People tend to get a lot of stick for polygamy, or open relationships or whatever variation they practice. The fight for gay equality has made harsher cuts than the ConDem coalition in order to make us seem more palatable; ‘enjoying sex with different partners’ was seen as unacceptable to the wider public, so the Gay Agenda got rid of it in their ’02 manifesto. A heterosexual (as far as I know) friend of mine was recently describing how a number of the gay couples she knows are in open relationships and I found the complete lack of judgement surprising. I know gay men who discuss that kind of thing as though the couple have just announced a penchant for bestiality.
Monogamy was invented – and it was invented, by the way; it’s natural for penguins, not for humans – for a number of reasons. Men wanted to make sure it was definitely their baby they were raising and not some cuckoo kid, and women really didn’t enjoy getting Chlamydia every other week, so they decided they’d just pick one other person to sleep with and it’d all be fine. I can’t fault their logic but, seeing as we are sometimes less likely to get pregnant, it’s not really applicable to us. If you don’t want to catch an STD, we have condoms for that. They are readily available from all sexual health clinics for free.
An open relationship doesn’t have to mean you’re going to end up alone, riddled with disease and sobbing into your wedding dress (‘never used, worn once’). When you start having sex in a new relationship, it needs to be safe. You don’t know your new partner, and you might not know any of their ex partners either. Even if you do – and let’s face it, the gay world is notorious for friend-cest – this will probably make you more careful rather than less so, particularly if you know one of your mates is on first name terms with all the nurses at the local STD clinic.
I personally believe you’re less likely to catch something serious in an open relationship, so long as you’re using protection. Whilst I know I’m religious about using protection with partners regardless of whether I’m sleeping solely with them or not, some of my friends decided to stop using protection in their apparently monogamous relationship because they’re in ‘love’ and subsequently got VD for Valentine’s Day. If they’d known their man was dipping his wick anywhere else at all, let alone sans condom, they may have been less eager to start going at it raw, saving them an embarrassing itch and a course of antibiotics. In the same way, if you’re in an open relationship and condoms are standard, your partner slipping one on wouldn’t seem amiss to you, but if you thought you were both monogamous and your boyfriend was still insisting on them two years in or, worse, started using a condom again after a period of barebacking with you, your romantic evening in would probably dissolve into tearful recriminations and no orgasms for anybody.
Awfully, and maybe I’m being too pessimistic here, let’s say you knew you’d been sleeping around but you didn’t want your boyfriend to find out. Would you start using a condom again and risk a very uncomfortable talk, or would you leave the protection off and risk giving him something? You hadn’t been showing any symptoms and you’d been careful with everyone else, so you probably didn’t have anything; he’d be fine. Three months down the line, you’re not, he’s not, and your relationship’s not.
But let’s move away from the dark stuff and discuss something altogether more enjoyable about relationships, monogamous or not; SEX! We live in the most sexually liberated society in human history. Now we’re encouraged to try different things with our partners to see whether we’ll discover something that really drives us wild. Even the notoriously slow-on-the-uptake heteros are jumping on board the sexual revolution train; when your parents are going dogging on weekends with Sue and Barry from two doors up, you know things aren’t what they were thirty years ago. Society has loosened up.
New things turn people on, which is why it’s difficult to find someone who’s always going to float your boat. It’s why the cliché of sex stopping after you get married exists; because once you limit yourself to one other person, you’re also limiting yourself to their sexual proclivities. Imagine your sexual psyche as one circle in a Venn diagram. Where it crosses over with your partner’s, that’s the bit of sex you both enjoy. Some couples are lucky and their circles lie almost directly on top of one another, but some couple’s Venn diagrams only intersect very partially. Now stick a couple of extra circles on there. See? Lots more sexual opportunity! It means that, just because one boyfriend doesn’t really like you wearing stockings and calling yourself ‘Martha’ in the bedroom, you can have another boyfriend who’ll let you and love it.
There’s also the issue of your moods and the fact it’s impossible to predict them. There will be some days you will want the full works – sling, handcuffs, ball-gag etc, and there will be some days when you want to wake up and have sleepy hungover morning sex where neither one of you cares what the other’s hair looks like because you adore each other. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, you can’t have both; either the sex will be too boring or too wild. An open relationship allows you to have both; to explore every inch of your sexual psyche, no matter how sordid, whilst also being able to go home after a hell of a day, make two cups of tea and complain about your job to someone who isn’t necessarily expecting you to put on a collar and cover them in hot wax. You’ve fulfilled any primal urges you’ve had and you’re still giving your love to someone who reciprocates.
You hear ‘oh, I couldn’t deal with the jealousy’ from a lot of people when polygamy is brought up, but you don’t receive a free jealousy-dectomy the minute you decide you’re only going to date one person. The green-eyed monster is just as likely to strike someone who thinks their partner is spending a little too long laughing at that barman’s jokes as someone whose partner has just blown the barman in the stockroom. The ability to feel and deal with jealousy is a positive thing; if you’re one of those people who can’t, it’s probably going to ruin your relationship whether it’s monogamous or not. Having an open relationship is about being honest with your partner and, apart from ‘does this make me look fat?’, there’s never anything wrong with honesty. Discussing what’s acceptable and what’s not – ‘no staying overnight, no seeing them again, no members of my family’, for example – can result in a level of closeness some monogamous couples can only dream of.
Finally, and in a throwback to how I started, dating more than one person can lead to emotional upset and eighteen year olds having their phones confiscated after twelve Sourz shots and a slurred shriek of “I JUST WANT TO TELL HIM HE’S A @*!%.” That’s relationships for you. When they end, more often than not someone’s going to get hurt. But this hurt can be mitigated with honesty from the start, and recognising how to draw the boundaries you’ve set.
Maybe an open relationship isn’t for you, though. Some people are probably very good at only sleeping with one other person for twenty years, and there is nothing – repeat, nothing – wrong with that. If you find the prospect of sleeping with anyone other than your significant other completely unappealing, it’s not a problem and I’d never tell you it was. The purpose of this is not to put up a podium and declare polygamy the only viable form of relationship; all I’m saying is ‘don’t knock it – or us – until you’ve tried it’. I cannot guarantee that I’ll never change my mind about this either. As with many things, I’ll not limit myself to that.