Open Marriage: Lovers and Haters

I know about sex.

And because I happen to be an expert, I have had the privilege of working with lots of journalists on great pieces and been quoted as an expert hundreds of times. As a PhD sex therapist and a couple’s counselor, my specialties can be intriguing to writers who want to write about sex, monogamy and relationships.

Yet only a handful of times have I found someone who takes on a subject as radical as consensual nonmonogamy with the courage and depth as my new friend and colleague, New York Times Magazine writer, Susan Dominus.

Over the course of a year, I met with Susan, had dinner, talked by phone and exchanged countless emails about my work with couples, my theories on monogamy and the clients that I have worked with who are in open marriages.

She wrote, what I think, is the defining article on open marriage today, Is an Open Marriage A Happier Marriage? What the experiences of nonmonogamous couples can tell us about jealousy, love, desire and trust, published as a cover article in the NY Times magazine, Mother’s day, May 11, 2017.

She talked about my book, The New Monogamy, released in 2012, and the couples that I was seeing in my private practice,

“…married couples whose ideas about fidelity were more lax than those she encountered at the outset of her career. She thought of the phenomenon as “the new monogamy…”

And Dominus quoted my definition of the new monogamy,

“The new monogamy is, baldly speaking, the recognition that, for an increasing number of couples, marital attachment involves a more fluid idea of connection to the primary partner than is true of the ‘old monogamy,’” ...“Within the new notion of monogamy, each partner assumes that the other is, and will remain, the main attachment, but that outside attachments of one kind or another are allowed — as long as they don’t threaten the primary connection.”

The spectrum of those attachments included one-night stands and ongoing relationships; ...honesty and transparency, rather than fidelity....the guiding principles underlying the healthiest of these kinds of marriages.”

And it’s true. The couples I see today are what I would described as ‘contemporary monogamists,’ in a type of open marriage where the couple may appear on the surface to be a traditional, suburban family, on the PTA with a van full of soccer mom stick figure stickers, but on the weekends they have sex with their friends or cruise the sex clubs in the city.

This “new monogamy” is defined by an emotional monogamy, a commitment with boundaries around honesty and transparency, with open sexual behaviors. The sexual behavior of the couple does not define their marital fidelity nor does it call into question their love for one another. As she quoted me, “The couples did not perceive their desire to see other people as a symptom of dysfunction but rather as a fairly typical human need that they thought they were up to the challenge of navigating.”

Dominus, the writer for the Times, saw the “new monogamy” as a more workable version of swapping, as in Gay Talese’s book from the 70’s about sleeping with thy neighbor’s wife, (for a moment I flashed back to a dog-eared hard cover book on my mother’s book shelf.) She says,

“The new monogamy is clearly not entirely new, although it may be an updated version of the old new monogamy, practiced by the ’70s-era suburban spouse-swappers … The married couples Talese portrays are looking for meaning through sexual freedom, wreaking havoc in the wake of their quests.”

But, as she said, the couples I see today don’t identify as swingers or swappers.

Swinging is different than this ‘new’ type of ‘new monogamy’ or non-monogamy, or consensual non-monogamy, or polyamory. Swinging back then meant that you separated from your spouse and went into separate rooms and had your own private sexual experience, like wife swapping, which was not necessarily a shared experience.

The couples in this article make it a point to share their experience with their partner(s), even if it means talking about their feelings, negotiating the rules of the relationship(s) or talking about the potential outcomes. It seems the one common denominator to all of these ‘new monogamists’ or ‘nonmonogamists’ is communication. And isn’t that what everyone believes is the key to a healthy relationship?

Dominus, the journalist, bravely went where few journalists have gone before; she explored what this meant about her own marriage. She thought about what this might mean for herself and her husband. She is comfortable with her monogamy. I found her take on her experiences with the 50 nonmonogamous people she spoke with a refreshingly honest, personal and balanced perspective on a phenomenon that is culturally baffling to many people, and yet feels so natural to others.

And then I read the comments to the article. By Sunday morning there were over 1400 comments, and 1399 were mean. Vitriolic. And religious.

You would have thought we had torn down the cross and were beating people with it.

And somehow it was Hilary Clinton’s fault.

I could only wonder if Susan Dominus’ was hiding in her house or wearing big hats.

But I doubt it. She is incredibly brave. The article is expectedly, creating quite a stir. Or, better said, this is what I call the ‘slingshot effect,’ the pulling back of a conservative movement against the tide of evolution. Whenever there is a great protest against progress, you know you are onto something. Change is happening and it makes people afraid. They don’t like change.

I remembered when my book, The New Monogamy, was released five years ago, almost to the day, I was accused of “advising couples to cheat.” I received letters that said I was “bringing down the institution of marriage established by thousands of years of history.” Surprisingly, the most vocal and visible letters against the new monogamy were from other therapists, religious therapists mostly, who always included at the end of their letters and their reviews the links to their books, and the website links for their practice.

Many of those therapists also believed in conversion therapy for gays. They advertised that they could ‘change’ a gay person to make them straight again. (Conversion or reparative therapy has since been deemed by American Psychological Association to violate its code of ethics.) Perhaps they also believed they could convert the nonmonogamous. Or maybe they thought that the demise of marriages could be cured by denial.

The couples in the NY Times article are under no such delusion. They don’t keep secrets; they confront their fears, and they try to work through the difficulties of a long term marriage at a time when there are not many options other than cheating or divorce.

I am packing now, to go teach in Paris for a week. I wonder how the French will receive me after this quote in the article,

“Most people don’t like the word ‘polyamorous,’” Nelson told me. “It’s not easy to say; it sounds a little French, with all respect to the French.”

I think the French will go easier on me then the Americans. I know the French are known to be a little more open to ideas around relationships. Macron, their recently elected President, just responded to criticism that his wife is twenty years older than he, claiming homophobia and misogyny as an obsession that the country should let go of, that the age difference would create no such scandal if he was older than his wife. And in fact, they have the same age difference as Donald and Melania Trump.

As I close my suitcase, and fold the NY Times Magazine into my bag to read again on the plane, I think about how the comments are affecting everyone in the article, the journalist, the wives, the husbands, the lovers, and even my husband. I think about how my own relationship is going to come under scrutiny as a result of the article. I have been through this before.

So I do what I often do when I want to work through things, I talk with my husband, I ask him for reassurance. We end up in bed.

After a particularly passionate and intense “reassuring” moment, we lay snuggled, our arms wrapped tightly around each other. I ask him,

“What should I tell people when they ask if we are in an open relationship?” I am concerned for his privacy, and for him.

“Tell them I have a secret girlfriend…” my husband answers. I raise an eyebrow.

“…She lives inside my wife.”

Dr Tammy Nelson is a Sex and Relationship therapist and the author of The New Monogamy. She can be found at www.drtammynelson.com

Post Script:

I will be following up on the couples in the article. I will write more about how they and other couples that I see in open relationships are doing and interview them in my upcoming podcast. I will let you know how Daniel and Elizabeth make out with their outside relationships. I can tell you now that they are quite clear with me that they are not trading in their marriage for anyone else.

And Susan Wenzel, recently married, was interviewed for the article, after our sessions together to deal with her feelings around her open marriage, Susan is now writing a book about being polyamorous. More about that later too.

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