Let's be open about consensual affairs
What if you’re looking for something more than you already have, but don’t want to cheat or break up your loving relationship? Can a consented affair make your relationship stronger? Experts agree that exploring ethical non-monogamy can be liberating and fulfilling, but there are also risks and challenges involved.
The idea of non-traditional relationships is becoming more mainstream as we design our lives according to our own wants, needs and values. People do not just follow expectations based on what society or our parents think is right anymore.
Monogamy is still the norm, but different types of relationships are gaining ground. There are many singles and couples who feel that traditional ideas around relationships don't work for them, and it’s becoming much more accepted to talk about it.
So, is it possible to live a happy life in your emotional relationship, and have intimate relationships at the same time?
How does non-monogamy work?
First, let’s explain that there's a variety of non-monogamy relationships. There’s polyamory, open relationships, swinging, and plenty more. Consensual non-monogamous relationships can be whatever you make them. The golden rule of a non-monogamy relationship is to be open and honest, and to follow a moral code that’s been mutually agreed on.
What these types of relationships have in common is that this is not about cheating, as there are boundaries and agreements in place. Some couples negotiate terms that include "only one-night stands" or "when we travel", where others have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
An open relationship, also known as non-exclusive relationship, is an intimate relationship that is sexually non-monogamous. Generally, people choose it because they think it will bring them more pleasure, satisfaction, orgasms, excitement, or all of those.
Polyamory is a little different. The word comes from the Greek origin “poly”, meaning “many”, and the Latin word “amor”, which means “love”, so polyamory translates as “many loves”. A way to describe it could be consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy.
Where open relationships are still committed to loving only each other, polyamorous people are committed to loving multiple partners. Polyamorous people often start seeing different people to pursue meaningful romantic relationship with them. Sex can be part of it, but it’s usually not the focus.
Swinging is different again, as this is about all about sex. Swinging is an agreement between you and your partner that you can have sex – to a level you have agreed on – with others, either together or separately.
As author and award-winning psychologist Natasha Tiwari explains it, “A swinging couple still holds their commitment as a twosome as their default dynamic when it comes down to other areas of their relationship. It’s only in their sex lives – and even then, it may only be a part of their sex life – that they invite others in. Emotional intimacy remains sacred for the couple only.”
How to approach consensual affairs in a fair and honest way
To Andrea (34), traditional commitment feels like containment. She’s been married to Paul for almost 8 years and there’s no doubt she loves him. He is her best friend and gives her love, commitment, consistency, security and stability. There’s nothing lacking in their sex life either, as they are both open minded, love exploring different positions and roleplay, and they have a collection of sex toys that many couples would be envious of.
Even though they are adventurous and have lots of fun together, a few years into the marriage Andrea realised that she craved more intimacy, both emotional and sexually. The one thing she had a big problem with was cheating. She would never do it.
“Bringing up the possibility of an open relationship with Paul wasn’t easy, but I knew it was inevitable to have the conversation as I felt increasingly trapped and unfulfilled,” Andrea says.
By talking about their wants and needs openly, and carefully exploring what a non-exclusive relationship would look like for them, Andrea and Paul discovered that it has made their love and appreciation for each other even stronger. They are completely on the same page about what they want their relationship to be like.
“Our biggest strength as a couple had always been the way we communicate. We are both big on honesty. There are no secrets or lies. Because we have approached it with integrity and love, this lifestyle is working for us both.”
When it’s easier said than done
For Angela (27) from Sydney, exploring an open relationship meant the end of her relationship with now ex-boyfriend Sam, but she did learn some valuable truths about her own wants and needs in the process.
“He initiated the conversation, and I thought I was on board with it at the time. He didn’t pressure me at all and told me that he really loved me and wanted to build a future with me. He explained he wanted commitment, but that he didn’t believe in monogamy,” she explains.
“I was okay with it at first, as I’m not a jealous person and I know my worth. But I soon discovered that I wasn’t fully committed to the idea of having an open relationship, or to the fact that my boyfriend wanted to have sex with other people.
“The real issue was that Sam went on Tinder straight after we first talked about it. Seeing that he was so excited to be with other women made me feel sad and angry. It was a real kick in the guts that he didn’t give me time to let it sink in and adapt to the idea.”
A few months later, they decided to go their separate ways. Although Angela understood it was good for Sam to be open and honest about his wants and needs with her, she realised that an open relationship wasn’t right for her. She discovered that for her, monogamy is a real dealbreaker, and says she’ll be totally clear about that moving forward.
What the experts say
Relationship expert, sex educator, film maker and award-winning writer Tristan Taormino published her book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships in 2008. In the book, she explores the real-life benefits and challenges of all styles of open relationships, from partnered non-monogamy to solo polyamory.
Taormino does validate monogamy and says that it should be a conscious choice made by both parties in the relationship. That said, she does suggest that open relationships are healthy, because you're forced to communicate more. Her book offers solutions for making an open relationship work, including tips on dealing with jealousy, negotiating boundaries, finding community, parenting and time management.
Christian Klesse, PhD, a researcher and lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK who specialises in sexualities, explains it further in a research paper that featured in the journal Sexualities. His main areas of interest include sexualities and intimacies, gender and sexual politics, and transnational LGBTQ activism.
If you are considering an open relationship or polyamory, it’s a great idea to do your research and read up on as much as you can before you dive in. There’s a lot to consider, especially emotions, both your own and those of others involved. Read more about that in this article on healthline.com.
It’s fair to say that there are rewards but also pitfalls to open relationships or polyamory. It asks a lot from everyone involved in terms of honesty, communication, flexibility, and patience. Making it work involves constant and honest communication with everyone involved.
Healthy non-monogamous relationships are based on good time management skills and great communication. It’s not for everyone but ultimately, having the freedom to grow, change and be yourself within your relationship should be the bottom line.
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