Recently, I had a stimulating discussion with two highly intelligent and articulate women half my age. One of them introduced me to a new name for having sex with people other than your spouse but with your spouse’s permission: ethical non-monogamy.
When I was in high school, swingers was what we called consensual spouses having sex with other partners. They went to sex parties together or they swapped partners, often with another married couple in the neighborhood. It came across basically as a shared hobby. A risky hobby, for sure, but shared.
That changed when I went to college. Free love was the slogan, now that we had the Pill and at least one state (and soon, fifty of them) with legal abortion. The name for non-monogamous marriage changed to open marriage. Had an advertising agency come up with it, they’d surely be proud of the successful rebranding. However, instead of something married couples did together, it was now all about freedom and fear of missing out. You could have one primary partner but never be left wondering if there was better sex (or romance) to be had with someone else. I know of one married couple that managed this lifestyle. I’m sure their marriage was a lot more challenging than my own.
Sex releases hormones that alter our emotions and thoughts. It facilitates trust. It stifles the urge for freedom, thereby bonding us, to some degree or another, to the person we share an orgasm with but not a marriage. And it encourages emotional intimacy, sharing the thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be building a framework for a longterm relationship with the person we married. Marriage has its ups and downs as we find our way through our childhood wounds with another human being. Being intimate with anyone else makes the downs harder to get through, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.
According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the appearance of the phrase open marriage in books had a sharp peak in 1979. Then it dropped way off, only to begin another rise in 2001, exceeding that 1979 peak in 2012 and continuing at about the same level to today.
Throughout, the term open relationship has appeared far less often in books than open marriage. It’s different when it’s in a marriage.
Now, the phrase-makers have given us something new: ethical non-monogamy. Non-monogamy to be inclusive, I presume, of the growing number of couples who choose to share a life and parenting without marriage. And ethical to signify that there’s no secrecy or coercion between the spouses and, I presume, to take some pride in their choice to have other partners when more conservative folks try to shame them.
One of the women I was speaking with was in an ethically non-monogamous marriage and quite happy with it. The other had just broken up with someone she loved who made it clear this was the only option for him. And she seemed to be doubting her hipness, wondering if she should just go along because it seemed to be what the trendy folks are doing now. However, she wanted a relationship where she could be completely open, where she could let herself be fully vulnerable, and she wanted it to last. Was she asking too much, she wondered.
Not at all is my answer. I cannot imagine a happy marriage, monogamous or not, without this as the goal.
I asked the woman with the ethical non-monogamous marriage what she and her husband had decided about how to handle a pregnancy, hers or that of another woman in his life. They would make that decision if they had to, when they had to. (At 25, I became a mother despite my IUD’s 99-point-something percent effectiveness rate, at just about the worst possible point for my career or our finances, so I always consider that possibility. And I thank Pennsylvania for offering abortion as an option, because it forced me to go all in on my decision to give birth to the son I am so very proud of.) Then she mentioned that a friend in an ethically non-monogamous relationship had recently given birth, and she’d been putting off going to see her friend and the new baby, so perhaps it’s recently been on her mind, too.
I wondered what she and her husband would do if one of them were to be injured or disabled and require more care from their spouse. (Or need multiple surgeries and six months of IVs at home, as mine did.)
I didn’t get to ask about the complexities of child care when a couple has multiple relationships to tend. (They were tougher than I expected, for sure, with just one partner, equally devoted to our son.)
And what would they do if another partner they cared about got transferred to a different part of the country? (This was the tough decision that blew the secrecy off an affair that affected two of my friends.)
I have many friends with dangerous hobbies they really enjoy: kayaking rapids, skydiving, small plane piloting, diving with sharks, mountain climbing. All but one of them (now in a wheelchair) pays close attention to enumerating and preparing for all of the what-ifs. Non-monogamous marriage deserves the same. Especially if it’s ethical.
And if it’s not for you, that’s fine.