Being ‘monogamish’: Why I opened up my marriage

2022-02-11 05:30:00

In 2017, as I began, nervously, to talk about the “monogamish” set-up my wife and I were in, I discovered we were hardly alone. Firstly, people had been doing this for centuries, like feminist American pilot, Amelia Earhart (first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 1932) who wrote to her husband before they married: “I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I bind myself to you similarly.”

Secondly, the more I spoke openly, the more friends I had assumed to be traditional in their approach to sex began disclosing their “monogamish” tendencies. One of my friends revealed she and her husband allowed one another a “hall pass” a couple of times a year – the chance to have no strings sex with someone outside the marriage. Another friend told me all about the sexy parties she and her boyfriend enjoyed, both together and on their own.

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My understanding of and fascination with these supposedly alternative ways of being in relationship increased when I began researching and writing my book, Love and Choice – a radical approach to sex and relationships. One of those I interviewed was Sandy, 50, who lives with her boyfriend, Jon, in North London. This 10-year relationship is loving and committed though makes space for sex with other people, she explains, because: “We both love that moment when there’s a spark with someone and don’t want to limit each other or ourselves around whether it gets followed up or not. For us, trust means that this person loves you and has your best interests at heart. It does not mean we can’t have sex with someone else.”

She continues: “Jon can have an incredible night with someone else and it doesn’t have any impact on how he feels about me. I know this because I’ve experienced the same thing. The idea that lust is finite just seems so odd! Like there won’t be any left for my partner just because I allow myself to express lust for someone else.”

Jon says: “I feel like there’s an unwritten rule people adopt in traditional relationships, a kind of ownership, like it’s all right to say, no, you can’t go out with that person. But I don’t own Sandy; she is continuing to be herself, and just because she’s going out with me doesn’t mean she shouldn’t do what the hell she wants.”

Anita, 44, is currently enjoying a consciously monogamous relationship but has been in a variety of non-monogamous and “monogamish” set-ups. For her the issue isn’t monogamy or the practice of it but the assumption that monogamy automatically equals fidelity and decency: “It fascinates me that people still think that monogamy is automatically the biggest marker of commitment in any relationship. I prefer the idea that people can agree what the relationship container looks like for themselves and accept that as an ongoing discussion, something that can be agreed on and re-agreed on as people grow and circumstances change.”

I can see the wisdom in Anita’s words. Yet I can also understand the craving to believe in a concept of romantic love that includes only ever sharing one’s sexual self with one other person (at a time).

Is this to do with my social conditioning or my very emotional, sensitive nature? Quite honestly, I can’t be sure, just as I can’t be sure whether “monogamish” relationships are happier than monogamous ones. The answer, I think, is probably yes and no because the success of a couple’s relationship depends on a number of factors, most of which are not actually related to the monogamy itself, but to how they treat one another and themselves. Factors such as how well a couple communicates, how generous they are with one another and whether they have tended to those historic childhood wounds that tend to crop up and sabotage our present-day relationships are more important, I believe, than who has sex with whom.

I am now confident that couples need not be monogamous to feel secure and loved by one another. Provided that any monogamish set-up is entered into from a position of strength rather than weakness I believe it can work to enhance the happiness of both the relationship itself and the individuals involved. Yet anthropologist and human behaviour researcher, Helen Fisher, might disagree. When I interviewed her back in 2020, Fisher, who has extensively studied the brain systems involved with lust and attachment and is extremely knowledgeable on the subject, concluded that: “Wherever romantic love is present so too is sexual possessiveness. We are a jealous animal. Throughout history there have been free-love communes, but the bottom line is that we aren’t built for this, even in societies where it is the tradition.”

Fisher refers to any kind of ethical non-monogamy as “transparent adultery”. Up until five years ago I would have agreed. Sandy and Jon, along with the other swathes of happily monogamish couples I’ve spoken to – couples who give the kind of detailed attention to their relationships like that required by a Japanese bonsai tree – have made me reconsider.

It is not that I think “monogamish” is better than monogamy (in fact my own experience included as much heartache as exhilaration) but that I believe in conscious choice and the myriad ways of being happy.

My own experiences of being “monogamish” with B were hit and miss. Hit: acting on attractions elsewhere threw us headlong into a sexually explosive new phase of our marriage. (Turns out that knowing your partner is having sex with someone else can make you furiously desire them, albeit with a passion motivated by insecurity rather than anything more constructive.) Miss: we did not consider the ramifications of this big change to our relationship rules and could have worked much harder to think and behave sensitively towards each other and the others involved.

Using monogamy to reassure yourself that your partner will never leave is like insisting something does not exist merely because you cannot see it.

I have learnt the hard way that prehab is far more effective and loving than rehab; talking through potential scenarios and making explicit agreements before the fact is the best way of ensuring success and happiness. I have also learnt that neither being monogamous nor “monogamish” is an insurance against loss.

The truth is that dealing with the uncertainty of life (and love) is something we all must do, regardless of our relationship structure. Using monogamy to reassure yourself that your partner will never leave is like insisting something does not exist merely because you cannot see it.

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On the other hand, if you are curious about having sex outside your relationship, consider the fact that going “monogamish” may actually bring something more – something fulfilling – to both you and your partner that is both constructive and exciting. But first, you must be willing to talk it through. Make sure you are on the same page before you go ahead with anything. Don’t rush it, either. You can only go as fast as the slowest person if you want to reach the finish line together.

Lucy Fry is a journalist and psychotherapist who writes about mental health, addiction and relationships. Her third book, Love and Choice is published by Hodder Studio, 10th February 2022.

The Telegraph, London

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