Monogamous Couples Can Learn From Non-Monogamous Couples In Couples Therapy
Can couples in open relationships teach monogamous couples a thing or two about navigating and maintaining a partnership? It might seem like a strange question, but in my NYC couples therapy practice, I see how couples in open relationships, by stepping outside of the accepted norm (i.e. monogamy), put some things on the table that monogamous couples can take for granted.
Recently, the New York Times Magazine featured an in-depth article on the particular experiences of couples in open relationships in “Is An Open Marriage A Happier Marriage?” As opposed to the couples featured in the article, the rules of monogamy often stand in, in a sense, for the work in monogamous relationships. By looking at how non-monogamous couples work, monogamous couples can perhaps begin to think differently about how they do their partnership.
What Do Couples Do With An Absence Of A Model?
At first glance, the assumption is that open relationships are less structured, by definition. Monogamy, though, is both the norm and an intense organizing principle. It would be wrong to say that couples who choose non-monogamy must be more intentional, but there is intentionality in the choice–a willingness to step outside the norms.
What does a marriage or partnership look like or mean if not a sexual contract of mono-fidelity? Open relationships essentially create their own model. The absence of a model can be helpful, but it also requires work. However, more work, more opportunity. It’s like working in an artistic medium that hasn’t been explored much.
Open Relationships Challenge Relationship Norms
Open relationships question aspects of a partnership that are sometimes just taken as a given. This can range from the definition of commitment, intimacy, jealousy, the notion of equity and sharing, scarcity and more.
For example, jealousy is a complicated emotion. There’s an implied sense of inequality, injustice or a sense of coveting. It’s presumed to be a negative emotion, but is often talked about as unavoidable when it comes to romantic attachments.
When talking about jealousy, we’re really talking about two things: I want you and I want what you have. These are easily confused. I often think the “I want you” response is more based on fear. In an open relationship, one can have all of their partner even while he or she shares intimacy with someone else. It also challenges the assumption of scarcity–the idea that there is a finite amount of love from someone to be distributed.
What Is The Currency of Commitment?
For monogamous couples, the promise of “I won’t have sex with anyone but you” is the currency of commitment. But, should it be? If we can imagine healthy, loving relationships without sexual monogamy, then, what is the currency of commitment? Is it time? Or a kind of investment in love and closeness?
Perhaps in recognizing that “I won’t have sex with anyone but you” isn’t absolutely necessary, couples–whether in open or monogamous relationships–can be better able to recognize that it also isn’t sufficient. Couples in open relationships “work on” their relationship, especially in the context of one partner starting a new relationship or getting close to someone else. There is an awareness that these moments can be particularly trying for the relationship and so extra care is taken.
Creativity In (Open and Monogamous) Relationships
Creativity, in the case of open relationships, means, in a very real sense, to create something new. There are no right answers and this can be both scary and freeing. Couples in open relationships have to create their partnership like moving to a new country without any laws.
What matters to you as a couple? What should you do about jealousy? How much should you share with one another? How do you define closeness with other people? What terms apply and what are the limits you want to set? What conditions should be in place to process changing those rules? In open relationships, couples are forced to sit with these questions. But, in many ways, monogamous couples should too.
“I Would Struggle Deeply If It Were Otherwise”
We are so prone to being categorical, black-and-white and rigid in these ways. Monogamy and all that comes with it is one of those areas of inquiry that is both philosophically and emotionally complicated. We get jealous and we have a desire to own exclusively a certain source of intimacy.
I often way that no small part of marriage or a long-term partnership is navigating the “I can’t believe you would think/do/feel X”–moments in which a belief or way of operating that our partner displays is baffling. We are all of a culture and yet, at the same time, attempting to create the culture that is our relationship. Perhaps an honest argument to one partner in the favor of monogamy or non-monogamy isn’t one of biology or theology but rather this: “My love, I can make no sound argument in favor of X arrangement other than to say that I would struggle deeply if it were to be otherwise.”