After her husband of 18 years reveals that he has gotten a vasectomy, successful magazine journalist Robin Rinaldi comes to the sinking realization that she will not have the family she had once hoped for. Being that she can’t create the home life she dreamed of, she decides to go down a different path and explore her sexuality. In her book, The Wild Oats Project,1 Rinaldi discusses her quest for passion after she proposes an arrangement in which she will live on her own and be free to take on lovers during the week, while returning home to her role as a wife on the weekends. The book discusses her sexual quest to feel fulfilled as she takes on both male and female lovers and attend workshops geared towards getting in touch with her sexual self. Lest I spoil the end of her intriguing narrative, it would be better to leave you questioning whether or not her marriage was able to sustain the shake-up caused by this mutually, albeit somewhat coerced, agreement. Also, whether or not her marriage survived, it begs the question: Is marriage really synonymous with monogamy?
Although it may be simple to think of a relationship as either monogamous or not, many variations exist, often with fuzzy boundaries. Some researchers2 use the term consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) to define any arrangement in which partners have extra-dyadic sexual or romantic relationships (i.e., they sleep with other people). Others3 use the term “open” relationship to imply a non-monogamous sexual agreement which is characterized by rules that define which extra-dyadic sexual activities are permitted. The term “open” may be flawed as it leaves much open to interpretation.
By and large, an open relationship is really an umbrella term that encompasses any non monogamous relationship.4 Under “open relationships”, one can find different types:
- partnered nonmonogamy – a couple that enjoys extra dyadic sex
- swinging – nonmonogamy in social settings
- polyamory – a situation in which partners have more than one relationship
- solo polyamory – nonmonogamous individuals who don’t want a primary partner
- polyfidelity – three or more people who have made a commitment
- monogamous/nonmonogamous partnership – only one member is monogamous
Typically, the defining feature of the overarching open relationship structure is that the two individuals consider each other to be the primary partners in the relationship. Dan Savage, host of the Savage Lovecast notes, “People simply are not always wired to be monogamous creatures,” and has coined the term “monogam-ish.”5 He has shared that people tend to view negatively those who are monogam-ish, because we typically only hear about the cases in which this type of relationship has failed. In fact, many people may be in these types of relationship configurations, but are not willing to discuss it for fear that they will be seen as a sex-crazed deviant.
For Better or For Worse,6 a documentary nominated for an Academy Award in 1993, followed couples who have made it over the 50 year marriage mark. Ninety year old, Dan Trupin, says through laughter, “Monogamy is monotony.” His wife, Sophie, later explains over a dinner scene with the family that it is the job of the woman to look the other way when her man strays, which he inevitably does. Dan Trupin was shocked by his wife’s analysis of marriage, and in a later scene, admits to never having loved anyone but her or having been with anyone else during their time together.
However, it was in this same documentary that Howard and Cecil Waite, a couple married for 63 years, discuss the arrangement in which he would drop Cecil off at her boyfriend’s house on his way to his girlfriend’s house. They would spend hours with their other partners before meeting up at the end of the day. All this, but they never once considered divorce. This couple’s scenario, in particular, usually creates the most discomfort amongst my students when they view the documentary in class. They wonder how this couple can have a happy and fulfilled relationship while essentially cheating on one another. But is this really cheating? The answer may not be so simple.
Satisfaction Derived from Relationships
The idea that individuals cannot be satisfied in an open relationship mostly originated from our heterocentric view of monogamy, in which we use heterosexual relationships as our basis for understanding all forms of coupling. More than half of men who have extramarital sex reported that they were happy or very happy in their marriages.7,1 The two main ingredients needed for an open relationship to work are honesty and boundaries. Nonmonogamous couples must disclose all of the information regarding their extra dyadic parings, as well as set up a clear set of rules before engaging in such relationships. Once done, the couple can enjoy a happy and fulfilling relationship. In fact, research has shown that open relationships allow the members to feel “…like they have created a relationship that reflects their authenticity and self-awareness”.1 The individuals also benefit from a deeper level of honesty about sexual behavior and desires.
Social conventions have reinforced the idea that to be with one partner is moral and the norm. Individuals in open relationships are often portrayed negatively. It is, unfortunately, typical for therapists to associate non-monogamy with relationship dysfunction and individual psychopathology8 as well as suggest that relationships of this nature indicate that the primary relationship is troubled.2 However, just because we don’t talk about our behaviors out in the open does not mean that they don’t exist. Perhaps we would all benefit from a more honest discussion of what goes on behind closed doors after the vows have been taken. With a more accurate look at the nature of relationships, we can potentially mitigate the bias associated with certain configurations.
If you’d like to learn more about our book, please click here (or download it here). Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.
1Rinaldi, R. (2015). The wild oats project: One woman’s midlife quest for passion at any cost. New York: Sarah Crichton Books.
2Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non‐monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP), 13(1), 1-30. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2012.01286.x
3Hosking, W. (2013). Satisfaction with open sexual agreements in Australian gay men’s relationships: The role of perceived discrepancies in benefit. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(7), 1309-1317. doi:10.1007/s10508-012-0005-9
4Zimmerman, K. J. (2012). Clients in sexually open relationships: Considerations for therapists. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy: An International Forum, 24(3), 272-289.
6Thompson, B. (Producer), & Collier, D. (Director). (1993). For better or for worse [Film Documentary]. United States: Studio B Films.
7Glass, S.P. & Wright, T.M. (1985). Sex differences in type of extramarital involvement and marital satisfaction. Sex Roles, 12, 1101-1120.
8Finn, M. D., Tunariu, A. D., & Lee, K. C. (2012). A critical analysis of affirmative therapeutic engagements with consensual non-monogamy. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 27(3), 205-216. doi:10.1080/14681994.2012.702893
Dr. Marisa Cohen
Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.