Sex & Sociability

Question and commentary on connections, both sexual and social

Monogamous/Open Relationships

Can a monogamist be happy in an open relationship?

Can someone who is monogamous remain coupled with someone who is openly not? To many, the answer is “obviously not” or “not for very long” but that isn’t necessarily the case. A group of therapists to which I belong sat down one recent Saturday afternoon to discuss this. Every one of the therapists in this group of about a dozen had seen or were currently dealing with clients struggling with this issue and some personally were. Can such an obvious mismatch work?

Many years ago when I married at 21 I told my husband that I didn’t see the practical value in vowing lifelong monogamy and that I didn’t require it of him. Rather than being overjoyed his response was a scowling “Well, I do. If you go outside this marriage it is over.” Thus the tacit ground rules of my marriage for more than 12 years were that I was monogamous and he was not. That worked for us until it didn’t (which is true of many marriages in general, monogamy notwithstanding.)

That arrangement, of a monogamous wife and a husband who was permitted, even expected, to stray is the norm in many cultures and has been for centuries. It is only here and now in our supposedly egalitarian society that this is seen as unfair. It certainly might be considered so, but it is not unworkable.

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Take the case of a naturally monogamous person married to a naturally polyamorous one. If each is aware of his or her own nature and that of the spouse when they marry why would it not work? When I talk of open marriages, open to any degree, even bilaterally, I often hear the petulant refrain “So why marry?” as if sexual exclusivity is the only possible reason to wed.

The answer to “why” is for love and companionship, the same reasons many people couple. Sexual exclusivity is just not seen as necessary or desirable by some.

But what of the person who couples expecting sexual exclusivity to be part of the package, who doesn’t even question it, until the issue arises some time later into the marriage? If the desire to re-evaluate such an assumption and make some other kind of agreement is mutual, that’s fine. Often it’s only one of the pair who finds monogamy too confining. Then if she or he is typical, he or she cheats. If this is an ethical person the matter is brought up for discussion openly. Those are the clients psychotherapists usually see on this subject—one wants monogamy, one does not.

The first question that usually arises is “Is there someone else?” This is the most threatening of scenarios. If one of the people is in love or in lust with someone else usually the most that can be negotiated is containment. That can look like anything the couple agrees to—not to act on the attraction at all or for a certain period of waiting or counseling, to limit the contact with the proposed lover in some way to certain times and places, to be discreet in the affair, to end the primary relationship, etc.

Most often one of the two is simply feeling confined. Sex within the couple is dull; one is not getting his or her needs met not only for variety but perhaps for a certain predilection the partner won’t indulge. Certainly a sex life that once was hot can often be revived with a little information, education and willingness on both parts to experiment. If one partner is into a certain kind of sex, let’s say bondage, that the other partner won’t or can’t fulfil, an open relationship confined to those particulars can be negotiated, perhaps with the one who wants a certain kind of play seeing a professional sex worker for that specific activity.

How to come up with a solution to the most common scenario, however, is the biggest challenge. That is where one wants or expected a monogamous relationship, is happy within those bonds, and the other partner isn’t. If some sort of settlement can be negotiated—only casual outside sex and no love affairs or only when out of town, etc., there can be a truce. Yes, it’s possible the restless one will want more and, yes, it’s possible the monogamous one will feel resentful, but that’s not always the case. Often the polyamorous one won’t act on his or her new freedom but just wanted to know it was there. Sometimes the monogamous one will see that there are advantages to an open relationship. There are as many possible outcomes to an open/closed relationship as there are rules and agreements around one.

Support groups online and in real life are available for polyamorous people and for monogamists. Once a couple sees that they can negotiate successfully “for now”, any arrangement they make may seem less scary and can be changed in the future again by mutual agreement.

Isadora AlmanM.F.T., is a Board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist, lecturer, author, and syndicated advice columnist of "Ask Isadora."

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