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Infidelity, Open Relationships, and Polyamory

Why do partners deny each other extra-marital sex?

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today there are an increasing number of people who open up their relationships. “Opening up” means that you can date or have sex with other people—and in some cases both—while still being in a committed romantic relationship.

But as witnessed by gloomy statistics, even those who cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what it means to see other people or who never have had that sort of relationship on their agenda are not always monogamous. Monogamy nowadays is at best defined as monogamy for a while—until the grass becomes greener on the other side of the fence and one or both of the involved parties terminate the relationship. This is a common scenario for people in Western countries: they live a life of serial monogamy. In each and every one of their monogamous relationships, they do not stray. But they keep each relationship relatively short and move onto the next person when things begin to be difficult. This is the most common form of serial monogamy.

Then there are individuals with their reputation or family ties at stake, men and women with children or individuals with old money or in some cases ruthless religious parents. People falling into this category tend to stay in their relationship or marriages merely in order to avoid shame, excommunication or the loss of their inheritance or trust funds.

Many of the individuals who no longer can find satisfaction in their relationship get their desire for newness and sexual excitement met elsewhere. They are the people (among others) who have affairs, or who “forget” about fidelity and marital vows when a Spanish brunette in heels and a tight short dress strides by their business dinner table, sending them a flirtatious look.

It’s easy to commit infidelity in today’s society. Most couples work long hours and return home at different times each day. Sometimes hard-working people are required to stay up most of the night to meet important deadlines or participate in a last-minute meeting. But these long nights can be turned into excuses, when there are no meetings to attend or deadlines to be fulfilled. Regularly working long hours also minimizes the risk of inciting suspicion. If you partner normally works late hours, his claim to the effect that he needs to stay at work until late is not a reliable indicator that he is unfaithful.

Not everyone wants to know whether their partner is committing an act of infidelity. There can be comfort in suppressing evidence of infidelity and pretending that your partner is faithful. For some couples, infidelity doesn’t matter much, as long as the two of them jointly engage in fun activities, raise kids together, spend major holidays together, go on vacation together, and so on. Sex may be important in a relationship but once the newness of a relationship dissipates, other aspects of the relationship, such as the feeling of togetherness and belonging, the feeling that someone is waiting for you, having someone to come home to, usually take priority and come to constitute the factors that make the partners want to stay together, even in the face of the occasional extra-marital activities.

Having sex with a person outside the core relationship when the relationship is open or polyamorous is quite different from infidelity. There are no reliable statistics on how many people have, or are aiming to have, open relationships or marriages. But the site, a dating site for polyamorous and open relationships founded by Brandon Wade, has well over 180,000 members worldwide. This is a small indicator of the popularity and attraction of these alternative lifestyles.

You would think jealousy would be a major issue in open and polyamorous relationships and marriages. But for some people jealousy doesn’t arise as long as the partner is not lying, deceiving you or keeping his affairs a secret the way he would if he were committing an act of infidelity. Still: jealousy can arise, particularly in anxiously attached individuals. As blogger Kristen Sollee aptly puts it:

Those unfamiliar with consensual non-monogamy are often incredulous that anyone can survive having multiple partners without being overtaken by the green-eyed monster. In fact, the number one question posed to people in non-traditional relationship structures usually pertains to jealousy. And while it'd be awesome if the answer to those queries was always just, "nah bro, I'm too cool to be jealous," it's not usually the case. We're all wired to deal with emotions differently, no one is 100 percent immune to jealousy, and those who pursue more open forms of romantic attachment are unfortunately just as human and vulnerable as those who go the paired off route.

People in open relationships may manage to put a damper on their jealous feelings by considering the main reason in favor of opening up. Sexual and emotional satisfaction is a (possibly intrinsically valuable) good. So, denying one’s partner this value outside of the narrow context of a monogamous relationship is inconsistent with the core feature of romantic love, which is a genuine concern for one’s partner’s agency, autonomy and wellbeing (McKeever, 2014; McKeever, 2015). The argument for relaxing the cultural tradition of exclusivity can be articulated in schematic form as follows:

  • Sex is intrinsically pleasurable. It can be particularly exciting and intense when the sex partner is new.
  • If you truly love your partner, you should want them to experience such exciting and intense feelings.
  • Conclusion: If you truly love your spouse or partner, you should want your spouse or partner to have sex with other people, if they so desire.

Some partners are convinced that they can provide everything the other person needs. But this, of course, is not the case. It is not just that your partner cannot do your job for you or ensure that you eat properly all the time. You are also likely to fall short sexually. Once the newness of the relationships subsides, sexual arousal inevitably will fluctuate. Occasionally you may be in the mood for sex but other days you just want to turn in early with a book and a cup of hot tea. If you have a very low sex drive, you might want to encourage your partner to seek sexual satisfaction outside of the relationship.

The reverse can also be true: that you are too sexually adventurous for your long-term partner, which means that you either must take care of your own sexual needs or separate from your partner, unless your sexual needs can be satisfied elsewhere.

Consider the following fictive example: you and your partner are nearly fantastic together outside of the bedroom and even sometimes inside the bedroom. You can talk to each other about everything. In the past you acquired some real taste for BDSM, being submissive is a turn-on for you. Your partner, however, has no interest in BDSM, or he or she also has a strong preference for being sexually submissive. If you are great together in every other respect, it may be worth considering opening up your relationship, allowing the more adventurous person or both people to experience BDSM outside the relationship, which will prevent you from having to modify some of your basic sexual preferences and sexual likes and dislikes.

In order for open relationships to work, almost everyone needs to implement rules in order to maintain and reinforce the basic commitment between the two main partners. Some people prefer not to know when their partner has sex with another person. Others want to know every little detail, from sexual positions to the numbers of orgasms.

Regardless of one’s preference to know or not, people in long-term romantic relationships may not be comfortable with the partner doing all the things the two of them do together. Rules for admissible behavior can vary, but commonly prohibited sexual activities include: unprotected sex, anal sex, oral sex, nipple sucking, BDSM, deep kissing, body massages, intimate caressing, fondling, intimate sexual positions, and fluid-bonding—e.g., ejaculation inside of a lover or female ejaculation. Which of these rules are important can vary from individual to individual and from couple to couple. If one partner’s lack of interest in BDSM is the major reason for opening up the relationship, then BDSM probably should not be on the list of sexual activities that are prohibited outside the relationship.

Some couples implement further rules about where the sex can take place, how often the partner can be with someone else, whether the sexual date has to be pre-arranged and communicated to the other partner, what type of person the other partner can have sex with, whether the other partner has to approve of the outside person prior to the rendezvous (e.g., on a dating site or a face-to-face meeting), whether the partner can spend the night with the outsider, whether the partner is allowed to see the outsider more than once, whether the sex can be preceded by dinner or some other non-sexual activity, whether any personal information may be exchanged between the affair couple (including phone numbers and email addresses).

Anecdotally at least, most couples who open up their relationship implement rules that dictate that the partner cannot engage with an outside person in pre-arranged non-sexual activities or exchange private information. It is furthermore common to require that the partner may not have sex with an outside partner more than once and that the outsider is not a member of the couple’s social circle, so neither of the partners has to interact with the outsider on future occasions.

These rules of engagement are meant to minimize feelings of jealousy and protect the core relationship from disintegrating. But they also signal commitment to each other in the relationship. With a set of rules in place, the individuals in the core relationship can still have a strong commitment to each other and can still be faithful in an extended sense of the word, and—by following the rules strictly—they can avoid committing acts of infidelity and avoid falling in love with their outside partners.

Research suggests that open relationships are most likely to succeed when the couple has discussed and written down the rules, and they engage in full disclosure of the details of the extra-relational rendezvous to the extent that it is desired by both parties (Taormino, 2008).

Polyamory is a variation on the open relationship structure. Polyamory is characterized by simultaneous consensual romantic, sexual, and/or affective relationships with multiple partners. Polyamory differs from swinging in focusing on long-term, emotionally intimate relationships, from polygamy with its equality of access to others for all gender and from adultery with its emphasis on honesty and full disclosure of the relationships to all participants. The structure of polyamory can take various forms, ranging from a core relationship with ancillary lovers, triads and quads with three or four people constituting the core unit, or V-structures where one individual is equally romantically involved with two or more people who are not themselves romantically involved.

One of the goals of this type of family or relationship structure is to combine romantic love and emotional intimacy with equality and compersion, two ideals that traditionally have been in stark opposition to each other in Western culture. "Compersion" refers to the positive feeling one gets when one's lover or partner is enjoying sex with another person or is getting gratification from being in love with another person. This feeling is consistent with also experiencing feelings of jealousy (also known in poly communities as ‘wibble’), but in order for feelings and expressions of compersion to be genuine, the partner temporarily “left behind” may need to constrain or eradicate his or her jealous feelings—or at the very least abstain from expressing them.

Another important hallmark of polyamory is that it encourages women’s sexual subjectivity. Deborah Tolman defines sexual subjectivity as “a person’s experience of herself as a sexual being, who feels entitled to sexual pleasure and sexual safety, who makes active sexual choices, and who has an identity as a sexual being." Women without sexual subjectivity are sexually silenced in the sense of being defined by masculine desires and ideals. In the context of polyamorous relationships, women are sometimes able to regain their sexual subjectivity, transgress standard gender roles and power relationships and recreate their own social roles.

To minimize feelings of jealousy and betrayal, poly people often implement rules similar to those implemented by people in open relationships—in this case for lovers that are not among the people in the core structure of the polyamorous relationship (the rules may prohibit unprotected sex, anal sex, genital sex, BDSM, deep kissing, intimate caressing, fondling, intimate sexual positions and fluid-bonding).

Two of the main challenges in polyamorous relationships are exactly those ideals that these communities strive toward, viz. equality and compersion. Equality ideally requires disavowing secret hierarchies, for example, not favoring or being more affectionate toward new loves, as well as a mutually understood opposition to traditional masculine power structures. Compersion involves eliminating our (cultivated) feelings of jealousy and betrayal when a romantic partner is being emotionally or sexually intimate with another sexual partner.

One of the dominant reasons cited for not wanting to be in an open or polyamorous relationship and for prohibiting non-exclusivity in relationships is that non-exclusivity leads to jealousy, which is potentially destructive to the relationship. It is questionable, however, that the risk that jealousy destroys the core relationship can justify an exclusivity requirement. Although jealousy is a powerful emotion that can be destructive to relationships, not all jealousy is justified, and it is certainly not obvious that jealousy relating to your partner experiencing intense sexual pleasure outside of your relationship is always a justified emotion.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love.

Oxford University Press, used with permission
Source: Oxford University Press, used with permission


Taormino, T. (2008). Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, Jersey City: Cleis Press.

McKeever N. (2014). Romantic Love and Monogamy: A Philosophical Exploration, Thesis Submitted for the degree of PhD, Department of Philosophy, University of Sheffield January 2014.

McKeever N. (2015), “Is the Requirement of Sexual Exclusivity Consistent with Romantic Love?”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Article first published online: 23 SEP 2015 DOI: 10.1111/japp.12157.

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