Redefining Marriage in America: The Unopen Yet Flexible Marriage

Marriage and it's very definition is going through a tremendous transition.

Posted Feb 13, 2012

I just finished reading Christopher Ryan's "Sex at Dawn" for the second time, which makes the case that, at our core, we humans are not monogamous creatures. Many people are giving Mr. Ryan credit for making it safe for people to talk about monogamy, polyamory and open marriage in public, and he certainly did deliver the opening salvo.

But I am thinking that it is the disclosure of Newt Gingrich's ex-wife, and the defensive embarrassment of the conservative Republican Presidential hopeful that has really taken this conversation to the center of the stage.

It is obvious that Newt has had some difficulty with long term monogamy. He has had several wives and affairs. Even if the disclosure from his ex-wife in regard to his request for an "Open Marriage" was not true - he certainly was playing outside the confines of a traditional monogamous marriage. Some might even say that he was "cheating" with his now current wife before he was divorced. We can point fingers at Newt if we wish, but we know the truth. Newt has a lot of company out there in the land of sexual infidelity. Shall I mention Kennedy here, or Clinton? Or is it your best friend, your neighbor or you?

Monogamy is a societal concept, that many would say has been imposed on us by religion and many other factors. I lived in a completely monogamous marriage for 23 years, and then I needed more. But for me, it was too big a big leap from being completely monogamous to having an open marriage or polyamorous life style. My husband and I were never going to be "swingers" either.

So how do I have more and stay married? That is when I embraced a new definition of marital sex, which some of us call being "monogamish".

My memoir,  "Shameless: How I Ditched The Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner", is all about the beginning of my journey on that path. And as I have traveled further down the path of the brave new marriage with my husband, there are so many conversations in the sex positive community about what we each mean by all of these labels and terms. We all don't agree on the definitions of anything.

There is monogamy, serial monogamy, monogamish, open marriage, polyamory and swinging! Ask a group of sex positive people to define one of these unions and you will get a lot of very different and passionate answers. The fact is that the state of marriage and its very definition is going through a tremendous transition — and the beautiful thing is that we are talking about it! Even in the New York Times.

So what about the growing group of us that are looking for a middle ground? What if you want to stay married and the person you said your vows to is the most important person in the world to you? Can you go outside your marriage to explore sexuality on any level? Can you get more and not move into the world of open marriage, polyamory and swinging?

I believe there is a solution that can fulfill this need for more without having to suffer through serial monogamous relationships that end badly.  I believe there is something that can fill the gap between monogamy and full out polyamory or open marriage. I call it monogamish. I didn't coin the term, Dan Savage did - but I am living it; and so are countless other people. The fact is that many of us monogamish folks are more shy than the open marriage or poly communities, so we don't talk about this much to our neighbors and friends.

Before I heard Dan Savage talk about being "monogamish", I thought I had coined the term "expanded monogamy" — but alas a quick search on google turned up several references to expanded monogamy with different definitions. In my definition of expanded monogamy — a couple sets the rules of sexual exploration that fit their own set of personal boundaries. In my marriage's rule book, it does not include taking a traditional lover.

In my interpretation of expanded monogamy or being monogamish, I am not talking about what has been called an "Open Marriage". My version has very real boundaries that may seem outside of the box for some — but for others may seem quite restrictive.

What is agreeable to one couple may not be agreeable to another. As I shared in my story in Shameless, I created a form of expanded monogamy and, with my husband, developed a way for me to explore my sexuality that did not fit the traditional defnition of monogamy but was not polygamy either. I explored the concept of polyamory by reading a wonderful book on the subject by Deborah Anapol - but the concept was not quite right for my life. I needed a different way, and I needed new language.

If I have learned anything in my years as a fertility advocate and sex educator — it is if we don't have language for something, we can get very confused.

We are also not good at finding middle places in our society. Many people on my book tour kept asking me questions like "How did your husband feel about you going to a Tantra workshop?" or "Did your husband get jealous of you working with hands-on sexual healers?"

No matter where I am in the country, I am asked the same questions over and over again about my adventures into the underground world of sacred sexuality. In my search for language,  I am embracing the term expanded monogamy and the monogamish marriage.

In my own expanded monogamish marriage, I have room to attend sexuality workshops that allow me to explore my own sexuality within my boundaries with myself and with others, and usually in a supervised workshop setting. I am able to be playful in my sexuality which keeps my own inner fire alive and my marriage sexually interesting.

It has become essential for me to be able to explore who I am as an individual as well as in my marriage. In my own expanded monogamous marriage, both my husband and I have the space to work with sexological body workers and sacred intimates who are there to support us on our own individual paths. We attend tantra workshops, which may include us working with sexual energy techniques with other participants - like moving our breath or eye gazing.

Having the space to explore and experiment with my sexuality within the boundaries of an expanded monogamy has supported my 30 year marriage where both my husband and I are happy and in a place that keeps the light burning in our own marriage bed. Having room to explore and expand your sexuality may, over time, turn a once sexless marriage into something else. Creating some room in our relationships for turning up the heat on our sexuality does not have to mean leaving the marriage or having an affair or polyamory which opens the door to another set of issues.

If we give ourselves the room to experiment and expand our own sexuality without shame, I believe that more people would stay within their relationships. We just need a little more room to breathe. It's about creating sexual agreements that work for each partnership, and allowing each other the room to grow without ditching our lives.

What to do after reading this article?

I would love it if you left a comment, "liked it", shared it via email or through Facebook, Twitter or your favorite social media.

Check out the resources that I mention here: Christopher Ryan's Book "Sex at Dawn" and Deborah Anapol's book on Polyamory.

Check out my personal story: Shameless: How I Ditched The Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner!

And visit my website to learn about sex coaching and my shameless community.


About the Author

Pamela Madsen is the author of Shameless and founder of The American Fertility Association.

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