Recently, an old Modern Love piece appeared in my social media feed. It was about consensual non-monogamy so of course I had to click on it. I suppose it was a popular piece, as most Modern Love essays are, but this one — “When an Open Relationship Comes at a Price” — irked me a bit.
I am not consensually non-monogamous, and I am neither for or against it; that’s for couples to decide. But the author, Eliza Kennedy, makes a few assumptions, perhaps misunderstands consensual non-monogamy as well as marriage, but ends up beautifully describing the terror that we call romantic love.
As a college student, she moved in with her boyfriend who “was committed to living his life according to strict intellectual principles, and for him, personal freedom was paramount. Love could not require constraint, foreclosure or deprivation.”
And so, he demanded that they have an open relationship. She agreed because, “If an open relationship was necessary to prove how well I loved my boyfriend, I was happy to comply.”
‘Complying’ isn’t choosing
I am no expert on relationships, monogamous or not, but if you are doing something for your romantic partner that goes against your own principles, or demanding that your partner do something for you that goes against his or her own principles, there’s a problem right there. That’s not how one “proves” ones love (and why should you have to do that anyway?). But, she was 18. Everyone makes mistakes at 18.
Kennedy indulged in consensual non-monogamy with gusto while her intellectual boyfriend didn’t — and, instead of supporting her in following his own dictate, became critical, dismissive and judgmental of her choices. There are names for people like that.
Eventually, he moved out and Kennedy observes that being non-monogamous “was a complete disaster.” Not because there was something inherently wrong with non-monogamy, but because they weren’t good at it:
The weight of other people hadn’t caused our bough to break, but it certainly hadn’t helped. No longer in thrall to his supremely persuasive rationale for open relationships, I understood why he reacted as he had. He was jealous. He feared losing me. I’d thought I was living his principle, but I had really experienced only one side of being in an open relationship — the fun and easy side. How would I have responded if he had been the one making out and messing around? Not well, I suspected. tweet
Hmm. If she would have responded poorly if “he had been the one making out and messing around,” it’s pretty clear that she wasn’t willingly choosing an open relationship because it’s what she wanted and fundamentally spoke to who she is. And when you do something you don’t fundamentally believe in, there will be problems.
Not surprisingly, it’s pretty much the same for people who are in monogamous relationships … except because monogamy is culturally compelled, most of us aren’t really actively and willingly choosing it. It’s the societal assumption, the default, and because we have few models of healthy open relationships, monogamy “wins” even though it isn’t always good for men or for women.
But her boyfriend wasn’t really committed to having an open relationship either; if he was, he probably wouldn’t have acted the way he did. So why did he want one? Maybe he thought he should have an open relationship but wasn’t really committed to the practice of it, just the idea of it. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t actually indulge, especially since it was his idea and not hers or theirs. Maybe, once it became a reality, he couldn’t handle his own insecurities. Who the heck knows?
Maybe her open relationship was a “complete disaster,” but we shouldn’t diss open relationships per se.
All relationships come at a price
As an editor, I know it’s likely Kennedy didn’t write her own headline, which feels a bit misleading. It isn’t just open relationships that come at a price; all relationships come at a price. No matter the arrangement, we always give something up (and gain other, better, things — one hopes). Thankfully, she acknowledges that at her essay’s end. Observing her friends who coupled up — monogamously — as she did, there’s a sober reality:
I have watched and listened as some of those friends learned how fascination fades. How reality can dull the bliss. Their eyes began to wander, or their hearts did. They cheated. Or split up. Or cheated, then split up. Or stayed faithful and married, but now feel hemmed in and hamstrung. They’re all around me, these people who said “you, and no other,” and meant it. Until they didn’t. … I had fled an open relationship, opting for the safety of a closed circle. But the wreckage of monogamous relationships lies all around us. The notion that they’re somehow more stable than open ones is an illusion. Not because monogamy is unsafe, but because all romantic love is. It’s powerful and thrilling. It’s also terrifying. tweet
Yes, romantic love is powerful, thrilling, terrifying, unsafe. Yes, monogamous relationships are no more or less stable than open relationships. It’s all one big gamble, one most of us seem to be willing to take, often repeatedly. Because we believe the rewards are worth it.
That should be the takeaway of the essay.
But then, she disappoints me. “Marriage isn’t the place to sample and explore,” she writes.
Really? Says whom?
Wouldn’t a loving and supportive marriage be exactly the environment in which to sample and explore all sorts of things — whatever the couple chooses, if the couple chooses it? Clearly, that’s how those in open and poly marriages see it. Why marriage? Well, because there are 1,100 financial and legal perks and protections, as well societal expectations that marriage is forever (all of which can be traps, too) that offer a buffer. It’s why in The New I Do, we offer couples ways to reinvent their marriage when they start to feel “hemmed in and hamstrung” and ways to build flexibility into their marriage from the get-go with marital contracts. Marriage isn’t a static thing; it’s ripe for exploration. But so are all relationships.
What matters more is what happens if things don’t work out — do we see those explorations as failures or as brave, bold actions that challenge us individually and jointly, and disrupt societal expectations and assumptions?
We’ll pay a price either way, but it’s only in the latter case that we’ll come to appreciate that the price was actually worth it.