June 26, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
DEAR ANDREA: My girlfriend and I were opening up our relationship. The rules were clear: No sex with another person unless the partner was present or it had been previously discussed. The third person had to be "approved" by the other partner. Kissing was acceptable, and nudity with friends was fine. I drew a line at spending a whole evening in bed with another person, especially if it hadn't been discussed in advance.
She recently returned from a trip to tell me that she'd spent two nights in bed with some near-stranger. The rules had been established because she'd done this sort of thing twice before, and she'd agreed on the rules to save our relationship. She insists that it was all innocent fun: no sex was involved, only a little kissing and groping, and I shouldn't feel threatened. You recently wrote, "When the woman you love says, 'I'm going to do it no matter how you feel,' all bets (and gloves) are already off." She claims she wasn't cheating. I claim she was. What's your opinion?
Dear Connie: Of course it's cheating. What argument could she possibly make to claim it wasn't? That they were only (mostly) kissing, which was within the rules, even though everything else about it (bed, two nights, stranger) was not? Seriously, is that what she said? If so, I'd say she was attempting a Clintonian rule-fudge by semantic sleight of hand. Which is, of course, cheating.
Sigh. I used to be more idealistic (or less realistic), but my view of nonmonogamy has become increasingly jaundiced over time. It does sound great what could be better than "have cake, eat cake, and no cakes are harmed"? And done well (nobody's perfect), by people well suited to it, it is great.
It's just that so many people who should never even think of trying to live that way do try it, which inevitably leads to public scenes, ashtray throwing, and letters to advice columnists. Some of these folks are merely kidding themselves to begin with. They know from the start that jealousy, insecurity, and lack of trust (all perfectly natural, normal emotions, don't get me wrong) will eventually out, and they will be helpless to overcome them. But polyamory sounds so evolved, and they want to be like the cool kids. They will suffer, and I will sympathize, but I'll be biting back an "I told you so" as I do.
Others might have a chance, but they overengineer: "On Wednesdays you get to stay out, but not when she has PMS, and he can have oral sex on Fridays, but he has to call if he's going to have intercourse, and nobody gets to go out if the other one hasn't had a date in more than two weeks, unless it's with a long-standing partner." And so on. Disaster. You can never predict every possible situation, and you can never be sure that last week's "Have fun, hon" won't turn into this week's "How could you!?" Drafting a constitution is not enough. Far better to keep the rules simple and talk really talk to each other as situations shift and new ones come up.
Still others (this means you) have nonmonogamy thrust on them and grudgingly accept it, thinking that at least it's better than hiring a detective or never letting the less-monogamous partner out of sight. It rarely works, which makes sense when you realize that the people with whom one makes such a stopgap arrangement are usually already in the habit of lying to you. And anyway, if you're monogamous by nature and in love, watching your beloved waltz off on dates will be like waking every morning and jamming hot needles in your eyes. It feels so good when you stop.
I do, of course, know people who have managed ethical sluthood beautifully for years, with no end in sight, but they are unusual and lucky to have found each other. Most people, it seems, at least aspire to monogamy, even as they bend under its considerable pressures and occasionally break. I'm afraid I've come to the less than comfortable conclusion that, for much of humanity, the natural state is neither perfect monogamy nor polyamory, but monogamy plus cheating.
Sorry! I said I was jaundiced, didn't I? And I'm sorry, I really am, but I didn't tell you anything about your relationship you didn't already know. You're the one who was using the past tense.
You can reach Andrea at alt.sex.column, Bay Guardian, 520 Hampshire St., S.F., CA 94110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.