Open wide: Polyamory reconsidered

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By Molly Freedenberg

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Illustration from Salon.com story on polyamory.

I used to say the word "polyamory" is just shorthand for "really slow break-up." Though I know two couples who manage to have successful, committed, loving partnerships both within and outside of their marriages, most cases I've witnessed have ended in disaster. And even more common, I've noticed, is that the people who discuss or consider polyamory are in unhappy relationships already. For polyamory to work, all partners involved must be good communicators, secure in themselves and each other, and, above all else, compassionate. But unhappy couples tend to be none of these. For them, opening the relationship is a way to get needs met without having to address difficult issues, including the idea of actually breaking up. Instead, opening the relationship intensifies existing problems, introduces new ones, and, usually, ends in a break-up anyway.

I used to be one of the latter. I was in a long-term, exclusive relationship that was satisfying in many ways. But our sex life was dismal. Neither of us wanted to break up, and none of our attempts to remedy our sexual problems seemed to work. So we began to discuss the possibility of finding sexual fulfillment outside our otherwise (mostly) happy home. But the mental gymnastics required to consider such a possibility always led to the same injurious conclusion: our relationship's inevitable demise. Neither of us thought we could manage the jealousy. And even worse, both my boyfriend and I feared that if one of us were to find fulfillment outside each other, we might realize we didn't want each other at all. The final decision? We didn't do it. I decided I'm not cut out for open relationships, and neither are most people. Within a year, my boyfriend and I broke up, and I stayed almost entirely -- and blissfully -- single for the next two years.

Fast forward to the present.

Much to my surprise, I'm finally in what looks a whole hell of a lot like a relationship -- though I'm desperately trying to define it as something different than the soul-crushing, miserable, confusing monster I've come to think of boyfriend/girlfriend-hood to be. At the same time, I'm just finishing Open (Seal Press, 2009), a fascinating book by Jenny Block about her journey from sexually-aware teenager with a Prince/Princess dream to a happily married polyamorous mother. At first, I wasn't too impressed with Block's book. The writing was a bit pedestrian (which I later found compelling and simple), but more importantly, the content made me uncomfortable. After all, the first few chapters are all about making a case that monogamy is counter to our biology, that a majority of people have or will cheat on their partners, and that love isn't all we need. It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to figure out that these particular topics might make me squeamish at exactly the time that I'm considering my own journey into coupledom.

But the further I read, the less I felt fear and the more I felt liberation. As Block detailed every moment of her self-discovery, I began to understand the real points she's making: Every relationship is different. Everyone's needs are different. Both change over time. The traditional idea of the nuclear family is as flawed as it is rare. It is within our power -- in fact, our rights -- to define how we, as humans, come together and share our lives and our bodies, according to our changing needs, desires, and circumstances. With honesty comes empowerment. Block isn't arguing for polyamory over monogamy. Or even her particular brand of polyamory -- which, at this stage of her life, involves a husband and an exclusive girlfriend -- over anyone else's. This book isn't about open marriage as much as it is about sexuality, communication, and the possibility of living both in your own truth and also with other people.

By the time I was two-thirds of the way through the book, my feelings about polyamory -- or at least the book itself -- had completely changed. The idea of an open relationship was neither scary nor simply unappealing. In fact, the concept of removing the idea of "cheating" from relationships elated me. As did the idea that I can define what coupledom means to me -- and, as time goes on, I can even change my mind! I still don't think the boyfriend mentioned above and I could've or should've tried polyamory. We didn't have enough of the necessary building blocks - trust, for one - to make that work. And in my newest situation, I'm so happy and satisfied -- and enjoying the beginnings of a new journey -- that it's hard to imagine needing to look outside it. In fact, I'm not sure I'll ever want or need to be in an open relationship, in reality. But I love the idea of its possibility. I love that being attracted to, or even coupling with, someone else doesn't have to be a relationship's deal-breaker. Even more so, I'm enthralled with the sense of personal satisfaction, empowerment, and validation -- and interpersonal intimacy and connection -- that the necessary communication about such a possibility would foster. Mostly, I'm glad that my fear about what a relationship has to be is starting to be lifted. Because I do want a partnership. I just don't want any of the kinds I've already seen. And Jenny Block says I don't have to.

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Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage
By Jenny Block
Seal Press, 2009
www.jennyonthepage.com

Comments

That is wonderful that you are doing so much soul-searching and are so aware of how you want to love! There is no one way to relate your beloved(s). As long as everyone communicates and you can vision your present together, allowing for more communication as times goes on, you will be able to deeply love each other without fear. You will be honest and intimate, and in the flow of each other's love, no matter if it is 2 of you, 3 of you, 2 of you with others, etc.

I enjoyed "Open". It was a smooth read, and a brave and honest look into one couple's marriage. xo

Posted by Miss Polyamory on May. 10, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

Wonderful review and personal story!

I author and maintain my website and private practice (www.redefiningmonogamy.com) for this very reason you state so clearly: "Mostly, I'm glad that my fear about what a relationship has to be is starting to be lifted. Because I do want a partnership. I just don't want any of the kinds I've already seen. And Jenny Block says I don't have to."

The tools and skills that make a non-monogamous or open relationship "work" (black-belt level communication, self-awareness, honesty, trust, a rich sensual life, etc) are the same that make a monogamous one satisfying, hot and sustainable. I'm fascinated and honored in my work to support people to create true partnerships - ones of their own making, not based on oft-outdated hand-me down models.

I'm in the middle of writing my first book, and Jenny is a friend, so I enjoy this all so much!

Best, LiYana
www.redefiningmonogamy.com

Posted by LiYana Silver on May. 16, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

Great review/personal essay.

Posted by Stephen Elliott on May. 09, 2009 @ 4:35 am

"Because I do want a partnership. I just don't want any of the kinds I've already seen. And Jenny Block says I don't have to."

YES. This is the overriding concept I got from her book. SO freeing!

Posted by Sarah on May. 07, 2009 @ 5:41 am

I was ecstatic when this book first came out. It gave a voice to my personal discoveries about love and relationship, and how they can be defined any way we choose them to be. How very empowering!

Posted by tall penguin on May. 08, 2009 @ 6:35 am

I think Open is a wonderful book, not just for people who are thinking of embarking on a polyamorous relationship but for those embarking on a monogamous one as well. I really admire Jenny for the way she transitioned her marriage from being monogamous to being polyamorous and all the trials and tribulations that entailed. I thought she was both brave and true to herself, while respecting the feelings of those she cared about - not easy to do. Touche Jenny!

Posted by suzanne portnoy on May. 08, 2009 @ 8:25 am

This book was awesome and very accessible.
It is one of my favorite poly books.

Posted by Poly Friend on May. 08, 2009 @ 4:25 am

Loving all the feedback! Clearly Jenny's book strikes a nerve with a lot of us.

Posted by Molly Freedenberg on May. 14, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

Yes indeed, Jenny's book is excellent. She is the first author to pen a memoir of how opening a marriage can work and work well, not just for people who already live on the fringe, but for mainstreamers as well.

My own polyamorous journey began largely due to having been married and divorced twice and recognizing just how much damage cheating does. I wanted love and intimacy but wanted no part of cheating in my life, It's not easy, but my life partner and I have done the work necessary to establish and maintain commitment and trust and love and joy between us and in our relationship. I know he will remember where home is because he always does, no matter who else he may care for. And I know he will never lie about who he is seeing and what they do together. That's because he doesn't have to, and neither do I. Finally we are living lives that are authentic to who we are and what we need at this time and place. Though it's not for everyone, it works for us, and neither of us has ever been happier.

Posted by Anita Wagner on May. 07, 2009 @ 11:19 am

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