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On Open Relationships and the Exclusivity Slider

“Infidelity”

Comedienne Rosie Wilby tours a one-woman show titled, Is Monogamy Dead? As background research for the show, she conducted an anonymous online survey, “asking what behaviors would be considered infidelity. Seventy-three out of 100 respondents thought that falling in love with someone else with no sexual contact still counted, 31 percent selected staying up all night talking to someone else, while a scary 7 percent decided that merely thinking about someone else was unacceptable.”

Over the last few months I’ve asked people similar questions. If you are monogamous, where do you draw the line, and why? If you are in an open relationship, where do you draw the line, and why? And my conclusion is that… the question is irrelevant.

One easy way to think of relationship rules is as a slider that marks the dividing line between things your partner is free to do with anyone and things they are expected to reserve for you. Run the slider one way for more freedom, or the other way for more security. In truth it’s two sliders — one for your rules and one for your partner’s — and they’re held together with a stretchy rubber band. Because of course if they’re set too far apart, well, that wouldn’t be fair, it wouldn’t be reciprocal. (Right?)

With this metaphor, the concept of monogamy vs. open relationships lives inside the bigger question of where we set the slider on, as Wilby put it, “behaviors that would be considered infidelity.”

Only one stipulation

I called that an easy way to think of relationships rules. But it’s not how I think of it. At all. I’m in a committed relationship. We have boundaries for each other, but not about exclusivity. We communicate and we’re responsible. My girlfriend being the passionate, fiery human being she is, our relationship has a lot of intensity but little to no bullshit drama. We’re quick to apologize, and we’ve got each other’s backs.

My best gauge for how things are between us is… how things are between us. Outside of that, I’ve really only been able to come up with one stipulation.

If she’s doing something that consistently has her come back to me in bad shape, or worse off than she was, then I’d ask her to stop doing it.

That’s it.

The intent of most people’s exclusivity rules is to prevent their partner returning in significantly better shape.

Wow. How does that kind of thinking affect your relationship with someone?

Desperately turning the knobs

Ok, I get it. I totally get why people would think open relationships are difficult, dangerous to the heart, hopelessly complicated, and impossible to maintain. I get why they might think open relationships lack depth, intimacy or commitment.

I watch people testing the waters, “opening up” their relationship. I watch them adjusting and re-adjusting their exclusivity slider, multiplying it into a complicated panel of knobs and buttons, trying desperately to dial in the settings that will maintain their sense of security while adding richness to their lives.

“NO, I wanted to be told BEFORE you did it! We agreed to that. It’s not enough to technically send a text just before you’re about to do it — you didn’t even wait for an acknowledgement from me or anything! So I get out of my meeting and I’m reading about it while you’re in the middle of doing it! I felt totally sideswiped, dishonored and violated! Honestly, what were you thinking?? I’ve been going crazy! From now on, I want at least a 6-hour window. Oh, and if I text you, I don’t care what you’re doing, you better make it a priority to text me back within 5 minutes! Understood?”

It’s hard to convince them that the exclusivity slider is the problem, not the solution. They can adjust all they want. It isn’t going to adjust their sense of security. Or their partner’s level of commitment. Or the quality of their relationship.

Relationship without control

At this point you’re probably thinking I’m crazy. In order for this to make sense, we have to travel back in history. To a time when I’m young, successful, riding the tech wave in Silicon Valley… and completely clueless about women or relationships. I haven’t been with very many women, and I’m basically terrified of them. (Give me a break, ok? I was a nerdy software engineer.) The path from that man to who I am today is long and storied but for the purposes of this conversation I want to introduce you to Jennifer, my first experience stepping into the emotional firestorm that is non-monogamy.

To put it in the archaic language of the man I was: this woman is way out of my league. Confident, beautiful, charming, generous with her smile, completely comfortable with her sexuality, great in bed. I wasn’t really sure what she liked about me, but she did. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was, I wasn’t the only one.

She spent time with me when she wanted, and with someone else when she wanted that. Time and again, I would be overwhelmed in her presence, in heaven, hearing the angels sing, more blissfully happy than I’d ever imagined… and then crushed, heartbroken, devastated, and left in a broken, sobbing pile on the floor. And each time I was faced with the choice to see her, or not. And I always chose to see her.

Our time together was the most fulfilling, gratifying, healing experience I could imagine, and made me feel alive. And the reality of our relationship was that I would never control her to meet the demands my long-standing connection deficit, or shrink her to placate my insecurities.

After riding that emotional roller coaster numerous times, I learned something. There would be no threats or extortion to get what I wanted. No molding and shaping her to meet my expectations. Instead I started to discover what it takes to build a relationship with another human being.

I began to realize that it didn’t matter what she did with other men. Our relationship was either doing well or it wasn’t, and that depended solely on us. Since it hinged on how I felt, how I was showing up and how I treated her, I found I had a great deal of say in the relationship indeed.

This was my first step in learning how to forge a truly great, unshakable relationship, one that didn’t need a rickety fence around it to ward off marauders. We were together for a number of years. And, crucially, when in time we saw each other less and less frequently, it wasn’t because of some other guy. It was because our relationship had evolved, we had each evolved as people, and it was time for the relationship to take a different form.

Build a strong relationship

So that’s why I don’t think of my girlfriend having a rich, happy, successful, abundant life outside of our relationship — a life full of connection and intimacy and love and sex — as infidelity.

It’s why I see no clear relationship between exclusivity and commitment. I’ve seen monogamous relationships that fail, and open relationships that are resilient and solid.

So my advice is to set aside the exclusivity slider and build a great relationship — one that’s better than anything you or your partner can find elsewhere.

Because freedom and security aren’t opposites. A great relationship, even one that includes a great deal of freedom, can create the kind of deep security that shackles never can.

17 replies
  1. Kyle
    Kyle says:

    Thank you for sharing this! It really helped remind me of what’s important and why I got into my own open relationship in the first place.

    Reply
  2. Michael C Romano
    Michael C Romano says:

    Cudos! Priceless and timeless. Just simply the truth and refreshing. Gracious and integral. Thank you! Blessed! I have the joy of reading this and having said it numerous times to myself and relationships with women I love. All forms of relationships with all genders and ages.

    Reply
  3. Ronnie Strong
    Ronnie Strong says:

    Thanks for this contribution to understanding what is going on for many of us. If we reject the slider altogether are we left with an on/off switch only? Really wanting what is best for your partner seems to be the key but complete selflessness and fearlessness is hard.

    Reply
  4. Louis
    Louis says:

    I think sex is a powerful tool for connecting people and I think that having a special person in your life that is the only person you share that connection with is a beautiful thing. Wanting to have a special kind of relationship with one person that we have with no one else does not come from a place of jealousy or pettiness on my part.

    Reply
  5. Laine
    Laine says:

    Ken is not in a committed relationship. He is single with a fall back girl who keeps him around to reap the benefits of convenience with to experience sex, friendship etc. Hes doing the same to her. This whole open relationship label is bullshit. Have the guts to be single and not hide behind a lame relationship.

    Reply
    • Ken Blackman
      Ken Blackman says:

      Laine, maybe this will help clarify.

      What’s conventional about our relationship: We spend time together regularly and often. I help bake cookies at her mom’s house. Our friends think of us as a couple, invite us out as a couple, send holiday cards as a couple. We coordinate our vacations and negotiate our weekends. Sometimes we disagree, sometimes we fight, then we work things through and feel closer.

      We have love, intimacy, friendship, and great sex. We enjoy each other’s company, push each other to be our best selves, support each other, tell each other hard truths, and like each other. Our personality types are very different—sometimes we clash, but mostly we complement each other surprisingly well.

      What’s unconventional about our relationship: Other people aren’t “off limits.” We talk about our attraction to others. She was dating other guys when we started seeing each other I’ve never asked her to have less with anyone else in order to have more with me. She expected to settle into monogamy once she found someone she wanted to get serious with, and no one is more surprised than she is to discover how much desire she has.

      Our relationship is improving—in closeness, intimacy, passion and yes, commitment—where other couples might already be coming to an end or settling into a slow, gradual descent into passionless comfort and routine. We’re not hanging out together secretly wishing we were somewhere else.

      So that’s the ground-level nature of how we interact. If you prefer not to call it a relationship I won’t try to convince you otherwise.

      Reply
  6. Marjean
    Marjean says:

    Ken Blackman!!!
    Oh how I have missed your wisdom! I’m so glad I was looking for events in Santa Cruz on Leslie’s page when I found this!
    Wow! Definitely giving me a whole new perspective. I appreciate you so much! Thank you again for opening me to new ways of being!
    Much love and gratitude!

    Reply
  7. Derrick
    Derrick says:

    I read your blog and am simply marveled by your eloquence in speech, experienced approach and a rather cool demeanor while writing the blog itself and responding to replies. Quite some good work on your part. I am however interested in your take on certain issues:

    How do you deal with the knowledge of the presence of other males in such a relationship? I mean, you seem comfortable with the idea of sharing so long as it’s always about you and her, but how do you simply- is it ignore or dismiss- the presence of other men? (or is my problem the idea of ‘sharing’? Help me wrap my head around it basically)

    Do you have to deal with issues of jealousy once in a while? You know… considering you actually do talk about other people you both feel attracted to with your girlfriend.

    How then can someone like myself with rather prudish beliefs about sexuality, sex and relationships open my mind up to such possibilities?

    Reply
    • Ken Blackman
      Ken Blackman says:

      Hi Derrick. FIrst of all, thank you! Yes, jealousy is still a relevant and quite important topic; there’s a lot to say on the subject. It deserves a whole blog entry of its own… and one is in the works (if not more than one). It will build upon this blog.

      Reply
  8. Katie
    Katie says:

    Hi Ken,

    Thank you for your insights. I agree with you, and this all makes sense, intellectually. Every human should be sovereign to live his or her life to the full expression of their soul. However, when it comes down to the practice of it, it doesn’t feel so simple to me, and it’s certainly not without emotional upset. The main issues that come up for me are these:

    1. Most of us in the modern world live busy, full lives. It takes time & energy to intimately connect with others. If you are choosing to spend your free time intimately connecting with others, instead of your partner, couldn’t that take away from the capacity for depth and commitment with your partner (especially early on in a relationship)?

    2. Do you simply trust that all of your partner’s partners are disease-free?

    3. For me, it takes a lot of energy to dissuade jealousy. I can do it, but it takes a lot of meditation, time, and honestly, ignoring of feelings that come up. How do you deal with jealousy?

    Reply
    • Ken Blackman
      Ken Blackman says:

      Hi Katie, these are great questions. I’m going to take #1 and #2 together, then I’ll discuss #3.

      On the one hand, time and safety are completely legitimate concerns. On the other, these are objections people often raise as a cover story for their own emotions, which can be harder to talk about. So we need to be careful.

      In other words, not having enough time together is a general relationship problem. It has nothing to do with what either of you is doing when you’re apart. So it’s crucial that you’re honest with yourself and your partner: is it really about that… or is it really about the sex? Are you trying to desexualize and intellectualize what is actually an emotional issue?

      If it’s already an existing issue between you that you’re not getting the amount of quality time together that you’d like, then yeah, the last thing you’re going to want is your partner traipsing around with another lover. Now we’ve got something we can sink our teeth into. How do we resolve this, how can we make our relationship better? Is adding a third party to your life really the right thing to be doing? Maybe we need to be paring down our outside activities, in general, and prioritize the relationship more. Whatever that conversation needs to be.

      On the other hand, if it suddenly becomes an issue the minute we’re talking about the possibility of sex with someone else, then let’s not try to pretend this is anything other than it is. I’m having feelings about you being with someone else. Pure and simple. This distinction is important so that we’re sure we’re talking about the real issue.

      Likewise with safety. Your partner has a lot of opportunities to make bad decisions out in the world that would jeopardize them, you, and the relationship. Do you trust them, in general, or not? Is there suddenly a safety/trust issue that arises here that wasn’t there before? Does your partner drive a motorcycle at 110 MPH through the city, or bring your combined earnings to the poker table? Is it about that, or is it about the sex, and how you feel about them being with someone else?

      So now we can talk about #3, jealousy. People are apt to use #1 or #2 as a smoke screen when they feel like their feelings alone don’t carry enough weight to stand on their own as a legitimate argument. Well in my book, the feelings that are created by being together is the reason we’re together in the first place. So it’s not only important but the most important factor.

      So maybe you shift how-it-feels by reading an article like this, discovering that you’ve been nursing your own unfounded insecurities, and deciding that’s not serving you anymore. Or maybe you shift how-it-feels by talking straight about your jealousy and having a partner who says, It is enough that you don’t want me to do this, without needing further justification, and I’m not going to do it; whatever I would get out there isn’t worth having a partner who feels like this at home.

      Reply
  9. Brian
    Brian says:

    I disagree. Ken likes to say that “it doesn’t matter what she did with other men.” Yes, it bloody well does. There is a monogamy urge for a biological reason. It limits exposure to STD’s as well as creates stability in the tribe – the society – and builds sense of community.

    It’s “working” for you right now as a relatively young person, opportunity avails itself. Wait until you’re older. Do some research on a retirement area in Florida called “The Villages” and cross-reference STD rates.

    Your theory is folly. You got your heart stomped by the young Jennifer, an object of affection, and your newly post-adolescent brain dealt with her lack of commitment by running to justification through open relationships as a shelter.

    I’ve heard of these theories from people before. It will never reach widespread acceptance, and people who are monogamous will talk about you because you will be seen as untrustworthy and lacking the ability to commit. So we see it really does matter that nature has rules and feelings matter for a reason. Trust your instincts, not your selfish desires and fears.

    Reply
    • Ken Blackman
      Ken Blackman says:

      First of all, I completely agree with you about safety. It’s absolutely critical, in the bedroom or out. If I can’t trust my partner to behave responsibly, all bets are off. I wouldn’t date someone who would gamble away our savings or drive drunk either.

      So given that, let me add some facts to those you’ve already stated.

      • You can protect against STDs.
      • You can test for STDs. (And in particular it is common to ask to see someone’s test results.)
      • The average number of lifetime sexual partners in the US is just over 7.[1] According to a survey of 2,000 people in the US and Europe, this is considered neither too promiscuous nor too conservative.[2]
      • There’s no difference in STD risk between serial monogamy and consensual non-monogamy — which is the real subject of this article (and, I sense, the real thing getting under your skin).
      • Your STD risk is zero if you were both virgins and stay monogamous to each other your whole life.
      • You can’t test for virginity. If this is your method of protection, you really are relying on the trustworthiness of your partner.
      • For that matter, there’s no test for infidelity either.
      • Either way, trust is a critical issue in relationships.
      • You brought up age. As of this writing, I’m 53, and the events described above (“Jennifer”) happened 18 years ago.
      • There’s no “monogamy urge.” There’s a relatively recent cultural preference that started with the Greeks, got picked up by the Romans, and became widespread with Christianity. Prior to that, polygyny was the norm for hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution.[3]

      So I get that you’re reacting to the idea of consensual non-monogamy. But I don’t think your facts do anything to make a case. The average person will have more than one partner over their lifetime and will have to make decisions and choices with regard to their own physical and emotional safety.

      The big question my article aims to raise is whether you can be committed to someone and non-exclusive. And the experience of myself and others is that, yes, very much so, you can. Monogamy is best when it’s organic — the relationship you’ve created is so good that nothing you could find out there compares — and worst when it’s driven by our own fear or insecurities.

      So I daresay you provided us with a great example of what I was saying to Katie above. I think it’d be more honest (and on less shaky logical ground) if you said, “I find open relationships repugnant and want nothing to do with them.” There’s no arguing with that.

      1. http://www.attn.com/stories/11098/average-number-of-sexual-partners-by-country ↩︎
      2. http://www.salon.com/2016/06/18/sex_by_the_numbers_this_is_how_many_partners_men_and_women_average_in_a_lifetime_partner/ ↩︎
      3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTH-8g6ZrF4 ↩︎
      Reply

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