How free! How . . . polyamorous!
“We’re not polyamorous,” insists Mike—and in fact, every couple we spoke with said the same thing. “We don’t date other people, and we don’t have romantic relationships with our sex partners—though we’ve become close friends with some of them.”
If he sounds a bit defensive, it’s understandable. Because in most people’s imaginations, you’ve got on the one hand your earnest, hairy polyamorists (see San Francisco) and on the other, doughy, middle-aged swingers (see Minnesota or HBO). These are the bogeymen of today’s hipster open relationships—if we swing tonight, can a purple muumuu and a relocation west be far behind?
“What’s new here is not that couples are being nonmonogamous,” says Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and author of Marriage: A History. “It’s that couples are negotiating the terms of their monogamy.” Of course, such negotiations can be as exhausting as cheating ever was; just ask anyone who’s tried to plan a “nontraditional” wedding. There’s something to be said for the well-worn path—it’s like a built-in referee. Sure, you might not agree with his calls, but at least he always has one.
“My dad’s a Presbyterian minister, so monogamy was always a very black-and-white concept,” says Stacey, a customer-service rep. But then a few years ago, two close family friends got divorced—not because they no longer loved each other but because they were attracted to other people. Stacey had herself been cheated on, so when she met Nate, her husband of more than a year, she told him that if he wanted to hook up with someone else, he should tell her. “I wanted a relationship strong enough for him to share his desires with me, even if those desires weren’t about me. Because what had really hurt in the past was not the indiscretions but that my partners had lied.”
Stacey and Nate married young, at least by New York standards: She was 24 and he 25. And neither of them has acted on their do-ask-do-tell policy. But Stacey finds the agreement a comfort nonetheless. “We know that relationships are always changing,” explains Stacey. “Our marriage means we’re going to stick together through those changes.”
Many straight couples struggling with these issues look to gay male friends, for whom a more fluid notion of commitment is practically the norm. William, a 34-year-old teacher, has been with his boyfriend, Dan, for more than five years. “We are totally closed for now,” insists William—but it’s not what you’re thinking. “It doesn’t rule out me making out with foreign boys against parked cars when Dan’s out of town.” Ah, semantics.
“Talking about my sexual adventures outside my relationship shocks my straight friends, then titillates them,” says William. “Until finally they recognize the permanence of my relationship and begin to reinterpret it all as healthy and evolved.” Exhibit A is William’s married friend Nick, who took notice and took action. “Being a spectator of Will’s easy-come-easy-go escapades, though recognizably self-destructive at times, inspired me to bring some casual lust to a vagina not belonging to my wife,” he explains over e-mail. He was able to finagle a swinging episode with another couple. “I can’t say that my wife and I would never try it again. Her getting off turns me on.”
Perhaps this time around, seventies-style swinging and slutting will actually be feasible—and fair.
Never let it be said that these new monogamists don’t know how to articulate their desires. In fact, their loquaciousness goes a long way toward explaining how and why they do it like they do: We’re living in an age of unprecedented emphasis on “communication” in relationships. (Yep, one more thing to blame on your shrink.) Thousands of books detail how couples should communicate their wants/needs/desires/pet peeves to one another. Not happy? Communicate your concerns. Bored with your sex life? Communicate your fantasies. Had an affair? Communicate your fuckup. The result of this communication-bingeing is that negotiation is starting to trump discretion. A man is copping a feel because his partner says he can, not because her back is turned. But he’s still copping a feel.
And then there are the couples who are copping more than a feel. The 33-year-old photographer Clayton James Cubitt (a.k.a. Siege, for C.J.) and his fiancée, Katie James, a 35-year-old makeup artist and photographer, met in Minneapolis in 1999. “I knew immediately that this was the woman I was meant to be with,” says Siege. “The woman I’d been growing toward my whole life, and there’s nothing else I need.” Well . . . almost nothing.
Because their relationship was long-distance, they started off as friends-with-benefits. During late-night calls, they swapped stories about their flings. “We would give each other little assignments,” says Siege. “Like, go off and do this, and send me a picture of it.”