A similar split comes up in a new documentary out this month in New York called Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family, about a “trinogamous” threesome comprising two men—Sam and Steven—and one straight woman, Samantha. Living in the city, they marry (well, two marry, all three have a commitment ceremony), they sleep and have sex with each other in one bed, and they have two children—one by each man—over the course of their eight-year relationship. But like many attempted Utopias—which is what any form of monogamy could be considered—it falls apart when Steven declares that he’s not happy and can’t live a life that he feels was always Sam’s idea.
It’s way too soon to tell if managed monogamy is any more effective than its stringent cousin at keeping couples happy for the long haul. Even if people can do it, that doesn’t guarantee them eternal love: Is the open relationship really about freedom, or is it about competition, wishful thinking, controlling cheating, rebelliousness for the sake of being different, or passive-aggressive punishment?
But then, the same could be said of monogamy, which can derive from equally suspect motives. Maybe it’s not sex that makes or breaks a couple, after all; maybe it’s the couple’s willingness to change their minds about what fidelity means. We met many strictly monogamous couples who have no interest in any kind of openness, ever—a high proportion refused to even discuss the subject, with their partner or us. But, remarkably, we didn’t find a single open (or openish) couple who weren’t amenable to being (more) monogamous in the future. “An open relationship doesn’t just mean you’re open to sex with other people,” says Siege. “It means you’re open to changes in the relationship, too.” Over and over, couples told us that their goal is less about sex than it is about wanting a relationship that will bend with pressure, rather than break. “It’s like being held together with an elastic band instead of a ball and chain,” says Bob, a 50-year-old married animation director open to the notion of sanctioned affairs.
Seven years ago, when we were in our twenties, single, and working at Nerve.com, we would proofread sex memoirist Lisa Carver’s diaries and gasp at how “out there” she was, making out with a girlfriend at a party and then calling her husband to tell him how it went. For us and our imaginary future husbands, it was out of the question. We were knee-jerk monogamists who had never been in, or witnessed, an open relationship that worked. Now, with real-life future husbands and decades of monogamy stretched out before us, Lisa’s stunt is neither particularly shocking nor out of the question.
For years, we’ve joked that all sex advice really boils down to is “communicate, communicate, communicate.” Meeting the nonmonogamists did confirm this, in a way—because when, during the course of writing this article, we finally fessed up to our partners about the massage-parlor idea, we realized that doing so was the beginning of a long conversation, about what it means to be together, about variety, about the way we see sex now. (And, as it turned out, Em’s fiancé wasn’t even particularly interested in the idea, especially once it came with a permission slip.) For us—and for many of the couples we spoke with—all this talk about nonmonogamy is, essentially, talk about monogamy. It’s certainly a lot more challenging than learning a new position in bed.
These conversations are far from innocuous, however. What happens if one partner wants to fantasize about a three-way, and the other wants to have one, next weekend, with the hot bassist next door? Once you’ve jointly questioned the conventional wisdom and then balk, it’s not society saying no to the candy—it’s you. The most well-adjusted nonmonogamists we found were those who could acknowledge that what they’re both comfortable with today may freak out either of them tomorrow.
As for us, we’re still monogamists at heart, for now, though we’ve learned not to take that for granted—because we discovered that despite all our preaching, we had, in fact, been taking monogamy for granted. And we think we’ve learned to stop poking fun at all those crazy swingers, too. After all, there’s more than one way to a happy ending.