Making an open relationship work

We protect monogamy like some sacred cow, but for me it has always felt like a dictatorship.” Alexandra Salafranca, 27, and her husband had a year of “theoretical discussions” about the rights and wrongs of monogamy. She brought it up first. “I have never understood why you can have lots of friends but only one lover. When I was younger, I was always cheating on my boyfriends, either emotionally or physically,” she says.

Things changed when she met her husband. “He was my soul mate, my angel, but after we had been married for two years, I started to feel an itch again.” She went straight into therapy. “I have a dysfunctional family, so I assumed it was all something to do with my upbringing, but as time went on, I realised that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with me. That was when the dialogue with my husband opened up. At first it made him sad, but then he started to say, ‘So I can see other girls?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘As long as we tell each other everything beforehand… and that we are always each other’s priority.’”

The transgressions of Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, the sexual forces of nature that are Warren Beatty and Tiger Woods, the tabloid fascination with other people’s infidelity, not to mention the number among our friends who we know or suspect are “at it” with somebody other than their designated significant other — it is a wonder that we don’t consider open relationships more seriously.

Life’s statistics make a mockery of our cultural dedication to monogamous relationships. Monogamy is expected by 95% of couples, yet a survey, by the Social and Economic Sciences Research Center at Washington State University, of sexually active Seattle residents aged 18-39 found 27% of men and 18% of women reported that during their most recent sexual relationship, they had had sex with at least one other partner. Is this shocking? If you’re a regular tabloid reader, probably not.

More astonishingly, in the 1990s, Robin Baker, then an evolutionary biologist at Manchester University, discovered that 8% of children are conceived when a woman has recently slept with another man. Another statistic reveals that 10% of children in Britain don’t belong to the men they’re supposed to. This, says Baker, “is normal behaviour for a mammal”. His novel, Primal, explores what happens when humans revert to their instincts, away from societal restrictions. “It’s nurture, not nature, that makes us monogamous,” he says.

Despite this, open relationships remain, in the public perception, something that a certain type of free-spirited bohemian does. Will Smith, Jade Jagger and, most recently, Angelina Jolie have all spoken publicly on the illogical dedication humans have to monogamy — garnering screaming headlines in the process. As Jolie told the German magazine Das Neue: “I doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship. Neither Brad nor I have ever claimed that living together means being chained together.”

When I started researching this story, I mentioned it to an acquaintance, a straight man who is a senior executive. “I know a few things about that,” he said. Describing his own relationship, he confirmed what I suspect is true of a lot of marriages: that blind eyes are turned and certain things never discussed.

But wouldn’t it be better to be open and honest with each other? “There are far more open relationships than you might think,” says Tristan Taormino, the author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. While half the couples she interviewed for the book were, indeed, committed to being “alternative”, the other half were “just living their lives, and didn’t consider themselves anything out of the ordinary”.

Graham Nicholls has always had open relationships, and they generally have been successful. “My first advice to anyone considering one would be to do the ‘opening process’ together,” he says. “People often go off and find someone else, then bring it up with their other half, and this is basically just cheating. The starting of an open relationship can be an issue if it’s not done with both parties fully involved.”

For Salafranca, “total openness and my husband always being my priority” were the foundation stones of their open marriage, along with the obvious rule of safe sex. At first, Salafranca and her husband would sleep with people they found stimulating and, importantly, were equally open with their own lovers. “We met writers, academics, designers, lots of interesting people, but the whole thing had to be strictly a sexual thing. The first time he wanted to go for dinner with a girl, you know, go on a date, I was furious. I said, ‘If you want her body, fine, but this looks like the start of a relationship.’”

Jealousy is a huge issue in open relationships. Diana Melly, who had an open marriage with the musician and writer George Melly, has said, “When people learn that most of my 42-year marriage was ‘open’, they ask if I was jealous. People seem to have a particular interest, as if the arrangement is something they quite like the idea of, but the jealousy makes it seem too much like hard work.”

By all accounts, an open marriage is hard work. Yet the sort of people who go about an open relationship in a sensible manner will devote themselves to unpicking possessive and jealous instincts as much as they can. “Our automatic response is ‘You’re mine and nobody else is gonna have you’, even if your higher motives are: I want freedom and I want you to have freedom,” says Taormino. “I have been in a committed relationship for nine years, and it’s open because I do not want to restrict the freedom of someone I love. Personally, though, I’ve struggled with jealousy — everyone does.”

She devotes a whole chapter of Opening Up to jealousy; and the whole of the following chapter to “compersion”. Compersion is what you feel when you have reprogrammed your brain not to feel jealousy any more. “Jealousy is learnt behaviour,” says Taormino, “reinforced by everything from complex German opera to advertising.” Compersion aims to work with the heat and passion of jealousy and turn it into pleasure at seeing or knowing your other half is enjoying pleasure. It’s the sort of sympathetic joy that most people can only identify with from watching their kids have a great time.

Nicholls thinks it is “an almost spiritual state of being. There is a real power to being able to empathise with your other half’s feelings for their other lover. It is powerful because it is hard, but once you experience it, you find an emotional freedom that changes the way you view relationships”.

Noble indeed. Unimaginable to most. All the people I spoke to for this story had experienced fierce jealousy, yes, but were able to intellectually redraw those feelings. If they could not, then they sat down with their spouse, talked about it and redrew the boundaries. Salafranca’s husband ended up seeing the girl that had caused his wife so much distress once a week or so. “We became really good friends,” Salafranca says.

Many open relationships are not wreathed in ideology, however; they are often born of necessity. Couples may have a verbally negotiated “blind eye” policy, which is akin to an open relationship in that what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve.

“Open relationships are often seen as a man’s choice,” says Felix, who has one behind him. “They are about accommodating a person with a high sex drive. After having children, I was in a position where I had to say, ‘You can’t expect me to be celibate.’ I was feeling spiritually crushed after months and months without sex, but I would never consider the deception involved in having affairs. My wife said that fidelity was not the most important thing to her. I was always straightforward with the other women — I would tell them I have a stable relationship that is deep and rich. Unfortunately, there is nothing more attractive than someone saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with me.’”

When her husband’s other woman left him because she could not handle her emotions, Salafranca was there to support him. “To be honest, neither of us was emotionally prepared for the realities of an open relationship,” she says. “The first time I found myself not having sex with another man, but making love to him, I cried. I rang my husband to say I could never see this man again. Open relationships can be messy and exhausting.” In the end, her husband left her for a woman who could not cope with him having feelings for anyone else.

Salafranca says she is currently happy in a new relationship, and I have no reason to doubt her. She is intelligent, political, thoughtful and (not that it makes a difference) beautiful. Despite her ideological desire for openness, she says: “We haven’t opened up yet. Before we consider it, we have to put a lot of energy into our relationship.” She describes successful open relationships as involving people who are “emotionally intelligent, who can cope with many mirrors being held up to themselves”. Then, succinctly, she says: “If you’re with an asshole, an open relationship is merely an abusive relationship.”

The psychiatrist Judith Lipton is co-author of a book called The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People. It draws on all the research done on monogamy in the past 50 years, and argues that in following monogamous lifestyles, we “are going against some of the deepest-seated evolutionary inclinations with which biology has endowed most creatures, Homo sapiens included”.

Open relationships, she says, “involve discarding cultural norms and values that have been proclaimed for more than 2,000 years — more often proclaimed than practised, I think”. This does not mean, however, that Lipton thinks many people are up to openness. “Who can tolerate it? I have not met many people who can, except those who, for complex reasons, have chosen it as a lifestyle, often because of a past history of abuse.”

I mention this in an email to Salafranca, and a huge, angry email comes back, in which she virulently disagrees and finishes by saying that it is a great thing to be able to say to your other half: “I don’t love you because you are mine, I love you for everything you are and everything you are not.” However, she also adds: “It is a way of life. It is not for the faint-hearted; it is a process that will take communication, devotion and energy. If you are busy, do not attempt an open relationship.”

And perhaps it is this, more than anything else, that puts an awful lot of people off. Cheating is simply easier.

Source: Times Online

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