Alternative Relationships 101

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Open relationships: one guy comes to terms with what the world thinks of his lifestyle.

It's a perfectly crisp early evening in the summer of 2007, and Carrie and I are slouching into one of the squishy booths in the back of a dark Pittsburgh pub called Le Mardi Gras. Anyone familiar with the neighborhood will tell you it's a fairly serious alcoholic's bar, mostly because the drinks are strong to the point of being ridiculous.

Also, the bartenders never seem to kick anyone out at closing time. The place has a bit of a clubby feel to it, because almost everyone is a regular. But Carrie and I don't come here too often—only at the tail end of those nights when we're feeling particularly naughty, or immoral. I guess that's partly because there's an odd energy here that seems to almost encourage decadent behavior. And besides, most of the people we know wouldn't be caught dead drinking here, which makes the whole experience feel something like a hidden, secret escape—a respite from the hateful social hierarchy of Pittsburgh's few hipster bars, where everyone judges everyone else, just like a high school cafeteria.

Carrie and I have been doing a lot of sneaking around lately. And to be perfectly honest, it does feel adventuresome, in an illicit sort of way. In fact, all of this started because of Carrie's boyfriend. Sort of. It's a complicated story, but I think it's one worth telling. Because if I've learned anything about alternative partnerships over the past couple of years, it's this: Almost no one in this country seems to understand anything about them. And personally, I think they teach a very valuable and a very important lesson. At any rate, this is a story that I think does a pretty decent job at illustrating their worth. And here's the big shocker: It has almost nothing to do with sex.

Carrie and her boyfriend have an open relationship. They've been together for six years, and the partnership has been open for about five. But like most couplings, their relationship is very far from being black and white. It's complicated, in other words. For one thing, their arrangement has a surprising number of rules. No falling in love, for instance. No lying about who you're seeing, or when, or in what capacity. And since Pittsburgh is a small city where everyone seems to know everyone else, they've also agreed that there will be no parading around town while on dates—keep it discreet, please.

Carrie's boyfriend runs his own business in the construction industry, so when they first decided to open up their relationship, it was mutually understood that the employees would not be privy to the intimate details of their boss's sex life, or for that matter the sex life of the boss's girlfriend. All that made perfectly good sense to me, and if you've ever had the displeasure of spending an hour or two with a construction crew, it should make perfectly good sense to you as well. I think it's pretty clear that your average hammer-and-nail meathead is going to have a difficult time respecting the boss once he learns that the boss's girlfriend occasionally has sex with other men. (And other women.)

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