Is it still an open relationship if you're restricted by a long list of rules?
One of the very first times I got up enough nerve to talk about my open relationship with a stranger, I was in Turkey, of all places, on a business trip.
I was doing research for a travel guide in the relatively modern town of Antalya, and I'd met a very kind local couple who had asked me out to dinner. They were both my age: late twenties, early thirties. The guy—I don't remember his name, so let's call him Nazim—was Turkish. But his wife was an American from Los Angeles. She had creamy brown skin and dark hair, so the locals, she told me, always assumed she was Turkish. Someone on the street would ask her a question, for instance, but their words were indecipherable. She could only smile awkwardly, and shrug her shoulders. She had lived in Antalya for a year or two, but wasn't the least bit embarrassed about the fact that she couldn't even string together a sentence in the local language. She had an incredibly attractive sense of innocence about her, especially for an expat who was making her home in such an obscure and unknown corner of the Muslim world.
During dinner, our conversation naturally turned to sex. Which was perfectly fine with me: Just a few months earlier, I'd begun dating a girl who was involved in an open relationship. And so by default, I suppose, our relationship became open as well. This was still very much a novelty to me, and I had lately been catching myself inventing excuses in order to brag about it.
But here, in Turkey, it was different. Nazim, after all, was Muslim—not exactly a group known for its liberal sexual beliefs. In fact, I can still remember what I was thinking in the moments before I blurted out that my new girlfriend was perfectly content in the knowledge that on occasion, I slept with other women. I was thinking: "This is not a good idea. Do not do this."
But I simply love pushing the proverbial envelope. I always have. I read a magazine interview with Drew Barrymore once, and she talked about how "fucking with people," as she put it, had become something of a hobby for her, because life was just so boring. And while I certainly couldn't relate to her lifestyle then, and still can't, I knew exactly what she meant, because that's so often how I feel: I love fucking with people. Especially people whose buttons are so easy to push. For instance, deeply religious people with little or no sense of humor. You might say that many Muslims fall into that category.
So I took a deep breath, and started telling my story. Nazim's eyes got bigger and bigger. He was clearly entranced. But his wife had a look on her face that I've probably seen a hundred times before, from a hundred different women. It said: "I thought you were different. But you're just like every other guy—completely obsessed with sex."
Eventually, I finished the story. Nazim glanced quickly at his wife. And then he fixed his eyes on me, and he said this: "That sounds perfect! You have sex with anyone?" The look on his face was priceless. He was like a small child in a toy store. It was as if he'd never before considered this concept of non-monogamy—as if it simply hadn't ever crossed his mind.
"No, no, no," said his wife, shaking her head back and forth, and looking at her husband with pursed lips. "We're not going to be doing anything like that." And then she shot me another look, as if to say, "Thanks a lot, asshole." But Nazim was still smiling, and looking dreamily into space. This wasn't going the way I expected it to. I decided to backpedal.
"Well…" I said, looking straight ahead at Nazim. "It's not like I just run around having sex with everyone. I mean, we have rules, obviously." Nazim's forehead began to wrinkle. He didn't appear to be pleased with this turn of events. And so I pressed on: "For one thing," I said, "we're not allowed to fall in love. If we sleep with anyone else, it's just supposed to be a fling. Just a one-time thing. We can't get emotionally attached, and if we do, we have to cut it off immediately."
Nazim was listening with rapt attention now, and his mouth was hanging open, ever so slightly.
"Also," I said, "there aren't allowed to be any secrets. If I'm planning a date, I have to tell her about it. And if the date ends up leading to sex, I have to tell her about that, too." Nazim nodded slowly. He was transfixed. I decided to go in for the kill. "And the worst part," I told him, "is that I always have to wear a condom. Always. Carrie told me that if I ever have sex with someone and I don't use a condom, she'll never sleep with me again. Which sucks, because I cannot stand condoms. You know what I mean?"
At this point, Nazim and his wife both seemed to be in a state of semi-shock. Nazim changed the subject immediately, which was probably wise, seeing as his wife was digging her fork so hard into her dinner plate that I almost expected the tongs to snap off. And then Nazim said something that made me question the very nature of my open relationship, which up until then I had thought of as nothing less than revolutionary. "That doesn't sound like much of an open relationship," he said. "With all the rules and everything."
I was speechless.
After that evening, it was discernibly clear that none of us were eager to bring up the subject again. And then a few days later, Nazim's wife asked if I was interested in coming to their house at some point for drinks. I couldn't help myself: For the next few days, I fantasized that Nazim wouldn't be home when I stopped by, and that his wife had organized the whole thing because she was turned on by my open relationship story, and wanted me to seduce her. But of course that wasn't the case. She did feed me a half-dozen bottles of beer, but the three of us ended up passing the night around a dining room table, talking and looking at old photo albums.
I never did get a chance to talk about all the intricacies and rules and regulations of my open relationship with Nazim. I wasn't able to explain to him that if it weren't for the rules, and the willingness of two people to respect each other by following those rules, alternative relationships would simply self-destruct. It would be relationship anarchy. And for that matter, "rules" is probably not the most accurate descriptor of the guidelines that Carrie and I live by, because they're certainly allowed to be bent, assuming the circumstances require that. Occasionally, the rules are even broken. And sometimes that's ok, too. After all, every hook-up is different than the one that came before, and so with that in mind, all romantic and sexual encounters should probably be judged independently of one another.
And so Carrie and I have decided to share with you a number of our own rules. And by the way, if you've ever talked with your partner about opening up your own relationship–or if you'd like to–the following pointers might make for a good excuse to bring it up. Please keep in mind, though, that these are only a few of the open relationship rules that we've found to be most sensible in our own relationship. Yours will probably be somewhat different. But no matter what you decide, it's exceedingly important to remember that without a very serious mutual respect, your non-monogamous relationship is never, ever going to work.
"Everyone [in an open relationship] has at least one rule," says sex journalist and educator Tristan Taormino, during a recent phone interview. Taormino writes the Village Voice's "Pucker Up" column, and is also the author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships (Cleis Press). The book is scheduled to be released at the end of April.
1. Honesty is (usually) the best policy.
This is quite possibly the most important of all our rules, and it's also the one that my fiancée, Carrie, has always taken pains to institute in her past alternative arrangements. It's the only rule you really do need to keep in mind at all times, and what it means is this: Don't lie. Have open, honest conversations with your partner about anything that gives you a feeling of unease. Tell your primary partner the things you are most afraid to tell him. Because if he can't respect the thoughts that take place in your mind—no matter how odd or socially deviant they may seem—there's no chance he'll be able to understand or tolerate your wayward sexual behavior. And that's to say nothing of the fact that you shouldn't stay with someone who laughs at your fantasies, sexual or otherwise.
"If your friends who are non-monogamous tell you they don't have rules," says Taormino, "they're full of shit. They maybe haven't spoken them out loud, but they're there. That's the great think about non-monogamy: All this stuff gets discussed, and it's out in the open. There are no assumptions."
2. Talk about it before it happens.
This isn't a rule I would necessarily recommend for every open couple, but it does work well for us. The idea is that if one of us is planning a date, we don't keep that information secret. We talk about it first, preferably long before it actually happens. The idea is to keep jealousy at bay. And of course, the more personal details you learn about your partner's one-night-stand, the more you realize how similar that person probably is to everyone else—even you. Then again, sometimes this rule is impractical. Assuming you meet someone in a bar, and then choose to go home with them that same night, it would probably be inadvisable to send your girlfriend the details via text message.
Throughout Taormino's research for Opening Up, she met numerous couples with unusual rules. But no matter how kinky or unusual your own behavior may seem, the important thing is communication. Taormino, for instance, met many couples who would not allow anyone else in their matrimonial bed. "Which is sort of symbolic and literal," she said. "It's their bed, and they're not going to fuck other people in it. But then other people were like, 'Whatever. I'll sleep in the guest room.'"
3. It's always best when everyone meets each other.
This is probably my favorite rule of all, even though it's really nothing more than an extension of the previous rule. The general idea is to keep things friendly, and to keep everyone in the loop about who's doing what with whom, and why. Carrie and I have practiced this rule in the past by meeting up for drinks with girls I'm interested in. And there's a hidden benefit: When three sexually progressive people drink beer together, sparks can occasionally fly in unexpected directions, if you know what I mean.
4. Always practice safe sex.
Any man who has ever had a steady girlfriend can name at least one benefit to staying monogamous: condom-free sex. But if you're planning on sharing the love, it's your responsibility—and a very important one at that—to insure the sexual health of your primary partner. For men and women both, this means keeping a fresh supply of condoms on hand. And what if you slip up, and "accidentally" slip it in without first slipping it on? Fess up to all other partners immediately—or at least prior to sleeping with each other next.
A few of the open couples Taormino spoke with during her research had "detailed, signed agreements that were very, very specific," she said. "And yet other people say, 'Hey, you can do whatever you want.' But 'whatever you want' always comes with a caveat. And even if there's only one rule, it's usually safe sex."
Dan Eldridge is a Moon Handbooks and Lonely Planet guidebook writer based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, Toronto Sun, Paste, and Seattle Magazine. His website is PioneerContent.com. To learn more about open relationships, visit MarriageWithoutMonogamy.com.