When it comes to romantic commitments, less can be more.
I dated this wonderful man for a year—let's call him Dan—and on paper, he was perfect. Dan was smart, funny, and sweet. He fed my cats when I visited my grandparents over a long weekend. He brought over Emergen-C and Haagen-Dazs, when I had a cold and didn't mind when I watched Clueless for the fifteenth time between sniffles. In short, he was a great guy.
There was only one problem: Dan didn't want to commit.
Or he did, but not in the way I'd grown up romanticizing, the kind of commitment that looks beguilingly easy in of rom-coms starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Dan wanted an open relationship.
"I want to be with you, Jess," he said, when I'd brought up the Where is this relationship going? discussion for the third time in as many weeks. "But I need some sort of safety valve, a pressure gauge to release any tension that might build up. I'm not saying I'd ever go there, mind you. But an open relationship would just make me feel better."
With minimal reservations—I'd been jonesing for some sort of verbal agreement for weeks—I agreed to the situation, and thought myself quite the cosmopolitan, sex-positive chica for being cool about the whole thing. Relationships take compromise, right? And demanding monogamy? So passé and shrew-like!
Our subsequent foray into the land of open relationships was all right. We talked about our feelings, checked in via Blackberry before Dating Other People, and held relationship pow-wows over dinner dates whenever jealousy reared its ugly head. Our relationship affairs were conducted with the cool formality of a power lunch, and we smugly congratulated ourselves for our maturity when we tsked-tsked monogamous friends who got jealous over small gaffes like flirting. "We're so beyond all that," Dan whispered once at a party, when a fellow friend sulked over her husband's wandering eye. "Isn't it great that we don't have to worry about that stuff?"
Yet when Dan and I broke up (for unrelated reasons, natch) I felt oddly detached. Dan had mattered to me, and the breakup was upsetting, but something about it felt small, as if the stakes of our relationship had been lowered somehow.
My best friend, Dayna, got to the crux of the issue. "Listen to you, Jessica," she said between sips of plum line, during one of our myriad late-night sleepovers. "Your situation was 'Quite nice'? You felt 'OK' with the openness? You talk like Dan was your roommate, not your boyfriend. Where's the passion?"
Where's the passion, indeed. Walking along the precipice of emotional fidelity and sexual exploration didn't take our relationship to new heights, like Dossie Easton's polyamory primer The Ethical Slut promised. Instead, with our respective level of fidelity an open question, my commitment to Dan became as lukewarm as tepid bathwater, "quite nice" without quiet romance.
When we dismissed monogamy as something unspeakably retro for our sexually hip sensibilities, we ignored the passion a singular commitment can inspire, the romance of mutual trust for each other and the courage it takes to be a team together. Blasé became our new black, and we were worse off for it.
While polyamory strengthens some couples—to borrow a cliché, some of my best friends are poly—an open relationship devalued the commitment Dan and I had. Without the knowledge we were each other's one and only, our feelings for each other numbed. Knowing we could run into the arms of a pseudo-stranger whenever something went wrong meant we didn't really turn to each other in times of need, limiting the potential of our emotional growth. Saying, "let's discuss your date with Paul before we schedule my date with Cheryl" isn't as romantic as "You complete me." I should have known better when Dan compared our relationship to a safety valve.
Polyamorists and open-relationship enthusiasts contend that love doesn't have to dampen with the addition of outsiders—and they certainly have a point. "The problem with your outlook," says Evi, one pro-open relationship friend of mine, "is that you treat love as some finite quality, like you'll have less of if you give to others. Think about other relationships in your life. Does a mother love her kids any less when she has more? Why should it be different for romantic partners?"
While I agree love isn't finite—if it were, humanity would be pretty messed up—there's another aspect of our lives that is by definition finite: time. For me, nothing was a bigger relationship buzz-killer than forgoing my six-month anniversary with Dan because he'd promised his secondary partner Susanne some "alone time", and then missing out on each other the next week because of the various work, social, and date commitments dotting our respective Google Calendars. Can you imagine adding other needy partners to an already overstressed relationship cocktail? It's not fun for either party.
I'm now in a monogamous relationship now with a wonderful guy who prefers the same. It's eye-opening to be in a relationship where we can ask for what we want without succumbing to the hip quotient of open relationships. Having experienced the spectrum of sexual fidelity, I've come to realize that openness is an orientation just like homosexuality—and like our sexual orientations, some of us are wired to prefer monogamy, and there's nothing to be ashamed about.
Dan Savage, the no-holds-barred sex columnist, agrees with me: when one "Confused in Canada" asked how to get over his fears of an open relationship, the normally ribald Dan wrote, "There's nothing premodern about your feelings, no area where you require "improvement," nothing you need to get over." Whether you're polyamorous or prefer a more traditional commitment, we can all agree that Dan's on to something: we shouldn't have to "get over" our deep-seated preferences, whether they involve one person or eight, to find the love each of us deserves.