Alternative Relationships 101


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.)

But despite all the rules, the fact of the matter is that neither Carrie nor I have been doing a very good job at keeping anything discreet lately. We've been groping each other in restaurants in the middle of the day, for instance. Once, we brought along a promiscuous female friend to this very bar, and after a few rounds, the three of us took turns eagerly licking each other's faces and lips. And yes, I understand that drunken displays of sexual affection don't always turn heads in the bars of larger cities. But they most certainly do in ours. And unfortunately for all of us, Carrie's boyfriend has recently been getting reports about our public behavior from his friend and co-workers, and he is not happy. "Yo!" His friends have been saying. "Who's that dude I keep seeing all over town wit' yo girl? They was all over each other, cuz! Right in the middle of the bar!"

And that, right there, is the reason alternative relationships can so often be so difficult to maintain. It's the same reason gay men and women sometimes stay in the closet their entire lives: Other people don't understand. Or maybe other people don't approve, or maybe other people feel torn up inside when they see someone who has come to terms with their own uniqueness, especially if that uniqueness isn't necessarily pretty.

I'm well aware that humans are curious and knowledge-seeking by nature. It's understandable for almost anyone to become curious after learning of a couple who are non-monogamous. But as citizens of an educated society and a well developed culture, we also know damn well that those intimate details are none of our business. We know that prying is a decision only a child would make—or an adult with the mind of a child. Unfortunately, America seems to be increasingly proficient in producing just that sort of adult.

And what of those people who tattled on Carrie? Those supposed friends who in one fell swoop managed not only to humiliate her boyfriend, but also to stifle the healthy relationship that Carrie and I were trying our best to explore? Did they decide to snitch because they were truly looking out for the welfare of Carrie's boyfriend? Or were they maybe envious—maybe even a little furious—to have seen an attractive woman so freely flaunting her sexuality without any apology or any excuse?

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there were details about our arrangement that none of them knew. For one thing, Carrie's boyfriend was well aware of my presence in her life. After all, I spent the night at his house at least once or twice a week. During the first few months of our courtship, he mentioned that Carrie often seemed happier after spending the day with me. He joked that I was something of an antidote to the depression she'd been suffering from for years. And because he truly loved and cared for her, and was interested in protecting something other than his own ego, he actually encouraged us to continue spending time together. What do you figure those so-called friends would think if they knew any of that?

As it happens, Carrie's boyfriend is out of the picture now. He has been for a while. The story you just read took place about a year ago, and in the year since, I've had dozens of conversations with all sorts of different people about the open relationship Carrie and I are now exploring together. I've talked about it in detail with close friends, and with friends of friends. I've even brought it up during totally inappropriate times with random acquaintances, and with perfect strangers.

And while I'll be the first to admit that these casual conversations by no means qualify as any sort of scientific evidence, I can't help but think that I've unwittingly placed myself in a rather unique sociological position. Because while I certainly wouldn't claim to be any sort of an expert on the subject of deviant sexual behavior, I will say that I've managed to get a pretty decent handle on exactly what it is that we as Americans think about the practice of open relationships, or about alternative relationships in general. And while I don't mean to put too fine a point on it, what we think, apparently, is this: They are morally corrupt. They are shameful and indecent. To put it simply, they're just plain bad.

If you think I've got it wrong, spend five minutes scrolling through the comments posted at the end of my inaugural Marriage Without Monogamy column. A reader named Anna, for instance, describes Carrie and me as "both desperately naïve," calls us "worthless pieces of crap," and says, "I think these people are vile." Still another reader went so far as to track down Carrie's MySpace page. He then sent an email to her account expressing his desire that she should forever burn in hell.

But what these accidental voyeurs quite obviously don't understand is that in the vast majority of instances, those of us involved in open relationships are by no means swinging naked from the chandeliers at all hours of the day and night. We are not diving headfirst into a writhing group orgy every Friday and Saturday after work. We are not necessarily in the practice of shagging perfect strangers in the men's room of a dark-lit club. And most of us do not regularly snort rails of coke off each others' naughty parts. In fact, for me, being in an open partnership hasn't been about random sex so much as it's been an incredibly intense emotional education. I've learned to rope in my feelings of jealousy in ways I never thought I'd be able. I've learned to master a great many of my emotions.

In fact, if you've read my two previous Marriage Without Monogamy columns, this may come as something of a surprise, but from time to time, being in the relationship I'm in feels strange and awkward and confusing.

I'll admit: It's not always easy. And yet neither has it ever been boring. But it absolutely has always been worth it. It still blows my mind to think about how much I've learned about myself, and about the way the world works, in such a short amount of time.

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

One of my all-time favorite writers is a war reporter and travel journalist by the name of Robert Young Pelton, and he explained to me once during an interview that he lives a life of extreme risk and difficulty very much on purpose. "If you're not constantly learning as a person," he told me, "then you aren't growing as a person, either. And if you're not growing as a person, what's the point of even being alive?"