One of the cool things about being astonishingly single is that you can experiment, both with actual humans, and with ideas. You know, let's say you're a serial monogamist and you find yourself suddenly sans partner; you might start thinking about "what relationships are" and what kind of lover you are and all that. Just totally hypothetically speaking. And so it is that YSA's been thinking more about Open Relationships, and the concurrent concepts of jealousy, possessiveness, insecurity, trust, and communication.
Helping navigate these waters (which YSA formerly considered the province primarily of the GLBTQ crowd but now understands as an equal-orientation experience) are Janice, 24, and Adam, 36, who have a healthy, happy, loving relationship that also happens to be nonmonogamous. The so-cute-it-can-be-nauseating lovebirds are committed to each other, and to their relationship, but they allow — nay, encourage! — each other to form deep, intimate friendships (that may or may not involve sex) outside their primary partnership.
Whoa whoa whoa, you say. So, it's like sanctioned cheating, or normalized fear of commitment? No, it's nothing like that, actually. It's about nothing less than reconfiguring the way we view romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships. It's about "openness and communication," Janice says. I mean, yes, it's partially about sex, and loving sex, and sex in love. But ORs — as evidenced by the bevy of books on the topic, including The Ethical Slut by Dossie Eaton and Catherine Liszt, and Tristan Taormino's Opening Up — have been intellectualized to points far beyond banging.
Both J. and A. are good — if somewhat rehearsed — at articulating why an open relationship is appealing to them. Here's Adam's take:
"If you're in a monogamous relationship, typically the other friendships you make have socially constructed limits based around thinking of your partner as your private property," he writes in an e-mail to YSA. "As a result, people limit the direction or development of the friendships and connections they make with people. In an open relationship, the opportunity is there to develop each relationship to its natural conclusion, and it adds richness and meaning to my life."
If understanding their relationship requires dismantling some preconceived notions of couple-dom, imagine actually being one half of the pair. Simply because she hadn't been part of an open relationship before she met Adam, it's especially challenging for Janice.
"Being in an open relationship forces you to address your jealousy, instead of just demanding that the other person not have sex with anyone else," she says. "Jealousy is a gut-reaction that I need to override frequently, especially when Adam meets someone new. I feel like I need to know that the woman gets it, and that she understands that she's sleeping with another woman's boyfriend and that he's not going to leave me for her. At the same time, I need to understand why it's something he wants, and a little reassurance that she isn't someone who could replace me. We both need to put in extra effort to make the other comfortable with the situation, and be sensitive to their feelings and concerns. We also don't always agree on everything. What feels comfortable for him might be really awkward for me, so we need to adjust our pace to suit the other person. It can be really frustrating, and can take time to work out."
For many people, the idea of meeting someone who's had sex with their partner might ruffle emotional feathers. But Janice and Nikki, one of Adam's friends, have met; both women have nothing but great things to say about each other. "I've met Janice and I think she's wonderful," Nikki, 27, says on the phone from Washington DC. "I think that Janice and Adam are really exceptional and really unique. I so admire them." The love-fest goes both ways: "She was just so bubbly and friendly, it was impossible to feel anything but at ease with her," Janice recalls of the one time she met Nikki. "There were no feelings of jealousy, because she seemed genuinely interested in me, not just Adam. It had nothing to do with sex between them right then; just loving friendship."
Of course, the OR isn't for everyone — even those who are peripherally involved in one. Take Mr. Capitalism, an Ayn Rand-reading, kink-loving, 29-year-old professional who recently struck up a friendship with Janice. While he says "the little time I have spent getting to know her has felt effortless and natural and fun," and that he "can't wait to see" what develops between them over the next few months, Señor Capitalism knows Janice has a boyfriend, and respects their bond.
"Nevertheless, I know I could not do what she is doing in my own relationships," he admits. "I am an idealist, and have this sappy-romantic idea about giving my heart completely, without division or hesitation, to my future wife. I want the person I love to feel like I only have eyes for them ... more to the point, I want to be the kind of man that really does only have eyes for them."