When three is company

Cheryl Gerson expounds on whether it’s possible to love and live with more than one

Steve kept pushing the idea of a ménage à trois. Susie was my best friend, and already almost a part of the family. We loved her; she loved us. Even the kids loved her. What could go wrong?”, said Anna. “I never felt particularly sexually drawn to other women, but Susie excited me in lots of ways—I guess you could call it a girl crush. The thought of being closer to her, and sharing more love with her, thrilled me.”

“You might assume I got jealous, but I really didn’t. What happened was, Steve complained about her—he didn’t like the feel of her skin; he didn’t like her smell. At that time, I thought he and I were being considerate of her by telling her that I was jealous and that I ‘couldn’t take it’. Now I suspect he was just a coward—I’ve known him a lot longer now, and I know that he likes me to do the heavy lifting. Anyway, what started out looking like a great idea wasn’t so great anymore. Susie and I had the ‘our friendship is more important than anything else’ conversation, but within the year, I’d lost my best friend.”

As I listen to Anna, I recognise many mistakes that today’s couples in open relationships might make but her story also highlights both, the excitement and the pitfalls of such intimate relationships.

Once upon a time...

Plural relationships have been a fact of life throughout history. In the Bible, Abraham and Sarah had a kind of open marriage: when Sarah assumed she was too old to give Abraham a son, she offered her handmaiden, Hagar, so that Abraham’s line could continue. This was a fairly common situation in their culture. And we know how that turned out.

There is a biological directive to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. For thousands of years, the best way to keep the family group and the tribe healthy and strong was to mix the gene pool. It’s only relatively recently that monogamy has become law.

Today, the institution of marriage is in flux. Is a marriage strictly between one man and one woman? [In some regions, the question even demands the partners be of the same race.] Or do we broaden its scope to accept marriage between same-sex couples, or marriages that include more than two people? I suggest we define today’s marriage as a contract of commitment among a small number of people, with the goal of forming and maintaining a family.

And here is where modern open relationships split off from historical plural marriages. Today’s open relationships are primarily about the adults involved in them, not the community, not particularly the family. They’re about adults looking for the fulfillment of desires—and I make that plural, because there’s more than sexual desire involved.

This differentiation is important. There are two kinds of groupings, with different sets of needs. Families with children need to be somewhat hierarchical: children need bigger, wiser [we hope], more powerful individuals to protect and teach them how to be in the world. They have equal human rights but cannot be equal partners. Open relationships among adults are ideally democratic. They focus less on the business of family and more on individual adults’ needs and development.

What men [and women] want…

Human beings require a balance of structure and freedom, between safety and excitement. Structure offers a sense of confidence, realistic expectation, and safety. Freedom brings risk, danger, and excitement. Too much of the first, and we become deadened. Too much of the second, and we could become just dead.

Many marriage therapists believe that feeling ‘safe’ with a partner will not only allow love and companionship to grow, but also encourage good sex. While this may be true for some couples, there are many who feel ‘close’ to one another, love each other dearly, work well together toward common goals, but don’t have sex.

Keeping the spark alive…

“The original primordial fire of eroticism is sexuality; it raises the red flame of eroticism, which in turn raises and feeds another flame, tremulous and blue. It is the flame of love and eroticism. The double flame of life.” [Octavio Paz, The Double Flame]

Delicious. Who wouldn’t want THIS?

When you meet a special person, your entire self is involved—mind, body, and soul. There’s no other experience quite like it. Nothing is more important than being with the lover, touching, feeling, smelling, and talking into the wee hours of the night.

What a thrill. You want it to go on forever.

You want to own it.

You want to get married and live happily ever after.

Marriage vows bring safety and reliability. Some fortunate couples get to enjoy a balance of safety and thrill awhile longer. But safety is the opposite of risk and excitement. How often have we heard, “The minute we got married, he/she changed”? What happened to that erotic flame? Now that you’re married, now that you “have” one another, desire wanes.

The principles of desire

The principles of desire are: You want what you can’t have; you can’t want what you have.

Open relationships try to balance these principles. In every one that lasts for any length of time, there are agreed-upon rules and expectations of behaviour. If these commitments are well thought out, there is a safe ‘base’ for the group. If the individual members are self-aware and self-contained, they create a group ‘play space’ where each of them can take risks.

An open relationship can be exciting and joyous. It’s a wonderful feeling that there’s enough love to go around for everybody. The freedom to explore one’s own sexual longings goes a long way towards self-acceptance. But there are hazards, as well. For example, the ideal that everyone in the group is supposed to be happy and satisfied cannot exist in nature. In order for any relationship to live and grow, there has to be room for ‘darker’ feelings. Most married couples begin struggling with these when they start to face their differences. One temptation of ‘opening’ a relationship is to try to distract from these struggles by adding someone from outside—that new member is just perfect, knows you like you know yourself. But what happens when that “new person” is no longer new? Now there are three, or four, or more people in conflict.

It’s important to remember that ‘conflict’ is not synonymous with ‘bad’. We learn and grow as individuals through the conflicts in our relationships. It is precisely these conflicts that lead us to say, “Marriage is a people-growing machine.” It’s fully possible for people involved in open relationships to benefit similarly. But it’s not easy.

Mission possible or impossible?

I believe that it benefits us to reframe coming-together-in-love multiple relationships. They are not marriages according to our definition of marriage: a contract of commitment among a small number of people, with the goal of forming and maintaining a family. Trying to fit them into that framework is a bit like eating your cake and still expecting to have it tomorrow.

I strongly believe that people need physical connection. I believe that our needs are not all the same. I believe in experimentation and exploration and I am happy that groups of people manage to come together and form strong, intimate bonds.

I also believe that children need reliable authority figures to support them. In Anna’s case above, her children also suffered the loss of Susie, who had been something of a surrogate mother to them. I’ve seen too many people who grew up around ill-defined parenting to ignore the importance of a strong mother-function and father-function.

In the 21st century, we don’t have to worry about not having enough people to keep the human race going. In fact, it’s more the opposite. Open relationships among adults who are not particularly eager to procreate can be a vital new way for people to be ‘together-in-love’.

Make no mistake: if you enter into an open relationship in the hope of spicing up a deadened life [or in the hope of ‘fixing’ any feeling], it will probably end in tears. Adding more elements to a troubled relationship will make it more complicated, not less. But if you are willing to contend with the dangers of intimacy, and grow yourself up [in contrast to growing up offspring], who knows what wonders you might create?

This was first published in the July 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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