Dwell According To Knowledge: How To Search, Find, And Keep Your Potential Spouse
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Openness in a marriage, for better or for worse, would seem a natural outgrowth of those conflicting cultural values, especially since same-sex marriage, open adoptions, single-parent homes, and ideas about gender fluidity have already redefined what constitutes a family.
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And yet open marriages — and to a lesser degree open but nonmarital committed relationships — are still considered so taboo that many of the people I interviewed over the last year resisted giving their names, for fear of social disapprobation and of jeopardizing their jobs. It is no surprise that most conservatives would perceive the concept as a degradation of marriage, of a key foundation of society. But even among progressives I talked to, the subject typically provoked a curled lip or a slack jaw.
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The thought bubble, or expressed thought: How? The subject seemed offensive to many at some primal level, or at least ridiculously self-indulgent, as if those involved — working, married people, people with children — were indecently preoccupied with sexual adventure instead of channeling their energies toward, say, their children, or composting.
Married for 14 years, I felt that same visceral resistance, an emotion so strong it made me curious to understand how others were wholly free of it, or managed to move past it. The divide between those who practiced open relationships and those who found the idea repugnant seemed inexplicably vast, given that members of those two groups often overlap in the same relatively privileged demographic anyone holding down three jobs to keep a family together is not likely to spend excess emotional energy negotiating and acting on a nonmonogamy agreement.
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The more I spoke to people in open relationships, the more I wanted to know how they crossed a line into territory that seemed so thorny to their peers. I interviewed more than 50 members of open marriages, some of them a dozen or more times. I was drawn to the couples who were just starting out: What would the following months bring, what would they learn about themselves?
I knew I wanted to follow the arc of their marriages, but I underestimated what, in so doing, I might learn about my own. Tammy Nelson, their therapist friend, had long been telling Daniel he should meet the man Elizabeth was seeing. Riding in the car, Elizabeth fielded nervous texts from Joseph, who arrived before them. When Elizabeth and Daniel arrived at the bar, the men shook hands. Daniel felt the need to reassure him. Daniel, who is tall and dark, has mass to him, and strong features; Joseph has blue eyes and is more compact, a former high-school athlete who still, like Elizabeth, works out with discipline.
Daniel had started to think of episodes like this one as part of a new marital order he called Bizarro World. Scene 2: He reaches under his pillow on a night when his wife is with her boyfriend and finds a note she has left, knowing his hand would slide precisely there. He opens it up to see a picture of a heart, with their names written inside, a plus sign between them.
Scene 3: One night, close to bedtime, Daniel and Elizabeth explain the concept of polyamory to their two teenage children and tell them that although their mother is seeing someone, the marriage is still strong. Their son, who is 17, sounds almost proud of them for doing something so alternative. Their daughter, who is 15, takes it in more quietly, uncomfortably.
She is just relieved, she tells them, that they are not fighting anymore. If anything, they were fighting harder for their own relationship, making more of an effort. Daniel finally started accompanying Elizabeth on those hikes; Elizabeth stopped putting up a fight when Daniel wanted to buy pricey concert tickets for them.
And yet Daniel still felt conflicted about how the arrangement had started and all that it asked of him. There is a third person in our relationship who is pervasively there and not there.
The theory of nonmonogamy is easier than the practice. We are playing in the sexual energy often, and it feels really good. We are having a lot more fun together. Elizabeth encouraged Daniel to invest more effort in meeting someone. She wanted the marriage to feel balanced, and she also wanted him to experience what she was feeling — that new relationship energy for polyamorists, that is another technical term, frequently abbreviated as N.
Daniel took care creating his profile on OkCupid. So it was several months after he posted his profile that Daniel went on a date with a woman he met on the site, someone who was also in an open marriage. They were still making awkward conversation at a bar when a woman sitting nearby asked how long they had been together. Drinks flowed, and around midnight, Daniel found himself in a Ford Explorer, kissing a woman who was not his wife for the first time in 25 years. It took a few days before he landed on the right metaphor for his experience.
Mixed in with the fear of vulnerability that all dating entails was a sense of dread. He found it hard to believe that Elizabeth would not be jealous, and he worried, if she was, who would suffer more for it.
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Monogamy is an approach to relationships built on one bright-line rule: no sex with anyone else. Open relationships may sound like the more unfettered choice, but the first thing nonmonogamous couples often do is draw up a list of guidelines: rules about protection, about the number of days a week set aside for dates, about how much information to share.
These rules are often designed to manage jealousy.
Most monogamous couples labor to avoid that emotion at all costs; but for the philosophically polyamorous, jealousy presents an opportunity to examine the insecurities that opening a relationships lays bare. Jealousy is not a primal impulse to be trusted because it feels so powerful; it is an emotion worth investigating. Polyamorists would argue, as would others, that humans are capable of overriding that system with rational discourse. Jealousy may be part of human nature, but social constructs amplify its power, with devastating costs.
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But we are a diverse and adaptive species, so what we should predict is a suite of biological mechanisms that would allow diverse approaches to that challenge of raising children. Flexibility is what is distinctive about us as humans. Susan Wenzel, a therapist in Winnipeg, Canada, whom I met through Tammy Nelson, did not open up her relationship with the man she was living with because she subscribed to any evolutionary theory.
She did so because he had told her, gently, even fearfully, that he was concerned about the future of their relationship. He had been in love before, he explained, but those relationships had always ended with him growing restless, intrigued by another woman.
She felt equipped to manage the arrangement, and she and her boyfriend cautiously agreed that they could see other people, so long as those relationships remained casual. Susan did not feel it detracted from the strength of their relationship when she started seeing someone who is, like her, an immigrant from Kenya. But when that faded and her live-in boyfriend started dating someone, she found that jealousy hijacked the relationship. I wanted to understand my emotions. She sought therapy with Nelson, working by Skype to identify the source of her own jealousy.
It was not the sex her boyfriend was having, she realized, that troubled her; it was the sense of scarcity — that she would not have enough of his time. Once that became evident, she was able to tell her boyfriend she needed to feel like a priority. She also had two young children from a previous marriage who lived with them, and she told him that she wanted him to take more responsibility for them, which he did.
The chief adjustment she and her boyfriend made was the one that seemed the least likely: They married, a year and a half after they first opened their relationship. Her boyfriend felt, for the first time, happy to commit to a woman he loved, knowing he had the freedom he wanted; and the symbolism of marriage gave Susan enough security that she could grant him that freedom, and exercise it herself.
They saw no incongruity in their decision to wed — they were flexible, adaptable humans, reshaping an institution to their needs, rather than the other way around. In August, Elizabeth and Daniel made a road trip to a Lower East Side bar in New York to attend Poly Cocktails, a monthly event founded in for people who are interested in nonmonogamy, or practicing it. At the event, Elizabeth and Daniel felt overwhelmed, a little out of place. Over the course of the evening, about people, a diverse crowd, packed into the rooftop bar, most of them, it seemed to Elizabeth and Daniel, younger than they were.
A year-old man with his hair in a bun sat close to his beautiful girlfriend.
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Everyone seemed to know one veteran polyamorist: a year-old man with a long, white braid. For the most part, the socializing was studiously nonsexual, but a young woman with a retro look — red lipstick, baby-doll dress — was flirting with a tall man in a sleeveless T-shirt, a year-old dad from brownstone Brooklyn, a musician with a corporate day job.
His wife looked on, amused, as she waited for a drink at the bar.
Elizabeth and Daniel had ostensibly come to be among people who would not judge them. It had occurred to them that Daniel might meet someone, but he did not end up speaking to anyone to whom he felt a strong attraction. Instead he spent most of the evening talking to a married woman who complained that she felt underappreciated by the crowd at the bar. If Daniel was going to begin a relationship, he suspected it would be with someone he knew, and in the months following their outing to Poly Cocktails, he thought a lot about a woman from another state whom he met briefly through professional circles about two years before Elizabeth started seeing Joseph.
The woman had subsequently sent him a succession of flirty texts. It had been a small, contained thrill to think of this woman, whom he had liked, reaching out to him, silently, on his phone, as he watched TV with his wife. It took him a while to notice that he had probably crossed a line without even realizing it, a series of harmless pixels coalescing into something that could hurt the feelings of people he actually knew and loved.
The marriage was not yet open, and he told Elizabeth about the messages, relieved that it occurred to him to do so, and then — in one of the more intimate instant messages he had ever composed — told this person who had shown up in his life that they could only be friends, as much as he had enjoyed meeting her and was touched by the attention.
Daniel and the woman would text from time to time, and when he heard she was coming to town this past January, he invited her to dinner.
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Over a meal, he told her that he and his wife had decided to open up their marriage, despite their enduring commitment to each other. He and the woman were already comfortable with each other, but once the possibility of romance hung in the air, the conversation immediately became deeper, as if they were preparing for one kind of vulnerability with another. Dating, I started to think, as Daniel told me about talking to his companion, is wasted on the young and the single.
A young person in his 20s, unformed, skittish, goes out into the world and tries to fall in love, a project complicated by the bulky defenses that allow him to undertake so risky a venture in the first place.