When Sabina McKenna stumbled into a short-lived, yet passion-filled open relationship, the experience left her fascinated by the rules, boundaries and prejudices of being 'ethically' non-monogamous.
Writer & Curator
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I recently found myself back in the dating game, post long-term relationship.
And while scrolling through Hinge profiles - in between voice memos and candid photos of people with their dogs - I lost count of the number of times I saw the words: ‘non-monogamous’ or ‘in an open relationship’.
I later found myself in a ‘situationship’: the person I was seeing was in an open relationship, so we were dating casually.
It was short lived, but at the same time very passionate. And we were inseparable for a week before it came to a crashing and burning end - things were getting too romantic, and primary partner boundaries had been crossed.
I was happy to take responsibility for (almost) falling in love with someone who was ultimately unavailable, but at the same time the whole experience had left me wondering - what does it actually take to be ‘ethically’ non-monogamous?
While reflecting on my disastrous fling, I was brought back to the first time I learned what being ‘open’ is.
I was working in a ‘Feminist’ bookshop called Blue Stockings, in downtown New York City, where I came across a title called The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. At the time of publishing, there was nothing else out there like it and so, back in the present day, I decided to reach out.
Speaking to Janet - who has personally authored or co-authored eleven books about alternative relationships, and worked as an educator and counsellor since 1997 - I asked why it seemed ethical non-monogamy was the latest dating trend.
“When I was a young adult, it was still illegal and heavily socially sanctioned to be Poly,” Janet said. “But these days many more people are aware of the possibility of relationships that are not monogamous.
“Consciously or unconsciously, we are becoming aware that the way we have designed our relationships, until now, is not working very well. The nuclear family is, for the most part, a failed experiment, and that makes us more open to non-monogamy as a viable option.”
Janet went on to explain that as well as it being true that more people are trying out alternative relationships, it is also probably a matter of there being much less stigma surrounding the existing community. Meaning that people who already practice being open or ethically non-monogamous are becoming more visible.
“Non-monogamy, now, is about where being gay was 30 or 40 years ago," she said.
“But eventually, more of us will try it... and the people around us will see that we're non-monogamous, and that we still mow our lawns and raise polite kids.”
A lot of the stigma surrounding non-monogamy and polyamory stems from a lack of representation. While I have always believed it harmful to consider monogamy the only healthy or moral way to have a relationship, my lack of understanding of what ‘those types of relationships’ actually looked like left room for plenty of misconceptions.
I thought being ‘open’ could mean one of two things:
+ Having a primary partner and being open to casual encounters.
+ Or being in multiple serious relationships at one time (what I thought to be polyamory).
But - “It's definitely not a one size fits all,” Janet told me. “There are any number of ways to approach non-monogamy.”
Sex and pleasure educator Euphemia Russell echoed this sentiment, recalling their personal experiences in open relationships: “My past relationships were either generally open, open when apart, open for only sexual encounters or open with friends and ongoing lovers.
“It depends on lots of things, but I believe that it should be co-created by whoever is involved.”
Euphemia has been dating within non-monogamous dynamics for years, but originally came to the practice after trying, and failing, to follow a conventional style of dating (by being monogamous) that simply wasn’t for them.
“The first time I tried to be non-monogamous was hard’, Euphemia said. “I used to think of myself as someone who couldn’t be in a relationship, and felt a lot of shame and guilt about that. But then I realised that the structure just didn't support my desires and identity.
“It's challenging to not fit within the preconceived ideas of relationship and romantic intimacy, and all the misunderstandings that come with that.”
Listening to Euphemia I began to think that what they experienced was probably true for a lot of people. After all, not only does non-monogamy exist in the form of consensual and ethical open relationships - in which everyone involved is aware and has agreed to relating in that way - but it also exists non-consensually in the form of cheating and affairs.
“I would love to see it represented more,” says artist, photographer and filmmaker Pippa Samaya, who shares a triad relationship with her wife Tara and their long term partner Ivy.
“I feel like it's actually something that exists a lot, but behind closed doors. The amount of infidelity in marriages is like 60%, so I think it would help everybody if we accepted that many people don't fit into the monogamous structure.
“Then we could start learning how to shape other options in a healthy, supported and guided way.”
Societal and social prejudice are obvious challenges for non-monogamous people. Perhaps even more so for those who have children or come from particularly conservative families. But I was curious to hear from Pippa about the interpersonal challenges they might have faced in their triad relationship.
“The biggest challenge is definitely trusting that when your partner is experiencing love by someone else, it doesn't mean that they love you any less. But it goes against all of the conditioning that we have in society and it's really tough to rewire.”
“The moment that trust is broken (or challenged) it's much easier for feelings like jealousy, comparison and possessiveness to appear, all of which exist in a lot of ‘normal’, monogamous relationships too. They're just so much more available when you're dealing with multiple partners.”
Particularly at the beginning of their relationship, Pippa said it was hard to really let Ivy in. But eventually, letting go of any sort of hierarchy allowed them to cultivate a more balanced dynamic.
“It started off with us as primary partners and Ivy was a kind of ‘add on’. But we had to let down those walls for our partnership to really flourish.
“We all live together now. We share one bed and rotate every night, to keep it fair.
“Stepping away from that notion of one primary relationship helped us find an equal, supported wholesome flow where no one is above anyone else.”
I asked Pippa if there are particular lessons from her own experiences that she might be able to offer as starting advice for people looking to explore ethical non-monogamy for the first time.
“Emotional intelligence and maturity is absolutely essential”, she said. “Otherwise, people are going to get hurt. And a lot of people do get hurt.”
“So I would just be looking inwards. The surprising thing that comes with polyamorous setups is that when there are more partners, people think: that means less of me. But actually, in order to stay grounded while dealing with multiple relations in your life, you need to have a stronger relationship with yourself. That needs to be the foundation.”
Going back to Janet and some key observations from her many years of work surrounding alternative relationships, she emphasised that good communication is paramount, as well as being conscious of the impulse to blame others when it comes to experiencing difficult emotions.
“If there's something going on that you feel like you can't talk about, that's probably a warning sign,” Janet cautions.
“In the book, we have a whole chapter on embracing conflict that describes a lot of ways to keep things constructive and courteous. Flying into an adrenalised state where you're being irrational and needing to have the last word is no way to solve a problem.”
“There will always be someone who wants to move faster and someone who wants to move slower; you want to get to a place where the person who wants to go slower is feeling slightly, but tolerably, stretched and the person who wants to go faster is feeling a little held back. If everybody's a little bit unhappy, it's probably a really good sign.”
“‘And the other thing I would say is, you’re bound to fuck up, everybody does, and all you can do it be prepared for it when it happens.”
Reflecting on everything we discussed, I was satisfied with the context I now had for the emotions I’d felt in my brief stint in the world of alternative dating.
I could safely say that it had been less of another self-inflicted romantic catastrophe, and more of a bump in the road toward understanding a new way of approaching love.
Whether that means I will be abandoning monogamy entirely and diving head first into the unknown - I’m not so sure.
But I do believe that the tools, lessons and principles shared would be of benefit to any kind of relationship, monogamous or not.
Writer & Curator