Open Relationships, Infidelity, and Cheating

I’m generally in favor of anything that gets more discussion of sexual and relationship diversity into the news, but the recent allegations by Newt Gingrich’s second wife about his demand for an “open marriage” after having an affair for six years has highlighted the general confusion about what these words mean.

For example, W. Bradford Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project, wrote in an opinion piece:

[I]n the United States today, women are significantly more likely to express opposition to infidelity and significantly less likely to engage in it. In the 2000s, only 10 percent of married women, compared with 16 percent of married men, reported that they had been unfaithful to their spouse, according to the General Social Survey.

So a society that came to tolerate open marriage would probably end up with more women than men being put into the kind of uncomfortable position that Marianne Gingrich describes. And that’s unfair to women.

See what he did there? He equated infidelity and open relationships. I don’t know whether he’s simply confused about the differences between the two or whether he’s pursuing an agenda. But whether he’s ill informed or being deliberately misleading, this is the kind of thing that continues to confuse the issue.

In a way, what this really comes down to is whether you believe that there’s one way to define a committed relationship or whether you think it’s possible to design your own. In the more generally accepted model, a committed relationship is demonstrated by following certain rules, most of which are predetermined. And of course, sexual monogamy is usually at the heart of the definition. Sometimes, that’s explicitly discussed, but more often, it’s assumed because it’s part of the overarching cultural model.

What makes us think that there’s only one way to make a commitment to another person? Why can’t we sit down with our partners and decide which rules will work for us?

Some people have argued that some sets of rules are more “natural” than others? But I have to ask: what’s more natural? Only touching the ball with your hands (like in basketball) or touching the ball with everything but your hands (like in soccer)? The rules define the games and there’s nothing to keep us from creating new games by choosing new rules.

That’s the problem with Wilcox’s thinking. (Well, one of them. The fact that he’s pushing monogamy because “it’s better for women” should give anyone with an interest in gender equality pause.) He doesn’t understand that infidelity doesn’t mean that you have other sexual partners. It means that you’re not following the rules. If your rule is monogamy, then yes, having other partners is cheating. On the other hand, if your rule is “other partners are ok, but tell me first,” then as long as you follow the rule, you aren’t cheating. In effect, Wilcox is telling a basketball player that they’re cheating because the aren’t playing by the rules of soccer.

Similarly, Wilcox assumes that open relationships are equivalent to having a revolving door of lovers:

Open marriage is also likely to be a terrible idea for children. A growing body of research suggests that children are harmed when they are exposed to a revolving cast of caregivers and partners. For example, a recent federal report found that children living with one parent and an unrelated romantic partner were about 10 times as likely to be sexually, physically or emotionally abused, compared with children living with their own married, biological parents.

I personally know quite a few parents in various kinds of non-monogamous relationships and none of them are introducing their children to a string of lovers. Some of them are in multiple long-term relationships and their kids know their parent’s other partners. Some of them have casual partners but they keep their home life separate from their sex life. Some of them have friends as well as lovers who might or might not be introduced to their children, while still maintaining a constant family structure. Lots of ways people do it, but one thing they have in common is the desire to take care of their kids by keeping the family life as stable as possible.

And in any case, Wilcox’s example of a parent living with an unrelated romantic partner doesn’t tell us anything about his overall claim that “a revolving cast of caregivers and partners” hurts kids. His shaky logic only makes his confusion worse. But by invoking the safety of women and children, he probably manages to distract readers who are unfamiliar with non-monogamous relationships.

Unfortunately, a lot of people follow Gingrich’s path and only discuss open relationships after having cheated or lied to a partner. In my experience as a sex educator, the best time to bring up the subject is after you realize you want to and before you’ve broken the rules. Not only does that avoid the extra drama created by the deception and revelation, it also makes it much easier to craft new structures. It’s rather like avoiding going grocery shopping when you’re hungry- if you’ve ever done it, you know how the immediate desire affects your decisions. It’s much easier to make good choices when they’re part of planning for the future rather than in response to an immediate urge.

The irony in all of this media discussion is that the people I know or have seen in open relationships (and believe me, I know more people in more kinds of non-monogamous relationships than most folks) is that they’re almost always more upfront than anyone else about their boundaries and more respectful of the rules and structures that they’ve built. The process of discussing what setup will work for them and planning out the rules with their partners usually gives them much more motivation to stick with them. They’re also more likely to put their cards on the table when talking with a potential partner and looking for common ground since they’ve had practice. (“You’re want a fuck buddy and I want a secondary committed relationship? I guess we’re not compatible, but I hope you find what you’re looking for.”)

That might not be the public perception, though that’s largely attributable to the fact that polyamorous people tend to be pretty closeted about it out of fear of discrimination, harassment, or loss of child custody. The more dramatic examples, like the couple that broke up when one of them wanted to open things up, are much more visible. But there are a lot more happy, healthy long-term open relationships than you probably know about.

So say it with me: infidelity and cheating are when you break the rules. If you aren’t breaking the rules, it isn’t cheating, even if your rules are different from mine.

Update: Just to be clear, I don’t think that having multiple sexual partners on a casual basis is inherently problematic. If the consent, pleasure, and well-being of all participants and everyone affected by the situation are cared for, there’s no reason why it can’t be a positive and joyous experience for some people. Children need more stability in their relationships with grown-ups than adults do, and the vast majority of the polyamorous parents I know take steps to foster that. That’s because they value the well-being of their children.

If you’d like to get some excellent advice on creating open relationships, here are some of the best guides:

The Ethical Slut: A Roadmap for Relationship Pioneers

Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships

Redefining Our Relationships: Guidelines for Responsible Open Relationships

Love in Abundance: A Counselor’s Advice on Open Relationships