“Open” Can Open Your Heart and Mind

First off, I have about 30 pages left before I finish Open: an Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy. As of right now, though, I would say the following about this book. It’s an interesting, thought-provoking, heartfelt exploration into other ways of loving beyond our culture’s narrow, traditional structure of staunch monogamy. Some of which seem to have a lot of merits and sound insight to them.

What is this book about, in a nutshell? The author, Rachel, meets and starts dating Adam, for whom she begins to develop strong feelings. She senses Adam is different from other men, a rare, more impressive, special man, so she is especially excited about having met him. He seems equally as elated about her. Yet, several weeks into their rapidly developing relationship, he tells her he’s non-monogamous/polyamorous by nature. Rachel is caught off guard and hesitant about this. The only types of relationships she’s ever been in have been monogamous. But because she really likes Adam and because the idea both scares and excites her, she decides to give it a go. This book/memoir is about her foray into and experience along that journey with Adam. It’s quite the eye-opening, shocking, fascinating, and thought-provoking one.

I suspect many people would immediately write this book off before reading any of it and think, not interested because I’m monogamous and don’t plan on changing that, and because I think non-monogamy sounds crazy, is immoral, and/or just not for me. That is likely to be a prevailing line of thought and attitude throughout our culture on this topic.

I would, however, challenge people with that knee-jerk reaction to still give the book a read.

Why? Not necessarily to change your mind but, instead, to expand it.

Nowadays, we tend to cling tightly to whatever opinions and knowledge we currently hold, dismissing and disagreeing then with anything beyond the narrow bubble of our own opinions and current beliefs.

This is quite limiting. It’s also self-righteous and stunted thinking. And it results in missing out on a lot of information that is just as valid, if not even more valid, than the information you currently have. So that’s one reason to read this book. Simply for a perspective and relational experience quite different from your own and from the mainstream “norm.”

Here’s another thought: while most of us claim monogamy is our value and preference, and this is seemingly portrayed on the surface of our lives, many people do not actually live easily in strict monogamy over the course of their lives, even though they’d likely say they do.

Allow me to explain…

Think of all the love stories in literature, television, movies, and more, as well as in real life, that involve someone developing complex, strong feelings for someone other than their partner. Even while, at the same time, still feeling much love for their primary partner. It happens all the time. It’s a main storyline in our culture for a reason: because it’s realistic and reflective of the reality of the human heart.

Consider the high rates of divorce. Then consider all the people who stay married but who are not flourishing within it, and might feel somewhat stunted, suffocated, bored, resigned, etc. Then consider all the people who stay married but cheat somewhere along the way. Additionally, consider all the people who have cheated but who still love their partner quite deeply at the same time.

So, you see? Strict monogamy doesn’t really work quiiiiiiiiite as well as we seem to think it does for a lot, lot, lot of people.

We as an American culture tend to get awful preachy about monogamy in word, but our behavior does not really reflect this much of the time.

That’s also why this book is worthwhile. It offers a different idea for how we might think about love, and before you get all freaked out about this, again, it is good to read perspectives different from your own, purely for that reason alone. This whole mindset in our culture of, “I have my opinion and my knowledge, and anything contrary or contradictory to that, I am rejecting and not even considering,” is the opposite of wisdom, it’s the opposite of bravery, and it’s the opposite of open.

Personally, the idea of non-monogamy interests me on an intellectual level, but I don’t know that I want to actually delve into and live it as a lifestyle. That may change at some point. Right now, though, I am in a happy, monogamous relationship. Yet still, I read this book and found much worth in it. You can garner the same worth from it too, even if you’re in a monogamous relationship, and even if non-monogamy is not something you feel interested in.

Lastly, one more reason to read it? The story is a gripping one. It certainly kept me turning the pages. It’s engaging and interesting.

Now, onto the actual book.

There are several insights in Open that I found thought-provoking and excellent.

This was quite the conversation between the author of the book, Rachel, and her new boyfriend, Adam, for whom she was developing strong feelings:

“But since we’re talking about it, you should know something else about me.” So here it was. I readied myself. “If you were to become that partner for me, the one I want to share my life with, I would never restrict you.”

“What do you mean, ‘you wouldn’t restrict me?'” I asked cautiously.

“I mean that you could still date and sleep with other people, even fall in love again. I don’t want to restrict my partner’s experiences,” Adam said, maintaining firm eye contact, speaking slowly like he was delivering good news in a new language. “If you were my primary partner, I would just need to feel privileged and know what’s going on in your experiences outside the relationship. As long as you were honest and safe, you would be free. Free to do whatever you want.”

My stomach dropped. “So you’re polyamorous,” I said, flatter than I’d intended.

“Well, I don’t really like labels,” he answered. “It’s just about the way I want to be in a relationship, not really an identity. But yes, I’ve been in non-monogamous relationships before. The rest were mostly monogamous, but I’ve realized this is the way I want to be towards someone I love. I don’t want my insecurities running my partner’s life. I don’t want to control someone in that way.”

Another insightful passage references the book Sex at Dawn and talks about the evidence that points to early hunter-gatherer societies being communal and mostly unconcerned with paternity. It wasn’t until the Agricultural Revolution- and it’s concern for personal assets- that women’s bodies became property to keep strict boundaries around. According to Sex at Dawn’s authors, early evolutionary theorists in the 1800s projected their social norms of monogamy and patriarchy onto their theories- but there is overwhelming evidence that we evolved as socially promiscuous animals. There are more than 300 species of primates and none of them who also live in complex social groups with multiple adult males (like our two closest genetic relatives- bonobos and chimps) are monogamous. In fact, very few animals are- only 3 percent of species even pair bond, let alone monogamously.

Not even penguins and swans are sexually monogamous, as is often rumored. In fact, of the few supposedly monogamous birds and other mammals, infidelity is present in 100 percent of species examined. We tend to project the social construct of monogamy onto animals who also pair bond and raise young together, which is not the same thing as monogamy.

Some of the points that Rachel Krantz, the author, makes both via her own insights through experiencing non-monogamy, as well as via her in-depth research that went into the book, include a freedom of bodily autonomy, that one should be free to make the choices that feel right for them in their life, and that real love should not be depending on strict, rigid, stringent parameters and lines around one’s sexual activity. That real, nuanced, deep love for someone is far more than this and should not be dependent on this, your partner following certain rules and staying within a narrow box related to physical stuff with only you.

One example I personally thought of for how weird we can be about this as a culture: Miranda, one of the characters in Sex and the City. When she finds out that Steve, her husband with whom she seems to have a loving, good marriage, had sex with someone else, she throws him out. That’s it. They’re through. Simply because he stepped outside the strict guidelines related to sexual/physical acts with only your partner, so now everything else about their love and relationship is tossed aside. She didn’t think about all the other worth he brought to the table as a partner and love, because he misstepped in this one realm, the sexual. What about the fact that he’s a great dad? Or that he makes he laugh all the time? Or that he is her closest confidant and someone she genuinely enjoys being around? What about the fact that they love each other? But because he violated that singular aspect and expectation we have of our romantic relationships today, life-long staunch, strict sexual fidelity with only us, she decided he was no longer worth being with. All of the other good between them was invalidated for her, because he engaged in a sexual act with someone else. When you really think about it, that is super extreme, black and white, narrow, fearful thinking. It’s exclusionary thinking, as in “this OR that,” totally lacking any nuance. It’s harsh, possessive, and some might argue, unreasonable in how sky-high those expectations are, with zero room for error and no flexibility.

Get this. Roughly 22% of people in America have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives, but cheating is quite prevalent. In 2013, women married to men were roughly 40% more likely to report cheating on their husbands than in 1990, and an estimated 20-38% of people will cheat in their lifetime. And that is only based on the numbers of people who admit it, so most likely, the number is much higher.

Ponder this: Despite that a lot of us cheat, and despite that a lot of marriages end, and despite that a lot of marriages endure but grow stunted or feel not totally happy, we still condemn cheating more than ever, always claiming how “immoral” it is. Yet, based on the numbers and data, it’s clear that a high number of people have trouble maintaining the standard of such stringent monogamy, that a lot of people are struggling with the oppressive system in place, and that maybe the strict, unforgiving nature of how we are told to conduct our romantic relationships nowadays is not the most realistic for many of us…and maybe this has nothing to do with morals but instead, with being human.

Another interesting point: For ages, adulterous women have been treated as if their sexual autonomy is a form of theft from the men who they “cheated” on. Common punishments have included being stripped naked and shamed before the town, banished, stoned and flogged, burned, made to miscarry, and killed. All while adulterous or non-monogamous men were seen as a given and nothing of the sort happened to them. Pretty interesting contradiction there. This suggests the point that monogamy is more about controlling women, their bodies, and their sexualities, rather than men’s.

A thought-provoking quote: “Monogamy is a way of getting the versions of ourselves down to a minimum. And, of course, a way of convincing ourselves that some versions are truer than others.” – Adam Phillips, author of Monogamy

During a scene in the book which Rachel, the author, is sitting between her boyfriend, Adam, and another man she is having a physical relationship with, Mo, she reflects, “I’m alive. Dare I say it, modern? Yes, but also somehow ancient. Like a biblical rewrite where things are even. It felt so communal, more natural than pretending the entirety of my body or attraction could or should belong only to one man. The fun tension of feeling both of their pulls and having to hide none of it.”

Adam, the boyfriend of Rachel, is doing academic research about the psychology of romantic and sexual desire- specifically, on the importance of triangulation. “Like, there being three people?” She asks him. “Often, yes,” he says. “It’s one of the most common stories, the love triangle. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lolita, The Age of Innocence, Twilight, The Hunger Games. But triangulation is also just sometimes an outside obstacle, maybe not even a person. It can be a war, for instance, or a physical distance. But if we believe we have someone in every single way, we often cease to want them as much sexually.”

On that note, plenty of studies have proven that women are particularly affected by both lack of novelty and living with a partner. A study of over 11,500 British people aged 16-74 found that lack of interest in sex was more common among women in a relationship over a year old. If they were living with their partner, they were even less likely to be sexually interested. Other studies have found that women’s desire drops drastically after ninety months- but men’s tends to hold relatively steady. (Women who did not live with their partners seemed to avoid as steep a decline).

Something that Rachel, the author of the book, talks about is how alive her close friends who practice non-monogamy seem to be in their relationships. How attracted to and totally engaged with one another they still seem to be, even after decades together as a couple. She described a number of non-monogamous couples she meets, and how most of them seem unusually, undramatically happy and hot for each other. She also reflects that she does not know any monogamous couples who seemed so aware to each other after so many years in, who still looked at each other in that craving way.

She talks about how the couples who were able to negotiate just the right amount of danger, as a team, seem able to maintain both a companionate and lustful bond. She points out that two people don’t have to think or feel or want the same things, but that navigating the trouble that can arise from this very issue seemed to be a part of each of the non-monogamous couples deep attachments to one another. It seemed to be the shared commitment to go through the thorniness of these freedoms together, no matter how difficult, and to do so honestly, lovingly, and openly.

One long-time counselor/therapist and expert in polyamory, Kathy, with whom Rachel speaks numerous times throughout the book, reflects that in her experience, with the hundreds of polyamorous couples with whom she’s worked, “For most people, some degree of discomfort is inevitable in polyamorous relationships. It’s unrealistic to expect your partner being with other people to bring you joy or arousal. What matters, though, is that the arrangement is tolerable, healthy, and still worth it for all people involved.” These difficult emotions can be handled and worked through, if both people want and choose to do this. And, to some degree, they cannot all be dissipated and might just need to be sat with.

Rachel, the author, describes wanting to find a way to have long-term commitment and freedom as well. She doesn’t want cheating, nor does she want the usual of jumping from relationship to relationship, as with serial monogamy. She also doesn’t want to end up muting her true desires with one person, only and forever. I imagine that a lot of people likely identify with these conflicting desires and feelings, but end up choosing monogamy just because it seems “easier.” Even if/though over the long-term, it leaves them wanting, and in not insignificant ways.

A thought-provoking quote: “If you’d rather deal with jealousy than boredom, choose non-monogamy. If you’d rather deal with boredom than jealousy, pick monogamy.”

A thought-provoking metaphor: “In a good relationship, we are like two fingers of the same hand. The little finger doesn’t suffer from an inferiority complex and say, ‘I’m so small. I wish I were as big as the thumb.’ The thumb doesn’t have a superiority complex, saying ‘I’m more important…You have to obey me.’ Instead, there’s a perfect collaboration between them.”

Different couples that Rachel, the author, interviews and/or becomes friends with, who she discusses in her book, all seem to embody and talk about how emotionally close to and loved they feel by their primary partner. Here’s how: They feel like a priority, safe and like they are number one to their partner, which is a huge aspect of why non-monogamy works for them. If one of them no longer feels comfortable with something, the breaks are pumped. Meanwhile, as non-mongamy is explored, both partners make sure to pour their heart into making sure that primary relationship stays quite loving, close, and feeling good. That both of them feel deeply loved, safe, and secure. This is a major part of why it’s then able to work for them, with regards to things like jealousy. Even if there are then moments of jealousy, because they both feel so loved by each other, and generally secure otherwise, they are able to work through it and still feel and remain close to one another. Then, the non-monogamy becomes more of a fun thing rather than a threat or something that one of them is doing separate from one another. Then they still feel like a close-knit team.

One more quote for mulling over: “Our attempts to make sense of sexuality are a wishful fiction. We’re trying to come up with a narrative to explain things that are determined by a huge number of complex, impactful factors,” says Dr. Ley.

Anyway, that’s a taste of the book, for your pondering and potential reading pleasure. I’d highly recommend it.

Something interesting about this particular story is that eventually, Rachel, the author, comes to the conclusion that her struggles and problems during this relationship (her relationship with Adam is her first experience with and foray into non-monogamy) have not actually been with non-monogamy itself, but with the lack of respect and lack of teamwork she feels with the person she first practices and experiences non-monogamy with (Adam).

At numerous points throughout the book, Rachel wonders if her struggle is with non-monogamy itself, or something else. As the reader, it also takes a nuanced eye to parse this out. The reader too may find themselves wondering, is it non-monogamy that is the reason this whole thing is going wrong and is the reason for the dysfunction? The knee-jerk reaction for many will even be to assume this, that yup, all of this is proof that non-monogamy is going to be a hot mess. But as one reads further along in the story and examines it with a mindful, careful eye, an emotionally intelligent reader will see that, in fact, the issue seems to be largely with Adam. That, in fact, Adam seems like a fairly controlling, dysfunctional, possessive partner after all.

So, what’s neat about this story is that Rachel discovers non-monogamy is for her, and that it is a way of loving that holds much merit for her, even though she’d been hesitant about it at first and had never tried it before, but that the person who introduced her to it (Adam) was not a healthy model of this and is not the right long-term partner for her. She grows and changes, becomes someone different with regards to loving, as a result of this relationship and this man, Adam, even though ultimately, he isn’t actually a healthy model of non-monogamy. She is able to understand and gravitate both towards non-monogamy and to a healthy model of it as she sees what an unhealthy one looks like via her experiences with Adam. As she witnesses comparisons of other non-monogamous couples she grows close with and sees her relationship with Adam in contrast to these, this is when she begins to understand. She learns a new, more expansive, more fulfilling way of loving from Adam, but then has to let him go in order to experience a truly healthy way of living it.

It’s a great story! I recommend everyone interested in relationships, love, and sexuality check this one out.

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