I’ve written once before about open relationships and the mental/emotional puzzles that they pose, but within a very American-centric paradigm. However, I’m finding through reading The Meanings of Macho: Becoming a Man in Mexico City, that the phenomenon of negotiated open relationships and even open marriages exists in many forms outside of my insular, highly-sexualized college sphere.
In Meanings of Macho, ethnographer and anthropologist Michael Gutmann interviews men in living in the Colonia Santo Domingo, a self-built neighborhood just outside the center of Mexico City, about the prevalence of extramarrital affairs among people in the colonia, expecting answers in line with the typical image of a machismo man who sleeps around with little regard for his wife or his family. What he found, in many cases, however, is that not only are men have affairs, their wives are also getting around. And more intriguing yet, some of them are negotiating marriages wherein either spouse is allowed to have one-night stands and liasons, so long as the other partner is never brought into the house or mentioned to their spouse. Gutmann hypothesizes that a lot of this behavior is due to the surge of feminist sentiment that took root in the 1970′s in Mexico, and has allowed women to be more liberated in their own behavior. And yet, how does this explain the way spouses negotiate open marriages? It’s one thing to demand certain things from your husband- like doing dishes and making dinner- but one cannot simply demand acceptance of a practice so tied to the emotional roots of a marriage.
Gutmann doesn’t really deem to answer this, but it got me thinking about the way that open partnerships are navigated and the emotional costs vs. benefits of them. I think this Sugarbutch article gives a pretty good run-down of the way one blogger and her partner have talked out and come to an understanding of non-monogamy. What I like best about it is the distinctions drawn between different acts and their incorporations of main partners, as well as the idea of processing and outlining together what each individual incident of non-monogamy will mean.
“I know it’s possible to be attracted to or interested in more than one person at the same time, and that one does not necessarily take away from the other. Most importantly, though, I recognize that just if or when I or my partner feels an attraction, I want us to be able to talk about that, to puzzle through it, to figure out if it’s important to go sleep with that person or if flirty coffee dates or making out is enough, or if it’s a temporary infatuation, or if it should become a bigger friendship.”
In that sense, non-monogamy is really a set of decision based on mutual permission and understanding, which I can appreciate as very healthy and well communicated. But Sugarbutch also acknowledges that the “need” for non-monogamy can change.
“We’ve been talking about this, lately. From the beginning, we’ve claimed that we were open, and for a while that meant we could do whatever we wanted when we weren’t with each other, and we didn’t need to know about it. Then, as things got more serious between us, we decided we wanted to know, which (chicken or egg?) meant that neither of us were sleeping with anybody else.
But what does it mean now, a year and a half into our relationship? I guess we’re still working that out. By “regular” standards, we are open because most folks would consider things like threesomes or making out with another person potentially crossing the lines of monogamy…. And we are open because we are acknowledge that sexual desire for someone else can happen, and we should be able to talk about that, that desire for someone else doesn’t have to have repercussions within our own relationship, and that sex can be fun and playful and, ultimately, meaningless.”
So not only is non-monogamy fluid in practice, but it is also fluid in time frame. Maybe for part of a relationship- when it’s more or less serious- casual hook-ups are ok, but in another phase, sex should take place only when both partners are present, even if it includes other.
I find this fluidity attractive, but incredibly dangerous. It’s so easy for one person’s perception of an aspect of non-monogamy to change while the other’s remains static. If that isn’t addressed immediately (and it probably won’t- for feelings of guilt and restraint), the entire arrangement can backfire in one ugly, trust-destroying move. However, I like the stress Sugarbutch put on discussing each sexual decision individually, as it forces the lines of communication open and keeps them that way out of habit. When there is a problem, it will be addressed, because everything gets addressed. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this model, having not tried it, but I find it promising. And as the couples in Mexico City demonstrate, their are different forms of non-monogamy that work for everyone- you simply have to find the one for you.