What is emotional monogamy?
Ever since my book on open and monogamous marriage came out in 2017, I’ve had a steady stream of men and women — Queer and hetero — contact me for advice on how to make an open relationship (e.g., non-monogamy) work.
An open relationship often feels like a balancing act: you want to be close to your partner and have great sex with other people. You want to have both trust and passion in your relationship. You want excitement and comfort in your life. You want Superman in bed but Clark Kent at tax time, the excitement of sex with several — or many — people, but also a strong and loving connection with your partner. You don’t want your main relationship to become sexless, yet you don’t want your hook-ups to become too emotionally demanding.
That’s quite a balancing act, isn’t it? In every relationship, the balance between sexual expression and emotional connection periodically shifts. These shifts are especially strong and frequent in open relationships.
“Emotional monogamy” is my phrase for being emotionally committed to your partner while not necessarily sexually exclusive. For many of my clients, this is the cornerstone of their open relationship. Your partner is your No. 1 person and vice versa. The two of you will be there for each other, no matter what life sends your way. You obviously care for and love other people (friends, family, colleagues), but not as powerfully as you love your partner. That’s emotional monogamy.
When I meet a couple who are considering an open relationship, one of the most important questions I ask them is: “Can you separate sex (physical expression) from love (emotional connection)?” Why is that so important? Because a couple that can do so is likely to find an open relationship fairly easy.
Let me give you a good example: Alex and Eleuterio are a Gay male couple in their late 30s. They have lived together for two years and were talking about getting married; specifically, they were considering an open marriage.
Alex: “I used to be a real slut. I was on a bunch on hook-up sites and had lots of sex. But I never felt any connection to any of these guys, until I met Eleu. Although we met on Grindr, I knew he was special. Up until meeting him, it was easy to separate love and sex. With him, they go together. But I still get horny when we both work a lot and barely get to see each other.”
Eleuterio: “I work as a personal trainer at a gym. Guys are always hitting on me, and since being with Alex, I always say ‘no.’ But do I want to say ‘no’ to every single guy for the rest of my life? Not really. I love Alex; he’s my man, but I also want to have fun with other guys.”
A couple that cannot separate love from sex — or finds it difficult to do so — is likely to find open marriage to be a bumpy road. Janna and Francine are another couple I’ve worked with. When I first met them, this is where they were:
Janna: “I want to have an open relationship because I really like sex. But I have this history of falling in love too easily, especially after I’ve slept with someone. I don’t know how this open relationship thing will work for me.”
Francine: “I love sex, but I’m very insecure. It would great if I could have sex with other people, but knowing that Janna is doing it would make me crazy. I know it’s selfish, but I want her to be monogamous, so I won’t be insecure, while I get to do what I want.”
These two had some major challenges to address to make their open relationship work. In couple’s counseling with me, they worked through their individual issues and — today — their open relationship (now a marriage) is a happy one.
In part II of this article, published in the next issue of LGBTQ San Diego County News, I’ll talk about how every couple in an open relationship needs to balance the love and sexual energy they give to each other with how much emotion they allow themselves to feel for their sexual partners.
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.