Say what?! Response to "My wife wants to open our relationship. Is our marriage over?
No, it's not.
Misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and misinformation were my ‘take aways’ from Dr Cheryl Fraser’s blog, My Wife Wants To Open Our Relationship. Is Our Marriage Over?. I have been in practice for 16 years and in private practice for the last 5 years. As a sex therapist and an educator, I strive to be sex positive and inclusive for all communities. I believe the best way to achieve this is by not imposing my own values and beliefs onto other's. Fraser's blog had several impositions.
As an identified “expert,” Fraser’s voice and opinion is highly influential. By general society, her preconceived notions and assertions about open relationships are taken at face value.
Many of the clients that contact me for therapy have attempted to get help two or three times without success. Unfortunately, this happens too frequently. They are seeking guidance, support, and understanding from a therapist. In my experience, clients are not wanting nor needing to be moralize or stereotyped because of their choices.
With open relationships, research is increasing. Visibility is increasing. Curiosity is growing. Society is discovering new ways of relating that are different than monogamy. This is not denying the validity, value, or importance of monogamy. Consensual Nonmonogamy [CNM] need not be compared to monogamy as inferior or superior; it’s a standalone relationship paradigm.
My response to her blog challenges specific assertions and provides more accurate information. At the end of the blog, I provide a list the research references that informs my opinion.
I believe many of the assertions from Fraser are based on common myths about open relationships.
Open relationships can be healthy and thriving relationships.
“Almost all of us want monogamy…, “ is an assumption that disenfranchises those who identify as consensually nonmonogamous. Fraser assigns this belief to all of society. For me, this implies open relationships are a less than desirable option. Transitioning from monogamy to nonmonogamy is an entire paradigm shift that can bring forth a significant amount of self discovery.
Jessica Cooley Couples Transitioning from Monogamy to Nonmonogamy offers a fantastic explanation of the transitioning process.
There are many open relationships that have remained intact and those that have not. This not be catastrophized. Relationships ending or transitioning is a natural part of the human experience. “Othering” those in open relationships as inferior or flawed is stigmatizing. I have found focusing on a relationship's sustaining values, such as honesty, trust, and respect, helps ALL relationships to remain intact. I encourage anyone, prior to condemnation of open relationships, to investigate and form their own opinion.
Recent research (1)(2)(4) estimates the number of people, in the United States, who identify with consensual nonmonogamy, range from about 0.6% to about 5%. And, over their lifetime those estimates range from about 2% to 23%. Therefore, more than likely, as a therapist, you will find yourself providing services to folks who identify as CNM. People in open relationships are prevalent and relevant.
Lets expand the definition of consensual nonmonogamy. It’s not all about sex.
Fraser reduces consensual nonmonogamy to a sexual exploration and experimentation. A prevalent myth about CNM is that it’s solely about sex. This is a limited perspective and shows a lack of understanding about CNM which has numerous dynamics. These include and are not limited to swinging, polyamory, and others.
The definition given in the blog does not consider or erases asexuality, solo polyamory, relationship anarchy, polyfidelity, and others. If you don’t know how to define an open relationship how are you able to speak with confidence about the relationship structure? Or, how are able to educate and help a person with a major life decision as a therapist?
There are more inclusive definitions for CNM. In this journal article (4), the authors state that consensual nonmonogamous relationships take on many forms and what ‘unites these relationship structures is the individuals involved agree to nonmonogamy and communicate openly to one another about this decision.” Everyone giving permission and agreeing to nonmonogamy is essential.
Unwanted sex is NOT consensual.
The blogger further demonstrates a glaring lack of understanding by encouraging people to have sex even when it’s not wanted. Ironically, a few paragraphs before her ‘sex is like exercise analogy,” she states “as with any sexual behavior, don’t agree to something you don’t want.” A few paragraphs after she writes “get going even when you don’t feel like it, and afterward you will always be glad you did.” This is the attitude that promotes nonconsensual sex. Out of all the irresponsible messages being conveyed in this blog, this is the most damaging, violent, and violating. I cannot imagine a world, that would promote this therapeutic intervention.
We are not deviant.
Kink is a dark fantasy that needs to be shared. BUT, if you want to open your relationship, you are failing at marriage. Kink is an erotic template that need not be a “dark sexual energy.” The decision to discuss an open relationship is not a sign of a person failing at their marriage or taking the ‘easy’ way out.
There is a lot of work to be done to promote competence and responsibility in our helping profession. As professionals, we need to be accountable to all clients. More importantly, we need to hold each other accountable.
I offer a few tips and suggestions when deciding if a therapist is for you in my HuffPost article How polyamorists can find a good relationship therapist
1) Balzarini, R.N, Dharma, C., Kohut, T., Holmes, B.M., Campbell, L., Lehmiller, J.J., & Harman, J.J. (2018). Demographic comparison of American individuals in polyamorous a monogamous relationships, The Journal of Sex Research, 00 (00), published online 1559-8519.
2) Rubel, A. & Burleigh, T.J. (in press). Counting polyamorists who count: Prevalence and definitions of an under-researched form of consensual nonmonogamy. Sexualities.
3) Link, B.G, & Phelan, J. (2014). Stigma power, Social Science & Medicine, 103, 24-32.
4) Levine, C.L., Herbenick, D., Martinez, O., Fu, Tsung-Chieh, & Dodge, B. (2018). Open relationships, nonconsensual nonmonogamy, and monogamy among U.S. adults: Findings from the 2012 national survey of sexual health and behavior, Arch Sex Behav, 00, (00), published online 1439-1450.