Over the past week, I’ve devoted a great deal of time to the idea that humans are and always have been non-monogamous. Today I want to examine the possibilities and problems associated with openly practicing non-monogamy. Before I do, I must also throw in a caveat: I am not suggesting that anyone necessarily ought to practice non-monogamy. Rather, I’m offering some simple advice for people who want to think about ways to incorporate their knowledge of our “true nature” into a practical lifestyle, even if they are still open to or even looking for an exclusive relationship.
Recognize Our Existing Non-Monogamy
In many ways, we already behave non-monogamously. Especially in our younger years, we often date more than one person at a time while we’re looking for “the one.” Sometimes we like to pull the wool over our eyes and pretend that the person we just started seeing immediately dropped any other sexual partners the moment they got in the sheets with us. But deep down, we know better. We routinely “try out” new sexual partners while we’re single, and many of us see several people over the course of a few months.
So the first and easiest step towards practical non-monogamy is to call our existing practice what it really is. Many of us already cycle between non-monogamy and monogamy. What we call “being single” is just as properly called “being non-monogamous.”
Embracing Our Non-Monogamy
Once we’ve admitted that we sometimes practice non-monogamy, it becomes easier to do it safely and respectfully. I really like the idea of ditching the word “single” and replacing it with “non-monogamous.” It’s great on several levels. First, it takes away some of the stigma of single-hood. We often equate being single with failure. But there’s no failure for being in a non-monogamous phase. Second, it takes away a great deal of the shame associated with being sexually active outside of a “committed relationship.” Perhaps most importantly, it gives us a framework to discuss a new relationship honestly while escalating towards either monogamy or some other form of commitment.
I also like the idea of expanding the meaning of “relationship.” In our monogamy-culture, we generally equate “relationship” and “monogamy.” Until someone is committed to exclusivity, we say they’re just hooking up, or fuck buddies, or whatever. But the reality is that once we’ve swapped bodily fluids with someone, we are in a relationship with them. It might be a very casual relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless. (See my post from a few months ago on this topic.) Once we separate exclusivity from the concept of a relationship, it becomes very easy to see that we are already non-monogamous for much of our lives.
Practical Advice For Men
Adopting the language of non-monogamy is easier for men than women. We already play the part pretty well, but we hide it behind nebulous terminology and half-truths. According to a recent study, up to 40 percent of “couples” don’t even agree on whether they’re monogamously committed!
Changing our dating language is really pretty simple. It mostly boils down to telling the truth instead of lying. Many men seem to believe that telling the truth will keep them from getting laid as much, and perhaps it’s true to some extent, but for the most part, I don’t believe it makes a big difference. True, many women lie to themselves by conveniently not knowing a man’s intentions or relationship status, but generally, when a woman’s ready to go, she’ll conjure up an appropriate excuse to do the deed, regardless of what the man says or doesn’t say.
During a non-monogamous phase, all a guy really has to do is say something like this: “Just so you know, I’m not dating anyone exclusively right now, but I am seeing a couple of people from time to time, and they know it’s not exclusive.” It’s possible that the girl will run for the hills at that point, but it’s not as probable as you might think. If she’s really interested, she’ll probably want to ask questions. And it’s perfectly appropriate to answer them. Yes, we have sex. Yes, we’re always safe. Yes, I’m open to the possibility of exclusive dating. (Or, No, I’m not open to the possibility. Whatever is true…) No, I’ve never cheated on someone once I was committed. (Hopefully you can say that…)
Alternatively, if a guy isn’t seeing anyone, it just takes this: “I just want to make sure you know that I am not seeing anyone right now, but I am looking, so there’s a possibility I’ll be going on dates with other people while we’re getting to know each other. If that happens, I’ll always be safe, and I trust that you will be too if you go out with anyone else.”
Yes, it takes a little bravery to be this open and honest, but the benefits are twofold. First, there’s no misunderstanding during the non-monogamous phase, and no risk of anyone’s feelings getting hurt because one person thought it was exclusive and the other didn’t. Second, it allows for a clear delineation if both people decide they want to be exclusive.
By adopting this language and attitude, it’s possible for a guy to go for quite some time in a non-monogamous phase. Especially in college, it makes it easier to have real relationships based on honesty, even in the predominant hookup culture.
Practical Advice for Women
It’s a lot harder for a woman to be openly non-monogamous. The great double standard looms large. Men respect other men for having many partners, but they view women as “damaged goods” for doing the same thing. There’s a real loss of “marriage value” for women with “promiscuous” pasts. But there is hope.
Just like men, the first step for women is simply changing the language for existing behaviors. Women are just as capable of saying the same things to men. “I just want you to know I am seeing other people, but I’m really enjoying my time with you and hope we can continue to see each other.”
Ironically, at this point, it’s pretty easy for a woman to remain non-monogamous if she wants to. Check out any dating advice website, and a majority of the complaints from women are about how hard it is to get men to commit exclusively. The difficulty comes not so much from the men involved but from friends, family, and well… everybody else who loves sticking their nose into other people’s bedrooms.
The simplest way around this obstacle is probably just choosing our language carefully. “Yes, I’m seeing a couple of guys. Yes, they know.” It’s true that this simple answer won’t deflect all of the questions, nor will it prevent the inevitable push from peers telling you to make one of them commit. But it does buy a lot of time, and it also gives the woman a great deal of power. Let me explain:
Women: Take Back the Value of Sex
One of the biggest concerns women face when they sleep with more than one person is the inevitable accusation that they’re giving it up for too little. They’re taking away all their leverage and selling themselves short. But this is easily cured.
Here it is in a nutshell: Exclusive or not, always get something in return for sex. In a previous article, I mentioned the major components of an exclusive relationship that women tend to want: Social Status, Companionship, Emotional Support, Security, Resources, and of course sex, and sometimes children . There’s no reason a woman can’t demand these things even in a non-monogamous phase. Man of mine, you want sex? Ok. I want lunch, an afternoon of shopping and a movie, and my sink needs some repair. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to phrase it exactly that way, but it’s pretty easy to make the booty contingent on some boyfriend-like behaviors.
In a very real way, it’s about putting the dating back in dating. There’s tons of chatter around the blogosphere about how women are devaluing themselves to the point that they get virtually no return for sex. And ironically, it’s probably a combination of demanding too much and expecting too little! In today’s sexual marketplace, it’s generally too much to ask for exclusivity in exchange for sex, at least right off the bat. But many women seem to believe that if they’re not getting an exclusive boyfriend, they aren’t getting anything at all. And it’s simply not true.
The necessary changes in behavior are subtle but powerful. Got a booty-call buddy who only calls when he’s horny late at night? Booty calls are fine, but get something in return. “Yes, Booty-Buddy, you can come over, but only if you’ll stay here and take me to lunch tomorrow afternoon.” Trust me, most men will gladly trade lunch for sex. If your guy won’t, you’ve got the wrong guy — for a booty call OR an exclusive relationship.
As time goes on, it’s perfectly fine to demand more of non-exclusive partners. In fact, it’s quite possible to have two boyfriends at once, each of whom pays for dinner, cuddles on the couch and watches chick flicks, and takes you to swanky office parties. It’s all about setting the bar from the very beginning, and making it clear to any potential bed-buddies that the price of vagina isn’t exclusivity, but it’s never free. Never. Even while it’s still “just casual.”
The emotional support and commitment (even casual commitment) are a little trickier to get, but far from impossible. “No, Booty-Buddy, you may not come over for sex tonight. I tried calling you and texting three times yesterday because I was having a horrible day and needed someone to talk to. It was disrespectful of you to blow me off. If you expect me to be here when you’re in need, you have to be there for me as well.” Again, any man who won’t listen to a fifteen minute bitch session in exchange for sex is not worth your time for any relationship.
Once it becomes clear to your dates that sex isn’t free, but it also isn’t exorbitantly expensive, you might be surprised how much fulfillment you can get from “casual” non-exclusive relationships.
Respect the Boundaries
Of course, there’s a flip-side to non-exclusive dating. For one thing, both people must respect the other’s privacy and boundaries. We already do this in our exclusive relationships. We know that no matter how upset we are about our bad day, we can’t interrupt a business meeting to gripe. We know that Thursday is “Girl’s Movie and Margarita Night,” so we schedule poker with the boys then.
It’s no different in a non-exclusive relationship. If Friday is date night with Bob, it’s inappropriate for Joe to call or text on Friday night. If I’ve spent the whole day today shopping with Susie, it’s inappropriate for her to make a last minute date with another guy tonight.
Everyone who is non-monogamous (née single) should practice safe sex. Every Time. Without Fail. We owe every partner that respect — whether they’re a one-and-done or a candidate for monogamy or a friend with benefits. Any sex without a condom should only happen after everyone involved has passed an STD screening.
Blur the Lines
Interestingly enough, the line between monogamy and non-monogamy is already pretty blurry. What we often call “single” is really just casual non-exclusivity, and the “normal” path from casual dating to exclusivity is not as inevitable as we make it out to be. For both men and women, a little honesty at the very beginning changes our attitude, but leaves our behaviors largely intact. For women, simply demanding boyfriend behaviors at all times (which they ought to do in any case!) creates an almost instant relationship, even if it’s casual.
More importantly, it also sets the bar at an appropriate level. If someone is worthy of sex with us, they are relationship material. There is no more place in our life for someone who will only be for sex. There is no such thing as a “strictly sexual” relationship. This kind of lifestyle demands higher standards from everyone involved. Anyone who is sharing the bed with us needs to demonstrate responsible adult behaviors from the get-go. Instead of dividing our potential partners into “non-relationship material we might fuck anyway” and “relationship material we’re going to try to land exclusively,” we only involve ourselves with people who will treat us as relationship material from day one.
When we take this approach, we find that we have some level of relationship with everyone who shares our bed. From there, weeks can turn into months, and months can turn into years. If we find that one person becomes so important to us that we want to see them exclusively, then fine. If not, there’s no pressing need to fix what has never been broken. All that’s left is to ask the question: Why did I want exclusivity in the first place, and what would I get that I’m not getting now? Or, to put it even more clearly: What will I gain by dropping one or more of these people from my life?