My Partner Wants an Open Relationship
July 23, 2013

Dear Theo,

My partner and I have been together for about two years.  I've never loved someone as much as I love her or felt so committed to making a relationship work.  I know she would say the same thing.  In our time together, my partner has slowly come to understand herself as being bisexual and has begun to identify herself as "queer."  It's been really powerful for her to understand her identity better and to get in touch with her attraction to women. 

She now feels like she wants to explore her sexual and romantic desires for women even further.  She says she'd like to try an "open" relationship in which we will continue to love one another and be committed to one another, but in which romantic and sexual monogamy will not be required or expected. 

I'm afraid that a polyamorous relationship could be disastrous, but I'm even more afraid that monogamy would be stifling to my partner and, ultimately, to our relationship.  Theo, whatever we choose to do, how can we make sure that we are moving forward with respect and love for one another?

Yours,

Polywantsananswer

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Dear Polywantsananswer,

Brother, you are in a bind. Whenever I don't know what to do, I go to the Bible. Jesus is not much help in this case, but what about some of the others in the cast of characters?

There is plenty of evidence of polyamory in the Bible. It's what traditional marriage, among people with land and resources, was for eons. Among the most famous Biblical poly folks were Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; and later, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, all in the book of Genesis.

Polyamory didn't work out so well for them. Hagar found herself friendless and alone in the desert, fighting for her life with her and Abraham's young son Ishmael when Sarah proved too jealous to deal with the arrangement. And for the juiciest cat fight in the Bible, look to Leah and Rachel. They plagued Jacob for decades with their bickering, and even threatened that they would die if marital justice was not served.

You could argue that this is not a statistical sample. You could call this anecdotal evidence. I know some people claim to have good luck with polyamorous relationships. I know they can argue intelligently for the happy cohabitation of a Christian sexual ethic and polyamory.

But it comes down to this:  two people and one relationship is hard enough to manage. When you add a third person to the mix, all of a sudden there are three relationships. Four people is six relationships! With each extra person you add—with their wily, wayward hearts, inscrutable minds and insufferable libidos, the index of possible disastrousness increases exponentially. It's no wonder a lot of the early Christians wanted nothing to do with sex.

But ultimately, this is not about sex. This is about power. Sooner or later, someone is going to feel left out, thrown over, slighted, ignored, less-than. Or just insanely jealous.

I'm not making a case against desire. Humans are animals, and we rut like any other animal. It is natural to feel desire for multiple humans. But what we decide to do with those feelings has serious consequences for anyone to whom we've made a previous commitment.

Speaking of which, what exactly does it mean when she says she'd like to "try an open relationship in which you will continue to love one another and be committed to one another"? How can she possibly make that guarantee? And what is commitment—commitment to what?

Is she really respecting you by asking you to be in an open relationship, if she knows that your own heart is not in it? I'm sure she never intended to hurt you. I'm sure she wishes she'd had an inkling of her sexual orientation before you two fell in love; that she could have fully explored this aspect of her being before her relationship with you closed off some possibilities.

It is important that she understand who she is, and how she is made to love. But is it really fair for her to do this while keeping you safely on the hook?

There is no halfway about this decision, to stay monogamous or be polyamorous. Your relationship can't be a little bit open.

Whenever I marry a couple, there are two questions I ask them that pertain here. One is: "How important is sexual fidelity to you?" The second is, "Even if you can't imagine it now, what will you do in the future if you discover you or your partner is attracted to somebody else?" These questions are not a moral referendum—there is no "right answer." Or rather, the right answer is when the answers match. The couple has to be on the same page, or they are doomed.

You and your girlfriend are not on the same page. It might be time to break it off. To give your girlfriend adequate time and space to live into her newly emerging identity, while not waiting at home for her, wondering what is happening with her heart and body somewhere else. It could be that this large, strange and wonderful universe brings you back together someday, as equals in power, on the same page.

You already know what is likely to happen otherwise: your heart will get broken. To quote another advice columnist, sager than I: Have the courage to break your own heart.

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

Who is Theo?

"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds - one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.

Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to deartheo@ucc.org. Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.

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