I’m in an open (and loving) relationship

 I’m in an open (and loving) relationship

By David G. McAfee and Holly Samel


 I belong to a minority group of people that many others think of as immoral or “sinful.” Members of this group often looked at scientific evidence, as opposed to cultural norms, to reach their current position. People in this group are also regularly forced to conceal or disguise their views for fear of judgment based solely on (undeserved) social stigmas. I’m not talking about being an atheist, childfree by choice, or even a feminist… I’m talking about the fact that I’m in a non-monogamous, “open,” relationship.

What does this mean?

An open relationship could mean just about anything, as it is interpreted by the participants, and non-monogamy refers to a whole host of lifestyles and relationship dynamics. For me, however, it’s pretty simple: I am socially monogamous and sexually open. I have a long-term partner to whom I am dedicated, but I’m not limited to one woman sexually. I don’t have multiple girlfriends and I’m not going to marry anyone – let alone have more than one wife.

This isn’t what every non-monogamous person does, but it’s what I’m doing now and I am happy. I take proper precautions to avoid sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies, all people involved are consenting adults who are made aware of the situation, and it has actually brought me closer to my partner. If we are happy, safe, and more honest in life, then nobody will care what we do, right? Wrong.


Publicly acknowledging my open relationship is still new to me–I haven’t really spoken to many people about it and I only changed my “relationship status” to reflect the change a little more than a week ago. Even after such a short time, however, I’ve already had some interesting responses. The first notable message was from someone who said he and his wife are themselves in an open relationship and that “being able to articulate this without stigma is often difficult.” I immediately thought of the similarities between the negative stereotypes associated with non-traditional relationships and those atheists face in many regions – and how I might be able to help.

The second jarring reaction I received after I mentioned non-monogamy as “natural” was from a Christian apologist with a podcast. In response to what he called an “endorsement of non-monogamous relationships,” the apologist said, “Add that to the list that includes things like abortion, infanticide, incest, etc.” He continued to compare non-monogamy, consensually sharing multiple sexual or romantic bonds, with bestiality, sex between humans and non-human animals.

In case that wasn’t bad enough, the third response I’ll mention really missed the mark. This comment came from a Facebook friend who saw my relationship status change and implied that I was seeking sexual favors online. He thought the fact that I was honest about the type of relationship that I have, and that my relationship isn’t similar to his traditional paradigm, meant that I was soliciting my fans for sex. He even compared my status change, which was for the sake of transparency and is only visible to my friends, with Richard Carrier’s recent blog post. In that entry, Carrier, an atheist author who is polyamorous, asks his fans if they want to go on a pre-planned date with him.

Needless to say, I was confused by the onslaught of assumptions and accusations. I have never lied to my partner about my feelings and I’ve never acted unethically by treating my fan page like a dating website, so it’s difficult for me to see these as anything more than uninformed attacks. In fact, in my mind, I’m not doing or saying anything that crazy. I’m simply acknowledging what scientists have known for a long time: human beings don’t naturally mate for life.

What does science say?

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, recently pointed out that infidelity “lurks in your genes.” He noted that, while for some people one partner is perfectly fine, for others “sexual monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.”

“Sexual monogamy is distinctly unusual in nature: Humans are among the 3 to 5 percent of mammalian species that practice monogamy, along with the swift fox and beaver — but even in these species, infidelity has been commonly observed,” Professor Friedman wrote in a piece for the New York Times.

Noted relationship advice columnist Dan Savage has a similar view, also rooted in scientific understandings of human biology. He told astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent interview that, “we are not naturally monogamous; it is a difficult struggle for us.”

“No primates with testicles our size are monogamous, sexually monogamous,” Savage said. “The truth is if you make a monogamous commitment to someone you love, you will still want to have sex with other people. You will refrain from it. It will be difficult.”

Savage went on to reference sex writer Chris Ryan in saying that, in many cultures, adultery is met with the death penalty. We can’t say monogamy comes naturally to us as a species if we have to kill to enforce the rule, he argued.

“Well, no other species has to be threatened with death to do that which comes naturally to it,” Savage told Tyson during the interview. “We don’t point guns at dolphins and say swim. Right? But we point guns at each other and say don’t cheat.”

Forget what you’ve been told.

A lot of people are more comfortable sweeping subjects like this under the rug. They think that, because we have always been told things are one way, that there are no other options. But studying other regions of the world will tell you that many things are cultural and not so black and white. In many cases, we are governed not by facts but by social lies: rules, codes of conduct, or ideas that guide how we behave but are based on self-deception.

For example, do you think the color pink is really a feminine color? Do you agree that other cultures might find it masculine or even gender neutral? The fact is that we are told pink is a “girl” color and that blue is for boys, but those perceptions come from marketing – not reality. It is now a powerful connection in our minds, but that doesn’t make it an objective truth.

“Cheating” is another social lie – this one formed as a result of our jealous nature. We are told our loved ones are our property, that we shouldn’t share them with anyone else, and that cheaters deserve the worst possible punishments. These ideas are reinforced by movies, television, and other media, and are attached to religious views and marriage vows. These pre-conceived notions of what it means to cheat have even caused millions of divorces and even murders. But I don’t “cheat” on my partner because I don’t think we have to use society’s definition. I think cheating should be defined by the participants of any specific relationship and be based on desires and comfort levels.

Savage argues that social lies that surround cheating exist because we are given unrealistic relationship standards from day one.

“What we said, what we believed, what we’re told as children, is one day you’ll grow up and fall in love with someone and you’ll make a monogamous commitment to them, and that means you’re in love with them,” Savage said. “And when you’re in love, you won’t want to have sex with other people.”

But we know that, for many people, this just isn’t true. For them, no matter who they are with, sexual monogamy will always be a problem. Because humans are among a number pair-bonding animals that often have sex outside of their partnership, Savage and others often refer to us as a “monogamish” species.

Why speak out?

Non-monogamy is extremely common among humans and throughout the animal kingdom, but that doesn’t stop people from treating it like a perversion. In fact, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans find marital infidelity “morally wrong.” That is higher than the percentage of people who opposed polygamy, human cloning, and suicide, according to the poll.

Savage says the negative stereotypes are reinforced by the fact that we only hear about the bad non-monogamous relationships and not the good ones.

“If a three-way or an affair was a factor in a divorce or breakup, we hear all about it,” Savage wrote. “But we rarely hear from happy couples who aren’t monogamous, because they don’t want to be perceived as dangerous sex maniacs who are destined to divorce.”

With all the negativity surrounding non-monogamy, despite the fact that it is such a natural and recurring concept throughout history, many people have decided to hide their true colors to satisfy the moral majority. But that doesn’t really solve anything for anyone else in that position. It won’t make it easier for them to talk about the issue because the social stigma remains strong. When asked why it’s important to speak out about this topic, I can’t help but think back to a quote from Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist:

By telling people you don’t believe, you’re making it a bit easier for the next person who has to. You are making it that much easier for the next generation and helping to change the (very false) perception of atheism as something that is anti-god or even pro-evil. More than anything else, coming out as an atheist gives you the opportunity to educate believers — to show them that it is entirely possible to be morally good without believing that we are being policed by an all-knowing deity.”

I think similar reasoning can be applied to this subject.

I cheated and this is my punishment.

I cheated and this is my punishment.

35 responses to “I’m in an open (and loving) relationship

  1. Sin is a silly and harmful concept. Shame is a ineffective and harmful tool. It is troubling that they are two of the major social tools promoting “normal” behavior (whatever that is). Thanks for sharing, being honest, and promoting transparency and vulnerability. You’re a force for greater good y’all.

  2. This is great. I also recently tackled this subject in a blog post, and I too was quite heavily inspired by the remarks of Dan Savage. We need to have more open and honest attitudes about sexual exclusivity. Here’s my blog if anyone is interested: http://jamesrodkey.blogspot.hk/2015/03/the-absurdity-of-monogamy.html

  3. Consenting, informed adults. Nuff said.

  4. Thanx for sharing and letting ppl know they are not alone in their desires for sex outside of marriage. You are lucky to have found a woman amenable to it. I was married to such a woman who, tho she never had sex with anyone else while we were married, understood if I wanted to. The only rule: “Don’t bring anything home – no diseases and no babies.”

    I got infatuated with two women while married but never acted on it. I let my wife know about the one because I was so turned on and her only concern was how it would affect our relationship. I told her there would be no relationship with the other woman and she told me to go to her and get it out of my system. I didn’t because it just wasn’t worth pursuing but this kind of freedom within a marriage just makes it stronger for me.

    My wife and I had a relationship and fun sex. Having sex with others is just sex. Oh, I did have sex with a couple guys while married. My wife also knew that I am bisexual.

  5. I view “cheating” as a betrayal of your loyalty to your partner, not necessarily sexual (though it can be). It has to do with the covenants you’ve made with your partner and may or may not include monogamy (though for many of us it does). For instance, I had a co-worker who tried to tell me deeply personal things about his wife that were hurtful. I stopped him because I considered that a significant betrayal.

    I’m not surprised you’ve received some odd feedback because many people have been “cheated” on in some respect and they may not be able to separate it philosophically.

    I would not use Dan Savage as a resource though…cringe…he has written plenty about sex that borders–or crosses–into coercion. Each partner has a voice–not just the one who doesn’t want to be monogamous (speaking of Savage, not you). Someone shouldn’t be “guilted” or “threatened” into any sexual behavior or lifestyle that doesn’t resonate with them.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. I would comment on FB, but you have a couple henchmen that show up there the minute anyone says “David may possibly not be right about x” and jump all over them (which is weird, because I know you are able to defend/explain yourself).

    Whatever consenting adults do with each other is all right with me. But the first paragraph strikes me as a little douchey. Nobody I know has gotten into an open relationship because they “looked at scientific evidence”, and the very fact that you mention that as a *reason* they “reached their current position” insinuates that your kind of relationship is somehow “evidence-based” and others are not. Please, dude. I could just as easily make the anthropological argument that humans are serial monogamists (they have several monogamous relationships back-to-back based on their life stage/needs) using examples from social anthropology (the last thing I read on this was Helen Fisher…and no disrespect to Dan Savage, a guy I heartily respect, but he is not a scientist).

    The point is, it doesn’t matter. I don’t understand why you have to pretend like you evaluated scientific evidence in order to decide on an open relationship. You both want to do it, so you do it…it works emotionally, personally, and sexually for you. Like every kind of relationship, it doesn’t work for everybody, but I’m afraid the idea that yours is somehow more valid because science is kind of obnoxious. And there’s scant evidence that “open relationships” have been the human norm over the centuries…sure, it’s happened, and humans are not sexually faithful by default, but we do tend to be pair-bonders, and that has meant monogamy for a time or other forms of “closed” relationships a lot more than “every man/woman for themselves, but I’m coming home to you”, which seems to be your thing, and good on you.

    I guess I’m wondering why you feel you need to justify it with a few science cherries. This is a thing you do in your relationship, and it works, and there are a lot more people in unconventional relationships than Americans think. All true! And good for them and you.

    • Exactly my thoughts. Thank you.

    • I know your comment is a couple months old, so the point may be moot to you. Nonetheless, I want to share my perspective. I get that you don’t begrudge the consenting choices made by other adults, and I find that refreshing. I struggle to understand why you find the mention of science to be “douchey”. First, you are actually incorrect. There are some of us who DID take the time to study the science before choosing a non-monogamous lifestyle. My husband and I did. Furthermore, within Poly communities, the science is no secret.

      So, you point out that there are people who made the choice to have an open relationship, without scientific research. You’re right. I’d even go so far as to say this is the case for most. Does that mean the science is not a factor for those folks? I’d strongly agrue the science IS a factor. There are many things we choose on own, only to later learn there is a biological connection to our choice. I’ve had an extreme craving for salt my whole life. At the age of 30, I was diagnosed with a congenital defect. Part of the condition requires the affected person to need an extremely high level of sodium in thier diet. My craving is explained. Yet, I did not know this when I was stealing salt from the shaker in my grandma’s kitchen, at 5 years old. Does that mean science had nothing to do with my choice? If course not. Clearly, the science was effecting my natural impulses prior to me even being aware of them.

      I do not, at all, see how David comes off as believing his relationship is more valid, because he was aware of the science prior to making his choice. Nor, do I understand the logic in assuming that someone else is “pretending”, with no actual evidence of dishonesty. The science is real. We are not biologically designed to be monogamous. With that said, we are an extremely varied species. Certain traits manifest differently, depending on genetics, environment, etc.. So, one person may strongly desired monogamy, and occasionally foster a little fantasy about a coworker or celebrity, but never have desire to act on it. There are also though of us to find our lives to be more harmonious in a committed relationship without monogamy. And, there are also some who absolutely don’t want a committed relationship at all. They’re all variations of the same biological fact. And there isn’t a scenario that’s more valid than the others.

      It’s very important for this topic to be discussed. And, science needs to be part of the discussion. If we can better understand each other, and accept the differences that exist between us, it can only serve to build overall happiness. There are far too many people trying to force themselves into society’s expected relationship structure, and it’s creating a lot of pain for everyone. In addition to the misery of trying to shove away your basic instincts, there’s the guilt and shame of believing you’re somehow deviant. Not to mention, the horrid pain that is created for the other partner, who believes that they have somehow failed to be “enough”, because their partner strayed.

      • @Tanya

        I really liked what you had to say! 🙂

      • Okay Phil let me spell this out for you a little more clearly……When you say science let’s face it you really mean biology, animal kingdom. Science, biology and the animal kingdom to justify things can be used to to justify gang violence over turf. Their areas marked in manners similar to animals marking their territory, another animal moves in violence erupts often leading to death. Next example pedophilia, daughter gets her period at 12, in the animal kingdom she is now legally ripe for breeding. Have at her boys, Biology indicates she is mature enough to be had. There is no consent in wildlife. Rape, incest, apply here as well. How about cannibalism? Perfectly fine in the animal kingdom and often found in fish, fowl, insects, and some preliterate humans. How many mothers would get off scott free after killing their children? Because nature infanticide happens all time. Biology indicates this okay as well. Should we use biology to justify these thing?

        As humans with our big brains and sense of morality we can decide right from wrong. Consenting adults have the ability to say yes this okay no one is going to get hurt by my actions. In the animal kingdom there are consequences that are unseen by these acts. This thread is not about biology this thread is about non-monogamous relationships. But think about biology, think about nature. Think about all the things that can be justified when you say look to nature and what can be justified when you say that.

      • #1: I replied to Tanya – not Anya
        #2: I didn’t say anything about science
        #3: This entire thread is not about animal biology
        #4: I think you should double-check ALL aspects of your posts *before* hitting the ‘Post Comment’ button.

  7. Philip Bannor

    Dude, firstly – kudos to you for being so open about yourself. Secondly, I think people should remember that you’re the SAME logical, reasonable and sane person you were last week, before you made this announcement; it changes nothing.
    Thirdly – live your life. It’s YOURS – only you can live it. And you only have ONE life to live. You’re being honest, and harming no-one. If people cannot handle that, then it’s THEIR problem, not yours.
    Yours in reason.

  8. In regards to the 2013 Gallup poll which found that “91 percent of Americans find marital infidelity ‘morally wrong.’” I think that perhaps the question asked could have implied a mutual agreement of monogamy between two partners and one (or both) breaking said agreement without the others knowledge or consent, to end the monogamous part of the relationship. In essence it may have implied lying to one’s spouse. Or perhaps the people answering the question may have believed the question implied such. Abet I could easily be wrong. And as I look at the actual numbers which go along with the question, with 7% thinking it’s morally acceptable, 91% thinking it’s wrong, 1% depends on the situation, and 1% not a moral issue, I think there should be a larger percentage in the “depends on the situation” category. But this of course is heavily influenced by my personal biases. As for myself, I think if one enters a relationship under the pretence of being completely monogamous and then ‘cheats’ and continues their relationship under monogamous pretences without their partner’s knowledge, that they’re not leading a productive lifestyle in regards to their relationship(s) and that it is unnecessarily cruel to lead their partner on in such a fashion. But I do also recognise that it is difficult to be open about preferring to be in relationships other than monogamous ones in our society today. And that, with so many societal pressures and ideas concerning marriage and monogamous relationships in general, people will push themselves to fit into these socially accepted categories even if they don’t fit.

  9. There is really no such thing as“normal” behavior as everyone is different. Being at peace with ones self is the right way (what ever that maybe).

  10. I get this. It is difficult. I have been in a single relationship for many years. I have had infrequent encounters with other women (i am a straight male) two to be exact. In 40 years. Im not looking and by now it is becoming less of a problem. But i can see how honesty in relationships can cause both good and difficulties.

  11. Amy Frushour Kelly

    What hurts the most in infidelity is the lying and betrayal. The judgment. If there’s communication flowing both ways between the couple, sex outside the relationship is possible with minimal or no hurt feelings, and can bring the couple closer together. As you said, it’s not for everyone. But if both partners are open and sensitive to one another’s feelings (and sexually responsible), it sounds like a good thing for many couples.

  12. Jim Schneider

    I am in a 15-year-and-counting sexually open relationship with my PERFECT wife, and we are absolutely crazy over one another. As we are older these days than we were when we struck up this relationship (I am 65, she is 55), we are pretty much sexually inactive these days- BUT, the option ALWAYS exists for both of us, and as a result, we have found that our feelings about this have drawn us even closer to each other than we might be otherwise. There is NO jealousy in our relationship, and we see this as a huge positive. We have no reason to ever lie to, or to ever conceal anything from, each other. We both are convinced that this fosters an even more intimate, trusting relationship between us. Frankly, we aren’t concerned with what others may think of us, or of our relationship. Very simply stated, we are delighted that we found each other, and that we share such a strong, intimate relationship, to which our attitudes regarding sex contribute a great deal. Others are obviously free to do as they wish, but we have found what works PERFECTLY for the two of us!
    (We are both atheists, and we are big fans of yours. We are ALSO big fans of- and are EXTREMELY PROUD of- Danny Savage, who just happens to be our nephew {Jim’s late sister, Judy, was his mom}!)

  13. Open relationships are fine, as long as the main partner is not neglected and is treated respectfully.

  14. The bottom line is however beyond all the explanations, is that the underlying emotional dynamics underneath an open relationship are essentially as shallow as an Ozark gene pool. People in open relationships haven’t lost anyone in their life, or had to fight for their life, or for anyone else’s, or faced losing the ones they love most. They’re spoiled, dorky, shallow people who are alienated to any respectable depth of passion. So if you want to be in a relationship with someone who shags with zero passion and doesn’t care for emotional depth, then by all means enjoy your open relationship, because I’d be out there still looking for the real thing too.

    • Judgemental much? O_O

    • I see your point, although not all sexual activity has to be “meaningful” or deep. Have you never had a one nighter with someone you liked but couldn’t see any relationship potential? Nothing wrong with the ol friends with bennies kinda scenario, however I just know more people who are not capable of this than are. When all of us are raised with healthy self esteem, healthy early childhood attachments and healthy egos etc, then I will be more confident that this lifestyle choice is a viable option for more people.

  15. Thank you, David, for being so brave in coming out. Hopefully, this will foster a fulfilling and constructive discussion on consensual non-monogamy within the Atheist/Agnostic community.

  16. You’ve madeit clear that there’s no deceit involved, and you are all ‘consenting adults’, so I don’t see any problem – no-one is hurt is except those who choose to be. I’ll admit that when I started reading, I had the stereotype of the philandering male in my mind; but you say you aren’t, so good luck.
    But the stereotype, to me, is the man taking advantage of possibly gullible women: those I’ve met have deceived, and thought they were clever. It’s clear that does not apply here. I see no moral issue here whatsoever.

  17. Using biology to justify things is a terrible idea. Humans have big brains and a sense of morality. If you want to be in a non-monogamous relationship and all parties are aware, fine. Don’t point to biology though and say this is “ok-handshakes everybody!” We can also look to biology and justify infanticide, cannibalism, murder, rape, territoriality….etc. I find anyone that argues for biology in the case of not being monogamous as looking for a short sighted means of screwing around and aren’t looking at the bigger picture. Consenting adults, who the hell cares what you do in the bedroom. Just don’t justify it using biology or you open the doors for a plethora of ills that happen in nature. We are above that.

    • You’ve got a good point. I agree that using science to back up my social sexual choices is kinda a slippery slope and a little naive. Because like you said, following “normal” or natural human behavior can steer us in all kinds of crazy directions. But I also agree with David in that it seems that many many people don’t seem to be monogamous, so what’s better- cheating by lying and betrayal, Or having an explicitly honest open relationship that both partners agree on? I think it’s awesome IF all parties agree that it’s what’s right for them. But I also know a lot of people who would agree to it and then feel hurt by it anyway if their partner strayed. Although jealous feelings may not be considered so “enlightened” they are very normal and you just can’t blame people for feeling threatened or jealous. It’s built into our wiring for survival. I think there is something to be said for jealousy and how it acts as a protector of the family unit. Also,this whole subject changes if you have children.

  18. But marital infidelity /is/ morally wrong. It is wrong to lie to your partner(s). Having an open or poly relationship is not marital infidelity so long as all partners are aware of the situation and accepting of it!

  19. You should have quoted a primatologist, not a psychologist, because while he’s correct about mammals, he’s incorrect about primates. Primates are around 30% monogamous.

    Open relationships are not cheating, but if you make a commitment to be monogamous, you are betraying your partner. The key is honest–with yourself and with your partner. If you’re not honest with yourself and your partner, you’re going to have a bad time.

    One final point: anyone who thinks monogamy is all that exists in religion, especially the Abrahamic religions, has not paid attention to either how some Christians sects live or how Muslims live today, and has not read the Bible. There are many examples of men with multiple wives both in the present and in the past. Adultery is a religious construct. You can have as many partners as you want, as long as you marry them, as far as religion is concerned.

  20. Pingback: Polyamory | Hillside

  21. Thank you, David. I will integrate your research into my own at http://www.hillside.co/?p=9179 … with due credit 😉

  22. Question for you. Did you start your relationship as non-monogamous or was it something you two talked about and changed later on during your relation with each other? And what do you believe is the best way to go? Of course I understand this will be an opinion !

    It has always been something that interests me, however I feel like I’d have jealous reactions, which sucks…

  23. phonaesthesia

    Choosing to be poly is the difficult choice. Everyone has feelings of jealousy, choosing to subject oneself to th and deal with them instead of hiding from them by refusing your partner meaningful realtionships is the difficult choice. More power and strength to you.

  24. I have no problem with what adults do consensually. It doesn’t interest me. I think that the problem lies with some people trying to force monogamy on themselves when they really don’t want to.Unfortunately, they usually team up with someone who IS monogamous and that is where the trouble starts.

    It would be very beneficial if people could start by being honest with themselves and then honest with people that they date. If you really do not want a monogamous relationship, be firm about that from the get go. If you really DO want to be exclusive and monogamous long term, be honest about that.

    People hurt each other with lies, not with sex.

  25. 91% of people agree that marital infidelity is wrong. I think marital infidelity is very different from open relationships and polyamory. With the latter, everything is out in the open and communication is (supposed to be) taking place. With marital infidelity, it means that one partner is assuming the couple is monogamous while the other is seeing other people without admitting it. And yes, deceiving your partner is wrong because it is disrespectful.

    • Yes, exactly! I think infidelity is horrible. By ‘infidelity,’ I mean acting outside the relationship boundaries that you have with your partner, though. So people in an open relationship aren’t committing infidelities.

  26. I’m coming to this article late, but, wanted to add my thoughts on it. There is nothing natural about monogamy (or celibacy); one has to be disciplined enough to maintain them. Males were designed to have as many orgasms with as many people as possible. That is simple biology, period. I’ve been with the same man for over 34 years and we were monogamous for a lot of those years, but, eventually agreed to an open relationship. I love him even more than we met, but, let’s be honest…the thrill is gone, sexually. Being diabetic, my “top” days are over with (ED issues), but, being a versatile gay man, I just channeled my “skills” in other directions. We are very happy and will be together until the inevitable occurs. He’s the only relationship I’ve ever had, and can’t imagine my life without him.

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