Esquire / Getty Images

IT’S THE ONLY foolproof way to have an amazing sex life: define the sex and define the amazingness yourself. Nobody knows this better than nonmonogamists. Their world is almost exclusively mapped out solipsistically by the participants themselves – the swingers and open-married and polyamorists. I’ve met them. Luis in Boston. Alan in San Francisco. Sami in D.C. Raúl in Queens. Jason in Nashville. Haoyu in Seattle. Danny in Brooklyn. All married. Spoiler alert: We did more than meet.

Actually, I think of them as wedded but not married – bonded and bound, but certainly not partnered. In our conversations about their significant others, there’s little sense of equality or fairness – and so no fullness. Mostly convenience, habit, and obligation. “Maybe habit and love are the same thing for some,” said one, who told me he proposed to his long-term, sexless companion because “we got too comfortable with each other.”

Beyond anecdotes, these people are about 4 percent of the U.S. population. (The population of cheaters is double that, at 8 percent.) That’s according to a 2018 analysis of the 2012 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. They’re middle-aged: 35- to 54-year-olds make up 47 per cent of Americans in open relationships. And although LGBT folks constituted only 7 percent of the studied population, they accounted for 42 percent of consensual nonmonogamists.

That queer tilt is essential; these 35- to 54-year-olds have lived in a world of queer celebration and success since their high school and college heyday. Some of that success is tentpole (national legalization of sodomy in 2003 and gay marriage in 2015, as well as the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009), some of it is hard-won barrier breaking (gay rappers and country music artists, lesbian Republicans, trans athletes and firefighters, and nonbinary actors and models), and then some of it is icing on the cake (gay dads in Super Bowl commercials, “menicures,” and 15 years of RuPaul’s Drag Race). Over the decades, a bridge formed between LGBT and straight culture, built brick by brick with the most lowercase queerness there is: straight guys in pink suits, gay bros and nerds, and Harry Styles being a cover boy for gender fluidity. That bridge will get you to the heart of Straightdom, but the first stop on its shores will be waterfront condos filled with nonmonogamists playing the most grown-up version of “never have I ever.”

And, as with everything after 2020, all of this has been upended and accelerated by the pandemic’s lockdowns, pods, work-from-home pivots, and other intimacy curveballs.

Among men (who make up 61 percent of folks in open relationships), open relationships were reported by 3 percent of straight guys, 23 percent of bisexual guys, and 33 percent of gay guys. (An additional 24 percent of men identifying with “other” sexualities were also in open relationships.) Participants in open relationships reported lower overall happiness and lower sexual satisfaction than their monogamous counterparts. And although there is a presumption of privilege in nonmonogamy – white, affluent, college educated – the 2018 study found more of a mixed bag. Yes, open relationships had the highest percentage of participants reporting incomes of $100,000 or more. But racially, those who identified as “Other, non-Hispanic” were more than twice as likely as white participants to report being in an open relationship.

In our conversations about their significant others, there’s little sense of equality or fairness – and so no fullness. Mostly convenience, habit, and obligation.

Overall, these folks frolic in a word salad of euphemism and self-aggrandizement: consensual or ethical nonmonogamy and polyamory that’s open, free, fun, casual, experimental, swinging, playful, uninhibited, progressive, transgressive, go with the flow, and good vibes only. Who wouldn’t want a friend with benefits?

But all of this experimentation entails a lot of failure. In the name of validating feelings and fighting stigma, the nonmonogamy conversation has succumbed so much to cheerful awareness building and utopian how-to advocacy that it lacks recognition of awkwardness, bullying, compersion, conflict, cuckolds, deception, fatigue, fears, foibles, inequality, jealousy, limerence, pettiness, resentment, or selfishness. In short, it lacks humanity.

Of the roughly 1,000 male clients he sees in a year, New York sex therapist Paul Nelson estimates 100 are in nonmonogamous relationships, and of those, he says, “the vast majority are doing it badly. Almost all. Out of 100, 90 or so are struggling with their relationships.”

He recalls a client who went to a friend’s home for a party and was lured into a threesome by the friend’s wife. The client, who after many years still regards the friend as close, told Nelson that it opened up a Pandora’s box and ruined his life.

It’s the bleak and sometimes uncaring shadow of nonmonogamy. A 2017 New York Times Magazine cover story called “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” was given the boilerplate glow-up—“pure fun,” said the Times of a wife’s first kiss in 24 years with a man other than her husband—but the scenario laid out in the article “was not ethical nonmonogamy,” says Nelson. “The wife was just having an affair, and the husband was putting up with it. It infuriated some in the ethical nonmonogamy world.”

For all their purported whimsy and abandon, new nonmonogamists are a far cry from their wilder predecessors of yesteryear, who were chancing sexual roulette with “civilized adultery” at key parties as far back as 1965. Today’s nonmonogamists prefer much more intention for themselves.

And yet, “There’s not a lot of planning for the other half,” says Misha McShane, a sex therapist in Colorado Springs, about unavoidable challenges like jealousy and its cousin FOMO in nonmonogamist partnerships. “There’s lots of conversation about the person going out on an encounter with a new person. Much less about the person staying home. Make a plan for them. Plan for jealousy. Plan for resentment. Plan for regret.”

Consider the woeful entry into nonmonogamy that a 26-year-old bisexual man described to researchers: “I was more forced into it than anything else. I had to choose what was more important: my partner and our relationship or my own monogamy. I chose my partner.”

Yet for all its messy complexity, nonmonogamy does offer rescue from regretful sexual wastelands. After a paramour told me he hadn’t had sex with his companion for more than a decade, I pushed back: That’s more than a decade of birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, Valentine’s Days, New Year’s nights, gay marriage legalization, and just untold giddy, horny evenings and weekends. They never celebrated any of that with sex? Not even out of boredom in the pandemic lockdown? The response was quick and haunting: “No … there is nothing celebratory about it.” Nonmonogamy didn’t just salvage his relationship – it salvaged his dignity, too.

Courtship and marriage – and maybe even love itself – have unquestionably entered an era of new narratives. It’s not just Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith – who aren’t exactly pioneers given that privileged folks have been doing this for decades.

Dolly Parton is in a “nonsexual” open marriage. Twenty-five years ago, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich thought he could balance spearheading a conservative renaissance with his own aspirations for an open marriage. And the happily-turn-a-blind-eye camp has made open marriage work for centuries but, just to give it a year, Shirley MacLaine was doing it in 1954, and FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt were doing it in the 1930s while he lived in the White House and she lived in a Greenwich Village apartment with a girlfriend.

The difference is that now ordinary folks are getting nonmonogamous. The sexual privilege has gone mainstream. Dan Savage coined “monogamish” in 2011, and recently The New Yorker joked that “poly people just have a scheduling fetish.” (The Wall Street Journal quickly mimicked that joke in a headline.)

But the flip side of this recent coming-from-all-corners boom is how many new conversations and conflicts have the clumsy, lacklustre feel of unrehearsed scripts or karaoke when, just after the chorus, mumbly awareness dawns of how little the full lyrics are known. A decade ago, so many folks treated gay marriage and the queering of eroticaintimacy, and togetherness that it brought with it as a kind of social masterpiece – a landmark law! a cultural watershed! a political Rubicon! – when, in reality, it was merely our sexual future’s first draft, scribbled in tweets or on late-night talk show hosts’ cue cards, desperate for revision.

Dig deeper into nonmonogamy research and it’s often deeply flawed, relying almost exclusively on minuscule sample sizes and unreliable survey data. (People are terrible at accurately describing their own sex lives.) The stats at the beginning of this story are solid. But the research field is rife with sloppiness and shadiness.

study last year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior was based on just 63 participants scooped up at the polyamory subreddit with the lure of $25 gift cards. Or take the 2016 analysis of group sex by game theorists who studied “expert orgiasts.” “I chose to actively engage myself with the practices of the community I studied, instead of remaining a passive observer,” wrote that orgy study’s lead author, whose Instagram account is mostly cocktails. A prominent advocate of nonmonogamy has published an extensive study of Ashley Madison data that the company itself promotes and that is unsurprisingly not peer reviewed.

Nonmonogamy didn’t just salvage his relationship – it salvaged his dignity, too.

The science of love and relationships – estrogen and testosterone compel lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin spark attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin manage attachment – is probably the one science that folks from all political parties and religions feel comfortable or even proud denying. It’s what a Harvard report called “total eclipse of the brain.” It is the essential denial of people as biochemical beasts.

What that boils down to is this: Nobody cares about other people’s relationships except inasmuch as they affect their own. Relationships are – surprise! – deeply personal and infinitely complicated.

Like any adventure, nonmonogamy requires lots of planning and conversation. “The people who are not willing to do the drudgery don’t end up opening their relationship,” says Stefani Goerlich, a sex therapist in Detroit and the author of With Sprinkles on Top: Everything Vanilla People and Their Kinky Partners Need to Know to Communicate, Explore, and Connect. “Before you can open your relationship, you have to make sure that relationship is in a good place. It never works as a fix. And in order to do it right, in order to do it well, as an open relationship you have to do the work.”

Goerlich highlights the best path forward: “When people are negotiating nonmonogamy, they outline their noes: all the things they won’t allow or tolerate. What we want is a lot of conversation about what we are okay with. Rules will always be broken. Agreements can be explored and celebrated.” And she flags that the punishment for things gone awry can’t be a return to monogamy: “If you are your partner’s punishment, then we have gone sideways somewhere.”

She says a lot of her clients come to her because “after embracing the fantasy of open relationships, the reality can also just be disappointing.” The fractured landscape of confusion is a bit like Protestantism, she says. “Sure you know the difference between Protestants and Catholics, but we’re using the same word to describe Baptists and Methodists and Lutherans without really understanding the differences.”

It can be confusing, to say the least.

“You have to live in the paradox of I want stability but I want to be free,” says Nelson. “I want to be a kinkster but I want to be accepted in the vanilla world. Exploratory and grounded. Idiosyncratic and relatable. Adventurous and safe. Guarded and understood. Radical and comfortable.

“It’s very difficult to hold that tension, to live in it,” Nelson adds. “And that’s the problem of nonmonogamy: It’s a constant tension.” It can work, but successful nonmonogamy is more of a possibility than a probability.

There’s a scene in the blockbuster Oppenheimer where the title character explains quantum mechanics to one of his students by first asking, “What do you know about quantum mechanics?”

The student replies proudly, “I have a grasp on the basics.”

Oppenheimer’s retort is quick and cutting: “Then you’re doing it wrong.”

Then he goes in: “Is light made up of particles or waves? Quantum mechanics says it’s both. How can it be both? It can’t. But it is. It’s paradoxical.”

Nonmonogamy is also a paradox. So is queerness. And when these paradoxes tangle in close proximity, a surreal magic emerges.

Call it quantum queerness. It doesn’t just unlock your inner protagonist weirdo. It triggers a chain reaction – a perpetual-motion machine of intentional awareness that broadens, deepens, and heightens not just the complexity of reality but also the sheer immensity of possibility. Despite all the enthusiasm for no-strings-attached sexuality, nonmonogamy intimately mirrors string theory, the idea that the universe is threaded by quantum connectedness.

Nonmonogamy is guided much more by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle than by blunt, ham-handed concepts like pride or the simplistic math of “love is love” when we all know that not all love is loving, not all love is given or received, acknowledged or validated. There are black holes of love that trap our inner light in sexless stasis.

Consider the tethers between nonmonogamy and Clarke’s third law, a sci-fi dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Queer people haven’t just advanced laws and rights and who can win an election, an Olympic medal, or an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, or Tony. We have advanced fundamental concepts of consent, honesty, identity, family, friendship, inheritance, intimacy, kink, love, marriage, mental health, partnership, propriety, trust, truth, and vulnerability.

In the ways that quantum physics guides our realities despite being outside our understanding of reality, so too does queerness guide our culture, our history, and our humanity despite its own paradoxes. None of us understands it fully. For all our proud talk of allyship and empathy, we forever remain mysteries even unto ourselves – and especially to each other.

“Don’t you want someone who can dedicate himself to you 100 percent?” a man asked me even while his own companion spends almost every night – late, until 2:00 or 3:00 or 5:00 or dawn – at someone else’s home. Nonmonogamy is paradoxes all the way down. There is an ironic machismo even in its most basic principle: My heart is bigger than yours.

If you think you understand the basics of queerness or nonmonogamy, you’re doing it wrong. If your sense of community holds no paradoxes, it’s at worst reductive and at best incomplete.

Quantum queerness is not the truth. Ditto nonmonogamy. They are constructs – intentionally flimsy, flexible, fluid. We make them up as we go along. We change their borders. We tweak their meanings. We exist as both wave and particle, energy and mass, and so every label falls apart under enough scrutiny or given enough time.

It can be too much. But anything less seems like a smaller, duller, safer universe. A flatter earth.

I especially remember a fantastic threesome where I shared a muscly Italian immigrant with someone else’s fiancé. After the Italian left, the fiancé and I showered and stayed together. He went home six hours later, at midnight, like Cinderella. But not before we listened to music. And chatted. Cuddled. Wrestled. Noshed. Kissed. Laughed. Argued. Fucked. And fucked. And fucked.

We’d been seeing each other for a while by then after talking on and off for years – my first time having serious feelings for someone who was “unavailable.” I had come to that relationship fearing Kahlil Gibran’s poem “Do Not Love Half Lovers” but instead found a fullness beyond my imagination.

I remember straddling him. He looked up at me with eyes so brave and kind and kinky and sweet. Resting one hand on his chest and the other cupping his jaw, I felt a molecular kind of touch, our atoms entwining. In that moment, he was electricity, gravity, and magnetism all in one. I’ve never felt anything so physical, such a force of physics. “You’re irresistible,” I told him. “I can’t resist you.”

His impish smile. “So don’t.” Then his gaze softened as he realized I was experiencing a first in my sex life – that most elusive and most human of all paradoxes: tears of joy.

This story originally appeared on Esquire US


Is ‘sleep divorce’ the key to avoiding the real thing?

Secrets of a long relationship? Sex, TV and takeaway food