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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Dr. Tammy Nelson. Tammy is a licensed psychotherapist, board certified sexologist, certified sex therapist, and a certified Imago relationship therapist. She’s the host of The Trouble with Sex podcast and her books include Getting the Sex You Want and a new book with Sounds True called Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement. Truth be told, when I saw it come up on the schedule that I was going to be interviewing Dr. Tammy Nelson, the author of Open Monogamy, I thought, OK, this is an opportunity for me to look at something that I have judgment about, biases about. Can I be open to open monogamy? And the answer is yes. Tammy Nelson is so balanced and nonjudgmental, and she helps us open to open monogamy. Take a listen.
To begin with, Tammy, as a way to bring you forward for our listeners, here you are, a relationship expert and a sex therapist. How did you come to focus on open monogamy as the topic that you would write a book about, that would become an educational platform for you? Why open monogamy?
Tammy Nelson: Well, I’ve worked for so long with couples who have been struggling with how to find their true north. What is the shared value that they want to come back to or come home to and over and over again. I think it’s honesty, it’s transparency, and how honest people want to be. Ultimately, I’ve found over the years that people don’t want to break up. They don’t want to get divorced, they don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. And when it comes right down to it, people really want to live in integrity—in integrity with who they are and what they want, and they want to do that with another person.
And I really feel like the definition of monogamy has changed so much over the past 30 years and that people want to stay with a primary or central partner, but they want some flexibility and some fluidity, and they don’t want to hurt each other.
TS: OK. So when you say that the definition of monogamy has changed, help me understand how you use that word and how you define open monogamy.
TN: Well, open monogamy means that you have a primary or central relationship or a spouse or someone you’re committed to, and that is your true north. That’s your priority, but that monogamy isn’t necessarily like your grandparent’s monogamy was. It’s not so cut and dried that it just means you’re never going to sleep with anyone else until you die. It may mean that you’re going to open your monogamy agreement to include a conversation about, I don’t know, looking at pornography together.
I don’t think anyone ever talked about that 30 years ago. I promised to love and honor you and tell you every time I look at porn. We have a totally different conversation now about what sexual fidelity looks like. Or do we talk about our fantasies together? Do we share our curiosity together? I think people are honoring a new level of honesty about what their sexual connection looks like.
And frankly, I think we’re staying together longer and wanting to stay sexual for longer. So people are looking at monogamy maybe as a way to find variety and adventure, but still stay together—not have to break up to find it with someone else and trade their partner in for a new one, which is a new way to look at it I think.
TS: Now in writing the book Open Monogamy, you did a lot of research and you interviewed a lot of people. Tell us a little bit about that, both the research and the interviews that you did.
TN: Yes, I talked to a lot of different people in different forms of open relationships and asked them how that worked and how they did it and what didn’t work and what were the risks for them. And some people really can manage, I think, a certain level of separateness and individuality. And some people need to know exactly what’s going on with their partner all the time. I think part of it is a personality issue, and some people can tolerate a level of disclosure that other people can’t. Some people like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationship.
I think the commonality was the real caring for each other that all the couples seemed to have. There was no inkling at all of resentment or anger. Everyone seemed to really express their relationship as a way of expanding their caring for each other. I found that it was this new level of commitment, that they really saw each other as individuals, that they didn’t own each other’s sexuality or relationship, and they found this joy in each other’s happiness. It’s an interesting way to look at relationships.
TS: How did you find these interview subjects?
TN: Well, some of them were clients that I’d seen in my own therapy as couples who volunteered to answer some questions. And some of them were as part of a sex-positive community. They gave me a name of someone else who gave me the name of someone else who gave me the name of someone else. And it’s amazing the number of people that are actually doing this now. I think it’s been going on forever. Open Marriage was a book that came out in the ‘70s and we know that people were swinging in the ‘60s, but there’s a different attitude now about open monogamy.
Open marriage back then was more a dedication to having an equal relationship; it was heterosexual, hetero-focused, and a desire to have more gender roles that were more equal. Can you please help with the kids? And can you please change the diapers? And can everybody be a little bit more equal and maybe a recognition that women wanted sexual pleasure too, which was not so evenly balanced back then.
Now, I think women are the gatekeepers of open monogamy. It doesn’t really happen unless women are the ones that say, “OK, let’s do it.” And I think that has a lot to do with how we’ve changed around women’s sexuality, women expecting to have good sex, owning their own sexuality, owning the fact that they want to have orgasms and good sex. And that’s been a big shift over the past couple decades.
TS: So it sounds to me, in your description of open monogamy, honesty is critical, not negotiable. And if I’m understanding you correctly, having a primary partner is also part of your definition. And then in the book, you go further to describe a continuum. Can you share a little bit what that continuum is of people who identify as being openly monogamous?
TN: Yes, so there’s a continuum of monogamy from, if you imagine, on the left side of the continuum, people having a conversation about, is it OK to have fantasies about something else, something or someone else, or to flirt with other people? For some people having a fantasy is a slippery slope. And if you’re attracted to someone else or you feel like, oh, I’ve been thinking about this other person, I should probably come home and tell you because it’s a craving-my-neighbor experience. And that might be dangerous to our relationship, so we should share that openly.
Other people feel like, God, if I had to tell you every time I was hot for someone I saw in the grocery store, we’d be talking all the time. But those things are explicitly talked about. Sometimes we have this implicit assumption that, oh, we should never share that. Or, of course, you’re going to tell me if that happens, but we don’t necessarily talk about that.
As part of that monogamy continuum, now that becomes an explicit thing that we agree or agree not to talk about. And people feel differently about that in a relationship, and that can change over time too. Maybe we don’t talk about it now, but at a different phase of our relationship, that becomes more important.
And then, as you go up the monogamy continuum, is it OK to have a deeply connected emotional relationship? Is it OK to have a “work spouse,” for instance? Someone you’re deeply connected to at your job that you spend all your time and energy sharing things with, but you have no energy left for me when you get home—is that something that we should talk about? Is that a risk? Is that an emotional affair? What constitutes an emotional affair and is that a breach to our monogamy? Is that something we need to talk about?
And then, if you do want to open your monogamy even further, is it OK to have sexual experiences together? Can we go to some sex party and just walk around and look at other people who are intriguing? Or even looking at pornography together, is that something you want to share? Or we start to negotiate the difference between privacy and secrecy. Is masturbation private or should we share it with each other? Does it feel like a betrayal if we catch each other? The level of transparency along the continuum is the thing that we would begin to process together, and then if you just—
TS: Let’s keep going, yes, let’s keep going. Let’s go all the way down the continuum.
TN: Yes, we’re going. We’re going to go all the way. And then if you decide, OK, well, it’s OK to have sexual experiences where you’re together, but sharing—what if you’re having sex actually physically together? Like if you have a threesome or more-some? But only if you’re in the same room. It’s not officially swinging, where you’d go off in one room and I go off in another.
I don’t know if you remember key parties from way back where people would drop their keys in a bowl, and at the end of the night, you would pick up the keys and whoever’s keys you got, you’d go home with them. It’s like a totally separate sexual experience with someone else where your partner wasn’t there. Maybe you agree that that’s OK. Maybe you agree that you can have sex with other people on vacation.
Maybe you agree to have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell relationship where you can do it, but I don’t want to know about it. Or maybe you have a relationship with other people, but you really want to know all the precursors, all the negotiations, so that you can bring that energy home.
A lot of the couples I talked to found that they did have jealousy—jealousy seems like a normal human emotion, but they almost eroticized it. It was kind of hot to think about their partner with someone else, as long as they could bring it home and talk about it.
And then all the way at the other far end of the monogamy continuum is polyamory, which is “poly” means many and “amory” means love, and it’s people that can integrate romantic, emotional sexual relationships into their current relationships, so that you could have multiple partners like a village.
You can outsource different needs in your marriage or in your committed partnership, and some people can do that quite well, and it’s really helpful to have multiple partners in your relationship. And I think people who can process a lot of feelings and communicate do it quite well. Other people try it and maybe they move backwards on the monogamy continuum because it doesn’t work. But you could go back and forth on there.
TS: Do you find that people are just built differently? Like you talk to some people—some people come into your therapy practice and they’re a different kind of person than the person who would find themselves all the way to that far end of the polyamory part of open monogamy, and other people are built for polyamory? Or do you think that that’s just more like we’ve been enculturated into these ideas by our society. It’s not really how we’re natively built as people. How do you see it?
TN: It’s so complex, people ask me this all the time. Are we born monogamous or am I meant to be polyamorous? And I don’t know if it’s an evolutionary thing or I don’t know if we’re born monogamous or non-monogamous. I don’t think we’re born knowing how to eat with a fork either. I think we learn, I think monogamy is a choice just like non-monogamy, and I think you can make that choice every day.
We have a prefrontal cortex, we can pick, we can choose, and we could practice. And some days are much harder than others whether you’re monogamous or non-monogamous. It’s really a choice and it’s really a practice and all those things are complex and difficult. I think some people really do well in complex multi-relationships. It’s like if you grow up with a bunch of siblings and you just really like to have a bunch of people around you and you do really well in groups where everyone can support you and you can share really well, you play well with others.
Some people can’t. Some people don’t like to share, they don’t play well with others, they get really jealous. They’re more introverted. They can’t imagine staying home and waiting for their partner to come home from a date. That just totally freaks them out. And other people are like, no, it’s fine. Go. I want a night off.
TS: So this whole question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot, where people are like, well, let’s talk about the human animal. And some people will make an argument, look at nature, look how many species are not monogamous. And then people say, yes, but look at these species. They are. What do you think about that when people try to look at this question from an evolutionary biology standpoint?
TN: Well, we used to always think that there were certain animals, like geese, that mated for life. And if you’re a goose person, I think you should turn off this podcast right now because I’m going to tell you very depressing news that geese, although they do mate for life—that female geese are very promiscuous. They’ve found now, with DNA testing, that they can look at the eggs under the female goose and find that they will mate with several different geese to ensure the propagation of their eggs. So they may have emotional mates for life, but not necessarily sexual mates for life.
So they might have sex with a lot of different partners to make sure they get enough eggs to perpetuate the baby eggs. But you can have emotional mates and emotional partners forever. And I think that’s pretty common for many, many humans. We’ve seen this in gay men forever and, not to generalize that all gay men are like this, but many gay men can have emotional monogamy and sexual flexibility. And now, for heterosexual couples that are struggling with it, it’s, many times, that conversation of: Can we be emotionally monogamous and have some sexual fluidity in our lives? What is that like to be connected and yet sexually open? Is that a possibility?
TS: Now Tammy, there’s a lot to talk about here, and we’re going to get into it, but I want to take a moment to share with you that before I started reading Open Monogamy, I thought to myself, God, I’ve seen so many couples open their relationships. It’s the end of their marriage. It’s the beginning of the end. They’re just doing it because their marriage isn’t really working.
So I had a lot of judgements. I had a lot of judgements and I thought to myself, am I even really the right person to be interviewing Tammy Nelson about Open Monogamy for Sounds True? I have many judgements about this from the perspective of someone who’s been married for 20 years in a closed, monogamous relationship and probably couldn’t function in a different type of format successfully based on my character formation, personality, temperament, fear, I don’t know what—we’ll get into it. Who knows? But based on who I am, I couldn’t function any differently than the way I’m functioning. I know that about myself.
But then I read this sentence in the opening chapter of Open Monogamy, and what you wrote is, “All consensual agreements between consenting adults should be normalized.” And there was a way that your book Open Monogamy really helped me drop all judgment. And I’m curious, from your perspective, how you got to this place where you’re not making a judgment about what two consenting adults decide to do. So I’d like to hear more about that from your perspective.
TN: Yes, my goal is really to help people to communicate and make explicit what they want. There are so many non-consensual, non-monogamous relationships—people have been cheating since the beginning of time. Right? They’ve been non-consensual without permission and hiding and lying and cheating, and a lot of the pain and misery in relationships comes from the dishonesty. And my theory is that the more people can communicate and be explicit about what they want, the more connected they feel.
Now that doesn’t mean they’re always going to agree on what they want, but it’s the communicating about the potential and the possibilities. A lot of people will communicate about the potential possibilities and never even act out on them, but feel closer just from talking about what their fantasy is or what they’ve thought about as the possibility.
Once the permission has been granted—“Yes, if that’s what you want, I’m open to it.”—then they feel like they never have to do it. It’s like the gates have been opened and they feel respected and honored in who they are as an individual, and that open-door policy makes them feel loved. And I think I have a lot of my own feelings about it, to be honest.
TS: Well, I want to hear about that. I want to hear about that. I want to hear about you personally, because I’ve come forward here and talked about my 20-year lesbian white-picket-fence existence basically.
TN: Yes, I get triggered by a lot of the couples that I see that are trying to make their relationship open because they’re really trying to continue their affairs. They’re just trying to make it work to justify some hidden behavior or they’re trying to manipulate their partner into opening it because they really just want to get away with what they want. What I see a lot is this second adolescence.
So suddenly you’re in middle age and the kids grow up and you’re like, “I just want to do whatever I want. Don’t tell me what to do. I’m going to come home when I want, and stop trying to control me.” And they’re texting under the kitchen table and they’re parentifying their partner who’s saying, “I don’t know what you’re doing. I’m not telling you what to do. I just want to know when you’re coming home.”
This interesting parentified adolescent thing that happens that really—people are trying to redo their adolescence. And I think that’s because we live so long now that we have time for a second adolescence; we try to do it over again.
TS: Now I want to hear more about you personally and where you are on the open monogamy continuum. But before we get there—that’s a cliff-hanger here. How does somebody know in their own relationship whether or not they’re having a second adolescence or whether or not they finally have the courage to come forward and talk to their partner? The time is finally right for this. How do we sort that out in our own inner life?
TN: I think the more adult you feel in your relationship is determined by the level of cooperation. If you’re feeling like you have to sneak around behind your partner’s back and you have to ask permission—this is not about setting the rules for you and your partner. Rules implies that they’re going to be broken or followed. And so it’s not about setting the rules. It’s more about setting boundaries for yourself and what I call “red lines.”
So red lines are like, “This is not going to be acceptable for me. I can’t deal with it if you’re going to go have sex with someone without protection.” Or, “I can’t deal with it if you want to have a relationship with someone from your job” or “I can’t handle it if our kids find out.” Those are the red lines for me that can’t be crossed, as examples.
“Boundaries are the things that are important to me, but I could be flexible about them. I can imagine that these are the things that we might want to talk about, but I’m a white-picket-fence monogamous person. But I can imagine that if you wanted to go to a sex party and walk around that I might be able to go with you, because I’m just so curious about what the hell a sex party is, and I might want to go and just look as long as we don’t talk to anybody.” That’s a boundary and a curiosity. And that’s different than, “I’m going out and I’m not telling you where I’m going and don’t tell me what to do.”
TS: Right. Well, I think the big question, of course, that comes up is, what about when I declare my personal boundaries and my partner has a different set, and they don’t line up. What do we do? Does that mean we’re just not meant to be able to stay together and continue in an open monogamous relationship, because our personal boundaries don’t line up? Or that’s when we come see Tammy Nelson for a session?
TN: Yes, so that’s where I do see a lot of people. That’s like the trigger that brings people into therapy. And we have a lot of what I call “what if” conversations. So what if we did this? What if we did that? And then we have the possibilities. So the possibilities always have problems, but also positives. So the possibility is we could go to the sex party and it could be interesting and fun. There could be a problem like you could love it and I could hate it, and I could be standing by the door going, “Come on Tami, let’s go.” Or the positives could be, yes, we could both have fun. It could be kind of interesting, and we could be curious about it and just find it like a lark, and it could be kind of sexually exciting for both of us. And then we could leave and bring that energy home.
So always talk about whatever the possibility is as having problems but also positives, so that we can look at both sides of it. Most people need to have those consenting conversations for a long time before you actually do anything. The people who do well in these kind of relationships are the people who can really communicate and really talk about all this stuff. Now, there is a wall that you hit, where you can get to communication exhaustion, where you just over-talk about things to death before you do anything. And that can be defeating for people. But I think the people that are able to discuss things openly do much better.
TS: Right, but wouldn’t you say that’s true in any relationship? Whoever you are as a human, you’re going to do a whole lot better dealing with other humans if you can communicate well. Wouldn’t you say that’s true?
TN: Yes, and I think that maybe why these types of relationships are growing in popularity is because they tend to be people who practice this. Not just like give it lip service, but really practice it. So they talk about it before anything happens. They listen to each other. They go through all the possibilities and the potential before anything happens. And then, when they do something, they talk about, “How was that for you? How was that for me? What was positive about it? What was negative? What do you want to repeat? How are you feeling? What do you need for comfort?” And then, “What do you want to do next time?” Which is not necessarily what we all do all the time—right?—in our normal relationship world. I think people who do this well are really, really pretty good at that. And I think that’s part of the reason that they do well in their relationships.
TS: OK. I need to surface—here’s my big judgment. Here we go. The one that I came into this discussion with. OK. It was interesting to me that you’re a certified Imago relationship therapist. So in my view, that means you’ve been trained by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt and their deep work about how relationships can be so healing—when there’s this type of security that you have with your partner and you can go back and do all this early repair work from whatever experiences people had in their early life. And I think the judgment I’ve had is that when you start are bringing other people in, it’s like the chalice is broken and you don’t have that same holding space for this deep healing work to happen. So I’m curious of what you have to say about that.
TN: Yes, so when I work with people that have multiple partners, for example, they can come in with like a pod of people with multiple partners. And in Imago therapy, we talk about that there’s never a coincidence that you choose a partner that you choose. We always choose someone who’s going to finish off the unfinished business of our childhood, right? So when we see people in a couple, it’s really clear that people are together because they’re healing their inner wounds and they’re growing as people.
When I see people in a group—like a pod of people who have multiple partners—I see all of their sibling issues. It’s like all of the sibling issues are triggered in that group. So not only are you dealing with all of your parental projections but now you’re dealing with all of your sibling stuff. And I think that as a society, we are moving into all of our community issues, that it’s not just about me or you, it’s about can we exist and heal as a community, as a village, as our connections to others?
I really see this as an expanded moment in our culture to look at how we relate to other people, not just how we relate to each other, but how we relate to groups, so that we can all connect in a bigger group. Maybe we can all exist in bigger, more expanded relationships. Maybe we all need that. I think in the pandemic, you felt that. A lot of us were isolated and home with a small pod of safe people, and we realized that there was a craving for more support and more connection, and maybe it is possible to have that in our lives. And I think people are working toward that, perhaps on an evolutionary level. I don’t think this would be happening if it wasn’t evolving toward something that maybe we need spiritually and emotionally.
TS: So you said open monogamous relationships are on the rise. What are the statistics?
TN: Well, it is interesting. Right now they’re saying four to five percent of everyone is in some kind of consensually non-monogamous relationship. I think it’s hard to get accurate statistics if we don’t know exactly what people are saying is a “consensually non-monogamous” relationship. And we don’t know what age groups are being asked. I think now that we’re creeping out of the pandemic and coming out of the cave and back out into the light, we’ll have more statistics on that, because we are getting some research now on what the pandemic has done to our sex lives and to our intimate relationships. I think we’re going to have more information on how people are choosing non-monogamy, because I think there is an uprising toward taking some risks outside of traditional monogamy. People had a lot of shut-in feelings and now they’re taking more adventurous looks at how they can expand their marriages. But they’re not getting divorced. They’re not breaking up, which I think is also an interesting comment about what happens in forced domesticity for so long.
TS: OK, so I’m going to circle back to my question, just because I really want to a drill all the way down if it’s OK, Tammy, with you, which has to do with this belief I had come to, previous to this conversation, that there was some kind of depth of both of healing and transformation and I’ll say love—a depth of love that’s possible in an exclusively, traditionally monogamous relationship that somehow, some of the energy would leak out of the system or something. If it was an alchemical vessel, something like that, you just wouldn’t want to ever break the vessel, break the chalice. What do you think about that? Do you think that I have just like bought into that or maybe that’s just true for some people, but also not true for others and just leave it at that?
TN: Well, I know what my clients say, or the people that I interview. One of the arguments is if you have more than one child, it doesn’t feel like having more than one child takes away from the love you have for one of them—that you can love more than one kid, and it doesn’t feel like you have to divide up the love. And that makes sense to me, I get it.
I also think that there is something to be said for the developmental phases of relationship. Before you settle down or get married, we encourage people to date around. Don’t settle down, find yourself, date a bunch of people, and then choose. And so that’s a non-monogamous time of life. And then you settle down and you bed down with someone, really, to create a family, gay or straight. It’s a monogamous time in your life to create that safety for family time. And then a lot of people will have that family period of time, and then if they have kids or they get older, there’s a period of time when the kids are older when people start to stick their head up and look around for multiple partners.
Now, whether they cheat or open their marriage, it does seem to be age-related, where people start to open again to non-monogamy. And then you get older and you get really tired and you just go back home and say, OK, I’m done. I just want to stay home with one person. So it may be that it is developmentally related. It could be that it is personality related, although they haven’t seen any research to back that up.
Some people have connected it to attachment styles— that people who are avoidantly attached maybe using it to avoid intimacy. People who are anxious and insecurely attached may not do well in this style of relationship. I haven’t really seen that. Maybe I haven’t seen enough people to make that overarching statement.
You may be right. It might be some people are just more comfortable in a one-on-one relationship and less comfortable with taking the risk. It certainly is a risk, there’s no guarantee. Even if you have an agreement that says, “We’re not going to fall in love with anyone else.” Or “We’re not going to be emotionally attached to anyone.” There’s no way to prevent that, especially if you’re having sex with someone else. You can’t really prevent the potential of falling in love with someone else.
TS: Yes, yes, for sure. Now Tammy, it’s back to you, over to you. Tell us, where are you on the open monogamy continuum, if you’re willing to share. Here you are, you’re a sexologist, you must get these kinds of direct questions. I hope is it OK that I’m asking these?
TN: Yes, all the time people are going to ask me.
TN: It’s so funny because this is my sixth book and a couple books ago, I wrote Getting The Sex You Want, which was using Imago therapy. But to talk about sex and my husband, this is my second marriage. My husband bragged to everyone that that book was totally about him, and then my next book was The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship after Infidelity. So everyone asked him, was he the cheater or was I the cheater? And so he had to tell everyone, “No, we didn’t have an affair.” That was all about my clients. And now people are, of course, everyone’s asking if we have an open relationship and what kind. And this book is definitely written with all of our practice of relationship agreement.
So every book I’ve written, we have practiced every single exercise in the books, or else I wouldn’t try them with my clients. And I certainly wouldn’t write about them. We have worked on all of these consensual agreements and they’re all based on trust and not safety. Safety can be an eroticism killer, but trust takes a lot of risk. And so our relationship is totally open: whatever the two of us agree on, whatever we want to do, whatever conversations we want to have. But right now, this time in our life, I’m so busy and so tired that I can barely find time to be with him, but we do have what I call a “living apart together” relationship.
He spends a lot of time on the East Coast taking care of his 97-year-old mother for about four to six weeks at a time, and I’m on the West Coast. So we spend a lot of time living apart. So I think an open relationship, where we agree that if we want to be with other people, we can, really works for us. I just don’t really pull the trigger because I’m too tired.
TS: Now you said this interesting thing that safety can be an eroticism killer, and I pulled this sentence from Open Monogamy that got my attention. “Don’t stay in a closed monogamous relationship out of fear.” Don’t stay in a closed … out of fear.” And yet I imagine a lot of people are afraid of what you described a few minutes earlier, which is if we open it up, either I or my partner will end up having sex with someone, falling in love with them. And then the fear is that this will be the end of something I hold so dear, so central, so sacred—and that’s a real fear. So now here I am, I’m acting with this prioritization of safety. So I’m wondering if you can address that.
TN: Yes, I think the risk of having sex with someone else and falling in love is always there, whether you give your partner permission to do so or not. And the more you talk about it, the “safer” you are.
Peggy Vaughan, who’s passed away now, but she used to say—she wrote The Monogamy Myth. She used to say, just because you got married and promised your monogamy one time at the altar, that’s not a lifelong preventative deal. It’s like saying, “I told you I loved you when I married you so I shouldn’t have to tell you. I’ll remind you if I stop loving you, but I shouldn’t have to say it again.” The reality is it doesn’t prevent you from falling in love with someone else. The permission thing is an interesting idea—that if I give you permission to be with someone else, then somehow that’s a risk.
I think it helps if you are considering any openness to consider the veto power. In other words, if either of you are feeling like this could be a little risky—“I don’t particularly like this person.” Or, “I feel really insecure about this.” Then you have the power to veto this behavior like, “OK Tammy, I don’t like this other person and maybe we should stop there.” That tends to add more trust to the relationship.
But I think what I mean by safety versus trust is we create safety for our family, for children. We feel safe the more familial we are, the more familiar, but we don’t want to have sex with our family. So the safer we are, the more familial we are, the less sexual we are.
And trust is different. Trust means we can take risks within the relationship because we trust our partner. But it also means we can push our limits and push our edge knowing that person will still be here for us. That’s scary. It’s much scarier than feeling safe, but it means we can grow. Eroticism is about taking risks. After you have really good sex, you should feel, like, a little embarrassed. You should feel like, oh my God, I can’t believe I said that. I can’t believe I made that noise. Eroticism is a way to push your own boundaries, and doing that with someone that you trust is really powerful.
TS: Now let me ask you about this “veto power,” because if I entered an openly monogamous relationship where my partner could veto someone—let’s say they vetoed this person because I’m falling in love with this person, but I’ve already taken a bite of the apple, I’m falling in love. And then now this seems like this is a setup for a pretty major conflict. They’re vetoing someone that I’m quite smitten with.
TN: Yes, that could be problematic, because that sets up that familial, parental thing of like, “You can’t date that person anymore.” So now you’re going to sneak around. You’re going to feel tragically prevented from seeing your loved one. It definitely sets up a problem. I totally understand that. And I think the more honest you are about coming to your partner first and doing what I call “preventing”—which is I need to vent and tell you that I’m freaking out because I have feelings for this person and let’s talk about it before it gets to that place.
I think that could be helpful. But again, this is a total risk. It’s just like if you weren’t in an openly monogamous relationship and you met someone at work. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re dead. You probably are going to be attracted to other people at some point in your life, and how honest can you be? Open monogamy also means that you’re open about your feelings, and you’re open about conversations. Can you be open about coming to your partner and saying, “I have feelings for this person,” or, “I’m attracted to this person and I think that means we need to talk. This could be risky. Maybe we need to have a longer conversation about what’s going on with us.”
TS: Yes. So one of the focuses of your new book is the subtitle: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement. So let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re like, gosh, the truth is my partner and I, we haven’t talked about a lot of these things. There’s a lot that’s under the surface and there’s a lot of desires I have that aren’t being addressed. I want to move forward and explore—who knows at what level of the continuum—but I want to begin exploring some kind of open monogamy agreement. What are your dos and don’ts for doing so?
TN: Hmm, such a good question. I would not start the conversation with, “I met someone else.” That’s very scary.
TN: Yes, that’s very scary or, “I’m in love with someone else.”
TS: “I listened to a podcast.” Jesus.
TN: I think “I listened to a podcast” is actually a great way to open the conversation. I listened to the Tami-Tammy podcast, and I’m wondering how you feel about open relationships or how you feel about having a more fluid monogamy. I’m so curious now what that might mean. How do you feel about that? And starting a what-if conversation: What if we did this? What if we did that? What would it be like if we did this? And have you ever heard of that? And do we know anyone that does this and have we ever seen anyone on TV? And Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith just came out and said they have an open relationship, and what do we think of them?
Really begin the conversation as a what if. Not as a when do we do it and who do we sleep with? And I really like the neighbor and your best friend is cute. I would keep all specific people out of the conversation. And I would also take away any mention of “let’s start it next week,” but really talk about it as if it’s a fantasy conversation.
TS: Now I think this notion of increased eroticism, increased sexual satisfaction, it makes sense to me that open monogamy could deliver that. I offered you my bias towards the depth and healing and transformation that I think this closed monogamy can offer. What I’m curious about is, beyond sexual fulfillment—which is a big deal—what else do you think can come from open monogamy that’s like, look, here are some of the real benefits to open up to and to see.
TN: Well, I really think that people who have multiple partners actually really enjoy the potential of finding new parts of themselves. So it’s not necessarily that people look for other partners, they look to be other parts of themselves. So finding a different part of themselves because they’re with someone else, they can bring that other part of themselves into the relationship. And suddenly, they have an expanded experience of being together. So you may be a different part with a different partner that suddenly your wife has never seen before.
TS: Right, sure.
TN: And suddenly, you have a much richer experience of each other—
TN: —that you may not have even known existed.
TN: But that’s what I feel, by living in integrity, that you can integrate all those parts of yourself into your relationship. It’s not a moral issue, it’s like remembering those dismembered parts of yourself.
TS: Yes, that’s helpful, that’s good. Now Tammy, my eyes were opened in reading Open Monogamy to some vocabulary that I was never familiar with before. And you have an interesting glossary at the end of the book. So I’m going to throw some of these words out to you and you can explain to our audience what they mean. Let’s start with solo poly. What’s that?
TN: That is when someone is an individual solo person, but who wants to date other people who are polyamorous. So they may not want to commit to just a single partner, but they could date people who have multiple partners.
TS: OK. A metamour.
TN: A metamour is if you were in an open relationship and you had a lover, that’s how your partner would refer to that lover. It’s like everyone’s lover in the relationship.
TS: So your husband comes to visit you out there in Southern California and says, “I’d love to meet my metamour.”
TN: I’d love to meet your metamour. Yes.
TS: I’d love to meet your metamour.
TS: How would you feel if your husband came to LA and said that?
TN: I would feel like we had already had a lot of conversations about whoever I was with and I’d be thrilled if that was the case. I’d be thrilled that I had enough time to have a metamour and that I had enough time to bring them over.
TS: Which actually does bring up an interesting point, because I was reflecting on my closed monogamy status and I thought to myself, I barely have time for the relationship I’m in. I’m very work focused, very mission driven, and then I have my whole internal life, whatever. I don’t have time at all, not even close. And also, the complexity. There’s the actual time, and then the complexity that comes with it and the emotional complexity. I think that’s actually a really big factor.
TN: Myself as well. I get a little jealous of when I hear people managing their open relationships, I always ask them about their calendar. What days of the week do you see them and how long? And yes, I get a little triggered by that.
TS: OK. We’ll go back to our vocabulary here. Kitchen table poly.
TN: Kitchen table poly is when you’re polyamorous, you have multiple partners, and everyone comes over and has breakfast together. So you might have a partner, your partner has a partner, they all sleep over on a Saturday night and everyone gets together on Sunday and has brunch. Everybody knows each other, and everybody is part of the family.
TS: Is that a popular form of open monogamy?
TN: Yes, people who are polyamorous tend to want everyone to be part of the family, part of their relationship.
TS: Right. OK. A unicorn.
TN: A unicorn usually refers to the search for a woman who can be part of a relationship that will sleep with both partners, but will not threaten their monogamous relationship.
TS: OK. A throuple.
TN: A throuple is—
TS: Throuple. Sorry, you can tell I’m outside the norm.
TN: It’s OK. This is not a common term, not yet anyway. A throuple is a committed threesome in a partnership. So two people might have a third person who is a boyfriend or whatever, who is a committed partner, they don’t need another partner, but they’re not as important as the primary partners.
TS: And here’s the last new vocabulary word for today, compersion. Compersion.
TN: So compersion is actually a made-up word—of course, it was invented in California—which means the opposite of jealousy, because we don’t have a word in our language to mean the opposite of jealousy. It means that you find joy or happiness seeing your partner happy with someone else. It gives you joy that they’re happy and it makes you feel good to see them finding joy, either in a sexual relationship or an emotional connection with someone else. It doesn’t take away from your feeling of connection or happiness with them.
TS: I’m not feeling very positive that I’ll use this word in a sentence anytime soon as something that I’m feeling. But I’m curious, do you feel compersion when you hear about whatever might be happening with your beloved out on the East Coast? Do you feel compersion?
TN: I’m pretty jealous.
TS: Oh, you are. Well, that’s very interesting. How do you do this? How do you do it, Tammy?
TN: I think a lot of people are jealous. Just because they have open monogamy or open relationships doesn’t mean they’re not jealous. People still have normal human emotions and normal human responses. I think the people that I know that are doing this that do feel jealousy have a tendency to work more on their jealousy and see it as their own personal spiritual work, instead of focusing it on him like, “You bastard, you’re doing this to me.”
I would turn it to myself and say, what is this triggering for me? Why am I feeling insecure about this? Am I afraid of losing something? Am I afraid I’m not good enough? Is it bring out my insecurity? Am I feeling old? Am I feeling not good enough? What’s happening here for me and then using it as a tool for my own growth?
TS: But let’s go into this a little bit more. So you do come to some conclusion that I’m feeling X, Y, Z—old and insecure. What do you do next?
TN: Remind myself of all the wonderful things about myself that I have going, and that if somebody’s going to leave me for someone younger, let’s say, then there’s nothing I can do about it. Whether we’re open about it or closed about it, I have absolutely no control over another person. I am going to feel good about myself because of what I bring to the table and who I am as a person, and other people are going to have their own decision making process and I can’t control that.
Even if I tell them, “You can never see anybody else, you’re not allowed to be attracted to anyone else.” That’s not going to control their behavior. People are going to do what they’re going to do, and they can meet someone in the grocery store any moment and find themselves attracted to someone. It’s always going to be their choice, and knowing that I’m in a securely attached relationship where we have so much history and we have kids and we have years and years of background together and so much investment together—I trust that we have a strong enough bond that I don’t think my husband’s going to leave me for someone younger. But if he does, good for him.
TS: If he does, good for him.
TN: Yes, good for him. I hope he’s happy.
TS: You’ll feel compersion.
TN: I’ll try. I’ll work really hard to feel compersion.
TS: OK, towards the end of Open Monogamy, you write, “Alternative relationships are the future.” And I had a moment. I thought, “Is that true?” What convinces you that that’s the case?
TN: I think what convinces me is that we’ve been going on the same model of marriage for 200 years and we’ve had a lot of shifts in sexuality, we’ve had the sexual revolution, we’ve had a revolution in openness about sexual orientation and gender. But marriage, it’s still the same. It’s still run by these religious organizations. We’re still going on these explicit monogamy agreements, these vows that have not really changed that much.
And yet, gay marriage is legal. So much has changed in our assumptions about relationships, but marriage—we suck at marriage. It’s pretty easy to get into a marriage; it’s really hard to get out of a marriage. Divorce is still devastating. It’s still run by an adversarial legal system which costs a fortune, and it’s terrible for families. We still haven’t figured that out. And so it’s bound to change.
Just sociologically, it’s bound to shift. And as it shifts, as the younger generations decide, you know what? My parents got divorced, their parents got divorced, they cheated, they lied. I’m not going to do that. I know that I’m going to live a long time. I’m going to be attracted to more than one person throughout my lifetime, and I don’t want to hurt the people that I love. And so I’m going to do it differently. And more and more young people and more and more people of this generation are saying, “I don’t want to do it the same way it’s always been done. It’s just not going to work for me.”
We know people are getting married later than ever before. We know people are putting off children later than ever before. We know women are making the decision about whether or not to get married. We know women are the gatekeepers of open relationships. They’re deciding when to do it and when to stop. And we know women are the gatekeepers of sexuality. So I think as our society changes, I think relationships in marriage are going to change.
TS: And just to ask you to clarify that “women are the gatekeepers of open monogamy.” I think some people might say it’s the man who’s knocking on the door and saying “this is what I want.” It’s not the women in the relationships. Why do you say that and what do you mean by “gatekeepers”?
TN: Well, it’s interesting because it’s true in heterosexual relationships. Men do usually come up with the idea first, but it doesn’t happen unless the female say, “OK, I’ll do it.” And then in my own clinical experience—I don’t have any research for this. My clinical experience has been that the men want to stop sooner, and the women are like, “No, I’m not stopping. This has been working for me. I’m good.” And that’s just my own clinical observation.
I don’t know if that’s true across the board. I’d be curious what your listeners think and what their experience has been. But unless the female partners agrees to do it, they’re not going to do it. Most people are not coerced or forced into an open relationship by its nature. It’s open and it’s voluntary.
TS: So one final question, Tammy—wherever we find ourselves, whoever’s listening on this continuum from closed monogamy and then the whole range that you described to us of open monogamy. Wherever we find ourselves, it seems clear to me from listening to you that being honest, honest with ourselves, honest with our partner, is the through line through everything that you do in your work, having worked with so many thousands of couples. What else would you say, in addition to being honest with ourselves and with each other, are really the most important qualities to you of a relationship that is thriving, that’s vital, that’s alive?
TN: I think being flexible, knowing that your relationship and you are going to change. You might feel one way today. Like Tami, you might feel like no way I’m ever opening it. But tomorrow you might feel differently, and being open and flexible around different stages of our lives. You might be open today and decide, you know what? This isn’t working for me and I want to go back to a more traditional monogamous relationship next week. But always being flexible with yourself and with each other, I think, is the key here. Rigidity is the opposite of pleasure, right? And so to keep it flexible means to stay in a pleasurable relationship, and I think that’s part of it. That’s the key
TS: I’ve been speaking with Tammy Nelson, she’s the author of the new book Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co‑Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement, an agreement that might change over the years. Thank you so much Tammy. Thank you for your bravery and your honesty and your straightforwardness. Thank you.
TN: Thank you, Tami. Thank you so much for having me.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. And also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.