What it’s like to be in a non-monogamous relationship

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The liberty to date other people but with the application of “rules” in certain areas, especially when it comes to intimacy, are some of the options that constitute “open relationships.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Five years. That’s how long Jerry — a 42-year-old farmer, has had Chad, a 37-year-old teacher, as his Valentine.

They will be each other’s Romeo again this year, but the thing is, Jerry can spend the so-called day for lovers with another man, and so can Chad. Or they can spend the night of Feb. 14 with another man, as long as they do it together — and as long as, Jerry stressed, “they practice safe sex.”

Pat, an artist, does not even care what her partner, an expatriate, will be doing on Valentine’s day, or whom he’s going to celebrate it with. The same applies on any other day, really — he can see whomever he wants, as long as she can too. The 31-year-old Filipina has been, in fact, dating someone else for months now.

But Pat maintains it’s not a cause of tension between them. “There’s no drama to be had there. Because they’re both informal relationships. I don’t entertain the other one when I’m with the other one,” she says.

The liberty to date other people but with the application of “rules” in certain areas, especially when it comes to intimacy, are some of the options that constitute “open relationships.” There are variations to this setup, but the core element remains to be that having sexual and romantic ties with other people outside of the relationship is done only when there’s consensual agreement between the couple in the main relationship.

Elisabeth Sheff, an academic expert on polyamory and author of “When Someone You Love is Polyamorous: Understanding Poly People and Relationships,” said that in open relationships, “secondary relationships” with any number of people take the backseat and “regardless of the specific parameters, the primary couple always remains a priority.”

It’s not the conventional kind of commitment that Filipinos may admit to practicing, given the conservative culture in the country and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Filipinos. But it’s happening. And as Jerry and Pat’s experiences show, it can actually work.

Open relationships help build trust

Couples — married or unmarried — can try engaging in an open relationship, but this differs from polygamy in the sense that it’s not about having multiple marriages, nor is it wholly similar to polyamory, where, as Sheff explained, one can have multiple relationships simultaneously with the consent of all those involved.

One thing that an open relationship is definitely not though is cheating. On the contrary, experts say open relationships can help strengthen trust among couples.

Latest data from the Philippine Commission on Women also revealed that 36 percent of married men have extramarital affairs, while two percent of married women also cheat.

“Paradoxically, an open relationship sows trust between the couple. Since they openly date others, they are more inclined to agree (explicitly and implicitly) to engage in full disclosure,” says Liezl Rillera-Astudillo, a former UP Baguio professor who has done research on psychosocial principles and relationships.

In comparison, being in monogamous relationships — which strictly prohibit relationships (both sexual and romantic) with others — can suffer from a breakdown of trust once the people in it start having affairs.

If the 2015 leaked data from Ashley Madison, a site which enables adultery, could be any indicator, it shows that Filipino men can have the propensity to break their vows of monogamy. The number is no joke, as men from various parts of the Philippines make up 70 to 95 percent of the users in the said site.

Latest data from the Philippine Commission on Women also revealed that 36 percent of married men have extramarital affairs, while two percent of married women also cheat. If cheating happens in marriages, so does it also affect exclusive relationships — may this be among heterosexual or same-sex couples.

Jade, a 25-year-old customer service manager in Dubai, went for an open relationship in 2014, after her partner from a previous relationship cheated on her. “She set so many restrictions for me, but in the end, she’s the one who ended up cheating.”

Hence, in her succeeding relationship, she made sure that it was an open one: they could go see other people and do what that they wanted. Jade would willingly listen to her partner talk about the dates that she had with other girls. She never felt bad, nor entertained thoughts that her partner did not really love her during those times.  

Aside from preventing cheating, one thing that open relationships can do is also kill the boredom that could beset long-term relationships.

“Several studies have proven that one of the major reasons for the breakups and even the dissolution of marriages is boredom,” Astudillo says. “So, perhaps, the dating experience with others makes someone in a romantic relationship explore and engage in different activities, and in the process would want to eventually go back to his or her ‘official’ partner to address needs for stability (as relationship dialectics explain, there will always be opposing forces in a relationship. Too much of something can turn out to be bad enough). Therefore, dating around can serve as a ‘homeostatic’ factor.”

Comes at a cost

Open relationships do have a downside, though. Prof. Jokin de Irala, a professor from the University de Navarra and a researcher on sexuality, said that dating people aside from one’s partner carries the risk of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases and having unintended pregnancies.

“It’s the person who defines the relationship. Not society or trends, but the two of you who decide how to go about the relationship.”

He added that “competition” between the partners in the primary and secondary relationships could heighten insecurity, instead of providing stability.

“Those who argue against open relationships mention reasons such as the presence of guilt, jealousy, and other kind of competition, such as a competition between both partners to have other partners, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases that can never be totally prevented albeit condom use, problems with the management of time, and the possibility that your partner may leave you, or in other words, a greater sense of insecurity with a relationship that one might specially cherish,” he says in an email interview.

Not about labels

De Irala, however, emphasized that the strength of relationships — may they be open or not — ultimately depends on how people define love. “But again, the bottom line is, what is your concept of love really like?” he raises.

It’s also about the people in the relationship per se, not the labels or the arrangement.

“If you’re in an open or exclusive relationship, if your partner is an asshole, the exclusivity doesn’t matter,” Pat says.

“It’s the person who defines the relationship. Not society or trends, but the two of you who decide how to go about the relationship.”

*Names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy