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Tristan Taormino

Photo: Hank Hoffman

An Open Book

Local author’s new work aims to dispel myths and provide a heathy guide to nonmonogamy By Miriam Axel-Lute

“I think we should see other people.” How does that sound to you? Exciting? Relieving? Hopelessly naïve? Like you’ve just been broken up with?

To Tristan Taormino, author of the recently published Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, it would probably be considered a non-ideal, one-sided way to bring up a conversation that more people should be having.

In a 2007 Oprah poll of 14,000 people, 21 percent of respondents said they were in an open marriage. Hardly a scientific study, but still one of many indications that relationship diversity is far greater than mainstream commentary would like to acknowledge.

Of course, when it’s not acknowledged, it’s hard to share information about it. Taormino, a longtime sex educator, filmmaker, and Village Voice columnist (and fairly recent resident of Greene County), says she saw the need for a book like Opening Up because most of the books on the topic either focus on a particular style of nonmonogamy (like swinging or group marriage), or are more of a personal memoir style.

To create a guide that would speak to more people and be based on a wider range of experiences, Taormino carried out extensive interviews with 126 people in various types of nonmonogamous relationships. Her interviewees come from all walks of life and all over the country. (And no, “all over the country” doesn’t mean “New York and San Francisco.” There are more people represented from the South than any other region.)

If you’re allergic to flowery discourse about nonmonogamy being more natural or mature or evolved, don’t run away. Taormino has little patience for such attitudes; her philosophy on open relationships is all about choice. “You need to build your own custom-built relationship that’s right for the people in it,” she told me. “We need to let go of the myths about the picket fence, Prince Charming, etc. and figure out what we want and need. If you do that and find out what you want is monogamy, more power to you. The problem is not monogamy. It’s that people are monogamous by default, not by choice.”

And, of course, what happens when people make such a massive commitment by default? It’s hard to stick to. “Cheating is so prevalent,” says Taormino. “It’s shocking to me still that people are threatened and hostile about open relationships, because people in open relationships have rejected cheating in favor of honesty. It can be the antidote to cheating.”

That said, you can’t make a real choice until you understand your options, and many people’s ideas of open relationships have more to do with the 1970s and “free love” than most of what’s being practiced today. That’s where Opening Up comes in. With its rich set of data about how open relationships can and do work, it dispels myths, acknowledges difficulties, explains benefits, lists some of the things that they tend to have in common, gives exercises and tips for communicating well (and kindly) and designing your own relationship from scratch. It generally provides a window into the ways that real people make their way outside the bounds of traditional monogamy.

The middle of the book forms a typology, with chapters exploring such divergent arrangements as partnered nonmonogamy (outside sexual relationships OK, but only one partner/love relationship), polyfidelity (exclusive partnerships of more than two), and solo polyamory (no cohabitation or primary partner). She also devotes a chapter to monogamous-nonmonogamous pairings, a reality that Taormino says is very frequently misunderstood and judged by monogamous and nonmonogamous folks alike.

One of the biggest misconceptions about open relationships that Taormino says her research dispels is the idea that they stem from people who can’t or won’t “commit.” “The idea is they are either a commitmentphobe or they haven’t settled down yet, that they’re immature and then they’ll see the light,” she says. “I found the opposite. People took their commitment very seriously. Many people were married to one partner and had a nonlegal ceremony to another partner.”

“There’s also an assumption out there that it’s all about sex, that people are just having wild huge orgies. I’m someone who’s a sex educator and whose life’s work has been about sex, but there’s not a lot of sex in this book. And that’s based on what people talked about.”

So what is it about? Time and again, Taormino comes back to the point that people who are in open relationships have dismissed the falsehood that one person can provide you everything you need, that there is one person out there, the proverbial soulmate, who will satisfy you sexually and emotionally and intellectually, share your interests, run a household well with you, etc. “With different relationship dynamics, different wants and needs get met,” she says.

In fact, she argues that a prerequisite to successful monogamy is recognizing this same thing and choosing the tradeoff with eyes open. “I’m not trying to convert anyone to nonmonogamy,” says Taormino, “but there are basic life lessons in this book that are lessons for any relationship.”

Along with time management (the number one challenge her respondents mentioned) and jealousy, Taormino notes that having to be secretive or closeted is an ongoing stress on people in nonmonogamous relationships. In her keynote speech at Polyamory Pride day in New York City last fall, she spoke of needing to follow the example of GLBT folks and come out whenever it’s safe and comfortable to do so.

“When I tell people I wrote a book about this and they are not in an open relationship, two things happen,” she elaborates. “Complete shutdown, or ‘Oh, I know someone in a relationship like that . . .’ People who know someone seem to have a higher level of acceptance. They understand that people have different relationships.”

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