By the end of their dinner at a small Italian restaurant in New York’s West Village, Leah is getting antsy to part ways with her boyfriend Ryan, so that she can go meet up with her boyfriend Jim. It’s not that she means to be rude, it’s just that Jim has been traveling for work, so it’s been a while since she’s seen him. Ryan gets this. As her “primary partner” and the man with whom she lives, he is the recipient of most of Leah’s attention, sexual and otherwise, but he understands her need to seek companionship from other quarters roughly one night a week. Tonight is one of those nights, and soon Leah will head to Jim’s penthouse apartment, where the rest of the evening, she says, will probably entail “hanging out, watching something, having sex.” “She’ll usually spend the night,” Ryan adds nonchalantly, which gives him a chance to enjoy some time alone or even invite another woman over. He doesn’t have a long-standing secondary relationship like Leah (“I’ve actually veered away from doing that”), but he certainly enjoys the company of other women, even sometimes when Leah is home. “I like everyone to meet each other and be friends and stuff,” he explains.
“There was a side of me that was ecstatic – the teenage boy in me that wants to fuck everything I see,” reveals Ryan, a millennial in an open relationship. “But the other side of me was concerned about what this means in terms of intimacy and how the dynamics would work.”
When Leah and Ryan met at a wedding four years ago, they didn’t expect to develop this type of arrangement. Neither of them had had an open relationship before, though it was something that Leah had contemplated. “I remember the first night, I was telling him about my difficulty with monogamy,” she says. “I don’t know why I felt the need, but it must have been on my mind a lot.” In almost every relationship she’d had, she’d found herself cheating, though she didn’t know if this was a character flaw or a problem with the conventional system. For his part, Ryan was unfazed. “I was just trying to get into your panties,” he says to her, laughing.
Because they started off dating long-distance (Ryan was living in Colorado at the time), it was understood that they would not be exclusive: They initiated a policy Leah describes as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But when Ryan moved to New York and began living with Leah a year and a half later, he assumed they would transition immediately into monogamy. “I thought, ‘All right, the long-distance shenanigans are over now, we’re moving in together, and it’s time to have a real go at this,’” he says, taking a sip of his beer. He was therefore surprised when the first thing Leah gave him after the move was a book called The Ethical Slut, considered to be a primer on how to handle a non-monogamous relationship.
Certainly, open heterosexual relationships are nothing new. Even the term “open relationship” seems like a throwback, uncomfortably reminiscent of free-love hippies, greasy swingers and a general loucheness so overt as to seem almost kitsch. But Leah and Ryan, 32 and 38, respectively, don’t fit these preconceived ideas. They’re both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view and are possessed of the type of hip hyperawareness that lets them head off any assumptions as to what their arrangement might entail. Moreover, they see themselves as part of a growing trend of folks who do not view monogamy as any type of ideal. “There’s this huge group of younger people that are involved in these things,” says Ryan – an observation that seemed borne out of a monthly event called “Poly Cocktails,” held at an upstairs bar on the Lower East Side a few weeks later, in which one would have been hard-pressed to realize that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mixer (a guy who’d wandered in accidentally must have eventually figured it out; he was later seen by the bar grinning widely as he chatted up two women).
In fact, Leah and Ryan are noticing a trend that’s been on the radar of therapists and psychologists for several years now. Termed “The New Monogamy” in the journal Psychotherapy Networker, it’s a type of polyamory in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time. Or, more specifically, that going outside the partnership for sex does not necessitate a forfeiture of it. “I was at a practice where we would meet every week, six to eight therapists in a room for teaching purposes and to bring up new things coming into therapy that weren’t there before,” says Lair Torrent, a New York-based marriage and family therapist. One of the things all the therapists had noticed over the past few years was “that couples – and these are younger people, twentysomethings, maybe early thirties – are negotiating what their brand of monogamy can be. They are opening up to having an open relationship, either in totality or for periods of time. I have couples that have closed relationships or open relationships depending on how they feel about the relative health of their relationship. It’s not so dogmatic.”