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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Sweet Spot: How to Handle the Third Person in an Open Relationship

Posted By on Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 10:00 AM


Flat worms, the Mexican gray wolf, and beavers do it. The human animal attempts it. What is it? Monogamy, the commitment to having sex only with your partner. It has been lauded, romanticized, and even enforced, but it's not for everyone. Enter the ubiquitous Open Relationship.

It is popular with quite a few folks these days but it is not new. In 1929, when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir began their life together, they agreed that each would have "contingent" relationships. De Beauvoir had a number of affairs with men as well as women while still committed to Sartre. Her lovers included American writer Nelson Algren and documentarian Claude Lanzmann, who was 17 years her junior.

Sirenita Lake, writer for Open Salon, believes it is the only way to do marriage.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir
  • Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir

"I'm at a loss to understand what monogamy offers that I don't have in my nonmonogamous relationship. ... My husband is romantic, sweet, supportive, loyal, a friend. He buys me gifts and loves to take me out," Lake says. "He participates in my family, generously helping take care of my elderly relatives. He reads poetry to me. He looks after me when I've had surgery, which is often. He's taken over a lot of domestic responsibilities as I find them more difficult. He supports me financially now that I don't work. He and I have great conversations. He's a terrific lover. What exactly am I missing because he's got a girlfriend?"

All that sounds good to me, but what about the girlfriend? It can be groovy for the person who desires greater sexual freedom to open up the relationship, but what about the person they have fun with? Does being the third wheel appeal?

Irene Larter is irritated when she is asked to be the bit on the side, especially when the request comes from a friend.

"I do not have the time or energy to be someone's outside option instead of their priority," she says. "I am puzzled by it. What about me, after all the time we have known each other, would make them think I would go for it?"

Mark Q. Midgett, a mortgage banker, was flattered but then annoyed when he was propositioned by a man in a couple -- because he liked the woman more. Midgett felt that the asking demeaned the man, but he admits that "both, together, would have been a different scene."

Dave Astels, a programmer, has had good experiences being the nonprimary lover. But he insists that, if they're in an open relationship, "I wouldn't be their 'affair.' To me, that implies cheating. So far I've made the initial contact, or it's developed slowly and naturally. That said, I'd be flattered if approached."

Jason Whitacre
  • Jason Whitacre

Jason Whitacre agrees and also says that the beauty of being the third wheel is that "it allows me to be with a person I enjoy while also maintaining my freedom. Sometimes it's nice to be able to have an experience with someone without all the responsibility a relationship can involve."

That said, he has often ended up counseling the person about their other relationship. "I like to listen and can sometimes help to make their relationship better."

But even those who have enjoyed being a third wheel don't believe it is always the best thing.

"It's like a waterslide. It's fun to go down, but if you go down too often, you'll end up with pruney fingers," says Sean Taylor, the author of Everything to Do with You.

And what about those who still believe in the "one person for me" motto?

Jennifer Barone and her husband Daniel Heffez
  • Jennifer Barone and her husband Daniel Heffez

Jennifer Barone, poet and cofounder of the Word Party, says she is naturally monogamous.

"For me, it comes easy and it's important, because I like to have a clear mind," Barone says. "When my mind is clear, I can hear my heart speak clearly. I like a simple life. I tried dating two people at once; it was awful. Every time I was on the phone with one guy, the other one would call. I say do what feels natural, but don't lie about it. I have always respected men and women who have told me straight-up that they can never be monogamous to one person. Some of those people are my best friends, they always have great stories!"

Great stories indeed. And that is what the lovers of Sartre and de Beauvoir got, even if some of the affairs ended in bitterness. For those seeking a life of experience, being the third wheel might just put them on the fast track to living it up.

Other famous third wheels (and their couples):

Leon Trotsky (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera)

State Department diplomat John F. Melby (Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett)

Sandro Kopp (Tilda Swinton and John Byrne)

The Sweet Spot is a weekly blog column about alternative sexuality by Ginger Murray. Check back next Monday for more.

Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Ginger Murray


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