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“How Open, or Closed, is that Relationship Door Anyway?”
I have a confession.
Many and many a year ago, I knew a guy whose basic cute boy appeal was massively upgraded when I found him one day reading Faulkner for fun. We were in college, but I knew he was taking a semester off to work and save money, and the idea that he was sitting around on his day off reading As I Lay Dying, just because, was total catnip to me. Faulkner-guy and I hooked up once before I left for a long winter break, but by the time I returned six weeks later, he was involved with another student I knew, a super cool woman who was smart and funny and had totally awesome cherry red Doc Martens. I was bummed for myself, but approved of his choice, and hung out with them a lot.
Fast forward seven or eight years, Faulkner-guy and I have reconnected out of the blue after years of not staying in touch. We have dated cross-country for a while, and then he has moved to Chicago to live with me. The opportunity arises for him to go home to Massachusetts for a visit and he tells me that one of the people he plans on visiting is Doc Martens-girl. We have heard that the year before, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Post-surgery, she has lost a lot of mobility, can’t drive, can’t work, and is feeling pretty isolated in the Massachusetts college town in which she lives. Faulkner-boyfriend is going to drive out one day to visit, spend the night, and then move on to an aunt’s family.
I remember very clearly thinking at the time, when my boyfriend had left for his week-long trip, Man, I kind of hope he sleeps with Doc Martens-girl. I had been horrified to hear of how much loss and pain she was dealing with (at 27 years old) and could only imagine how much she might value, might need, the comfort of physical affection from someone to whom she’d once been very close. I didn’t have the nerve (the confidence of his reception to the idea? the certainty of my own emotions?) to say this out loud to Faulkner-guy, although I did reassure him multiple times that I was very happy he was visiting her and hoped she would feel supported by his presence. Looking back now, I wish I had been explicitly clear about my general okayness with the idea of his sleeping with her, which is a funny kind of regret to have.
I have plenty of friends with whom I have discussed this story over the years, mind you, who think I’m absolutely bonkers for having these thoughts and who would never have approved of a significant other visiting an ex without them being present, much less bringing sex into the mix.
What can I say? There are situations where I find monogamy to be crucial and others in which I am far more flexible about the entire idea. Which makes non-monogamy one of my favorite themes to explore in my reading, of course! Lots of writers whose books I love have explored the idea of open relationships and the many reasons people might consider cracking open the door of exclusivity with their partner. What follows are some of my favorites…
HEADS UP FOR SPOILER WARNINGS. I have done my best to confine myself to descriptions that basically cover what is in the blurbs of the following books, most of which have been out for years now, but if you hate spoilers of any kinds, maybe skip to the last paragraph!
In Cara McKenna’s Dirty Thirty, the motivation for the non-monogamy is exclusively sexual. Evan and Margie are married and considering children, and have decided they want to explore each of their final, adventurous, sexual fantasies before settling down to a life of middle-aged stolidity. Evan goes first. He wants to experiment with a man, a scenario the couple has incorporated into sex as a fantasy for a long time before acting on it. The resultant scene, with a man they know slightly as the bouncer of a local bar, is incredibly hot, super dirty, and erotic for all three participants in the way McKenna does best. And at the end of the story, Evan and Margie have decided that turning thirty maybe doesn’t mean the end of their sexual adventurousness after all. As a couple, however, they are still focused only on each other, long-term, although you are left with the definite impression that future birthdays may involve other fun times with friends or strangers.
Tamsen Parker’s prequel novella to the Compass series, Uncharted Territory, explores a purely sexual openness, although in this book, that openness is tied to India and Hunter’s BDSM kink. Uncharted Territory is not a romance novel, in that it’s the story of the relationship that messed India up and takes place long before the events of Personal Geography and Original Geography (where India finds her One True and Kinky Love, Cris.) But one of my favorite scenes in Uncharted Territory is a M/m/f/F scene where India’s dom and his domme friend bring their two female subs together for a play session. It’s hot, it’s sweet, and purely for the enjoyment of everyone involved. Later events in the book make it clear how not-okay Hunter is for India, but this scene takes place in the happy phase of their relationship and it’s terrific.
In her Coda series, Marie Sexton explores the idea of an open relationship in The Letter Z, with the already-established couple of Zach and Angelo from book two of the series, A to Z. I admire Marie to the moon and back for writing this book, because A to Z didn’t explore this aspect of Zach and Angelo’s relationship at all, mostly because Angelo could only barely reconcile himself to the mere idea of being with someone for that entire book. Writing about this topic after giving us an (admittedly shaky) HEA in A to Z really explored the idea of “what happens after the happily ever after?” and gives us a chance to learn about a couple whose definition of committed differs from what is most commonly accepted. Reader response to The Letter Z was varied, much like the reactions of the secondary characters who find out what’s going on in the book itself. I found it fascinating to watch two people explore the idea of non-monogamy in an ongoing relationship where only one partner is permitted to do so, by their mutual agreement. The motivation for the open door looks purely sexual at first, but in the end read to me as more psychological than physical, driven by anxiety and confidence and pride, among other emotions.
ZA Maxfield’s second cowboy book, My Heartache Cowboy, is my favorite of that series so far. In it, Eddie Molina is trying to help his longtime friend and co-worker, Jimmy Rafferty, dry out and stop screwing up his life before he loses his job. The two friends are also dealing with a new gay relationship on the ranch where they work (the boss and another hand), plus Eddie’s coming out as gay to a bitter and confused Jimmy. A large portion of the book involves Eddie’s current fuckbuddy, a very kinky doctor who shows up to check on Jimmy’s detoxing health status, sticks around for some fun times, and then continues as a strong supporter of Jimmy’s efforts to get sober. In My Heartache Cowboy, as opposed to The Letter Z, it is made very clear that one of the conditions of Eddie and Jimmy’s relationship is that neither of them will ever take a lover without the other being present. However, we also see that their connection with Eddie’s previous lover is more than just a physical one, involving true friendship and support that go way beyond a hook-up.
I know books that explore non-monogamy are not for everyone. For some readers, there is no such thing as a happy relationship in which any outside sexual or emotional connections are made, period. And there are lots of books for those readers. Less common, and more challenging perhaps to our ideas of love and happiness, are books where a couple’s boundaries are not quite so clearly drawn. In The Girl Next Door, my latest release in the Bend or Break series, Cash and Steph have their own exploration with a friend who is moving away, shortly before their friend leaves town for good. For my hero and heroine, the experimentation is both playful and serious. They talk extensively about their feelings before, during, and after bringing a friend into their bed and have a clear “anyone can say stop at any time” rule in place. They’re also in it because they think it’ll be hot and fun and they like pushing each other’s boundaries in bed. It’s a complicated idea, having an open relationship, whether it’s a one-time thing, extended permission to have flings, or an ongoing but occasional relationship with a part-time lover. For readers who like exploring this gray area, there are some truly fascinating books out there.
What do you think? Are books with open relationships absolutely not for you? Or if you enjoy them, what are some of your favorites and why?
Charles “Cash” Carmichael traded his high-rise condo and family-firm career for a job coaching soccer for Chicago’s inner-city kids. He’s adjusting to living on minimum wage when his young cousin, newly out and running away from home, shows up on his less-than-luxurious doorstep.
Angsty teens definitely aren’t Cash’s thing. He needs local backup, and there’s only one name he can think of: Stephany Tyler. Back in the day, the bisexual Steph was the perfect friend with benefits until she fell in love with a woman.
To his relief, his former friend steps up to the plate. Soon, though, Cash finds himself feeling the familiar need to keep her in his bed, and in his life. But Steph, burned by the ex-girlfriend and by the absentee dad she’s been trying to connect with, won’t risk her heart again.
Good thing Cash believes in leaving it all on the field. If he can just convince Steph to get in the game, there’s a chance they can both win.
Warning: This book contains ex-friends with benefits crossing boundaries a second time, several steamy encounters on staircases, copious discussions about gay sex from a “straight” guy, a shout-out to magic buttons, and an especially memorable going away threesome.
About the Author:
Amy Jo Cousins writes contemporary romance and erotica about smart people finding their own best kind of smexy. She lives in Chicago with her son, where she tweets too much, sometimes runs really far, and waits for the Cubs to win the World Series.
Fun facts: Amy Jo can get back into a kayak in the open water if she falls out of it, taught herself and her son how to say I love you in seventeen languages, and once ran the table in a game of eight ball.
Find Amy Jo on the Web!