A few years ago, I asked my friend Jake if he would sleep with me.
This question, asked via text as I sat next to my then fiancé (now husband) Lawrence, wasn’t serious. Not SERIOUSLY serious, anyway. I asked because Lawrence and I were having a conversation about the right way to cheat on someone.
Let me back up.
I’d been rereading one of the few Chuck Klosterman books that I find fully enjoyable, Chuck Klosterman IV, which includes an essay written around a hypothetical: Jack, a man in a committed relationship, goes to the apartment of a woman who lives in his building and ends up watching her masturbate. The scenario ends with asking whether the listener sides with Jack or his girlfriend Jane, who dumps him when he tells her what happened. According to Chuck, when presenting this to his friends, he was surprised to find that men and women agreed that Jack did something wrong—they just disagreed about what that something was.
Wanting to get the male perspective, I posed this hypothetical to Lawrence, and it led us down a long, winding road that ended in two relationship declarations:
1) If you find someone else you want to sleep with, get permission first; and
2) If the first rule is ignored, a free pass is given to the other partner.
There is a caveat, of course—that partner’s free pass must match the relationship level as the cheater’s fling. This means that if Lawrence slept with a stranger, I could sleep with a stranger; if I hooked up with a co-worker, then he could hook up with a co-worker.
Which is why, for “purely scientific reasons,” I asked Jake if he’d sleep with me. Not because I wanted to sleep with him, but because I needed to verify that he was an option in case Lawrence ever slept with Janice, his closest opposite-sex friend from high school—his lady Jake.
This entire line of thought was more or less hypothetical. At the time, neither of us were interested in anyone else, sexually or otherwise. And it’s really easy to say one thing about a future scenario and then react completely differently when/if the time comes. But we felt pretty confident making these bold claims for a simple reason: We’d never denied each other the ability to be attracted to someone else.
Throughout my relationship with Lawrence, which has spanned almost a decade, we’ve been very open and accepting of the reality that is human attraction. When you enter into a committed relationship, your brain doesn’t suddenly turn on a mode that makes attractive people invisible to the eye. It doesn’t keep you from throwing a flirty comment into a conversation when you see an opportunity. It’s literally just there to say, “Don’t forget about that person you’re dating!” before things escalate. Knowing that, we decided it was made more sense to just verbalize any extraneous attractions instead of wallowing in unnecessary guilt simply because we noticed someone cute.
Feeling so proud of ourselves for coming up with this very logical process, we decided to give it a name: modified monogamy.
Thus far, no one has “stepped out.” At first, it was basically a game—The Couple Who Checks People Out Together. I’d point to a girl and say “She’s cute. Do you think her boobs are real?” or Lawrence would point to a guy and say, “Is he attractive or does he look too much like an asshole?” It’s gotten to the point where he will tell me about men he thinks I would’ve found attractive while he was out and about in the world (he even apologizes for not being able to get a picture of them), and vice versa.
But while there’s been no extramarital sex, this “modified monogamy” approach has since led to an interesting phenomenon: intimate friendships. Or, as my bestie and I have dubbed it, “friends with intimate benefits”—your standard friendship with some flirty bits thrown in.
I’d dabbled in this art as a high schooler, a time when flirting with my close male friends (and regularly crossing the line with a friendship that existed purely online) seemed like the natural way to sustain my relationship with them. Back then, I was sloppy (see: the fact that I dated most of my close male friends). I realize now that engaging in a bit of platonic flirting requires being simultaneously subtle and upfront. Flirt game needs to be strong, of course, so that the other party knows they can play along, but everyone has to know there are strict boundaries. Mainly: You aren’t going to get me to step out of my marriage, so don’t even try.
“Friends with intimate benefits” have manifested differently for me and Lawrence. On my end, it’s meant joking with Jake about whether he “missed out” on dating me in high school and discussing some vaguely flirtatious topics when I started getting close to a guy I met in grad school. For Lawrence, it’s meant making friends with people he’s seen naked.
I’m sure that’s a shocking thing to reveal—my husband has made friends by reaching out to women who post naked pictures of themselves online. I remember when I told my bestie about it; she (and the group of girls we were with) wondered how I wasn’t jealous or concerned that he was cheating. And while I’m sure some of you will think I’m naïve, my reasoning was very simple: Our relationship is the thing that’s real.
For these kind of friendships to work, for either of us, they can’t seem (or get) too real. We don’t hide our relationship from these potential flirty friends, we don’t hide them from each other, and we don’t let anything escalate. But even with that being said, I can acknowledge that it’s created an environment where it’s easier for Lawrence to have these kind of casually intimate friendships. The ladies he connects with actually respect the carefully laid out rules—probably because they’re often in relationships themselves—and if they don’t, then he’s done with them. Meanwhile, I’m kind of limited by the fact that there are A LOT of trash men skulking around the web, waiting to sexually assault my inbox with a shit load of explicit pics that I didn’t ask for. Sorry creeps, but I don’t have time for that. I just wanted to make some casual sex jokes with someone to pass the time.
So, where does that leave us? For some, I’m sure it’s difficult to understand just how serious any of our extramarital relationships are allowed to get. After all, the perception is that you have to be fully monogamous or fully open, right? But, thanks to a friend of mine, who describes his relationship (consisting of him and two other men) as “closed poly,” I’ve quickly settled into the realization that love can take many, many shapes.
But since you’re probably dying to know, I leave you with this metaphor: If my relationship with my husband is a room, then the door is closed. But the window is cracked a little.