I’m in an open relationship, which means my partner and I have used the age-old form of verbal communication to come to an arrangement where we’re allowed to date other people. Non-monogamy isn’t for everyone, but it seems to work for us. I’m in my thirties and have enjoyed having another go at dating now I’m (supposedly) older and wiser. Back when I was dating ten years ago, Tinder didn’t exist. I somehow met people in pubs — I shudder at the thought now! As with anything on the internet, dating apps can be wonderful, but humans…not so much.
Tinder is my usual app of choice. I like that you have to match in order to talk, unlike OKCupid, where anyone can send a message, which can be quite problematic as a woman on the internet. It’s fair to say that anyone of any gender could send an inappropriate message, but I can only speak from my own experience, which is only with straight men. I’ve received cheesy chat-up lines, sexually inappropriate messages, even self-centered essays. One guy sent me eight paragraphs about himself and ended on "kind regards." Thank God for the block button.
Then there were the married men. I encountered quite a lot of them during my 12 months on and off OKCupid, but rarely on Tinder. Perhaps Tinder’s connection to Facebook means there is more chance they could be found out. On OKCupid, I’ve encountered men that list themselves as single and have abstract blurry pictures of their belly buttons, and only admit they’re married when you start chatting. Some men actually list themselves as "married," as casual as they’d state their job. Then there are the ones who claim they are in an "open relationship," "non-monogamous," or "polyamorous," but actually aren't. Normally, ethically non-monogamous people are very open and honest about their situation. They understand that relationships involve amazingly good communication, radical honesty, and trust.
The men who say they’re married often approach me like we’re in the same situation. It couldn’t be more different. They presume I must be looking for a quick hook-up, just like they are. A ‘"ittle bit of harmless fun on the side," as it were. So I often start by asking, "Does your partner know you’re on here?" One guy said, "Yes, of course," and moved very quickly on with the sex talk. Again, the poly people I’ve met wouldn’t usually act this way—they’re more likely to want to talk about non-monogamy and patriarchy rather than to launch right in and ask if I like anal. Some guys went quiet when challenged, and some even blocked me. Then there was one guy who I almost felt sorry for. Almost.
He seemed to actually show remorse. He said he wished he could tell his wife he slept with other women, but he didn’t know how to. She’d be distraught and he just didn’t want to hurt her. I work for a relationship counselling organization, and I accidentally fell into work mode, suggesting that therapy might help with their communication. He asked if I could be his counselor, to which I explained that I wasn’t one, but even if I was, it would be completely inappropriate. I told him to Google "relationship counseling" and start from there. Having counseling can help people figure out what it is they want from their relationship, even maybe decide to end it if that seems like the right thing to do. To end a long relationship is a brave move in a society that tells us that "failed marriages" are terrible, instead of celebrating the years that you’ve had together. The fear of being alone can be all-consuming sometimes.
I hoped I’d at least helped one person, but I realize I can’t do that with every married guy on the internet. Many of them wouldn’t even engage in that kind of conversation. It seems some men find it easier to go and have an affair instead of talk to their partners. There are clearly problems in the relationship in terms of either boredom, stress, lack of connection, communication issues, social issues or the many other factors that make honesty impossible, and they see infidelity as the easier option.
Statistically, more men than women have affairs. In 2015, a dating site called Ashley Madison — designed for "discreet adultery" — was hacked and users' information was leaked to the public. Ashley Madison say they don’t promote affairs, yet their tagline back then was, "Life is short, have an affair." Email addresses of users of the site were obtained by hacktivists (activist hackers) who threatened to release them all. Ashley Madison let them do it, which resulted in a hell of a lot of denial ("I’ve no idea how my email got on that site, honey"), broken relationships and even suicide attempts. Yet Ashley Madison did not stop. They still have millions of users, and they’re only one of the infidelity sites. Following the release of the data, it was estimated that 86% of the users on Ashley Madison were men.
Which made me wonder — who are all these men talking to if there are so few women? The answer is… robots. In the documentary Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies and Cyber Attacks, the compay admits to using robots to engage men in conversations, which often would lead to a request for money to continue the conversation. There are so many men who want to have affairs that they had to create fake women. There’s something seriously wrong here.
It’s often said (by men) that men are genetically programmed to want to have more sex than women. Bullshit. That’s an excuse for them to cheat on their partners. It’s really just social programming, the idea that it’s more natural for men to want to spread their seed, while women want to meet "the one" and have babies. Women are slut-shamed if have many sex partners, yet men are praised. Stereotypes still prevail in relationships — the nagging wife and the long-suffering husband who just wants to be left alone to watch sport and drink beer. The sexless, miserable marriage. Couples who rarely speak to each other apart from arranging who’s picking the kids up from school. Talking about mental health may be becoming more socially acceptable, but within the context of relationships or sex, there seems to be much more of a stigma. Nobody wants to admit that there is a problem with their perfect nuclear family. After all, they did everything they were told would make them happy, right?
The patriarchal ideal of boy meets girl has been sold to us in stories and movies for decades. The concept of "the one" is ingrained in our minds since childhood. We’re meant to meet our true love in our twenties and be in love until we die in our eighties. That’s a big ask. We’re not the same people at 25 as we are at 55, so it would make sense that the same partner might not be a good fit for your whole life. I’m not advocating divorce or trying to push non-monogamy on anybody. It would just be good for people to know that there are other ways. Cheating and lying to your partner should not have to be an option. Boredom is realistic and normal in long-term relationships. Telling your partner you want to have sex with somebody else does not make you a bad person, but lying and cheating does.
One married man who sent me a message on OKCupid said he wanted to be honest with me from the start about being married. He said he told me because he’s "a decent guy" and realises that "honesty is the most important thing." I told him that I was not the one he needed to be honest with. He actually found it easier to be honest with a stranger than with the woman he is supposedly in love with.
Long-term relationships are not something to be tolerated, they’re meant to be enjoyed. We need to move past this "ball and chain" attitude that drives people to dishonesty for the sake of the outdated rules in our society. We need to start making our own rules and unpicking the patriarchal traditions which keep us trapped in unhappy relationships. We need to do relationships our way, and that starts with communication.
Top photo: detail of the Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy
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Mel Ciavucco is a UK-based writer and podcaster. She writes novels, screenplays, short stories (anything from gritty family drama to gross-out zombie comedy) and she writes about feminism and body positivity on her blog, http://melciavucco.weebly.com. Mel also has a satire erotica podcast called Fully Activated. Follow Mel on Twitter @MCiavucco and on Facebook.