Non-Monogamous Love?

by Matea Kulić

After reading Matt Kvilstad’s post on Unconditional Love a week ago, I thought I’d follow up on a related topic concerning love and non-monogamy. Matt writes, “I love you because you are good, pretty, rich. That is not love, it is illusion or attachment or avarice.”It made me wonder if another illusive condition might be added to his list. Namely: I love you because you love only me.

Some people doubt whether love and non-monogamy can be uttered in the same sentence. Non-monogamous relationships are often associated with a stage of life, of sexual drive, even a current surrounding. They are a phase you ‘get out of your system’ in your twenties, maybe during a stint in Berlin, or a slight tangent at art school. When the exoticism of open relationships is replicated in media, by films such as Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, they are often disassociated from the idea of the long-term commitment required of love.

Although VCB makes my top ten, I don’t agree with either the mystique or dismissal that seems to shadow non-monogamy. I think it’s important to talk about open relationships and relationships in general because I feel we often lack models in our society about how people are actually making love work.

Most often authentic discussion about love is done in the private sphere or left for each individual to seek out on his or her own. Taking a social consciousness website like Pass it to the Left as an example, out of the 113 (thought-provoking) articles written this first year, only three results pop up in the search for ‘Love.’ I think exploring the curiosity about love in a healthy way prevents it from exploding into the cultural obsession we have fostered societally regarding the lives of celebrities, as if their hyper-frenzied romances can give us some clues.

Recently I’ve been seeking out non-monogamous relationship models to elucidate the topic for myself. Through a friend’s recommendation, I picked up the book of “Correspondences,” between Lou Andreas-Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke. Now if ever there was a pair ahead of the times it was these two great souls. I love that moment when you realize something you consider so avant-garde, like an open relationship with equal participants, was occurring as early as 1887. Yep, that’s when Salome, though married, declared her belief in non-monogamy, acting as both mentor and muse to prominent thinkers of her time. Throughout her life, she inspired the likes of Nietzsche and Freud, but her bond with Rilke was particularly close.


In the early letters between them, Rilke was determined to convince Salome of his love in order to continue their affair.  Salome held out on each proposal. Fifteen years his senior, perhaps she had already attained a certain wisdom regarding the pitfalls of attachment.

Do you understand now my fear and my intense distress when you slipped back and I could see forming again the old clinical picture? Again the sluggish resolve alongside the sudden nervous eruptions of will that gave into every suggestion…again the wavering until gradually I myself became tortured, overstrained, only continued to walk by your side automatically, mechanically could not put forth any vital warmth.

As time passed their relationship transformed into one of intimate pen pals and confidants, an arrangement in which Rilke became equally committed.

You see, gracious lady, through the unsparing severity, through the uncompromising strength of your words, I felt that my own work was receiving a blessing.

But they will also be different — different from how they used to be, these songs. For I have turned and found longing at my side, and I have looked into her eyes, and now she leads me with a steady hand.

Some four hundred pages of letters exchanged between Rilke and Salome reveals how they “reeled through extremes of love, pain, annoyance, desire, and need—yet guided each other in one of the most fruitful artistic exchanges in twentieth-century literature.” Near the end of their correspondences Lou writes to her old lover, friend, mentee and now well-received poet, regarding his Elegies.

I can never tell you: how much this means to me and how I have unconsciously been waiting to receive what is Yours as also Mine, as life’s true consummation. I will remain grateful to you for this until the end.

Returning to Matt’s love post in which he writes, “real love is unconditional. Not that it does not engender a condition within us, but it is not dependent on a condition of us, I can better understand the way in which Salome and Rilke were able to nourish a lifelong intimate bond, despite the circumstances of their respective marriages. When he adds thatthe presence of the other represents our way of delving into the unknown and hidden parts of our make-up“, I see that reflected in their open relationship, particularly the way in which Rilke sinks further into his inner solitude (and gift of writing) from a reliance on Salome.

After reading the Correspondences I turn to a contemporary example of relationship models through This American Life’s Podcast on Monogamy. Among other topics, interviewer Ira Glass takes on the risky nature of non-monogamy and jealousy. He invites author Chris Kraus and cultural theorist Sylvere Lotringer to discuss the very public documenting of their open relationship in the form of the book, “I Love Dick.”

The book explores how a marriage defined by intellectual intimacy (as the sexual component withered, conversation became the substitute: we told each other everything) becomes desirous again through a third party crush. Kraus falls in love with the well-known art critic Dick, and due to the open-minded nature of their marriage, receives Lotringer’s blessing to meticulously document her impulses. As this playing out of a non-monogamous fantasy crosses the boundary of love letters to real life encounters, Kraus and Lotringer’s marriage is pushed to its limits.

Having read the book, I was naturally curious to hear how the couple engaged with the publication of this confessional style novel in which both were active participants. In the candid interview, Lotringer looks back at the risks involved, particularly with the impulsive nature of the project. The price for indulgence into this tell-all art project comes to be described as “playing with fire.

Increasingly sidelined as the story between Dick and Kraus unravels, Lotringer faces up to the very real presence of his jealousy. The emotion was immediate, like the burn from a flame, but over time he was able to take a different position towards it.  “If you’ve been through the jealousy and you learn from it,” he says, “you realize that the other person can very well have a life outside of you and it isn’t done to harm or betray you.”

Despite the couple’s decision to end the marriage, the experience of non-monogamy allowed them to feel more intimately connected than they had been for years. Kraus believes that she and Lotringer will continue to “be responsible to each other for the rest of our lives.” For her “the whole question of faithfulness and fidelity seems small when compared to this lifetime commitment to another person.”

As I listened to the podcast, I realized how unusual hearing people voice their attitudes, failures and successes regarding non-monogamy felt. In his article Defending Non-Monogamy, Dan Savage writes, “successfully non-monogamous straight couples typically aren’t out to their friends, families, and co-workers. We tend to learn that someone we know is in a non-monogamous relationship when it implodes and people-both inside and outside the relationship-cast around, looking for something or someone to blame. Non-monogamy gets the blame, even if it had nothing to do with the breakup.”

I have to concede that during the length of my (straight) non-monogamous relationship, I wasn’t exactly open about it with friends. Often I didn’t feel I had the adequate language to describe exactly what was going on or how to respond to doubts like “why would you want to put yourself through that?” when I did reveal the nature of my relationship.

The irony was that examples of non-monogamous relationships were presumably all around. Almost every rom-com (500 Days of Summer, Just Friends, Friends with Benefits) made it seem like no big deal. On the other hand, I felt each of those portrayals simply perpetuated a non-committal position towards non-monogamy because love was always eventually re-inscribed into the dominant narrative of finding ‘the one’ or realizing they were simply there all along. Non-monogamy is always abandoned in the long term.

Finally hearing some different possibilities for understanding non-monogamy was a welcome change. One woman, interviewed later in the program commented that while most people consider “monogamy as something you do for the other,” as an almost sacrificial commitment, she came to see “non-monogamy as something you can do for the other, to be open to them for who they are.”

She described the ambivalence that enters a relationship when the promise of mutual exclusivity is taken off the table: “I felt something like a hollow core in the center: I didn’t possess him, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be possessed.”

Through my personal experience in a committed yet non-monogamous relationship, this hollow core at the center came to be expressed as the lack of condition: I love only you. It struck a deeply seated human fear, how can I be certain that I am loved? Strangely, while the active choice of non-possession invoked all the scary emotions of jealousy, anger, inadequacy and uncertainty at the same time, delving into this hollow core, I felt my partner and I were able to reach a profound level of intimacy, perhaps even the safest place I have known.

Looking back on my committed monogamous relationships, I can see that the hollow core at the center was present there (do we ever possess anyone?); it simply was not discussed because of the unspoken certainty provided by the boundaries of an exclusive arrangement.

Delving more openly into these often-neglected feelings points to the extreme care and intention that is required to enter a non-monogamous partnership. Actually committing to the idea (with whatever rules and boundaries are acceptable to the participants) requires a great deal of communication, honesty and soul searching that I would not recommend approaching in a casual manner. You have to continually question what boundaries you are willing to transgress, which ones you require in order to live the day to day.

Looking out on common media portrayals, I feel that what is involved in seriously attempting non-monogamy is not adequately described. The idea of an open relationship as a phase or stage of life means it fails to gain recognition as a profound way of delving into the unknown. It fails to meet the standards of long-term commitment to a person or to the understandings one has gained.

I have no doubt that the intimacy experienced by monogamous couples can lead to deep exploration of the self. Perhaps I wanted to give voice to another model, in all its messiness, because I haven’t been able to do so in the past. Experiencing what is possible outside of the condition of us, can turn into a project that is more about a way of being in the world, a state of sharing what we have without reserve and without condition, which Matt describes as love.

Although my partner and I never ran through the airport gates admitting, “you’re the one!” I feel it would be a shame to slough off our experience as a stage. Through our continued and changing relationship, I feel I have gained the courage to delve deeper into the unknown, to understand better where I am starved for love. I have recognized where I can’t use our bond to satisfy this hollow core, and where I can use it as a safe foundation to burst forth past my boundaries, past the condition, only me.

Matea Kulić is an emerging writer temporarily calling San Francisco home.
You can view her current blog here: