Our culture tends to regard traditional marriage as synonymous with monogamous marriage. But throughout human history, many societies have regarded the polyamorous relationship or non-monogamous relationship as a matter of tradition. Now, this age-old non-exclusive approach to romantic relationships could be seeing a revival under the umbrella label ethical non-monogamy. That category might include an open relationship or marriage, polyamory, closed triads or quads, and more—meriting entire online glossaries that define unfamiliar phrases for anyone new to poly life.
Such terms related to ethical non-monogamy have recently undergone a surge in Google searches according to a study of Google Trends data across a 10-year period. If online patterns reflect offline interests, then this report points to a burgeoning movement in society as new generations begin to embrace alternatives to so-called traditional marriage—a monogamous relationship.
And it’s true that polyamory, which means many loves in Latin, has started to pervade pop culture—from a throuple on Say Yes to the Dress to a movie about a comic book artist with two partners. Society is slowly warming to the idea that for some couples, the polyamorous lifestyle can work; depending on the person and situation, it could even make you a better spouse. But can non-monogamy also make you a better employee?
At least one woman says it can.
Cass has had an open marriage for about two years now, and she attests that along with the benefits this choice has brought to her personal relationships, it has also improved her value as an employee. (She requested to go only by her first name because she is still working on letting all her loved ones know about her polyamorous lifestyle.)
Before opening their marriage, Cass and her husband lived a more conservative life. They both grew up religious and met each other at age 16. By 22, Cass had married her now husband. For the first four years they were married, they continued to practice their religion.
The shift happened gradually. “We slowly stopped practicing [our faith] and started trying new things,” says Cass. First, she kissed another woman in front of him; then, she says, “We admitted that we were both curious to know what it would be like to sleep with other people.”
But what would that look like? They considered having a threesome, though they never managed to share the same interest in someone. Swinging was their next option, and eventually, they met a man with whom they had a couple of enjoyable experiences.
“That man gets the credit for introducing us to polyamory,” says Cass. Now, two years later, she and her spouse practice kitchen-table polyamory, which is what it sounds like: a family-like network of relationships in which everyone can sit down to share a meal at the table—the married couple, kids, other romantic partners—even your partners’ partners, or metamours.
She wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea of sharing her husband with someone else, though. “It scared me to think of the possibility of my husband becoming emotionally connected to another woman. I shot down the idea at first but later realized that I was falling in love with someone while maintaining my love for my husband.”
Currently, Cass’s network (commonly called a polycule) is shaped like a W. If Cass sits in the middle, then her spouse and her partner each branch off to different sides with their own partners.
If that sounds like a lot to handle, that’s because it is—not just from the perspective of overcoming jealousy but also from a logistical standpoint.
“Time management is a critical skill,” Cass says. “I’m a romantic partner to two people, a mother to two boys, a full-time employee, and a graduate student.” She relies on a shared Google Calendar to juggle her various responsibilities with everyone else’s complicated schedules.
That’s one box Cass would have no trouble ticking on a job application, thanks to the practice she’s gotten in her personal life. Time-management skills are among the most common qualifications listed in job descriptions across a variety of industries, according to ZipRecruiter, and often one of the areas where employees struggle.
Little wonder, then, that Cass feels her practice of ethical non-monogamy has contributed to greater success at work. Beyond time management, she’s also developed other vital skills that in a monogamous marriage might come into play less often—or at least in different ways.
For example, diplomacy takes on new meaning in a polyamorous relationship. Difficult conversations are essential in any romantic relationship but particularly so when you are actively consenting to share your partner with another sexual partner or partners. Whether it’s setting boundaries, confronting your own insecurities or jealousy, or arranging that tricky calendar, couples must be willing and able to talk things out.
“It may be something really uncomfortable for you or your partner,” Cass says. “Or you may just have strong feelings about the topic. Trying to understand the other’s point of view without allowing that person to walk all over you requires a careful balance.”
This thoughtful diplomacy that's par for the course in an open relationship can be invaluable at work as well as at home. In the professional world, you have to be comfortable navigating conflict. The best employees (and leaders) are not those who shy away from uncomfortable conversations but rather those who address conflict in a proactive, healthy way.
The uncomfortable conversations sometimes have to be pointed inward, as Cass has learned. In both her personal life and her career, she’s had to practice accountability. She recalls a recent performance review when she gave herself a lower self-evaluation because she knew she hadn’t monitored her own metrics enough throughout the year. Despite working hard on a few side projects, Cass felt it wasn’t fair to give herself a higher rating “because the numbers spoke for themselves.”
Her manager recognized the level of accountability it took for Cass to evaluate herself like this knowing how it might impact her chances of receiving a promotion—and she remarked repeatedly that she was impressed with Cass’s choice.
“This year is already looking so much better than last,” Cass says, because she learned from her mistakes. “I think that came from my experiences with non-monogamy.” She says ethical non-monogamy comes with a steep learning curve that leads many a people to mess up from time to time, as the couple discovers new things about themselves and the culture.
With a name like ethical non-monogamy, it's no surprise that those who practice sexually open relationships report that they feel a deepened understanding of ethics and morality. Although sharing and having sexual experiences with multiple romantic partners may seem counter to our modern concept of morality, healthy polyamory relies on transparency among everyone involved.
At one point Cass chose not to date outside of her two relationships. During that time, she sometimes talked to old friends or past partners on messaging apps, but she set a rule for herself not to send any message she wouldn’t want her current partners to see.
“I never showed my partners those conversations,” Cass says. “But it was more about the principle of upholding the boundaries I agreed to within that configuration.” She values doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
That’s a characteristic increasingly difficult to find in the workplace, unfortunately. A 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey reports mounting pressure to compromise ethical standards among businesses worldwide; in the United States, 30 percent of employees personally observed misconduct within the past year.
Considering these alarming statistics, one might think that every company should be on the lookout for employees like Cass, who practice a careful adherence to morality and have a strong sense of right and wrong.
Yet while Cass talks openly with her close friends about her relationships, she says, “It’s not something that I would ever go out of my way to tell people at work" because she is afraid of potential office gossip reaching her boss. She explains, “I worry that managers may perceive me in a negative light if they knew.”
Her fear of discrimination in the workplace may not be unwarranted. After all, polyamory is not legally a protected class, because it’s not considered a sexual orientation or identity. And for all the media attention cropping up around consensual non-monogamy in recent years, social stigmas still abound. Cass has informed some of the people in her life about her practice, but in some cases, she knows it would strain the relationship—so she hasn’t gotten there yet.
And she says that’s probably the hardest part about being in a romantic relationship with multiple people: having to be quiet about it. “I liken it to not being able to share experiences about your family at work,” Cass explains. “There are times when I just want to tell everyone about the amazing things that are happening in my tribe but feel like I can’t.”
Nevertheless, Cass is headed in the right direction when it comes to setting the course of her career, and she attributes some of that success to her open marriage. For other women in similar situations, she suggests trying to find the right balance between looking for opportunities to grow and also not being afraid to say no, establish ground rules, and advocate for themselves.
“Whether it’s a relationship or a stretch assignment, don’t be afraid to tell someone ‘no,’ because there are other things you want to focus on," Cass says. "Whatever you do take on, do it really well while making it look easy.”
For her part, she certainly does make it look easy.
Kelsey Down is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City who specializes in technology, home, and parenting—and the areas where all those subjects intersect. Her work has been featured on publications including Realtor Magazine, TechSpective, and Working Mother. Follow her on Twitter @kladown23 and subscribe to her weekly(ish) Lazy Mom Letter.
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