#Facepalm Friday: Dear Theo, My Partner Wants an Open Relationship

on July 26, 2013

The United Church of Christ has an advice column on its official website.  This week a reader is caught between embracing polyamory and stifling his partners lust with old fashioned monogamy.  It is hard to pick the best bit of wisdom offered by Theo.  Perhaps it is, “Whenever I don’t know what to do, I go to the Bible. Jesus is not much help in this case…” or “I’m not making a case against desire. Humans are animals, and we rut like any other animal. It is natural to feel desire for multiple humans.”

With this kind of spiritual advice from a UCC minister it no wonder this particular church is imploding.

Dear Theo,

My partner and I have been together for about two years.  I’ve never loved someone as much as I love her or felt so committed to making a relationship work.  I know she would say the same thing.  In our time together, my partner has slowly come to understand herself as being bisexual and has begun to identify herself as “queer.”  It’s been really powerful for her to understand her identity better and to get in touch with her attraction to women. 

She now feels like she wants to explore her sexual and romantic desires for women even further.  She says she’d like to try an “open” relationship in which we will continue to love one another and be committed to one another, but in which romantic and sexual monogamy will not be required or expected. 

I’m afraid that a polyamorous relationship could be disastrous, but I’m even more afraid that monogamy would be stifling to my partner and, ultimately, to our relationship.  Theo, whatever we choose to do, how can we make sure that we are moving forward with respect and love for one another?




Dear Polywantsananswer,

Brother, you are in a bind. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I go to the Bible. Jesus is not much help in this case, but what about some of the others in the cast of characters?

There is plenty of evidence of polyamory in the Bible. It’s what traditional marriage, among people with land and resources, was for eons. Among the most famous Biblical poly folks were Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; and later, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, all in the book of Genesis.

Polyamory didn’t work out so well for them. Hagar found herself friendless and alone in the desert, fighting for her life with her and Abraham’s young son Ishmael when Sarah proved too jealous to deal with the arrangement. And for the juiciest cat fight in the Bible, look to Leah and Rachel. They plagued Jacob for decades with their bickering, and even threatened that they would die if marital justice was not served.

You could argue that this is not a statistical sample. You could call this anecdotal evidence. I know some people claim to have good luck with polyamorous relationships. I know they can argue intelligently for the happy cohabitation of a Christian sexual ethic and polyamory.

But it comes down to this:  two people and one relationship is hard enough to manage. When you add a third person to the mix, all of a sudden there are three relationships. Four people is six relationships! With each extra person you add—with their wily, wayward hearts, inscrutable minds and insufferable libidos, the index of possible disastrousness increases exponentially. It’s no wonder a lot of the early Christians wanted nothing to do with sex.

But ultimately, this is not about sex. This is about power. Sooner or later, someone is going to feel left out, thrown over, slighted, ignored, less-than. Or just insanely jealous.

I’m not making a case against desire. Humans are animals, and we rut like any other animal. It is natural to feel desire for multiple humans. But what we decide to do with those feelings has serious consequences for anyone to whom we’ve made a previous commitment.

Speaking of which, what exactly does it mean when she says she’d like to “try an open relationship in which you will continue to love one another and be committed to one another”? How can she possibly make that guarantee? And what is commitment—commitment to what?

Is she really respecting you by asking you to be in an open relationship, if she knows that your own heart is not in it? I’m sure she never intended to hurt you. I’m sure she wishes she’d had an inkling of her sexual orientation before you two fell in love; that she could have fully explored this aspect of her being before her relationship with you closed off some possibilities.

It is important that she understand who she is, and how she is made to love. But is it really fair for her to do this while keeping you safely on the hook?

There is no halfway about this decision, to stay monogamous or be polyamorous. Your relationship can’t be a little bit open.

Whenever I marry a couple, there are two questions I ask them that pertain here. One is: “How important is sexual fidelity to you?” The second is, “Even if you can’t imagine it now, what will you do in the future if you discover you or your partner is attracted to somebody else?” These questions are not a moral referendum—there is no “right answer.” Or rather, the right answer is when the answers match. The couple has to be on the same page, or they are doomed.

You and your girlfriend are not on the same page. It might be time to break it off. To give your girlfriend adequate time and space to live into her newly emerging identity, while not waiting at home for her, wondering what is happening with her heart and body somewhere else. It could be that this large, strange and wonderful universe brings you back together someday, as equals in power, on the same page.

You already know what is likely to happen otherwise: your heart will get broken. To quote another advice columnist, sager than I: Have the courage to break your own heart.

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,


  1. Comment by Gabe on July 26, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    Dear Theo,

    I’m looking for a church that has departed from any semblance of Christian beliefs and worship. I want to not only indulge my every emotion, but want pastoral affirmation and encouragement for my behavior based on emotionalism and shoddy hermeneutics. I think the UCC is the place for me! I was hoping to join a vibrant and growing congregation full of progressive and enlightened people who have moved past the antiquity of the man-written scriptures. However, all of your congregations seem to have fewer than 50 people, most of whom are over 40. Thank you for never calling me to any kind of specific belief or repentance from “sin” (we all know that is a relic of our pre-liberal times. Can you tell me when we’ll be merging our dwindling churches with the Episcopalians and PCUSA?

    May you be blessed, just not from any chauvinistic, homophobic, angry diety,

    Every UCC Member

    P.S. I love, love, love the rainbow vestments!

  2. Comment by Ben Welliver on July 29, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Clever – but the problem is that you can’t really “spoof” theo-liberalism, anything you might say as parody is likely to be the real thing.

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