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Journalist Rachel Krantz was 27 years old and on a second date with a man she found intriguing—a 38-year-old academic studying the psychology of romantic and sexual desire—when he announced that he was interested in having a non-monogamous relationship. Then things got interesting. In her new book, Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy, out January 25, Krantz describes her deeply personal and wildly twisty dive into the world of open relationships. Here, she talks with Marie Claire about the highs and lows of her journey, including her battles with jealousy, with her partner, and with her own mind.
Marie Claire: Can you describe how non-monogamous relationships generally work?
Rachel Krantz: You have a wide spectrum: At one end, you might have a couple that only occasionally engages in threesomes together, or people who are swingers who only do things together as a couple. Then you have people who might be in what’s called a primary-secondary model of non-monogamy, which is kind of like an open marriage, an open relationship, where there’s one primary relationship, the person you likely spend the bulk of your time with, the person you might cohabitate with or have children with. They might have certain privileges that the secondary partners would not have. You also have nonhierarchical polyamory, sometimes called “relationship anarchy,” and that’s the idea that we should avoid these kind of hierarchies and power structures, and that each relationship is unique and different and you need to communicate your boundaries and needs and navigate that with each individual, but there shouldn’t be these rules you’re imposing on other people. And of course there are all kinds of things in between.
MC: For the book, you did a lot of reporting to give broader context beyond your personal experience. Were you surprised by what you learned?
RK: One thing that surprised me was just how little money there is for sex research, how little we know about what is happening in the brain when it comes to desire, monogamy, non-monogamy. A lot of the sex researchers I talked to who might have done some of the only studies on non-monogamy said it’s really hard to get funding for neurological research in the first place because it’s expensive, but with non-monogamy, often for things like government grants you have to make an argument for why this is a benefit to society, and it’s still so taboo that people are not open to the idea that this is worthwhile to study. There was only one study that looked at the brains of people who identified as non-monogamous and it was all men, and most of them were actually cheating.
I was also surprised by how much of sex research that does exist revolves around measuring physical responses to watching pornography and how lots of conclusions about the “innate” states of desire are drawn from that very specific kind of context, which is not actually sex.
MC: On your second date with the academic—the man you call "Adam" in the book—you had mixed feelings when he mentioned non-monogamy. You were worried about it, but also intrigued because you had always valued your freedom and independence…
RK: I felt an immediate physiological response of ahh, scary! I worried that I’d feel jealous, and we hadn’t even kissed yet, it was only our second date. But at the same time, I felt a sort of sense of recognition and exciting possibility. I very much had felt the pressure to find “the one,” like I had been socialized to think I had to do, but I also had little actual genuine desire to stop falling in love with people. Adam said it could just be non-monogamous on my side until I said it was okay otherwise. Then I was like Okay, here’s this person who’s older who has experience and here’s my chance. It was a very intense courtship and falling in love, and I moved in with him within weeks. I’d never been in something so intense.
MC: What was it about him that drew you to him so intensely?
RK: He was the first really dominant man I’d ever dated, and he was also older than anyone I’d dated. My prior boyfriend didn’t have curtains; I was so impressed by [Adam's] basic adulthood—oh, his apartment isn’t disgusting, this is amazing! He was also incredibly charismatic and smart and just sort of a natural teacher because that’s what he did. I was turned on by that dynamic.
Also I never had someone make me feel like I was in a movie: He would dance with me every night and cook for me every night and say we were destined. He was very good at creating that narrative, and it felt like it for a while. It really felt like, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve found my true love. And not just that, but he seems to adhere to all these things society has taught me a man should be—he’s incredibly virile and dominant and seems to know best, and I’m in this more submissive role, but it turns out I like that and I feel safe; I feel so taken care of. For a while, it felt like a coup almost. I thought Wow, I guess I’m gonna get to be one of these lucky people.
MC: But looming overhead was this uncertain idea of non-monogamy. Was it scary or exciting—or both—knowing that this relationship would eventually branch out into other experiences?
RK: It was both. I call it the grim relationship reaper. It was hovering in some corner of my mind all the time, and I would try to push it away because the idea made me nervous, but it also was part of what made me feel we might be compatible in the long term. The idea of exploring non-monogamy made long-term commitment seem possible for the first time because I wouldn’t have to give up that sense of an open-ended future for my romantic life. I had also absorbed this idea that true love requires transformation: I felt I would have to undergo this transformation of unlearning the entire paradigm of what I’ve been told love and commitment mean, and this would be a difficult adventure, but also I was intrigued by that because I’m sort of an emotional explorer and immersion journalist. I was like, I know this is going to be interesting.
MC: A turning point came when Adam took you to your first sex party, where people were freely having sex, and you began to feel liberated in new ways…
RK: That was my first real experience with casual sex; maybe I’d hooked up once before, but it was never that anonymous or casual where I barely knew the person’s name. All of a sudden, here I was with three guys at once doting on me. I was like, This is amazing. This feels better than drugs. It’s just this sensory overload and I could almost escape my own mind. It was also exhilarating because I’d been taught, like so many women, to walk that delicate line between madonna and whore: Don’t be frigid, but don’t be too loose because you’re gonna be devalued.
Before that point, I was counting how many people I had slept with and trying to keep tabs on that number to make sure it didn’t get out of control, and here was this entirely new paradigm, where me being as greedy or desirous as I wanted to be was not seen as something that was detracting from my potential lovability or sexual mystery. In fact, it was encouraged and something that Adam really got off on. And so that was exciting because I was like, Oh if I don’t have to worry about being a slut, I can actually just explore my desires. It was amazing to realize how much I had been stopping myself from fully doing what I wanted.
At the same time, there was this contradiction. I was feeling increasingly liberated, but it was very much based on the feedback I was getting from the male gaze and what Adam wanted. So it wasn’t like I was going against his preferences; I was in the liberation adhering to his preferences. So that contradiction is really I think one of the main tensions in the book.
MC: Throughout the book you question, Is this really liberation? It’s complicated. You describe all the thorny issues, like the jealousy as you both embark on other relationships. Adam seemed jealous when you had a real connection with a poetry teacher called Liam. And you were tortured by thoughts of Adam spending the day snuggling with someone else, cooking for someone else.
RK: It was confusing because in that situation with Liam, [Adam] was obviously jealous, but he would never admit to being jealous; he viewed it as an unnecessary, weak emotion to overcome. So we were in this framework of like, If you’re struggling with jealousy, you’re being unloving and un-evolved. It was not something he wanted to admit to and he would try to control. I think throughout our relationship, he was much more successful than me at controlling, but sometimes not—like when he was consistently undermining or bad-talking anyone else I was interested in so that I would not view them as positively.
For me, jealousy was the main demon I battled. It was an extreme physiological response of fight-or-flight, especially in the beginning. I felt very frustrated because my feelings and body were just not cooperating with what my mind wanted. It was this very humbling experience of being unable to control my emotional response and trying continually to tamp it down.
MC: As you got deeper into this relationship and things got more murky and complicated, you began keeping a detailed journal and doing research to try to sort through your emotions.
RK: I employed research and reporting to try to get a handle on it. I was keeping a journal and began forming this idea that maybe I could imagine this being a book one day. Even though I knew I was in no way ready to write it, it became a coping mechanism to imagine it because I was like Okay, I’m gonna look at this as if I’m an immersion journalist and I can step outside of these very intense feelings and observe them with a reporter’s mind. That was quite helpful in allowing me to push myself to adapt to things that were deeply uncomfortable.
I would add that while the reaction to the book so far has been very positive and I feel so grateful, one of the only critiques I’ve encountered from people who haven’t talked to me is the question: "Is it sincere? Because she was thinking of doing a book and she’s recording all this stuff throughout this whole time." I totally understand that response and expected it. There’s a really excellent essay called “Exposure” by Olivia Sudjic in which she writes about how we put women, especially women who write personally, in this impossible position: Either you’re a narcissist doing it for the material and you’re insincere, or you’re not admitting to doing that and you’re a liar and you can’t be trusted; you’re an unreliable witness to your own life.
Also, as I started to feel I was being increasingly gaslighted by Adam, I felt I was losing a sense of trust in my own judgment, with memory and reality. He kept saying, “You’re remembering things wrong,” or, “You’re misinterpreting what I said.” My reporter instinct kicked in. I gathered all this evidence, like a ridiculous amount. Every couple’s therapy session, every personal therapy session, it was just compulsive. That same evidence is going to be used by some people to discredit my sincerity or my experience, my authenticity. Either way, we put women in this position of: You’re not to be believed about your own experience; you either have too much evidence or not enough.
MC: You describe your sexual relationships with other men and women throughout the book in honest, raw detail. How does it feel to open your deeply personal diary to the world for everyone to see, including your parents? Terrifying? Freeing? Both?
RK: It’s definitely both. I’ve been putting off to the last moment how exactly I want to handle it with my parents. I’m incredibly lucky that they’re very supportive, but sometimes they have trouble with boundaries and they will totally want to read the whole book. So it is worth it to ask them to skip chapters or sections with graphic sex scenes when the chapter headings themselves are so embarrassing? (“When in Roman Orgy...,” “Yes, Daddy.”) That’s been awkward and tough a little bit, but I also feel so lucky to be an example of how you can be out about this stuff and your family might not disown you. We’re taught to think this is all such a shameful part of us that we need to hide.
You have to choose: Either you’re going to be a respectable woman journalist who doesn’t talk too much about this—at least not in explicit detail—or you’re going to be someone who writes confessionally, but we’re not going to really see you as respectable; you’re kind of salacious. A big part of the statement I’m trying to make in this book is that I’m both things: I am a sexual being, an adult human female animal, and I am a journalist who has done years of research and reporting and I’m demanding that you take this topic and me seriously. But also, I hope you get turned on in certain moments reading this book. I just feel so lucky that I am in a privileged enough position that I can try to see if you can have both.
MC: I’m not going to give away the end of the book—the story takes some surprisingly dark turns—but what do you hope people take away from all of this?
RK: So many things. First of all, I hope to foster more love and openness and less shame, and also a greater empathy for people who are living different lifestyles. And maybe if people see themselves in these stories, they’ll have a greater compassion for themselves and also maybe for the people who hurt them. I hope it opens up conversations in relationships of potentially more expansive possibilities, because I think there’s a lot in between total monogamy and total relationship anarchy that might benefit a lot of couples. A lot of people are feeling like something’s wrong with them or their relationships because they have these desires. But maybe there are some options that would actually be quite fun that wouldn’t challenge jealousy that much. You see in the book a lot of different options, a lot of different outcomes, the pitfalls and the pros and cons.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Abigail Pesta is a journalist who has lived and worked around the world and the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
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