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Is this the end of fidelity?

AFTER decades of research and whole tomes being written on the subject, the jury is still out on whether humans can still be faithful to one person. Some evolutionary biologists will tell you that man is hardwired to ratchet up as many sexual partners as he can, in a bid to create as many offspring as possible.

Modern researchers will note that, between a bounty of technology and a general relaxing of social mores, the temptation to stray is stronger than ever before. Amid it all, we are reminded of that time-honoured social conditioning that extols romance and 'until death to us part'. When it comes to love and marriage, the Irish have come a long way ... but those conservative values and traditions still seem to hold firm.

However, there is an alternative to the clandestine encounters and the soul-sapping subterfuge. If one option for those in love is to forsake all others in a relationship and another is to commit infidelity with others being (hopefully) none the wiser, yet another option is the open relationship.

It all seems terribly liberal and mature at first glance; couples allowing their partner to write his or her own rules. It has worked for a number of celebrities, among them George Michael, Hugh Hefner, Tilda Swinton and Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett-Smith.

The benefits are obvious ... but at what cost, if any, does this freedom come? Even more importantly, can the Irish -- who have been shackled to traditional ideas about marriage for centuries -- really get behind such a progressive idea?

The open relationship takes many forms. While not actively encouraging it, one person can give their partner the freedom to look for other lovers. Others adopt a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. Others opt for an emotionally exclusive, if sexually open relationship. The beauty is that the rules are fluid ... and in an age where the one-size-fits-all model of love and relationships doesn't necessarily work for everyone, the open relationship might be the way forward.

As a relationship counsellor, Tony Moore of Relationships Ireland has encountered numerous couples that have forged ahead with an open arrangement. "Usually the man wants to make a move to an open relationship," he states. "The reasons are plentiful; boredom, curiosity and so on.

"In my experience, he tries to convince his partner and she'll go along with it initially but feelings eventually come into it. Many couples have a sexual open relationship but the emotional side always comes into it. He doesn't want to be found out, if he can bring her along with him, it eases his conscience a bit. Besides, seeing your partner have sex with another woman is a classic male fantasy."

But can these relationships work in Ireland? "On the one hand, it's thousands of years of tradition to battle against," he explains.

"It's a very powerful moderating force. But another issue is more pertinent. In Ireland there are a vast number of people having affairs, but it's such a small country. You never know who you're talking to, and that's a bigger moderating force. This is the biggest barrier to having an open relationship."

He adds: "I've never come across an individual where this has ended happily. I've seen countless couples come to me with this type of arrangement and it ends in misery."

However, and railing against the social norms, a growing number of Irish people are finding an alternative path that works for them. Dubliner 20-something Alison (no surname at her request) is part of Ireland's community of practising polyamorists; people who have relationships with more than one person at a time.

"I always knew from a young age, around 16, that it didn't make sense to me to be with one person and close myself off to everyone else," she says. "A monogamous relationship is not what I want to do.

"I found out about polyamory a few years ago and it was like, 'this is how I want my life to be'. I'll never be happy in a relationship where you're obliged to love one person and you're closed off to everything else. There's nothing wrong with loving just one person, but this is just the way it is for me."

Yet, as Alison attests, polyamory is deeply misunderstood in this country.

While some think of it as the sole preserve of the greedy or oversexed, others have likened it to a sort of cult.

According to Alison, none of this could be further from the truth. The men don't live in Playboy-style harems; the women aren't subservient and merely going along for the ride to appease their man.

"A lot of people don't know what it means, and they think it's the same thing as swinging," she explains. "When I first came out to friends they were like, 'oh, you're a swinger'. They used to think 'that's not going to last', or 'it must be all about sex'. I've no problem with anyone who wants to have that, but (polyamory) is about having long and committed relationships. It's about having a relationship that's open and honest and everyone involved knows the score. It's not about sex or being able to go off with others, merely having the option to conduct multiple relationships."

Many polyamorists opt for an open relationship, whereby two people date as a couple, and one of them may hit it off with someone else. This doesn't result in a threesome or group sex situation. In fact, Alison admits that with the 'metamour' -- the other partner -- friendship often blossoms. "The 'don't ask, don't tell' thing in polyamorous relationships isn't all that common," she reveals. "There is an assumption that monogamy is the only expression of love, and anything outside that is cheap."

Certainly, Alison puts forward a compelling case for polygamy, but what about that most primal of human instincts ... jealousy?

"As it goes I'm not a jealous person, but I have relationships where I'm seeing one person and they're seeing someone else," she admits.

"If you're feeling that way, you do something affirmative about it and you talk to the person you're with. It's as simple as going, 'tell me you won't leave me for that other person'. There is no room for misunderstanding if you're not communicating."

Alison, who admits that she initially felt "closeted" after making the decision to live a polyamorous life, is now part of a 300-strong support group in Dublin. "It isn't a dating group, more like a support network where we meet and chat," she says.

"There are people of all ages in it, from 18-year-olds to people with grandchildren. It's very multicultural and multi-national ... maybe because travel opens the mind. But everyone has regular lives. It's the person you meet or work with every day."

Furthermore, Alison debunks the myth that polyamorists are promiscuous by revealing that she's currently single: "I'm taking some me time right now," she notes.

"Relationships take up a lot of energy, but poly relationships take up even more. People always say that they think these relationships are all about sex, but mainly it's about looking up your Google calendar."

Still, dating is hard for polyamorists in Ireland, mainly because the majority of the population is monogamous, or indeed striving to be so.

What would happen if Alison were to meet someone, fall madly in love ... and that person doesn't want to share her? Would monogamy be a deal-breaker?

"I think for me it would, but for a lot of polyamorists it wouldn't," she muses. "It's like the idea of wanting a baby versus not wanting one ... if both people don't have the same attitude towards it, it can lead to resentment."

So far, so intriguing ... and at a time where monogamy seems harder and harder to swallow for most people, there is an argument to be made that Alison and her fellow polyamorists are ahead of the societal curve.

"People still talk of monogamy but the reality is that fewer people can do it, as there is too much temptation around," concedes Tony. "I think in time these intimate relationships will be a thing of the past.

Alison offers a similar viewpoint: "I don't think monogamy will die out, because it does make some people happy.

"But I think there will be more acceptance towards polyamory. Hopefully people who want to try it can at least feel like they can."