Open Relationships: the Way Forward?

Image, in the style of a popular Swedish brand, with confusing visual instructions for establishing open relationships.

In recent years, conversations about open relationships have become more commonplace. More than a quarter of adults in the US report that they are interested in having or already enjoy them, and this figure increases with younger generations.

Some put this down to the gradual liberalisation of many societies, due – amongst many other factors – to the movement away from religion as a guiding force for our life choices, as well as increased sexual liberty allowed by the invention and easy access to contraceptives like the pill.

Others argue that the internet is a primary driver for the increased interest and practice of non-monogamy, as nowadays it is much easier to find information about different kinds of relationships, as well as to find others around the world who share similar values and relationship ideals.

Non-monogamy, however, has long been a feature of human societies, in some shape or form. In most societies, from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and in almost all religions, be that Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, non-monogamy was an accepted practice for millennia. Polygyny in particular (the practice of a man being able to take more than one wife) was widespread, and still is in many parts of the world.

This noted, non-monogamy was not just limited to heterosexual relationships; in Ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria, as well as Ancient Greece, there was no stigma around extramarital relationships between men, and in some societies, such relationships were actively encouraged, particularly amongst military men – it was said to improve their performance in battle.

Women also got a piece of the action; in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, for instance, it was common for women to take multiple husbands. Often a woman married multiple brothers, who worked together to provide for their wife and shared children.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre very famously engaged in open relationships throughout their lives. 

For many of us in the western world, the concept of an open relationship is perhaps a strange one at first. We are encouraged (from the fairy stories we read as children, to most TV shows and films, as well as in the relationships that are celebrated and held up as models) that there is a catch all type of relationship – a long-term, monogamous one between two people.

When we hear of non-monogamy, many of us automatically think in terms of someone “being unfaithful”; someone “cheating” on their partner by being intimate with someone else, without their partner’s knowledge or consent. That can be a common problem for people in open relationships today, who sometimes feel a need to provide a disclaimer: “I believe in ethical non-monogamy”, i.e. non-monogamy with the agreement of all parties concerned.

As with anything, there are pros and cons that come with participating in an open relationship. On one hand, as we’ve seen, non-monogamy is normal for humans, as demonstrated by it being commonplace across location and time. Some might argue that it is unnatural for us to be sexually exclusive with just one person, whilst proponents of polyamory often view romantic relationships in the same way we view friendships, where it’s rare (and perhaps frowned upon) to expect such a degree of exclusivity. We can love ALL our friends – why can’t we love more than one person romantically?

Because open relationships are not currently the norm and may be frowned upon by some, those who engage in them may also have engaged in much more self-reflection, which has enabled them to find out what is right for them. Reflecting in such a manner can have enormous benefits in other areas of life too – as can building the courage to go against the grain. What’s more, many people in open relationships feel that by responding to the challenges of non-monogamy (which I’ll explore in a moment), they are better able to deal with emotions like jealousy. Again, such emotional regulation can be enormously beneficial in all areas of life.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are also well known for their non-monogamous relationship.

On the other hand, open relationships can be hard. Jealousy, envy, and possessiveness are all emotions that can crop up easily and take hard work to quell – if they can be quelled at all. Managing multiple relationships can take a lot of effort and communication, and there is no pre-ordained rule book to how open relationships should work; with each partner, it is often necessary to establish rules, boundaries and expectations, and clearly these may not line up.

Not only that, but there is a lot of outside judgement which can be tiring and ostracising. For this reason, many people who engage in non-monogamy choose not to disclose this even with their closest friends and family.

I encourage you to watch our recent open discussion about open relationships below, if you want to learn more about the subject. We spoke to a variety of people – those in open relationships themselves, those who are curious about the subject, therapists who have clients in non-monogamous relationships, to name just a few – about the challenges and advantages of non-monogamy.

As a serial monogamist myself, I really appreciated the opportunity to think differently about relationships than the way we are so often programmed to, and to hear from people speaking openly and vulnerably about the subject. It’s important we challenge our prior assumptions and expectations, and I can’t think of a more engrained norm than that of monogamy. Perhaps it’s time to explore whether that norm still works for you, too?

Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.

Stillpoint is an organisation that aims to make psychology more publicly accessible, through events, online content and a virtual community for the psychologically curious.

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