The many faces of modern relationships
“Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones
17% of people 18-44 have engaged in some sort of sexual activity outside their relationship with the permission of their partners (YouGov survey 2016). How is it possible that this sexual revolution has been taking place under my nose without me noticing it? From this same group 34% stated that they would not mind (depending on the situation) if their partner hooked up with someone else while they were together. This is revolutionary and if it is a trend and not a fad it will have far reaching consequences to the way we live our lives, structure our families and interact with one another.
So, while lots of people seem to think that they'd be happier if they opened their relationship in some way, would that actually be the case in reality? Not necessarily. Most people cannot make an accurate prediction of how they’d feel in an open relationship. It is true that some personalities would be happier with consensual polygamy but what about their partners? Would they be equally happy to share, or would they be agreeing because they have no choice?
Here is another graph from the same survey indicating that 19% have cheated on their partners. This number scarcely varies across age groups.
So, are open relationships and other similar arrangements just a way to put a new label on what used to be called cheating and thus legitimize it?
It is fair to say that for an open relationship to be happy both partners would have to be it to be exceptionally mature and very secure emotionally. But what if one partner is not and has different boundaries? What if that partner submits to a situation that they find stressful and extremely hurtful because they are afraid that they will lose the one they love?
And what about jealousy? This is not unusual in most relationships, but in an open one either partner is willingly putting themselves in a position to become jealous or to be in the receiving end of it. Few relationships are strong enough to weather that kind of storm. Sex is the most intimate thing people can share and knowing that the person you love is sharing this experience with someone else can be heart wrenching.
There is an active forum on Reddit where people go to discuss the aftermath of open relationships and the unexpected feelings that these relationships triggered in many of the cases. A good number of people agreed to such arrangements out of fear of being perceived as prudish and old-fashioned. Others were curious and many agreed because they were insecure in their relationships. Once however sex outside the relationship became a reality clear patterns emerged. An interesting one was the one upmanship on the number of sexual encounters each partner could muster. There was unexpected jealousy, rekindling of dormant sexual drive and often the result was the death of the relationship.
Imagine if you will the realities of what this type of relationship entails. The man (or woman), you love is getting dressed for a date (not with you) and walks out the door to meet someone else, while you stay behind, imagining the date, minute by minute and pretending to yourself and to your loved one, that it is completely OK.
The main argument from those who advocate open relationships is the brutal honesty that comes with such an arrangement. Even if it was true and both parties are indeed honest about their feelings and they have also succeeded in avoiding feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and insecurity, I question the purpose of the “brutal honesty”. Even in the closest and most loving relationships there are things each partner would rather keep to themselves. It is natural and helps avoid the bumps and bruises that would come with unbridled honesty. Does your partner really need to know how many people you slept with before you met him or that you don’t really like one of their family members?
So is the “brutal honesty” of an open relationship the unfathomable selfishness of one or both partners in a race to see how deeply they can hurt each other while pretending that they don’t bleed?. Or is it a modern solution to the age old problem of the sex life of monogamous couples going caput during long term marriages and relationships? Are open relationship a way to keep love alive or a way to irrevocably kill it?
“We drove to the hotel and said goodbye. How hypocritical to go upstairs with a man you don't want to fuck, leave the one you do sitting there alone, and then, in a state of great excitement, fuck the one you don't want to fuck while pretending he's the one you do. That's called fidelity. That's called monogamy. That's called civilization and its discontents.”
― Erica Jong, Fear of Flying