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The idea of being in an open relationship can be very off-putting for some. And probably strange for most. Particularly if you’ve been a lifelong monogamist, as I was. It goes against everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about relationships, pushing all of the known boundaries of convention.
All our lives, we’ve been taught to find that one person who ticks all our boxes and with whom we can strike that delicate balance of partnership and romance. And, for a long time, I sought to fit my relationships into these rigid confines. I was one of those people who considered an ‘open relationship’ to be a gateway to infidelity. So why bother with relationships at all? It wasn’t until my first, albeit only, experience that I could finally speak frankly about what it’s really like being in an open relationship.
What is an Open Relationship?
First of all, an open relationship is still a relationship. An unconventional one, yes, but as with any relationship, there is an emotional investment, expectations of compromise, and reciprocity. But in an open relationship the parties have a mutual agreement and understanding that although they want to be together, they also want to be free to have other encounters and, potentially, other ongoing, secondary relationships simultaneously.
It may start off as a deliberate, non-exclusive relationship or it could simply evolve into one over time, as was the case with me. And while the boundaries of what is accepted will vary from one relationship to another, but the main characteristic of an open relationship is the acknowledgment and acceptance of some form of polyamory.
Is an Open Relationship Just Cheating?
Perhaps the most common misconception about open relationships is that one party is simply granting the other a pass to cheat. In conventional relationships, cheating connotes a secret extra-relational liaison and often stems from the suppression of natural desires to act on attraction, sexual or otherwise, towards other people.
In an open relationship, there is no need for that suppression and, consequently, no need for secrets. Without the restriction of having one’s needs satisfied by just one person, along with a mutual understanding that each party will be free to act on those natural desires makes the need to ‘cheat’ less appealing and, therefore, less likely.
This brings us to another point. A common misconception is that since extra-relational encounters are part and parcel of open relationships, infidelity should not be an issue. However, this is not exactly the case. Because extra-relational encounters are to be expected, it makes defining ‘infidelity’ a lot more tricky.
And while the definition of what constitutes infidelity will vary, as with any relationship, boundaries regarding what is acceptable to both parties are inevitably established, and when one person breaks the trust of the other, the resulting feelings of hurt and betrayal are no different. Thus, honesty remains the backbone of health, no matter what type of relationship you find yourself in.
Why Get Into an Open Relationship?
The ideals of conventional, monogamous relationships say that there should be one person who embodies all the desirable characteristics that we look for in a partner. And if we haven’t found them, we’re just not looking hard enough. If that were true, infidelity would not be one of the main causes of break-ups and divorce.
The truth is, monogamy is difficult. Some people can’t even decide which route to take to work in the morning, so how could they possibly know if they will still want to be with the same person in a year or 5 years, let alone for the rest of their life?
People choose to get into open relationships for different reasons. Some people just aren’t monogamous by nature. Some people simply want variety. Some people choose an open relationship to strengthen and add excitement to their primary relationship. Whatever the case may be, the idea that all of one’s needs can and should be fulfilled by one partner can be stifling.
Choosing an open relationship provides the opportunity for real and lasting — or frivolous and fun — experiences with different people. After all, we’re not only compatible with any one person. And without the pressure of having to be everything to one person (and conversely) the freedom to have different needs met by different people can lead to a stronger appreciation of your primary partner, and subsequently, an even more fulfilling relationship.
Yes, But Can an Open Relationship Work Full-Time?
The key to any long-lasting relationship is trust and communication, of course, but this applies even more so in an open relationship. Things can get messy quite quickly if both parties aren’t on the same page. Just as in any successful monogamous relationship, it’s important to establish acceptable parameters very early on, ensuring that both parties have a clear understanding of expectations.
And, of course, a willingness to continue the dialogue along the way. This is key. Relationships are dynamic things, just like life, and unless you are caught up in a truly boring and static situation, they are constantly shifting, constantly changing. Addressing issues as they come up, no matter how small (mindfulness) will help immensely in avoiding problems down the road.
And in this way, I suppose, successful open relationships are no different than so called successful ‘exclusive’ relationships. In order for them to work, they require only one thing: being open.