When my last boyfriend asked me to consider being in an open relationship with him, I was surprised. It had not occurred to me that my boyfriend would want to be involved with other people if he was happy with me. “It’s not about you,” he said, “I enjoy being with you. But I want to have the option to have different experiences with other people. If I let opportunities for these experiences pass me by I might regret it.”
“Is having those experiences more important than I am?” I asked. He was surprised. “No, having these options reminds me that I am with you by choice, not because I’m obligated. So I’m choosing you, not trapped with you,” he said.
This is an extreme paraphrase of a much longer conversation, but you get my point. In any case, I still refused, finding no reason to change my mind, and the relationship ended shortly after that. But as hurt as I was that my boyfriend chose freedom over me, this experience led me to contemplate the growing popularity of open relationships. I had struggled with another ex over the “open” or “closed” terms of our relationship, and I was also once propositioned by one of my friends from elementary school to be in an open relationship. The choice between an open and a monogamous relationship is becoming an increasingly common stepping stone for couples, which pushes us all to really think about why we choose the relationships we do.
Having spoken with friends who are in open relationships, I can see the perceived benefits of an open relationship. In our hookup culture, which offers countless possibilities for sexual experience, open relationships can be considered quite practical. While its partakers are allowed to experience different people, they are also able to have an emotionally fulfilling relationship with each other.
One of my Swat alum friends once told me about his open relationship with his girlfriend, and how they “decided to drop monogamy in favor of a modified form of non-monogamy.” In his words, “I had a lot of cuddle-buddies I didn’t want to sacrifice. She had lots of guys she still wanted to meet and I didn’t want to encroach upon her ability to live college life as a free woman.” When describing the terms of their relationship to me, it seemed like a whirlwind of rules upon rules. Among other things, “we’ve put a 3-ish month cap on sex with new people, i.e. must have known the person 3 months,” he said. “There’s an additional feature by which we can present to each other the case for having sex with someone new, e.g. she comes to me and says ‘I met a guy and he’s leaving the country in 3 days, but I totes want to get laid’. In that situation, I’d have her investigate his disease status, and then give the green light.”
It’s important to note that this relationship has lasted almost three years, so they must be doing something right. But for me personally, hearing him listing these numerous rules and terms made me dizzy. I couldn’t imagine having a relationship so complicated and contractual. While I’m sure that not all open relationships are so structured, I can imagine that a much more extensive conversation would have to occur to define the emotional and practical boundaries of an open relationship. How do you ensure that neither party becomes jealous? How do you protect each other from STIs? How do you differentiate between your relationship and a friends-with-benefits arrangement?
I fear that in pursuing an open relationship in the interest of experimentation and freedom, one might overlook the benefits of the monogamous relationship. In my mind, there is a reason that modern society has generally come to honor monogamous relationships and marriages over the polygamous marriages in the Bible or feudal China. Before anyone says that the “natural state” of humankind is polyamorous, let me say that nearly nothing we do as humans is “natural” – not traveling to space, nor surfing the Internet, nor even healing the sick. So perhaps we should consider how monogamy, like all these things, enhances human society as a whole.
Relationship simplicity aside, monogamy challenges the human race to stretch its potential for emotional intelligence. Monogamy, after all, is a daily commitment – a successful monogamous relationship requires constant self-control, compassion, and care. It is a challenge that requires an incredible mental capacity, which is why it is difficult to maintain long-term. Vlogger Hank Green, in a video about monogamy, has said that “it could be that monogamy is one of the driving forces for making humankind smarter, for making us more human. Some scientists have gone as far as to speculate that our super-sophisticated social intelligence, our ability to navigate tricky social situations and maintain our status within complicated social groups was made possible by the ultra-challenging task of making monogamy work for us.”
Speaking of social situations, monogamy requires us to be in tune with what we want for both ourselves and one another. Committing to a partner is no small thing, and the success of that relationship relies on many factors, such as physical attraction, intellectual compatibility, and compatible emotional needs. And so we have to know a partner very well before making that choice. Arguably, monogamy drives us to know one another well and to be honest with ourselves and each other before acting upon our animal instincts.
And isn’t it a better world, in which we are more attuned to other people’s wants and needs?