Exploring openness in relationships

A woman was explaining how she and her partner both felt free to express their attractions for others, and how great it felt compared to previous relationships where that would have been taboo.

My friend, knowing I couldn’t help but overhear from where I was sitting beside them, invited me into the conversation, asking me about my relationship. I described my relationship as similar… except that sometimes we acted on those attractions.

“Oh, you’re in an open relationship.” Was the woman’s reply. She then started to defend her relationship’s boundaries, explaining that neither of them actually would act on their attractions even if it were totally okay with the other.

Because they simply didn’t feel the need.

I told her how great that was and exited the conversation as quickly as courtesy allowed, not exactly sure why I felt affronted.

Even within the relatively funky and open-minded communities that I run in, it is hard to find many people who, upon learning that my partner and I are not 100% sexually exclusive, don’t begin explaining their own preference for monogamy with some degree of defensiveness.

On the other hand, because my partner and I do have specific and occasionally shifting boundaries that we maintain, I’ve had my relationship called “not really open” by a friend who’s part of an open relationship community in San Francisco.

Open or closed, polyamorous or monogamous, all relationships lie somewhere on the spectrum of sexual openness, with the extremes of absolute exclusivity and complete openness extremely rare, if even imaginable.

There are relationships where one partner is so possessed they must never show any skin in public. There are relationships where it is not okay to spend time with friends of the opposite sex without the pretext of a party or work. There are relationships where it is only okay to speak of attractions towards celebrities, but never towards people who might actually be within reach. There are relationships where it is okay to express attraction to friends and mutual acquaintances, but never physically act on them. There are relationships where anything goes, so long as safety is taken into consideration and neither partner expresses feelings of hesitance. And there are relationships on every point of the spectrum in between and beyond, with every imaginable caveat either explicitly defined or implicitly understood.

With this continuum in mind, all relationships are open to a degree, and closed to another degree. Where do you define the boundary between open and closed?

For me, the narrow lens focused on a shifting spectrum of sexual rules misses the root of a healthy open relationship. What defines the qualities of opening relationship to me has more to do with how a couple (or triad, etc) interacts with the world, allowing new relationships, passions, and attachments to develop and enrich their lives. The biggest challenge of my relationship hasn’t been opening to my partner’s sexual interests in other people; it has been opening to her desire to pursue a career as a doctor. The unending demands of the institutions of western medicine inspire more jealousy and fear in me than any single person could. Choosing to work through this jealousy and fear has brought me face to face with some of my most nefarious and elusive demons, and given me a venue to shift long held beliefs that have been holding me back from my own potential.

I also wonder if this openness isn’t cyclical in a way, within the course of a relationship’s lifetime. I wonder if there are times of opening to the world, and times of closing to focus on each other. Relationships begin with an amount of closing, where progress is felt by how intimately you entwine your lives. This phase comes to an end however, as you reach a point where your bond is strong and secure, and becomes a sort of touchstone as you go back to the world and fulfill dreams that wouldn’t be possible without your partner’s love and support. This transition is a touchy process, as it can feel as if you are growing apart, and like you might never feel the exhilaration of intensely increasing intimacy again. It is also common for one partner to begin this process before the other, which can lead to intense jealousy and feelings of loss. However, if the bond is strong enough and the partners are supported by wisdom, the opening can begin with sincerity.

From this perspective, openness in a relationship would only lead to openness towards other sexual partners if that were a way one or both partners wanted to grow and expand. Perhaps certainty about that lack of want was what the woman defending the boundaries of her relationship was trying to express.

All passions being equal, sexual and romantic interests are generally considered the most threatening type of new passion to a primary relationship. The vast majority of people make sexual exclusivity the lynch pin of their most sacred bond. Why is that, do you suppose? I’d like to hear your thoughts….


2 responses to “Exploring openness in relationships

  • Tony Gandales

    How are you able to maintain a open relationship after marriage? What about kids and how it would affect them if they found out in the future. Thanks I am in a similar situation and I am thinking about marriage.

    • Bannigan McDade

      Thanks Tony, for the thoughtful question. I was recently asked, after explaining a bit about my open relationship, “Then why did you get married?” This question was coming from a place of genuine curiosity, but is a clear expression of a particular view of what marriage means. For most people, marriage implies monogamy for life. However, in practice, this is more aspirational than typical. Most marriages either end in divorce or include affairs which may never rise to the surface. Some marriages do last for lifetime and are effectively monogamous, but even these include a certain amount of connection with members the opposite sex that might be considered erotic. So it is all much more gray than black and white. So as to how to maintain an open relationship after marriage? How are you defining your marriage? I will also mention that even if you define your marriage as non-monogamous from the beginning, the institution itself does bring an amount to the table, so you will likely have to continually work through your own relationship to the institution. However, just as marriage now contains divorce in a way in which it did not 80 years ago, I think it will, more and more, include a greater degree of sexual freedom for many people. As far as kids go, that is another subject altogether. I cannot speak from first hand experience, but I have discussed it with friends and colleagues who have first hand experience. Under the assumption that the open relationship is healthy, the children benefit from happy, fulfilled parents, and perhaps additional support from a network of concerned adults. The children see more modeling healthy, affectionate connections. The harder part can come from judgements of other parents. Some parents might not let their kids come over your house if they know of your open arrangement and disapprove.

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