After many years of dating, I’m starting to have doubts about lifetime monogamy. Just how many people are actually capable of spending an eternity with a single person? Is that actually realistic or even natural? How many healthy relationships are able to keep things interesting enough not to want to stray?
I have friends in marriages who seem to have a grumbling, “old ball-and-chain” mentality when it comes to their significant other. It’s as if people hit a certain point in the relationship when socially harping on your annoyances about your partner becomes encouraged and humorous. In some ways though, once you’re married or “all in,” what else can one do aside from finding the humor in it?
Nonetheless, I’m increasingly freaked out about the potential of becoming an inevitable thorn in someone’s side whom I’ve committed to ‘til death do us part.’ So what’s the alternative? Stay single for a lifetime? When I asked friends if they had ever experienced or would be open to an open relationship, most said no. So, if most people prefer a monogamous committed relationship, and for many of us that is what society has modeled and taught us to aspire to (thank you, Disney), then why is it that year after year, infidelity ranks as the most common cause of divorce?
I wonder if similar to the cultural shifts we are seeing with gender and sexual preference, will we begin to see a similar change in attitudes about monogamy? It’s already clear that most millennials are marrying much later in life. According to a report from the Urban Institute, an unparalleled number of millennials will prolong tying the knot until after the age of 40 and marriage rates are predicted to continue to drop nearly 70 percent. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that this was the largest marriage rate drop in history.
However, even if one was curious about exploring an open relationship, there aren’t many examples for us to point for guidance. Except maybe Will & Jada Pinkett Smith, who have been rumored to have an open marriage. Jada Pinkett was quoted, “I've always told Will, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be okay.' Because at the end of the day, Will is his own man. I'm here as his partner, but he is his own man. He has to decide who he wants to be and that's not for me to do for him. Or vice versa."
The outpouring of judgment from the media was so overwhelming Pinkett posted on social media, "The statement I made in regard to, 'Will can do whatever he wants,' has illuminated the need to discuss the relationship between trust and love and how they co-exist. Do we believe loving someone means owning them? Do we believe that ownership is the reason someone should behave? Do we believe that all the expectations, conditions, and underlying threats of 'you better act right or else' keep one honest and true? Should we be married to individuals who can not be responsible for themselves and their families within their freedom? Should we be in relationships with individuals who we can not entrust to their own values, integrity, and LOVE...for us??? Here is how I will change my statement...Will and I BOTH can do WHATEVER we want, because we TRUST each other to do so. This does NOT mean we have an open relationship...this means we have a GROWN one."
So, first off, what defines an open relationship? Loosely, it is a marriage or relationship in which both partners agree that each may have sexual relations with others. According to certified mental health professional Adina Mahalli (MSW), the best way to approach an open relationship is to set boundaries.
Mahalli says, “Honest communication is a necessary prerequisite to making an open relationship work, which means there are certain things that you and your partner need be on the same page about. Because jealousy destroys so many open relationships, it's crucial that you agree on how you define cheating and set clear boundaries accordingly. There's no one right way to have an open relationship and one small miscommunication can spell trouble for the entire arrangement, so do yourselves a favor and have the difficult conversation.”
So, what are the pros and cons of an open relationship? I asked around to see what the reaction was to either having experienced an open relationship or why or why not one would try it. Here’s what they had to say:
"I've never had an open relationship (would be open to it though). I think they can be positive in the idea that no one person can be or should be your everything. That's sometimes a lot of pressure. If you can get different things emotionally/sexually from multiple people and everyone is willing, then why not? Looks like an interesting exercise in jealousy, possessiveness, and codependency too, depending on whether or not you're up for that. Personally, I think challenging the traditional ways of thinking, especially when it comes to relationships, is always a positive thing." -Brandy, 35 years old, Los Angeles, California
"I require too much attention for an open relationship." -Tom, 36 years old, New York City, New York
“I have dated several people at once. I think the amazing thing about relationships is that they are not black and white. A cool thing about our age is that we as young, growing people are getting to write the rules of our relationships more and more. But that also means that we need to think more critically about WHAT we want exactly and more importantly, WHY. I've seen men use open relationships to avoid getting close to someone or as a benign excuse to not deal with their own issues. However, I think open relationships can be a remarkable result of two people who really love one another and also love themselves. It takes a great deal of personal awareness to hear about or even watch someone you care about being intimate with someone else. I kind of think of it like money. For instance, we can see others making bank and think, "Wow, they have all the money!!! I want some!!" and get jealous, envious and angry. Or, we can see someone else making money and think, "Oh wow!! Look at all that money! Good for them. If they can make that much, I bet that means that I can too!" and that person is inspired and uplifted by the abundance of another. Love and intimacy can be the same way. We can see our beloved sharing intimacy with another and feel that it takes away from our connection. Or, we can see them sharing time and physicality with another, and be happy for them. We can recognize that none of us can be everything to another. We can see love as building on love, and their connection is not a threat to our sense of safety and place and purpose. Moving through jealousy and all of the feelings that come up takes a lot of work. Both within ourselves, and together with a partner. I think that if a couple goes for an open relationship it is a commitment to the process. It does not mean that difficult feelings will not come up. I think that you also get to want what you want in an open relationship. There is no one answer for everyone. However, I think that the principles of a healthy relationship that apply to monogamy also apply to polyamory—honesty, self-reflection, taking responsibility for your attitude and behavior, being willing to listen to the other and take space when needed, forgiveness, humor, and a sense of creating something together while honoring the complete individuality of the other." -Cassandra, 38 years old, Atlanta, Georgia
"I dated someone who was in an open relationship. I kind of liked it because it took the pressure off a bit. I was in a really busy/travel heavy phase of my work, so it was nice to know that I didn't have to be so available all the time but that when we did meet up it was fun and we had a good conversation. Everything felt easy. The con was that when I got less busy I started to crave more attention from him but that wasn't the setup. So, I feel like it's not a good idea if you're someone who won't be able to tap out if it stops working for you/starts making you feel bad." -Kylie, 32 years old, San Diego, California
"The concept of getting all your needs met by different people and that one person can't give you everything makes logical sense to me but I don't think I could ever do it." -Harley, 27 years old, San Francisco, California
"When it comes to open relationships, I think you have to know what kind of person you are and what your expectations are in a partner. I think those relationships can get tricky if you're, a) not super into that person but enjoy their company for various reasons and may not be emotionally available at the moment. Or, b) want to keep that person around but also want to keep your options open in case something better comes along." -Gretta, 34 years old, Los Angeles, California
"I think when it came to raising kids I had to be ‘all in’ on the relationship and I expected the same from my partner. This allowed us to have a total commitment to each other and our kids, which was important when making critical, life-altering decisions. We trusted there were no other agendas at hand so we could work through disagreements. Now, as a single woman, I still find I can't divide myself or compartmentalize and carry on two sexual relationships simultaneously. I'm just not built that way. I want the trust that comes from exclusivity even if it's casual. I think exclusivity sets a boundary that allows me to be myself and trust the other person. By agreeing to be exclusive it makes the intimacy just between us and allows us to explore where we might take the relationship. Maybe that just means ultimately I'm hoping to find my soulmate and I don't want to share the intimacy." -Jan, 64 years old, Boston, Massachusetts
Every relationship in life is different, so it would be impossible to give a definitive answer as to whether or not an open relationship is a good or bad idea, but I think knowing yourself is the best place to start. I’ve always been put off by the idea of dating multiple people for both emotional and physical safety reasons, but I am also put off by the idea of spending a lifetime with one person, grinding it out even when the fire has died.
My hope is that lifetime monogamy is possible and that marriage doesn’t have to be a war of attrition, but I am also open to the idea that no one person can fulfill all our needs. So in whatever type of relationship we choose, communication is key.