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Research Blog: Open Relationships: Questioning tradition and creating your own connections

By Maria Owen

When I say “open relationship,” what comes to your mind? For me, this label used to be the equivalent of settling. It seemed like an excuse for someone to cheat, or simply avoid commitment. The idea that I might not be enough for someone made me feel insecure, and so I banished the idea of an open relationship from my mind. I should be enough, right? A few years ago though, my friend explained to me that his girlfriend was in love with him and another guy. “What?!” I asked in disbelief. But it turns out he was fine with it, as long as she told him when she was seeing the other guy. I was totally confused – how was that possible? She must just be afraid of commitment, right? It wasn’t until saw how fulfilled my friend was that it started to make sense. Imagine loving someone and wanting to be with them, but then meeting someone else who you love in a different way. Tradition says that you have to choose one, but what if there was a way to make it work and keep everyone happy….?

I get close emotional support from some friends and have shared interests with others. My family gives me advice and a certain bond, and the people I date bring something new into my life. There are lots of different things I value in my relationships – personally I love being able to connect over ideas, being active, traveling, feeling understood and having a lot of trust. I get these things from many people, but it’s incredibly rare to find one person who can be your best friend, active companion, exciting lover, committed significant other, etc. all at once. It’s also rare to be able to offer all of these things to someone yourself.

Think of your friends, think of the people you love, and ask yourself: are any one of these relationships the same? Of course not! It’s very likely that everyone in your life brings something different to the table. No relationship is the same, but we are expected to categorize people as “friend,” “lover,” “ex,” “significant other,” or “spouse.” When I realized this, I started to question my original judgments about open relationships. Maybe they aren’t just an excuse not to commit. Maybe – just maybe – I thought, they can be built on respect, honesty, and communication. Maybe they can actually offer some benefits and teach us about relationships in general…

So I decided to see what research had to say about it. It turns out Amy C. Moors, Jes L. Matsick, and Heath A. Schechinger had some answers for me. They had reviewed the research[1] on the variety of different relationships that could be classified as “open” and compared them to traditional monogamous relationships. They looked specifically at cultural, personal, and emotional aspects of non-monogamy, examining both the stigmas associated with it (such as that the people involved are only interested in pleasure) and the ways multiple relationships can be beneficial.

I learned that non-monogamous (open) relationships are defined as partnerships between two (or more) people who have discussed and agreed on guidelines for their romantic and sexual lives. For example, a couple who is romantically exclusive but agrees to be sexually open. Or, perhaps, a couple who can date other individuals as a couple. There are infinite arrangements to be had because each relationship is so different.

And it turns out that their review of the research found that open relationships can come with a lot of benefits for those involved. Some of the pros of open relationships included: “diversified need fulfillment,” “honesty,” “better sex,” and “security.” Basically, people in open relationships claim that by not relying on one person for everything they need, they are better able to live happily without straining the relationship. Because no one is cheating and everything is out in the open, the chances of dishonesty lower. Hiding things from your partner – whether that be through cheating or simply desiring other people – creates a distance that can hurt a relationship. It makes sense that non-monogamous people find more security and trust in their relationships, because they don’t necessarily need to hide their desires and needs in the same way. Because sexual exploration is not limited to one partner, there is room for variety and growth, and since there is honesty, it is easier to feel secure in the relationship. The research showed that because these relationships rely so heavily on self-awareness and honesty, they force the people involved to improve their communication and be open with one another. Because they’ve had to think about what they need in a relationship without the boundaries of tradition, they have a confidence that is sometimes missing from monogamists defending monogamy. Some additional pros included having a web of emotional support and the ability to stay with a beloved partner while falling in love with another.

This is the situation that my friend’s girlfriend found herself in, and through communicating with boy guys, they were able to work something out. There is an aspect of freedom here that is very appealing, and yet many of us are still skeptical. And why is it that some of us feel uncomfortable with the idea that open relationships can work? That makes sense! The idea that open relationships are healthy and beneficial makes many monogamists feel threatened. There is a huge stigma around open relationships – no one wants to feel taken advantage of or ridiculed. If there’s one thing that I’ve gained from this report, it’s that no relationship is the same. I can see this in my own life – there is a different dynamic with every single person. There are people I’ve dated who I wouldn’t be comfortable trying non-monogamy with (funnily enough, these are the people who I’ve trusted the least).

But, just because open relationships can be great doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with monogamy. Like I said before, everyone is different. And – open relationships are not just about doing whatever you want all the time. They take serious commitment and communication. There is an even greater need for honesty. Right now, I’m trying to have an open mind. Instead of putting my relationships into a traditional mold, I’ve decided to let the relationships design themselves. The only thing that has to be open in a relationship is communication.

[1] Amy C. Moors, Jes L. Matsick,and Heath A. Schechinger, 2017. Unique and Shared Relationship Benefits of Consensually Non-Monogamous and Monogamous Relationships. Hogrefe, Boston.

 

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