What does an ‘open relationship’ actually mean? To some it may seem unorthodox and a glossy excuse for casual cheating on your partner, but for others it’s an opportunity to let more love into their lives in a variety of ways. By definition, it’s a relationship in which an established couple mutually agree to share a non-monogamous lifestyle. Whether you’re in favour of monogamy or not, open relationships have had a significant rise in recent years, becoming more widely accepted in society as millennials and generation Z alike start to explore fluidity and sexual expression.
Most recently, the topic has been brought to life after Ansel Elgort admitted that he is seeking a different kind of love outside of his long-term relationship to his high school sweetheart, Violetta Komyshan. He mentioned that previously he had found love with some of his male friends, and now he intended to expand this to women too. Elgort is seemingly uninterested in the physical aspects of an open relationship, instead hoping to “find a lot more love”. A surprising amount of famous couples have revealed that they too have an open relationship, including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith who have been married for almost 23 years. In a statement she said that whilst she is in a “very committed relationship… Will is his own man, he has to decide who he wants to be and that’s not for me to do for him”. She further commented that they were able to do this due to the extreme trust and respect the two have for one another.
So, is it possible to maintain a healthy, long-term relationship whilst somewhat experimenting with other people?
According to a 2016 survey titled “Singles in America”, one in five people have been in a non-monogamous relationship at some point in their lives, with those who identified as gay or bisexual being slightly more likely to have been in one. A number of biologists would argue that it’s not inherently human nature to be in a monogamous relationship, however that argument is flawed in the sense that we all have the ability to make a choice, and so it’s more than possible to be very happy with only one person too.
It’s pretty obvious, but most people in a monogamous relationship fear an open relationship for one key reason: jealousy. Just like with exclusive relationships, honesty is still the best policy. Those who create a successful open relationship create and follow their own set of ‘rules’. Now that society is opening up to the world of sexual expression and gender identities, open relationships are becoming less of a taboo and naturally, people are starting to question the structure of our relationships of the past.
Surprised? We’re not.
A lot of interesting research has been undertaken in why we believe relationships must have a form of ‘structure’ and that monogamy is the self-titled ‘norm’. Professor Terri Conley, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, conducted research into the consequences of departures from monogamy; she discusses the strong roots of monogamy in Western culture and how it stemmed from religion but that it was most interesting how it affects people who aren’t even religious themselves. She argues that people are starting to make space in the cultural conversation to “question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.”
There are a number of benefits that come with being in an open relationship, including sexual satisfaction; strong communication skills; and a deepened sense of trust and the ability to express needs and changing identities without fear. In contrast, possible issues can arise such as jealousy, increased vulnerability and the higher risk of STIs.
Whilst the topic of open relationships is beginning to gain traction, it continues to have a large stigma around it. For those of us who don’t feel that ‘variety is the spice of life’ in this sense, it’s hard to wrap your head around the concept. We certainly expect that monogamy is kinda the whole point in a romantic relationship with our partners, and it can easily seem like betrayal if they were to feel that they wanted to explore their sexual options. To make it work, you really have to find that balance between opening your relationship for positive reasons and the boundaries that come with it so nobody ends up getting hurt.
Image: Patrick Lovell via Flickr