When it comes to your relationship, how open are you willing to be? I don’t simply mean in the sense of having open communication or being emotionally open. I mean “open,” as in an open relationship. Wait. Pause. Hold on. I know what you’re thinking and I can feel the wind from the quick roll of your neck. Oh hell no, Feminista has lost her mind! Slow down, hear me out, and consider why the discussions about open relationships continue to come up so often but seem to get nowhere.
What is it we aren’t talking about? Are we really asking the right questions and opening our minds enough to consider that what some people choose to do with their relationships is not inherently wrong or stupid?
Why be in a relationship if you want to see other people? This question is by far the most often asked question when the topic of open relationships comes up, and I think it’s rooted in people having extremely narrow views of what it means to have an “open” relationship. I previously wrote about polyamory, but there are some differences in polyamorous relationships and open relationships. Not all open relationships are polyamorous and not all polyamorous relationships are open. “Open” is defined differently, depending upon whom you ask, and I think it’s important to explore a few of those definitions so we begin to think about things in a new way.
For the sake of mutual understanding, let’s define an “open relationship” as a consensual, non-monogamous relationship. More explicitly, it’s a union in which at least one person is interested in engaging in some type of intimate activity with people not included in their relationship, and all parties agree that this is acceptable.
Now, a relationship doesn’t have to be limited to two people. There are, for example, polyamorous triads or quads that are “closed”; they all commit to only being involved with people within their union and that union isn’t limited to the traditional idea of a couple (two people). Regardless of the number of people involved in the union, there’s room to play with someone not obligated to commit to the relationship as a full partner. The external players are often temporary, though some couples do maintain long-term connections with people outside of their primary relationships.
For the most part, people in open relationships make it known that they are involved and committed, so the people they dally with do so knowing they should respect the boundaries of the relationship the person is currently in.
That’s a lot to take in, I know. I’ve only scratched the surface because there’s so much more to explore when it comes to types of external involvement. Some people only involve a third party for threesomes or only go to swing clubs to have sex with strangers or people with whom they’ve become mildly familiar. Some folks allow for a few dates here and there and a few rounds in the sack, but have limits on the amount of time each person can spend with one particular person. Other people are comfortable with one person forming a long-term, emotionally, physically intimate relationship with another person with the understanding that their union remains the primary commitment and first priority.
There are so many types of happy, successful open relationships that it almost becomes impossible to continue to denounce them all as wrong, outright. We should at least consider that they may be quite viable for many more people than we’ve been willing to admit or accept. People in successful open relationships often cite their open communication and commitment to honesty as the reasons they’re happy in their arrangements. When like-minded people come together and feel safe with each other, they can be honest and establish the kind of relationship that works best for them.
There’s also been a significant increase in the visibility of relationships that fall outside of the traditional monogamous coupling, which could be why there seems to be growing interest in open relationships. There was a boon in the 1970s following the release of the popular book, Open Marriage: A New Lifestyle for Couples. The authors basically suggested that opening your marriage would lead to a happier life. Then the fever died down for a couple of decades.
In their 2000 book, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee talked openly about having an open marriage and how it played a role in their happiness and longevity. Rumors have swirled about other famous African-American couples, but because of stigma, few people disclose their open relationship status.
The irony of many of these discussions is that there’s often an obsessed focus on talking about “side chicks” or the forgiveness of infidelity. But when it comes to talking about having an open relationship in which people agree to be involved with other people on some level, folks act like it’s the worse idea imaginable. We see people on reality shows fighting over this one and that one, all knowing they’re sleeping with the same folks. Yet they never quite get to the place of talking through it and working out alternative arrangements.
It’s been argued that since cheating happens because the behavior isn’t allowed, it’s something that can be forgiven and the couple can move forward, hoping it never happens again. Allowing such behavior to happen, however, comes with accepting that your partner desires other people aside from you—and for many, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
I definitely respect those who know for sure that monogamy is the only way for them and I hope they find people who share their values. All too often though, what I notice is that people are pairing up without having in-depth, honest discussions about their sexual and relationship preferences. If more people would consider the possibilities and at least explore it, we might see a significant drop in “cheating” and the pain of deception so many people suffer.
Most assume that others seek monogamy, when asking a few questions up front could save a lot of heartbreak. By no means am I suggesting that open relationships are the best way to avoid infidelity; cheating happens even in open relationships. We have to reach a place, though, where we stop pretending there’s one best way to build a loving relationship and a thriving sex life and accept that just because it isn’t something we might do doesn’t mean it’s automatically wrong.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.