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Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee enjoyed an open relationship Would an open relationship work for everyone? Doubt it. Throughout history, societies have practiced polygamy (more like polygyny), but these weren't really a relationship of polyamory. The big drawback to polyamory is that it can destroy the primary relationship if an emotional connection is formed with the third party. Swingers and a few other select few can make the open relationship work.

Home / Life Experiments  /
Do Open Relationships Stand A Chance?
 open relationship

Just like a thirty-year old Ford station wagon, these things rarely work

The relationship, regular intimate contact with another.   It's always on people's minds.  If they're not in one, they want one; when they have one, they obsess if it's the right one.  In pondering the merits of the casual serious relationship, I mulled over the many other types of relationships out there for us to explore.   With nearly all in casual or serious relationships, the majority of relationship types never get experienced.   Some are illegal or reprehensible, such as bestiality  (intimate relations with an animal) or paedophilia (intimate relations with a child).   Not many would ever choose to give these a spin.  But there is one that'll make even the most happily and lengthily married (males at least) euphorically smile for a moment:  the open relationship, the holy grail of the relationship world. 

For those of you not in the know, an open relationship is one in which the couple (bi, gay, straight --  it doesn't matter) are in a serious relationship, but where both parties are free to secure other emotional and physical partners, too.  The couple may decide to have rules about the number, type, and extent of intimacy in the extracurricular pickup or they may establish an environment in which anything goes. 

Non exclusivity isn't a modern innovation.  There was no prohibition against Biblical Jews having multiple marriages.  China's Confucianist philosophies spread throughout Asia and multiple marriages became common in East and Southeast Asian countries.  Thailand only abandoned the practice legally in 1935.  The two most numerous religions in the world have had segments of their faiths engage freely in multiple partners.   The Morman Church practiced polygamy until it was discontinued in 1890.  Fundamentalist Islamic republics still allow it. 

What was practiced in days of yore wasn't really polygamy.   It was polygyny -- one man could have multiple wives.   The woman was not free to seek other partners.  For the man, depending on the society, polygyny was not a truly open relationship either.   A Morman man could be intimate with any of his wives, but he wasn't free to seek relationships outside that circle.  A genuine open relationship is one where both the man and the woman are free to search for extra intimacy anywhere, known as polyamory.

Polyamorous relationships are not in fashion today -- if they ever were.    When doing some research for this article, I came across allusions that some famous celebrity couples were polyamorous.  Will Smith said that his and his wife's perspective is "that you don't avoid what's natural and you're going to be attracted to other people," hinting of a life for both of multiple partners.  His wife Jada later denied this to be true, as well she might.   The corporate backers behind Will's success might not be pleased with a power couple being openly polyamorous.  The late actor Ossie Davis and his wife were polyamorous but they didn't shout  their open relationship status from the hills.  "We had to be discreet," said Davis.  "And, if the word can be apt, honorable in our behavior, both to ourselves, to whomever else might be involved, and most of all, to the family."   

The lesson:  you'll be held in higher regard by the Hollywood financial community if you screw around on your wife within the confines of a monogamous relationship than if you sleep with half the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders while in a polyamorous one.    Polyamory is stigmatized by religious bias.  The Christian right running the United States besmirches polyamorous  behavior as sinful.  Any relationships conducted outside the sacred institution of marriage -- or, by extension, a marriage-like state -- are labeled adulterous.      Such negative judgments keep many from ever taking a polyamorous ride.   Polyamory is so far out there, what would the friends and family think?  

There's a superficial allure to polyamory, though few couples would ever admit to it.   Ask couples who are married or live within a state similar to marriage why they abandoned all other future options to commit to one person.   A few will have done so for security, loneliness, boredom, a sperm/egg donor for future progeny, or because it was "just the right time."   Those who've thought about the matter more deeply might say they finally found someone they love to share their dreams and their life with, a soul mate.   Whatever the reason, it is human nature to wish to lock someone in now when there's no guarantee you'll meet someone better later. 

poly pride
Poly Pride: Celebrate getting around with 3.14159 partners at a times

And yet we all know it's natural for alternative attractions to surface.   Marriage till death do us all part can be a long, long time.  Within the monogamous framework, these attractions would need to be resisted or, if indulged in, feasted on clandestinely with a spoonful of lies heaped on top to cover them up.  Says Ossie Davis again, "It occurred to [me and my wife], from observation and reasoning, that extramarital sex was not what really destroyed marriages, but rather the lies and deception that invariably accompanied it -- that was the culprit."     Seen through the open relationship model, one could freely sample the new recipe as long as the primary partner was briefed all about the fun.  Who wouldn't want to have a perpetual get-around-the-town card and still be able to come back to the primary partner at the end of it all with the relationship fully intact and stronger than ever?  Sign me up!

Problem is that the mechanics of an open relationship are only theoretical.  Except for a tiny minority of couples whom I believe can only thrive within this type of arrangement, in real life the open relationship is doomed to fail. 

Let's envision a situation where a man and woman, currently in a serious monogamous relationship, decide to reach for the stars and turn their relationship into an open one.   To be safe, each party will meet the other's extracurricular interests before anything happens and get to approve or reject the choice.  The reason(s) for rejection must clearly meet a list of conditions outlined by both parties ahead of time so that one, out of jealousy, can't dismiss all presented prospects out of hand.  One condition might be that a partner can reject no more than two out of three of the possibilities. In this thought experiment both in the couple are operating out of honesty, fairness, and mutual acceptability.   Shouldn't this kind of open relationship work?  

Unfortunately, it won't.   Not for the long run anyway.   The man and woman could go to the extent of handpicking their partner's additional romps.   It won't make a difference.   

What happens, in real life, if you like something?   That something could be a chocolate cake, trips to exotic locales, or a bit of action on the side.   When you like something, you want more of it.  Economics dictate that you'll continue wanting more of it until the marginal utility of the additional amount you get reaches zero.   When it comes to males, biologically, their physical desires for women  can run into infinity.  A man may grow tired of a particular female side project after just a single meeting, but his thirst for someone newer and different will never end.  Eventually, after a series of open relationship trysts, the man (or the woman) in the relationship could meet another partner s/he gels with and likes.  There will be aspects to this new person that make him/her seem superior to the current primary partner.  Much of this assessment is inflated by dint of this person being a change from what one is used to.  Even a cheap Big Mac can taste like heaven after you've been dining on expensive filet mignon every night for a month.  

The real danger arises if the man or woman forms a strong emotional connection with the side interest.   Women, especially, feel most threatened if they find their primary partner/husband deeply emotionally involved with another woman, more threatened, in fact, than if the man has just an extracurricular physical relationship.    The primary relationship cannot survive if one of the two partners is tightly bound emotionally with that third person unless the second partner in the primary relationship is acutely tied to this third person as well.   For it all to work, the situation must resemble a marriage in which each party in the trio feels married to the other two, and how likely is that?    And what then?  The new threesome continue with the open relationship format?  At some point, the whole thing collapses when one of the three forms a deep emotional connection with a fourth party. 

I try to imagine the conversation that would transpire if my own girlfriend and I had an open relationship, something, by the way, that neither of us would ever really consent to for different reasons.  She, because her upbringing can't process the thought of multiple partners; me, because I know the openness, as great as it might sound initially, would undermine, then eventually destroy, the relationship. 

ME:  Hey, hon.  It's Doug.   I just ran into Valerie at Villa Market.  She's the blonde French 25-year old golf pro with the unbelievable body.   You thought she looked like a model when we saw her at the driving range and wanted to have her over for dinner at one point with her boyfriend, remember?

GIRLFRIEND:  Oh, yes.   Valerie.   How is she?

ME:    Great.  The boyfriend is history now.   I didn't realize what a fantastic woman she was . . . in every way.    We have so much in common, been talking for two hours straight.  She asked me a few minutes ago, point blank, to stay at her place tonight.   Just wanted to keep you in the loop.  Love ya.  Bye.

Now how many women, in the real world, could just shrug their shoulders and tell their boyfriends to go off and have a good time, as if they'd just been told he wouldn't be home because he had to pull an all-nighter at the office?  My girlfriend would dump me immediately. 

In an open relationship, she'd have no grounds to dump me for this one episode.  But here's what would be going through her head after I came home to tell her all about my experience with Valerie.  If I inform her what Valerie and I shared was the time of my life, my girlfriend would feel resentful and insecure, as anyone would next to such a comparison.  Those feelings would not make our relationship stronger.  Were my verdict that the time with Valerie meant nothing, my girlfriend would be within bounds to ask why I even bothered to do it.   It's a lose-lose.  I'm mentally charged by the girlfriend no matter why I partook, and the debt she inflicts on my account WILL be called in for payment one day.  

The only way I see such open relationships succeeding is if each party seeks out additional partners for a single night of good times only.  All further contact with the fresh pick is suspended before tight connections can be made.  But that's about as realistic as saying you're only going to eat one potato chip.  Few people are disciplined enough to pull this off. 

You don't become an open relationship sort of person.   You're either that type now and already searching for those kinds of partners or  you're not.  Back when I lived in California, I was friends with a man who was a well known porn star in the 1980's.  He'd once lived the swingers lifestyle.  This was a man born to that lifestyle, and the women he picked up were not the normal types most of us would consider having as a girlfriend or wife.  This man, now in his mid-50's, has never married and lives with a borderline psychotic.    You could well expect the girlfriend would not be a nursery school teacher.

Every man may, at one stage in his life, fantasize about being a swinger.  Society's monogamous ways are what get the credit for reining him in.  Actually, human nature is what stands in the way of the polyamorous lifestyle.   In societies where polygyny was freely accepted, most men never practiced it.    They couldn't afford to.   

Polyamory still doesn't come cheap.   But money aside, most people just aren't capable of conducting more than one serious relationship at a time, and programming by religion isn't the cause.  How many atheists do you know, not bound by a Lord or a religion, who practice polyamory? 

After years of having an open relationship with her husband, the actress Ruby Dee concluded that "we both came to realize that we were very fortunate that, in all of the deep profound, fundamental ways, we really, really only wanted each other. It was like a rediscovery of something from the beginning."  The British mathematician, logician, and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote Marriage and Morals way back in 1929, setting the fundamentals of what later became known as polyamory,  but this brilliant guy couldn't even make it work.   He was married four times. 

Sorry to burst all your bubbles.  Most of us are just cut out for monogamy.  

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