Tuesday, April 7, 2009

piece on "open relationships" in psychology magazine

There is a very small piece on open relationships in the current issue of a popular psychology magazine. It was part of a column where people write in with their relationships questions, and some sort of a relationship psychologist writes a response back.

The gist of the writer's question went something like this: "I'm married, and both my husband and I have had affairs, and find ourselves attracted to other people. Do open relationships work?"

The (should be expected) answer was more or less: "No, at least not in the long term. Either eventually one person will have a relationship which threatens the marriage, or someone will tire of hearing about the other's experiences."

At first, as is often my reaction, I kind of freaked out emotionally. On NO! My polyamorous relationship is doomed to fail, she says it is! What am I going to do? Ahhh!

And then I thought about it for a while. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "Huh?"

Let's pick the answer apart into three pieces. The first piece was that open relationships don't work "long term."

How long is "long-term?" Relationships don't last forever. Even the formerly-believed-to-be-invisible traditional monogamous heterosexual marriage has a pathetic rate of surviving "'till death do us part." Try more than 50% is what I've seen and read is the "failure rate." But who says for a relationship to be considered successful, or valid, that it has to last 30 or 40 years. Sure, there is something to be respected in that, in the amount of work the two people have put into making it work for that length of time. But let's be real about it: relationships don't have to last a long time to be "good." It all depends on what you get out of them - what did you learn? How did you grow? There's nothing to be celebrated in staying in a relationship for many years that isn't giving you what you need. Relationships, like jobs I think, have expiry dates, some of which last longer than others. I'm not convinced that poly relationships have a significantly higher failure rate than monogamous ones.

Second piece is why it won't work long term, which is because the primary relationship will be "threatened."

I will have to assume what she meant is that, as much as you love someone already, if you're in an open relationship, at some point you're virtually assured of finding someone who is totally superior to your primary person, and you'll ditch your primary relationship in favor of this new relationship, lickedy split!

In other words, you'll behave like a serial monogamous person, and give up on polyamory after finding someone "better."

It kinds of kills me because it's such a monogamy-centric view of relationships. To be fair, I'm sure this does happen sometimes in polyamorous relationships. Heck, it happens *all the time* in monogamous relationships. In fact, the sure fire way to kill a traditional, mono relationship is to admit that you've got a crush on someone else – I would know, it happened to me. So, at least sometimes I'm sure it does kill poly relationships as well.

But, I have a really hard time accepting that secondary relationships "threaten" primary relationships as a rule of thumb. "Poly" means "many," and doesn't that imply adding relationships, not switching relationships to more desirable lovers as in serial-monogamy?

I like to think polyamorists understand and use their heads about the stages of relationships, and how, with new relationships and all the new relationship energy floating around, new relationships tend to be experienced as more exciting than long established, mature relationships. But new relationship energy wears off, and you are left with – you guessed it! – just a plain old relationship. And I think, for the most part, every relationship tends to be simply different (read: in some ways better, some ways worse) than other relationships. They're just different. Like children. Very rarely after a similar establishment period, would someone be able to say that their secondary relationship is completely, in every way, better than their primary relationship. I'm sure it happens, I just don't think it's the rule.

Now, I think that having multiple relationships can add complexity and stress to the primary relationship. But let's be real, so can buying a house, having a career, having children, finances, parents of your spouse, and just about everything else. There's a lot of ways that relationships can implode, even in mono situations. Let's be realistic about the fact that relationships of all sorts end for a whole myriad of complicated and intertwined reasons. Poly relationships end for many of the same reasons mono relationships end.

The third point barely warrants discussion. One of the people will "tire of hearing about the other's experiences?" Huh? That's the part that's just hard to understand what the relationship expert is trying to say. OK, I admit it, I don't usually want to hear all the gritty details of the great sex my primary partner had with her lover last night. Some people do. But really, this is a huge problem that would make an open relationship fail? Please. There are a *lot* more significant ways that it can fail. Give me a break.

I think it would have been a good warning for the couple who wrote the letter to let them know that *monogamous* relationships don't work in the long term often. Oh, and open ones too. Relationships are difficult, complex, living, changing, things. Keeping them healthy requires work, flexibility, and learning.

So, here's my response for the couple who are wondering about their relationship and what to do:

"It sounds like you have had a number of issues in your relationship, with both of you having had affairs. It sounds like there are some major communication, trust, or other issues that really need addressing. While an open relationship may work, it will not "fix" a relationship in trouble, which is what yours may be. Spend some time thinking about if you really want to be in your current relationship. If you are, and you're serious about wanting to explore an open relationship, spend some time reinforcing yours; after all, open relationship are all about, well, relationships, and you need to be good at having and maintaining ONE relationship before you can hope of having and maintaining MORE THAN ONE."

Rant over ;)


  1. I can't multi-task basic things like holding a cup of coffee and texting, so I couldn't fathom trying to be in multiple loving relationships. Too much drama for this bro.

    Best of luck for the rest of you! I find this a fascinating subject.

  2. Thanks for writing this. Too often, critiques of open relationships are told from a monogamy centered point of view. As a person who has experienced being poly, I find the criticism of the secondary "threatening" the primary relationship kind of amusing. People need to get on board with the idea that a lasting relationship has little to do with monogamous sexual fidelity, and everything to do with compatibility, hard work, good communication, sacrifice, compassion, sympathy, understanding, etc.

  3. Thanks for writing this. I happen to have a spouse and two lovers who I adore. We enrich each other's lives differently. While there are moments of jealousy it comes from having to make time commitments to each relationship, not from a sense of being cheated on. You have to commit to the love for as long as you have it, and then be willing to let things move on if the relationship has run its course. In the end, my primary love relationship is primary because it is supportive. Good luck :)

  4. Check this link out:
    Science agrees with you. Nearly 2/3 of "swingers" (admittedly this is somewhat different from what you're describing) feel happier with their relationship after accepting non-monogamous lifestyles. This link was listed by Google as a "scholarly article".
    Polyamory might be even better than you suggest. To quote you, "spend some time reinforcing yours; after all ... you need to be good at having and maintaining ONE relationship before you can hope of having and maintaining MORE THAN ONE." While this stands to reason as good advice, statistical evidence suggests that openness could benefit a failing relationship anyway.
    This blog post was very helpful and informative. I find the views expressed very pragmatic and well thought out. I think it could use more references, like this one, to back up it's arguments, and bring polyamory further into public view.