Updated: Jun 6
Our culture celebrates monogamy and it is looked on as both a milestone in adulthood, and an important contributor to social stability. While monogamy is a classic institution, sexually exclusive relationships are not, strictly speaking, restricted to those sanctioned by law. Lifelong marriages are held in high regard and Golden Anniversaries, recognizing a couple’s fifty years of matrimony, are among the most significant and joyous events in late adulthood; yet couples who are not formally married often assign the same significance to the longevity and exclusivity of their partnerships.
Monogamy, however, can get old. Data supports the idea that it is difficult to sustain over the long – and sometimes not so long – haul. In fact, a great many relationships are more “open” than the other partner may realize, with adultery being a prevalent, if frowned upon, practice. And it is not just long-time couples who sometimes yearn to expand their sexual horizons. Some couples go into relationships already uncomfortable with, or chafing against, the limits imposed by traditional pair bonds.
When faced with the complexity of sustaining a monogamous relationship over a long period of time, couples have a small range of options when they wish to branch out. Some couples, when the passion has faded, decide to terminate the relationship and search for new partners. Others resort to infidelity and adultery. Still others settle into a pattern of dissatisfaction.
There are as many reasons to wish to stray as there are individuals. Many would argue that it is in our “nature” to seek out new and varied partners, while others find this sociobiological argument too facile and insist that monogamy simply supports a patriarchal political structure that privileges men over women. Whether we blame it on biology or relationships of power, monogamy, though cherished in most cultural and religious traditions, can be a troublesome thing.
Is an Open Relationship Right for You?
Because open relationships still exude a degree of suspicion and disrepute, couples who wish to go down that route may find it difficult to find support for their choice.
Whether the decision to open a relationship to other partners occurs in the midst of an established relationship, or is agreed upon from the first, it is crucial that both parties reach an understanding about the terms and limits of the arrangement. Many couples have found that for such novel practices to be successful, all the usual warnings about trust, communication, and fairness must apply – perhaps even more than in traditional pairings.
It is possible to have an open relationship with integrity that does not compromise each partner’s needs. Establishing the ground rules can prevent jealousy, heartbreak, and anger. Negotiating the terms can seem a bit stuffy, but it is critical before embarking on an adventure that involves feelings, desires, intimacy, and which can also extend to include legal considerations and parenting decisions.
What the experts recommend
Most experts agree that it is indeed possible to “cheat” or otherwise behave badly in even an open relationship, leaving a trail of bitter feelings as a result. If the goal of an open relationship is to maintain the commitment between partners while maximizing the expression of their sexuality it is essential to tread with care and thought. Too often, the needs of one partner are met at the expense of the other partner.
So, if this is something that you or your partner are curious about pursuing, remember that, as in all other life negotiations, being able to attain what you want without destroying the self-esteem of your partner, and the trust you have built between you, is the mark of character.