I don’t think I could hack an open relationship. It would become a pity fest for one, filled with an infinite number of trust issues and destructive jealousy. A lot of other people agree, and monogamy is generally keen to stick around as the relationship form of choice.
However, there is actually little evidence to prove that humans are naturally monogamous. Monogamy remains the ‘done thing’. Well, almost. A study by Joan D. Atwood PhD and Limor Schwartz MA suggested that “while percentages of extramarital sex (EMS) vary from study to study, it can be estimated that 50-60% of married men and 45-55% of married women engage in extramarital sex”. The Office for National Statistics has also suggested that 42% of marriages will end in divorce. The numbers would suggest that finding ‘the one’ is as outdated a concept as ever, and yet it still remains enshrined in the way we choose to live and love.
Even just asking the friends and colleagues who in Durham, the immediate response was immediately negative towards open relationships. However, when pressed further, many people were able to visualise situations in which an open relationship might perhaps be desirable.
People most frequently cited a long distance relationship, as frequently encountered at university, as one where they can most obviously see an open relationship as being feasible. Mark*, a second year student, sees how it “would happen if people were long distance” but couldn’t understand how it would work if people “saw each other every day”. “I wouldn’t personally but I can see how if you’re away from your girlfriend or boyfriend for months you might want some sort of release.”
Georgia*, another second year student at Durham, can see the appeal. “It’s very dependent on your relationship with someone. I could see it working in a long distance relationship situation if you wanted to go to two different universities and you wanted to fully integrate, but not lose someone you love.” Georgia met her current boyfriend in Durham, a fellow Durham student, and they have been together for over a year. “In my personal situation it’s not what I would like to do. I think it comes down to what you’re like as an individual and what your relationship situation is like.”
Long distance is definitely a factor in some cases. Jack*, who also studies at Durham, has been with his boyfriend for over three years, and they’ve been in an open relationship since they’ve gone to university. “Going to uni was a good moment to branch out; it was a good moment to explore further with things, I think if neither of us had gone to uni or we had gone to the same uni, things might have got more difficult, and we might not have necessarily stayed together.”
Angjela, a second year International Relations student at the University of Birmingham, has a very different opinion. Having been with her boyfriend for over two years, almost their entire relationship has been spent long distance; her boyfriend currently studies at university in London. Despite the distance, she finds “the idea of being with someone else unappealing” and she would rather have a “weekend every month [with him] then nothing at all”.
It all seems to come down to what people want from a relationship. Molly*, who studies at Durham, admits she doesn’t “see them as the same type of relationship; it’s like a different category, not that you can’t feel the same thing, but that it’s a different category, a different thing. I don’t understand it. I don’t judge it, I just can’t imagine feeling that way.”
Jack is well used to hearing people tell him he doesn’t have a ‘proper’ boyfriend. “I feel personally affronted because that is obviously not your place to tell me what the person who I love is to me.” “There are people who are boyfriend and girlfriend who have zero sex, who I would be like ‘huh, that’s a strange relationship’ for them sex has very little to do with their relationship, for me sex also has very little to do with it.”
Georgia agrees that sex has different purposes and fulfils people differently. She sees sex as having different ‘levels’. “It’s dumb we only have one word for sex, the English language is so restrictive.” She compares monogamous and casual sex, and suggests that they fulfil different needs.
Jack seems to agree. “People think about sex in surprisingly old-fashioned ways; it surprises me how seriously people take it, because I always thought of it as something incredibly fun, but for me it doesn’t have any particular significance.” Sex needn’t be loaded with so much meaning. “Obviously sex can be extremely deeply and emotionally invested, but I feel people are asking very deep, existential questions about something that is essentially another human process.”
Despite Jack’s clearly positive experience of open relationships, others don’t seem to have the same perspective. Molly has a more negative experience of open relationships. “In my own experience, one person always wants more, they stay involved with that person but the other person wants more, I guess I have a tainted perspective of people getting hurt.” Angjela also agrees that she has only ever seen people get hurt. They stress that it’s difficult to establish whether people are on the same page in their relationship. Jack to a degree agrees, and doesn’t propose that this lifestyle choice is for everyone. “You have to be very confident in how you feel about each other”.
People at large seem to consider open relationships as particularly dangerous because you might develop feelings for your other sexual partners. Jack acknowledges the risk, but proposes “if anything it’s more possible to fall in love with someone when they’re the abstract ideal.” After all, there are other ways of falling in love which don’t require sex.
What is abundantly clear is that no one relationship is the same. Monogamy isn’t the only definition by which people can have a relationship. What works for me, won’t necessarily work for you. If you get your kicks with more than one partner, pity on me if I stand in your way.
*Names have been changed to anonymise participants.
Note: Open relationships here refer to relationships where partners are permitted to have sex with other people, as opposed to a polyamorous relationship.
Photograph: Michelangelo Carrieri via Flickr