Research tells us that about 4 to 5 percent of heterosexual couples have agreed to have an open relationship. In other words, they’ve given their consent to not be monogamous. That may seem like a relatively small and, given the stigma surrounding open relationships, unsurprising number. Yet, take this into consideration. The latest data from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey revealed that more than 20 percent of married men and nearly 15 percent of married women admit to infidelity, a number that’s risen almost 40 percent for women in the past 20 years. Remember, these are only admitted affairs. Some studies even posit that between 30 and 60 percent of married individuals in the United States will engage in adultery at some point in their marriage. So, while only 4 to 5 percent of men and women are choosing to be open about their extramarital relations, somewhere between 15 and 60 percent are opting for a less consensual form of infidelity.
What does this tell us about our society? One, a pretty significant percentage of the population is clearly drawn to non-monogamous relationships, yet a much smaller percent is willing to call it like it is. For the people who choose to engage in affairs, is it more honorable to come to an agreement with their partner or to sneak around and deceive? Can an open relationship actually work? How can two people, alone in their romantic union, find common ground on this societally tricky and taboo subject?
For any relationship to work, there are certain fundamental qualities to be aware of. In an open relationship, in which a couple chooses not to hide or to allow infidelity, it is all the more important to encourage honest communication and healthy ways of handling emotions like jealousy, victimization or a desire to control. Whether you’re interested in a monogamous or open relationship, here are some of the elements you’ll want to avoid if you want to keep things close, consistent and exciting between you and your partner.
Dishonesty – According to psychologist and co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships, Lisa Firestone, “When it comes to their intimate relationships, couples can make any decision they want about monogamy, as long as this decision is mutually agreed upon by both partners… Many couples have made exceptions to sexual fidelity or are taking alternative approaches to their sexual freedom. Yet, no matter what the agreement is, there is one fundamental quality that, if compromised, can destroy a relationship: honesty.”
There is often considerable devastation when an affair is discovered, and it seems the lying aspect of the scenario has a lot to do with the pain that ensues. In her blog, “What’s Wrong with Infidelity?” Dr. Firestone went on to cite research that has shown unfaithful individuals are less likely to practice safe sex than people in open relationships. This act of deception thus poses both a physical and emotional threat to their partner. “Whatever their decision is regarding monogamy, if two people want their relationship to stay strong, they must strive to be open and truthful and to ensure their actions always match their words,” said Dr. Firestone. To paraphrase, an open relationship without honesty is a recipe for disaster. Any deception is likely to lead to the same feelings of hurt and distrust that arise in unexpected discoveries of infidelity.
We may not be able to control our attractions, but we can control how we behave. Even if these attractions escalate into a real interest, we can make a commitment to talk to our partner about our feelings before we act on them. In this sense, being open with our partner and encouraging them to be open with us will inspire an atmosphere of honesty that may help us to better deal with feelings of jealousy or paranoia.
Jealousy – Jealousy is a natural human emotion. Yet, the way we use it can be very destructive. “Lurking behind the paranoia toward our partners or the criticisms toward a perceived third-party threat, are often critical thoughts toward ourselves,” said Firestone. She describes how a person’s “critical inner voice” can flood his or her mind with harmful suspicions and accusations that fuel feelings of jealousy. She frequently finds that what people are telling themselves about what’s going on with their partner is often a lot worse than what is actually going on. For example, a person may think, “She is totally checking out that guy. She’s losing interest in me. She’s going to have an affair. You should just get out before she hurts you.”
Your inner critic will also use your partner’s perceived attractions against you. “Thoughts like, “What does he see in her?” can quickly turn into “She is so much prettier/thinner/more successful than me,” said Dr. Firestone. “Even when our worst fears materialize and we learn of a partner’s affair, we frequently react by directing anger at ourselves for being “foolish, unlovable, ruined or unwanted.”
These shaming attitudes toward ourselves and our partner can breed an environment of distrust. If a healthy relationship must be built on honesty and trust, then jealousy has to be kept in check. The first way to do this is to own our emotions and deal with our inner critic rather than allowing it to poison our relationship. We should work hard to be vulnerable and open to our partner, to offer them our trust and support of their independence and individuality. This doesn’t mean we have to agree to an open relationship. It just means working on having open communication and trying not to allow our inner critic to overtake us and drive our behavior.
Whether or not we attempt to impose restrictions on our partner, we live in a world full of risks. We can never claim ownership over another human being or their sexuality, nor can they own ours. There is always a chance he or she will develop feelings for someone else. The best thing we can do is feel secure and strong in ourselves and know that we can handle a lot more than we think can.
Fear – When people think of the fears that arise in a relationship, they usually think of their fear of losing their partner. However, there is an underlying fear of intimacy that has an insidious effect on people being able to pursue a relationship to the fullest of their ability. They find it difficult to let things get too close or to tolerate loving feelings directed toward them. What makes this even more complicated is the fact that this fear can sit below the surface, so it isn’t entirely conscious. Instead of thinking, “I’m too scared of being in love to be in this relationship,” we will have thoughts like, “He is just way too into me. I can’t make this kind of commitment right now. One of us will just wind up getting hurt.” As things get closer in a relationship, we may have the tendency to pull away from someone who is actually giving us what we always thought we wanted.
It is very common to have these reactions to intimacy, yet so many people feel they’re alone in this. We often fail to recognize these feelings as fears and instead assume that they are rational reasons to split up with our partner, take a break or find someone else. The trouble is the same issues are likely to arise in any relationship we find, because these fears reside within us. Until we deal with them in ourselves, they’re likely to creep up at some point in our relationship.
If you’re interested in an open relationship, you may want to ask yourself certain questions, like “Am I simply interested in sexual freedom or am I pulling away from closeness with my current partner?” “Is there something missing from my current relationship that I’m not dealing with?”
No matter what type of relationship you’re in, to be close to anyone, you’ll have to get to know and challenge your own resistance and fears. These fears often come from old feelings of hurt, rejection or loss. They may be keeping you from finding and maintaining the love you say you want. They may even be blocking your feelings of wanting love in the first place, filling your head with thoughts like, “Relationships are stupid and unnatural. People just wind up miserable, putting each other in chains.” Be wary of these cynical thoughts toward love, because they often mask much deeper fears.
Whatever a couple decides to do, whether insisting on monogamy or making certain exceptions, that is for them alone to decide. What matters is that once they’ve decided and agreed upon the terms of their relationship, they must stand by these decisions. In doing so, they offer their partner and themselves a certain degree of trust, freedom and respect as the separate individuals they are. When two people recognize each other’s individuality, they’re able to avoid falling into a “fantasy bond,” an illusion of connection that replaces real love and sabotages exciting relationships. They’re able to maintain their attractions to each other and to keep the spark alive, so to speak.
To avoid a fantasy bond and other traps that doom any relationship, all couples should strive to be honest with each other, to deal with their jealous feelings in healthy ways and to challenge their deeply rooted fears of intimacy. By making this their focus, they are far better able to sustain richer, more rewarding relationships. From this foundation, they are much better equipped to have open, honest and mature discussions about attractions and monogomy and are much less likely to engage in deception and secret infidelity.