An insider’s view on…open relationships
We all aspire for monogamy in love, right?! So what can it mean when we decide to leave our romantic options more open…
By Sophie Lovelace
How it all began…
My partner and I have been together for just over a year. We have a wonderful relationship. We met on a dating app and, after about three months, the day came when I wanted to ask them if we were moving into ‘exclusivity’ (the usual progression in monogamous relationships). I was faced with an answer that I’d never expected.
They told me that they weren’t sure about monogamy. For them, they weren’t sure the idea was sustainable long-term. That the whole concept felt a bit caging. But, they wanted to be with me. Since I wanted monogamy, monogamy it shall be.
Throughout our relationship, we’ve clashed over our ideas of how a relationship ‘should’ be. Although we have a wonderful time together and a flourishing relationship, I couldn’t shake the feeling that one day it would all end because my partner wasn’t going to change their mind about monogamy. So, I felt like I was never going to be their everything. It was difficult to process.
After all, we’re told from childhood that we must all find ‘the one’ – that person you’ll be so incredibly in love with that you feel complete, the one you can’t see yourself without, the person who will make you feel like you’ll never want for anything more. We’re told that we’ll all eventually find this person, move in with them, get married, have children and entwine your lives fully and completely until death parts you. And, of course, we’ll be elated the entire time. There will be some rough spots, but you work them through no matter what. If your relationship should end, then they were obviously not ‘the one’ and you get off the relationship escalator and start again with someone new.
This was daunting for me. I’d seen things about ‘dating for marriage’ and not simply dating because you enjoy their company, here and now. Because if here and now is as far as the escalator is going to go, then what’s the point? Is it ok to just be with someone because they inspire you, help you grow, that they’re your best friend, you have amazing sex, you trust them entirely and laugh out loud every time you spend time with them? Or should it end because you need to find someone to be with for life? At what point do we become ‘too old’ and need to start thinking about ‘settling down’? What even is a ‘relationship’? How are relationships defined?
Throughout my relationship with my partner, I felt hugely insecure and jealous. I felt that any day could be the day that they decide I’m no longer ‘enough’. When they would go out with others, especially past lovers, I felt threatened because maybe they could give them everything I couldn’t. My insecurities would create stories in my mind: ‘they’re only seeing me because they feel obliged to’; ‘they’re only in contact with my every day because they feel like they have to be’; ‘they’re only sleeping with me because they haven’t found any one better, yet’. It was exhausting.
One day, a friend of mine told me that they were going to open their relationship up with their significant other (SO). I couldn’t believe it. Someone that I know is going to try non-monogamy! I thought non-monogamy was basically a way to cheat without it being classed as ‘cheating’. We spoke about it for a while and I was fascinated. My friend had, in the past, fallen for two people at once.
This caused so much heartache and sadness as the expectation to be in one monogamous relationship had forced her to choose. Which one of these wonderful people, who she loves, is ‘better’? Which is more likely to be her everything? Which one does she want to be with for the rest of her life? She didn’t want to choose, so how could she? They’re completely different people, they can’t be compared. They both brought their own specialness into my friend’s life. And there’s no checklist out there we can use to compare two humans.
In friendships, we would never be expected to choose someone to be our only friend and expect them to give us everything we could ever want and need from a friend. Most of us have many friends – some we go out drinking with because they’re fun and a bit wild, some we confide in more than others, some we see regularly, some we see maybe once a year. Our love for one doesn’t diminishes our love for another. We’re capable of loving all of them at the exact same time. Sure, we have ‘best friends’ who we see more regularly and have a deeper relationship with. But at no point do we think: ‘I love too many of my friends, I must narrow them down by tallying what each of them brings to my life.’ So, then, it seems a bit weird that we do this with romantic relationships.
For my friend, being in an open relationship was the perfect opportunity to not be closed off to any possibility with anyone, and they wouldn’t have to end their current, great relationship either. They see love as an infinite resource that doesn’t simply ‘run out’. My friend seemed so happy, so excited, so free. It all seemed… well, too good to be true. What’s the catch?! Our conversation made me think. Unfortunately, a little too much.
Could an open relationship really work?
After this initial conversation, I found myself overwhelmed with the idea of an open relationship being a genuine option in life. Can it really work? I’ve only ever known monogamy. How is it possible to have a serious, committed relationship and see other people, too? I started having sleepless nights. I’ve known all along that this is what my SO wants, but how can I agree to it when I’m so jealous and insecure as it is? The thought of him having sex with someone made me feel sick. The thought of him lying in bed with someone other than me was terrifying. What if we tried it and I couldn’t cope and it ended our beautiful relationship?
Individually, how would (or could) I cope knowing, with evidence, that I’m not their everything. That I’m obviously not ‘enough’ for them. Someone else would be dating my partner and they’d both be enjoying it. Why wouldn’t my partner just want to go on dates with me?
For two full weeks, I obsessed over the idea. I was exhausted. I couldn’t see when the day would come when I would stop thinking about it all. I spent every moment of the day anxious, with my mind in overdrive. All the alarms in my brain were going off at once. I was scared, I felt guilty, I felt so insecure. I was cornered. In my mind there were three options, each as terrifying as the next:
- Don’t open our relationship – but risk feeling this way for the rest of our time together. Guilt-ridden, controlling and waiting for the day when we’d inevitably break up.
- Break up with my partner now and get it over with – which I absolutely did not want to do. I love having them in my life. But this way, I could just find a monogamous-minded person and never have to think about it again.
- Try non-monogamy.
Just to clarify, at no point did my other half make this an ultimatum. They didn’t even think it was a possibility for us. They told me they were happy as we were then. But this overwhelming guilt was cloaking me. How can I tell this wonderful human being what they can and can’t do? I felt so in control of their life and their future happiness. We’d signed an invisible contract with so many rules and regulations and for what? So that they would stay in my life until they/I was no longer happy? Or, like in some relationships (I can speak from experience), be unhappy and stick with it anyway
And of course, we’d never meet anyone else who could be a potential partner, go on a date with anyone else, maybe even flirt with anyone else (these boundaries change for each relationship). We will do everything we can to not threaten our love for each other and/or avoid us being replaced.
The more I thought, the more guilt and worry I felt. I’d never thought about what I was asking of them. I simply thought: ‘well that’s just what you do’. When you get into a monogamous relationship, a lot of these rules go unsaid. We assume that our relationship will look a certain way and that we’ll get on the relationship escalator, heading up.
I started to ask myself ‘why?’ to every thought that I’d come up with. Why do I think this way? I was astounded by how many times my brain replied, simply: ‘that’s just what you do’. For example, why monogamy? ‘That’s just what you do’. Why don’t we sleep with other people? ‘That’s just what you do’. Why do we choose one human to be with forever? ‘That’s just what you do’.
This brought to light the fact that I’ve never actually formed any of these opinions myself. It was all conditioning. Everywhere we look, there are couples: on TV shows, in films, in music, even the expectation of plus-ones at weddings. Monogamy is the norm. The only time we see other options is in some channel 5 documentary about an older man who lives in a small, southern US town and has six wives. The rest of us watch this (probably with our one, SO) and judge this alternative lifestyle.
Now, admittedly, this isn’t the idea of non-monogamy I had in mind, but it’s a good example of how non-monogamy is seen as radical, outrageous and bizarre. Which is exactly how I had thought of it too. Films regularly portray a man who’s free and promiscuous – until one day he meets his perfect woman and, from that day, he only ever wants to be with her. Storylines like that perpetuate the idea that if you do still want to ‘sleep around’, then you haven’t met the one yet. Inevitably, we end up having this warped idea that unless you are completely, 100% satisfied by your partner, then they’re not enough. So how can we possibly have serious, long-term, committed relationships in non-monogamy? Surely it just means we just haven’t met the right person yet and, when we do, we’ll settle down properly…
Does non-monogamy mean we can still feel ‘special’?
Another thing I questioned was specialness. How can you feel special to someone if they’re looking elsewhere for something? But maybe this isn’t as black-and-white. What makes my partner special to me isn’t some long list of personality traits – it’s their entire being, their quirks and their uniqueness. No one else can be them, they’re special in so many ways. So it’s not necessarily the things you do for someone that makes you special. It’s everything you are.
Healthy competition can make us better, but if we always compare ourselves with others about how we look or dress, how attractive or funny we are, we can never win. There will always be someone more beautiful, better dressed or funnier. But that doesn’t take anything away from who we are. Again, look at your friends – two of them may be hilarious, that doesn’t mean one of them is any less special than the other.
One morning, I spent some time truly getting to the bottom of what I wanted from love, forgetting about my partner and society. I challenged every answer my mind automatically gave to the questions I asked myself. And I soon realised that it was the idea of being someone’s everything and being with them forever was causing me so much emotional turmoil. I had put so many pressures on myself to follow these unwritten rules and follow in society’s footsteps, I never considered my own ideas. I was concentrating so much on what my relationship doesn’t have that I forgot to look at everything it does have.
It’s ok if I don’t spend every day with my partner. In fact, I don’t want to! I have stuff to do. It’s ok that we don’t talk all day every day. I don’t want to. It’s ok that we aren’t going to buy a house together, get married and have children. Right now, I don’t want those things either. My relationship with them is great, fulfilling and passionate. It’s the best relationship I’ve been in.
I decided that it would be best to detach myself from my relationship, in a way. I was so happy when I was single because I came first; my emotions weren’t reliant on anyone else. I’d given this up – unbeknownst to me and my partner – and I needed to start putting me first again, living my life how I wanted to. And allowing my partner to live their life the way they wanted to.
This, in no way, means that they mean any less to me or that I won’t consider their feelings in future. But I’ll be considering their feelings, not living by them. And vice versa.
After my epiphany, I spoke to my partner. They were supportive and pleased that we could tear up the invisible contract and move forward in our relationship in a way that works for both of us. They asked me what it meant about them potentially seeing other people. Of course, I knew this was coming. I replied: ‘I want you to do whatever you want to be your happiest, most true version of yourself.’ And I truly meant it.
In that moment I felt such calm – a calmness I hadn’t felt in weeks. I’d worried that as soon as I said that, they would run off into the hills finding any willing person to sleep with. But it was the complete opposite. We had the most romantic day, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. We took a walk around town, went to a restaurant, drove up to a nice viewpoint of the city and spent the evening cuddled up on the sofa. This was a huge turning point for me. Imagine that: even though they could be out doing anything with anyone, they still just wanted to have a nice day with me. They’re freely choosing to spend their time with me. That’s how special I am to them.