We all know that dating is a minefield. Apps and dating sites which are supposed to make it easier have, if anything, made it more complex. Why would anyone want to make it even more complicated by adding extra people into the mix? But among twenty- and thirty-somethings, the practice of polyamory, also known as an open relationship or ethical non-monogamy, is becoming increasingly popular.
On the face of it, you can see why. Being able to have a loving and committed relationship with someone, whilst still enjoying the flirting and the nervous butterflies that come from a new relationship, it sounds like the best of both worlds. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Trust me, I’ve done it.
I was in an open relationship for four years, before meeting my current partner and deciding to be monogamous. And for a time, I loved it. Whilst my main relationship became longer term and more domestic I got to date and even sleep with other guys. In some ways, it was brilliant. I was at university and my boyfriend was back in London, which, if we’d been monogamous might have been difficult. Whilst most relationships that pre-date university don’t survive it, ours worked pretty well, on the basis that I could go out and have fun with my friends without feeling guilty if the dancing got a bit raunchy or I indulged a drunken kiss. The open nature of the relationship lent itself to us giving each other space and being allowed to get on with our lives.
Professor of psychology David Barash, from the University of Washington, has weighed in on the topic, saying: ‘There are a wide variety of open-relationship models out there, and they can vary drastically from one couple to another. Having an open relationship can work really well for some people,’ he says. ‘However, as people, we’re also inclined to be sexually jealous of a partner being with someone else, and from a biological standpoint, we’re resistant to that partner having another relationship.’
Dr Barash’s words about jealousy sound pretty familiar – when you’re non-monogamous, the first thing people ask you is always about jealousy, and I get it. When you’re used to the idea that the person you’re dating is only supposed to have eyes for you, it’s a hard to understand that you could be okay with it. And the reality is, yes, of course you get jealous. Being open doesn’t mean you’ve had the envy chip removed, it just means that you’ve decided jealousy, anger and sadness, are all part of a normal emotional range. After all, people in monogamous relationships get jealous too. It’s not about feeling it or not feeling it, it’s about how you process it. In an open relationship you’re encouraged to communicate with your partner about your jealousy and discuss what’s causing it. When it works, the process can leave you feeling closer than ever.
So why did I end up ditching polyamory for monogamy?
Well, for all the good stuff, there are some pretty hefty downsides to an open relationship, namely that when you involve more people in something you make it a lot more complicated. Everyone has their wants and needs, and when the relationship is bigger those wants and needs increase. That can mean that sometimes you don’t get your needs met.
Then there’s the issue of priority. Who are you supposed to put first? My ex was married, so it was pretty clear cut. His wife was equally committed to an open relationship (and had a boyfriend of her own) but she came first, because they’d committed their lives to each other. The pay-off for having my own life and university and being able to sleep with whoever I wanted, was that I couldn’t demand my boyfriend’s time or attention. It had to be scheduled in, and unless it was an emergency, I had to fit in around everyone else. For some people, particularly people who have multiple partners or a demanding career, the ‘part time’ nature of open dating can be advantageous, but if you’re someone who (like me) values constant communication and contact, it’s really hard. So when it came to settling down with my other half, we felt that we would rather focus exclusively on each other.
Of course, open relationships are just like any other relationship: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m pretty sure that it’s actually more about the people involved than the structure of the relationship itself. Whether you think non monogamy is a great idea, or your worst nightmare, the fact that different relationship type and structures are becoming socially acceptable has got to be a good thing – it means you’ve got the option when you’re first seeing someone to discuss how you’d like things to work, rather than sleepwalking into a certain type of relationship.