When I discuss open relationships with people, after initial uneasiness, I usually hear some variation of “I don’t have any problem with open relationships as a concept. It just isn’t for me.”
I want to show why open relationships are for everybody.
First, some terms. Open relationships are associated with involving 3+ romantic or sexual partners. But equating an open relationship with polamory is misleading. At its most basic, ‘open relationship’ is a privative concept: it is the rejection or negation of an idea. It does not necessarily offer any positive content of its own.
So if ‘open relationship’ is a privative concept, what does it negate? Simply, an open relationship is one that involves people who reject monogamy—or more accurately, amatonormativity, the cultural and moral values that perpetuate the idea of monogamy as the default and ideal relationship style. An open relationship is a nonmonogamous.
By saying that open relationships are for everybody, I am not advocating for any specific relationship arrangement, including having multiple romantic partners. That would undermine my point. I am encouraging the rejection of monogamy as the standard against which the quality of romantic relationships are judged.
You might be bristling with doubt. The idea of monogamy is shot through with entrancing romantic images that are difficult to abandon, no matter how good a critic’s argument. Plus, love is about the heart. The issue comes down to feelings, not philosophical reasoning. Monogamy also touts exclusive ownership over several virtues: commitment, loyalty, and fidelity. Open relationships are assumed to lack depth or neglect human nature. We tend to think that people in open relationships will eventually settle down, grow out of it, and find the special someone.
As I have set it up, my case includes two parts. First, I will argue that monogamy (or amatonormativity) should be rejected. Second, I will describe where a rejection of monogamy leaves us. Then I will include replies to some common objections.
The Case Against Monogamy
We all know people who have been or are currently in unhealthy relationships that have done real damage. There is a good chance you have powerful stories of hurt and loss. The ultimate goal, surely we can agree, is to solve the problems and experience positive emotions. In doing so we can flourish. This requires us to think honestly about where the emotions come from.
I suggest that many (even most) of the problems can be traced to the system of expectations and values that govern romantic relationships. This system is amatonormativity, the ideals of monogamy. A process of rejecting the system and thereby becoming non-monogamists would also involve adjusting our expectations and thereby recalibrating our emotions.
We first need to understand what we are rejecting. What is monogamy? At some level, we all know the answer. Here are some hallmarks:
- Sexual exclusivity. You can only have sex with your one partner. Further, you must suppress sexual attraction to other people. Mere attraction, when acknowledged seriously, is often taken as an affront and reason to doubt your loyalty. So couples tend not to discuss this issue openly. It is also assumed that a monogamous relationship will always be sexual. A lack of sex is often a serious strain.
- Emotional exclusivity. Only your one partner can be the object of a certain set of emotions. If you start to feel those emotions towards others, it is regarded, by you or your partner, as a sign of your lack of care or commitment to your partner. The fuzzy term ’emotional affair’ is used. As in the case of sexual attraction, we use guilt, denial, and the idealized image of other couples to self-police. Further, we expect our partners to meet all of our romantic needs. If they don’t, the strain on the relationship either requires the partner to change or forces us to tolerate not having certain needs met (or we might convince ourselves that our needs aren’t really needs). Especially if the needs are sexual, we show devotion by denying them.
- Jealousy. The constant prospect of jealousy is a mainstay of monogamous relationships. If a partner fails in any assumed expectation of exclusivity, jealousy is treated as a justified and legitimate response. A partner is usually expected to accommodate and work around the other’s jealousy. Given the failure rate of monogamous relationships, feelings of insecurity or distrust, both of which foster jealousy, are often understandable. But people strive for relationships built on trust and therefore free from jealousy. The trust is built on deep adherence to the principles of exclusivity. It also, if we are honest, involves an implicit agreement that we will keep a fair amount of information from our partner (for example, attraction to others and nascent feelings). We commit that we won’t act on it. In the end, the trust amounts to a commitment to deny desires. And if they emerge, to not talk about them.
- Marriage. We are trained from a very young age, through practically every cultural institution, that marriage is the goal of romantic life. “First comes love, then comes marriage.” You currently can marry only one person. Hence, for most people, dating is the trial and error period leading to marriage in some form. A successful marriage is gauged by the standards of monogamy. A life without marriage is assumed to be lonely and sad.
- Supreme importance. Our monogamous relationships are top of the hierarchy of adult relationships. If a partner prioritizes another relationship, something is wrong. Jealousy pops up as a result of failing to be emotionally exclusive.
- Universality. All other types of relationships are treated as deviant and unable to lead to happiness or fulfillment. People in nonmonogamous relationships are missing out on the depth and meaning that cannot exist in their relationships . This characteristic is circular or self-reinforcing: because happiness is tied to monogamy in our minds, we genuinely struggle to be happy outside of it. Even if an open relationship is successful, it exists in a world that devalues or questions it, which might well have effects inside the relationship.
These characteristics don’t necessary describe every monogamous relationship. We have learned to live in relationships that fall short in many of these respects. The hallmarks, however, are what make our relationships intelligible as good or bad. We admit intellectually that real relationships are hard and require sacrifices, but the appeal of a monogamous relationship with your “soul mate” or “the one” still exerts powerful emotional control. We cannot help but feel sad, jaded, or resentful when we “lower our standards.” Or we might convince ourselves that we are in the perfect situation. In short, the standards still exist in our minds, and we must come to terms with how they influence us.
The tragic stories of heartbreaks, trauma, and insecurities should give us a hint that we are not aiming at the right thing. What if we reject the standards? It is possible to adopt a different attitude?
We know people are complicated. They will entertain and even develop romantic feelings for other people from time to time. We know that people are sexual. They will be attracted to others from time to time. To deny these realities is to refuse to know our partners. We know that the training process for overcoming all of these “shortcomings” is arduous, never complete, and requires risky amounts of guilt, shame, and self-deception. We know that no matter how much we want to meet our partner’s every need, we cannot realistically be expected to do so. And on top of all this, we are petrified of failure. Breakups and divorces take real psychological, physical, and financial tolls. Jealousy, if it is not here now, is always just over the horizon.
The good news is that we did not arrive at the standards of monogamy on our own. They weren’t the result of thorough reflection on the ingredients for romantic flourishing. They are handed to us, ingrained at every turn. We can only resist so much. This fact has three implications:
- Because monogamy is about some of the most intimate and central parts of ourselves, the prospect of changing is disorienting and terrifying. The world would become foreign to us. We might become foreign to ourselves. So the incentive is strong to rationalize and defend the status quo. And even if our past relationships have been awful, we can always hold out hope for the right person to come along.
- You didn’t build monogamy yourself. So although it deeply affects you, it would be a mistake feel any special ownership over it. Rejecting monogamy can be viewed as social critique, not a denial of who you are. To the contrary, honestly assessing your relationship ideals and building new ones is to accept who you are and should be. You can more authentically place flourishing at the center of your relationships.
- We are gifted with a certain amount of empathy for current and past romantic partners. Some of them might have done terrible things. You might have done terrible things to them. I by no means wish to minimize the pain. It is real and cannot be easily swept away. We can see the people, however, as existing in a system that is designed for us to fall short, perhaps even violently. Possessiveness, shame, jealousy, and self-denial bring out the worst in people. So by rejecting monogamy, not only can you begin to bring out the best in yourself and your partners, but you can view the past in a new, restorative light.
A critique of the societal forces that bear on our relationships is frightening and difficult but also empowering and freeing. If we open monogamy to critique, we have already gone far towards rejecting it. Rejection can be a long and difficult process, but we should start now.
In our romantic lives, should we prioritize 1) a particular relationship style or 2) the needs and well being of another person? In other words, should the ultimate concern lie in achieving the societally ingrained image of an ideal relationship? Or should our concern be the health of ourselves and our partner?
With monogamy, we know ahead of time what the relationship should look like. Then we look for people to fit the mold. Non-monogamy rejects the idea that the arrangement should come first. In an open relationship, it is self-knowledge, honesty, and conversation that should come first. We start with an assessment of who we are—our needs, shortcomings, and strengths.
When we start there, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that monogamy is unlikely to be the way we would want to live.
We instead see that all arrangements should be on the table. An open relationship is the idea that you are always free to make known what you need and how you think the relationship should change to facilitate well being. Your partner(s), instead of entrenching in jealousy, will be open to what you say. You would then decide together what is best by considering what you all need, not by referencing external standards of monogamy.
What do we find when we reject monogamy?
- Communication takes on supreme importance. If we are unable to reference well-known societal expectations, we have to construct them ourselves. This is only possible through honest conversation. Since the goal of the relationship is not the preservation of a particular relationship style, the relationship can transform according to the people’s needs. Conversation helps navigate the changes, which in turn strengthens the relationship.
- We are not rejecting romance, loyalty, sacrifice, commitment, or love. If there are features of monogamous relationship that contribute to flourishing, they can and ought to be preserved. The purpose is to find meaning and emotional health.
- Being in an open relationship does not require having multiple romantic partners. You might well find that having one partner is best for you. But you would find this by assessing your needs on your own terms, not by seeking to adhere to the standards of monogamy. You would also be open to listening to your partner’s suggestions for changes.
- There is endless potential for new relationships. We often meet people who are great but don’t fit our mold for a monogamous partner. Or we meet someone great while we’re dating someone else. By rejecting monogamy, we discover ways of cultivating meaningful relationships with different sorts of people. You are not required to miss out. You don’t have to experience the guilt of looking at someone, however briefly, in romantic terms. Long distance relationships can become easier. A relationship can change instead of ending. A breakup can be viewed more creatively.
While we are acquainted with the problems of monogamy, we do it anyway because we still deep down believe in it, and rejecting it seems like a lot of work. It is no doubt hard. So the question becomes whether we are willing to commit to the self-knowledge, social awareness, and, in the end, courage. In my view, those virtues are for everybody.
Objections and Replies
“Monogamy is natural.”
My argument is not that monogamy is unnatural. Hence, my argument cannot be refuted with the claim that monogamy is natural. I have attempted to focus on authenticity and self-knowledge. Discussion about “human nature” (whatever that means) and what is “natural” (whatever that means) usually functions to mask prejudice and wrap motivated reasoning in the garb of science. “Arguments from nature” have been used to justify some truly horrendous stuff.
There is also a difference between something being ubiquitous and it being natural. We tend to confuse the two. We are surrounded by monogamy. It infiltrates everything. There is no surprise that it appears written into nature. Social awareness is the process of learning that more and more of what we took for granted is in fact changeable.
“Yeah, many monogamous relationships suck, but not mine. I’m happy.”
Arguments for open relationships tend to leave the happy monogamists alone. As the title of this article displays, I think that is a mistake. But the objection raises a number of tricky and personal issues.
In all sincerity, it is good that you’re happy! I am not suggesting that you end your relationship. Many monogamous relationships have great features. The aim is to reflect on those features—including your own happiness—within the context of monogamy and then rebuild them outside of destructive and coercive systems. In my view, you are not happy because you are monogamous.
Here are four more specific points:
- We must be careful of System Justification. There is a strong interest in rationalizing the status quo. And we know that we can continue to live comfortably inside the system without receiving criticism. None of this makes your objection wrong. It simply invites an accurate understanding of the forces that bear on us.
- Even if you are happy in your monogamous relationship, reflect on the fact that you also happen to be contributing to the perpetuation of a system of norms that causes a lot of unhappiness elsewhere. You have the ability to provide a powerful example for others. People compare their relationships to the ones they see around them. They might take your example as motivation to explore themselves and their own relationships.
- Does the happiness arise from the monogamy or from the love, connection, fun, and attachment? Perhaps, to side-step my point, you will say it arises from being in a monogamous relationship with your partner. But why make monogamy a condition of your happiness? Wouldn’t it be better if your happiness were not dependent on your ability to adhere to a destructive set of social norms?
- Have you ever met a couple that claims to be happy but plainly isn’t? Amatonormativity has deep and lasting effects on us. It is difficult to notice them all without open-minded reflection and research. What we find is that monogamy is treated as the sole path to happiness in the romantic domain of our lives. We should be open to interrogating the meaning and condition of our own happiness.
“I’ve tried open relationships. They were garbage. My partner just wanted to sleep with other people.”
Rejecting monogamy doesn’t make someone a good person. A theme of my argument is that successful open relationships require virtue. Virtue requires a difficult process of self-actualization. A person can be correct in their intellectual case against monogamy and yet be dishonest, manipulative, and a poor communicator. Men in particular are prone to using non-monogamy for harmful purposes.
So our rejection of monogamy must involve assessing central parts of ourselves. We cannot underestimate the process. Some initial open relationships might be unsuccessful. Keep in mind that rejecting the default social norms means accepting a large burden. Unlearning the rules of monogamy while constructing new ones with your partners is demanding. You won’t be instantly good at it. And you live in a world hostile to it.
“I did the reflection and evaluation you describe and came to the conclusion that monogamy is for me. So it is false that open relationships are for everybody.
This sometimes goes by the term “radical monogamy.” It is the view that it is possible to reject the social pressures to be monogamous (that is, amatonormativity) and be monogamous nonetheless, ideally on the basis of healthier reasons. Monogamy is no longer an ideal we strive towards but the form our relationship happens to take when we pursue values in an intentional and politically conscious way.
In some cases that fit this description, radical monogamy might be equivalent to an open relationship. This would describe a situation in which the evaluation and reflection on relationship values is a continued project. You need not be in constant existential flux, and sometimes you might have one stable partner without looking elsewhere, but the prospect of reevaluation is never in principle closed off.
In other cases, it seems suspiciously convenient that rejecting amatonormativity results in the very relationship form that amatonormativity holds up as the ideal. ‘Radical monogamy’ is a bizarre term for this phenomenon. ‘Coincidental monogamy’ might be better. How do we think about the possibility that monogamy and amatonormativity was surreptitiously guiding our deliberation all along?
The problem is obvious in other cases. For example, we would be skeptical of a fundamentalist Christian who brackets their belief, examines the arguments for Christianity, and then finds themselves convinced of what they initially believed. How sincere was the examination? Either the person is operating in bath faith, sincerely attempting to reexamine but failing to notice all the ways they remain inside and influenced by the system they are attempting to set aside, or they have successfully reexamined and the coincidence is harmless. I would not call the last case ‘monogamy’, ‘radical’ or otherwise.
“You should respect my choices. If I don’t want to be in an open relationship, why would you force it on me?”
Whether you accept my arguments and act on them is up to you. If I advocate for rejecting monogamy, it would undermine my argument to force anything on anyone.
We should draw a distinction. Some issues are a matter of personal preference. Other issues are for everybody. Non-monogamy has aspects of both. I think open relationships are for everybody. But what a person’s open relationship will look like depends on numerous factors, many of which I cannot speak on.
“I agree with the argument, but I have trauma that prevents me from being in an open relationship. I need the security of monogamy.”
The trauma is either tied to the hallmarks of monogamy or it is not. If it is, how does monogamy provide security? Jealousy and possessiveness helped to facilitate the harm. If the trauma is independent of monogamy, is is even more difficult to see how monogamy could provide security.
It is unlikely that you need monogamy per se. You may need commitment, trust, safety, understanding, or patience, but these are features of any good relationship. I acknowledge, for the reasons captured in the objection, that rejecting monogamy can be a long and difficult process. The path towards a durable health and security involves the process.
“God ordained marriage to be how humans should live. Open relationships are contrary to scripture.”
There is no denying the importance of marriage in dominant western religions. Monogamy, however, is a different story. For almost all of history, men were not expected to be faithful. That has only recently changed. So there is a historical question about how monogamy got imbued with so much religious significance.
I will not question the sincerity or tenability of your religious views. A lot of what I am arguing, however, reaches to the foundations of how we interact with dominant systems of belief, whether they are religions or monogamy. If I am advocating for self-actualization and self-knowledge, surely both religious and non-religious people can get on board. When we go through the process with respect to monogamy, we find that we should reject it. When we go through the process with respect to a particular religion, I don’t know what we would find. But if your religion prescribes monogamy, it follows that your religion prescribes something damaging. This provides a crucial moment for reflection. What do you do with such a fact? I strongly suspect that non-monogamy, because it allows for so many possible arrangements, can be consistent with your religious commitments.
“Having multiple partners sounds exhausting, emotionally and socially. Monogamy is preferable because it is simpler.”
The goal is well being. If n number of partners is draining, then you should change the expectations you have with some of those partners. If that doesn’t work, you should have <n partners. (n might sometimes =1)
“Studies show that people in monogamous relationships are happier.”
“Successful” monogamous relationships are not evidence of the goodness of monogamy. Likewise, failed open relationships are not evidence of the goodness of monogamy. As I argued, the standards of monogamy are what make our relationships intelligible as good or bad. Hence, arguments for the superiority of monogamy are often question begging. That is, monogamy sets the standards according to which we judge the quality of monogamous relationships.
We need to reckon with just how deep monogamy is ingrained in us. It affects how we set the parameters of a study, how we self-report, and how we interpret evidence. It affects our whole conception of happiness in the domain of romantic relationships.
“There is a difference between rejecting monogamy and rejecting amatonormativity. Rejecting amatonormativity means that we should tolerate non-monogamous relationship styles. I can get behind that. But rejecting monogamy is far stronger.”
Standard critiques of monogamy end with a call for rejecting amatonormativity. And it turns out to be a very mild position: people shouldn’t be coerced into monogamy, but they can still be monogamists if they want. Perhaps it is a pragmatic baby step. Perhaps it is the final moral vision. Either way, I don’t think it is enough.
First, I wish to avoid a position, incrementalist or not, full of easy escape routes. Handing people the rationalization to live in the status quo—while also enabling them to perform a hollow ‘rejection’—all but ensures the system’s continued dominance. With the caveat that some monogamous relationships are good, people will convince themselves that they are the exception. Second and more important, the milder position neglects the fact that, with the institutional inertia behind monogamy, people choosing monogamy is amatonormativity. I have elided the conceptual difference between monogamy and amatonormativity because, in practical effect, the distinction is more difficult to draw. I then defined open relationships in a way that allowed for people to have only one other partner. The differences that would arise in a thorough rejection of amatonormativity would make the relationship radically different from the monogamy on display now.
“What about marriage? Marriage is a beautiful part of life. I wouldn’t want to let that go.”
There are such things as open marriages. But setting that aside, it is easier to criticize marriage than monogamy. In fact, there are a lot of steadfast critics of marriage who are nevertheless ardent monogamists. If that is you, I am asking you to direct the same energy to monogamy.
But what if you are a marriage advocate? First, I encourage you to spend time reading the criticisms of marriage with an open mind. If you aren’t convinced, I’ve noticed that there is a tendency to talk about one’s own marriage as if it is imbued with special meaning, as if it exists apart from the influence of tradition, imagery, and culture. But it doesn’t. Your marriage exists in a particular society that understands marriage. If you disagree and think that you can critique the tradition and build your own meaning, take a step back and notice what you’re doing. It is precisely what I’m encouraging with respect to monogamy!
“You are white washing and appropriating monogamy criticism. Why isn’t your critique based on feminism? Rather, why are you, a cis white man, talking about this at all?”
I personally find the feminist critiques of monogamy to be extremely compelling. Some people don’t. Some people are inclined to close themselves off from feminist arguments precisely because they are feminist arguments. Whose job is it to speak to those people? And what terms should we use?
In the end, I don’t think it is possible to critique monogamy without ending up in feminism. The process of conversation and reflection leads inevitably to revelations about contemporary monogamy as an outgrowth of patriarchy. It uncovers facts about how people of different sexual and gender identities experience monogamy differently. Hence, I think my argument is one for feminism. Because of that, it cannot be an argument from feminism.
In other words, there is a difference between 1) making the same argument and 2) making a different argument to the same conclusion. I take myself to be doing the latter.
“Open relationships increase the risk of STIs. Isn’t monogamy simply better for your sexual health.”
There is a kernel of truth here. But this is not an argument for monogamy. It is a point about the hazards of having multiple sexual partners, which takes place inside and outside monogamy. You should practice safe sex, regardless of your opinion on monogamy. If you have multiple partners at once (which is possible in the context of open relationships, cheating, or singlehood), you have to be more careful and diligent. And as we saw, you can be in an open relationship and have only one sexual partner.