Open Relationships are for Everybody

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 that is wrong. Open relationships are for everybody.

We should set out some terms first. Open relationships are associated with having multiple romantic or strictly sexual partners. But that isn’t quite right. Rather, at its most basic, the term ‘open relationship’ is privative: it is the mere rejection or negation of an idea. It does not necessarily offer any positive content of its own. This is why there are so many varieties of open relationships.

So if ‘open relationship’ is a privative concept, what does it reject? Simply, an open relationship is one that rejects monogamy—or more accurately, amatonormativity, the cultural and moral values that perpetuate the idea of monogamy as the default and ideal relationship style.  

So by saying that open relationships are for everybody I am not saying that you must have multiple romantic partners (what we can call ‘polyamory’). I am not advocating for any particular relationship arrangement at all. That would undermine my point. I am simply encouraging the rejection of monogamy taken as the standard against which we judge the quality of our romantic relationships. Non-monogamy is for everybody.

You might be bristling with doubt. Our idea of monogamy is shot through with entrancing romantic images that are genuinely difficult to abandon, no matter how good a critic’s argument. Plus, arguments are for the head. Love is about the heart. Ultimately, you might think, this issue comes down to how you feel, not philosophical reasoning. Monogamy also touts exclusive ownership over several virtues: commitment, loyalty, and fidelity. Open relationships are assumed to lack depth, neglect human nature, or be a fad or phase. We tend to think that people in open relationships will eventually settle down, grow out of it, or 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.

Note: the topic of open relationships exists primarily within feminism and queer theory. Critiques of monogamy typically take the form of critiques of patriarchy and colonialism—and the critiques have been made by people better positioned than me to see the problems. Although I have been influenced by those thinkers, I’m going to attempt to give a different type of argument, one that is consistent with feminist critiques but indicative of my position, and hence primarily geared towards people in a similar position. I also use some terms slightly differently. Nevertheless, I hope that these thoughts, though reflective of my personal journey, are for everybody.

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 that you have powerful stories of hurt and loss of your own. Let’s think honestly about those stories and where the emotions come from. The ultimate goal, surely we can agree, is to solve the problems and experience positive emotions. In doing so we can flourish.

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 ingrained ideals of monogamy. The process of rejecting the system and thereby becoming non-monogamists would also involve adjusting our expectations and recalibrating our emotions.

We first need to understand what we are rejecting. What is monogamy? We all know the answer. It is characterized by the following:

  1. Sexual exclusivity. You can only have sex with one person (at a time). Further, you must suppress sexual attraction to other people. Mere attraction 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 treated as a serious strain on the relationship.
  2. Emotional exclusivity. Only one person can be the object of a certain set of emotions. If you start to feel those emotions towards others, it is a sign of your lack of care or commitment to your partner. 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.
  3. Jealousy. If we are being honest, jealousy—or at least the constant prospect of it—is a mainstay of monogamous relationships. It is easy to see how jealousy would arise. If a partner fails in any assumed expectation of exclusivity, jealousy gets treated as a 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 lead to 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 (i.e. some attraction to others, some nascent feelings). We just commit that we won’t act on it. Hence, the trust amounts to a commitment to deny desires (and also not talk about them).
  4. Marriage. We are trained from a very young age—from family, school, media, entertainment, religion, and cultural tradition—that marriage is the goal of romantic life. Sing it with me: “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 either a de jure or de facto form. A successful marriage is gauged by the standards of monogamy. A life without marriage is assumed to be lonely and sad.
  5. Supreme importance. Our monogamous relationships are the most important adult relationships we have. If a partner prioritizes another relationship, something is wrong. Jealousy pops up as a result of failing to be emotionally exclusive.
  6. Universality. All other types of relationships are treated as deviant and unable to lead to happiness or fulfillment. People in non-monogamous relationships are missing out on a truly meaningful relationship. This characteristic is circular or self-reinforcing: because happiness is tied to monogamy in our minds, we genuinely struggle to be happy outside of monogamy. 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.    

It is important to say that these characteristics don’t necessary describe your monogamous relationship. We have learned to live in relationships that fall short in many of these respects. I, however, am outlining the hallmarks. They exist in the common store of societal values. They are what make our relationships intelligible as good or bad. Although we admit intellectually that real relationships are hard and require sacrifices, the romantic appeal of a monogamous relationship with your “soul mate” or “the one” still exerts powerful control over our emotions. 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. Because they do, probably in deeper ways than we want to admit.    

Our tragic stories of heartbreaks, wounds, and insecurities should tip us off that maybe we are not aiming at the right thing.

What if we reject the standards?

If we’re honest, we know that people are sexual. They will be attracted to other people from time to time. We know people are complicated. They will entertain and even develop romantic feelings for other people from time to time. We would be refusing to know our partners if we denied their complexities. And we know that the jealousy isn’t healthy. 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.

The good news is that we did not arrive at the standards of monogamy on our own. They weren’t the result of a thorough reflection on the ingredients for romantic flourishing. Rather, they are handed to us and ingrained at every turn. We can only resist so much. This fact has three implications:

  1. 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.
  2. You didn’t build monogamy. 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 you becoming more of who you are. Meeting the expectations of others might be easier, but it is less genuine.
  3. We are gifted with a certain amount of empathy for current and past romantic partners. Some of them might have done terrible things to you. You might have done terrible things to them. I by no means wish to minimize the pain. It is real. We can see the people, however, as existing in a system that is designed for us all 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.  

Whatever we do in our romantic lives, it should be preceded by a careful and honest critique of the societal forces that bear on us. The critique is frightening and difficult but also empowering and freeing. If we open monogamy to critique, we have already gone far towards rejecting it. It has already lost some of its power over us. Rejection can be a long and difficult process.

We should start now.  

Facing Rejection

What would rejecting monogamy look like? Notice that we would not be rejecting romance, loyalty, commitment, or love. If there are features of monogamy that contribute to flourishing, they ought to be excised and preserved. The whole purpose is to find meaning and emotional health.

We can begin with a question: in our romantic lives, should we prioritize 1) a particular relationship style or 2) the needs 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 well being 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 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 impossible to avoid the conclusion that monogamy is extremely 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. Your partner(s), instead of entrenching in jealousy, should 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. The focus is on individuals, not culturally enforced norms.    

What do we find when we reject monogamy?

I wager that, if we search our souls, we are all well acquainted with monogamy’s problems. Yet 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 challenge ourselves. And commit to it. It requires 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 my case on authenticity and self-knowledge. Discussion about “human nature” (whatever the hell that means) and what is “natural” (whatever the hell 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. Their track record should make us skeptical.

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 seems written into nature. Social awareness is the process of learning that more and more of what we took for granted is in fact changeable.

But if you are absolutely set on speaking in these terms, there are plentiful arguments that many of the features of monogamy are not natural. See here and here and here and here. (I don’t necessarily endorse the arguments in those pieces though.)

“Yeah, many monogamous relationships suck, but not mine. I’m happy.”  

The entire article is written with this objection in mind. Arguments for open relationships tend to leave the happy monogamists alone. As the title should show, I think that is a mistake. But the objection raises a number of tricky and personal issues. I want to be careful.

In all sincerity, it is good that you’re happy! I am not suggesting that you end your relationship. Many monogamous relationships have many 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.

Here are four more specific points:

  1. We must be careful of System Justification. We have a strong interest in rationalizing the status quo. It is easy because there is a large group of people inclined to agree with us. And we know that we can continue to live comfortably inside the system without receiving criticism. None of this makes your objections wrong. It simply invites an accurate understanding of the forces that bear on us.
  2. Even if you are happy in your monogamous relationship, please 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, which might be in more need of change than yours. And since your relationship is strong, it could endure the temporary sacrifice for the sake of others.
  3. Here is a question to reflect on: does the happiness arise from the monogamy or from being with your partner? Perhaps, to side-step my point, you will say it arises from being in a monogamous relationship with your partner. Why is that your answer? Why make monogamy a condition of your happiness? Wouldn’t it be better if your happiness wasn’t dependent on your ability to adhere to a set of social norms—norms which lead to deep unhappiness for many other couples?
  4. 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. So, strange as it may seem, we should be open to interrogating the meaning and condition of our own happiness. It might not be as deep and meaningful as it could be.

“I’ve tried open relationships. They were garbage. My partner just wanted to sleep with other people.”

A massively important point: 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 some central parts of ourselves. We cannot underestimate the process. Some initial open relationships might be unsuccessful. You must 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.

“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 wholly up to you. I’m not demanding that you do anything. Monogamy is what forces stuff on us. If I advocate for rejecting monogamy, it would undermine my argument to force anything on anyone. I’m not denying agency. I’m encouraging people to become agents. Monogamy as a system makes us unfree. It prevents us from knowing ourselves. Rejecting it is for everybody. Only then can we make genuine choices.  

We should draw a distinction. Some issues are a matter of personal preference. Some 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.

“God ordained marriage to be how humans should live. Open relationships are contrary to scripture.”

There is no denying the importance of marriage in the 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 be 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’d 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.

qui novit veritatem, novit eam, et qui novit eam, novit aeternitatem. caritas novit eam. o aeterna veritas et vera caritas et cara aeternitas! tu es deus meus.” -Augustine, Confessions (7.10)

“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)  

Fellow vimmer Justin has also discussed this issue in our podcast here.

“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. (Wait, what?) 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. It affects how we self-report. It affects how we interpret evidence. It affects our whole conception of happiness in the domain of romantic relationships.

“Hold up now. There is a difference between rejecting monogamy and rejecting amatonormativity. In fact, a big difference. Rejecting amatonormativity means that we should tolerate non-monogamous relationship styles. I can get behind that. But rejecting monogamy is a far stronger notion.”

It is a perceptive point. 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 defensible.

First, a position, incrementalist or not, full of easy escape routes is simply not enough. We know what happens. 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 difference between monogamy and amatonormativity because there isn’t one. I then defined open relationships in a way that allowed for people to have only one other partner. The differences that would arise through 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 follow your arguments to their natural conclusions.

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 distinct meaning, as if it exists apart from the influence of tradition, imagery, and culture. But it doesn’t. What your marriage means is not really up to you. It 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 men and women, straight people and queer people, asexual and sexual people 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. However, this is not an argument for monogamy. It is a point about the hazards of having multiple sexual partners, which can take place inside or outside monogamy. You should practice safe sex. That is true 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, diligent, and trusting. And as we saw, you can be in an open relationship and have only one sexual partner.