What should our romantic relationships look like? I have argued, much to the frustration of others, that open relationships are for everybody. This might seem like too strong a conclusion, but I actually think it is difficult to deny. It can be derived from premises that you probably already endorse.
There is plentiful material on how to have an open relationship. I have supplied some myself. But there is far less on what the end of an open relationship should look like.
The question deserves its own focus. I realized that monogamy not only includes ubiquitous and deeply ingrained expectations for what a relationship should look like, but it also teaches you how to navigate a break up.
I advocate rejecting monogamy’s view of the beginning, middle, and end of relationships. So we should think about what breaking up means in non-monogamy.
What is an Open Relationship?
My position stems from the view that what makes a life good is a basic value like health, wellbeing, or flourishing—a rich notion that includes improving yourself and others, knowing yourself and others, achieving your goals and helping others do the same, having your needs met and meeting the needs of others, etc.
It is easy to see that relationships (like friendships, romances, family) are a necessary part of a good life. Our lives are intertwined with others. So given our basic values, we want to construct our system of relationships in a way that promotes flourishing, both for the people involved and the relationships themselves.
I believe that being a monogamist means not centering flourishing in that way. It means approaching romantic relationships with a preset structure and rigid set of expectations, many of which stand in direct opposition to flourishing.
I call romantic relationships that exist outside of that structure open relationships.
What is a Break Up?
Typically by “break up” we mean the end of a romantic relationship—partners becoming former partners. But we can be more accurate. It is better to say that a break up involves removing the romantic features of a relationship, or the features that the individuals associate with being romantic. This might involve maintaining a friendship or ending the relationship altogether.
Although it might be initially unsettling, a beautiful feature of non-monogamy is that the lines between different types of relationships can blur. Romance has a number of features. You might have a partner who is romantic in some ways but not others. And the dynamic might fluctuate over time, depending on what you, the partner, and the relationship needs.
With this in mind, we can reevaluate what a break up is in the first place. A romantic relationship is not a toggle switch, either fully on or fully off. It is possible to preserve some romantic markers and remove others. They need not come in an indivisible package. The decision should be made on the basis of what the relationship needs, not in response to preset expectations. In fact, navigating the changes, discussing and adjusting the parameters over time, is a central feature of any good relationship.
On this approach, the standard concept of a break up largely falls away. What remains are features of our relationships, sometimes romantic in nature, and the question of whether they promote our well being. Sometimes they do not. In that case, we should make changes. We are still, at bottom, collaborating on finding what is good.
In some cases, the changes might resemble what we typically consider a ‘break up’. But we need not think of them in those terms. In fact, it is best not to think in terms of break ups at all. Doing so risks centering a preset structure of expectations—a hallmark of monogamy. A ‘break up’ might lead us, mistakenly, to think something is broken.
Dealing with Disagreement
I am talking at a level of inoffensive abstraction. Obviously the concrete reality is rarely so serene. Break ups are often contentious. People can resent their former partners. They place blame. They want retribution. Or they might miss them desperately and fall into depression. We carry trauma from the process.
It is here that we face challenges. The concept of a ‘break up’ might be transformed in an open relationship, but when your partner proposes a change (like, say, no longer wanting the romance), how should you react? What if you want to resist?
A regular feature of an open relationship is the examination of one’s immediate emotional response to a partner’s proposed change. You want to be able to identify when and why you are feeling a version of jealousy or possessiveness.
The same examination should take place when you or your partner end the romance. Are you feeling hurt? deprived? angry? vindictive? Does any part of your reaction stem from toxic hallmarks of monogamy? If so, you want to acknowledge it. If you haven’t experienced many ends to open relationships and worked through their twists and turns, monogamy is probably still exerting some influence.
It is important to recognize that processing a possible break up is, at the level of basic values, no different from other possible changes that a relationship might see. The central goal should still be mutual flourishing. That is what you should want for your partner. Sometimes they will have a better life by changing how they interact with you—and sometimes that means not interacting with you at all. Rejecting monogamy means accepting this approach, as difficult as it sometimes might be.
There is something deeply therapeutic about reconceptualizing ‘breaking up’ in this way. The rigidity of monogamy means that discussions about how a relationship should change are usually fraught with tension and insecurity. People jump to lines like, “Are you breaking up with me?” or “Why don’t we just break up?” In non-monogamy the possible changes are brought into the very core of the relationship, and a wider scope of them can be considered. By viewing a relationship this way, changes that would normally constitute a break up fall along the spectrum of possible changes that are always open for discussion.
We can work towards decoupling the changes from fear, apprehension, and dread. That strikes me as a worthy goal.
Doing the Work
Much of what I’ve said is easier said than done (which doesn’t necessarily mean that it is easy to say). It would take work to put into practice. But doing the work is the kind of self-improvement that is a feature of a good life. Monogamists are quick to tell you that successful relationships are difficult. It would be odd to say that my suggestions are too demanding. All relationships require cultivation.
We can find motivation for ourselves by examining the possible benefits of the non-monogamous approach to break ups. Equal features of monogamy are the devastation, regret, and longing attached to the end of a relationship. Of course, by rejecting monogamy you don’t become immune to those types of experiences. There will still be grief and loss. It will take time to adjust to changes, as it should. Removing romantic features of a relationship likely means that other aspects of the relationship will have to change as well. I am not claiming that the process becomes easy—though hopefully, in time, it becomes easier.
We all know that relationships can be more meaningful through overcoming obstacles. The core of my claim is that these kinds of experiences become reframed within an open relationship. We come to look at their causes from a fresh perspective. And that alone will change the experiences.
An open relationship is, at bottom, a rejection of that which makes the monogamous conception of a break up, and its attendant fall out, possible. Romantic open relationships can still end, and the process might hurt a greal deal, but it all takes place in a fundamentally different structure. The new structure delinks the thought of a relationship end from the thought of a break up. And it is a structure created, not imposed, by you and your partner with the express goal of living well together.
In the end, the warning I am offering is simple: just as you shouldn’t allow monogamy to dictate how you operate in a relationship, you shouldn’t let it dictate how you end one. And reflecting on the warning leads us to see that, in considering how non-monogamy reconceives of the ‘break up’, we find one of the strongest arguments in its favor.