Monday, April 03, 2006

Open Relationships

Armchair speculation (the most entertaining form of speculation, requiring only tenuous links to reality) leads me to wonder whether open relationships might be under-rated in our society. In typical analytic style, let us begin by distinguishing four broad types of romantic activity:

A) Exclusive relationships

B) Multiple relationships, e.g. being in two relationships – of roughly equal footing – at the same time.

C) Non-monogamous relationships, i.e. one primary relationship, with extras “on the side”.

D) Casual sex

These classifications should be understood as normative rather than strictly behavioural. Some people “cheat” while in (what is mutually understood to be) an exclusive relationship. That doesn’t make them an instance of type-C. Rather, it makes them a bad instance of type-A.

Type-A is certainly the societal norm, and is widely believed to be the “best” option, or most worth pursuing. Type-D is also popular in some circles, of course. But types B and C, which we may call “open” or non-exclusive relationships, seem much neglected in comparison. Is the neglect deserved? I’m not convinced.

I will assume that type-D is non-ideal. That’s not to say it’s bad, but merely that the other types can be better. In particular, I will assume that relationships have value for reasons in addition to just sex. (The details shouldn’t matter for this point.) It then seems that type-C has a clear advantage over D. It includes everything that D has to offer, and more. That’s not to deny that D might be preferable in some circumstances, particularly for someone who doesn’t currently want a relationship. It rather suggests that those circumstances are not ideal ones to be in, for they preclude full appreciation of an important value in life.

Regarding type A, such a relationship might be entirely satisfactory, or it might not. I will deal with these cases separately.

In the first case, we might appeal to the principle that “more of a good thing is better”. A fuller argument would require getting clearer on what value one finds in relationships. But it seems plausible to me that at least part of the value consists in “the sharing of selves” – getting to know the other person, letting them know you, and growing as a person through the challenges that emerge. A related aspect involves appreciating the value of the other person, and the comfort and affirmation of having them recognize similar value in you. If such could be achieved to the same extent and quality several times over, then that would seem all the better. We thus find a natural (if rough and poorly trod) path from the ideals of A to B.

The argument becomes much stronger, unsurprisingly, in the case of less than perfectly satisfying relationships. And these are pretty common. Conventional wisdom (and the odd sociological survey) tells us that a lot of people cheat on their partners while in purportedly exclusive relationships. Needless to say, such betrayal is bad. It would be avoided in an open relationship.

More positively, non-exclusivity could help alleviate tensions caused by incompatibilities (e.g. in expectations or desires, etc.) in a relationship. There would be less pressure involved if one were not solely responsible for delivering everything that one’s partner wants in a relationship. They could pursue some matters externally, rather than straining the relationship by requiring the incompatibility to mean that one or other of you must “lose out”, so to speak. So minor incompatibilities matter less for open relationships.

Further, open relationships help to minimize opportunity costs. They thus make it more worthwhile to stay in a relationship with someone you like and care about, even when you know you’re not going to “end up” together in the very long term. In an exclusive relationship, by contrast, there would be some rational pressure to break up prematurely and resume searching for your “soulmate” (loosely understood).

Now, I think it’s a deeply pernicious cultural framework that leads one to only value a romantic partner insofar as they might eventually become one’s future spouse. (Though rarely recognized as such, it’s dehumanizing in much the same way that “using” someone for sex is. Both involve a failure to recognize the intrinsic value of knowing the other person, and hence devalue the relationship.) Open relationships help by ensuring that present appreciation of one another’s company need not conflict with longer-term romantic goals. They thus enable the growth and flourishing of worthwhile relationships that wouldn’t survive under norms of exclusivity. That’s surely a good thing.

Finally, I must address the objection that non-exclusivity somehow devalues or reflects poorly either on a relationship or on the commitments therein. These issues are addressed more fully in my post On Jealousy. But I will add something further here. Apart from countering the critic’s claims, it seems to me that there are positive grounds for thinking the very opposite, i.e. that non-exclusivity could affirm the value of a relationship. (We have already seen reason to think that non-exclusivity could improve a relationship in practical terms, but now I focus on the more symbolic question.)

In particular, I find something very attractive about the sort of commitment involved in an open relationship. (You heard me. Here I hope to beat critics on what is commonly supposed to be their own turf.) One is essentially committing to conceive of the relationship in a non-comparative light; to value it for its intrinsic character rather than the way it compares to others; and to care about your partner, and how they treat you, in a non-possessive fashion. It involves the recognition that, as I wrote in the earlier post, “what matters is your relationship, not any other one – even if the other involves your partner.”

I hope to have shown that the ideals behind open relationships are worthy of our admiration. They may be something to aspire to. I don’t suppose that they are a realistic possibility in all situations. Jealousy may prove an insurmountable obstacle. (Then again, the optimist in me sees no reason why this must be so. Much of jealousy’s force comes from the accompanying judgments that comparative values matter, that one is being ‘slighted’, and so forth. After recognizing the irrationality of jealousy, one would refrain from such judgments, and thus largely defang the green-eyed monster. Or so it might be hoped.) But even if difficult, open relationships warrant greater respect – and perhaps even serious consideration – than most in our society give them.

30 comments:

  1. "But it seems plausible to me that at least part of the value consists in “the sharing of selves” – getting to know the other person, letting them know you, and growing as a person through the challenges that emerge. A related aspect involves appreciating the value of the other person, and the comfort and affirmation of having them recognize similar value in you."

    How is this definition of "relationship" different than a "friend?" I assume it has something to do with sex, but the rest of your argument could just as easily work if the word "relationship" was replaced by the word "friend."

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  2. That was certainly not intended as a definition of "relationship"! I do think the values involved overlap to some extent, though romantic relationships might typically involve a deeper level of intimacy (and I don't just mean physical, though that might help facilitate it) than friendships.

    (The analogy to friendship is probably helpful though, in much the same way as the analogy to parental love was appealed to in the previous post. Both illustrate that non-uniqueness need not undermine or devalue a relationship, broadly understood; thus raising the question why romantic relationships should be any different.)

    I don't see that it would be a problem if the argument also worked for friendship. (That version wouldn't be so interesting, of course, because nobody values exclusivity in that domain. My arguments, thus applied, would just yield obviously true, undisputed conclusions. But what's wrong with that? "I can tweak your argument to prove other true things!" isn't any kind of objection I've heard before.)

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  3. "If such could be achieved to the same extent and quality several times over, then that would seem all the better. We thus find a natural...path from the ideals of A to B."

    This is an "if" where the armchair vantage point comes in full throttle. There just isn't much evidence that people are able to participate in these types of open relationships. In our society, most people seem to have a hard enough time devoting themselves to one person, let alone more than one. No doubt you will counter with, "it's not logically impossible though." and maybe so, but it may yet be that people simply aren't equipped to deal with well with multiple partners. This is not a point to overlook.

    "Convential wisdom...tells us that a lot of people cheat on their partners while in purportedly exclusive relationships. Needless to say, such betrayal is bad. It would be avoided in an open relationship."

    This is not a given. One could still technically cheat in an open relationship by sleeping around with people your partner didn't know about. There is nothing that says one can't lie as easily in an open relationship as in a monogamous one. Also I think the claim that people cheating is an indication that open relationships are a good idea is simply not supported by the evidence. People do not seem to cheat to get another rewarding relationship because one isn't enough. They cheat A) because their first relationship isn't rewarding, and B) (according to the evolutionary story) because we have tended to be a monogamous/adulterous species in the past for selection reasons I'll not go into here. If this is the case, and I'm confident it is, then people should concentrate on making their first relationship good instead of going out to get more relationships. It makes sense to think that if one fails to make a single relationship work, one will equally fail at trying to balance two.

    I agree with your statement that there would be reason to admire those who could manage to have the best of relationships with more than one partner if they can eliminate the problems that might normally arise in such a balancing act. Such persons would have to care deeply about more than one person and treat those persons exceptionally well. But there's just not any reason to think that people can do this. There are not too many stories of people successfully maintaining lasting, loving open relationships. There are, however, heaps of stories of young people thinking that they can maintain an open relationship and failing miserably. This is an empirical question. And ultimately, I think, not a philosophical one. Logical possibility does not equal realistic human possibility.

    Lastly, with respects to "deeply pernicious cultural framework" I think you're confusing the value-maker. One does not value a partner only because "they might eventually become one's future spouse" or if they do they're in a relationship for the wrong reasons. One enters a relationship because they want to be with that person. Spend time with them. Eventually, they want to do this so much that they are confident that their desires to do so are permanent. And yes, people do often go out searching for a lifelong partner, but I would say there are two possible reasons for this, one bad, one good. The bad one is the one you're referring to, the one where you look for someone to spend your life with because you value marriage, not because you value the person. The second is the good one, and what takes place there is that you recognize what it means to value someone else so much that you want to be around them all the time, and you aspire to that. There you are aspiring to caring about someone in a specific way, you are not aspiring to a lifelong relationship alone. This is mistake many people make. They look for a spouse and eventually find a person to play that role. The rewarding way to go about it would be to look for a person you care about, and when you've found someone you just find that you want. them to be your spouse. This is a HUGE difference in attitude. And I don't see how open relationships are going to help those of us who make the mistake of dehumanizing each other. If we dehumanize already, having more partners will not help us. I think the whole reason that the idea of a couple maintaining a commitment in an open relationship is admirable is because we imagine them as being able to be in a relatioship for the right reasons in the first place. Open relationships are never going to be the type of thing that can be "pulled-off" by those of us who have trouble with one relationship. In this respect, having an open relationship (if possible) is going to be out of reach for those of us not already veterans of a monogamous one.

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  4. Ben, thanks for the very thoughtful comment. I admit the limits of armchair speculation, and yet I hope to raise something stronger than the mere "logical possibility" of successful open relationships. While I certainly can't rule out the possibility that we're (most of us?) just so constituted that we can't cope with multiple partners, nor can I see any compelling reason to think that that's the case. There's not much evidence one way or another (at least that I'm aware of -- I haven't heard the "heaps of stories" you mention), simply because so few people seem to have taken the option seriously. J.S. Mill's call for "experiments of living" springs to mind.

    You point out that "most people seem to have a hard enough time devoting themselves to one person", and imply that a successful open relationship would be much more difficult to maintain. I may well have underestimated the latter point (the limits of armchair speculation again, alas); though again, it isn't obvious to me that they must be more difficult. Indeed, some of my arguments suggest that non-exclusivity could lessen the strain on a relationship.

    At worst, "balancing act" difficulties would cast doubt on the practicability of Type-B relationships. I'm not sure whether your concerns apply to Type-C, though I've also done less to argue in favour of that type. So let's explore that a bit more now. It seems to me that, in comparison to type-A, the biggest advantage of C would be if the relationship involved some incompatibilities, say of sexual appetite. Such brute incompatibilities need not reflect any failing on the part of either individual. There's no point advising them to improve their relationship when there's nothing that can be fixed. In the context of an exclusive relationship, it will be impossible to avoid dissatisfaction for one or other partner. For an open relationship, however, the more voracious partner can sate themselves externally. The initial "incompatibility" is no longer a problem. So this provides a counterexample to your suggestion that "people should concentrate on making their first relationship good instead of going out to get more relationships." Sometimes going out beyond the first relationship will be precisely what makes it better.

    "There is nothing that says one can't lie as easily in an open relationship as in a monogamous one."

    But there would be no point. And if you tell your partner that they can sleep with whomever they want and you don't want to know about it, then it's hard to see how it would be even technically possible for them to cheat on you!

    "People do not seem to cheat to get another rewarding relationship because one isn't enough."

    Of course, I never claimed any such thing. The present point was simply that open relationships would involve less cheating, i.e. less of a bad thing, and that's good. (As an aside: one might hope that the honesty so central to open relationships would help the pair resolve the sorts of problems that might normally lead to "cheating" in any case. But perhaps I'm being utopian again. You might even argue the contrary, that they could avoid facing up to problems by simply distracting themselves with other partners. That would be bad. But such a weak relationship probably wouldn't last long anyway.)

    "I don't see how open relationships are going to help those of us who make the mistake of dehumanizing each other."

    They remove the incentive structures that invite such dehumanization in the first place. I want to reinforce the idea that we should value the relationships we're in now, even if we recognize that they won't lead to marriage. Certainly it would be wonderful to meet someone you'd love to spend the rest of your life with. But it's also great to meet someone you'd love to get to know better and spend time with just now (and an unknown extent into the future). There's a certain mindset, which norms of exclusivity encourage, that would lead us to dismiss such relationships as "dead ends". That's the mindset I find deeply pernicious. We should find value even in relationships of more modest scope. By removing the opportunity costs, I think open relationships can help with that.

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  5. "... thus raising the question why romantic relationships should be any different."

    That was mostly my point - if you don't specify what is different between the two and whether it makes a difference, then I don't think you've really dealt with this issue fully.

    Not that I find your other arguments all that convincing, either. I find it hard to believe that open relationships would stop cheating, for example. I also don't see how having open relationships would alleviate the "pernicious cultural framework that leads one to only value a romantic partner insofar as they might eventually become one’s future spouse" any more than exclusive relationships would. (I know a people who have stayed in (exclusive) relationships, knowing they weren't going to end up marrying the other person). (I also don't think that that is a "pernicious cultural framework" - people value relationships for a lot more reasons than only the possibility of marriage.) It seems your argument about "alleviating tensions" due to incompatibilities is undermined by the fact that friends typically serve this role. I don't see how an open relationship would be any better than an exclusive relationship with friends.

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  6. "It seems to me that, in comparison to type-A, the biggest advantage of C would be if the relationship involved some incompatibilities, say of sexual appetite. Such brute incompatibilities need not reflect any failing on the part of either individual. There's no point advising them to improve their relationship when there's nothing that can be fixed. In the context of an exclusive relationship, it will be impossible to avoid dissatisfaction for one or other partner."

    This passage, to me, highlights the problem with your thinking in this post. It seems to me that one of the biggest virtues in romantic relationships (or friendships for that matter) is self-giving love. What you've described above is the exact opposite of this. There is nothing selfless about it. It's all about my needs, as opposed to the needs of the person I supposedly love. In a relationship with different sexual appetites, for example, I see a LOT more value in the two people compromising out of love for each other, rather than the one with the bigger appetite running off to find somebody else to help out. And if compromising with somebody you supposedly love leaves you dissatisfied, then I'm going to suggest that you get out of that relationship (exclusive or not).

    Your argument doesn't seem to be describing a relationship at all. It's describing a selfish person, using other people to get what he or she wants.

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  7. I tend to agree with Macht on that last point.

    But with regards to whether my arguments apply to type-C: the first thing to note is that a person of type-C is not going to gain the admiration (and deservedly so) that a person who can maintain type-B relationships. As Macht indicates, people in type-C are most likely going to be seen as selfish rather than doing what you originally proposed with the "more of a good thing."

    I also want to comment on the "we should value the relationship we're in now, even if we recognize that they won't lead to marriage." From my non-religious understanding, the act of marriage actually doesn't add anything to a relationship in terms of commitment. Staying with someone for your whole life just happens to be what you want and so you do it. In no way do I think that people should be forced to decide at this very moment whether they will want to be with their partner in 30 years time. What they should be able to do is say, "Right now, I feel like I want to be with you indefinitely." This, in my opinion, is as strong of a rational claim as one can really make in any relationship. Of course this is far flung from the typical idea of marriage, but if we accept it it seems to ask the question, "what is going on in the mind of a person who knows they don't want to be with their partner anywhere down the line?" I would take it as an indication that they aren't really seriously valuing the relationship. I would also say this same thing about a friendship. The friends I really consider closest are the ones that I project being friends with indefinitely, the others are just casual friends. So to, any relationship that doesn't project is just a casual one. Now that doesn't mean that there is no value there, but it is a different kind of value than most people seek when they seek rewarding relationships with people be it friends or lovers.

    Thanks for the discussion by the way--Fantastically absorbing

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  8. Interesting stuff, indeed.

    Macht - there's a risk of selfishness there, but I'm not convinced such charges would always be warranted. If the one partner would feel uncomfortable going any further, then it isn't clear that their "compromise" would be a good thing. Perhaps they would be willing to for the other's sake, but if it's not something they really want then that sounds a bit awful to me. Perhaps the other should simply be satisfied getting less than their ideal. If they care a lot about their partner then it could hardly be a thoroughly bad situation for them. Still, why demand such a sacrifice unnecessarily? Where's the good in it? If they could satisfy more of their desires externally, without devaluing the relationship, what's the problem? (I agree that it could be ideal to find a happy compromise within the relationship, as that would presumably bring the two closer together. But if that couldn't be done, I don't see why we should close off the possibility of going beyond the relationship to help improve things.)

    It seems excessive to advise that one "get out of that relationship" if it leaves one wanting something more. Being imperfect doesn't mean it isn't good, especially if the open relationship 'fix' can compensate for some shortcomings. If the one relationship is not required to be the sole source of satisfaction, then differences in desire are no great flaw. Both partners could find it thoroughly fulfilling and worthwhile for what it is, without wishing that it could be something more.

    I grant that it would be most unadmirable if a person was only concerned about their self-fulfillment, and didn't care about their partner at all. This is the image conjured by Macht's "selfish person, using other people to get what he or she wants." But I'm not talking about such a case. (Presumably such a person would simply cheat, or not be in a relationship in the first place.)

    It's less obvious to me that there's anything particularly vicious about self-concern in addition to caring about others. Surely attention to others' needs doesn't require blindness to one's own? Self-interested behaviour may not be specially praiseworthy insofar as it is merely self-interested. But it's in no way bad, or "selfish" (properly speaking), unless it involves an inappropriate disregard for others. I don't see the described scenario as involving any such disregard.

    I suppose if you thought that type-D was somehow thoroughly bad, then this judgment would extend to type-C insofar as it may involve D as a component. But I don't hold to the antecedent judgment.

    Ben - I agree that type-B is preferable.

    I partly agree with your other point too. From the internal, first-person perspective, one will hopefully be able to say, "Right now, I feel like I want to be with you indefinitely." That's how a good relationship should make us feel. Certainly if one were to think, "Gee, I sure hope I'm not still with you in six months," then something has gone horribly wrong! Nevertheless, I think one can step back from their first-person perspective, considering the situation objectively - i.e. abstracted from how they currently feel - and judge that, as a matter of fact, the relationship probably won't last indefinitely. Such realism is unromantic, and may not bear dwelling on, but I don't think it's "an indication that they aren't really seriously valuing the relationship."

    Though I guess it depends what you meant by "seriously". Such a judgment might make it impossible to value the relationship as a serious long-term "filling the marriage-role" type relationship, because that's not how one is conceiving of the relationship. But given your earlier comments, I'm sure you'll agree that that's not an ideal form of valuation in any case! But if you meant not "value as serious", but straightforwardly "seriously (i.e. genuinely) value" - the contrary being to "not really value", or only "half-heartedly value", or worse yet, "merely pretend to value" - then we really do disagree. I think one can genuinely value relationships which one (objectively) expects won't last forever. Perhaps they are "casual" in your sense, I'm not too clear on the exact boundaries of that distinction. But whatever you want to call it, the value is real enough.

    (I'd add that the non-exclusivity of friendship complicates that analogy. If you imagine that you could only have one friend at a time, how would that influence projectability? It would seem clouded by comparative factors. You might really seriously like and value one friend, but realize that nevertheless they're probably not the absolute best friend you'll ever have. Would that suffice to break projectability, and hence demote them to being a merely 'casual' friend?)

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  9. "Still, why demand such a sacrifice unnecessarily? Where's the good in it? If they could satisfy more of their desires externally, without devaluing the relationship, what's the problem?"

    I see a lot of good in sacrificing one's self for the person they love. And I'm not convinced that satisfying more of our desires is always a good thing. This is why I suggested getting out of a relationship where a compromise leaves you dissatisfied. (Not because you are dissatisfied, but because the dissatisfaction is a sign that the relationship isn't good.) I think it would be an incredibly poor relationship if either or both people never willingly sacrificed for the other. Otherwise, as I said, you end up just using the other person for your own desires. In fact, I think it is a necessary part of a good relationship that both people put the other person's needs before their own. Everything I've read so far convinces me that the ideals of an open relationship are the exact opposite of what I'd call a good relationship. And as long as you keep treating the fulfilling of one's own desires as having the most value (I'm not saying you believe this, but it does seem to be how you are judging the worth of a relationship), there is no way you are going to convince me otherwise.

    I actually think Type D is better than Type B or C since there isn't any pretense that it is going to be some type of relationship. That doesn't mean I think Type D is good, it just means at least the people aren't fooling themselves.

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  10. Of course, there's plenty of good in making sacrifices that benefit the other. But we were discussing a senseless sacrifice that does no good at all.

    Nothing I've said here treats "the fulfilling of one's own desires as having the most value". I'm not talking about advancing your own desires at the expense of the other's. It's rather a pareto improvement. All benefits, no harms. What you seem to be advocating is making oneself worse off for no reason at all. Where's the sense in that?

    "it does seem to be how you are judging the worth of a relationship"

    How so? I assume that a good relationship will be fulfilling for those involved. (What alternative basis can you judge it from?) I've certainly never said anything about either person's interests mattering less than the other's!

    Of course, I've been discussing the advantages from the beneficiary's point of view. But this is an external analysis. It need not be the way that the people involved conceive of the matter. Perhaps that's why you're so confused. Whenever I point out how an option might be good for someone, you imagine that person deciding the option would be good for themselves. There's no reason why this must be so. Perhaps their partner realizes it would be good for the person, and so makes the suggestion to them. Whatever. Such issues are independent of the bird's eye view I present here. For the sake of analysis, I ignore the person who receives neither harms nor benefits from an option. You infer from this that the person in the relationship is somehow ignoring their partner's interests. That's just a bad inference. (Besides which, see also my previous comment re: "selfishness".)

    "Everything I've read so far convinces me that the ideals of an open relationship are the exact opposite of what I'd call a good relationship."

    That may be due to your continued misreading. My goodness! Where in the world did you see that "either or both people never willingly sacrificed for the other"? That certainly wasn't part of any scenario I've discussed here.

    Finally, do you have any grounds for accusing open relationships of "pretense"? That just seems thoroughly unreasonable.

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  11. Consider an example. Suppose Bob practices abstinence (maybe for religious reasons, maybe he just has a low sex drive, the details don't much matter), but he's in a relationship with Sue, who has quite the sexual appetite. We may suppose that Bob and Sue care about each other very much. Now, there are four obvious possibilities:

    1) Bob abandons abstinence for Sue's sake. He wouldn't want this for himself, but he wants to make her happy.
    2) Sue joins Bob in abstinence. She finds it very frustrating, and wouldn't want it for herself, but she respects Bob's boundaries and doesn't want him to do anything that he doesn't genuinely want to.
    3) Bob and Sue agree to have an open relationship. Bob remains abstinent, Sue enjoys her extra-relational sex, and the two of them remain very close and happy together.
    4) They break up.

    Doesn't option #3 seem best for everyone involved? If they remain very close, why on earth would you think they are "fooling themselves"? That their relationship is mere "pretense"!? Just because Sue is having sex outside the relationship? How absurd!

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  12. "... there isn't any pretense that it is going to be some type of relationship" was in reference to Type D relationships, not type B or C. I don't see why 3 is the best option everybody involved. It seems like a downright crappy option for Bob. 1 would be a better option for him than 3. 4 seems best to me (assuming they go on to find relationships where they don't feel frustrated (which, granted, may not happen but it seems more likely to happen than "the two of them remain[ing] very close and happy together" in situation 3).

    "What you seem to be advocating is making oneself worse off for no reason at all."

    Not at all. I think there are plenty of good reasons to give selflessly in a relationship, to sacrifice your own needs for the person you love. And I don't consider this to be "making oneself worse off."

    "How so? I assume that a good relationship will be fulfilling for those involved. (What alternative basis can you judge it from?)"

    You seem to be judging the worth of a relationship by comparing what desires a person in the relationship has to whether those desires have been fulfilled. If a person has desires that haven't been met, you seem to be saying that this is worse than if they have been met. That's what I mean. "Fulfilling for those involved" and "the fulfilling one's own desires" are different things, though. It can be very fulfilling to make a sacrifice for somebody else, at the expense of your own desires.

    "Where in the world did you see that "either or both people never willingly sacrificed for the other"?"

    I got it from the fact that you seem to be arguing that unnecessary sacrifice is a bad thing and in the case that a sacrifice would need to be made, it would be a good thing for a new relationship to be formed in order to fulfill one's desires.

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  13. It doesn't look like we're going to make any more progress in this conversation. You're just completely ignoring my point about pareto improvements. You're similarly ignoring my remarks about sacrifice.

    To "sacrifice your own needs for the person you love" requires that you actually benefit the other person. An "unnecessary sacrifice" is one that needn't be made in order to obtain the good in question. (It's like if someone asks you to pass the bread, and you respond by passing the bread and shooting yourself in the foot. Why shoot yourself in the foot? That doesn't help anyone. It's a totally unnecessary sacrifice. Just pass the bread already.) It's just thwarting desires for no reason. The badness of this is axiomatic, I can't get any further talking to someone who would deny something so obvious.

    "I got [the idea that "either or both people never willingly sacrificed for the other"] from the fact that you seem to be arguing that unnecessary sacrifice is a bad thing and in the case that a sacrifice would need to be made, it would be a good thing for a new relationship to be formed in order to fulfill one's desires."

    But the latter is just an obvious point about pareto improvements, it doesn't justify your ridiculous inference by any stretch of the imagination. All I've said is that if you can benefit someone without harming anyone else, then this is a good thing. (Again, axiomatic.) If you can benefit another without sacrificing yourself, then again, why shoot yourself in the foot unnecessarily? (Axiomatic.)

    None of this says anything at all about what to do if the only way to benefit the other is to make the sacrifice. Your inference is absurd. It is obviously consistent for someone to be entirely willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of another, whilst being rational enough to prefer the pareto superior outcome of achieving that same benefit without any sacrifice.

    Finally, re: Bob, it's meant to be built into the scenario that he'd be pretty uncomfortable with option #1. (Otherwise it wouldn't be much of an incompatibility.) I don't see why option #3 is bad for him, given the stipulation that they remain close and happy together.

    Of course, throughout this post I've been assuming that my previous arguments against jealousy and comparative values are successful. If you dispute that, and hold that non-exclusivity essentially devalues a relationship, then of course you'll oppose open relationships. But then you should be arguing with me back on the jealousy post, not here. (This would explain our striking lack of progress, I suppose.)

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  14. You're the one who that I was talking about "making oneself worse off for no reason at all" (I wasn't). And similarly I was never talking about "a senseless sacrifice that does no good at all." Your talk about pareto improvements and sacrifice were addressing those things. So, yes, I did ignore your remarks about those things because they had nothing to do with what I said.

    I guess I just assumed that sacrifice involves helping somebody else in someway, so all your talk about shooting yourself in the foot seems nonrelevant, too. If the assumption isn't enough, the fact that I said "sacrifice your own needs for the person you love" (emphasis added) would suggest that "the person you love" is benefitting.

    Other than that, I'm not sure what else to say. The picture you paint of an open relationship is one where if any of your needs aren't being met in one relationship, it would be a good thing to start (a) new relationship(s) that can fulfill those needs. You are also suggesting that if a sacrifice is made on your part or on the part of your significant other regarding this need, then this is a bad thing because the sacrifice is unnecessary since the needs can be fulfilled outside of this relationship. It would be an unnecessary sacrifice. This last point isn't at all obvious to me (let alone axiomatic) and I'm not sure how anybody who's been in a good relationship could even think it is true. These types of sacrifices are not only good for the person benefitting from them, but they are also good for the relationship.

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  15. I haven't painted any "picture" of open relationships. I'm offering arguments which attempt an external justification, i.e. showing, from a bird's-eye view, why they could be a good thing. This doesn't entail anything about how the participants internally conceive of the relationship or each other. That's just a bad inference on your part. I explained all this before.

    The only "internal" aspect I've discussed is how the partners would need to conceive of their relationship and its value non-comparatively. That's all. All this stuff about "unnecessary sacrifice" is no part of the relationship itself. It's merely external analysis.

    It's also just one justification, which didn't play all that large a role in my main post. It's taken over a lot of this comments thread, largely due to your obstinate misreadings, ignoring key assumptions (which leads to talking past each other), and ridiculously bad inferences.

    But best to just call it a day, I guess.

    Anyone else feel like bringing the discussion back to a more fruitful path? (You still around, Ben?)

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  16. The reason we got on this path was because you wrote this:

    "It seems to me that, in comparison to type-A, the biggest advantage of C would be if the relationship involved some incompatibilities, say of sexual appetite. Such brute incompatibilities need not reflect any failing on the part of either individual. There's no point advising them to improve their relationship when there's nothing that can be fixed. In the context of an exclusive relationship, it will be impossible to avoid dissatisfaction for one or other partner."

    The talk about sacrifice and self-giving love was in response to this. When there are incompatibilities there are, in fact, things that can be done, other than looking elsewhere to fulfill those needs. And the things that can be done (e.g., compromise, sacrifice, etc.) can make the relationship better. So I really don't think that in a case like this that C would be better than A.

    And yes, this was just one justification and I don't see the problem with exploring it in detail. I'm sorry you do. I'll bow out of the comments now, though, since you don't seem to want me to continue.

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  17. I guess there's a couple other things I would note.

    First, I do take your point Richard about there being value in a relationship that has an "end in sight" so to speak. But I do want to differentiate between the value in a relationship with an end in sight, and one with no end in sight. And I can't for the life of me see why the one with no end in sight does not fall under your category of "more of a good thing." It may well be that a casual relationship can have its value/rewards/pleasures, but that these are "second-rate" to a more "serious" relationship, i.e. one that will last.

    The second thing: I feel like something strange is happening with Bob and Sue. While it may be possible that this sort of scenario happens, I have a hard time really getting my head around it. I tend to think that people evolve and change many of their likes and dislikes when they share themselves with other people (friends and lovers). Now what I mean is not that they will change their behavior alone to please said friend or lover, but that their attitudes/dispositions/likes will actually change (to a certain degree). If my closest friend likes waterskiing I am much more likely to come to like waterskiing. At least this is the line I want to take. Now I don't want to say something like "all our preferences become the same as our partners, but I do think that one's sexual preferences can and do change with the territory of being in love. I might not be all that sexual of a person, but with my partner I genuinely may come to be more sexual since she is--and not because she would like it--but because I come to like it myself. Again, this is pretty much only a suggestion for meeting you halfway. I think that the Bob and Sue example may be too drastic, but there may be another dumbed-down one I would be more satisfied with. People who value celibacy do not often fall in for people who like to have sex a lot. People generally do tend to fall for those who have similiar core values--even if they might be different on many levels. Essentially I have no reason to dismiss your point, but I think that in a real life case similiar to Bob and Sue, the difference is most likely incommensurable and breaking up is the most likely and reasonable outcome.

    Largely though, I think the points we disagree on are mostly up to an empirical test.

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  18. To sort of follow up on that, I want to distance my view from the sacrifice view. Certainly I don't want to rule out self-sacrifice in a relationship, but would note that in a really well developed relationship, most actions that appear to be of the sacrificial type actually tend to be done gladly by the person, who does not see them as sacrifices at all. If one feels like they are sacrificing a lot to be with a person, they probably don't have the right feelings/emotions and attitude toward the relationship in the first place. Here I just mean to draw distinction between sacrificing things for your partner, and just giving things up that may conflict with your being with that person because you don't want those things as much as you want to be with them. (I don't really mean this to be a response to either of you, the conversation simply triggered it.) Any relationship couched in terms of sacrifice have already gone down the wrong path on my view. And here, (though I don't want to!) I agree with Richard that IF it comes down to brute incompatibility there are two reasonable choices, have an open relationship or end the relationship (though I tend to think the cards of human beings have fallen to make it much more likely that a break up is the most realistic course, and not simply because of societal norms).

    However, if it were indeed possible to be totally in love with one's partner, but also have other equally rewarding relationships with other partners as well, this would be the ideal, rather than monogamy. Monogamy is not intrinsically valuable (i.e. because it has certain properties that make it valuable) in a way that it seems Macht wants to claim. I put my weight behind it because it seems to be the only realistic place where romantic love can fully flourish, and NOT because open relationships are a vulgar concept. They just don't seem to work out (again, an emprical matter).

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  19. Okay, I just have to say one more thing, then I'll leave.

    "Certainly I don't want to rule out self-sacrifice in a relationship, but would note that in a really well developed relationship, most actions that appear to be of the sacrificial type actually tend to be done gladly by the person, who does not see them as sacrifices at all. If one feels like they are sacrificing a lot to be with a person, they probably don't have the right feelings/emotions and attitude toward the relationship in the first place."

    This is exactly my point. From Richard's "external" view, things that look like incompatibilities, and would cause one to look for other relationships, aren't (or, as you put it "most actions that appear to be of the sacrificial type actually tend to be done gladly by the person"). Just because you do something gladly doesn't mean you aren't giving something up or foregoing your own needs/wants/desires to do so. Unless you take into account how "the participants internally conceive of the relationship or each other" then you aren't going to be able to make judgements about the worth of open or exclusive relationships. He can call this bad inference if he wants, but it also happens to be true.

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  20. One thing that has perhaps been overlooked in this discussion is that open relationships are just more complicated -- emotionally, but also logistically -- than closed ones. Monogamy limits the number of interested parties to two, and this, I think, just simplifies matters tremendously. I think this is why people call it "settling down": you settle into a way of relating to other people that consumes far less time, resources, and emotional energy. That's a benefit of monogamy that has to be taken into account.

    Many people -- especially young people, I guess -- spend a lot of time managing a complicated network of sex partners, and there are clear benefits to that kind of life. But spending one's entire life that way is probably not the best use of energy for most people. That's not to say that it isn't best for anyone. Some people also choose to spend a lot of their time and energy visiting different countries, and that's a very nice way to live for many people. But for most people just one country is probably enough, and two countries is too many.

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  21. That's an interesting analogy! Good point, too. (It's not necessarily a problem, as you note, but I grant that it "has to be taken into account".)

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  22. As I’ve already debated this at length with someone else, a few observations;

    As there are really no open systems, there are no truly open relationships. Even open relationships probably have boundaries set (no incest, no animals, etc.), even if only implied. The only difference between an open relationship and outright monogamy is the inevitable compromises are spread out over several persons instead of just one (complexity).

    Within the framework of a “type-b", there are two subsets that may have overlap:

    1). Communal type setting where pretty much everything is shared openly. Think an anarchist commune on an intimate level.

    2). Discrete multiple partners. I hazard to call this “open” as at any given moment the relationships are exclusive, and if the relationships are truly discrete, the operation is more of an enforced ignorance rather than being “open”. In practice, it seems to operate as continuous short-term monogamy. In relation to the above on boundaries, being ignorant of a boundary is not the same as having no boundaries, and operating from ignorance is probably not advisable.

    “more of a good thing…"- If the warmth of your mother’s bosom is good, then the fires of hell must be better. Faulty logic.

    In addressing relationships as non-comparative, why is the argument for open relationships comparative to monogamy? Further, comparative can also be described as unique. A possible consequence of non-comparative is that relationships are kept equal (non-unique) through hammer and saw (yes, I listen to Rush), or dehumanizing in the sense that maintaining non-exclusivity is valued more than knowing a person (i.e.- persons that have a propensity towards monogamy need not apply).

    Also, the arguments for open relationships seem to couch questions of conflicting loyalty (if they address it at all) in terms of possessiveness and jealousy. This strikes me as highly manipulative.

    The values of open relationship are commendable, but those values are commendable in any relationship and are not specific to it being open.

    Which leaves the defining characteristic of an open relationship as simply sex (much like monogamy), and the merits of which can be debated without all the attendant PR. All in all, open relationships and monogamy seem opposite sides of the same coin. Both place a surreal value on sex (instead of it simply being an expression of love and affection) that borders on fanaticism. This can’t be good.

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  23. Thought I'd chip in my two cents as well,

    I tend to see the biggest objection to non-usual relationships (B,C,D) as often being taken to do with the nature of love, and namely it being exclusive. However as Richard has pointed out there are good reasons to question whether a good, loving relationship requires exclusivity.

    I'm inclined to think that it doesn't, but that the nature of love does rule D and to a lesser extent C as being less than ideal, with both A & B being equally ideal in certain circumstances.

    It should be noted that there are two different versions of B, one of which on my account is equavalent to A the other of which is equavalent to C.

    The first is a geniune three way loving relationship, so A loves B, A loves C, B loves A, B loves C, C loves A and C loves B.

    The second is A loves B, B loves A & C, C loves B.

    The diference is that between a triangle and a <

    The distinction between these cases has to do with the nature of love, which (And Richard I'm afraid I'm going to betray my Kantian impulses here) I think ultimately involves viewing and treating your lover's ends as if they were your own.

    Now in the second case inevitably B is sometimes going to be in a situation where they must choose between A & C, in the first case this won't arise, because since A B and C all love each other they all put each others interests first.

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  24. Anonymous: you appear to be confused about the difference between discrete and discreet.

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  25. Conventional wisdom (and the odd sociological survey) tells us that a lot of people cheat on their partners while in purportedly exclusive relationships. Needless to say, such betrayal is bad. It would be avoided in an open relationship.


    I'm traveling, so I have to apologize for bringing this in so late in the discussion, but the above is not necessarily true. It makes the common mistake of assuming that open relationships are open in the sense of being no-holds-barred. In fact, most successful open relationships have just as many, or almost as many, rules, expectations, and norms as exclusive ones. Betrayal of a relationship, however, has to do with these. The one and only difference between an open and a closed relationship is that in the former the mere fact of sex with someone else is not against the rules, expectation, and norms. But it's a mistake to assume that people can't or don't cheat in an open relationship. There are actually lots of ways to do it.

    Examples: Some couples in open relationships require that the partner be notified of any sexual interaction. In such a relationship, a partner can obviously betray their partner by having sex on the sly. Some open relationships involve forbidding one night stands. Some forbid unsafe sex with anyone other than the partner. Some allow sexual interactions only if the partner knows the other person involved, and give that partner a veto. Some couples with children have very strict rules to prevent the children from knowing. Some are closed sexually but open romantically (they allow outside dating, making out, or whatever, but not actual sexual intercourse). Some are open sexually but closed romantically. Some allow outside sex only within the confines of a swap (i.e., if one partner wants it he/she has to set up the other partner for it, too). And so forth. All one has to do to cheat and betray is violate rules like these. Cheating on one's partner is in most cases surprisingly easy; outside of unrestricted polyamory there's probably no stable sexual relationship where it isn't.

    Likewise, being in an open relationship can just as easily lead to occasions of jealousy as being in a closed relationship; the former only requires indifference to one particular thing that is usually an occasion for jealousy.

    (Another common mistake that you don't seem to be making, but is perhaps worth mentioning in light of some previous comments, is the view that being an open relationship means that one actually has sex or romantic liaisons with other people. All that is actually required is that if one were to do so it would not be considered cheating by either partner. It's possible to have an open relationship in which neither partner ever actually has sex or a romantic liaison with anyone other than the partner; some people don't want to even when they are in an open relationship.)

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  26. Have any of you ever known people in a polyamorous or open relationship? Or even read their writings? I'm seeing a lot of judgement about how those relationships "can't work" and "aren't real relationships"...and no addressing of the evidence to the contrary.

    Just because they don't work for everyone (or even most people) doesn't mean they can't work for anyone.

    Almost any poly person will tell you that polyamory doesn't fix cheating, though, because the motivations are different. It's entirely possible to cheat in a poly relationship, and people do.

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  27. I realise that this discussion is old now, but I wanted everyone to know how pleased I am that the subject is being discussed in a cool-headed manner, without resorting to unexamined assumptions from biology or morality. I am hoping that the discussion comes alive again, especially with some contributions of first-hand experience. (By the way, where are the women? -- Perhaps 'Anonymous' is one. I am, too.) My reading of honest reports in the past, both from men and women, were suggestive mostly of the practical difficulties associated with open relationships. So the answer is partly empirical. But those practical difficulties too are partly constituted by our attitudes, and those mostly by our existing (for better or worse) social structures. Jealousy, in my opinion, is a major issue in open relationships--thus I am pleased that you have also opened that up for discussion.

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  28. This site obviously needs a long term insiders point of view. There are several things I should clear up, however I have learned not to go on too much so i will address only the key practicle elements of this philosophy. Yes it is more so than anything else a philosophy, and if one does not have faith in such a life path then they are doomed to fail in much the same fashion as the many self-centered, egomanical monogymus relationships have. Most importantly, what we are realy talking about is lableless relationships, true and unresticted friendship. Friendship is the foundation of any real relationship, and without it there is no understanding, no trust, and no commitment, only calousness and failure can come of it. Second relationships should be self defining, evolving naturaly, not boxed and pre-constructed. Freedom is the key to what you would call an open relationship. When you are with your partner(s), you are there because you want to be not because you feel obligated or your afraid of starting over. In such relationships there is no fear, and therefore no reason for lies. No when you wake up with someone you know they want to wake up next to you. Lastly we do not tell each other everything we do, however if we are asked a question we answer it, and we respect each other including our time and habits, if we want to do something that would break our routine (interupt us time) then we let the other know first, regardless of what that might be. It is respect for the relationship that binds us rather than some arftificial commitment, it love (better defined as "acceptance" and understanding).
    I hope this helps anyone wishing to understand how to build a successful relationship, whether it is with one partner or many, "a friend in the end, is a friend in the end" and thats all we ever really have (and we call them family).

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  29. What a pleasure to read a cultured discussion about a subject that can get ugly.

    I was involved in an open relationship about 10 years ago. I believe they can work but they require two individuals with the same values, goals and beliefs about what a relationship means to them. And yes, jealousy can and is usually the biggest challenge.

    What I find really interesting with regard to open relationships is the "rules of engagement" which are established by couples. In my own Blog I just posted on this exact subject.

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  30. I just don't think it's that simple. It might be something to aspire to, having multiple partners, but the inevitability is that someone on some level is going to get hurt, unless they have detached from their body in someway. My thoughts on open relationships are that they are fine for a period of one's life. But in the long run a lot of hurt, not just jealousy, but hurt is involved. The comment about friends is apt, I think. Friends are great and friends have intimate knowledge, but I think the real challenge and joy lies in committing to one person in body and soul. An open relationship does devalue the act of physical intimacy. Folks who say otherwise have severed the chord between heart and body. Wanting someone more after they have been with someone else is another form of possession, it intensifies ownership. To say it makes a relationship stronger is possible, after rebuilding the dynamics of the relationship and reconstructing trust, if it's possible. I've seen too many couples be "cool" with it and then devastated by it. It's almost like Lady Macbeth's red spot that keep them up at night while they try to be fine with it. They can't wash it out and it's an irreversible act. Be really really gentle before making this decision.

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