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.