“We should go for a beer one of these days” I look at him confused, and point back at the table where our friends are sitting, throwing back pints like there’s no tomorrow. He follows my gaze and then quickly adds, noticing my confusion “well, not like that.”
This short exchange marked the beginning of a month of us hanging out almost everyday. We’d go to exhibitions, and for walks on Hampstead Heath, organize dinner parties and go out clubbing with friends, or sometimes just hang out after work.
I guess for many around us, this looked like the start of the age-old heteronormative story of two colleagues hooking up. Which in many ways, it was. Except for the fact that he had a girlfriend, and they were in an open relationship.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “open relationship” is an umbrella word for any non-monogamous partnership. This includes polyamory (being able to love and have relationships with several people), swinging (two or more couples exchanging sexual partners), relationship anarchy (the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon), and many more.
Despite not being in any census tick box, anecdotal evidence shows that open relationships are on the rise. Researching this piece, I discovered a dozen people in my immediate or extended circle of friends as well as acquaintances (including my driving instructor) who were in one.
While we don’t know the exact number of people in open relationships, could they be the future of love?
It seems improbable that a relationship model that is still so taboo, even in 2017, could be on the rise.
After all, media representation paints people who are polygamous with the same tarnished brush: commitment-phobes who are unable to keep it in their pants. Or, at the very least, kind of deficient in their approach to relationships.
Nay, who is currently involved with six partners, believes that if open-relationships are at all represented, they aren’t exactly painted in the most accurate way: “[…] As for the so-called open relationships that I’ve seen in media, they usually involve a straight, romantically monogamous couple, who have an open sexual relationship, apart or together in threesomes. Most of the time this seems to signal either a dysfunctional relationship, or a very functional relationship between two vaguely evil people.”
Needless to say that open relationships aren’t partnerships chosen by dysfunctional or soulless human beings. Complete honesty with both one’s own feelings and needs as well as those of the other individuals involved is primordial in non-monogamous relationships.
In my case, the person I was involved with told me about his relationship almost immediately. This gave me the opportunity to get involved in a consensual and informed way. We also discussed at length what this was to the both of us. We were friends, with the added benefit of having sex.
The person I was involved with and his girlfriend had been together for three months. They met while traveling, but had since been wandering the world separately. He was in Europe, while she was doing volunteer work and studying in the middle-east. The basis of their agreement was very much “don’t ask, don’t tell” and he often said that their relationship wouldn’t work if they were in the same city.
However, many others I interviewed had two significant others in the same country or even city. Like monogamous relationships, open ones come in many forms and there are no templates. There is just what feels and is right for all involved. In some cases, several significant others will actually meet.
In the case of Simon, a 24-year-old junior doctor, how he deals with different partners is something he plays by ear: “I make it clear that I am seeing other people and get involved [in polyamorous relationships] but beyond that [it] has to be tailored to everyone. Some don’t want to meet others I date, some meet and get on great.”
Non-monogamous relationships are a break from the concept that a unique person can fulfill all of your needs for the rest of your life. In other words, open-relationships give the opportunity for all of one’s emotional needs to be met by different people.
After all, given the rise in broken homes over the past decades, can we truly expect just one person to make us happy for the rest of our lives? It seems slightly selfish to put so much responsibility on the shoulders of a single individual.
Landon, who did not want to be named due to personal concerns, told me something that rang true both in my case, and in the ones of many others I interviewed: “I cannot be everything to everyone, nor can everyone be everything to me.”
Millennials are also increasingly shying away from marriage. At the very least, this proves that in the minds of my generation, being with the same person for the rest of both their lives isn’t something to strive for, or indeed, tenable.
Open relationships, however, aren’t necessarily a consequence of the lack of faith in marriage. Many in non-monogamous relationships actually do embrace some of the traditions which historically celebrate monogamy.
Megan, a thirty-one year old Canadian, is currently engaged to her partner Chris. They started off their open relationship when they were long distance, but have since moved in together.
A lot has changed since the beginning of their relationship. However, this does not mean the end to being poly: “It’s almost 4 years later and we’re still together, engaged in fact! We’ve talked about it and decided we’ll likely remain polyamorous for the rest of our lives, but of course we’ll see where life takes us.”
Where life takes you is a question that no one can answer. No matter what the relationship type, they all have their fair share of ups and downs. Relationships come at a risk, and they all come with compromises and sacrifices. Open ones are only different in the sense that they increase the volatility of a partnership. Laura, a mother of two, is an example of this.
Laura, who is using a pseudonym, has two children under the age of five. She too is polyamorous. Her current primary partner and herself have been together for ten years. However, she also has another relationship which has been going on for the better part of a year and also dates women she meets through dating apps, and in meet-ups.
That being said, polyamorous relationships also come with their set of complications, as well as their trials and tribulations: “My primary partner is emphatically relationship monogamous. […] He feels that there had been a degradation of the way I respect his needs and is unhappy that I am able to address some of my needs elsewhere.
“So I’ve stopped dating and am probably going to break up with my significant other, though that will be painful. If his needs eventually turn out to be me being monogamous then I will probably leave though our children are what stops me at the moment.”
When asked whether the future of love was open relationships, all of my interviewees all answered variations of “no.” All believed that there were different reasons why non-monogamy wouldn’t work for everyone, whether that was due to emotional, social, or religious reasons.
Nay probably summarised this feeling shared by all in the best way: “That’s a really complex question, but to simplify things: no. I think there are too many factors (cultural, religious, insecurities, time constraints, material resources, mental and physical health issues, personal preference) that pull people towards closed relationships.”
Laura, however, had a more nuanced approach to this: “I like to think that consciously choosing a relationship style without automatically defaulting to monogamy is the future of relationships. I don’t think non-monogamy is for everyone! But what I would like to challenge people to do is to really, genuinely consider what their needs are in romantic and sexual relationships, and what feels most authentic and natural for them.”
In other words, open relationships, like everything else in life, are also bound to that concept which is “what is good for me, might not be good for you.” While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, non-monogamy isn’t going anywhere.
As monogamy is buckling under the weight of the outdated expectations we have set upon it, some may find that open-relationships might be better suited to them.
That said, the societal taboo of being in a non-monogamous relationship is still present. After all, studies show that monogamous relationships are seen as better and more committed partnerships.
Relationship models come in as many different forms as there are people. As times change, and we move towards understanding each other better, appreciation and acceptance of the eclectic nature of relationships might be better accepted.
As Megan said: “If the whole world lived more openly I feel it’d be a happier place to be, but I do realize that everyone is different and some people aren’t comfortable with non-monogamy. It’s definitely my future, and it’s becoming more and more widely recognized from what I’ve seen over the past decade.
“There will always be that group of willfully ignorant people who are vehemently against anything that they don’t understand, and sadly those people generally include public figures and famous influencers.”
While open relationships might not become the future of love, it is certain that non-monogamous relationships will change the definition of what we think a “committed” relationship is.
I started this article a few months ago and since then, the guy I was dating and his girlfriend broke up. He and I also stopped seeing each other as he moved to Berlin, and I moved to Melbourne.
However, we still do speak on a regular basis and are of course still good friends.
As for me, I can’t pretend to know whether or not open relationships will be the future of love. However, this brief fling has shown me that love very much comes in different shapes and forms.
And who are we to judge how consenting adults wish to love?