Why I Can’t Have An Open Relationship

A college education teaches you many things, but the most important morsel of wisdom it imparts on you is the ability to think critically. We all ask questions through the course of our meager existence. We ask why there are three branches of government in the United States. We ask how a tree is born, and what makes it shed its leaves once a year. We ask how babies are made. We ask why a Twinkie never goes bad. Some of the answers to these questions are more palatable than others. Some answers just lead to more questions. Some answers are just plain gross. Curiosity is immeasurably valuable to adulthood because it keeps you from getting bored or complacent.

The place where education fails the human race is that it does not teach us how to not ask questions occasionally. There are some queries that don’t entirely merit our consideration. One of those queries is the grandest question of all. From the beginning of time, humans have asked why do we exist? What purpose does life serve? Is there any grander meaning? That question is answered in a variety of ways. Some people find solace in work. You bludgeon yourself into submission with a variety of uppers and downers so that the menial task appointed to you is more bearable. Other folks latch onto their god, spirit, demon or other higher power. Most are content to derive meaning from sexual relationships of the monogamous variety.

The joy of another human choosing to spend the rest of their lives with you can be very fulfilling. Having a confidant and stabilizing force in the world puts a man or woman at ease when the average day is full of struggle. It’s lovely and rewarding to know that when the course of events takes a dire turn, someone else actually cares enough to help out.

With that comes a whole other set of issues. A mate can actually be a source of strife rather than a comfort. You don’t necessarily realize that when you choose someone, but the chances are better than the chances that a cigarette will give you cancer. The human race is infinite in its variety, and also in its capacity to be self-interested. We all do what we can to imagine that someone else has the capacity to always be relied on for support, but that’s rarely true. This is a dark notion, but even the most altruistic individual has the ability to make decisions that benefit only them. They can be small things, seemingly trivial behaviors, but they are still intrinsically selfish. Your boyfriend leaves the toilet seat up, eh? Seems silly, but he does it because he doesn’t think about how you will navigate this particular predicament. Your girlfriend is in the habit of taking the last slice of pizza? She still likes you a lot, but she likes pizza too.

The open relationship is that thing that happens when both participants in a coupling accept that they have an abiding interest in themselves. It is the ultimate act of self-awareness. The other person knows they are not going to love you forever, and the feeling is mutual. Intellectually, this appears to be the perfect arrangement. You know where you stand, you have carte blanche to explore your options, but you can also call upon your partner for various and sundry moments of assistance. They could be emotional or they could be carnal.

Despite the fairly reasonable nature of the open relationship, they are either not considered socially acceptable or they’re just rare. I’ve never properly attempted one. I haven’t really known anyone who has either. That could be a symptom of the fact that I am irredeemably square. Perhaps I don’t have any friends who are cool enough to just ‘chill’ and embrace life?

The converse of that is that maybe I don’t know anyone with the courage to not demand fealty from an autonomous, sentient lifeform. Relationships give us meaning, purpose and motivation. Monogamy offers so much safety when nothing around you feels safe. How tough must you be to let that go? I wish I could have that type of will. I would love to not need. So much would be easier if I could live casually. I suppose I live my life as though nothing is casual. My answer to the question of “what does life mean?” is life means everything. To me, if we’re doing it right, all things are vital, have worth and merit attention. The whole endeavor is important, because it only happens once. Even open relationships carry a certain amount of weight since they are irretrievable seconds. I don’t engage in open relationships because I don’t want to admit that life is not inherently meaningful.

I want to hold you, kiss you and see you naked from time to time, but I want that to matter. Open relationships seem wonderful. They give people the chance to truly be themselves. The problem is that being yourself is too scary. I don’t look down on those who love without constraints. In fact, I admire them. I want to have what they have. My quandary comes from being so typical, so average, so narcissistic that I must always believe that my time is important. I have to be special. Those of you who can have sex without emotional repercussions have it figured out. The rest of us are just going to have to spend the remainder of our lives trying to answer a question that has no answer. TC mark


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  • Anonymous


    Submit your invoice to TC, I want to know you’re not short on hugs!

    • Anonymous

      I just got a ton of hugs at this very moment.

  • PFOJ

    Tobias: You know, Lindsay, as a therapist, I have advised… a number of couples to explore an open relationship where the couple remains emotionally committed but free to explore extramarital encounters.Lindsay: Well, did it work for those people?Tobias: No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might, but… but it might work for us.

  • http://twitter.com/sarahannelloyd Sarah Anne Lloyd

    “The open relationship is that thing that happens when both participants in a coupling accept that they have an abiding interest in themselves. It is the ultimate act of self-awareness. The other person knows they are not going to love you forever, and the feeling is mutual.” <— This isn't strictly true. Sometimes it's just like, I love YOU forever (or I might), but monogamy's not a prerequisite for that.

    • astropony

      I was going to comment on that very same passage, as it’s a huge yet common misconception of open relationships that the author has…. I think a lot of it comes from people who describe their current relationship as “open” because they’re experiencing doubts/ it’s an on-off kind of thing, etc  and they want to hook up with you (the times I’ve heard this line I’d be willing to bet that their other half wouldn’t be describing their relationship as “open”). 

      But, secure open relationships do exist, and they come in many different forms depending on the reasons the relationship is open. The bottom line is that each couple in an open relationship do have agreements about what is and isn’t acceptable, based on their individual needs — for example, having intercourse with someone at an S&M club is OK, or only when the partner is away on business, while things like having an emotionally involved relationship with another person that involves more than just sex is NOT ok. Or, a secondary emotional and sexual relationship could be ok with both partners and they’d have an agreement about that. Anyways, like the author I don’t think I could have an open relationship myself — but it’s because I don’t have any needs that can’t be met by my primary partner.  I was curious as hell about the whole phenomenon of open relationships though, so I read an eye-opening book about it called The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton. Highly recommended, if you’re interested in the mechanics of an open relationship or how to start one or meet other people who are into them too. 

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        It’s a good comment, but here too a language creeps in that isn’t necessarily part and parcel of any kind of relationships: the language of need. You said, “I don’t have any needs that can’t be met by my primary partner.”

        We’re human, and we have some very strong needs, but needs aren’t really the basis of a strong relationship. Desire is great, need not so much. And when we acknowledge that great relationships are based on desire rather than need, the idea that we don’t need X, Y or Z ceases to become an argument against X, Y and Z. Sure, we don’t need to have romantic relationships with more than one person, but really we don’t need to have romantic relationships at all. We desire them, not just as something that serves ourselves, but in the ways that they transform us and the other part(y/ies) involved.

  • http://twitter.com/raystraight Ray Straight

    If open relationships “give people the chance to truly be themselves” (a seemingly selfish behavior), and yet you say that  you’re “so narcissistic that I must always believe that my time is important”, it seems that you’re having difficulty defining importance from your time. Have you tried simply being alone?

    • Anonymous

      Yeah. Being alone is no fun for me.

      • Amar Gupta

        Hello David!

        Articles like these are the ones which are firstly rare- and which seem like they were always inside my head and found a way to wrote themselves.
        Secondly, the language and texture are something which I personally associate to. Thanks for this and all the best with finding solutions to the dilemma! 

  • http://twitter.com/FeasyPeasy Khadeja Jallo

    I always thought my aversion to open relationships was about plain, old jealousy. I never delved into what I might be jealous OF. 

    I liked this article.

  • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

    I read this and found it unrelentingly personal. And then I watched your standup videos and found them hilarious. Now I’m confused. I’ve a feeling you’re a complex dude.

    • Anonymous

      I’m a basket full of complications.

  • Danaynay

    “Those of you who can have sex without emotional repercussions have it figured out.” Really? That just seems depressing to me. I find sex without (assumed positive) emotional context to be pretty terrible. The physical aspect of sex (and relationships) is only one part of the whole. I for one wouldn’t want to have sex without emotional repercussions. Keeps the carnal beast at bay, so to speak. 

  • guestin'away

    ” So much would be easier if I could live casually. I suppose I live my life as though nothing is casual. “Yepppp

  • http://twitter.com/jade_claire Jade Claire

    You seem to be confused on what an open relationship is. Have you ever read the book Sex at Dawn? Or The Ethical Slut? Sexuality and love are not the same thing. I need only mention gold diggers, porn stars, and masturbation as a few examples. As far as jealousy, if you really loved someone, why would them wetting their sexual appetite really matter to you, if you were going to spend the rest of your lives together and loved each other? I recommend you check out those books to do some follow up research on this article. 

    • Anonymous

      10 points for The Ethical Slut mention!

      • Anonymous

        *10 POINTS* That’s so many points…

    • Bromance

      Jade Claire’s comment is spot on, but here’s another example. Sometimes loving partners have unequal sex drives: I have a very high one, my boyfriend is asexual. It’s not even a matter of sexual compatibility, because when we have sex, it’s great. I want it a lot more and he doesn’t want it at all. Having sex occasionally is one compromise and an open relationship is another.

  • Sarah Bailey

    agreed :)  I need to feel i’m special, i need to feel i’m the only one. I’ve wondered why i couldnt face romantic relatioships with the same coolness as friendship, but i stopped fighting it. I’m a needy girl, i like atention, and i like to feel special. Dont think I’ll be one of those figured out people.

    But another thing feels true to me, do people that live that lightly ever experience the magnitude of absolute true love, that maddening love, so intense you get lost in it? Without it I would feel i had never lived

    • Anonymous

      I don’t know, but I can tell you that the magnitude of it is so heavy that I can’t breathe.

      • Sarah Bailey

         trust me, I understand that

      • Sarah Bailey

         I appologyse in advance if this quote is to be considered lame, but one very smart man (Bowie) once wrote (before the Moulin Rouge was out) that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is (just) to love and be loved in return”. When we’re not in a good place, this just seems like BS, and all we want is to stop feeling, stop feeling forever cause everytime we allowed ourselves to feel it just exploded in our faces. But when we start to heal, we remember how much sense that sentense makes

      • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

        Sometimes when we’re in a very good place (ridiculously happily married for five years) this still seems like BS, at least in the Baz Lerhman sense of the quote as here invoked. I mean, seriously, I love Moulin Rouge, the director is a genius, and Ewan McGregor singing turns me on a little. But really, what’s nice about stories like Moulin Rouge (or his also very good adaptation of Romeo + Juliet) is that, you know, they die before infatuation wears off. I mean, I love me some infatuation, but, yeah. Just saying.

      • Sarah Bailey

         you are right in one thing, I mentioned Bowie when i should have mentioned  Eden Ahbez, who wrote Nature Boy in 1947. But I didnt mean love like in Moulin Rouge that’s why I wrote “said before the moulin rouge was out”, because the quote is best known because of the movie but it was written long before. And infatuation is great, indeed, when its followed by love specially. I’ve loved, not a steady love like you apparently, but I’ve seen love all my life. My parents have been happilly married for 30 years now, and I’ve never seen two people more inlove. So I do know what love is, I grew up seeing it. I was spoiled by knowing it exists, what made me a hopeless romantic.
        And I still believe,  even if I myself never find the love and happyness my parents have, love is the greatest thing in life.

  • http://christophermluna.com Christopher Michael Luna

    I mean, cool that you feel fulfilled in a special way by monogamy and want to affirm that. Go, you! Sincerely.

    But the notion that non-monogamy is somehow lighter, shallower, more about the self than the other, or in any way more frivolous than monogamy sounds like an over-generalization.

  • Rei

    “So much would be easier if I could live casually. I suppose I live my life as though nothing is casual.”

    Um. I’m in an open relationship. I’ve been in monogamous relationships. The open relationship I am currently in is probably the most serious and committed I have ever had.

    Look, do you have more than one close friend? More than one person you can sit up with until three in the morning talking about nothing, laughing together, sharing the deepest and most intimate parts of your thoughts with? Does the fact that there exists more than one such person in your life mean that your connection with the others is diminished somehow?

    Monogamy is clearly how you roll, and that’s cool, but you come off as kind of patronising here. The fact that somebody’s doing something differently to how you would do it does not mean they’re not looking for or getting the same things out of it you are. And true and absolute love has more than one possible form.

    Also, I am needy, self-centered and insecure, and my girlfriend has never made me feel neglected or unfulfilled. Just throwing that out there.

    • shannon

      very well said. it’s absolutely possible to love more than one person at a time and if that’s not beautiful and meaningful,  i don’t know what is. making room in your life to love more than one person at once is anything but casual, in my opinion. and open relationships aren’t all about sex (or even mostly about sex, many times). 

  • Guest

    I couldn’t agree with this article more. I know someone who attempted an open relationship, and it failed miserably as the (however loosely laid out) boundaries were crossed. The main hindrance in my pursuit of an open relationship is that I might just be a little too selfish, and would want all of the emotional and carnal attention on myself, rather than some other third party. 

  • beatrice

    And yet there’s also the ridiculous amount of time and effort that u spend investing in a relationship. Frankly, if it wasn’t monogamous, I wouldn’t have wasted a rats ass of my time. David, I share your exact sentiments

    • Anonymous

      My problem is that I don’t know how to spend my time, so I am easily distracted by romantic entanglements that end up being a waste of my time.

      • Emily

        + 1

      • Anonymous

        If we all bring a +1, this is going to be a crowded party of lonely people.

      • Grace

        Call me naively optimistic, but I think you’re being unfair with yourself by labeling those attempts as ultimately a waste of time. If you count yourself among those who derive meaning from romantic relationships than any attempt to bring meaning to your life is valid and worthwhile. What’s the point in beating oneself up for trying? Life’s short. Don’t miss out on anyone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jacqueline-Lilo-Louboutin/748021150 Jacqueline Lilo Louboutin

    This is getting confusing.

    • Anonymous

      What’s NOT confusing these days? Am I right, ladies????

      Is this thing on? Hello? Mic check. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/brendan.s.walters Brendan Walters

    The dawn of any open relationship is filled with sunny optimism.

    Lessons herein learned the only way, the real way; the hard way. 

    Open relationships are layered with emotional complexity far beyond any bedside speculation.  An open relationship is not an ideal to admire, it is a rationalization, a pipe-dream;  they don’t work, and they never will.  As people who struggle through good times and bad, we all find ourselves needing support from time to time, be it intellectual, spiritual, sexual, or emotional.  We are designed to connect to others in this way and the more we connect with another, the more we begin to expect that connection to be mutual.  This is simply how we work.  Think back on past (meaningful) relationships, especially the formative stages, and you will see the truth in this.
    One might think that if one can reach a state void of emotion, life is a simpler place.  I have explored this avenue personally and it doesn’t come with recommendation.  Although it can be the source of some phenomenal stories, life without emotion is in fact cold and meaningless.  Sex without emotion amounts to a pleasantly small dose of endorphins that could have been achieved hundreds of other ways.  Over time, sex without emotion can make one feel even less needed, even less important.  It erodes self-respect.  I’m not saying a good lay from time to time isn’t one of the greatest therapies in the world – because it is.  There is a right way to go about being single, however.  Watch Sienna Miller and Daniel Craig in Layer Cake.

    In the land of emotion grey areas are not your friend.  I am hated the most by those which I have hurt the most and I will say with sweeping, self-appointed authority that the conscious is a very cruel mistress.  Love freely, but be forthright and respectful of other’s emotions – else you find that hole that you were digging to have been yours all along.

    Remember, there is only one way to learn.  Live with conviction.  Indecision is the greatest shame.


  • Kate

    Maybe this is unintentional gender prejudice, but I really enjoyed that this was from a male’s perspective.  It was sweet and endearing opposed to what I imagine would have been interpreted as a weak or overly emotional piece from a female.

    • Anonymous

      I really appreciate that. Of course, I’m sure a lot of my male friends will refer to me as ‘weak’ or ‘overly emotional’ at some point.

  • VI

    Now I know why people always refuse to have open relationships with me… Couldn’t have said it any better.

  • Austin

    As you said, monogamy is only valid to the point that we believe that the world around us is fundamentally unsafe and that change hurts. 
    Recognize that the only thing that is actually guaranteed is change, that change is good for you, that it makes you grow, that the world around you is spinning out of control but you can enjoy while it unravels. Embrace the flux, and you’re free. 

    I’m someone myself that has trouble moving out of my comfort zone, but when I do, it’s when I feel most alive. Perhaps I view the world this way because of a slight bit of self-loathing, hating the part of myself that is lethargic and weak, but I find it the most rational course of action. 

  • Anonymous

    An open relationship isn’t inherently non-special or unemotional by any means.  I’m in an open marriage with my wife.  I adore and am committed to her, in the sense that no matter what happens, I will always make her a priority in my life, she will always be able to depend on me to help her out, we will always be fantastic sexual partners, and we will share the thicks and thins of our lives.  Even in my secondary relationship, I crave intimacy and meaning more than detached sex of cheap thrills.  In my case, I have a great deal of emotional energy.  Enough that very few people could tolerate me spending all of it on them, and frankly, the few people that could…I could not stand in the least.  I do tend to have very few, very long relationships with a great deal of involvement in them.  However…they are open.  Not in the sense that I’m going to run away, because hey, this is open, but in the sense that we are free to seek others that meet our needs.

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