Exploring Openness in Relationships. ~ Bannigan McDade

Via on Dec 6, 2010

A woman was explaining how she and her partner both felt free to express their attractions for others, and how great it felt compared to previous relationships where that would have been taboo.

My friend, knowing I couldn’t help but overhear from where I was sitting beside them, invited me into the conversation, asking me about my relationship. I described my relationship as similar… except that sometimes we acted on those attractions.

Oh, you’re in an open relationship.” Was the woman’s reply. She then started to defend her relationship’s boundaries, explaining that neither of them actually would act on their attractions even if it were totally okay with the other.

Because they simply didn’t feel the need.

I told her how great that was and exited the conversation as quickly as courtesy allowed, not exactly sure why I felt affronted.

Even within the relatively funky and open-minded communities that I run in, it is hard to find many people who, upon learning that my partner and I are not 100% sexually exclusive, don’t begin explaining their own preference for monogamy with some degree of defensiveness.

On the other hand, because my partner and I do have specific and occasionally shifting boundaries that we maintain, I’ve had my relationship called “not really open” by a friend who’s part of an open relationship community in San Francisco.

Open or closed, polyamorous or monogamous, all relationships lie somewhere on the spectrum of sexual openness, with the extremes of absolute exclusivity and complete openness extremely rare, if even imaginable.

There are relationships where one partner is so possessed they must never show any skin in public. There are relationships where it is not okay to spend time with friends of the opposite sex without the pretext of a party or work. There are relationships where it is only okay to speak of attractions towards celebrities, but never towards people who might actually be within reach. There are relationships where it is okay to express attraction to friends and mutual acquaintances, but never physically act on them. There are relationships where anything goes, so long as safety is taken into consideration and neither partner expresses feelings of hesitance. And there are relationships on every point of the spectrum in between and beyond, with every imaginable caveat either explicitly defined or implicitly understood.

With this continuum in mind, all relationships are open to a degree, and closed to another degree. Where do you define the boundary between open and closed?

For me, the narrow lens focused on a shifting spectrum of sexual rules misses the root of a healthy open relationship. What defines the qualities of opening relationship to me has more to do with how a couple (or triad, etc) interacts with the world, allowing new relationships, passions, and attachments to develop and enrich their lives. The biggest challenge of my relationship hasn’t been opening to my partner’s sexual interests in other people; it has been opening to her desire to pursue a career as a doctor. The unending demands of the institutions of western medicine inspire more jealousy and fear in me than any single person could. Choosing to work through this jealousy and fear has brought me face to face with some of my most nefarious and elusive demons, and given me a venue to shift long held beliefs that have been holding me back from my own potential.

I also wonder if this openness isn’t cyclical in a way, within the course of a relationship’s lifetime. I wonder if there are times of opening to the world, and times of closing to focus on each other. Relationships begin with an amount of closing, where progress is felt by how intimately you entwine your lives. This phase comes to an end however, as you reach a point where your bond is strong and secure, and becomes a sort of touchstone as you go back to the world and fulfill dreams that wouldn’t be possible without your partner’s love and support. This transition is a touchy process, as it can feel as if you are growing apart, and like you might never feel the exhilaration of intensely increasing intimacy again. It is also common for one partner to begin this process before the other, which can lead to intense jealousy and feelings of loss. However, if the bond is strong enough and the partners are supported by wisdom, the opening can begin with sincerity.

From this perspective, openness in a relationship would only lead to openness towards other sexual partners if that were a way one or both partners wanted to grow and expand. Perhaps certainty about that lack of want was what the woman defending the boundaries of her relationship was trying to express.

All passions being equal, sexual and romantic interests are generally considered the most threatening type of new passion to a primary relationship. The vast majority of people make sexual exclusivity the lynch pin of their most sacred bond. Why is that, do you suppose? I’d like to hear your thoughts….

Bannigan McDade is this and that, and likes to write about stuff and things.  He enjoys how the concepts he tries to express develop and shift during the articulation process, and he often realizes he disagrees with his own point of view many times before finishing a piece.

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13 Responses to “Exploring Openness in Relationships. ~ Bannigan McDade”

  1. For us, relationship is a dance. The needs, limitations, flexibility, attractions, desires, all of it grows and changes and evolve in a movement we attempt to make as graceful as possible. Generally, our relationship goes deeper and richer as we get to know each other more and more, and at the same time, the romantic magic part of the relationship — the part we make up about each other — fades away, so for me that is where the attraction of an open relationship lies: to have both the pleasure of a deep, rich, committed relationship and the newness and shininess of a new magical romantic relationship.

    I love both without the other.
    :)

  2. inberkeley says:

    as always, this topic is thought-provoking and challenges each of us in different ways, as you note. i especially appreciated your honesty about how your partner's "relationship" with her career/education has had an impact on you and your primary relationship. also, i think the cyclical nature of all relationships is a much-needed reminder for all of us choosing to have a long-term partner, regardless of the degree of "openness" of the relationship. many of us struggle to balance the thrill of "newness" with the depth of long-term partnership and the varying degree of intimacy that flows between the two. this kind of dialogue can only help foster healthy relationships of all forms. thanks to the author for the excellent and stimulating articulation of some complex issues.

  3. AMO says:

    I feel you, about med school. I am much more threatened by my partner's desire to do a 5000 mile bike journey than his interest in his friend, who happens to be female and has great boobs. She might spend a night or two with him, this journey would take months during which I would be at home running a business. This would mean he wouldn't be home for "our day" once a week, that we wouldn't watch Dexter together, that we wouldn't always get to talk everyday.

    Still, in both of these situations I know he would pursuing the richness that life has to offer, that he will do both of these things and come back to me, that he will still love and value me, still be my partner, still want to talk to me and watch our special show and spend the day with me. I want everything for him, me, her, the trip, everything that he wants, I want for him. That doesn't mean I don't sometimes become aware that his having something he wants (a trip across the continent) means I can't have something I want (to have him home with me on Saturdays). These are natural feelings. I've had them all of my life. When I was 5 my mother say's I would fight right until the end to stay awake so that I wouldn't miss anything. She also said I would often cry in the morning if I heard stories about something I missed, my brother having a bowl of ice cream with my dad or my parents watching something cool on TV. Life is full of moments. Most of mine are full. I will never be able to have EVERYTHING I want, to do EVERYTHING I want to do. Happiness is finding peace with that. Happiness in a love relationship is being fulfilled with what you DO have. Every moment of a good relationship is worth 1000 moments in one that's not so good. Mine is good. I'm fulfilled…

  4. Michelle says:

    This article was so needed in my life right now. I met and married young (17), had babies young, then went to college, actually found out who I was. I felt like the person I married was in some way, holding me back. I think open relationships are better, healthier, because they allow for truegrowth as a human. I feel like I was somehow mislead by getting into a marriage at such a young age, now I secretly long for an open relationship, but my spouse is very jealous, be it with my time or how a person smiles at me. It is almost suffocating at times. Things I used to enjoy doing, like hiking, traveling,etc. I’m not “allowed” to do alone. It has taken 19 years to realize that I am not the person he fell in love with back when I was 17. I have changed. Now I truly understand why people may divorce after so many years of marriage. It’s not because you hate a person, it is because you love them enough to let them go. Sometimes that is what being in an open relationship can mean too. Thank too for writing this article.

  5. Funnygirl says:

    For me the decision to remain monogamous with my partner has not been out of any sort of sexual morality, but more out of not being sure I could handle the complications that arise from an open relationship. Relationships can be complicated, each with their own emotional dynamic and expectations, etc. and I am not sure I am skillful enough to manage more than one very well. It is not like I have not had attractions to others during my long relationship. I have. It is not like my partner isn't supportive, he is and would probably (so he says) enjoy it if I were more open, but with our busy lives and kids, how could I find the time? I only have so much time and energy to pursue this sort of thing… Too much for me right now… but kudos for those who are so skilled at time management and at complicated interpersonal dynamics.

    • Bannigan says:

      I think prioritizing time for your children and other parts of your life that are similarly rewarding is an excellent choice. Opening a relationship is a time commitment, not only because of what you mentioned, but also because it is so foreign to how most of us and our peers were raised. Kudos to those who know how to prioritize their lives towards what is most important to them!

  6. Bannigan says:

    I totally agree that it is up to the individuals in the relationship to choose their own medicine. Glad you changed your perspective!

    I find working through the type of jealousy you mentioned, when done at my own pace and with support, can really help me learn about myself and my insecurities. This, in turn, allows me to work towards letting those insecurities go, and I find myself healthier for it.

    Congratz on the marriage and baby! Haven't had a child myself, but I wonder at how that experience relates to this idea of opening…certainly a child demands a lot of love, and parents have less time for each other after a child is born.

    • oriannakurrus says:

      Thanks! Yes there are a lot of similarities in having a baby + being able to be open in a relationship, just because of the time limitations. Also my body is constantly hugging, holding, nursing, etc. so at the end of the day I often just want to be alone! So there is not much time for the couple to connect physically. But there is also such amazing opportunity to surrender to what's happening instead of trying to control the outcome of everything. We've recently been feeling a large expanse of being in love :)

  7. Kim says:

    And open relationships can also be a symptom of narcissism and self-indulgence. There are equally rich lessons to be learned on the path of monogamy and personal sacrifice for the benefit of a relationship or a family. There was recently an EJ article about spiritual hypocrisy which touches on behaving badly in the name of spiritual growth and development. In the end to each his own.

  8. Bannigan says:

    I guess the short answer is the time investment and stress load made me feel less prioritized and abandoned. I think there are a lot of ways that her path is challenging me on a personal level. Recently I've had some major breakthroughs, with the help of an excellent counselor (http://www.heartmindintegration.com/bio.html), and have begun seeing her path as more of an inspiration than a reason to feel lonely.

  9. Bannigan says:

    Thanks Candice. A major point of this article is to reduce the polarization you mention. We all need support in our relationships, and more understanding and acceptance of different relationship styles will allow us to support each other. It can be hard for me to turn to some of my monogamous friends when things are difficult in my relationship, because they often think the problem must be compounded by openness. I can imagine the opposite being true as well.
    Glad to hear you are happy in your relationship!

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