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Loving Responsibly: An Exploration of Open Relationships

December 3, 2013

I love relationships. I love writing about them. I love experiencing them. I love learning about the people with whom I connect. There is nothing more rewarding than feeling another person open up and trust you, accept you for who you are, behold you with a sense of deep care and affection, and vice versa. This is Love; the blissful acceptance of one soul by another.

I’m going to get a bit tangential here and recount an experience my father once told me about having children. When my Mum was pregnant with my little brother, my Dad was worried that his heart was already so full of love that he didn’t think it possible to fit another child into that space. But when my brother was born, he said it was amazing how the love in his heart just naturally expanded to encompass us both wholly and equally. My brother and I are very different people with different qualities to offer in our relationships with others, but our parents love us unconditionally for the unique people we are, with all of our individual strengths and flaws.

My father’s experience pretty much sums up the way I feel about romantic relationships.

We don’t find it strange to love more than one parent, more than one friend, more than one sibling, more than one hobby, more than one pet, or more than one child. It’s normal and natural. There’s plenty of love to go around.

Why then, do we find it so strange to love more than one partner?

The Problem with Monogamy

The exclusivity of romantic relationships has struck me as unusual since my early twenties. Traditionally, we have two socially acceptable options: we can choose to be sexually and emotionally exclusive with one person out of roughly seven billion, or we can choose not to be in a relationship at all. There’s no middle ground. Sure, there are labels like “fuck buddies” or “friends with benefits” that make an attempt to situate themselves somewhere in the middle, but these connections typically only cater for short term physical release while being devoid of true emotional connection. In addition, these connections are usually discarded once a primary romantic relationship has been established.

The “middle ground” that many people choose is nonconsensual non-monogamy, commonly known as cheating. Traditional monogamous relationships are rampant with hidden agendas, feelings, secret crushes, resentments, and illicit desires for other people. While feelings for other people are perfectly normal, long-term culmination of any of the above without a suitable resolution within the parameters of the monogamous relationship is really stacking the biological odds against the relationship’s success. It’s a recipe for resentment and a lot of unnecessary hurt feelings.

People take the cheating route for many reasons. They don’t want to leave the comfort of an established relationship. It’s nice to have someone to come home to. It’s comforting to have a fallback if things don’t go the way you planned. It’s great to have physical intimacy on tap. It’s good to know you have a financial buffer. It’s a welcome relief to board the carriage of the socially acceptable married-or-long-term-partnership-on-the-way-to-engagement-after-you-turn-25 train and not get hassled about your single status by well-meaning friends and relatives.

Incredibly, it’s less socially taboo to say “I have a wife, kids, a dog, a mortgage, and a mistress. They don’t know about each other.” than it is to say “I have three wonderful partners. I love each of them dearly. We’re all great friends and we can talk openly and honestly about anything.” This completely short-circuits the ethical wiring of my brain. How can you claim to love a person, yet simultaneously deceive them? That isn’t love. That’s being a wimp. If you can’t own your feelings and actions, then you have no business being in a romantic relationship with another human being. Have the decency to respect and honour the people who choose to invest their time and heart with you enough to be honest with them. Cheating is the coward’s path; it’s a sure sign of a weak character, emotional immaturity, questionable ethics, and complete and utter disrespect for the feelings of your partner. Sadly, this viewpoint does not seem to be a common thread in the fabric of society where straying partners are commonplace, and fidelity is the exception rather than the rule.

There is a better way.

Polyamory: Loving Many the Ethical Way

Polyamory literally means “many loves”. It is a relationship paradigm based on openness, honesty, trust and respect where partners connect with each other, but may also choose to have one or more connections outside of that relationship. Every person involved is aware and approves of every other relationship connection. Intentions and boundaries are discussed and agreed upon by all parties. Everyone enters the relationship with full understanding and consent to the relationship parameters. Jealousy, hurts, and other totally normal human emotions are raised and discussed openly and sensibly. The aim of polyamory is not to hurt the people you love, make them jealous, create competition between lovers or any of that childish tripe. On the contrary, the essence of a polyamorous connection is based on intrinsic love, care, and respect for other people, their emotions, their needs, and their boundaries.

We all give and receive love in different ways. You may need your partner to verbally express the words “I love you” to feel loved. You may need them to buy you gifts and treat you to fancy nights out. You may need lots of hugs, touch or sex. You may need them to perform random little acts of kindness for you to feel appreciated. You may need the promise of commitment and a ring on your finger to feel loved and secure in your relationship. Polyamorous people simply have a different need in order to be happy and fulfilled in their relationships; the freedom and choice to connect with other people.

To me, polyamory is simply the ability, desire, and practise of deeply connecting with more than one person. It is the freedom of being able to express love and care without barriers, limitations or judgment. It is taking part in deep and trusting friendships with intimate meaningful conversation. It is respect and openness between mature-minded people who can discuss relationship difficulties and emotions openly and honestly. It is treasuring and honouring the beautiful and rare people who have the desire, heart, and maturity to connect in this way. It is the act of cherishing a valued connection and experiencing it to it’s fullest.

One common misconception about open relationships is that they must be all about lots of crazy wanton sex with random strangers. While there are certainly subsets of polyamorous people who choose the path purely for the sexual element, they are certainly not the entirety or even the majority. Many polyamorists are far more interested in the challenging, but infinitely more rewarding pursuit of inviting someone to share their heart. The physical element of such relationships, although delicious and exciting if the chemistry is there, is neither the end goal nor the totality of a poly connection. An intense physical connection is simply the extension of love and the strength of the heart connection. It is the physical expression of making love to the mind – the conversations, debates, challenges, fascination, intrigue, uniqueness, shared hopes, dreams, fears, hurts, hangups, insecurities, desires, and all that other awesome shit that makes us beautiful, vulnerable, and quintessentially human.

Jealousy in Open Relationships

Jealousy is a fairly common emotion in relationships, so bringing polyamory to the table can be akin to throwing a can of kerosene on the proverbial fire. Jealousy is a fear-based reaction to a perceived threat, firmly rooted in scarcity thinking. It is contingent upon the underlying fears that you’re missing out and that if your partner experiences something new and better with another person than what they experience their relationship with you, then they will leave you for the other person. That would constitute a rejection. Rejection is painful. In order to mitigate the risk of these painful feelings, the fearful partner unnecessarily constrains and restricts the other with the intent of keeping their partner all to themselves.

This is pointless. It’s also selfish. An unethical partner will simply cheat on you and lie about it. An ethical one will honour their commitment to you over their own desires, but long-term will end up resentful, unhappy, and unfulfilled. An ethical and conscious partner will try to reach a compromise, but will recognise that they are in the wrong relationship and bid thee farewell once options for compromise have been exhausted. Whichever way it goes, someone is going to end up unhappy.

Jealousy leads to all sorts of crazy bullshit mind games that sooooooo do not need to happen if you simply have the emotional intelligence and maturity to sit down with your partner and COMMUNICATE your feelings and concerns. When you’re closely emotionally connected to a person, it’s natural to feel fear and jealousy if their attention is temporarily directed elsewhere. It doesn’t matter how open, honest, and mature you are in your relationships – you’re still a human being with the same biological prototype as everyone else. The big question isn’t whether jealousy, abandonment, and fear of not being good enough will come up – they absolutely, definitely, and most certainly will. The big question is how are you going to deal with these feelings when they do rear their ugly heads? If you’re really that terrified of your partner leaving you for someone else, ask yourself why. Do you have so little confidence in yourself, your contribution to the relationship, and the happiness you add to your partner’s life?

We like to make love and relationships complicated when they really don’t need to be. Your “complicated” relationship boils down to one very simple truth: people want to spend time with the people who make them the happiest. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Make your partner happy. Are you doing a good job at making your partner happy? If not, why not, and what are you doing about it? Instead of trying to back your partner into a corner and stow them away from other potential connections, what could you do today to fill their happiness quota? If you can answer that, you have little to be concerned about in the relationship arena. People don’t bail on relationships in which they are blissfully happy and have all of their needs fulfilled.

Polyamory is not an easy or widely accepted path. It takes courage to go against the grain of tradition. It takes maturity to express your expectations clearly and accept the consequences. It takes trust to allow a person to see an unconventional side of you. It takes patience and understanding to work through the difficult emotions that you and your partner will face. It takes the willingness to accept that sometimes, you will get it wrong. Sometimes, you’ll be blindsided by difficult emotions. Sometimes, you will have your heart broken. Sometimes, people will misunderstand you. Sometimes, however unfairly, you will be judged. Sometimes, however unfairly, you will be labelled. Maybe one day, society will catch up and polyamory will approach forward-thinking mainstream acceptance, much as being gay or lesbian is accepted today. Maybe one day, ethical relationships with an extra helping of honesty, a smattering of truth, and a huge side of respect for one another will be the rule rather than the exception.

Further Reading

I’ve had a few friends ask me about open relationships and polyamory of late, so I thought I’d share some of my favourite resources here:

Articles

Books

A quick disclaimer: if you purchase a book through one of the links here on Climb the Rainbow, Amazon pays me a small commission for the referral. This doesn’t cost you anything extra – the price of the book is still exactly the same as if you had bought it directly from Amazon, but it’s a great way to support my work here at Climb the Rainbow at no extra cost to you if you were planning to buy the book anyway.

Tristain Taormino – Opening Up

This is the best and most comprehensive resource I’ve read on the different types of open relationships and the all-important ethical considerations.

The Ethical Slut

An absolutely brilliant peek into the world of “ethical sluts” Janet and Dossie. This book covers polyamorous relationship types, ethics, and exploring jealousy and other difficult emotions common in polyamourous relationships.

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