boyfriend chronicles – an argument for open relationships

i inadvertently came out to a coworker yesterday on a ride back to SF.  it was already sort of awkward, so i saw no reason to not make it more awkward.  among her incredibly awkward questioning to show that she was cool with the gays: “… gotcha, so he’s officially you’re boyfriend?  i know that gay people often sleep with other people.” yay!

opening caveat: while i argue that open relationships may be a good idea in this blog entry, i think it is very possible to be happy and successful in a closed relationship as well.  while i am ostensibly arguing for open relationships in this blog entry, it’s also/more-so meant to be a look at how i view relationships, attributes that i aspire toward when trying to be a good boyfriend, conflict resolution, debating what sustains relationships, questioning preconceived notions, and addressing inconsistencies within our own judgment system.  and providing a window into my current relationship!  there are also arguments against open relationships, and, to quote sean, intellectually, open relationships are superior; however, reality makes a mess of it.

sexual monogamy is an arbitrary standard imposed by society. my sister-in-law (who homeschools her children) has this anecdote about toddlers.  when they fall, they actually look at the way that the people around them react accordingly.  so, when a toddler falls and everyone freaks out, the toddler intuits that it is a BIG DEAL that they fell and start making a big deal out of it.  which is why, when toddlers fall, you should just be casual and treat it like it’s no big deal.  

all that for the not terribly groundbreaking notion that, for better or for worse (probably for worse), we utilize social cues and norms to define many things in our life, from what is fun to cool to appropriate, and in this context, what is allowed in a relationship.  somewhere along the course of history, it was deemed that having sex with someone other than your significant other (without telling the SO) was grounds for separation.  or deeply offensive.  (we’re going to sidestep the “infidelity as a sign of distrust” issue because i am assuming full disclosure in an open relationship)

in a relationship, i think in general, people should avoid saying things like “i know you like X, but you need to stop doing X to prove that you love me.” because it violates unconditional love, because it seeks to change the other person instead of changing yourself, because it seems sadistic to derive pleasure and power from other’s sacrifices, because you’re creating a point of friction in the relationship instead of resolving differences.  from this article

Another major tension comes from our non-monogamous impulses. Humans are rare among mammals in that we practice at least some form of social monogamy. But there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that sex outside of the primary parenting bond was common throughout our evolutionary history, and would have been to the reproductive advantage of both males and females of our species. Jealousy seems to have deep roots as well, so there is nothing particularly new about feelings of sexual possessiveness–but the conscious, socially enshrined value-expectation that both husbands and wives should remain 100% sexually exclusive to one another for decades in a row, and that failure to meet this goal should entail the end of the relationship, is certainly a more recent invention. Adultery is one of the leading causes of marriage failure.

As a baseline, we have argued for something called the “principle of default natural ethics.” This just means that, given the choice, we should try to adopt values that are as consistent as possible with human nature, so that we can avoid troubling side-effects that come from unnatural suppression and heavy-handed regulation of basic instincts: just think of the recent sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and consider some obvious reasons why that tragedy might have come about. Sometimes, following the principle of default natural ethics means that we should jettison our social institutions–especially when they are so far out of synch with our human dispositions as to be totally unworkable, or when they end up creating bigger problems than they were designed to solve in the first place. This is probably part of the reason why we’ve moved past communism as a model for social and political organization: it seemed, at least to many people, to make a lot of sense on paper, but in the real world it ran up against too many deep facts about the way that people actually work. 

it would be remiss to note that there are situations where “abstinence of X as proof of love” is justified.  smoking, excessive drinking, hard drugs; because it is harmful to the body and can be dangerous, maybe it’s disgusting.  sure, i can buy that.  with regard to how “abstinence of sleeping with other people” can be justified, there a couple of routes.  STDs are a concern (long term partners somehow getting HIV, oof), but most of the arguments revolve around relationship stabilization.  my thoughts:

sexual monogamy will not keep a relationship together. the argument generally can proceed two ways:

1) argument: sexual monogamy keeps people from feeling jealous/insecure.  

so… i get this argument.  if your SO is not comfortable with it, then that is basically a conversation ender.  you shouldn’t be able to tell your SO how something “should” make them feel.  there is obviously a spectrum of what sex means to each person, sometimes that it’s an incredibly special thing reserved for two people in love, and sometimes it’s less intimate than a long hug.  while i say that i would not be jealous if daniel did anything with anyone else, i speak purely in hypotheticals.  i’ve never been in an open relationship, but more importantly, my boyfriends for the most part rarely talk about being attracted to other people.  even daniel, when pressed, rarely admits to feeling attracted to others.  (though, fun fact, one ex, who did once brag about making out with someone random while we were dating, did make me totally jealous (among really weird other emotions), though i would argue that that was a different story for a variety of reasons, most importantly because he made out with a girl and he was closeted at the time) if the argument is that you should do whatever is in your power to make your SO happy, then you should change yourself and be happy in a monogamous relationship.

counterarguments:

in an effort to garner empathy and for me to help understand how daniel felt, daniel asked me if i had ever felt jealous or possessive of him.  and then i remembered this one incident where daniel and i arguably had one of our biggest fights; i was being increasingly annoyed with daniel and i couldn’t really figure out why the stuff that daniel was doing was rubbing me the wrong way.  he had just gone from being funemployed and sunning all day to facebook orientation and was in general just REALLY EXCITED ABOUT IT and this stupid QR code puzzle hunt that he couldn’t stop talking about. and, after thinking about it, i was acting in that manner because i had never seen daniel get that excited about me and i was feeling cast aside.  another time, i thought about two guys who daniel smiled and reacted around them in a way that he didn’t around me.  and it scared me, especially given the importance that i put on the emotional connection in a SO.  like… i get that jealousy and insecurity are natural, but it’s also unhealthy for me to get upset that daniel has an exciting new job, activity, or friendship.  and it would be even more ridiculous of me to forbid daniel from hanging out with them or working at his new job just because him doing those things made me jealous.  

while our emotions are affected by our circumstances, we should also strive to grow to become less jealous and more secure.  i think anyone in a relationship who seeks to establish bounds and curtail happiness of an SO before making a concerted effort himself is not treating the relationship correctly.

2) argument: sexual monogamy keeps people from discovering another person who they might want to be in a serious relationship with.  

my qualm with this concern is that…. if my SO really met someone who makes them happier, wouldn’t you want him to be with the other person?  would you ever want to be someone’s second choice?  and if your relationship is solely based on the quality of sex and how hot you are, isn’t that fighting a losing battle?  because whatever physical connection i have with daniel, i will never be the hottest guy who is into him.  or always have the hottest sex with him.  and relying on your sexual currency to sustain a long term relationship seems like a losing battle.  i really can only bank on my emotional connection with him to keep daniel coming back to the relationship.  like, if you’re worried that your SO hooking up with someone else will cause them to doubt the relationship, doesn’t that reflect a more serious problem with the relationship?  i feel like i would be insulted if someone insinuated this, that sexual attraction/hooking up with others would affect your love for your SO.  

an open relationship is a pressure valve that relieves relationship fatigue.

someone wrote on twitter: how many women who forbade their husbands from looking at porn but are now really into the 50 shades of grey series?  why would one activity be alright but the other not allowed?  if you’re not allowed to have sex with other people, what of the following are you allowed to do: flirt with others, dance with others, make out with others, touch/grope others, go to strip clubs, go to places with gogo dancers, flirt, look at porn, find other people attractive, fantasize about other people, engage in role playing fantasies with your SO, masturbating, talking about other attractive people, cuddling with other people, showering with other people, going to but not participating at sex parties/other places where people are naked and maybe engaging in inappropriate behavior.  

where does one draw the line, and can you really explain why sex with others is uniquely different from the “allowed” items on that list.  many of those things are perceived as totally harmless and natural and, when you inevitably end up feeling attracted to people other than your significant other, resolve tension.  i think everyone WILL want to do some of the items on the above list with someone other than their significant other at some point, and the question is if, in a “good” relationship, you should try to suppress or encourage to indulge.  if anything, an open relationship could keep things fresh:

Sexual passion and arousal are particularly prone to hedonic adaptation. Laboratory studies in places as far-flung as Melbourne, Australia, and Stony Brook, N.Y., are persuasive: both men and women are less aroused after they have repeatedly viewed the same erotic pictures or engaged in similar sexual fantasies. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt; but research suggests that it breeds indifference. Or, as Raymond Chandler wrote: “The first kiss is magic. The second is intimate. The third is routine.”

WHY, then, is the natural shift from passionate to companionate love often such a letdown? Because, although we may not realize it, we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety. Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do — that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, as do pharmacological highs.

When married couples reach the two-year mark, many mistake the natural shift from passionate love to companionate love for incompatibility and unhappiness. For many, the possibility that things might be different — more exciting, more satisfying — with someone else proves difficult to resist. Injecting variety and surprise into even the most stable, seasoned relationship is a good hedge against such temptation. Key parties — remember “The Ice Storm”? — aren’t necessarily what the doctor ordered; simpler changes in routine, departures from the expected, go a long way.

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One thought on “boyfriend chronicles – an argument for open relationships

  1. phenothebest says:

    haha, sounds interesting, but just difficult to see it actually work out in reality. In an open relationship, I would wager that the balance between what’s acceptable rationally and what your emotion will allow will always be in a constant power struggle, all that stress would probably end the relationship, or at least make the relationship unstable long term speaking.

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