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Love And RelationshipsSustaining A Loving Relationship

Open Relationships | Does It Work?

Open sexual relationships

Allowing each other sexual freedom may seem fine in theory, but rarely works in practice. Emotions keep getting in the way.

It is not unusual to question how you feel about your partner. Will you always love them? Will you meet someone else and leave them? Will you stay with them but have an affair?

There are some who know that the partner they are with is not enough and that sooner rather than later they will want and need a relationship with someone else – whether it be brief and sexual or longer and more important.

Most people keep these doubts and conclusions to themselves, but a very few have a far more radical way of dealing with their feelings. They make a pact with their partner that other relationships are permissible and are to be conducted openly, without deceit and secrecy. This small minority then enter into an ‘open’ relationship.

What is an open relationship?

In the classic open relationship, once or twice a year, one or other of a couple has a relatively brief affair with someone else. It may happen that they have their affairs at exactly the same time.

Where this differs from an ordinary couple in a similar situation is that they tell each other most – if not everything – of what is going on. They consult each other about the new relationships, especially if there are problems and difficulties, and comfort each other when things break up.

Despite their affairs, a couple with a classic open relationship see themselves as a permanent pair in a long-term relationship. A couple in this situation can be living together or be married but they make a firm commitment to each other that they should be allowed to have other relationships, usually sexual, whenever and however they want.

How it works

Open relationships do not follow a set pattern. They vary in their degrees of openness from couple to couple, each having to arrive at a formula that works for them. For some couples this kind of pact simply means the occasional sanctioned fling or one-night stand; for others it means playing the field.

Whereas one couple may be quite open about their philanderings, another may be relatively discrete about their affairs. They may decide right at the beginning that both are free to pursue other relationships if they really want to, but that they will not talk to each other about them.

One couple whose relationship was like this never asked questions when no information was volunteered. Every so often, one or other would say, ‘I’m going away this weekend,’ and if they didn’t add anything to that, then the other would know it was with someone else but wouldn’t know about the details.

‘Swingers’ operate differently. They set out to swap partners on a regular basis and often join circles where ‘wife swapping’ is the norm. For them, fidelity is boring: they get their sexual kicks from constantly changing partners. Sex is a matter of fun and new experience.

One couple, who had been married for fifteen years, took to spending one evening a week at a club where the clientele was made up of couples who, like them, were looking for sex. They had decided that their sex life was boring. The husband said that he had often fantasized about having sex with other women, but didn’t want to deceive his wife. But, at a dinner party one night, a friend mentioned the club and suggested they went along. The wife agreed to go along ‘for a laugh’.

The first evening they met up with a couple who lived quite near them and they all agreed to spend the following evening and night together.

They both agreed that they enjoyed the experience. They said that having sex with another partner somehow added zest to their own sex life and they now have sex with different partners most weeks.

Keeping options open

Very occasionally, an open relationship means more than just sexual games: it is the freedom to build up a proper relationship with someone else if the opportunity presents itself.

Some couples decide to act as if they were single, pursuing all sorts of relationships in exactly the way that some one who is unattached would do.

This was what another couple did. They had moved in together when they were both 18, because they had fallen in love and because it was cheaper to do so. However they felt they were a bit too young for the ‘until death us do part’ bit and gradually started to notice that there were ‘other fish in the sea’.

At one stage, the man started to talk so much about a girl at work that his partner suggested he should stop talking about it and do something. His partner, who was rather shaken when he came home and confessed that he had taken her advice, then decided that what was good for the goose was good for the gander and paired up with someone at a friend’s party. But she told her partner about the other man straight away.

Since then both of them have felt free to do as they wish. The girl started to refer to her partner as ‘my flatmate’. When they did have sex it was in the odd five minutes between cleaning the teeth and switching off the light. The situation suited them both. They wanted to stay together, but did not want to feel hemmed in by the confines of a traditional, monogamous relationship.

A tricky balance

In some relationships both partners feel equally strongly that they want to involve themselves freely with other people. But, more often, just one partner wants it and the other goes along with it to keep the peace or simply to hold on to the one he or she loves.

One woman said it went against everything she believed about love and marriage, but she had to endure it, as those were the conditions under which she could keep her husband.

In the 1960s, when this kind of arrangement was quite common, many women were forced into open relationships for appearance’s sake. Others did so out of revenge.

One woman recalls that her husband pursued other relationships pretty vigorously and openly during the first two years of their marriage. Then he contracted gonorrhoea from one of his girlfriends. ‘He was in a vile temper, on antibiotics, no drinking, no sex,’ she wrote. ‘And that was when I started my very first relationship with someone else. He went mad.’

Her husband, unable to admit to jealousy, found every other reason for his intense reaction. ‘He said I was a bitch for doing it just when he couldn’t – he would never have done it if I had been incapacitated. Then he said the guy I’d chosen was a pig and he didn’t want me involved with anyone like that – and so on. He used every trick in the book to get back at me – except the truth.’

Their relationship changed radically after that. ‘It took about a year, but we split up. He could hardly bear to touch me, and although I could never make him say it, I know it was because of his deep-down feeling that a woman should be true to her man.’

Being in the know

Some less eager partners agree to an open relationship as a way of forestalling jealousy. Knowing about a new liaison from the beginning often helps the other partner cope with negative feelings. With no deception, they are more likely to feel in control of the situation, not outwitted or made a fool of.

When the balance shifts

Most people embark on open relationships when they feel confident about their love for their partner – believing that no one could ever replace them.

It is when the relationship is just settling down that the open relationship begins to be more threatening. Rather than adding spice to the main relationship the affairs may seem much more exciting and compelling.

Does it work?

The kinds of people who find an open relationship ideal are the types who keep an emotional distance, whose deepest feelings are never engaged by another person, and who do not experience jealousy. For them, sex is essentially a physical release. Love does not have to enter into it.

But such people are extremely rare. Research indicates that open marriages are not very popular. In one study only four per cent of the people interviewed thought the concept either possible or practical – so the number of people who are actually trying out the open marriage experiment must be even lower.

Couples sometimes start out believing the virtues of non-exclusive relationships and then find jealousies and insecurities get in the way, forcing a sudden re-evaluation of the contract.

The reason why open relationships rarely last is because of the pain they cause. Jealousy is a normal and natural emotion. Trying to control it means cutting off emotionally from the other person if they become involved with someone else, and it is almost impossible.

Also, there is the ever present threat of one of the new and casual encounters turning into something serious which would damage the relationship. Either way, the end result is that the open relationship cannot survive and is brought to a close.

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