At the age of 28, I find more and more of my friends uttering that well-worn phrase “monogamy isn’t natural”. Yes, I seem to be living in the era of open relationships, or ethical non-monogamy (ENM). I realise I might one day end up entering into an open relationship, just because everyone else in my generation does (the way we all keep a gratitude journal or BeReal). But mostly, I feel about open relationships the way I feel about Botox: it’s clearly a solution to the messy realities of the modern world for some people, and I’d never say never – but I’m just not sure it’s my thing. Which was fine, until I started to wonder whether this made me un-progressive.
Increasingly, certain friends challenge me for not wanting an open relationship, as though I am being close-minded and conservative (which stings when you consider yourself liberal about things like sex). I’m told that a truly “woke” boyfriend would not be possessive or jealous over my being with other men – when to me the desire to be exclusive in a relationship is kind of its zing.
This is the thing that strikes me about open relationships. Monogamy has been described as a product of the patriarchy, but there’s a nagging question I can’t quite dismiss from my head: why do the open relationships I see so often play out on men’s terms? This week, it was reported that a third of men would like multiple partners, when only 5 per cent of women did. And yet only 9 per cent of men said they would be happy to be one of a woman’s multiple partners. So men want to have their cake and eat it: to open up a relationship on their side only. In a viral, brutally honest (and beautiful) piece on open marriage in the Paris Review, the author admits her marriage was opened after she had a baby and was too exhausted to give as much to her husband in bed. “Which scenario endangers us more,” she asks him, “you sleeping with other women, or you not sleeping with other women?” Relationships are now on the terms of the person who wants an open one.
I see the appeal of an open marriage in that it can save people from the pain of infidelity; I’m nervous about the drop in passion that occurs for most long-term couples. I refute the thesis of, for example, Louise Perry, who feels that women can’t enjoy casual sex like men. I want to believe open relationships benefit women as much as they do men – I really do.
But when I hear about someone messing their sexual partners around under the guise of ENM, it’s almost always a guy. In the Netflix satire Do Revenge, the male villain is condemned by his classmates for infidelity, until he rebrands his relationship as open – at which point he is applauded as a model of vulnerable, emotionally intelligent masculinity. When I hear about a straight relationship being opened up, I can’t help but notice that much younger women and women of colour feature as the “other woman” disproportionately often. It feels like we aren’t able to discuss the fact that ENM is often abused by men because it’s bad promo for progressive ideals. But to save open relationships, we must talk about how they can be abused to further patriarchal dynamics.
Of course there are open relationships that work, or even save marriages. And I understand why the non-monogamous want to preach to non-believers, when polyamory has been stigmatised for so long. But ultimately, those who present non-monogamy as the woke thing to do are not so different from church-y types who present monogamy as the ethical choice. It isn’t so binary – nor so simple as “hey, let’s open things up”; open relationships require asking why you want to go into them – communications, boundaries and so on.
Sure, monogamy isn’t “natural” – you don’t see it among most animal species. But many less conventional kinds of relationships aren’t “natural” either. Sometimes we prize unnatural things, make sacrifices for them – because they have their own beauty.