Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

12 Years Later: In Praise of Open Relationships

Oliver Schott

It has now been about twelve years since I wrote the small book entitled "In Praise of Open Relationships." It appeared in 2010. Since then, the number of titles in the German language book market dealing with non-monogamous forms of relationships has risen sharply. Fortunately, private forms of life have since become more liberalized in many parts of the world: more and more countries are opening up marriage to same-sex couples, so-called queer lifestyles and transsexuality have become a topic of broad public debate and, for all the resentment that continues to exist, such relationships are finding growing acceptance; at the same time, the "Me Too" movement has significantly advanced the awareness of the problems of sexist behavior and patriarchal violence. A binding idea of what a "normal" love and family life should look like is being replaced, at least this appears to be the current trend, by an openness to different ways of life, which includes relationship models. Thus, a so-called romantic relationship for two or the pursuit of one does not have to be at the center of one's private life at all times, and love relationships that are not sexually exclusive are gradually losing their exotic status. It can no longer be said, at least of the younger generation that has grown up with social media and dating apps, that monogamy is taken for granted.

Of course, that doesn't mean that prejudices about "alternative," i.e. non-monogamous, relationship models have disappeared. And this is not even considering that - larger - part of the world in which every real or apparent increase in individual freedom is fought against as a kind of dangerous moral decay. Even in the countries apostrophized as Western, the provinces always lag decades behind the social development of the urban centers; conservatives and reactionaries long for the clear, orderly conditions of which they themselves, of course, cannot quite say when they were supposed to have prevailed.

Conservative alarmism, however, can also lead the opposing side to overestimate the progress that has been achieved. The mere commitment to tolerance in matters of love, even if it is subjectively sincere, is not a good measure of personal emancipation. It is easy to make fun of the monogamous, cis-heteronormative, patriarchal-capitalist matrix, but it is more difficult to leave behind outmoded patterns in the lowlands of one's own relationship life.

It is thus hardly surprising that attempts to overcome the monogamous relationship model have by no means always produced convincing results. This has given an impetus to a critique of criticism. Where polyamory is a fashionable phenomenon, or where criticism of monogamy is seen as being a sign of personal progressiveness, one may well ask how far the brave new world of relationships has come. From the side of ideology critics, polyamory is often presented as being a by-product of neoliberalism. Such considerations should be taken seriously, without idealizing monogamy. At the same time, one must keep an eye on the real situation: monogamy is still the widely dominant norm, and the tendency to regard deviations from this norm as questionable experiments in need of justification remains persistent.

In some circles, then, the impression prevails that experiments with nonexclusive forms of relationships rarely turn out well in the end. But anecdotal argumentation does not even get into the actual question – namely, how relationships should be conducted. No matter which position one takes, it is never difficult to make the other side appear screwed up and misguided by means of unflattering examples. It is, nevertheless, also true that many who do experiment with non-exclusive forms of relationships do so for questionable reasons and with a lack of thought. Monogamy is not simply an anti-pleasure straitjacket that we only have to throw off to open up the way to a land of milk and honey full of free love. No relationship model can redeem us from the fact that it is simply not easy to have lasting intimate relationships.

Our entire relationship culture, our language, our behavioral patterns, and even our feelings are deeply influenced by monogamous norms. To emancipate ourselves from all this is a long and sometimes arduous process. It requires us to question the way we deal with the concept of partnership, with sexuality, with each other and with our own feelings, and to reshape them to a considerable extent as well as to relearn them to a certain extent. The drive for this cannot ultimately come from the mere promise of free love. For those who strive primarily for individual pleasure maximization will ultimately behave conservatively: self-reflection, working on oneself is not pleasurable; it is more comfortable to blame others or circumstances for problems. In general, every decision for a relationship model should also be a decision for self-criticism, because otherwise, no matter in which relationship model, one will turn out to be a ruthless, selfish partner, someone whose love does not derive its limits from the dignity and freedom of the other, but from one's own narcissism. Criticism of monogamy as an emancipatory endeavor must feed on a fundamental dissatisfaction with the inherited patterns that goes deep enough to want to overcome them even in one's own behavior.

How the legacy of monogamy distorts the perspective can be illustrated by the still popular misunderstanding that non-exclusive forms of relationships attach a particularly high value to sexuality. Looking at the real problems of most relationships, sexuality often plays a smaller role than television dramas brimming with jealousy and romantic comedies might lead one to expect. Even when someone cheats or falls in love with another person, this is usually preceded by other problems - problems that occur more or less independently of the relationship model: conflicts in everyday life, incompatible temperaments and forms of communication, or simply that infatuation wears off and not enough unifying factors remain to keep the couple together. Is it necessary to make things even more complicated by relationships with third parties? And, anyway, don't most people, when they are in love, only want to be with the one person they love anyway? So what's the point of open relationships if you don't have an exceptionally strong tendency to "screw around"? Maybe in a few years you can think about opening the relationship up, when familiarity has arrived and the first stormy desire has calmed down.

Such a way of thinking treats non-exclusive relationship models (at best) as a kind of repair service to be used when and because monogamy in a relationship causes problems. At its core, monogamy remains the unquestioned norm. Instead, monogamy would also have to be examined to see how plausibly it answers the fundamental question of how relationships are to be conducted. Monogamous love relationships, however, are characterized by one thing above all: sexual exclusivity. So it is monogamy that ascribes very special significance to the question of who has sex with whom. An open relationship, on the other hand, is first of all just a relationship that does not do exactly that - that sees no general reason to base love relationships on special rules about sexual relations with third parties. A nonexclusive arrangement, of course, does not involve an obligation to fulfill a certain quota of secondary relationships. Thus, the burden of justification is on the monogamous side: no special justification is needed for "granting" a loved one the right to freely shape his or her relationships with third parties; what needs justification is, conversely, to fundamentally restrict this right. It is not the non-exclusive forms of relationships that are to be understood as being the consequence of a strong need for promiscuous sexuality, but monogamy as the expression of a strong need for sexual exclusivity.

For those who are prone to sexual jealousy and cannot or will not overcome it, monogamy may be the simplest, most practical form of relationship. Nevertheless, one can ask - not even just why one is so jealous, but rather why this jealousy is so inflamed precisely by sexuality. Here it must be remembered that a monogamous relationship culture also shapes our feelings. How much of this jealousy specifically related to sexuality persists in the long run in a non-monogamous setting can only be shown by experiment. For what feels like a violation as cheating in monogamy, precisely because it is a violation of the monogamous promise of fidelity, need not feel the same way in a relationship in which, in the absence of a claim to exclusivity, there can be no cheating at all.

The tension between the monogamous claim of love partners to "mutual possession of their sexual properties" (Kant) and an enlightened, uninhibited, liberal and pleasure-friendly relationship to sexuality is obvious. In monogamy, desire always remains a potential temptation, sexuality remains at its core something sinful. One cannot retreat to the excuse that the bad thing about "cheating" is not actually the sex, but the deception, the breach of trust, because whether or not one declares sex with third parties to be a deception, a breach of trust from the outset, is precisely what is at issue. If sex in itself were something innocent, why prohibit it? Exclusivity is further justified by fear of loss, but no argumentative contortion can hide the fact that fear of loss can never justify a general ban on sexual contacts; it is simply possible to have sexual contacts with third parties that do not pose a threat to the continuity of a relationship - if they are not specifically made so by monogamy.

There is no other answer to the question as to why sexuality has such a special position in monogamy than the historical one: the social function of monogamy has been the control and containment of sexuality. The implicit sexual hostility is repressed, one's own problematic relationship to sexuality is projected onto others, when precisely those who renounce the claim to exclusivity unthinkable in any other sphere are confronted with the question of why sex is so important to them.

Sexuality is a normal component of interpersonal relationships. With Pavlovian inevitability, this statement provokes the reply from monogamists: "But you don't want to have a sexual relationship with everyone, or even only with very few people. Yes, sure - and? Only in the old lust-hostile myth must sexuality inevitably turn into boundless, uncontrollable desire as soon as the barriers of morality are loosened. In fact, a very different question arises here: if the person I love has the opportunity to enter into a sexual (or other) relationship that is desirable in and of itself, what should I object to his or her pursuing that inclination? This question arises all the more the rarer such opportunities are. Shouldn't I put my pride in providing emotional security and support, ideally also sympathy and co-joy, to make it easier for my beloved to engage in and enjoy such adventures? Shouldn't love produce enrichment rather than failure, benevolence rather than resentment?

You first have to get used to looking at things from a non-monogamous point of view. This applies not only to love relationships, but to dealing with sexuality - and thus with other people - as a whole. In a monogamous culture, the question of whether a relationship is sexual or not takes on a fundamental importance for the status of that relationship. (Incidentally, this is one objection that can be raised to the term polyamory: it fosters the false impression that it is only about how we conduct our love relationships). Friendships in particular must be platonic, because otherwise they would not be compatible with love relationships. While there does exist the concept of "friends with benefits" - even this odd term suggests that there is something wrong here - how should one deal with such a friendship when the next monogamous relationship begins? At the very least, it would have to be downgraded to a platonic status, but even if that doesn't create any fault lines in the friendship - is that enough? "X and I are close to each other, but there’s no need to worry: since you and I started dating, we stopped having sex!" Such an announcement might not be conducive to a conflict-free relationship between the new partner and that now benefit less friend X in every case. Is it then better to hide the fact that this friendship was also a sexual relationship? Dishonesty does not seem to be a good start into a new relationship, but the opinion is quite common that monogamy requires people not to be completely honest at times - which could be seen as being an argument against monogamy. A problem remains, however, if the truth should ever come out.

No matter how one turns it, if friendships and monogamous love relationships do not want to get in each other's way, the former must be platonic. Thus, the requirements of monogamy tend to make sexuality seem practicable only in two settings: either in romantic relationships of two or, if not in complete non-commitment, then in relationships in which nothing but sexuality can attain stable significance. Thus, where sexuality is not in the service of "genuine" love, it appears as something for which one uses the other and allows oneself to be used; where sex is not sanctified by love, it ends up degrading itself.

This is usually forgotten when the question, somewhat inevitable in discussions of non-exclusive forms of relationship, arises as to how appealing and desirable "sex without love" actually is. After all, it is not a law of nature that sexuality outside of committed love relationships can only have a place in non-committal, emotionally distant, tendentially short-term relationships. Those who find sex with more or less strangers particularly appealing may, of course, pursue this inclination; but the fact that we almost automatically talk about such sex when we talk about sex outside of relationships is a result, not a justification, of monogamous sexual culture. So when we talk about non-exclusive forms of relationship, we are not just talking about a different way of dealing with love relationships, but an at least potentially different way of dealing with sexuality in general. Between (or beyond) romantic two-way relationships, platonic friendships, and noncommittal affairs, there is a whole space of possible forms of relationships for which we have neither terms nor established manners in our society. Monogamy determines precisely not only the form of one love relationship, but ex negativo the form of all other relationships (as preserving the exclusivity requirement).

The prospect of now burdening friendships with all the complications and difficulties associated with sexual relationships may seem to many to be more of an argument in favor of monogamy. It is certainly justified to point out that in patriarchal societies, norms defining certain types of relationships as non-sexual from the outset serve a protective function, especially for women, by more or less relieving them of intrusiveness ("But why not?"). This is not to be neglected, but it remains an arrangement with the misery of patriarchy, whereas the goal must be to overcome it. Again, the idea that it is a matter of changing the status quo of monogamous forms of relationships by "sexualizing" friendships is too short-sighted. The idea that there is some kind of primary asexual innocence of interpersonal relationships is itself an expression of patriarchal sexual hostility. We are all sexual beings (including asexual people) what is called asexuality in this sense is yet another manifestation of sexuality in a broader sense), and that should not be a cause for shame. All interpersonal relationships in this sense, as relationships between sexual beings, also have a sexual dimension - though this will usually consist only in the implicit agreement that sexuality should play no part in the relationship.

It goes without saying that a pleasure-friendly sexual culture must be based on the principle of consensus. What is sometimes apostrophized as rape culture is not least a form of status thinking used to legitimize sexual assault: one attributes a status to one's own relationship with the other person from which one derives a claim to sexual acts. In dealing with sexuality, the status principle should not, in principle, oppose the consensus principle but should only replace it when an imbalance of power undermines the possibility of consensus. Then it would no longer have to overturn the whole status of a relationship when sexual encounters take place in it – or, for that matter, cease to take place. Overcoming the sexual taboo also includes the realization that sexuality does not always have to be accompanied by great drama and the danger of tragic discord - that it can also be harmless and casual.

All this merely continues developments that have long been underway anyway and, where they do not touch on the discussion of monogamy, are also reasonably unanimously regarded as being progress among reasonable people: In the past, a much more radical distinction was made between relationships in which sexuality is possible and those in which it is not. One thinks of the fact that mixed-sex friendships were hardly possible for a long time (which was justified, among other things, by the protection of women from male harassment); one thinks of the extent to which, just a few decades ago, many heterosexuals found their dealings with same-sex homosexuals irritating, if not repulsive, because their homosexuality, even before any question of concrete, individual desire, undermined the fiction of the categorical asexuality of same-sex relationships.

Overcoming the sexual taboo is a lengthy process that has now been going on for several generations and will continue for generations to come. It is to be hoped and strived after that we approach a sexual culture in which we can actually deal with sexuality like adults, for whom sexuality is a normal part of life - an aspect of interpersonal relationships that is a natural freedom to shape consensually. The idea of having others, especially lovers, take an oath to give up this freedom under penalty of the withdrawal of love, however, must then seem curious.

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