On Open Relationships
Be with the one you love, sleep with the one’s you don’t?
Teenage dinner-table talk is an often tawdry affair. The few kernels of wisdom that do stem from the usual debates of the relative hotness of supermodels and abilities of sports teams are usually to do with methods through which one can measure the relative hotness of supermodels and abilities of sports teams. However, a recent argument with friends brought up the rather interesting and always contentious issue of monogamy, and its place in society.
The trigger factor was Will Smith. The respect he had gained among my peers for his diligent work ethic and general open-minded, can-do attitude, and most importantly for being the Fresh Prince, suffered a critical blow when some particularly thorough YouTube investigating uncovered an interview in which the successful actor admitted that he and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, enjoy an “open marriage”.
The Happy Couple? (Image from www.usmagazine.com)
Of course, for a people ingrained so fundamentally with the concept of monogamy, the natural reaction is one of disdain. What an awful example they set for society, many argue, by openly endorsing promiscuity. What a cheapening of the sacred institution of marriage. How could someone cheat on Will Smith? These are the issues our society cannot wrap our heads around.
But this is unconvincing. There is an indubitable value in commitment. A family which stays faithful to each other is a stable one. But this is not a question of being faithful, or being a cheater. This is not a question of infidelity. While adultery is defined as the sexual act with someone outside of marriage, the other vital component of this, and probably the more important one, is the deceit. The term “cheating” arises from the fact that you are cheating your spouse out of what they signed up for. If you vowed to remain faithful in the most literal, physical sense of the term, then an act of infidelity need only consist of sleeping around to warrant the cheating charge.
But couples such as the Smiths made no such vows. In their own words, they made the promise that “you will never hear that I did something after the fact.” Can one really criticise their arrangement as immoral, when both have agreed to it explicitly, and adhere to it rigidly? We can of course never know whether or not they stick to it, or how mutual the agreement is, but theoretically, if these two conditions were met, what possible moral qualm could one have with two people starting a family on the basis that they will not avoid what is natural to them, but will not “cheat” each other out of what they have promised?
‘Tll Death Do Us Part (Image from www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk)
One of these possible moral qualms, raised in the very argument that prompted this post, was that it weakened the bond shared between man and wife. By sharing their bed with other people, they thus cheapen their own union, spreading their affection over a wider plane, and making it thinner at any given point as a result.
But this is a misguided oversimplification of the issue. The decision to make open one’s relationship is not a cause of a weak relationship, but rather a symptom of it. In fact, even the term “weak” is a crude and ill-fitting one. A married couple, or any number of parties in any sort of relationship, decide that they want to become “open” because there is something missing from what they have at the moment. There is some element, be it excitement, sexual fantasy or just curiosity, that they do not have with their current partner, and do not want to forgo for the sake of dogmatic social doctrine.
At this point, the criticism levied appears a sound one: if one does not get the physical and emotional satisfaction one needs from a relationship with another partner, why don’t they just find the right person? Would it be so hard to wait for someone who meets every criteria before starting a family and living the rest of your lives? Well, yes, actually.
In an ideal world, we could have all we want from one person. We could all be entirely fulfilled, in every conceivable sense of the word, in a single, traditional relationship. This would certainly allow us to bypass the rather tricky mess of co-ordinating “open relationships”. What level of commitment is allowed? Where are the lines drawn? It’s all an endless grey area, as most of life is, and humans seem programmed to avoid thinking too much, which is what allows to accept so easily the conventional wisdom that tells us there is something inherently immoral in infidelity. The problem, however, is that we do not live in this ideal world.
The Long-Haul (Image from www.formerdays.com)
That is not to make the ridiculous argument that such relationships do not exist. There are those, many undoubtedly, who are fulfilled as much as they can conceive is possible by their own relationship with a single partner, and see absolutely no reason for people to play around with the accepted convention of monogamy. It is usually these people who are so quick to criticise relationships such as that of the Smiths, which play so daringly with the boundaries of what is and isn’t ‘the way things are done’.
The mistake comes in adding some intrinsic value to commitment and monogamy. It is happiness that is of intrinsic value, something which philosophers have tried in vain to dispute, because it is just so patently the case. If happiness is what we strive for, then the value of such concepts as rigid commitment is purely instrumental: it is valuable insofar as it leads people towards happiness, or gives them a better shot at it. And for some people, this is the case. It serves no good for two people with particularly jealous dispositions to engage in a relationship that involves them being with other people; they’ll be much happier remaining faithful to their partners, and should be given every right to do so. But for those who are adept at separating sex and love, the physical and the emotional, and are dissatisfied by the concept of forgoing new experiences, there is no logical reason for these people to be denied experimentation, or indeed for them to deny it from themselves.
Obviously, it’s complicated. Many couples who think they can handle the idea of an open relationship will be sorely mistaken. But how are they to find out if it suits them without trying it first? The scientific method of hypothesising, observing and amending seems here to be quite apposite. And conversely, many couples, who pretend to be satisfied with what they have, repress these desires because of their taboo nature, which is unhealthy for the self and the relationship. Such couples end up committing emotional infidelity in lieu of the forbidden physical one, which has a far more destabilising effect on the family.
The social stigmas we attach to these experimental methods of figuring out the veritable chaos of love and human interaction are illogical, unhelpful and are ultimately in contradiction with the development of a more civilised, sincere society.