Inside open relationships

It is supposedly the shortest joke in the English language: “Take my wife. Please.” Marriage is the centre of much comedy shtick and television sit-coms make endless fun of married couples’ foibles. Marriage is portrayed as a trap and a prison. Men are hapless and hen-pecked. Women are emotional harridans.

Though large numbers of people still choose to get married, the reality is that statistics can make it seem like an outdated institution. A third of relationships end in divorce while another 20 per cent are having affairs. As a colleague says, “Why not face reality? Monogamy is unrealistic. It doesn’t actually work.”

In past decades, such as the 1950s, relationship life was relatively ‘safe’. You knew the rules of the game. You chose someone and then you settled down for life with that person. The downside however was that there was a massive repression of human emotion and desire. And repression never works. It cripples and constricts the human spirit and the hidden energies leak out in skewed or abusive ways. So what are the options for relationships in our more ‘enlightened’ and modern world?

The possibilities

The relationship landscape has opened up over the past few decades. It used to be that marriage (and only with a member of the opposite sex of course!) “until death do us part” was the only option for intimate relating.

Now a couple can get divorced even after a few months if they choose. Others may have a lifelong series of relatively committed relationships and still others will choose to have multiple partners at the same time. Some who choose to have multiple partners will hide this fact in what is commonly called an affair.

Polyamorous people (those with multiple sexual partners) talk to me about exploring the creativity of an unbounded and freely expressed sexuality. I have met Sanyasins (followers of an Indian guru) who have had sex with multiple partners in groups as a way to break down the “artificial barriers that the ego constructs” and “to connect with God”. A television show called Big Love explores the issues around a polygamous man and his three wives. With the options for intimate relating becoming so broad, how are we to choose what’s best?

Admittedly, none of the Sanyasins I know is still having group sex. The polyamorous people I met were men in their 50s who seemed to have found a convenient philosophy within which to camouflage their sleaze. And the polygamous man in the TV show is run ragged trying to manage all his wives. None of these options looks that attractive.

Nevertheless, the fact is that over our lifetime we will be attracted to more than one person. Even if we commit to a partner, the chances are that we will bump into other people we find attractive.

To confound matters more, in today’s more spiritual (as opposed to religious) climate, people are more likely to have had some experience of the “oneness of all” or of the “love that connects everyone underneath”. So as Laura*, a spiritually inclined client asked, “Does this mean we are all supposed to be expressing this love by having sex with each other?”

The basis for choosing

The difficulty in today’s culture is that there are no “rules of engagement”. Anything goes. In the past it was simple; marriage or nothing. God and religion were used to construct rules for how people were to relate intimately with each other. The boundaries were clear.

Now there are no boundaries. Each person has to decide for themselves how they will navigate the relationship terrain. Instead of being able to rest within confines constructed by an external body we all have to take responsibility for constructing our own rules.

Costs and benefits

The first guide to making decisions about intimacy is to understand that each choice will have both benefits and losses. Even when you think you can “have it all” there is still a cost to be paid.

Open relationships can seem like one way to have it all. I have met quite a few people who experimented with open relationships in the 70s. They have been unanimous in their opinion about this choice.

As Jake, a 56-year-old man now in a committed relationship put it, “It’s every guy’s idea of heaven. Any woman you want to start a relationship with, you can. Even if you already have a partner and even if she already has a partner there’s nothing stopping you. You’d think it would be great. But God, what a nightmare.”

Jake went on to explain, “It just got so complex. It was exhausting. With sex comes emotion. You have to manage all your own jealousies and insecurities when a woman you are with is also with another man. And you have to spend time and emotional energy managing all of your own connections with the women you are seeing.

“Friendships are never just friendships any more because there is always the possibility of something more. And even your friendships with other men get complicated and difficult. It’s incestuous and messy. And takes too much out of you. I would never choose that again.”

People like Jake are clear the emotional cost of open relationships outweighs the benefit of having multiple partners. Affairs can seem like another way to have it all. The cost here, though, is deception and it can be exhausting keeping a part of your life secret. Nevertheless, the payoff you get is the adventure and heightened charge that an illicit relationship brings.

If you decide on a committed monogamous relationship, you may benefit in terms of the depth and level of intimacy in the relationship. The obvious cost, though, is that as you say “yes” to one person it means saying “no” to many other possibilities. While society may still favour particular choices there are really no rules about these relationship choices. You have to decide for yourself what costs and what payoffs are more appealing to you.

Context and meaning

There is something even more important than a cost-benefit analysis of your style of relating. This is the context you choose for your relationship life. What this means is that you get to choose what you want to get out of relationships. You decide what they are for and what they mean for you. The context you create for your relating will guide the form it takes. Each choice will yield particular consequences.

Firstly, you may need to decide your context for sex. What place do you want sex to take in your life? Is it for procreation? Fun? Physical release? Self-expression? Finding God? Creating intimacy? Expressing love? Adventure? Your choice will determine how you treat others and the form your sexual relationships take.

If you discover that, for you, sexuality needs to be part of some broader form of relating, you next need to decide on the context for these relationships. A relationship is like a game and you get to choose the object of the game. Following are some of the things people want to receive from playing the relationship game:

  • Pleasure

  • Self-expression

  • Adventure, exploration and variety

  • Personal growth, becoming your full self and supporting another to do the same

  • Comfort, safety and security

  • Financial stability or ease

  • Partnership in some joint enterprise

  • Taming the ego’s “I want it” so as to develop spiritually

  • Creating family

  • Depth of intimacy

  • Companionship

Some of these ‘goodies’ will have more appeal to you than others and their order of priority will help set the rules for your style of relating. The trick is to then find someone playing the game by similar rules so that you can play happily together. Problems obviously occur when people with different priorities try to get together. If the rules aren’t made explicit, confusion and hurt can result. Communication and negotiation might help but there are some combinations that just aren’t going to work.


Some people decide that they don’t want to have to negotiate to reach agreement about what they want in relationships so they choose to have affairs. As a culture, the French are known for choosing this option. They want ongoing relationships but they also want the excitement and pleasure of having a lover. They even have a term for this kind of relationship: cinq à sept, or “five till seven”, meaning the relationship that you have after work and before returning to your family.

While acknowledging the existence of affairs, the French don’t necessarily want to know about it when it happens. So it remains a secret or else there is tacit agreement between a couple not to talk about the lover. The classic example was at the funeral of the French president Francois Mitterrand. His wife knew about his lover and allowed her to openly attend the funeral.

Here in Australia, affairs are just as frequent. I had a client in a committed relationship who had carried on an affair for 10 years. It had worked for her. She loved her husband but she also loved the spark that existed between her and her lover. She just didn’t want to hurt her husband by revealing the affair. The only difficulty came for her when her lover died. She was thrown into a terrible grief that she had to keep hidden from her husband. It was a complication she had never expected!

Another person told me his affairs were none of his wife’s business. He believed that even though he was in a marriage he was still entitled to his own private life apart from his wife. He didn’t think this life had anything to do with his partner. “Why should she know? It has nothing to do with her.” He saw nothing wrong with having a separate life that existed alongside his married life; in fact he saw it as a right.

Open relationships

If you prefer to be honest about your desire to be with other people, an open relationship is an option. In a way it’s easy to argue for open relationships; intellectually, they make sense.

The argument goes something like this: “We can’t get all our needs met by one person. What should stop us from exploring more than one connection? The motivation for monogamy is just fear and insecurity. Therefore it’s more honest and freeing to have multiple partners”.

As a colleague argues, “Let’s be realistic. Huge numbers of people have affairs. Why should this be hidden? Why is there such control of our sexuality? Open relationships just make sense.”

One person in an open relationship explained that hers was a “superior” relationship and that she and her husband were evolved enough to manage multiple partners. What this comment points to though is the fact that an open relationship brings extra issues with it. It is not just about sex. Sex brings up other things such as intimacy, emotion and ethics.

Another colleague however argues that while open relationships make intellectual sense the reality is that people are not that evolved yet. “It is too easy to kid yourself and other issues end up getting acted out via the multiple partners,” she contends.

If choosing an open relationship, it is therefore best to go in with your eyes open. It’s naïve to go out there without inquiring into what aspect of yourself is doing the driving. What unconscious part of your self might be looking for expression via these extra relationships? Might it be an insecure self, a fearful self, a rebellious self or perhaps an endlessly dissatisfied self? Unconscious motivations and difficult unfinished business with your partner can lead to other attractions. Is it really best to follow them?

It is different going outside the relationship from a position of abundance, such as “I am completely happy in my relationship and want to be able to further express my capacity for love and intimacy by seeing other people”, compared to a position of lack such as “Something is missing in my current relationship so I am going to look elsewhere”. So before choosing the open relationship option, ask yourself, “Is there something missing in myself or my relationship that is making me look outside?”

As you process your own personal issues and any issues with your partner, before embarking on this path ask yourself, “Why are we choosing this option? How is it going to be better?” If it is just for extra sex, make sure that sex is one of the most important factors for creating a satisfying life for you. If you have priorities that are more important than this, you have to make sure they’re not compromised by the choice for more sex.

Next you have to make sure you have the time to manage multiple relationships. I find it challenging enough to have the time and energy to create one satisfying relationship let alone trying it with someone else. As Jake, from earlier, found out, life gets way more complicated if you have more than one partner.

Then there is the issue of respect for other people. If hurt happens, will you stay around to manage the fallout? Even if you say that you as a couple will remain the most important unit, what does this mean for the other people you bring in to the relationship? Are they always expendable if things get tough? And is it OK to treat others that way?

I remember talking to a man who had been the third person in an open relationship. He felt that he never counted quite as much despite the assurances from the other two people involved. Looking back, he said that it actually matched his low level of self-esteem at the time.

Another problem can be the distorted friendships that occur when anyone can be a potential lover versus choosing the options that particular people are just not on the list for sex. There will be attractions between friends but keeping boundaries brings clarity and relief of tension.

It’s like there are a whole lot of potential boxes that two people can open together as friends. There might be the box of joint projects, the box of sharing life experiences, the box of shared leisure pursuits and so on. If you decide that you are not going to have sex with friends then it’s as if the box of shared sexual encounter is put away with the tacit agreement it will never be opened. Otherwise you could end up like a spoilt kid with too many boxes and no time to play with each gift fully — or with a trail of broken toys strewn around you.


With the advent of modern spirituality, more people contemplate ‘living in the now’ and the ‘love that unites all beings’. As Laura asked, what does this mean for our sexuality? Many a guru has tripped up on this issue and fallen into disrepute because of sexual misconduct. This misconduct took the form of sleeping with their followers, some who were significantly younger.

Some rationalise their rampant sexuality by saying they are just living in the present moment and expressing the energy that arises. Spirit is supposedly unbounded so our boundaries around sexuality are artificial they say. The trouble is that sexuality is a powerful energy and ‘speaks’ so loudly that it may overpower other equally important spiritual energies. Respect, honour, compassion and truth have just as much place. The trick to spirituality is bringing the unbounded down here into human form and finding the best way to express and manage this.

When contemplating sexuality in a spiritual context, I would ask such questions as:

  • Does following this energy fit with the highest intention for my life?

  • Does it encourage the ego’s needing and wanting or does it help dissolve this?

  • Am I coming from a place of fullness or lack?

  • Does the sexual energy line up with the energies of my heart, mind and higher self?

  • Even though it might be right for me, is it also the best thing for the other person?

  • Are both people relatively equal in terms of personal development, maturity and power (so that there is no abuse involved)?

  • Does following this energy come from compassion and respect for all who might be affected by this act?

  • Do I maintain integrity by doing this or does something become hidden or a secret?

  • Do I maintain open communication with all involved?

  • Am I processing issues that arise from this decision?

  • Could this sexual energy be expressed just as well through some other creative activity?

  • If I express this energy sexually, might I miss out on discovering new, more finely tuned ways for two people to engage energetically?


Despite monogamy getting a bad rap from comedians it does not have to be the end of freedom and self-expression. Hopefully, a good relationship would allow such things to blossom. Fear and insecurity does not have to be the motive for choosing this option.

There are levels of connection that require higher and higher levels of work, care and attending. As the poet Rilke says, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks: the work for which all other work is but preparation.” Some people choose monogamy because it is the best way to practise unconditionally loving one person. It is no easy feat so the boundary of monogamy is used to keep the ego focused on this process.

The risk with monogamy is that a couple can get stale and limit the flow of energy in their lives. If they aren’t careful, patterns can calcify and blind spots get ignored. Compared with the 1950s, however, there are more creative ways to manage these difficulties. Couples can take holidays or spend periods of time apart. They can live in extended households. They can have separate relationships with friends where their partner may not be involved. These external relationships can have intimacy and creativity in forms that may not be explored by the couple. With negotiation, the boundaries of monogamy can be flexible enough to allow growth and vitality to flourish without expanding so much that they crack open and cause damage.

As with all human endeavour, the realm of relationship is continually evolving. What fits for one generation may not work for the next. And even one individual may choose different forms of relationship for different life stages. Relating is an organic, mysterious and unpredictable process. I am sure it will provide rich fodder for generations of comedians yet to come.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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