With fewer options, I have more choices for who and how I want to be in my one relationship.
Having just been married, I’m struck by the feelings I have noticed coming up for me recently. First off, there is a lot of joy. Joy in the continuing journey I have with my partner. We have our shares of ups and downs like all couples but there is this deeper resolve I have in my commitment to her. There is no escape plan if things get a little too difficult.
As I feel this, I recall the conversations I have had with people who are developing different relational configurations. I hear this narrative of monogamy as something that is old-fashioned and out of touch with progressive minded people. Why would someone want to limit their options when they discover feelings for someone else? Why would one person want to limit the amount of love they can bring into the world?
On one hand I get it. I can see the amazing value of mature adults not getting caught up in jealous feelings. I understand that the need for monogamy has been traditionally about creating a safe space for children to grow up in. If you are not looking to start a family, then why would you need to have a monogamous relationship? Why not keep it open and honest with lots of options?
Before I give my perspective I want to admit my biases. My parents are still married and I grew up in a traditional Catholic family. I have also been around a number of alternative relational structures that seemed to end in disaster. The story I started to create was that open relationships are unhealthy structures that are a last grasp at saving a failed pairing.
I have, in the last couple of years, felt more open-minded about these new ways of being together. I have witnessed people who opened their relationship and created something that was vitalizing for both of them. It was surprising at first but I came to see that there isn’t necessarily a one size fits all arrangement.
So why did I choose the relationship I did? First off, I don’t believe freedom is about having more options. Oftentimes, people think more freedom is a reduction of limitations. The logic being, if I have more options, I have more freedom to choose. Having witnessed my brother go through the painful process of choosing a beverage at a supermarket made me realize that more options can actually be a hindrance. It was hard to watch him make a selection and then quickly second-guess his choice – thinking that maybe the other sport drink would offer more refreshment.
My experience with online dating was difficult because having so many options made it an impossible decision (“yeah she’s cute but I have 4 more dates this week”). In my opinion, having limitations can be a way of creating freedom. We suddenly have less choice, allowing us to deepen, rather than spending time wondering about what could have been.
The second reason that I would choose monogamy over an open relationship is that I believe limiting my options to one person helps me cultivate greater security. This security, as many relationship experts contend, is critical for two people to develop attachment bonds. Attachment bonds are the inherent reason that people want to be in relationship in the first place. We have a pre-disposition in our evolutionary coding to seek emotional safety in relationship. We need to be able to count on someone to feel the depth of connection we are all seeking. If this trust is not consistent, I believe it can limit the profundity in the relationship.
One argument I often hear for opening relationships is the inevitability of straying. Part of this argument is that we are biologically oriented towards having multiple partners. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I will say this is a strange argument. Everyday, I choose not to give into primal urges such as telling my colleague he is an idiot or braining the guy who cut me off in traffic.
Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that we should be allowed to do it. I think that the desire to stray is deeper than just some biological impulse. I think it is more about the connection two people are creating. Sue Johnson, author of, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, says this about that desire to have an affair: “The truth is that we stray and have affairs not because we are all naturally inclined to have multiple mates but because our bond with our partner is either inherently weak or has deteriorated so far that we are unbearably lonely” (Johnson, 2013).
Finally in all honesty, I don’t think I could handle being in an open relationship. I would feel uncertain and uncomfortable that my partner had met a man at work and was considering having a more intimate relationship with him. When they were together where would I be? I guess I would be out with the woman I was interested in. I wouldn’t feel the security of knowing where I stand. From how I understand it, most open relationships maintain a primary partner. My spouse could reassure me that I’m still her number one guy while she is out messing around with numbers two and three. I may really believe her. Still, how do I know that number two or four doesn’t suddenly do some kind of ninja sex move and move up to number one? I can just imagine the line, “I just get more out of this relationship. I still want to be in your life.” Ouch.
No thanks. What I want and need is full depth. Let’s go for this. I want to be in it with two feet and my whole body. I want to choose with clear eyes and shouting it from the mountaintops – “I love my wife.” I want to know that I’m secure in my commitment and she is in hers. So yes, I limit the number of people I’m going to be intimate to one. Instead of feeling like this is a loss of freedom it feels like a great opening to something more complete and satisfying.