Newness: A How-To Guide For Having A Terrible Open Relationship
“Great,” I thought to myself the other day when I first learned of a new Netflix movie about an open relationship. “Here’s finally a story about people like me.” But it turns out the only thing worse than very rarely seeing the kind of life you live depicted in a movie is to see it grossly misunderstood and judged. Newness turned out to be nothing more than a morality play warning people of how vapid and doomed to failure open relationships are, and presenting the relative boredom (as they depicted it) of monogamy to be worth the price of love.
Newness, which started out very promisingly is about Martin, a divorced pharmacist who is still hung up on his ex-wife and Gabriella (Gabi), a physical therapy assistant who admits to getting bored easily with anything that isn’t new. They get together one night through a dating app that allows users to indicate whether they are looking for a relationship or just a hook-up. Both of them had planned for a one-time thing, but ended up enjoying each other so much compared to the other people they’d been meeting that they decided to keep seeing each other.
So far, so good. The lovers are charming together and you’re really rooting for them by the time Gabi decides to move in with Martin. I could easily picture this fun and vivacious couple deciding that they wanted to build on the hot dynamic they have by starting to experiment with threesomes or swinging. This is the way that most healthy open relationships begin, and there are still plenty of mistakes to be made and pitfalls to navigate even when choosing to add in other people from this generally even-keeled place. (I’m using the term open relationship here as a stand-in for ethical non-monogamy, meaning extra-pair relationships that are done honestly and in the open.)
If they’d focused on that, the movie would have been far from boring and provided plenty of points of tension. But instead, the writer chose to depict Martin and Gabi agreeing to flirt with, and then eventually see other people because they haven’t been getting along and the bloom is coming off of their still fairly new relationship. Anyone who actually knows anything about open relationships will attest that this is getting things off on the wrong foot and almost certainly dooming the whole endeavor. Trying to see other people as a way to fix your relationship is going to be about as effective as having a baby to fix your marriage. It’s injecting a whole lot of never-before navigated stress into an already rocky scenario, and it almost certainly is going to do nothing but make everything much worse. Which is what it does to Martin and Gabi.
Opening up a relationship requires massive amounts of high quality communication, not just at the beginning but on an on-going basis in order to make it work. Even if you communicated well and often together as a monogamous pairing, you’re probably going to have to double that to make an open relationship flourish. The upside of this is that it quite often brings you closer together to have to share honestly with each other about things that are somewhat vulnerable, and to talk about your true needs and boundaries.
But Martin and Gabi never do this. They never read or otherwise learn anything about how to embark on an open relationship either. They also keep things from each other about how they are really feeling and what they hope to come out of getting involved with other people, which is another recipe for disaster. Open relationships are not just like monogamy but with more people. It’s a whole other sort of dynamic, built around trust and abundance rather than exclusivity and you can’t just play by the old rules and expectations and expect it to fly.
Heck, these two aren’t even doing monogamy well. Martin never confides to Gabi that he has unresolved feelings about his ex-wife and during an argument he reminds Gabi that she had already slept with someone else on the night that they first met — something which he had also done. The implication seems to be, even if you think a guy is sex positive, he’s always going to hold it against you for fucking around, even though that’s OK for him to do.
The story just goes downhill from there, with Gabi beginning to date an older man, and Martin secretly obsessing even more about his ex as well as turning his romantic attentions towards their mutual friend Blake as the relationship between Gabi and Martin deteriorates even further. Blake is disconcerted that her good friends guy is coming on to her, and confiding in her things that he really should be talking to his girlfriend about.
Then, after one particularly nasty fight, Gabi moves out and in with her new boyfriend, who happens to be Blake’s boss. Things go well playing house with him and his young daughter until she discovers a short while later that he is moving to Europe in 2 weeks and wants her to go along. When Gabi hesitates, he makes it clear to her that they have a transactional relationship, one where she gets to live a nice life and have pretty things and he gets to have her in his bed. Take it or leave it. Since Gabi had never discussed the relationship with this boyfriend, it came as a complete shock to her that he saw things that way, and she is heartbroken.
The problem with this isn’t that such a thing could never happen, but that it’s presented as what open relationships are always like. The point of view is clearly that they can never be anything but transactional, and only within monogamy can you find actual love, because you can only love one person at a time. This is reinforced when Gabi and Martin reconcile, and Martin admits that he was never actually comfortable with an open relationship in the first place. They reconfirm their love for each other and essentially decide that the price for such feelings is to resign themselves to being a bit bored with each other at times, because at least they’ve got something real.
The entire thing is like a how-to manual for having a terrible open relationship experience. It’s also a finger-wagging warning of what will inevitably await if you believe that open relationships can actually work. I really couldn’t have been more disappointed with the entire thing. There was so much potential there to talk about the challenging but often rewarding aspects of healthy open relationships, but the author never acknowledged that such a thing was even possible.
It’s fine to tell a story about trying a different relationship style and making a mess of it because you didn’t go into it with your eyes open or didn’t have any understanding of how it’s different in very fundamental ways from what you were used to. But the author either had no experience with open relationships and just wrote what he imagined they’d be like or he’d made the same mistakes and just assumed that there were no other options. In either case, it was both frustrating and insulting to be subjected to this kind of moralizing about the inherent goodness of monogamy and the inherent depravity of open relationships.
Ethical non-monogamy can include anything from swinging to being a little bit monogamish, to full on polyamory with multiple partners. These are all very different relationship styles than monogamy and they take place in a different paradigm — one where love, commitment and sexual fidelity aren’t necessarily all hinged together. In the case of swinging, couples may sexually play with other people in the same setting, such as a swinger’s club or party, and even if they have a caring relationship with those people, love is reserved for their primary partner. Other forms of ethical non-monogamy may involve independent sexual experiences with other partners as well as on-going or even committed love relationships with more than one person at a time.
It takes a lot of work to deprogram from monogamy-oriented ways of looking at relationships but that is what is needed in order to make open relationships work. It also takes good communication and being responsible for your own emotions and baggage. Many people who consider themselves ethically non-monogamous do not do the work it takes to have successful open relationships, but that doesn’t mean that nobody does or that healthy happy ones can’t exist.
A much more interesting story would have been watching Gabi and Martin try to emulate some friends with a happy open relationship without fully understanding how much effort goes into that. We could have seen them start to understand how much of a different relationship paradigm ethical non-monogamy really is by succumbing to some of the pitfalls and then decide together whether they truly want to continue down that path.
Instead, we got not so subtle slut shaming of Gabi for wanting more than one man, which was only redeemed when she finally came to her senses and decided to choose mongamy over variety. Recent research indicates that women crave sexual variety and newness much more than men do, despite the cultural narrative to the contrary.
Although most people in sexual partnerships end up facing the conundrum biologists call “habituation to a stimulus” over time, a growing body of research suggests that heterosexual women, in the aggregate, are likely to face this problem earlier in the relationship than men. And that disparity tends not to even out over time. In general, men can manage wanting what they already have, while women struggle with it.
Marta Meana of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas spelled it out simply in an interview with me at the annual Society for Sex Therapy and Research conference in 2017. “Long-term relationships are tough on desire, and particularly on female desire,” she said. I was startled by her assertion, which contradicted just about everything I’d internalized over the years about who and how women are sexually. Somehow I, along with nearly everyone else I knew, was stuck on the idea that women are in it for the cuddles as much as the orgasms, and — besides — actually require emotional connection and familiarity to thrive sexually, whereas men chafe against the strictures of monogamy.
But Meana discovered that “institutionalization of the relationship, overfamiliarity, and desexualization of roles” in a long-term heterosexual partnership mess with female passion especially — a conclusion that’s consistent with other recent studies. The Bored Sex
But instead of exploring that, instead of delving into what makes good open relationships tick, or even showing us an open relationship that didn’t work well because of the mistakes that were made, Newness feeds us the same old tired tropes about how simply finding your “one special one” will make everything right (despite the 50% divorce rate, and despite the 50% infidelity rate among both men and women).
It tells us that ethical non-monogamy isn’t something that can work, and that whorish women might try to push men into trying it, but ultimately they will learn that it has nothing to offer but heartbreak and come back to the arms of their one true love. It’s a morality play for patriarchal values. People can choose monogamy if it makes them happy, of course, but that’s not the only valid relationships style and it’s not the only one that can work.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
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