Openness Versus Closedness in Relationships, and How Our Usual Route Leads to Less Happy Ones.
In our Westernized culture, within any committed romantic relationship (though especially in marriage) there comes a lot of unspoken, automatically assumed “rules” and expectations.
Though these tend to begin sliding into place as a romantic relationship grows more “serious,” they seem to become increasingly glaring and especially prevalent once married.
First things first, let's get this out of the way off the bat. People typically think the term “open” marriage or “open” relationship is synonymous with having sex with people other than your partner.
While it can mean this, it doesn't have to.
Two people can have an incredibly open relationship without having physical relations with others.
That's an important thought to clarify right away.
What “open” means is simply the opposite of all the restrictive, fear-based, tightly bound traditional expectations of what we have been told makeup how a committed relationship or marriage should look like and be.
Open means choosing not to think in such a way that in order to “keep our relationship safe” we must cut off, restrict, and narrow a number of things, both in the life of our partner, as well as in the life of the relationship.
In line with this thought, I would beg the question, if our current means of how romantic relationships tend to be conducted is how they “should be” and is the “best” way for everyone to create and maintain a romantic relationship, then why is marriage so difficult (over the long-term) for a vast majority of people?
Might be that the idea of loving someone for life and committing to growing alongside them is a right and even beautiful intent, but that our singular, narrow method of going about it could be flawed?
Here are a handful of the ways in which romantic relationships tend to function (all of which are closed rather than open, and which tend to create and foster, over time, a sense of stifled growth, cutting one off from much of life, and potentially even create resentment or bitterness).
Men and women tend to occupy certain roles within the relationship.
Often (though of course, not always) the woman cooks, is largely responsible for housework, and tends to handle the majority of care with regards to their children.
Men are typically the ones bringing home the bacon. And often, are more hands-off with the kids (though thankfully, this is changing). Sure, they help around the house, but it tends to be with more “manly” things like taking out the trash, mowing the lawn, fixing anything broken, etc.
Again, luckily in many ways, this is shifting. However, even while it is changing, these roles tend to still be more default than we might like to think.
Couples in committed relationships are expected to ever present a “united couple front,” if you will.
This especially takes the form of attending most, if not all, social events and gatherings together as a pair. If one is absent, others often ask and tend towards assuming, “what's wrong? Where is so and so? Why aren’t they here with you?”
The assumption being that there must be a problem brewing if the couple isn’t attached at the hip 92% of the time. This is restrictive and weird.
Hobbies and other interests tend to become limited and more restricted once married.
For example, if Jenny loves hiking, or Robert loves painting, and each of them likes to spend a decent amount of time partaking in this activity, it’s often seen in a marriage that the other spouse will gripe about this.
Showing insecurity, jealousy, possessiveness, or annoyance at their partner wanting to spend significant time partaking in these hobbies, especially if or when the hobby does not include their partner or isn’t something their partner loves too.
It is deemed a “threat” to the couple's sense of “togetherness,” and the spouse is often then forced to give up much of the time they would like to spend doing something which lights them up inside.
People are often expected to eradicate and make invisible any remnants or special tokens of former loves because, another threat.
Instead of being allowed the freedom to celebrate and honor both who we were, as well as who we are now, we are told to erase significant past parts of our lives.
Forbidden from mentioning or even looking at any mementos in relation to these special people from our past. To pretend instead that they never existed. That your current love is and was the only one.
For some reason, this remembering of one’s past loves is seen as a scary, threatening thing for the current partner. It tends to be interpreted as along this line of thought: if you still have any feelings of caring for a past love, it must be taking away from your feelings for me and our relationship now.
(Which is of course, not true. Feeling a sense of love and caring for one person does not invalidate or take away from feelings of love or caring towards another. People can and do feel multitudes of feelings for many throughout their lives, both present, and past).
We are expected to limit and oftentimes, even sever ties with anyone of the opposite sex, especially exes, and sometimes even friends of the same sex that our partner particularly dislikes.
Yet again, another supposed “threat” to the relationship.
Our partner is expected to be our only close friend of the opposite gender, our sole sex partner for 50+ years, our financial advisor, therapist, co-parent and more. An impossible order for any human being to fill. No wonder so many marriages crumble under the weight of it, in disappointment and disillusion.
Thus, we are prohibited from forming any close connections with another that could be “threatening.”
However, I would pose the thought, because you feel love, deep caring, and affection for one person, same or different sex/gender, does that take away from or invalidate the feelings of love you feel for another?
If you feel love and affection for one close friend, family member, etc, does it mean you love others less? Can you only love one parent, and not the other? Can you love just one sibling, without any love left over for the rest? Are you only able to feel deep affection for one friend, and thus, less for the others?
In tandem with this article’s theme, several people have commented on and reviewed the internationally bestselling book, Open Marriage by the O Neills. What was a game-changer about the message of this book is how it altered the way people considered what marriage could be versus what it was.
All who remarked on the read seemed both drawn the conclusion and struck by the assumption that an “open” marriage or relationship is not one and the same with having sex with others.
Further, if one’s reasoning or basis for desiring an “open relationship” is purely based on the premise of wanting to have sex with other people, it’s likely that the relationship would ultimately fail.
Surprised? I bet many of you are scratching your heads thinking, uhhh, but isn’t that the main reason people decide on having the option for physical relations with people other than their partner? In order to have sex with other people?
Sure, it likely would be. But when that's the main motivator, it is likely to lead to the crumbling and demise of your primary relationship.
Confused? For what then would be the right reasons for doing this, if it weren’t for purely being able to experience that physicality with other people? You might be wondering. Well, you have to read the book to find out.
Back to the central topic of openness in relationships though, instead of potential sex with others (let’s forget that thought for a minute, since again that really isn't what “open” means or implies with regard to relationships), what “open” actually means is moving bravely away from these incredibly closed, restricted clauses and expectations that permeate marriage still.
Ones that generally only serve in limiting both partners individually, as well as the relationship.
We assume that by restricting, constricting, cutting off, limiting, and stunting, this means we are protecting something. It doesn't.
It merely means limiting growth and possibility, limiting ultimate happiness and much of the richness that life has to offer us. All under the guise of “protecting” and keeping something “intact.”
Life is risky. Whether we restrict and narrow it, or embrace it wide open with bravery. Neither approach changes the risk potential. So why not go with the one that will result in a far richer life?
Doesn't it make a degree of sense that if something were “the way it was supposed to be,” that it wouldn't have to be forced, cut off, restricted, and safeguarded to such a degree to make it so? Which is much the way we tend to approach and think about our romantic relationships, as needing to be safeguarded and restricted in order to protect them?
We take the current closed assumptions, rules, and expectations in marriage and long term committed relationships as truth. As what's automatically right. As “just the way it is.”
But just because that's how something is done, does that make it right, ideal, or even best? Merely by means of people saying “this is the way it is”, is that truly the only right and good way? Why aren’t there multitudes of “other ways” and possibilities, beyond the cramped, limited ways in which we likely look at things, via our own slender perspectives?
A significant number of marriages end. Another sizeable figure of marriages do not end but remain only marginally satisfied or happy. Another decent number of people stay married but have affairs. After all of this, a small number remain and are truly happy and well-matched over the long-term.
I am not making a case against marriage. On the contrary. I am known by nearly all of my close friends as well as exes to be romantic, idealistic, imaginative, and loving. I believe in lifelong love very much so.
Instead, what I am making a case against is the way we assume marriage and long-term love must be in order to work. I am challenging the generally closed, fear-based, one-size-fits-all template via which we tend to operate and assume in our romantic connections. That because “this is just how we do it,” all tend to fall automatically in line with such behavior and method, with nary a question, challenge, or thought otherwise. Because actually, if you look around and observe closely, our current “methods” often doesn't end up working all that well for many people.
Again, might it be that the idea of loving someone for life and committing to growing alongside them is the right intent, but that our method of going about it could be flawed?
I am inviting one to consider what marriage or relationships could be. That there might be, is even likely to be, much, even worlds beyond what we currently consider as being possible, as well as, what we “know” to be true.
What if it were possible to have a partner to whom you've committed, who you love deeply, with whom you want to grow alongside but with whom there was more trust? That greater independence, freedom, and flexibility were allowed between partners, as well as for each individual.
What if you could have an emotionally deep, resonating, committed relationship (married or not) while still maintaining other emotionally close, meaningful connections with many others, the same or opposite gender, without this being deemed a threat to the relationship?
What if you could have that worthwhile, close-knit relationship while continuing to pursue other passions, not having to cut them off at the knees in order to be considered truly committed to your partner?
What if you weren't forced to hide past remnants of other loving experiences but instead, were allowed to acknowledge, honor, and sometimes even reminisce about them because, instead of being a threat, they are merely treasured pieces and experiences had along the pathway to who you have become?
What if you were able to do your own thing fairly often without it being deemed selfish, dismissive, or threatening to the state of your union but instead, considered a necessary piece of a healthy emotional life and part of who you are?
These are all examples (and there are, of course, much more) of what a relationship has the potential to be, versus the rigid box we've been told our committed relationships must occupy in order to be “good”, “truly committed”, “normal”, or “acceptable.”
Marriage and all long-term loves have so much more potential and the possibility for what they could be, how they could look, and how they might function, as opposed to the linear, narrow way we believe it “has to” be.