The language of relationships is fixed, closed and unromantic. “Commitment” and “long-term” are clinical; “couple” suggests an exclusive world for two. On the other hand, the language of open relationships is joyful, lively, and shifting. “Polyamory” is bohemian’; “monogamish” and “commitment-fluid” are wry. An “open relationship” suggests an open mind.
But many things appear one way on paper and another in reality. Certainly, the louche pleasure of shagging who you feel like sounds great, but you suspect an open relationship is spoiled, greedy, the very definition of having your cake and eating it.
“I roll my eyes when people say this,” says Alex, a 30-something who was in an open relationship for three years, and who describes it as a “positive experience”. “People are critical of those in long-term relationships which are [open],” he continues. “But when they’ve been in a relationship for a long time, it’s normal. Some couples thrive on experience, some people really do need that openness in order to thrive within a monogamous relationship.”
Why? “It takes the edge off the routine of being in a monogamous relationships,” he offers. “It can be challenging keeping [the fun] going when you’re having sex with the same person.” Ultimately, a long-term relationship is an affectionate iteration of a routine: doing the same things, with the same person every day, because you’re too fond of them not to. But—as Alex observes—some couples find routine “tedious”, and regrettably, fondness doesn’t insulate either member of the couple from baser human instincts: namely, the thrill of the new and the allure of the illicit.
In reality, an open relationship is actually about compromise, which makes it sound as quotidian as monogamy. Alex says that rules are important: a functional open relationship is not a Bacchanalian, sexual free-for-all. “My last open relationship was slightly too open – the rules could have been much more fixed,” he says. “It’s about communication.” He is in another one now. “There’s a certain degree of openness but it’s not totally open. If we go out and one of us finds someone, there is a degree of [licence permitted].” He says jealousy is natural but surmountable.
Alex thinks openness makes you “more honest.” “It makes you value your partner in a much more holistic way,” he says. “And you have an understanding of your sexual life and your partner’s sexual practices. But anything not based in trust and respect can lead to jealousy and a lack of communication,” he cautions. “There can be a disconnection. You have to make sure that what you have is a relationship – not just two different sexual partners.”
It is said that “openness” is more common in the gay community. Simply by pairing off, heterosexual couples enter into the centuries old traditions of monogamy and marriage. On the other hand, gay relationships were outlawed by UK law until 1967 and gay culture remained underground for long after that, creating a subcultural space in which gay couples could make up their own rules. As most people know, gay couples have only been able to marry in the UK since 2014.
Anecdotally, most of my gay friends have been in open relationships at some point; none of my straight friends have. The closest I’ve ever come was suggesting, limply, to my ex-boyfriend that we went on a “break”, because I realised I felt like having sex with someone else. We broke up instead. Interested, I asked my straight female friends what they thought about open relationships: they were all sceptical. Mostly, they worried that if their boyfriends wanted to sleep with other people, it meant that they didn’t love them “properly”.
Perhaps, though, my friends are conflating sexual and emotional desire. Seeking new sexual experiences doesn’t mean that you seek a new emotional connection. Sometimes, sex is just sex. And permitting people to experiment—on the caveat that there are mutually-agreed terms—could be a way to consolidate your closeness.
Alex isn’t necessarily convinced these relationships are more common in the gay community. “I think gay men just talk about them more!” He does think that the growth of dating apps – which many people use for straightforward hooking up – suggests that the straight community is coming round to the idea. “There is a level of openness [in the straight community], you just don’t hear about it. In future you will hear more about it, though. Gay men were leading the way with Grindr, but now heteros are using the apps more. They’re more promiscuous.”
In recent years, there has been a growth in those who identify as gender fluid and, moreover, a concerted rejection of binary definitions of sexuality, which suggests that people are more open to non-traditional sexual experiences. The Kinsey scale is a metric of a staider, more buttoned up age; last August, a YouGov study found that 49 per cent of the British 18-24-year-olds polled did not identify as entirely straight. “I fancy people,” says one 20-something girl, who recently got married (to a man). “It’s not about whether they’re male or female – it’s about whether I find them attractive.”