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The allure of open relationships

By Hugh Wilson
The allure of open relationships
Related articles
Seedy or special? We look into the growing phenomenon of open relationships.

Many men went into a bit of frenzy when Angelina Jolie told a German magazine that, "I doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship." First off, it means we've all still got a chance with arguably the world's sexiest woman, Brad or no Brad. And failing that, it also means that some women really are willing to consider the possibility of an open relationship.

In a nutshell, an open relationship means having one significant other, but still being able to sleep with other women. The downside is that, if you demand that freedom, your significant other has the right to demand it too. So could you handle an open relationship? We talked to the experts to get the low-down. Here's what to expect.

Better to be open than unfaithful
If you don't think open relationships are normal or natural, consider this. According to research, 95% of couples value monogamy, but a study by Washington State University found that, among their subjects, 27% of men and 18% of women had been unfaithful during their last relationship. Other studies show a much narrower gap between male and female infidelity.

What's more, scary statistics over in Britain show that 10% of children are being brought up by men who think they're the biological father — but aren't. In other words, seedy on-the-side sex is pretty rife anyway, so wouldn't it be better — at least for some couples — to be honest about their desires and agree to an open relationship?

It's natural
Not only might it be honest, some experts also believe it's more natural. For a start, humans are mammals, and the vast majority of mammals are not monogamous. In western civilisation, monogamy is the relationship norm. But that doesn't make it natural. Throughout history most humans have been polygamous. Most of that time, it means men have married multiple women.

According to evolutionary biologist Robin Baker, "it's nurture, not nature, that makes us monogamous." Many of us wouldn't naturally settle for one lifelong sexual partner, but our cultural traditions teach us that it's the right thing to do.

Some experts also think that the idea of monogamy evolved at a time when humans had far lower life expectancy than we do now. In the pre-industrial past, marriages would only last a decade or so before death did us part. Could it be that we're simply not meant to be exclusively with the same partner for 30, 40 or 50 years?

In his book The Evolution of Human Sexuality, first published in 1979, Donald Symons writes that, "the desire for [sexual] variety is virtually impossible to satisfy." By going for an open relationship, at least you might be giving yourself a chance.

But is it natural for women?
So if it's natural for men to want a varied sex life, what about women? Traditional theory has it that women value monogamy, to ensure there's a man around to bring home the bacon while the kids are young. But even that theory has been upset by more recent revelations from the animal kingdom. Many bird species were once considered the poster animals for monogamy, staying faithful to one partner season after season.

But it turns out not to be true. In birds, as in humans, many males are providing for chicks that aren't their own. The females may be socially monogamous — they stick with the same male and share the same territory — but they're nipping off for surreptitious quickies with any passing male. Birds aren't people, but studies now suggest that women are almost as likely to cheat as men, suggesting that though many women might want a good provider at home, they may also crave sexual variety on the side.

In evolutionary terms, it could be that women, like birds, take multiple lovers for the sake of their yet-to-be conceived children. In effect, they make the sperm of several males fight it out, with the strongest reaching the egg first. That's not consciously what women are doing in 2011, of course, but it could provide an explanation for some women's urge for sexual variety, even within a committed relationship.

So why don't we all do it?
From all that, an obvious question is why aren't more of us opting for open relationships? But then, perhaps more of us are. According to Tristan Taormino, the author of Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, "there are far more open relationships than you might think."

But monogamy is still the norm, aimed for, if not always achieved, by the vast majority of us. Over 2,000 years of cultural indoctrination may help to explain that. We've been told for centuries by powerful figures that monogamy is the only acceptable kind of relationship. It's no surprise that the message has stuck. Still, there must be a reason monogamy, rather than polygamy, is preached from the pulpits, and indeed it does have its advantages. Largely, it turns out, for men.

Quite simply, men have something fundamental to gain from monogamy that women don't. Only by committing to one sexual partner (or more accurately, getting one partner to commit to them) can men be reasonably certain the offspring they are providing for are really their own. It could be why men have such a highly developed sense of jealously, and indeed the green-eyed monster is one reason open relationships can be such hard work, says Tristan Taormino, who admits to "struggling with jealousy" in her own open relationship.

Yes, you might get the satisfaction of playing away from home with other women, but you're also stuck at home twiddling your thumbs as your partner plays away with other men.

An open relationship is hard to find
Which all adds to the feeling that, while many of us might fantasise about open relationships, far fewer actively seek them out. Not only do you have to persuade one woman — your partner — to accept a non-exclusive sexual arrangement, you then have to persuade another.

On top of that, you have to accept the fact that your partner will do the same, and get over it. Tristan Taormino says this is possible, but hard. It may be possible for some, but certainly not for everyone. For many of us, an open relationship may be the fantasy that should stay in the box. It's certainly an alluring prospect, and monogamy may not be our natural state, but how many of us could really handle the alternative?

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User comments
I am always one to try something against the norm. I think with the right mindset and realization that we have all been brought up in a culture with books, movies, music all portraying monogamous love that it will take some reeducation of our minds to become open to this kind of relationship. The freedom and liberation this could bring would be great. Only now need to find a man who is not so jealous or controlling.
Cheating behind someone's back is the lowest.......perhaps ask yourself why and what you are missing to seek elsewhere....and it could all be worked out with your partner.....communication is the key....you may surprise yourselves. Poly relationships can work but both of you need to lay the cards on the table.
I don't believe in taking freedom from others so ultimately its up to individual choice, so long as they're open and honest...which contradicts why most polygamous ppl bed hop...they like the thrill of cheating. Personally Im monogamous. On a society level I can't stand how liberals preach that polygamy is acceptable because "its natural", thats weak. Murder, rape, and violence is also natural if provoked...should we liberate that too. Jealousy and exclusive sexual partners are also natural, hence monogamy is too. I don't think polygamy should be promoted publicly as the sheepish public will flock to it regardless of their beliefs on it, particularly todays sexualized youth. The cost far outweighs the pleasure it brings, which is why discipline in having a monogamous relationship used to be promoted. Bed hopping leads to home hopping. Do we really want to abandon the idea of raising healthy children in a stable family tree just so we can get our end off in a moment of excitement.
The vast majority of open relationships involve one person who has 99% of the sex outside the relationship, and a second person who sits at home waiting for them. Normally the one at home has lousy self confidence, is needy and clingy, and desperately hoping that if they agree to an open relationship their partner won't leave them. I've seen men and women in either role. My advice, if your partner wants an open relationship, consider the relationship to be dying. Break up with them while you still have your self respect.
OMG, this is the first well written and well researched article I have ever read here. Congratulations on ditching the dross & floss & actually presenting a balanced perspective, on a controversial subject , in the face of the norm.