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Evolving Our Ideas of Open Relationships

Writing by Kate Pagan // photograph by JD Mason

Last year I found myself as a third party in a series of relationships where a desire to explore an open dynamic had been expressed albeit poorly executed. One long term couple exploring non-monogamy before settling down and having children, another two who were exes and wanted to try a new open dynamic after years of being apart and a newly single man exploring casual sex with multiple women.

Naively I thought open communication was enough, but as I watched my inbox fill up with unhappy partners, I realised there is more to it than that. Through this experience, I became more interested in different relationship dynamics. Why couples choose to be in open relationships and why some work and some don’t.

Open relationships seem to be a growing trend. Perhaps the cravings have always been there, but in recent years the choice towards non-monogamy seems to be more apparent. I am a fairly practical lover. I have participated in both healthy and unhealthy casual, open and monogamous relationships. It has always reflected where I am in life. Am I transient, about to head overseas or move interstate? Am I new to an area, deep in exploration of self and a new environment? These factors have always influenced my decisions around commitment and the sort of relationship that best suits my lifestyle at the time. However even with my practical approach, non-monogamy hasn’t always worked out and has often resulted in jealousy, miscommunication and disrespect.

In Anthropology at university, I did a research project on the changing dynamics of relationships in South East Asia after the war. Due to the decline of men, Countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam turned from the nuclear family arrangement to new polygamist frameworks. Since then I have often contemplated why it is that in white Australia, a country that is financially and socially stable, there seems to be a growing trend in open relationships.

Perhaps it is inherently in us? A natural resurgence of old European cultures once lost are now able to rebirth themselves in a safer and more open minded context.

Or maybe it is a reflection of our modern day hedonist and consumer culture. A time where social media has shed light on the new complex and diverse lifestyle options. A time where our growing interconnected society has given birth to apps like Tinder, Bumble and Grindr making options and desires more accessible.

This makes me think of Japan, a culture with a decreasing population rate. A country where people are now choosing their careers over baring children. Where now they have access to services such as cuddle cafes and conversation bars, creating accessibility to the parts of intimacy that they crave from relationships, whilst being able to fully immerse themselves into their work and their individuality. Or perhaps it is the natural swing of the pendulum. From a conservative society to a new world where those old rules and regulations around love and relationships have flown out the window.

Regardless of whether it’s a societal progression or a chance to save your broken relationship, it excites and concerns me greatly.

As a woman, I am stoked to live in a time where there is growing awareness around female sexuality and an acceptance of our sexual hunger. We are so lucky to live in a time where we are able to redefine our own relationships without societal consequences. We are starting to realise that healthy relationships come in all shapes and sizes and that the nuclear marriage dynamic isn’t the only way.

However, I’m also concerned that in a society that is only just starting to wake up to the fact  that we lack a healthy sex education, (this is starting to change with the birth of sexologists) we are entering into these new dynamics blindly. When we still haven’t got a framework to define ourselves as lovers or define our needs, how can we possibly enter into conscious relationships with multiple people? Obviously this is a generalisation, but I’ve noticed the term ‘open relationship’ as a scapegoat for noncommittal blasé behaviour.

If an open relationship is something that interests you, a great question to ask yourself is ‘are you in a place in your life where you have the capacity to take on the responsibility of multiple people’s emotions?’ I’ve learnt through my experience in open relationships, that it takes a lot of work.

For many years I romanticised the idea of having multiple lovers, filling my cup of sexual hunger to the brim from multiple sources, but I soon realised how easy it is to overflow.

Maintaining multiple relationships is a lot of work. Even when there is a primary lover, the other participant’s needs and feelings are just as important. Decisions like not going home with any of your partners from a party and being modest with affection to avoid jealousy arose often for me.

Each open relationship has different guidelines. Perhaps for one couple they only allow sex with people they know. For others it may only be with strangers, or when they’re away for work, travel etc.

This is a conversation for the parties at play. However, if an open relationship is an excuse to not commit, to do what you want and not be accountable then maybe an ‘open relationship’ isn’t the term you should be using. Casual noncommittal sex is fine, but maybe tell it like it is so all parties may make educated decisions on how they want to invest their energy.

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