We’ve all heard relationships being described as either ‘open’ or ‘closed’. Invariably we assume this refers to whether or not a couple plays around with other sex partners.
But there’s another dimension to being in an open or a closed relationship. This has to do with how openly we communicate with our partners about our dalliances with others. Then, of course, there's also the danger posed by STIs we could bring home.
Many of us are in so-called closed relationships while in reality we play around. In this case all that’s closed, is our communication with our partner. In a truly open relationship neither partner cheats on the other. Instead they have actively negotiated the boundaries of the relationship in terms of how they interface sexually and emotionally with others.
There is no right or wrong in terms of how a couple decide to structure these boundaries – what’s important is that both parties are agreeable to and comfortable with whatever is decided.
What is an open relationship?
There are varying degrees of open-versus-closed relationships, as opposed to merely two extremes. A few examples that have worked for some couples are as follows:
We go out together and leave together
Some couples decide that instead of them both engaging in sexual activity with others, they may allow each other a higher degree of independence. They could go to a party together, separate when they’re there and do whatever they want to, with the proviso that they leave the venue together.
We only play around when we’re out of town
A couple may decide that they can play around with others, individually, when they’re away on a business trip or travelling. This avoids others in their home town knowing that the relationship is not closed, thus maintaining a social boundary around the relationship.
Limits on behaviour
Many couples negotiate what can be included on the menu when they play around with others. For some kissing may be a no-no, while for others full intercourse could be disallowed and saved only for the couple themselves. There should obviously be discussion on safer sex limits. Are recreational drugs allowed? Is public sex allowed, or must it take place behind closed doors or in a locked cubicle?
Limits on who to play with
Many couples agree that neither is allowed to play with either their mutual or individual friends and that sex must be limited to anonymous strangers. Some couples also agree to limit the number of times they’re allowed to see a sexual partner in order to avoid an emotional relationship developing. No ‘dating’ – many of us are more concerned about emotional monogamy than we are about sexual monogamy. Couples also need to agree on whether group sex is acceptable or not.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
Couples sometimes need to agree on how much information they want to share with each other – some would rather not know any details while others may get off on sharing them. What is crucial is that all couples in open relationships should have sufficient openness in terms of communication to be able to inform each other if either has been placed at risk of HIV infection. Remember that HIV prophylactic treatment (referred to as P.E.P.) must be initiated as soon as possible after exposure to the virus and certainly within a maximum of 72 hours.
There are countless reasons why couples could decide to have an open relationship, just as there are countless reasons to maintain a closed relationship. There is absolutely no right or wrong in this regard but there are a few difficulties that could arise from trying to open a relationship:
Invariably one partner is less enthusiastic than the other about opening the relationship. He/she may be fascinated by the idea on some level but has difficulty on a moral level, for example, or he may feel coerced into the idea for fear of losing his/her partner.
Significant power dynamics could emerge in the relationship, especially when one partner feels less secure than the other. If either partner has less perceived power in terms of physical attractiveness, age, sexual stamina or even social skills, he/she could feel increasingly insecure in the relationship, to the extent that he/she becomes resentful, feels obliged to compete with his partner for others’ sexual attention or acts out in other dysfunctional ways.
Once a relationship is open it is often very difficult to close it again without significant trust issues having to be addressed.
Having an open relationship is not about cheating or about having clandestine sex - its about being honest with your partner, respecting your relationship and maintaining your own sense of integrity.
This article was first published in The Pink Tongue and was written by Glenn de Swardt in his personal capacity - 2007.
Glenn de Swardt