The openness of relationships

Traditionally, we see romantic relationships as exclusive things. You're either in a relationship, or you're not. You either have a boyfriend or girlfriend, are engaged or married, or not. Relationships are quite literally a binary affair: the number of romantic relationships you have is either zero or one. Having more than one is usually called 'cheating', and it's bad, very bad.

However naturally this attitude may feel, it has some strange side effects. First of all, it creates anxiety around attraction to other people. Because a relationship is supposed to be strictly monogamous, any attraction towards other people is felt as wrong. More specifically, it is seen as either a transgression of the rules of the relationship, or a sign that something is wrong with the relationship.

To be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting a monogamous relationship. However, I do think that attraction to people outside of your relationship is inevitable. These feelings can come in the form of interest, distraction, arousal, obsession, crushing or plainly falling in love, but they will appear no matter what. What matters, then, is what you do with them. The received wisdom of the monogamous relationship is to suppress and/or ignore these feelings. This results in situations of tension that can only be resolved by either succesfully getting rid of the feelings, or by giving in to them. The latter option tends to have disastrous consequences for a relationship, but the former is not exactly a happy affair either. After all, you're taking it upon yourself to crush something that is beautiful – affection for another human being – for the sake of your relationship.

Of course, from the perspective of the traditional relationship, these feelings are not beautiful at all. They're threatening, unfaithful, and recklessly indulgent. However, this perspective can only be maintained by denying that these feelings are normal human experiences. Only unfaithful, problematic people are attracted to people outside their relationship, or so the implication goes, and if you want to have a stable, loving relationship, you better not experience those feelings at all.

However, once you accept attraction as a part of the human experience, the perspective changes. Even in a monogamous relationship, it is beneficial to be able to talk about interest in, obsession with, and crushes on, other people. Even if you don't have the slightest intention to act on these feelings, they can still shake you up, and so they are worth talking about. And if your partner also accepts these feelings, and they react with patience and kindness, then you have possibly just defused a situation that could've become very sticky otherwise.

Of course, you could take these ideas further and conclude that love shouldn't be exclusive at all. Here lies the way to open relationships and polyamory (the general but boring term being 'consensual non-monogamy'). Love exists in many different forms, you could say, and it can be shared and multiplied in an infinite number of ways. Putting restrictions on the types of relationships you can have with other people (e.g. having dinner, talking for hours or forming deep bonds is okay, but holding hands, cuddling or having sex is not) is arbitrarily restrictive and based on an unfounded fear that certain kinds of love (or expressions of love) endanger the existing love between partners. Instead, one might find that loving other people doesn't deplete your reservoir of love, but reinvigorates it. Love multiplies with use.

In any case, even if you don't subscribe to the (admittedly hippie-sounding) ideas above, I still see no reason to fear attraction to people outside of your relationship. Only when you acknowledge that these feelings exist, that they're human, natural and okay – only then can you adequately deal with them.

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