Friday, April 07, 2006

Open relationships

Richard has a bunch of things to say, and I particularly liked this:

it’s a deeply pernicious cultural framework that leads one to only value a romantic partner insofar as they might eventually become one’s future spouse.

Another issue that causes people to be dismissive towards open relationships is the idea that if your partner is having sex with someone else, it should be some kind of affront to you. Personally, I don't see why this is the case, especially if you're temporarily geographically separated from each other. Certainly, if you made some kind of promise to have an exclusive relationship, there's the fact that the other person is taking their promises to you lightly. But in the absence of such promises, nothing bad is happening. (A corollary of this is that it can be unwise to make promises of fidelity to give your partner security against such an affront.)

On a more personal note, I'm quite comfortable with the idea of my girlfriend having sex with lots of other guys, especially if I'm unavailable for some reason. (If the guys were jerks, there might be a problem, but assuming that's not the case, we're fine.) Girls are cool, and sex is cool. So girls who have a lot of sex are awesome, and I could happily be in a stable relationship with one of them.


Chris said...

I agree with your sentiment about the "promise" part. What I worry about in relationships is not with whom my partner is having sex, but whether she's being honest with me. If she's honest and respectful, I don't care if she's having sex with other people.

Colin Caret said...

I want to be the modern, liberated man who agrees with this sentiment, but in practice I have a hard time doing so. I think that, philosophically speaking, I do agree with what you and Richard say on this topic. However, I find it impossible to comfortably live this way in my personal life. My concern is this: if my girlfriend is having sex with other people, what is to prevent that from progressing into an emotional attachment, and from there into a relationship?

You might say that I am confusing two issues here. There is sex and there is love, and the two are obviously different, and mature adults can keep them separate in their minds. Thus, if my girlfriend and I are mature adults, we should be able to have an open relationship without getting into the kind of messy scenario I've described above.

Except this is all nonesense. People can't control the kind of relationships they fall into, they can't keep love and sex cleanly separated, and the one often leads to the other, or vice versa. It seems to me that an open relationship creates more oppotunities for something unforseen to come along and break up the relationship.

Clearly, there is more to be said on this subject. For instance, one might ask whether it is so bad to allow your partner a maximal amount of freedom in their relationships. After all, if you truly love them, don't you want them to experiment and, if it happens, to discover that their happiness lies with someone else? Yeah, maybe there is something to this. Maybe I am just being selfish, but at least its a kind of selfishness I think anyone can appreciate. These situations are anything but simple.

Matt said...

I mostly agree, but think this (and the linked discussion) leave out one very important practical problem- at least when we leave out the "temporarily seperated" situation having multiple intimate relationships just takes up too much damned time. (It's like socialism, on Oscar Wilde's estimation- the problem is that it takes up too many of one's evenings.) Even one relationship takes up a lot of time and energy. Two will be very hard. If you try more, most likely you are not in the "relationship" category but the "casual sex" category. That's a fine category too, I guess, but it should not be confused for something it's not. Also, can I have your girlfriend's phone number? :)

casey said...

"I'm quite comfortable with the idea of my girlfriend having sex with lots of other guys."

This quote suggests that your girlfriend is either non-existent or not a reader of this blog. I think the former is a more plausible interpretation.

Also, re: colin's comment, why is this idea of not caring if your partner sleeps with other people a modern idea? This seems crazy to me. And I'm sure it will seem crazy to people for all time. Is someone somehow more conceptually sophisticated if they can see past monogamy?

theogon said...

This quote suggests that your girlfriend is either non-existent or not a reader of this blog. I think the former is a more plausible interpretation.

Well, for what it's worth, I'm in a relationship and the thought of my girlfriend having sex with other people doesn't conceptually bother me, either. She feels differently. But it's not a source of conflict because we both prefer it to be exclusive*.

I'd imagine that levels of sexual jealousy are to a great extent just one of those random biological variables, like sex drive.

*I prefer exclusivity because it makes sex a non-issue in social situations, which I find liberating.

casey said...

Theogon, this is interesting. I would have figured I was in the majority. In any case, you write,

"Well, for what it's worth, I'm in a relationship and the thought of my girlfriend having sex with other people doesn't conceptually bother me, either."

I would think that when most dudes were asked to imagine their ladies having sex with another dude they would experience some sort of imaginative resistance. They would find that they had an inability to conceive of that situation. This I think is a sign that most people are *conceptually* bothered by the idea. I don't know what else sense it makes to say that someone is conceptually bothered, other than to say that have a difficulty in using their concepts to think or imagine such and such. (Other examples of imaginative resistance can be generated by imagining a world where are the objective facts were the same but evaluative facts were different.)

But, really, I am suprised that dudes aren't more conceptually bothered by this stuff. Perhaps my intuitions are old-fashioned.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Sorry for taking so long to respond, Colin, but I guess I want to say that there are lots of ways to get to emotional attachment. Maybe she'll become attached to some other guy at work or through the bowling league. If it happens, it happens.

Casey, I currently have no existent (or at least actual) girlfriend. But when I last had one, I informed her of these preferences. She felt the same way about me having sex with other girls, and we were happy together for some time before unrelated circumstances caused us to break up.

Colin Caret said...

I appreciate that point, Neil, it just seems to me that people have a lot harder time keeping sex/emotions disentangled than they do keeping, say, bowling/emotions disentangled.

djw said...

I think Colin gets it just about right. Lots of people agree with you in theory, but discover that various social norms about relationships, sex, and so on that they reject rationally have a surprising impact on them. Given the likelihood of this (often unexpected and unwanted) emotional response, a great deal of caution seems appropriate regarding open relationships.

Theogon gets at it to--less variety and volume of sex is a small price to pay for the way in which "being completely off the market" is so liberating and relaxing in all kinds of social situations.

Rousseau said...

If relationships exist in some philosophical vacuum where they mean only what we choose to define them as, then no there is no reason we cannot choose to have a meaning of love that does not care that our spouse engages in sexual or even romantic relations with another. Such an outlook is tempting since we like to think of love as an ideal, and thus something we can easily reimagine and has solid philosophical backing.

If relationships are simply derived from biological motivations and social norms, than sex with others is bad for no greater reason than genes and culture tell us it is. This isn't a pleasing view to philosophers, and romantics who are trying to explain monogamy usually tend to shoot higher than such base causes. But I think it describes our world.

Where your vision of relationships comes from, be it the abstractly created or the nature+nurture coerced, would determine how acceptable you find open relationships.

I think in our current time and place, non-monogamous relationships are going to run into serious trouble eventually, 95% of the time.

I also think that one could create a social context where such things are encouraged to such a degree that it overwhelms the relatively weak biological factors. Ie, the fact that we are geared towards monogamy doesn't mean monogamy is therefore morally superior in all circumstances.

sp said...

I agree with Colin that it's very hard to keep sex and emotions separated, and with Casey that trying to do it is not particularly modern, since it has always been a common practice at least, for instance, in the context of prostitution, which has not beel always considered as immoral or socially dangerous. but even in the case of normal relationships between two people, all the romanticism attached to sex seems to be depending on cultures and time as much as its opposite. and it seems to depend a lot on gender differences, by the way, as many male gay relationships show, and in this sense rousseau is onto something. anyway, apart from historical and antrophological concerns, the question of sexual (and even non-sexual but emotional) exclusivity in love seems to me to be necessarily a non-normative issue: whereas honesty, as it has been said, and therefore fidelity as a consequence of a commitment, seems to be a necessary condition for a successful love relationship, exclusivity may well remain a choice. I personally doubt that exclusivity leads to the end of the relationship more than non-exclusivity: there are different problems and traps of each choice.

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