In recent years, there has been an increasing acceptance of the open relationship: couples who agree to seek sexual or romantic fulfillment outside the bounds of their monogamous partnership. There are many reasons why a couple might decide to try an open relationship: to allow both partners to fulfill their “sexual needs” when separated by long distance; to overcome conflicting sexual preferences if one partner has more expansive interests than the other; even to invigorate a couple’s shared sex life by inviting a third party into the pair. For those whose partnership doesn’t quite meet all of their needs, this seems like the perfect resolution—outsourcing the more extraneous needs while maintaining the commitment of an existing relationship.
With the internet to facilitate the maintenance of our existing connections and to help us find new ones, it’s easier than ever to feel that one can balance multiple partners at varying degrees of commitment. Our language and our culture are evolving to normalize this trend, too. Dating apps allow users to set their relationship status to “partnered,” so people in committed relationships can seek new connections with full transparency; the acronym “NSA” (for “no strings attached”) communicates one’s desire to engage in noncommittal sex; online threads discuss the tribulations inherent to forming a “poly relationship” or “throuple.”
As these evolutions in culture and technology empower us to expand our interpersonal connections in both quantity and variety, we may seem more fulfilled than ever before, but this is not entirely the case. Though the internet presents us with a new abundance of opportunities to connect, we still possess the same limited bandwidth of attention. Taking on multiple romantic and sexual connections requires maintaining each one at a specific distance—each carefully balanced to maximize return with minimal frictional cost and minimal investment. While this rationing of attention might work in the short term, I think that, like a muscle, the ability to commit atrophies with disuse. Prioritizing a succession of casual and transactional connections teaches us to seek people out only for what they can give to us, with no consideration for reciprocity or the long-term. Rather than finding fulfillment through our existing connections, we can appease our ever-expanding desires by continually building new connections; we alienate ourselves from commitment. And, if everyone stands to gain something from these arrangements, then why shouldn’t we indulge our fantasies to the maximum extent?
In allowing ourselves to grow beholden to the demands of desire, we can’t help but crave novelty to an excess—we begin to need it. In the context of relationships, the need for novelty causes us to conflate love and desire, believing mistakenly that love is primarily a means of fulfilling our desires. I don’t mean to say that love and desire are unrelated, but I do think that love far transcends desire. Love is built upon effort, vulnerability, and compromise, all of which necessitate commitment.
Maybe it’s fine not to compromise on our desires, to seek instead to have them met elsewhere. Especially when enacted on mutually-agreeable terms, it’s possible that allowing each partner to satisfy their unfulfilled urges will prolong their relationship. But this is a mutualism that is incredibly difficult to balance—an ideal solution in theory, seldom sustained for long in practice. Attempting to maintain a variety of unrelated partners precludes the significance of any one partner, thus weaving a complicated network of conflicting priorities bound to unravel. No matter how committed you are, opening your relationship necessarily admits that, whatever the reason, your partner is not enough for you—that you’re willing to divide their share of your commitment in exchange for a novel connection. At the very least, it’s a decision to prioritize the self over the partnership and a persistent reminder that, in today’s world, the fulfillment of desire is non-negotiable.
This matter becomes especially complicated in relation to the queer community, whose desires have historically been derided and denied. In my own experience, open relationships are especially common among queer men. I acknowledge this stereotype carefully, understanding that it’s often cited to demonize queer men for their supposed hypersexuality. But there is definitely some truth to the claim that queer culture has more readily accepted the idea of the open relationship—for reasons that I suspect extend beyond mere indulgence.
Fundamental to the queer experience is a certain degree of fear. Throughout history, queer people have had to fear for their safety, due to the real and pervasive threat of physical violence that might occur should their queerness be expressed in any visible way. And they’ve had to fear rejection—that strangers might deny them a fair chance by turning them away simply for their identity.
From this stems a fear of abandonment, too—the fear that, even despite a lifetime of commitment, a queer person might still eventually face rejection from their loved ones. This is the paradox of conditional love: a “love” which necessitates that we hide ourselves, that we suspend not only our desires but even our needs in order to preserve normalcy and to survive. Thus, the stigmatizing of queerness has taught queer individuals that our most basic needs—stability, affection, intimacy—are actually forbidden desires, indulgences to be shunned.
Even as our society begins to unlearn this stigma, I think these things still weigh on the collective consciousness. Latent in the queer psyche is a fear that we are disposable, that we do not deserve dignity or fulfillment. Though it is less likely now than ever before that being open about one’s queerness will result in discriminatory treatment, there is still a nonzero chance that it will occur—still a lingering fear that any person, stranger or not, might harm us in some way for expressing our love.
And, beyond those related to homophobia, there are other fears, like the fear of never finding a suitable partner due to the relatively small pool of options. The idea of scarcity encourages a willingness to settle, compelling queer people to cling to any connection that they can forge—using the tools at their disposal to maintain their connections by any means possible, at any distance required, even when they’re not entirely ideal. Thus, settling often takes the form of compartmentalizing: accepting that fulfillment can come from multiple partners. When options are sparse, the person who provides affection is not necessarily the one who provides stability; physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are no longer one and the same.
Queer communities have fought for generations to reclaim the right to desire. As they step into social acceptance, there will be growing pains. Though it is more accessible than ever before, queer connection is still largely isolated within platforms like Grindr, whose business model dictates that users make as many connections as possible. As such, there has been an inevitable redefining of the so-called “queer experience” towards maximalism: seeking an abundance of experiences in defiance of a long history which has denied any such fulfillment. For many, the newfound ability to satisfy not only their needs, but also their most trivial desires, is empowering—being able to “have it all,” so to speak, with no commitment or responsibility. As queer poet Adrienne Rich says, “These are the things we have learned to do / Who live in troubled regions.”
But this approach to love does not hold promise for healing the wounds of the past; rather, it burrows down in the logic of conditional love. And, as I navigate these troubled regions, I find myself plagued by the fear of abandonment—the possibility that, at the end of the day, I will be nobody’s priority. I fear that I will be loved only for cherry-picked aspects of myself, only by someone whose commitment is contingent on what I can provide to them. I worry that I will find myself stuck in a process of giving exhaustively, consuming endlessly—my life reduced to a series of short and shallow connections. I suppose it’s a fear that I will always be the one left behind, should a better (more interesting, more convenient, more attractive) opportunity come by.
Beyond a means of carnal indulgence, then, I think the open relationship is a defense strategy against these fears. Seeking fulfillment outside of one’s monogamous relationship pre-empts the abandonment that queer people have been conditioned to expect. We maintain contingencies for disaster, attaching an escape clause to our commitments, in order to anticipate our inevitable disposal. But, for this very reason, the normalization of the open relationship creates the conditions which excuse that disposal. “Keeping your options open” reduces your love to just that: an option, not a commitment—and when you have an abundance of options, it is impossible not to consider pursuing them at the moment things get difficult.
As Rich says, “Time in the hand is not control of time.” Being able to anticipate disaster does not prevent it from happening—perhaps the plans we make to protect ourselves from disaster might themselves prove disastrous. After all, we only have so much bandwidth, so much wherewithal to balance a host of conflicting interests. Nourishing a relationship requires a concerted effort and a strong understanding of one’s priorities. When prioritizing variety over integrity, it is only a matter of time before a network of partners collapses into a triage of heartbreak.
I think that true commitment necessitates exclusivity, but the lasting security it cultivates renders it a worthwhile labor. When I envision my future, I don’t want to think that I’m merely someone’s indulgence. Rather, I want to love with no exit strategy—to love and be loved so deeply that I can’t fathom any contingency worth considering.