Open Relationships: The Next Big Trend
I once led a discussion about love with a group of young adult soldiers and spouses. What does true love consist of? Everyone quickly jumped to the issue of honesty—a persistent point made by our Orphan Generation. But what about faithfulness? Not a single member of that conversation said that faithfulness is a staple of true love. As one young lady remarked, “That’s really up to the couple.” Everyone agreed.
It is almost impossible to get a fixed number of those who are in open relationships. People are not nearly as open about these sorts of relationships as they are about sexuality. There are also countless arrangements of open relationships, which makes identification difficult. Usually, you’ll hear that between 2-9% of couples are in open relationships, but it’s probably much greater than we’d suppose. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that this will be the next “civil rights” frontier in our culture.
Before we explain the rise of this trend, its effects, and how to respond, let’s define a few terms to help un-muddy the waters. First, polyamory refers to the simultaneous loving of multiple people. Open marriages are marriages in which one or both spouses are allowed to cheat, while cuckholds are those (usually men) who allow it while not doing it themselves. Swingers are generally those who both participate in open relationships. Perhaps the most important term is ethical non-monogamy (also known as consensual non-monogamy), which is really just polyamory with a philosophical justification.
It is this last term that helps explain the rise of open relationships, why the trend will continue to explode, and—as is often the case—provides the recipe for a biblical response. Our justifications—the “why” for what we believe—are also the points of greatest vulnerability. In other words, what often drives a trend is also what can undo a trend if we tread carefully and engage thoughtfully.
What’s the appeal?
In our culture, consent replaced commitment as the barometer for what’s acceptable in loving relationships. Think back to what my soldier said: “It’s really up to the couple.” Whether you agree with this statement or not, it is quickly growing into the majority position in our country. The standard is not above us, transforming our lives in the process, but within us, in conjunction with those most affected by our decision-making. The only criterion for whether or not a couple becomes a “throuple” is whether they both agree. Nothing more; nothing less. Ironically, children—those most affected by such arrangements—are left out of the decision-making process altogether.
In this vein, “ethical non-monogamy” provides the pathway to societal acceptance and legal protections. This concept stages consent as an improvement over non-consent, an expansion of love rather than deterioration. Feature-length articles are written by notable figures on why they have chosen ethical non-monogamy and how it has improved their lives and relationships.
As much as we hate to admit it, our philosophy is always shaped by our psychology. Our presuppositions are always molded by our background and the biases we bring to the table. The same proves true here. Consent did not become the standard because a bunch of enlightened individuals gathered together to make it so. It is the cynical refuge of the Orphan Generation—the byproduct of decades of neglect by the Lost Generation.
Gravity abhors a vacuum, and so do children. Most of our young adults grew up with divorce (or parents who never married), abuse, adultery, abandonment, and neglect. Love was modeled to them by the loveless; fidelity by the faithless. Neuroscience has shown that these experiences actually re-wire our brains. Children who undergo trauma, for example, often develop PTSD, lose the ability to imagine a better existence, and cannot distinguish between safety and danger. There is also a dramatic impact on one’s view of love.
As children are raised in such homes, they picture the world in a similar light. They see their parents break love and they accept that as a given reality (though they don’t want to). They watch commitment wantonly discarded and they learn how to hedge their bets. They learn to detach love from pleasure and commitment and often find their refuge in pornography, which normalizes the unimaginable. Love becomes a lost concept. The feeling of pleasure becomes the pursuit and consent becomes the low bar to which a disillusioned generation aspires. No longer able to achieve emotional intimacy, they seek to feel the flickers of life through physical intimacy and feel lonelier than ever.
What’s the effect?
Much like open relationships in general, statistics about their outcomes are virtually impossible to obtain. It is likely that the divorce rates are far higher than normal. Anecdotally, I have never seen such a relationship last over the long-term in all of my years of counseling. In addition, as much as people pretend that they can transcend jealousy, they are ensnared by the lack of boundaries, control, and the increasing chaos that such arrangements create.
This is expected because the rules have changed. They are made-up and arbitrary, rooted in convenience rather than in principle. This is the great philosophical flaw in ethical non-monogamy. It has displaced a firmly established, coherent set of ethics for an ethic that asks both too little and too much. At root, bare consent is all that is required, but defining the parameters of this consent becomes a near-impossible task. A spouse or partner can be intimate with another person, but not kiss them, or say “I love you.” Why? After obliterating the old lines, how are we to consistently construct new ones? This means a life of constantly shifting goal posts, continuing a life of ever-elusive love.
This in turn creates a vicious psychological spiral. People with a collapsed understanding of love create an ethic around that void, leading to a further hollowing out of love. Ethical non-monogamy is destructive, leaving people exposed to the jealousy and insecurity of non-exclusive love. It further ingrains the lesson that real love is not worth pursuing—that we must settle for the fleeting sparks of pleasure in the frozen terrain of consent. It consigns yet another generation to nihilism.
This is the legacy of the Lost Generation. By selling love so cheap, they put a premium on pleasure. As a result, we have put our very flesh in the marketplace, offering it for the price of pleasure. And it shows what we think of ourselves. We are bought and sold cheaply. We are willing to give our spouses away because we are not worth much, they are not worth much, people are not worth much. An hour of pleasure is worth more than a lifetime of loneliness, and there is no conception that we could have more than all of this.
How then do we respond?
As with most issues, it does little good to take on ethical non-monogamy in the public sphere or on public forums. And arguing with an ethic of consent is impossible when that ethic is shaped by a lifetime of unresolved brokenness. In counseling our polyamorous friends, however, we can effectively engage these heart issues to the glory of God. Just a handful of questions can lead to impactful realizations:
- How was love modeled and taught to you as a child?
- How has this shaped your view of who you are and how you feel about yourself?
- How did you envision your future love when you were younger?
- What vision for love to you want to pass on to your own children?
These sorts of questions lead to the “why” behind the “what” of our present beliefs. They enable us to get behind the psychological factors that have corrupted our philosophical views. And behind those factors stand a theology of a broken and hopeless heart. It is life in the wilderness without any remembrance of Eden or hope for something more. It is an identity of dehumanization and slavery, with no God to part the waters into new life, hope, and meaning in Christ. If you expose this hollow theology, conversations about the Christ who bought us at the cost of His own blood naturally follow. You can have an open marriage, or you can have your heart opened to the love of God in Christ—which restores both a real conception of love and of human value. The former asks you to die to love for the sake of finding self; the latter asks you to die to self for the sake of finding love. If Christ thought you worth His blood, then perhaps you were made for more than consent.