Between freedom and jealousy: The phenomenon of open relationships

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Francesca Miccoli earned her doctorate with a thesis on legal recognition of pol
Francesca Miccoli earned her doctorate with a thesis on legal recognition of polyamorous families with a legal-philosophical perspective. (Photo: University of Basel, Maria Patzschke)

Today, more and more people are embracing open relationships. Dr. Francesca Miccoli wrote her doctoral thesis on the legal recognition of polyamory. She discusses this form of romantic relationship in the following interview.

Dr. Miccoli, what is an open relationship?

Open relationships is a label used to point to a specific form of ethical or consensual non-monogamy. Ethical or consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term that covers all those kinds of non-dyadic configurations where all partners consent not to be committed to monogamy and agree upon honest and open communication. This may include more pleasure-centered lifestyles, such as swinging, or more romantic relationships, such as polyamorous ones. The common trait is that those involved have the freedom to have other partners with the awareness and consent of all the people involved. Hence, they are consensual and ethical because they differ from cheating. The term open relationship refers primarily to the freedom of two partners in a romantic relationship to have sexual encounters with other partners. On the other hand, polyamory allows individuals to form multiple romantic relationships with different people simultaneously.

Are open relationships a new phenomenon?

It seems like polyamory and open relationships are becoming more prominent, especially among younger generations. They are more willing to question traditional norms in intimate relationships and look for lifestyles that suit them best without necessarily adhering to a given traditional lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are no significant quantitative studies on the prevalence of ethical non-monogamy among the population. However, these kinds of relationships are becoming more and more visible. Nowadays, many mainstream TV series, podcasts, self-help books, and magazine articles deal with the subject alongside academic research. As a result, people are trying out these forms of relationships themselves or are at least curious to know what they are all’about. At the same time, however, there are still many individuals who remain highly critical of these non-traditional relationships, particularly those with more conservative views.

What do you think are the reasons behind this development?

As society becomes more accepting of same-sex relationships, culminating in the recognition of same-sex marriage, individuals tend to be more free in terms of sexuality than they used to be. More broadly, since the second half of the 20th century, people have become more open to non-conventional relationships. It is worth noting that divorce was once illegal, while nowadays, the divorce rate is increasing. On the other hand, the rate of marriages is decreasing, and people can now cohabit, change partners, divorce, and make babies out of wedlock without undergoing social stigma. There’s, therefore, a trend toward more freedom in how family relationships are designed - the way we really want them to be, not based on tradition - and polyamorous and open relationships are all part of this. This means we are slowly becoming less tied to traditional expectations and ideas. Dating apps and social media have also made it easier to get to know a lot of people in a short time and also easier to get in touch with communities of people who are more inclined to our preferred lifestyle.

By nature, are human beings more monogamous or polyamorous?

"Nature" is a tricky word. Because what do we mean by "natural" or "nature"- Is there something "natural" in the way we structure our families and societal relationships? Furthermore, in philosophical research, it is considered a fallacy to claim that a particular phenomenon is good only because it is "natural." To answer your question, I would say that monogamy is primarily cultural. For instance, it was a widespread opinion that women are "naturally" more prone to monogamy than men, but those opinions have been widely challenged by science. Furthermore, if monogamy was cultural, this could not explain the high rate of people cheating. From the philosophical perspective, there are a few interpretations of why, at some point in history, people have started to arrange their societies in a monogamous way - for instance, according to Engels, this is strictly related to the concept of private property and inheritance: people wanted to be sure that the children inheriting their wealth were biologically their children, and monogamy, especially women’s, was the most straightforward way. Of course, there are many contrasting theories on this topic, but this is to show how controversial a claim such as "monogamy is natural" is.

What makes people want to have an open relationship?

When examining the features and principles of consensual non-monogamy, it becomes clear that one of the key traits is fluidity and flexibility - in other words, freedom of experimentation. Those are venues for people to try something different and more suitable to them, maybe because they’re unhappy with monogamy or just because they’re very open to unconventional lifestyles. Sometimes, when you have only one partner, you get the idea that that one partner has to meet all’your needs. That partner is then supposed to be your companion, lover, friend, travel companion, co-parent, everything. That’s a lot to put on just one person. Each individual has many different needs and desires that one person cannot always meet. Individuals in consensual, non-monogamous relationships tend to seek their needs’ satisfaction thanks to various partners. They can share with them intimacy, love, commitment, or just sex, and to different degrees.

What creates trust and stability in open relationships?

Fundamental principles of consensual, non-monogamous relationships are honesty, empathy, and open communication. If people are honest with each other and able to set boundaries, communicate rules and limits, and respect each other’s needs, then stability comes, even if the relationship itself is fluid because more people are involved. It is a common mistake that more people lead to instability.

Do people in open relationships also experience jealousy?

Jealousy is a widespread emotion among polyamorous people. However, based on the principles of empathy, honesty, and open communication, people in more complex relationships usually make an effort to work on themselves to understand: Why am I jealous, and how can I work on it? How can I stop being overcome by jealousy? We can also take some of this work with us into our monogamous relationships. After all, jealousy is a normal emotion that we all know and experience.

Where do you see these relationship models’ most significant opportunities and risks?

Open relationships teach us to be aware of our needs and limitations in a relationship. If this open relationship model works for you, you have the chance to establish many different kinds of deep and meaningful relationships. You expand the network of people who care about you and enrich your life. On the other hand, one critical risk is social stigma. Also, maintaining intimate, simultaneous relationships with many people takes a lot of time and energy. Furthermore, open relationships shouldn’t be idealized because not all the people who lead one are working on themselves and their emotional and communicative abilities. However, even if it may not suit everyone, I believe that such an ethically non-monogamous relationship can teach us to handle our relationships more consciously and responsibly.

Will these relationship principles become more widespread in the future, and will they eventually be legally recognized?

I can’t predict this. On the one hand, as already mentioned, younger generations are much more fluid and open to sexual and relational experimentation than older ones, and consensual non-monogamy is gaining more and more visibility in mainstream media. On the other hand, conservative political parties are also on the rise; many people still have very conservative attitudes. If we look at the path toward legal recognition of same-sex relationships, we can see that more visibility in media and politics led to an increasing social acceptance, culminating in the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in most Western countries. I would predict that, in the long run, it will likely happen the same with plural marriage or some similar legal tool. However, this time is still far to come: there is no such political movement of non-monogamous people to vindicate their rights as it was for the LGBT+ movement. Again, the far-rights are on the rise, and non-monogamy is still not enough socially accepted to hope for any legal recognition. This is a problem for everyone in those relationships who are left without any legal protection.

Dr. Francesca Miccoli studied law at the University of Bologna. She received her PhD in political studies at the University of Milan in 2022, writing her thesis on the legal recognition of polyamorous families with a legal-philosophical perspective. She currently works as a postdoc at the University of Basel’s Department of Philosophy, affiliated with the project "Just Parenthood. The Ethics and Politics of Childrearing in the 21st Century."