Margaret Atwood said a thing, and I wrote a thing…

“The other area that we have been hearing a lot about is social behaviour: what is supposed to go on, what is expected to go on, in the area we could loosely call dating. This is something that young people are going to have to sort out, to come up with an idea of how they would like it to be different.”

-Margaret Atwood


A few years ago my sister gave birth to a young person (a very young person, a baby in fact, as is usual). I quickly became aware that having a younger family member makes you consider the things you’d like them to know… and thus the things you’d like the world to know. So when I read the above quote from Margaret Atwood, I considered what I could do to help the young people I know ‘sort out’ their relationships, without simply dictating how I think it should be.

My niece will very likely grow up in a social world which is largely heterosexual, sexually conservative and strongly oriented towards monogamy. Fortunately, she will also know from a young age that the first of these is only a majority trend. In fact, she probably already knows this. If she decides she wants to date girls, she is unlikely to face any serious prejudice from friends or family. She’s fortunate to live in a time and place where that is one of many accepted types of relationship.

On the other hand, she will probably attend a religious school. She will be encouraged – through a thousand small influences and messages – to look for one romantic partner, to stay with them for as long as possible, and to not act on any physical attraction to others during that time. Marriage will be repeatedly presented as the normal and desirable evolution of any sufficiently long relationship.

This arrangement might suit her, as it seems to suit many people. If so, she will enjoy social endorsement and rarely have to explain or justify her life choices to anyone… which must be nice.

Yet there are other ways of having a committed relationship. Young people (and older people) may want to consider some of these alternatives when “coming up with an idea of how they would like it to be different”, to borrow Margaret Atwood’s words.

I’m writing this to share some of my thoughts about that.

I’m not suggesting anything new or revolutionary. Everything falls under the broad category of ‘open relationships’, a term familiar to most people these days. I’m sharing my thoughts because someone out there might find that I describe things a little differently, or in a way that speaks to them. In brief, I’m writing to be another voice in the conversation, and to prevent the status quo from being seen as the only reasonable option. Perhaps I am also writing to let those who recognise or relate to what I’m saying know that they’re not alone in thinking the way they do, even if it’s not the same way as their parents, their friends, or the people who run their country.

I write all of this as an atheist. If your religion specifies a sacred or exclusive nature to sex, and if you believe that, then you may struggle to accept much of what I have written. But I hope you’ll enjoy reading it and give it some consideration none the less.

Affection is not like cake.

It doesn’t run out. You can eat it and have it too. Giving it to one person does not mean taking it away from someone. Spending time with someone else, be it in a conversation, a sexual encounter, a shared meal, whatever… does not imply that you’ve lost interest in your partner.

In fact, much like reading a good book or listening to an inspiring piece of music, the experience of being with others may expand your horizons. You will approach your relationship with a new perspective, new ideas and stories to share …and possibly some new tricks in the bedroom.

It’s true that there are only so many hours in the day. Spending all of your time with an ‘other’ will likely make your partner feel left out or neglected. However, this is equally true for constantly working long hours, or spending all evening drinking at a bar with friends. If you’re not the sort of person who would do those things, because you know it’s inconsiderate, then nobody should fear that you would do the same with your sex life.

Spending time with others, sexual or otherwise, does not automatically mean neglecting one’s partner.

The first rule is…

Some people in open relationships find it helpful to set rules, and if that works then great. Personally, I’m not a fan of ‘rules’ as such. It would be seen as unusual, possibly even abusive, if people set rules about how their partner should interact with work colleagues, or dictate under what conditions they are allowed to share a meal with their friends, or guidelines about how they should catch up with their family, so I don’t see why romantic encounters should be a special category.

I think all these interactions can be guided by the same general principle of dealing with other human beings:

Be kind.

You’ll probably find that’s the only rule you really need. Kindness is about consideration, understanding and forgiveness. Kindness is what stops you from being too distant. Kindness is what helps you remember plans you’ve made with your partner. Kindness is knowing when someone needs you and being there for them.

Inevitably, people get hurt in relationships. This happens even when there are rules, because people misunderstand them, find loopholes in them, or simply break them. Relationships work on honesty and communication.

Instead of telling your partner what they can’t do, tell them what hurts you, or what you’re afraid of, and trust them to make choices that prevent those things, because they want to be kind …and remember that you must also be kind to yourself.

It’s not an endurance race…

The success of a relationship is often measured in time. Longer relationships are seen as inherently more successful. This sets an unhelpful expectation. Time is certainly a good indicator that things are probably going well but there is also immense value to be gained from brief but meaningful relationships. All relationships end. Some end in death, some end in mutually-agreed circumstances, and some unfortunately end before one or both people would like. Importantly, relationships can end when no one has done anything wrong.

Fear of openness in relationships is usually rooted in a fear that the relationship will end. Fear that the other person will find someone they prefer, fear that they will enjoy their freedom and want more. This jealous fear is perfectly natural, and evidence of genuine affection. However, reacting to that fear by placing restrictions on your partner’s behaviour doesn’t make the fear go away and it stops people enjoying themselves in the meantime.

Don’t be afraid of endings, that’s a battle you can’t win; if you fight the sunset you’ll never see tomorrow.

All relationships end, so aim for meaningful time, don’t just count the years.

…but always give it your best.

Words like ‘wedlock’ are not often used these days and I think most of us are glad. In many societies, relationships can be stopped with very little cost or administration. However, ease of separation should not automatically mean that people give up more easily when things are difficult. Too much misery is obviously unhealthy, but don’t run at the first sign of trouble. You may find a whole new kind of relationship on the other side. In her TED talk ‘Rethinking Infidelity… a talk for anyone who’s ever loved’, Esther Perel says, “Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person.”

Commitment does not reveal itself in marriage vows, or padlocks on a bridge. Those things are simply statements of intention. Staying with someone and being kind to them every day that you’re together, is what takes work and selflessness, whether your relationship is open or monogamous. Every day that you wake up and decide to stay with someone, and love them, is a demonstration of true commitment.

Great comfort and security can come from enduring hardships, arguments and even betrayal with someone. Surviving these difficulties teaches you about each other and about yourself.

They’re just genitals. Have fun.

Many of us live in societies that have inherited a pervasive conservative attitude towards sex, often due to religious influence. By guiding people towards monogamy, religious groups ensured that the next generation would be raised by parents who shared similar beliefs and transmitted their religious affiliation to their offspring.

Sexual conservatism also took hold because of the historic lack of available treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases. Chastity and abstinence were declared virtuous because otherwise we would make heathen babies, and get syphilis while doing it.

Allow me to gently point out two important things:

  • Reproduction is only one aspect of human sexuality.
  • There are now various methods of contraception and protection available.

If you believe that the purpose of sex is exclusively to repopulate the planet, I would suggest that you at least consider who taught you that, and why it may have been in their interest to have such an opinion and influence regarding your sex life.

As for sexually transmitted diseases, you should be aware of these things the same way that you are aware of conditions like the flu, sunburn and cancer. Promiscuity leads to disease the same way that going to the beach leads to skin melanomas.

Inform yourself, learn the risks, take precautions… and have fun. The only things that are truly sinful are wilful ignorance, unquestioning faith and lack of kindness.


from Harold & Maude (1971)
HAROLD [in tears] : Don’t leave me Maude, I love you.
MAUDE [dying]: Oh Harold, that’s wonderful. Now go and love some more.

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