Sitting in the Mile End Wetherspoons on a cold and rainy Monday night, my friend and I began a discussion that caused a reaction I could not have possibly anticipated. The conversation was centred around monogamy and whether it was a good or a bad thing; I was arguing on the side of monogamy and my friend was arguing against it. Although in the end, we drew the same conclusion—that we were both monogamous people by nature—the topic continued to haunt me for days.
Admittedly, I know that I am naturally a jealous person, and loyalty and exclusivity are absolute musts for me when entering into a relationship. However, it was not until this conversation that I started to wonder about open relationships and how people in this form of relationship cope, both mentally and emotionally. Still adamant that monogamy was crucial to human existence, I decided to launch an investigation into the effects an open relationship can have on mental health.
An open relationship can mean different things to different people, but the specific definition I am looking into is probably the most common variation, described by Google dictionary as “a marriage or relationship in which both partners agree that each may have sexual relations with others.” With this in mind, I began my inquiry into how being in an open relationship might affect a person’s mental health.
Jealousy is perhaps the most obvious of the issues that often arise in open relationships. It is a natural human emotion that makes an appearance at some point in most people’s lives. When entering into an open relationship and being aware that your partner is experiencing sexual intimacy with others, it is easy for the green-eyed monster to take over. A manifestation of jealousy can lead to high levels of anxiety which can ultimately result in health complications such as severe mood swings and anxiety attacks.
In addition to the problems arising from jealousy, when in a relationship with a purely emotional connection holding it together, one is risking their partner developing the same connection with someone else. The knowledge of this can cause paranoia, leading to the need of a constant validation of your relationship from your partner.
Oxytocin also plays into this specific possibility. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for bonding and trust and is often referred to as “the love hormone.” Oxytocin is released during sexual intercourse as well as during other physical contact such as kissing and hugging. Studies show that this hormone is more prominent in women, thus causing a stronger emotional attraction quicker. Due to this, in heterosexual relationships, women may have more emotional reactions to sexual contact with others outside of the relationship than men will. Consequently, a female and male partner may have different emotional reactions towards the concept of physically sharing their partner with others.
Another aspect that can be damaged when in an open relationship is a person’s self-worth. Notably, this depends on the individual experience. However, when a partner is actively choosing to be intimate with another person instead of you, it can bring one to question as to why their partner would prefer to sleep with someone else instead. Due to the nature of the relationship, a partner may not feel as though they can discuss this with their partner and instead may try to over-rationalise the situation. This doubt can ultimately be damaging to a person’s self-confidence resulting in low self-esteem which can lead to other health issues such as depression.
Other common issues in open relationships:
From my research on open relationships, I understand that it’s paramount for each individual couple to set their own boundaries that they are comfortable with. These boundaries are crucial in an open relationship as this is the foundation responsible for the trust and commitment held towards a partner. Although these boundaries generally vary significantly from those of a monogamous relationship, they are as set in stone as the rules of monogamy are. When these boundaries are unclear, or the members of a couple have different opinions on what the boundaries should be, a partner may overstep a boundary which may be detrimental to the relationship and cause ongoing trust issues.
- STIs and Pregnancy
Another couple of things to keep in mind when in an open relationship are the common issues of STIs and unwanted pregnancies. Despite using preventative measures such as condoms, there is still a possibility for those to fail. If a partner catches an STI from a sexual partner outside of the relationship and then unintentionally transfers it, this can impact both the mental and physical health of both partners. Alternatively, a member outside of an open relationship may become pregnant, thus excluding the female partner in a heterosexual open relationship. Or, the female partner in a heterosexual relationship may get pregnant with someone from outside of the relationship. From these possibilities, resentment towards a partner can stem, resulting in inner and outer conflicts ensuing, and feelings of betrayal and helplessness.
When looking at the evidence as well as my own emotions regarding this topic, I still can’t help but wonder why on earth a person would agree to and be happy with this type of relationship. However, with this being said, no two relationships are the same and what works for one couple may be another’s idea of hell. As long as a couple knows the risks of entering into this type of relationship and has fantastic communication, I say: Do as you please. However, if a couple enters this form of relationship to save it or to make one partner happy, my (newly) educated advice would be to stay well away. As long as both partners are happy and comfortable in their relationship, that is all that matters.