It’s (Not) Complicated
A cross between exclusive relationships and hookup culture sounds like an oxymoron, but open relationships at Yale staddle both worlds.
Last fall, first years huddled around a whiteboard, shuffling around cards labeled with various romantic and sexual activities ranging from “holding hands” to “oral sex.” Our simple task in this Community Health Educators orientation activity was to order the cards from least to most intimate. On the completed intimacy spectrum, sex fell somewhere in the middle — less intimate than sharing a Netflix password.
Attitudes toward love and sex are changing. Expanding sex education and contraceptive options have made sex more accessible, and perhaps as a result, less remarkable. A decline in the perceived importance of sex, coupled with the everlasting human desire for meaningful emotional connection, give rise to an unconventional but established relationship dynamic in Yale’s dating scene — open relationships. There is no exact definition, but the most common notion of an open relationship is consensual non-monogamy that involves one primary romantic partner but several other sexual partners. At Yale, open relationships take many complex forms, shaped by students’ personal needs and wants.
Roughly half of the incoming first years responded to the Yale Daily News First-Year Survey of the Class of 2022, and nearly 64 percent had never had sex. For many students, then, college presents ample opportunities for sexual experimentation. Isabel Johnson ’21 took that chance to transition from monogamous to open relationships. Free from the social pressure and confinement she felt in high school, Johnson tried a nonexclusive relationship structure that worked better for her.
“In college, in general, people are starting to consider [relationships] with more of an open mind and think seriously about how they construct their relationships,” Johnson said. “I feel like [my partner and I] are both able to think for ourselves more as independent agents, whereas the story we tell of monogamous relationships is operating more as a team, as a single unit.”
Johnson, who is bisexual, also noted from her experience that it is often more common to see open relationships in the LGBTQ community. She sees them as part of a long history of people trying to love whom and how they want to, including the fight for marriage equality.
“If you’re not heterosexual, you’re much more likely to be exposed to the queer sexuality dialogue,” Johnson explained. “You start questioning and poking holes in the simulation or whatever this is and realizing that people should be free to construct relationships in ways we don’t see, and that can also be productive and healthy.”
For Dylan Forgione ’20 and his boyfriend, the dynamics of their long-distance open relationship were initially intertwined with their local LGBTQ communities. When Forgione transferred to Yale in his junior year, a school commonly dubbed “the gay Ivy,” his boyfriend remained in New York City, a hub for LGBTQ culture and nightlife. Both felt that they were missing out on what the other had.
“There were points where [my boyfriend] would be jealous because he felt like I was open to all these new sexual endeavors [at Yale] that he didn’t get the opportunity to have,” Forgione said. “But [my boyfriend] is out in New York, and his opportunities, to me, seemed bigger.”
Jealousy can drive a bitter wedge between partners new to open relationships. The opposite of jealousy, though it comes less naturally, is infinitely more rewarding — “compersion,” or deriving happiness from a partner’s happiness, takes time and trust to achieve. Over a year into his open relationship, Forgione has realized a clear distinction between restriction and commitment. A desire for other sexual experiences never compromised his emotional love and care for his boyfriend.
“I know that [my boyfriend] and I have something special that we both put a lot of value and work into. That’s something that has come with time and effort,” Forgione said. “We’ve learned a lot of things about ourselves and each other that we weren’t expecting to. We’ve experienced other things, both sexually and romantically, that we’ve really enjoyed. We’ve been able to incorporate that into our relationship, and I think that it’s made things a bit more fun and interesting.”
A sophomore in a long-distance open relationship, who requested anonymity because his relationship status is not public knowledge, shared a similar sentiment. He wanted to maintain his relationship with his boyfriend without missing out at Yale, but would return to their original closed relationship anytime. The exact structure of his relationship is flexible, as long as the foundational emotional connection stays strong.
“I’m glad that I’m in an open relationship, but I don’t take it to be the main element of my current relationship,” he said. “It certainly means we’re able to communicate in a good way for us to maintain an open relationship, so this both gives me more freedom and makes me feel better about our communication skills.”
While societal resistance against nonmonogamy may stem from a reluctance to deviate from traditional expressions of love, open relationships break and reshape prior dating conventions. People in open relationships differentiate between love and sex, which are still widely associated as two sides of the same coin.
“I think that being in an open relationship makes someone aware [of] the difference between loving someone and devoting yourself to them sexually,” he explained. “People usually don’t think of them as two different things, but when you start seeing them as two different things you can realize that just because you might want to have sex with [other] people, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or your relationship is failing. It just makes you realize that you’re human.”
You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too?
Open relationships don’t have any secret formula; like all other relationships, they are founded on trust and communication, and so are just as vulnerable to emotional rifts. A first year, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, tried an open relationship once but found it more suffocating than freeing. Anticipating the strain of a long-distance relationship, she broke up with her steady high school boyfriend before coming to Yale. The separation proved too difficult to maintain, creating an ambiguous on-again, off-again relationship.
“When I got to college, we were still doing all the things that a relationship involved, except for the label. It naturally progressed into a type of open relationship, but we never put that label on it either,” she said.
Without labels, the boundaries of their relationship bent when tested. Although they had verbally agreed to allow casual hookups, they broke up again before either had acted on their agreement. The perpetual uncertainty was emotionally draining — she was constantly distracted, worried about what her boyfriend was up to halfway across the world.
“In hindsight, if he had hooked up with someone else, I don’t know if I would have actually been okay with it. I think it takes a lot of willpower to actually be okay with it,” she said. “We put so much pressure on figuring things out [that] we both stopped being ourselves. It just became really mentally time consuming and toxic.”
This difficulty adapting to a nonexclusive relationship may be an indication of why open relationships, as opposed to polyamory, are mostly “open” to sex alone. Despite having interactions with multiple sexual partners, people in open relationships almost always choose to preserve one emotional bond with a primary partner. Forgione described this as the most difficult aspect of navigating an open relationship — determining where to draw the blurry line between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy and never crossing that line with anyone beside their primary partner.
This natural preference for one primary partner may find its primordial roots in biology. According to Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, a professor of biology and anthropology at Yale, a distinct desire for emotional exclusivity is a display of the prevalent sociobiological concept of “pair bonding.”
“In studies of communities of people who have chosen open relationships … they always express that there is a preferred partner. It’s a pair bond,” Fernandez-Duque said. “Even in communities of people involved in polyamory … they acknowledge that the bond, the emotional experience, was not the same. They would describe it as unsustainable.”
Though the experiences of students in open relationships diverged based on individual circumstances and desires, every person interviewed by the News regarded emotional connection as the utmost priority, relegating sex to a side activity rather than the center of a romantic relationship.
“The time you spend together, with whom you have sex, ends up being the most meaningful and [has the] strongest psychological, sociological effect on happiness and satisfaction,” Fernandez-Duque said. “It doesn’t have to be the specifics of the sexual act, but it has to do with what surrounds the act. That’s where relationships are cemented … the physiology underlying attachment requires that before and after.”
Fernandez-Duque also cited University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor William Jankowiak’s research report on concurrent love bond experiences, which found that it is too demanding — perhaps even contra human nature — to simultaneously harbor serious romantic emotions for multiple people at once. “The primacy of the dyadic bond [is] based more on emotional, rather than sexual, exclusivity,” the report concluded. “In the end, love’s pull toward dyadic exclusiveness conquers all.”
Open at Yale
While open relationships are certainly not limited to any one demographic, Yale’s generally open-minded environment may be especially conducive to open relationships. For some students, the appeal has nothing to do with sex. A more highbrow interpreter of open relationships, Eui Young Kim ’21 alluded to the infamous love affair between French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as an ideal open-relationship model — an “intellectual relationship” of commitment to each other’s minds, not bodies.
“[Sartre and de Beauvoir] would be each other’s critics, writing partners, and have a lot of intellectual discussions. That’s the type of thing I want — a constructive relationship,” Kim described. “It would almost be like being in a two-person seminar over the course of a lifetime.”
Yale students have seemingly developed their own relationship norms, from the simultaneous popularity and mockery of Tinder U to the desperate culture of setting up suitemates’ First-Year Screw dates. There is an abundance of love on campus that aches to be shared, but often finds itself undesired, unrequited, unfulfilled. Perhaps the appeal of hookup culture is its sheer convenience, risk-free and commitment-free, though short-lived.
“I think the Yale hookup culture inhibits all kinds of relationships because we live in such a high energy environment that there’s really no time. When people are confronted with the idea of having to devote so much [time] to one person, [it is like] taking on a whole new project,” Johnson said. “No matter if it’s monogamous or an open relationship, it’s really scary to commit to that in this environment.”
Such is the misunderstanding of open relationships — they carry a stigma in mainstream discourse even though they require much deeper emotional investments than casual hookups. People commit to open relationships for an array of reasons, to varying degrees of success. But as long as they are mutually consensual and preferred, they are simply another part of the complex human experience.
“A lot of people have their preconceived notions, and sometimes it causes them to participate in building a stigma around open relationships, and I wish that more people would, even if they wouldn’t do it for themselves, be a bit more open to the idea of other people doing it,” Forgione said. “Just because something doesn’t work for you doesn’t it mean it wouldn’t work for other people.”
Amidst the cultural destigmatization of sex, people are branching away from traditional relationship pathways. Intimacy looks different for everyone, whether it’s sharing Netflix passwords or sexual partners.