One thing I really like about open relationships is the ability to learn through experience more quickly. There are valuable lessons to be learned from a long-term monogamous relationship, but I found that my understanding of relationships quickly accelerated with a more open attitude towards connections. This is a predictable consequence of being able to learn from a greater variety of partners/teachers.
As I see it, this is the same learning dynamic that you can gain by working for different companies, with different teams, and in different industries. You’ll surely learn some lessons you’d otherwise miss if you’d stuck with one company, one team, or one boss indefinitely.
Maintaining an open relationship posture has been a powerful part of my path of growth. It took a lot of courage and soul-searching to decide to go this route, but I’m really glad I did it. I learned some lessons about myself that I didn’t expect to learn.
How Are You Different?
I could say that exploring open relationships makes me different from most people, but I think it’s actually the opposite. Most long-term monogamous relationships aren’t actually monogamous. There’s usually some cheating by one or both partners at one time or another. And I’m sure many more relationships would be open if constricting religious influences were reduced. The openness is already present and quite popular, so I feel that my desire for openness is something I have in common with most people. I enjoy exploring this openness consciously without the repression and guilt.
As I’ve continued to deliberately explore aspects of myself that I once thought were odd or different, I’ve often found that I’m not so different after all. A massive amount of feedback has taught me that lots of other people share the same desires or quirks that I have. I’ve simply gone further down the path of sloughing off social repression, so I can experience my desires as reality more easily than most.
How many people would prefer not to have a job if they could still cover all their expenses? I’m sure lots of people fantasize about it, but they let social pressures, such as the stigma of potential failure, keep them from taking action.
How many people would enjoy open relationships if it were socially acceptable to do so, with no stigma attached and no repression or judgment? I imagine that lots of people would enjoy exploring this path, especially since so many already do connect with multiple partners and hide it.
Does it really serve us to squash and repress such popular desires? Wouldn’t it be more intelligent to let go of needless repression?
We can talk endlessly about how society represses us and why we feel obligated to conform, but we can also acknowledge that in the end, we repress ourselves. There is social pressure to conform, but we still accept it, tolerate it, obey it, and silently approve of it. Sometimes we actively contribute to it.
In some areas of life, we attempt to compress natural human variety down to a small subset of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which we then label as “normal.” This is especially true of our sexuality. As famous sexologist Alfred Kinsey discovered through extensive research, there is no “normal” when it comes to sexuality. Instead there is an enormous spectrum of experience.
It’s good to identify and acknowledge how society wants us to think, feel, and behave. Once we understand the forces being exerted upon us, they become less forceful. We gain the ability to consciously counteract those forces, not perfectly perhaps, but well enough to make decisions that oppose social pressures when we feel so inclined.
I’ve often found tremendous value in deliberately exploring paths that oppose social pressures, so I can see what’s on the other side. Once I’ve done a reasonable job of educating myself about some alternatives, I can make wiser choices based on what I believe is an intelligent course of action, without feeling overly manipulated by social pressures.
For instance, by breaking many laws in my late teens and getting arrested several times, I had the opportunity to explore the other side of law abidance. By deliberately disobeying the law, I felt less pressure to obey the law just because people told me I was supposed to. I understood that there were potential consequences to breaking the law, but I also learned that I could choose to accept those consequences if I felt that opposing a law was justified. I replaced blind law abidance with my own sense of conscience, ethics, and reasonableness.
In some cases I break a law because I disagree with it, like driving faster than the posted speed limit or smoking pot occasionally. In other cases I hold myself to a significantly higher standard than the law allows. For instance, the consumption of animal products is against my code of conduct, so even though it’s legal, I treat is as being illegal.
This style of exploration has been so valuable to me that when I see a “This way there be dragons” type of sign, I feel tempted to explore it just for the sake of learning and growth. I’ve explored a variety of paths I even expected to dislike, on the off chance I might be wrong about them. Usually my initial impression was correct, but sometimes I’ve been surprised, grateful to have tested my assumptions through direct experience.
One empowering benefit of adopting an explorer’s attitude is that you’ll learn a great deal about yourself as you progress through life. You’ll refine your preferences over time. You’ll create a happier and more fulfilling life for yourself.
I didn’t know, for instance, how much I would come to enjoy writing — and just how much I would write, especially for free. I wrote my first article in 1999 partly as an experiment. Over time, especially as my writing skills improved and I could write more fluidly with less mental effort, I fell in love with writing. It felt so peaceful and serene to immerse myself in the realm of ideas and to seek new connections as I wrote.
In terms of relationship exploration, initially I had only a fuzzy notion of the types of women I’d most enjoy connecting with — and the types of women who’d most enjoy and appreciate me as well. It was only through exploration that I was able to learn where the best matches would be found.
For instance, I learned from experience that I really love women who enjoy being sexually submissive. Exploring D/s play proved so delicious that I’ve largely lost interest in sexual connections with women who don’t share this interest. I still enjoy sharing friendship, conversation, cuddles, and affection with a variety of women, but if I know a woman isn’t interested in being submissive sexually and playing in that space with me, it’s best if we don’t get too sexual with each other since the compatibility and chemistry won’t be there.
This has been a really eye-opening exploration for me. I’d previously felt that there was something wrong with wanting to be sexually dominant with a woman, to have her obey my every command, to call me Master, etc. It seemed like a fun fantasy to think about, but I had a hard time imagining it being a good deal from the woman’s perspective. It was obvious to me why being in command would be fun, but I also felt that the person in the submissive role might be getting the worst part of the deal. It didn’t necessarily seem like a fair exchange.
Boy was I wrong about that. By giving myself permission to explore this with willing partners, especially my girlfriend (who absolutely loves it), I saw with my own eyes just how intensely pleasurable it could be for the sub. Those experiences, combined with a lot of in-depth discussion, elevated my understanding and erased any lingering guilt or shame I had over the practice, which helped me enjoy and share a fun, playful, loving, and deliciously pleasurable journey.
Compatible Matches and Social Pressures
As we learn more about ourselves, we also learn how to recognize our most compatible social matches. A good match is someone with whom we enjoy a sense of mutual elevation. A good match isn’t necessarily a clone though. The best matches have enough commonalities to foster a strong connection and enough differences to encourage mutual learning and growth.
If you don’t know yourself very well, or if you allow social pressures to dictate your life experience, your life is likely to fill up with weak, uninspiring, ho-hum social matches.
Social pressures tell us to keep saying yes to partial matches, even if they’re shallow and unfulfilling. It’s considered impolite, rude, or obnoxious to distance ourselves from someone for reasons of incompatibility. In some cases, such as with a divorce, these social pressures can be quite strong and difficult to overcome. But stagnation is still worse than turning and facing these pressures.
If we succumb to these social pressures and tolerate too many weak social matches in our lives, we only weaken ourselves and trash our potential. Adding strong social support to your life isn’t such a selfish pursuit as it may seem. If you feel out of tune with your social circle, then surely you’re holding back from supporting those people to the best of your ability. And you aren’t receiving the support you need to live consciously and with a strong sense of purpose. Most likely you’re all bringing each other down and holding each other back from further growth.
If you loosen your grip on such connections, and if you welcome and invite more compatible connections into your life, everyone gains. You benefit by attracting more supportive and uplifting social matches. Your social circle benefits from your increased support and positivity. The world benefits by having more empowered people to contribute. Isn’t it better for everyone if you and your friends help each other feel motivated, inspired, and creative as opposed to feeling disconnected, frustrated, or needy?
Saying no to partial matches is likely to be one of your greatest personal growth challenges. If you can’t bring yourself to release incompatibilities now and then, the truly great matches will avoid you. They won’t recognize you as being a good match for them because you’ll be broadcasting social dissatisfaction instead of social delight, and your uninspired social circle will repel such people as well, sometimes deliberately.
For me the hardest part of this is dealing with the judgment I’ve been programmed to lay upon myself for going against the prevailing social winds. Conscious exploration is a terrific cure for this since exploration gradually replaces conditioned judgments with genuine experience.
In the absence of direct experience, it’s tempting to deny our desires. But after some experience is gained, it becomes easier to transfer more weight to our experiences than to social pressures, and so social pressures lose their power to unduly influence us.
When you observe that your desires conflict with what you’ve been taught, I encourage you to gain some direct experience on the side where the fire-breathing dragons supposedly exist. Quite often you’ll find that the dragons are actually harmless, friendly lizards that have been distorted into monsters.
Exaggerating Your Preferences
One practice I’ve found helpful is to exaggerate my preferences in my own mind, which helps me accept them without letting social pressures unduly influence my decisions. I shared a variation on this idea in The Evil Exit.
I sometimes exaggerate my preferences when I share them too, in a half joking, half serious kind of way.
For instance, if I receive an interview invite, and it seems a bit too stiff or formulaic for my tastes, I might reply, “Oh, you wouldn’t want me on your show. I’d be too disgustingly honest and would likely offend most of your readers.”
Or if I’m connecting with a woman and there’s some mutual attraction and physical escalation, but I know she’s not into being sexually submissive, I might say something like, “It’s a shame you’re so willful. We could have so much fun together if you’d just surrender and be my obedient slave.”
Much of the time, the other person jokingly agrees with me. We acknowledge our incompatibility without anyone taking offense.
There may be some mild disappointment that we didn’t match up, but by framing the incompatibility as being my own personal oddity, I invite the other person to playfully release any expectation that a stronger connection was supposed to happen. I allow it to be my fault that we didn’t match up better, while also staying true to my desires.
On the other hand, sometimes the half serious aspect of my response will encourage a more genuine invitation from the other person. Many times people offer an initial invitation that is somewhat restrained, so as to test the waters without risking much rejection. If beneath the surface, we really are more compatible than was initially assumed, then my response is usually treated as a raise.
So in the interview situation, the potential interviewer might reply, “Lol… actually I find unabashed honesty refreshing! I’d love to delve into some juicier topics with you. I assure you that my listeners love that sort of thing!” And as for the sexual situation, the response might be an expression of curiosity and a desire to learn more about it.
When I fully accept my preferences, even if they run contrary to the social pressures of the day, I find that most people are pretty accepting of me, especially when we’re talking privately and those external pressures aren’t invited into our connection.
The philosophy of “mutual respect, or disconnect” has been very empowering for me. This requires that I accept and respect my preferences before I can reasonably expect anyone else to do so, and to reach that point I must be willing to explore, so I can learn through direct experience what my preferences actually are.
Generally speaking, I really appreciate friends who have a deep understanding and acceptance of their own likes and dislikes, even if our preferences aren’t compatible enough for us to explore very much together. It’s refreshing to connect with people who fully own their desires, irrespective of social pressures.
Confronting the Scarecrow
Here’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson I think you’ll appreciate, which does a nice job of putting social pressure in context:
When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.
I know that this isn’t always the case. Sometimes social pressure can have real consequences if you run afoul of it, especially in certain cultures. But much of the time it’s merely a scarecrow. It looks scary and threatening from a distance, but as you move toward it, you realize that it’s just a bunch of tattered clothing stuffed with straw. The only obstacle was your own timidity.
As you explore more and more of those dragon-filled areas, you’ll likely learn to be more suspicious of social pressures, especially when you find new treasures where the dragons were supposed to be. You’ll learn that some social pressures are in place with good reason, such as those to protect you and others from real danger, but when you spot a loudly trumpeted social mandate that runs afoul of your desires that don’t involve life-or-death matters, I encourage you to question it and explore beyond it. Find out for yourself if there’s any substance to it.
It’s okay to guess wrong. It’s okay to walk past the scarecrow, step into a puddle of mud, and conclude that the scarecrow was there for good reason. But even in those cases, you’ll have more knowledge and understanding of the truth behind the scarecrow.
To live consciously it’s important to recognize the presence of social pressure in your life, such that you can choose more freely. The goal is neither to be a conformist nor a rebel, but to think, feel, and behave in alignment with your own best intelligence.