A committed, intimate relationship demands a lot of sacrifices. No longer do we have the freedom to play the field, or to bask in that initial crush before reality sets in and the real work of sustaining the partnership begins. It seems so much easier, when a relationship falls into a rut, to just consider starting over wih someone new. Maybe it will be different this time, we tell ourselves. Maybe our next partner will be more responsive or exciting, less needy and clinging. Or, we could just enjoy a strictly physical relationship without any attachment. These kinds of fantasies are really a mode of avoidance and procrastination. “Friends with benefits” is an idea concocted to help people skirt around all the effort that’s demanded by a relationship while still enjoying the perks.
Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the concept of casual sex – an oxymoron if ever there was one. When two people are sexually involved together, of when they experiment with other kinds of physical intimacy, they inevitably form some kind of attachment with each other. It’s nearly impossible to open one’s self up to those depths of sharing without, at the same time, building up expectations around the other person.
Obviously, open relationships are not impossible; people involve themselves in those kinds of arrangements all the time. It’s rare, though, that one or the other doesn’t get hurt as a result. Oftentimes, people might not be honest with each other or with themselves. Saying you’re O.K. with a “friends with benefits” situation while all the while secretly hoping that the other person will change can be a recipe for disaster. Typically, one person wants the freedom more than the other. The reluctant partner might go along with it because they believe they can’t “have” the other person – or perhaps have intimacy in their life at all – any other way.
The illusion we have in these situations is that if we only involve ourselves casually then we can’t be hurt. This is the fallacy that says that loving half-heartedly will offer us protection. Such reasoning may work well for the mind, but rarely does it work for the heart. Physical intimacy involves our feelings, however we may try to argue them away. It is a rare person indeed who can open themselves up in this way and still not be devastated when they see the one they shared themselves with being intimate with another.
The breakdown of traditional roles and models for behavior in Western culture has opened up the gates to widespread experimentation. Open relationships may have a valid place on this testing ground, offering a way for people to explore themselves without making hasty life-changing decisions. In the ’50’s, it was not uncommon for a man or woman to marry someone they hardly knew. In the new millenia this dynamic has flip-flopped: acquaintances often dive in deep with each other before they’re ready for the consequences. Perhaps, in time, this trend will lead people to rediscover the real treasure of intimacy with a single partner, which allows for a depth of sharing that can never be reached when things are kept “casual”.