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Does going 'open' strengthen or compromise a relationship?

Does opening up a relationship to new sexual playmates strengthen the bond between a committed pair, or, does doing so compromise it?

Photo by Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

From the glimmering blocks around Times Square to the sunbaked streets of the Hollywood Hills, open relationships seem to be everywhere nowadays, especially among millennials. Indeed, a 2016 poll by YouGov.com suggested that nearly a fifth of Americans under the age of 30 have had some kind of sexual activity with someone else while their partner knew about it.

However, does opening up a relationship to new playmates strengthen the bond between a committed pair, or, does doing so compromise it? One of New York's top dating coaches, Susan Winter, tells Big Think that open relationships, much like the wildflowers in Central Park, tend to wither over time. The reason? From the get-go one of the partners preferred monogamy. More than half of millennials still believe that monogamy is the only way to go.

However, when their relationship—perhaps one that has lasted for several years—is at risk, the individual who prefers an exclusive relationship may “submit" to their partner's request to be in an open relationship. What's repressed in an effort to retain the relationship may become a thorn in a sweetheart's side.

“Open relationships work better in theory than they do in real life. … Most often, I hear the term 'open' being thrust onto an unwilling partner by the partner who wants to cheat," says Winter, recounting her experience counseling couples. “The decision to be open is not mutual. The partner who wants to cheat makes their infidelity a condition of the relationship. It's a 'take it or leave it' form of transaction."

Many times the root of the romantic woes—once a relationship is “opened"—is a breakdown of honesty, a key ingredient of intimacy. Certain “don't ask, don't tell" policies may arise that create a veil where there was once transparency between lovers. “To save their partner's ego, they make sure to apply discretion," says Winter, of some individuals with discreet policies. “Certainly it's the secrets that divide couples, rather than the truth."

However, curtailed honesty and slighted preferences for exclusivity aren't the only factors that may compromise an open relationship. “While women are fully capable of enjoying casual sex, when it turns into a relationship—that's where things change," Winter says. “I've never met a woman who really liked a guy and said, “Oh boy, I can't wait until he starts sleeping with other women!"

When it comes down to it, the bestselling author says, many couples dive into an open relationship only to discover that their “animal" nature manifests in more ways than under the sheets. “The rub here is jealousy," she says, elaborating on the territorial nature of people to guard intimate spaces. “When our animal nature collides with a philosophical concept—we're going to have a problem." However, there are exceptions to the trend of open relationships not faring well in the long run.

Indeed, when it comes to answering whether opening a relationship will strengthen or compromise it, “it depends" rings true. Open relationships where both individuals are openly non-monogamous, for instance, can thrive. “A mutually agreed upon 'open relationship' is one step closer to honesty. Honesty creates intimacy," Winter says. “The couple needs to decide how much they share with each as to the details of their relationships."

Although many open relationships wither over time, when trust is breached, the same can be said of many monogamous relationships. The culprit of a debacle isn't necessarily the arrangement of the romantic relationship itself, but the players' misestimation of their capacities.

“The issue with open relationships is that few couples do it well," says Winter, alluding to sloppy handlings of some partners and the unique can of worms that is liable to burst open in a non-monogamous relationship, including a person's untapped insecurities and fears—i.e., one of their partner's dalliances becoming a new romance.

In the end, a formidable open relationship—one in which a pair builds a life together—does seem to require a particular disposition toward love and sex that most young adults, and their generational elders, do not express to share. However, if both people are on a similar level of evolution, one in which they're capable of open and honest communication (about awkward subjects), and one in which their egos aren't diminished by their partner's sexual escapades—or jealousy continuously inflamed by them—then, Winter says, the understanding that kept them together may keep them together.

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

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Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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