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?

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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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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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