Relationships: A Continuum of Permissiveness

by Jason Stotts

In this essay, I want to explore the concept of permissiveness and exclusivity as they relate to relationships.  I want to explore the idea that relationships exist along a continuum of permissiveness with a completely jealous relationship at one extreme and an open relationship at the other, with exclusive relationships and swinging relationships in between.

To start, let’s define our subject.  Permissiveness, as used in this essay, is an agreement between partners for what actions they allow in their relationship.  We will leave aside the issue of partners who break their commitments and are dishonest as being outside the scope of this essay.  The basis of their agreement is how much they are willing to allow their partner to do before they could not stand the relationship anymore or consider there to no longer be a relationship.

At the completely non-permissive side of the continuum, where the partners are not permissive of any sort of outside relationships (up to and including friendships) with their partner, is what we will term the “jealous relationship.”  This relationship is characterized by an extreme kind of insecurity where one or both of the partners feels insecure in their relationship and so cannot trust their partner to remain loyal to their relationship.  It is frequently, and perhaps properly, characterized as a relationship where at least one of the partners considers his partner to be property and then tries to jealously guard his property.  In the extreme versions of the jealous relationship, at least one partner is forbidden from any sort of contact with others: even close friendships are beyond what the jealous partner can tolerate.

Moving to a somewhat more permissive position, we have the classic “regular relationship” which we will call the “exclusive relationship.”  This relationship is characterized by an agreement between the partners that outside obligations are fine, as long as they are not of a sexual nature or involve romantic love.  Some partners make agreements about how much time can be committed to activities outside of the relationship and some do not.  However, the important point is that each partner has the freedom to do as they please as long as they don’t have sex with others or fall in love with them.

Moving to an even more permissive position, we have the non-sexually exclusive romantic relationship or what we will call the “emotionally exclusive.”  This relationship is characterized by a couple who is much like the exclusive relationship from above, except they do not reserve sexual action for only between the partners.  That is, they are emotionally exclusive, they do not allow the partners to form other romantic love relationships, but they are not sexually exclusive.  In the classic case of “swingers,” the partners act together to engage is sexual relationships with other people besides their partners.  This is not to say that they are always literally with each other, but that they act in concert.  Alternatively, the partners could act individually and have sex with outside people at their own discretion without the need to discuss this with their partner.

At the far extreme of permissiveness, we have the completely permissive couple to whom very little is barred, or what we shall call the “open relationship.”  This relationship is characterized by a relationship that is neither sexually nor emotionally exclusive and in which partners may have sexual liaisons or form romantic relationships with people besides their “primary partner.”  The concept of primary relationship is very important in this kind of relationship and serves as a focus around which people operate their activities.  Typically, although not always, primary partners function as any other relationship: they live together, consult each other for important decisions, etc.  However, they need not consult each other in order to have sex with others or to develop emotional connections.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the subject we’ll be working in, we can see that these relationships do indeed operate along a continuum of permissiveness.  However, we still need to understand the key term here: permissiveness.  Permissiveness implies permission for action.  They key to understanding it is to understand in what realm one is permitted to act.  Obviously, in the subject at hand we are talking about permission in sexual action and forming emotional connections.  We need to be careful not to limit emotional connections to just love, because some people can be jealous of any kind of emotional connection.  Now, obviously permissiveness and exclusivity are inversely related; the more one is permissive, the less one is exclusive.

The degree to which a relationship can be permissive is a function of at least two things: one’s security in oneself and one’s trust in one’s partner.  Leaving aside moral concerns for a moment, it is clear that the couple who is insecure or does not trust each other could not be permissive.  Their very permissiveness would cause their relationship to disintegrate.  The less secure the relationship, the less permissive it can be without falling apart; the more secure the relationship, the more permissive it can be without falling apart.  This is simply a practical matter that we can note if we leave aside the moral issues; however, when do we ever leave aside the moral issues?

The problem with the moral issues is that they are exceedingly complicated here.  There are a number of moral concerns at play and we don’t yet have a complete theory of sexual ethics by which to judge the applicability of the competing principles.  For this reason, I will continue to withhold judgment until we can complete the account of the differences in relationships and their impact on a person’s life and happiness.

As a final thought, I want to point out that there is at least one serious counter-example to the above-proposed framework.  That is the case of the person who thinks that he owns his partner and so is willing to share her sexually.  It is true that one can only share something that one owns.  This means that if a person shares his partner sexually, it means he owns his partner sexually.  The error is that the statement “one can only share something that one owns” uses the word “something” (some+thing) and people are not things.  Indeed, in the above-described examples, one is only “sharing” one’s partner in a very loose sense as both partners are making the choice, as agents, to engage in sexual and/or emotional activities.  The very paradigm of thinking about “sharing one’s partner” is founded upon an error and loose thinking.  However, this does not mean that people do not think and act this way, and so it could be considered a counter example.  Nonetheless, I want to insist that it exists outside of the proposed spectrum because it cannot be held without error.

In the future, I will be using this continuum in order to try and understand the different ways in which people structure their relationships and whether any of these seem to be better constituted to achieve a person’s rationally selfish long-term happiness.

1 Response to “Relationships: A Continuum of Permissiveness”


  1. Contra Peikoff on Swinging – A More Intimate Love of Wisdom

    […] individually much closer to an “open relationship” or polyamory than swinging proper.  In “Relationships: A Continuum of Permissiveness” I drew distinctions about different kinds of couples and showed that there are multiple types of […]