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Sartre and Beauvoir were arguably the first modern couple | © Moshe Milner / Wikicommons
Sartre and Beauvoir were arguably the first modern couple | © Moshe Milner / Wikicommons

How Modern Romance Was Pioneered in Paris

Picture of Jade Cuttle
Updated: 8 March 2018

Today, we live in a society that is more sexually liberated than ever before, and while it sometimes still has the power to shock, open relationships have become a genuine reality. The world’s first modern couple, in this sense, is widely considered to be Sartre and De Beauvoir, whose philosophical French thinking completely revolutionized the notion of romance.

The phrase “open relationship” is a wide catchment term that encompasses a range of different relations. In general, it tends to mean that both partners are allowed to have intimate relations with other people, rather than being with one person at a time. This can involve both male and female partners.

There are open relationships, like partnered non-monogamy, where a couple stays committed to each other and at the same time, one or both partners can have intimate relations with other people outside of this relationship. There’s also polyamory, to describe one person having several intimate relationships simultaneously, taken seriously by all partners, and polygamy, where one person has multiple spouses or partners.


Sartre and Beauvoir were arguably the first modern couple

The freedom to engage in polyfidel relations owes a certain debt to the boldness of French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They first met in 1929 while studying in Paris for the aggregation in philosophy, the elite French graduate degree.

They remained unmarried, but agreed to commit to an open relationship that lasted an impressive 51 years, until Sartre’s death in 1980. The success of their relationship is a story of tolerance, sacrifice, equality, and freedom balanced against respect.

They committed to what they defined as a “transparency pact.” This pact granted them the freedom to live their lives, wherever they wanted to, and simultaneously engage in flings and affairs that sometimes lasted years. The only requirement was that they upheld the respect to tell each other everything, and they did until death. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are buried next to one another in the Cimetiére du Montparnasse.


Sartre and Beauvoir were arguably the first modern couple | © Alberto Kolba / Wikicommons

The headline announcing Simone de Beauvoir’s death in April 1986 highlighted the debt to their boldness to go against the grain of tradition, proclaiming: “Women, you owe her everything!” More than 5,000 mourners paid tribute to this woman often nicknamed “the mother of the modern women’s movement,” following her groundbreaking publication of The Second Sex.

Despite her groundbreaking publications, it was the success of their open relationship that she was most proud of. “De Beauvoir had declared that whatever her many books and literary prizes, whatever her role in the women’s movement, her greatest achievement in life was her relationship with Sartre,” says Lisa Appignanesi, an expert on De Beauvoir, in her recent film.

Jean Paul Sartre is often considered the father of Existentialism, and his philosophical thought feeds directly into his thoughts on relationships. The inspiration for the “transparency pact” is derived directly from his argument that taking complete acceptance and responsibility for one’s own actions is the only way to truly achieve freedom. Notoriously, in 1964, he refused to accept the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded on moral grounds.

In modern celebrity culture, there are several high-profile couples who have spoken out in favor of open relationships. This includes Kutcher and Moore, and actress Tilda Swinton.

Swinton and her long-term partner, John Byrne, have been a couple for more than a decade and live with their twins in Scotland, along with her lover Sandro Kopp. “We are all a family. What you must also know is that we are all very happy,” she has remarked in a press statement.

There’s also Mo’Nique, the actress and comedienne who won an Oscar for her role in Precious, and her husband Sidney Hicks. “Could I have sex outside of my marriage with Sidney? Yes. Could Sidney have sex outside of his marriage with me? Yes. That’s not a deal breaker,” Mo’Nique told a shocked Barbara Walters in an interview.