As with all posts on this blog, I’d love to hear others’ experiences. If you have any tips to add to this post, I encourage you to share them in the comments.
I come across a surprisingly large number of people interested in opening their monogamous relationships but aren’t sure how to get started. If you’re one of them, this is for you.
You’ve been happily involved with your partner for several months (or several years), and you love them to death. But lately, you find yourself a bit constrained by monogamy. Maybe you’ve seen friends successfully navigate open relationships, or read about them on the internet. Whatever the case may be, you start to think that exclusivity is no longer right for you.
Before you bring it up to your partner, you need to figure out why you want to open your relationship. Why now? Has something changed? Did you transition from living locally to a long-distance gig? Have you recently discovered or come to terms with your bisexuality? Was your partner your first and only, and you’re feeling the need to see what else is out there? Do you have incompatible kinks or mismatched sex drives? Do you have a crush on your coworker that you want to pursue, even though you still love your partner? Is your partner a homebody, and you’d rather go out and party?
The answer to “why” is important for broaching the subject to your partner. There are as many ways to do non-monogamy as there are non-monogamous relationships, and understanding why you want out of an open relationship will go a long way toward figuring out what set up will work for you.
Broaching the Subject
You probably already have an idea of how your partner feels about open relationships. If not, though, now’s the time to figure it out. Mention non-monogamous folks you know and send your partner links to articles about open relationships and poly families. Gauge their response.
Our culture has made monogamy a synonym for commitment and treats love as a zero-sum game. We’re expected to spend our days searching for a monogamous lifemate who is “the one”: someone who can fulfill all our emotional, social, and sexual needs. In reality, that rarely happens and most monogamous relationships require a bit of sacrifice. No one, or relationship, is perfect, but we’re bombarded by the idea that we need to find a match (singular) and live happily ever after. Given the cultural context we live in, when you first say, “I’d like to try opening our relationship,” your partner may hear echoes of things like:
- He doesn’t love me anymore.
- I’m not enough for her.
- Our sex life is inadequate.
- I’m not attractive enough.
Sounds like a bit of a minefield, right?
Having a solid grasp on the “why” makes it easier to put the proposal into context and helps prevent your partner from jumping to those erroneous conclusions.
With that said, if your partner is happily and inflexibly monogamous, don’t try to convince him or “make her come around” to your point of view. There’s nothing wrong with asking, but be ready to take “no” for an answer. If you truly believe that monogamy isn’t for you and your partner can’t imagine non-monogamy for himself, you may be at an impasse and it’s up to you to decide whether it’s a deal breaker. You need to be on the same page.
Hashing Out the Details
If you both decide that you want to take the leap, sit down with a pen and paper and consider the following questions together. Alternatively, do it separately and then compare your responses.
- Do you want to remain emotionally monogamous, or are you open to additional romantic relationships?
- If you’re planning on emotional monogamy, how will you handle it if one of you develops feelings for a sexual partner?
- If you’re open to other emotional/romantic relationships, do you want other partners to be “secondary” to your current relationship, or would you rather not make that distinction?
- Do you want to pursue other people separately, or would you prefer to come as a package deal?
- Are there any acts or dynamics you wouldn’t be comfortable with your partner playing out with someone else? What are they?
- What does “safer sex” mean to you? What is an acceptable level of risk? What are your expectations for STI testing and barrier protection (Condoms for penetration? Condoms/dental dams for oral? Gloves for manual stimulation?)?
- How much information and when do you want to hear about your partner’s extracurricular activities? Do you want him to ask permission before hand, or is an FYI after the fact sufficient? Do you want to know what she did with her other girlfriend?
- How much contact do you want to have with your partner’s partners (also known as metamours)? Do you need to meet them? Do you want to be friends with them?
- Do you have geographic limits? Would you rather your partner only see people who live out of town, or while they’re traveling?
- How much discretion do you need/want? Are you comfortable with your partner posting about his date on Facebook?
- How jealous are you? Do you anticipate jealousy putting a strain on your relationship? How will you address/handle jealousy? What can your partner do to help?
If you haven’t gotten the message yet, the most important part is communication. Be honest about your feelings and assume good intentions. Keep the lines of communication open long after you finish the initial discussion. Check in with each other often, and periodically reevaluate what’s working and what isn’t.
Beware the NRE Monster
New Relationship Energy, or NRE, is a familiar face to everyone who’s ever been enamored with another. It’s the euphoria-inducing drug that makes it nearly impossible to think about anything but your new crush. You know the feeling. You know the symptoms: checking your phone every five minutes, itching to leave work and head home so you can get ready to meet up with him, talking about her non-stop to anyone who will listen.
NRE is beautiful and dangerous. It can plant stupid ideas in our head that are hard to resist. For those of us in open relationships, it can be devastating if not handled carefully.
I doubt there’s been research on it, but I wouldn’t doubt that unbridled NRE is the most common cause of failure in newly-opened relationships. I can’t stress this enough: Remember the partner waiting for you at home. Maintain your date nights, and when you’re spending time together, put away the phone and give her your full attention. Don’t cancel plans with your long-term partner to spend time with the shiny new one. Share the joys of your new relationship, but keep your excitement under control.
Moreover, don’t let NRE impair your judgment. Don’t get carried away and forget the rules you laid out. If you told your boyfriend you’d be home by midnight, be home by midnight. If you and your girlfriend agreed you’d always use condoms with other people, use them. If you agreed to ask permission before anything sexual transpired, keep it in your pants until next time. You will have another chance. I promise.
Relationships only work if they’re supported by a solid foundation of trust, and proving time and again that you mean what you say will demonstrate that you respect your partner and your relationship. When it comes to sex with other people, your partner is putting his health in your hands with the safer sex rules you agreed upon. Don’t fuck it up.
Have fun! Enjoy each other, respect each other, and view non-monogamy as another piece of your adventure together.
Essential Reading on Non-Monogamy and Polyamory:
- More Than Two, Franklin Veaux’s online polyamory resource
- Opening Up by Tristan Taormino
- The Ethical Slut by Dottie Easton and Janet Hardy