“I’m not monogamous. How do I tell my girlfriend that without it ending our relationship?”
“I’m dating these two guys that are awesome, but who do I really want to have a relationship with?”
“My girlfriend cheated on me with her ex that I know, and I’m more mad at him than her. Does this mean I don’t want to be with her? I still love her and I think I should be more angry. Should I?”
“I think opening up our relationship will spice things up, because things can’t get blander. Any advice?”
“If my wife had an affair, I think I’d be okay in the end. If I had an affair I think it would destroy her. Wait. Why did you ask if it mattered who cheats?”
I get questions like these quite a lot in my practice, and sometimes I get these questions because I ask leading statements to start a conversation that is being avoided. There are many different times, outside of therapy, when a conversation about opening up a relationship may happen: sometimes it is when the topic of exclusivity comes up, when a joke about a threesome seems like more than a joke, when one partner loses sexual functioning, or sometimes it never comes up explicitly out of fear of losing the relationship.
There is a lot to discuss in terms of what you do and do not want to do and what you do and do not want your partner to do, especially a really big underlying issue that is present in those areas, and it isn’t one of communication.The idea of opening up a relationship, or starting the conversation itself, can falter under the weight of fear, and seem like a clarion call to end the relationship:
He wants to open the relationship, so he doesn’t really love me.
She’s thinking about opening the relationship, so I guess I don’t satisfy her.
He asked about opening the relationship, so he must not be committed to me.
She wants to also see other people, so obviously I’m not good enough for her.
These thoughts, and many more variations on this theme, often come out when a person talks to their partner about opening up a relationship. The party hearing this for the first time may feel shocked, betrayed, puzzled, hurt, angry, deceived, confused, or any other emotion, and the conversation can get messy really easily. It can also get confusing because both parties might have a difficult time conceptualizing what they want or do not want in this new structure of their relationship, and the thought of other partners or other partners for their partner, has a lot of moving parts.
Before going into the “we’re-breaking-up-because-you-want-to-change-the-relationship” conversation, I advise having the “what-would-it-even-look-like” conversation. To start the later conversation, I like to assuage some of the expected anxiety by going over many methodical and meticulous aspects of navigating these open waters. As a listy questionnaire I ask:
- Are you opening up the relationship for there to be romantic relationships outside of the present dyad? Or simply sex?
- Are you wanting to add another partner to your present dyad but have that throuple/pod/house be exclusive? A “monogamy premium package” arrangement?
- Are both you and your present partner going to be pursuing other relationships?
- Are external partners who are in other relationships preferred, or not? What about if they are single and want commitment?
- How much time are you wanting to spend, per week, pursuing external partners? How much time are you wanting your partner to spend with their extra partners?
- Is publicly flirting with others acceptable? Only in private? With each other present?
- How much time are you going to spend getting to know your partner’s other partners? How much time do you want your partner to spend on getting to know your other partners?
- How do you want to treat your other partners? Anonymously? Casually? Commited? Do you expect to love them, or not love them?
- How do you want your partner to treat your partners? Do you expect your partner to love them, or not love them? How will you address their feelings of love, hate, or indifference?
- How do you want to treat your partners other partners? How does your partner want you to treat their partners?
- Do you want veto power over who your partner chooses to be with?
- Do you want your partner to have veto power over your choices of partners?
- Are other anonymous sexual partners preferred? Repeat partners? Mutual friends? Exes?
- Are anonymous sexual partners excluded? Repeat partners? Mutual friends? Exes?
- Do you want a, “don’t ask don’t tell,” policy?
- Do you want a, “I will answer truthfully, but only if you ask the question,” policy?
- Do you want relationship advice to be withheld regarding new partners? Sought out?
- Who will know about being open? Family? Friends? Colleagues? Children? Neighbors?
- What terms, titles, names are you going to use for other partners? External partner? Lover? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Primary? Secondary? Polyamorous?
- Can dates happen in communal places, like a shared apartment? Can sex happen in a shared bed?
- Will sex with other people be safer sex? Condoms required? Birth control? Dental dams? Will sex with your present partner be as safe/unsafe as with external partners?
- If it doesn’t seem to be working for you, how will problems be addressed? In therapy? All parties come together to discuss problems? First sign of problem and it becomes monogamous again? Other partners get abandoned to focus on the relationship?
These are only a handful of questions, and many of them are the start of full ongoing conversations about expectations and boundaries. There is a lot to discuss in terms of what you do and do not want to do and what you do and do not want your partner to do, especially a really big underlying issue that is present in those areas, and it isn’t one of communication.
All of these how questions are valid, and in many ways necessary, for the opening up of a relationship. Additionally, I would say the above questions are important, but not because communication is important. These are important to address, because addressing control is important.
In the decision to open up a relationship, and addressing all of the small, meticulous, and intricately integral questions to the act of opening up a relationship, an aspect of most all relationships becomes tangible: control.Speaking broadly, when changing the nature or status of a relationship and facing an unknown and uncertain future, especially when insecurities and fears arise, we humans do this pesky thing of wanting to control the people around us and have them do what we want them to do and what we think is best for us, that we also think is best for them. We are comfortable with others doing what we permit them to do, but so long as they do what we want, how we want it, and in a way that is respectful of our boundaries/limits/needs, and this control supposedly makes the fears of an uncertain future more manageable. Your partner’s wants, their limits, their boundaries, their desired shape for a relationship, for their life, may not be seen at all if you aren’t open to seeing it and seeing it as theirs.
With this, we may see our partner’s desire to have sex with someone else as a sign of their lack of desire for us, rather than being open to what is desirable about that other person from our partner’s own eyes. We may see our partner in love with someone else as a sign that they don’t love us any longer, and we may not be open to seeing what is special and valuable about their love for that other person and that it doesn’t have to threaten our own feelings of love. We may see our partner wanting to build their life with another person as separate from a life expected to be built with only one other person, only you, and we may completely miss the multifaceted and beautiful composition of the life they want to build that does includes you. We may see our partner wanting to be close to another as a sign of not being everything to our partners, and we may not want to face the limit that we can’t be everything for the person that we love.
It is rare to see our relationships and the person that we are in a relationship with as their own person and more often than not, we prefer to close ourselves off from seeing this. We can avoid conversations. We can choose to not take any risks by not opening up the relationship. It is a risk to open up a relationship, and it is also a risk to not open up a relationship.
So talk to your partner. Listen to your partner. Talk about your feelings of love. Listen to their feelings of love. Talk about your sex life. Listen to their sex life. Talk about you. Listen to their talking about you. Talk about them. Listen to them talk about themselves. Discuss not having control over each other.
When you open up a relationship you also have the opportunity to open up your way of looking, seeing, and loving your partner. You have the unique opportunity to look past the illusion of control that you have over your partner. It is a beautiful opportunity, if you are open to it.