Sunday, August 1, 2010

Keeping and Open Mind Towards Open and Non-Traditional Relationships

This article is the first in a four part series on polyamory and open and non-traditional relationships. This first article is about open and non-traditional relationships in general, the benefits, the dangers, and how to approach them. The second will discuss jealousy, envy and compersion and how to deal with the issues that opening a relationship could cause. The third discusses and defines various terms. The fourth article will talk about lessons that have been learned in the experience of the polyamorous community which can be applied to any relationship.

This article is a brief survey of open relationships, and I will be going into great detail on some of the specific topics discussed here in future articles.

Joe says: An open relationship sounds wicked sweet. I get to do whoever I want and not get in trouble for it.

Joe doesn't exactly have the right idea about open relationships. Many people first respond that way, but their excitement cools when they realize that their partner also gets to do the same thing.

Open relationships are neither better nor worse than monogamous relationships. They are also neither more or less complicated. It is like asking "which is a better tool, a screwdriver or a hammer?" It depends on the situation and what you are trying to achieve.

First, let us briefly define what we are talking about. An open relationship is one in which the couple has agreed to allow outside relationships in some form. This takes many forms, ranging from swingers, who have a main relationship and have non-romantic sexual encounters with various people, to polyamorous people, who may have multiple long-term, romantic, emotionally engaged relationships. There is also polyfidelity, which is not technically an open relationship, but which is a closed relationship of 3 or more people.

As we will discuss Tuesday, there are many forms of open and non-traditional relationships, and this concept of open relationships appeals to people for a wide variety of reasons.

Emily says: When I was younger, I had never heard of polyamory. I would get into long term relationships, but I was never able to be faithful. I would try to be "loyal", but I was always overcome by temptation. I got to think I was a terrible person because that is what society told me I was. When I discovered polyamory, I realized that it was not me that was defective, it was the form of relationship that I was trying to force myself into. I now live in a wonderful poly household, and I can finally be myself, following my desires as long as I am careful and respectful of my partner's needs.

For some people, traditional monogamous relationships just don't work. It's not because they do not try. It's simply that they cannot constrain their heart to love one person and one person only for all time. These people often end up cheating. Even if they can remain faithful, will feel trapped in monogamous relationships, feeling unfulfilled, not because their partner is lacking but because they feel the need to love more than one.

Dan says: My girlfriend and I decided to explore polyamory because we are both bisexual. She is wonderful, but she is not a man, so I always found myself missing that experience. She felt likewise. I started seeing a man, and she saw a couple of women. In opening our relationship, we found that, not only could we get our needs met, but that we had a new closeness. Rather than feeling that she was keeping me from something, we could be open and honest in our desires, and even share our attraction to other people. Let me tell you, checking out girls with your girlfriend is awesome.

For others, opening the relationship takes something that creates a chasm between couples, attraction to other people, and makes it a point of commonality. When a couple has good communication and manages jealousy well, they can achieve something called compersion, a state of empathic happiness. This is the kind of happiness that you feel when your best bud get's a date with the hot girl at the bar. The only difference is that the best bud in question is your significant other. It is important for couples to have hobbies and interests in common. Many people are very interested in courting, and many poly couples find great enjoyment in sharing their interest in this activity.

Let's say that you are already in a relationship and find that the idea of an open relationship interesting. Here are a few ways that opening a relationship can work and not work.

Examples of Good Situations for an Open Relationship
Both of partners agree that there is no reason to be monogamous
This is a pretty obvious one. If both of you are thinking that there is no reason why you cannot see other people and think that it might be interesting, this is a good situation to try an open relationship.

The partners still love each other, but the sex is lacking
This is one situation that has to be approached very delicately, but it is a sensible situation for opening the relationship. If you were entirely satisfied in your relationship except that you loved baseball and your mate hated it, you'd find some friends to go to baseball games with and everyone would be happy. This is similar, but with sex instead of baseball. Of course, this is very different because few people are taught to base their self worth on the love of baseball, while many people are taught that their self worth is based on their sexual prowess.

One is unable/unwilling/unwanting to sleep with one's partner but still loves him or her
You are very happy with your partner, but for whatever reason, you cannot give him what he needs. (I say 'he' because, in 4 out of 5 cases like this I have encountered, it has been the woman who is unable to give the man what he wants/needs.) In this case, understanding that sex is but a part of your relationship, you might offer to let him go and find satisfy his needs elsewhere. (This is sometimes jokingly called "outsourcing.") This can be an excellent solution. The most common pitfall I hear about in this situation is not that jealously crops up, but that the man thinks that it is some kind of test of his character and loyalty, so he declines the offer. Why might he think so? Because most advice columnists and radio DJs will tell him that it's a trap and that she is trying to get him to "cheat" so she can "catch" him.

One partner has a fetish or interest that the other is not interested in indulging
Similar to the above example, perhaps the sex life is satisfactory, but there is a particular fetish that your partner has. For example, maybe he really enjoys sadomasochism as a top, but you have no desire to be a bottom. You might decide to let him go exercise his desires on someone who would appreciate his particular interests. The important thing here is to realize that the other woman is not better than you overall, she is simply better than you at satisfying that one single need.

Examples of Bad Situations for an Open Relationship
There are other underlying issues causing stress in the relationship
Often, a poor sex life for a couple is caused by other stresses: e.g. money, mistrust, or poor communication. Perhaps they may feel that the sex with their partners is unsatisfying, so things would get better if they could get more satisfying sex somewhere else. This is a situation that, in the poly groups online, they refer to as "relationship broken, add more people." This usually does not work. The stresses that are causing problems in the first place will lead to mistrust and jealousy, and drag a third, unwary victim into the already broken relationship.

One partner wants to see other people but do not want to let the other partner do the same
It is one thing if one partner says, "you can see other people, but I have no desire to." That can work well, but "I want to see other people, but you may not do the same" will rarely work. It is fundamentally unfair and generally is only even attempted in a relationship with an uneven power dynamic. In the end, this will likely cause great jealousy and resentment.

Approaching the Topic of Opening the Relationship
Opening this conversation must be done carefully. Avoid the following phrase, "I think we should see other people." That means "we should break up." Hopefully you already know that.

Often, opening this conversation will lead to the question of "What brought this up?" This really means, "What did I do wrong to make you think I was not good enough." Saying that you read an interesting article on this great blog called Smart Love and thought it might be interesting to think about is a good save here.

Generally, I might suggest talking about open relationships in theory before trying to talk about them specifically, for you. This way, you can get an idea what your partners concerns are before things become emotional and heated. There are also a few points that you want to make sure to get across. If any of the things on the following list are not true, do not try to get them across, but also seriously re-evaluate your relationship.

"I love you."
"You are not inadequate to me."
"I want to explore this to make our relationship stronger, not to get away from you."

You could even start the conversation by suggesting that he or she read some articles from Smart Love on the topic. Again, make sure that you make the above three points very clear. You do not want her or him to read the article and start having an anxiety attack thinking that this is a prelude to breaking up.

Here are some books on the topic which you may find valuable...


  1. I am curious to know what your opinion of Monopolys is?

  2. I am in the process of ending a marriage of more than 10 years. One of the problems with the marriage was that, while we agreed from the outset that we wanted to be poly, we didn't really understand the wide variety of things that could mean and we didn't communicate enough as things went along.

    I was discussing this issue with a friend and joked that there isn't a form you can fill out on which you can check off different "flavors" and other aspects of poly as part of an agreement with a partner. She suggested I write and publish one.

    Of course, such a discussion with a partner shouldn't simply be filling out a form. On the other hand, particularly for people with little poly experience, such a form might be very helpful in guiding the discussions which need to happen. It is possible there will be items on the form which hadn't even occurred to someone as a possible point of disagreement.

    Would you be interested in writing such a form or do you know of one which has already been published?