I often wonder what ideas and thoughts come to mind when someone hears the words “open relationship.”
I’ve asked around, casually, and I have heard a spectrum of replies.
There have been judgmental statements, such as: “clearly they aren’t happy,” and “why would anyone do that, it’s disgusting and that’s not what marriage is.”
I’ve also heard more curious responses, like, “good for them, I wish I could do that” and “what exactly does that mean?”
With the confusion and judgements circling the standard world of monogamy versus non-monogamy, I decided to do some research, talk to others and bring in my own experience, so that it can be talked about more mainstream, with deeper understanding.
Ultimately, every couple gets to make their own choice about what fits for them, and it never hurts to explore those boundaries.
What is an open relationship?
Open relationship is often an umbrella term for having sex or emotional connections outside of your primary relationship. Although it doesn’t fit into a mainstream category, it is becoming more of the norm for many people. As a therapist, it’s important that I welcome everyone into a non-judgmental place to explore all the questions, fears, desires, curiosities and feelings that come up around this.
I want to start with getting the language right, because grouping people into one category doesn’t take into account all the possible configurations of a relationship. So, here we go!
SWINGING: A lifestyle where both singles or committed partners enjoy sexual activities with other people, in a recreational, social or organized way. The swinger community sometimes refers to itself as “the lifestyle”, or as “the alternative lifestyle.” This is one form of open relationship.
POLYAMORY: The ability and choice to love more than one person at a time. It’s a non-monogamous partner relationship where one or both people have another consensual relationship. There can be many configurations to this. It can also include singles who have partnered with someone in a committed relationship. It’s often referred to as “ethical and responsible” non-monogamy, because all parties are in agreement.
OPEN RELATIONSHIP: A relationship where one or both members of a committed (or married) couple have the freedom to become sexually active with others.
RELATIONSHIP ANARCHY: The belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. If a relationship anarchist has multiple intimate partners, it distinguishes itself by postulating that there need not be a formal distinction between sexual, romantic, or platonic relationships.
So, where and how do you begin your open relationship journey?
Of course there are many questions about these arrangements, but that’s great. Curiosity and openness can lead us down a path of deeper understanding and a better grasp on our own feelings, and others’ too. Even if a couple decides not to have a relationship or sex with other people, the door is open to discuss sexuality, desire, fantasy and nurture their own sex life.
Now that we know the language, let’s get talking! Below are some of the most common curiosities and concerns surrounding non-monogamy and open relationships. It’s meaningful to keep the dialog open if you are considering this arrangement, or already are in a non-monogamous relationship.
Is having sex with someone else actually cheating, just with another name?
Not at all. In monogamous relationships, cheating is an act of betrayal and breach of the marital contract. In an open relationship all partners agree to the arrangement, and usually establish rules around this, so there is mutual consent. Nothing is being hidden from others.
What if my partner falls in love with someone else?
In some poly relationships, this is totally OK! Again, it entirely depends on your personal rules. The “amory” half of the word is important here: polyamory isn’t just about having sex with multiple partners. Often, it is about forming deep attachments to them and often loving more than one person at a time.
It can become complicated, which is a real reason why each partner should be able to express feelings honestly. However, monogamy doesn’t act as a safeguard against your partner becoming interested in someone else. Infidelity can happen whenever, regardless of how many rules you may try to put in place to prevent it.
How do people do this without feeling jealous?
Sometimes jealousy arises as it does in single partner relationships. The best way to counter it is by making sure everyone involved feels valued, and also by examining and talking about what’s causing the jealousy or other emotional, physical or spiritual issue.
There may be blocks in the primary relationship, so looking deeper can help everyone empathize with the meaning underneath the undesired feelings.
What if I just want to be a swinger and not have another relationship, but my partner wants an open relationship?
Coming to terms with an arrangement that you both are satisfied with, while being able to share your feelings about it, is the first step. You may see this differently, so explore what your desires, motivations, hopes and expectations are about your choice. If your relationship is your priority, then invest as much time as it takes talking about the deeper meaning.
Hopefully, through these conversations, each person can attune to the other, feel into why or why not they want this. Finding the mutual sweet spot might take time. If you are in a long-term, committed relationship, do not rush it.
How do I know I am not just dissatisfied with my current relationship?
It’s a tough question to answer, but if you’ve gotten this far, and you find the idea of exploring polyamory attractive, it’s worth asking.
You can start by evaluating what your own relationship is in its current state and begin talking about what this means to you.
Explore these questions: do you feel loved by your partner, are you happy with your sex life, do you consider ending the relationship, is there something in your relationship you are afraid of? It’s imperative that each person feels trustworthy, connected and prioritized before having sex with someone else. If this isn’t the case, start working on your relationship first and see what happens.
If I have found the right person, why can’t I settle down?
Many people feel like the constraints of a monogamous relationship just couldn’t ever work with who they are. Many poly and open couples have deeply honest relationships with their loved ones that are based on what they actually want to share with each other, rather than following a script or a contract.
Honoring what is true for you and being vulnerable with your partner can help you answer what “settling down” means to each of you. From there you are able to define what you want and what that looks like.
What kind of rules are good to have in this type of relationship?
Help build yourself (and your partner!) a strong foundation before diving in! Rules create structure and security, no matter what type of relationship you choose to have. If you let go of the standard rules of monogamy, what does the couple refer to? It can feel chaotic or threatening if something isn’t in place.
Treat others with respect. You will hear this repeatedly in the community of people that choose to have relations outside of their primary one. This includes behaving with compassion towards everyone involved in the relationship, including the partners of your partners. Every person has chosen this for a reason, and it’s not fair to question or ridicule that decision:
- Don’t try to force relationships to be something they are not. Don’t try to decide in advance what the relationships “should” look like and then press other people into your mold. Relationships work best when allowed the space to be what they organically are.
- Don’t try to impose yourself on your partner, or other people. Don’t assume that you can dictate what your partner can do, think, or feel. There is a distinction between asking for what you need and telling others what to do, and that distinction is important.
- Understand when things are not always about you. Your partners and their other partners have their own relationships, with their own experiences and their own needs, and that’s OK. It is not a reflection of you, and it does not mean your partner is trying to replace you or get rid of you, that there is something wrong with you, that something is lacking in you, or that you are not enough.
- Learn to recognize your own feelings. Develop the tools to understand your emotional responses. Recognize that because you feel something, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone else has MADE you feel it. Your feelings are not the absolute truth for your loved one, they belong to you.
Circling back around…
All in all, what I have discovered is these are wonderful questions and concerns for all relationships, not just non-monogamous ones. Connection with your partner creates security, trust and fosters a deeper love. Meeting with a couples therapist or a non-monogamy specialist is a great way to discuss your desires as an individual or with your partner. Whatever you decide is right for you, enjoy it!
Traci is an MFT Associate in San Francisco. She works with couples and individuals to help improve the quality of your life and relationships. She welcomes all parts of you, no matter your age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, background or race, as we explore the obstacles and challenges that may be holding you back. Sometimes it’s too difficult to live with the self critic, the hopelessness, loneliness, an unsatisfying relationship or stressful family dynamics. Everything in your world is being impacted and it’s exhausting. Traci has been there, and she understands…. Read More