Open relationships can yield opportunities to expand your sexuality, exercise freedom, and jump out of comfort zones.
People often approach relationships like fad diets: they want to sign up and reap the rewards, but underestimate the work that it entails. It’s not an easy road, and there are no shortcuts or magic ingredients. Navigating any loving relationship involves continuous, sustained effort on the part of both partners, along with the acknowledgement that there will be success and failure along the way. The secret lies in creating the conditions which allow this cycle of success and failure to nourish the relationship rather than weaken or endanger it.
Of course, the sustainability of any loving relationship depends on the unique characteristics, experiences, and attitudes of the individuals in it. However, there does seem to be one common thing that undermines long-term relationships. It seems we humans are often at odds with our physical selves and the resulting awkwardness around craving other people sexually, which often leads to infidelity and the end of the relationship. The idea that we can love one person but may desire another is such a taboo subject that couples rarely broach it for fear of hurting each other or breaching trust. When this condition persists long enough cheating can happen, and the table is set for the emotionally charged feelings of inadequacy, betrayal, guilt, and ultimately, the death spiral of an otherwise healthy and loving relationship.
So what if we were able to talk openly and honestly about this subject and include our partners in the process? This could simply mean developing honesty around your fantasies or attractions to others, geared toward including our partners in our desires. This could also lead into a discussion around nonmonogamy or opening up the relationship.
Before deciding to open the relationship, you should carefully evaluate the reasons you’re interested in pursuing connections with others. Both partners need to be open and curious about this and ready to do personal work on themselves. Open relationships won’t work if one partner is open and the other is coerced into it and feels hurt by it. It also doesn’t work if the reasons come from a place of lack vs. abundance. From a place of lack, we see our relationship as unfulfilling, with the hope of someone else filling that void. From a place of abundance, we approach experiences with others as a result of a solid, fulfilling love in the relationship: you’re both so strong and secure, and the love is so shared and valued, that you can share your fullness with others.
Another angle to discuss is the costs and benefits of opening the relationship and even making lists, as Kathy Labriola suggests in The Jealousy Workbook. Some costs include: less exclusivity, more time management, more energy and time spent processing, jealousy, less time together. Benefits include: more sexual variety and exploration, more freedom and autonomy, more sexual turn-on and attention, opening to new influences and relationships, deep self-study.
It’s important to add that there are of course situations where one of you will ask for adjustments or behaviors that the other isn’t OK with, which needs to be communicated. I don’t believe in the pretense that one should yield to anything our partner asks. Further, your partner cannot mend or compensate for your own core wounds or personal deficits. Yet within the negotiation of boundaries, as long as both partners are honoring each other’s nos, safety to explore and trust their yesses increases.
Owning Your Jealousy
This journey will bring up jealousy and you have to expect it. But jealousy is not an end point, a reason to stop. When you enter this adventure with the desire to grow and stretch your limitations, jealousy can be an entry point. At times, finding a therapist who can help you get to know what is happening could be helpful, or working with a book like Labriola’s. You can also get to know your jealousy by slowing it down, getting to know what you are experiencing in your jealousy; is it fear, sadness, anger, projections? For instance, a threatening situation with our partner connecting with another person might bring up core beliefs around not being enough. Many of us with these core inadequacies will adopt the scarcity model, where we believe that if our partner is attracted to or has feelings for someone else then the other person gets all the love and attention and we get nothing—as if there’s a finite amount of love in the world. It is based on the premise that if someone else is attractive then you cannot be, that you lose. It might relate to growing up in a family that made us feel that way or general self-esteem issues of not feeling good enough.
An open relationship can be an enriching experience, but it’s not for everyone. It is important to realize the costs and benefits and truly assess whether you’re ready to do the work it requires. If it is something you decide to venture into, then working with a therapist could be useful, as issues will arise. As long you respect each other and remain committed to growth and challenge—and thus growth through challenge—an open relationship can yield opportunities to expand your sexuality, exercise freedom (both personal and collective), and jump out of comfort zones—where true growth lies.
Maya Lane is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in sex-positive therapy, intimacy, and recovery from infidelity. She lives in San Francisco with her two children and her husband of 13 years, whom she is in a fulfilling marriage with. Contact her for a consultation or appointment.