Often times couples or a member of a couple will come in to see me with curiosity about how to successfully open up their relationship. Changing the structure of your relationship is a big step. It can trigger all sorts of insecurities for some people and it can embolden others.
This article aims to give you a basic roadmap for how to start having conversations about opening up your relationship. It’s geared towards LGBTQ+ relationships, but the same basic principles apply for most couples. Before reading any further, it’s important to reality check expectations. This won’t be one simple conversation. It will hopefully be the beginning of an open dialogue about your relational needs and wants with your partner.
This article is not a replacement for relationship therapy. If you run into trouble having these conversations, seek out support from a professional couples therapist with expertise in helping couples open their relationship.
There’s all sorts of misinformation about open relationships and non-monogamy floating around out there. Some people think that opening up your relationship is the “beginning of the end.” Others think it’s only going to cause pain, jealousy and heartache.
Many couples, gay, straight and everywhere in between, have cracked the code for how to have a satisfying, successful, supportive and exciting open sexual relationship. As with any relationship, to achieve success it will take hard work, honesty and trust. And only you can decide what type of relationship will work best for you.
In the United States, like heteronormativity, monogamous relationships are the unspoken norm. There are very few examples of successful open relationships depicted in mainstream media. Name one popular romantic comedy about an open relationship. You probably can’t. Sex outside your relationship is often called cheating or it’s deemed immoral and assumed to be the end of everything wholesome and romantic.
I don’t know about you, but for me growing up I didn’t even know that open relationships were an option. My family certainly didn’t talk about it. And that chapter was nonexistence in sex education in my high school. However, there are lots of options for how to structure your relationship.
Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term for a non-monogamous relationship that is mutually agreed upon, honest and transparent. It’s consensual because all parties are in agreement about the boundaries and structure of the relationship. Often times there are agreements or parameters that couples will put in place to ensure that things feel safe and secure.
A completely open relationship often refers to a pact with agreements that allow for few restrictions around sex, intimacy and relationships outside the primary partnership. Anything goes, so to speak. There is still a foundation of honesty and transparency, but no one is going to get in trouble for breaking the rules. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be hurt feelings or jealousy, though.
Now that gay marriage is the law of the land, it is more common to hear about couples being part of an open marriage. This typically means that a pair of primary partners is married and they have some form of sexual openness outside their relationship.
Below is a step-by-step framework for opening up your relationship. Keep in mind that this framework is just a suggestion and the process will look different for different couples. Like I said before, If you get into trouble or feel stuck, seek out a professional. This is tough stuff so try and be kind and patient with yourself and your partner during this process.
Starting the process of opening your relationship will bring up all sorts of feelings. You’re taking a leap of faith and changing the structure of your partnership. It will take time, patience and care to do this right. Make sure you have the bandwidth to begin the process and block out time in your schedule. I don’t recommend that this be the solution for your lack of intimacy, but rather an expansion of your intimate connection with the use of others. Basically, don’t let this be an afterthought. If you want it, make the process a priority.
All kinds of emotions will come up when opening up your relationship. Especially if you’re not both in agreement about the best way to move forward. So be kind to one another. That being said, try and avoid taking responsibility for your partner’s emotions. You’re responsible for being honest and open, but you’re not responsible for how your partner reacts. That’s on them. Otherwise you risk moving into co-dependency.
While you may not have it all figured out yet, be clear and specific about your wants and needs. Spend some time on self-reflection and become really knowledgeable about why you want to open things up. Then be clear and specific when you communicate that to your boo.
Figuring out the agreements that will work best for you will take exploration. This is an exciting and scary part of the process. Sometimes you won’t know that you have a limit until you feel pain. For example, in theory you may be ok with the idea that your partner wants to go for a drink before a hook-up, but when that happens in reality it may feel very different, or even bad. Use exploration as a way of finding your limits.
It’s going to take trial and error to figure out what the best agreements will be for your relationship. Like I described above, in the process of exploration you will become more aware of your limits. And that’s a good thing! For example, maybe you’ll feel less jealous if you meet the people that your partner hooks-up with. Or maybe that will make it worse. There is no rule book for this, so you have to experiment and find what works for you.
Pain is an excellent indicator of where your boundaries lie. Through exploration and experimentation you will find your pain points. When those become clear to you, respect you boundaries and communicate them openly to your partner. It’s important to note that boundaries will change over time. While you may just want sex at first, maybe you’ll want to explore polyamory in the future. Hence this will be an ongoing dialogue and not one simple conversation.
Open relationships can not work successfully without honesty. If you don’t trust each other, things will not feel safe. And without safety, all bets are off. The train has left the tracks. While it can be uncomfortable at first to be honest about sex with others, it is the foundation for a successful future together. And if you break a rule or an agreement, while it will be scary, always tell the truth. We’re human. We all make mistakes. You can heal from a mistake. Lying will rock the foundation of your relationship.
Sex and intimacy with others must not take the place of intimacy and connection with your primary partner. This means keeping the lines of communication open. Some couples benefit from scheduling a regular date night or relationship check-in. It can be useful to add the recurring calendar invite to your phone so that the check-in doesn’t get brushed aside for other things. Without open communication open relationships will not work.
Yes, open relationships take hard work, open communication and some discomfort. They can also be fun and exciting. Make sure that you remind yourself of that when you’re feeling jealous that your partner is off enjoying connection with another man. Don’t ignore your feelings, but give yourself permission to have fun in the process.
While I’m not a doctor, it’s clear that opening your relationship will also increase your risk for exposure to STIs. Schedule regular sexual health check-ups and be mindful of your body. When you do get an STI, make sure to tell your partners and seek the proper treatment. Again, honest and open communication is key to long-term success in open partnerships.
If you’re interested in doing more reading on this topic, I recommend you check out The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan.
An open relationship will take hard work, open communication and trust. Like I’ve said many times in this article, you don’t have to do this alone. If you’re in need of support around broaching this topic with your partner, seek out the assistance of a professional. Be safe, have fun and enjoy the journey.