How to Make an Open Relationship WorkDecember 16, 2008
It’s the best piece of advice I ever got about non-monogamy. And I want to share it with the rest of the class.
It’s this: If you’re a couple who’s considering opening up your relationship, but you have anxieties and apprehensions and feelings of jealousy, and they’re stopping you from going forward?
Think — carefully — about what exactly it is you’re afraid of.
And then make your non-monogamy arrangements to address those particular feelings and fears.
Don’t just say, “I feel jealous,” or, “I’m afraid this will destroy our relationship.” Get specific. What — exactly — is it that you fear will happen? Think carefully. Search your souls.
And then set up your agreement so the things you’re afraid of don’t happen. (Or are less likely to happen. Or don’t happen very intensely, or very often.)
Here are some examples.
Are you afraid that having sex outside the relationship will take too much time and energy away from your partnership? You can agree to a time limit on the extra-curricular activities. No more than once a month, say. Or only when the other partner already has other plans.
Are you afraid that having sex outside the relationship will make sex with your partner less special? You can preserve some kinds of sex to save just for each other: agree to a limit on what kinds of sex are okay outside the partnership, and what kinds of sex aren’t. Or you can preserve the physical space that you have sex with your partner: keep the outside sex outside your home (if you live together), and save the bed you share for just the two of you.
Are you afraid that having sex outside the relationship will leave the other partner feeling abandoned and left out? You can agree to always keep each other in the loop: let each other know where you’re going, and when, and with whom. You can even tell each other sexy stories about what you’re doing with other people, if that would make you feel included and not freaked out. And again, you can agree to keep your extra-curricular nookie for times when your partner already has plans — when they already have their weekly knitting circle or anarchist meeting, or when they’re already going to be out of town — so the one who’s not getting laid that night isn’t being left home alone.
Are you afraid that having sex outside the relationship will lead to a serious romantic involvement outside the relationship? Again, you can agree to limits that would minimize the likelihood of that happening. Limits on how much time is spent on outside sex. Limits on particular activities — kissing, say — that you think of as romantic. Limits on public displays of affection with the outside partners. An agreement that outside sex won’t involve sleeping together or spending the night. That sort of thing. (You obviously can’t have any guarantees that outside love won’t blossom in a non-monogamous relationship — heck, you can’t have any guarantees that they won’t blossom in a monogamous one — but you can set things up so the soil isn’t hospitable for that particular flower to grow.)
Etc. Etc. Etc.
Let’s talk about jealousy for a moment. It’s commonly assumed that “jealousy” is a simple, single emotion. But in my experience, it’s anything but. Jealousy is a big tangle of lots of different emotions. Fear of abandonment and loss. Hurt feelings of rejection. Insecurity about your own attractiveness and desirability. Anger at losing status. Fear of loss of control. Possessiveness and territorial-ness.
Not every jealous person feels all of these emotions in the same proportions. Not every jealous person feels all of these emotions, period.
So if you’re in a relationship and you’re considering trying non-monogamy, but you’re being stopped by feelings of jealousy that you don’t feel like you could handle?
Don’t just say, “I’m jealous,” and leave it at that. If you’re serious about giving non-monogamy a try, try to untangle the threads of your jealousy. Figure out what they are and where they’re coming from. And then tailor your agreements and limits on your non-monogamy around those threads, so they don’t get tugged on too hard.
Oh, and very importantly:
This bit about shaping your non-monogamy agreement to address your specific feelings and fears?
That’s not something you do once and forget about.
That’s something you may wind up re-doing, maybe several times over the course of your relationship.
Fears and other feelings can change. And if they do, you need to be flexible about changing your non-monogamy agreement to suit them. After a few weeks/ months/ years, you might find that that whole “no oral sex outside the relationship” thing that seemed so important at the outset just isn’t that big a deal anymore … but now you’re finding that it’s bugging you when your partner has their outside nookie on a Saturday night, since it seems like Saturday nights are special and should be saved for you.
Or something like that.
In other words: If you’re a couple who’s going to try non-monogamy, set up your arrangements and agreements so that your particular feelings and fears don’t get stepped on. And if your feelings and fears change — or simply become more clear to you with time and experience — then it makes sense to re-arrange your arrangements.
It’s your relationship, after all. You don’t have to make it work for anybody else. You just have to make it work for you.