Open relationships are always interesting to bring up at dinner parties because of the discussion the concept generates. Hah! I kid! It’s the worst. People get very worked up over the status of relationships, and it isn’t uncommon to have your friends’ opinion of you change once you tell them that you and your partner are in an open relationship. I’m talking about the folks in the world that have a picket-fence type relationship that involves one man, one woman, and perhaps a few kids (and a dog). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a monogamous relationship. But then again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a non-monogamous relationship either.
I remember telling my childhood friend that my partner and I are trying an open relationship and she straight up starting crying. I’m not even kidding. She held my hand and said she was so sorry for me. From her point of view, being in an open relationship is something I have to ‘put up with’ in order to ‘keep’ my man – because in her mind, no woman would willingly go into an open relationship. Fair enough. I can understand how sharing can seem very scary. Especially thanks to many movies and TV shows that depict open relationships in a mostly bad light.
It would seem to the uninitiated that having an open relationship is almost like being in an all-you-can-eat buffet. You get the benefit of being with a partner but you also get to act like you’re single and fuck anyone who is willing. That is quite a scary picture. Or you could be seen as the ‘hero’ who managed to trick their partner into having an open relationship. Here are some of the reactions we got from people.
How can you handle it?
You need to love yourself more and find someone who respects you.
He is such louse.
He doesn’t really love you.
Wow, way to go man! You get to have your cake and eat it too.
She must be very cool to let you do this.
She must love you way more than you love her.
When are you going to settle down man?
I’m sure you’ll change your mind when you find the right woman.
It’s interesting to see how people pitied me and looked up to him. In some instances they had less confidence in him, thinking of him as a ‘fun loving player’ and would settle down later. This type of reaction comes from misinformation and a lack of understanding regarding open relationships. First of all, there are many different types of open relationships, which I’ve talked about before, and secondly each open relationship is completely different from another. Each relationship is specific to the people involved in it. No two are the same. But this is hard to explain to people who can’t wrap their head around the idea that you can love one person but still want to explore the world and maybe see other people without loving your partner any less. It is definitely a ‘can you love more than one person and is there enough love to go around’ issue.
“At one end, there’s total monogamy, where one person meets all your emotional needs, and even deep platonic friendships aren’t allowed. At the other end there’s relationship anarchy, where boundaries are flexible, and multiple relationships are navigated without fixed rules. Between those two things there’s a whole world of possibilities.”
Most people sit toward the monogamy end of the slider, sliding between the extreme and somewhere just before ‘seeing other people’ comes into play. Me, I sit somewhere between the two. I could never be happy with relationship anarchy nor monogamy. And many people in open relationships are the same.
Just like monogamous relationships, trust and boundaries are important in a non-monogamous one. Jealousy happens – just as it would in a monogamous relationship. You still have to deal with it.
In order to explain this further I hit up sex educator and relationship coach Marcia Baczynski to talk about open relationships. Marcia is one of the founders of the wildly popular Cuddle Parties and has supported many couples in their journey to become non-monogamous through her Successful Non Monogamy program.
Often times, when talking to people about open relationship, most people just assume that’s an excuse to fuck around. To sleep with whomever, whenever, no consequences. I have a hard time explaining to people that that’s not what open relationships are about. How would you explain to a newbie what an open relationship is about?
Open relationships are about creating a set of agreements that work for everyone involved. Contrary to popular belief, it’s NOT anything goes. Most successful open relationships have agreements about safer sex, what and how to communicate, what style of open relationship they are pursuing, when and how it’s okay to flirt, make out, have dates, or have sex. Whether it’s more of a swinging type of relationship (where outside play is primarily focused on sex in a group or party setting) or more of a polyamory type of relationship (where there are multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships), getting on the same page about what you’re up to is necessary for happy, successful open relating.
I want to say that men/women who feel that open relationships mean having no boundaries should choose to not be in relationships or at least find a partner who believes the same, because for me, an open relationship is a lot more mature than just fucking around and not having any accountability. Can you comment on this?
Being in a relationship includes being accountable to one’s partner(s). The nature and flavor of that accountability varies according to relationship, but successful, ethical non-monogamy includes caring about your partners and their needs. There’s nothing wrong with random hookups, but even in those contexts, I advocate that we take basic care of one another (for example, using safer sex practices, and making sure everyone is consenting to what is happening.) It makes for a better, safer, more fun sexual ecosystem for everyone when we treat each other with basic respect.
How can people who are just starting but are afraid of having their boundaries crossed, go about safely creating boundaries?
Part of the challenge of newly opening up relationships is that you might not know what your boundaries are until they’re crossed. Many times people think that opening up means immediately sleeping with someone else, but there are many other steps that can come first, to find out what feels good and what doesn’t. For example, you can write a personal ad and share it with each other. You can post a personal ad without necessarily intending to respond to anyone yet. You can go to a bar and flirt, without taking it further. You can go on a date with someone you’re interested in and only hold hands and make out. You can go to a play party and watch other people but only play with each other. Going slowing (almost like it’s the 1950s) creates an atmosphere of trust for all parties involved.
The other thing to look at ahead of time is how do you want to handle it if a boundary gets crossed? In most cases, it’s helpful to assume that one or both of you will accidentally cross a boundary, rather than to try to prevent all boundaries from every being crossed. So when it (inevitably) happens, how do you want it to be handled? Do you want extra time together to process it? Do you want to have a coach, therapist or mentor on call to help you figure it out? Do you need space to journal or think? What works best for each of you?
(For more tips for how to open up without screwing up, download my free ebook at http://successfulnonmonogamy.com)
I would also like to talk about how just because one is in an open relationship, that doesn’t mean that cheating doesn’t occur. And when it does occur, it doesn’t make the cheating any less a betrayal than in a closed relationship. How do I go about explaining this concept to someone? What is the difference between the two?
Cheating is about trust, not specific activities. It can occur in any kind of relationship, whether monogamous or not. Whenever a clear agreement is intentionally broken, it’s cheating. In the context of open relationships, this could include breaking safer sex agreements, hooking up with someone that you both agreed was off-limits, or lying about what you’re up to or your motivations. The reason cheating hurts isn’t because someone did something in particular, it’s because the container of trust was violated. The things we built our relationship on and were vulnerable inside of turn out to be not trustworthy. It’s hurtful because the person cheated on doesn’t know what they can count on.
When you’re starting out as open, you will probably not have total clarity on the agreements, and one partner may accidentally cross a boundary. This isn’t cheating, but it may feel similar, like a betrayal. In all cases, building trust is the most important thing. (I like the book, “I Love You, But I Don’t Trust You” for figuring out how to rebuild trust after cheating or accidental betrayal.)