Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your questioning queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My partner and I are in an open relationship, but every time I want to exercise that openness my partner gets hurt so I generally just don’t act. Is there a better way to deal with this without sacrificing?
Closed For Business
Dear Closed For Business,
Ah, the old “open on paper but not in practice” conundrum. Like many relationship issues, this one is going to center around examining your expectations and strengthening your communication. Any form of agreed upon non-monogamy requires a lot of checking-in and boundary-setting. But before we dive into that, we have a bit of unpacking to do. I’m going to be using the terms “open” and “polyamory” somewhat interchangeably. Both terms mean different things to different people, but, at its core, an open or “monogamish” relationship is a form of polyamory.
How a relationship comes to be “open” has a lot to do with how things can play out. When people come into a relationship with the expectation that it will be open, or if both partners have experienced this dynamic, it can be a bit easier to maintain a healthy dialogue around it. This isn’t to say that long-monogamous partnerships can never be opened, it just takes a bit of adjusting. I know couples that went from monogamy to polyamory after a decade, and with a lot of processing and negotiation, they now have happy, healthy love lives that fulfill their needs.
I’m curious as to how the relationship came to be “open.” Was the decision equally made by both of you? Was it something that you wanted and they just kind of agreed to? The power dynamic of how this decision was made can have some pretty gnarly impact to how an open relationship will play out in practical terms. It may be worth checking in with your partner to see how they feel about it in general.
Now back to expectations and communication! If your partner really is on board with having an open relationship, it’s SUPER important to have some long conversations about how this will play out. There are lots of different ways to be polyamorous and non-monogamous; some are healthy and some are not. To be the healthiest, it’s going to take a lot of clear boundary-setting. Do they want to know when you’re with someone else? Do they care who it is? How will you stay safe and are there certain acts they would prefer you only do with them? Some people would prefer to be open only in the context of three-ways or other settings in which they’re involved. Others would prefer to be blissfully ignorant. It’s important to know where you stand if they choose to hook up with others as well.
Have these conversations often. It’s going to be hella important to process how everyone is feeling about the situation. A poly friend joked with me that they thought being polyamorous would mean they would have more sex, but now they’re so busy communicating about their relationships that this isn’t always the case.
To be clear, it’s totally normal for people to have mixed emotions in this situation. Even the most seasoned poly-vets need to take time to process jealousy and hurt. At the core of jealousy is often a fear of rejection and abandonment. Perhaps your partner needs more reassurance that they will not be “traded in” for one of your potential partners. A balance can be found between your need to explore and your partners need for affection and reassurance, but it may take time and practice to find that sweet spot.
It could be really helpful for you to check out resources for healthy polyamory and non-monogamy. The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures by Janet W. Hardy is a beyond excellent resource. There are also tons of wonderful blogs and forums dedicated to helping people open their relationships up. If you can find some friends that have an open dynamic to their relationships, they can be really helpful. People that have been living the open life can almost certainly relate to what you’re experiencing and they may be able to impart some wisdom.
In the meantime, here are some helpful blogs:
How to Have a Healthy Polyamorous Relationship, Shape Magazine
How to Make it Work, Polyamory Society
Best of luck out there!