While I would never claim to be an expert on the subject, this year marks a decade since I decided to explore consensual non-monogamy. I’ve learned a lot since then, though I’m still trying to fine tune how I do things, particularly as I have a habit of dating people who are new to non-monogamy in theory and practice. Below are the six most important things lessons I’ve learned—and find myself relearning—along the way.
Learn the language
Like kitesurfing or ferret breeding, having a relationship in which you have sexual and/or romantic engagements with other people comes with its own peculiar jargon. While getting comfortable with the idea of being open, I came to grips with some of the terminology. One of the first things I learned was that there are plenty of modes of being “open,” which is a loose umbrella term for them all.
You can be “monogamish,” meaning that you and your partner have agreed that some degree of sexual activity outside of the relationship is okay. There’s “polyamory”—literally, many loves—which means that you and your partner can be romantically and not just physically involved with others. “Swinging” generally means couples consensually exchanging partners for sexual play. There are lots of other ways in which people agree to go about it too. My partner and I initially decided that being monogamish was for us, but a few years later we had secondary and tertiary partners. We were then polyamorists, but of course, that sounds a bit too ‘70s. So we went with “open,” though I feel that in the eleven years since we started down that road, “consensual non-monogamy” is the more up-to-date term.
Another new word I learned was “compersion.” It’s often defined as the positive feeling you experience when a partner is enjoying another relationship. You may find, as I did, an unimagined capacity for compersion. You may, on the other hand, find the reality of your dearest one rimming a hot bartender a bit much when it comes right down to it.
For an open relationship to have any chance of success, it’s imperative that you’re both fully on board with the venture when it’s time to actually start seeing other people. If you’re not and forge ahead anyway, things are almost certainly doomed to failure.
Of course, it’s not unusual for one person to be more enthused about the prospect of being open. Open relationships coach Effy Blue says that one partner being more gung-ho about being open than the other is one of the top three reasons couples seek her counsel.
“When one partner wants to be consensually non-monogamous and the other is not so sure, it makes sense to give the reluctant partner time to read and think about it,” says Terri Conley, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. In other words, these new ideas need some processing. Conley, who does research on non-monogamy, says that if the reluctant partner remains unconvinced after a month or two of thinking and processing, then some tough decisions have to be made.
In 2007, my girlfriend—who later became my wife—was the one interested in the idea of being open while I was duly terrified at the prospect. I asked for a six-month freeze on the non-monogamy plan and she agreed. As luck would have it, that length of time was exactly what I needed in order to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for the prospect of her seeing other people. I was so wrapped up in mental prep that I didn’t even consider that I’d be able to see other people too but, as it turned out, I was the first person to take advantage of non-monogamy.
Pressing pause for an agreed upon length of time and letting the more apprehensive partner get become more comfortable is likely going to improve your chances of success should you decide to give it a go. So take your time, sit with your feelings, and use your words. If at the end of the agreed upon period, you’re still nauseated by the thought of sharing bae, own the fact that that non-monogamy may not be for you.
Set boundaries (with the understanding that they will probably change)
When embarking on being open, you have to imagine how you might feel in a number of different situations. “People in consensually non-monogamous relationships do not have scripts to follow,” Conley says. While there’s a general consensus of what’s okay and what’s not in monogamous relationships, open relationships are negotiated and re-negotiated all the time. “I think boundary setting should happen in monogamous relationships as well. People think that they know what other people mean by ‘monogamous,’ for example. But in reality, people's definitions of monogamy are idiosyncratic,” she says.
One of the boundary-related agreements that came out of my kitchen-table discussion with my partner was that we both practice impeccable condom use with other partners. This was a health decision, but our barrier-less sex imbued our relationship with a greater intimacy. We also agreed that we wouldn’t have sex with our friends, that we could only have casual one-time encounters rather than relationships. We also agreed upon the level of detail we preferred about each other’s solo adventures. She wanted the broad strokes, and I preferred a blow-by-blow.
All of the boundaries we set were reviewed, reworked, and in almost all cases, retired as we became more comfortable with non-monogamy. Whether you’re open or not, chances are that your relationship will evolve over time, so you should also review boundaries together if and when they begin to feel too constricting, too loose, or irrelevant. That said, to ensure everyone remembers what’s been agreed upon, you might even write down the boundaries in some form so that it’s easier to remain accountable to them while they’re still in place.
Don’t go at it alone
Blue says that a community of open people can provide a support network, insight, tips, camaraderie, and a space away for judgment and scrutiny. “Open relationships can feel isolating,” she says. “Especially if you’re not in a position to be open with your friends and family or if they don’t understand or support you.” Blue recommends that you connect with other open people, talk to them about their experiences, and find out about their journey.
Conley agrees, adding that more experienced consensually non-monogamous people can offer valuable advice. “Having mentors is really crucial with consensual non-monogamy because monogamous norms serve as roadmaps,” she says.
In our case, my partner and I were lucky to have open friends as inspiration. The pair had been in an open relationship for seven years, and at the time, were the only direct example of a functional, loving, sexy open relationship that we had. At the same time, we knew that the way they did it wouldn’t work for us—this helped us set our own expectations.
“If you don’t know anyone in an open relationship, Meetup.com is a great platform to search and connect with a community near you in person,” Blue says. “Facebook has many public and private groups that you can join, and there is a polyamory subreddit. If you are on the kinky side, fetlife—think: Facebook for kinksters—has great groups and event listings. Search for ‘open relationships,’ ‘polyamory’ and/or ‘non-monogamy’ to get you started.”
Resist the urge to compare yourself to the people your partner is seeing
Had I met my partner a year or two earlier, her proposal that we had an open relationship would have sent me packing. But by the time we got together, I’d turned 30 and was feeling more comfortable in my skin than I ever had. I felt secure in my career, at ease with my body, and was getting a handle on my own unique appeal. That meant that I was less compelled to compare myself to the men she saw who were invariably tall, handsome, smart, successful, impossibly well-endowed.
There are plenty of things I did to shore up my self-esteem during my open relationship and marriage including positive self-talk, focusing on the things I liked about myself and are unique to me, exercise, spending more time doing things I enjoyed, and yes, meeting new people.
Conley says that while it may be impossible to resist the urge to compare oneself to others, people who have successful open relationships understand that your partner has needs that you cannot meet and that you also have needs that your partner cannot meet. “It's probably easier if you're able to ask your partner what needs this person is meeting,” she says. “With an open mind, you might start to realize that you are not, in fact, the person to best meet those needs.”
Allow yourself to feel jealous.
One of the first things people want to know about open relationships is how people manage feelings of envy that can arise when someone other than you is gleefully schtupping your partner. According to Blue, there are two types of jealousy: “dispositional,” meaning that feeling some degree of jealousy is part and parcel of your personality, and “incidental,” meaning that certain activities or dynamics tend to arouse jealousy as they occur. “The former is a character trait,” she tells me. “If you are a [dispositionally] jealous person, you might want to rethink non-monogamy. It is the latter that we can manage.”
Dispositional jealousy had always been the thing that prevented me from entertaining the thought of being open in my 20s. But by the time I turned the big 3-0, found a partner I loved, and, as I mentioned before, worked on myself and cultivated compersion, that emotion began to fade. It also helped that the thought of my wife being sexual outside of our marriage turned me on.
“Jealousy is something that people who are open recognize as uncomfortable but not devastating,” Conley says. “So, feel it and understand that it will pass—people who choose to stay consensually non-monogamous find that it gets more manageable over time.”
My wife changed challenged me to be open and it completely changed my life. Then, seven years into our marriage, she decided that being monogamous was something she wanted to revisit and we subsequently separated. In the three years since then, I’ve dated several people, some quite seriously, all with the understanding that we always had the option to see other people. Employing some takeaways from my first foray into non-monogamy hasn’t meant that it’s always smooth sailing, but I have found that going through the list above has been helpful in keeping heartache to a minimum while enjoying a lifestyle that—if it’s a good fit—can change the way you experience yourself and the world around you.
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