My partner and I have been together for 10 years, and a little over a year ago I brought up that I wanted to discuss opening up our monogamous relationship and explore polyamory. Since then it’s been an excessive amount of discussion, some mistakes, a lot of learning and unlearning. It’s felt a bit overwhelming at times.
There are still many things we’re learning to navigate as we go, but I’ve learned that even in the happiest and stable of relationships there’s a lot of work to be done even before you involve other people.
Here are some tips that will help make this process a bit easier:
1. Remember you’re dealing with real people and real feelings
In hindsight, I realize that the conversations we had after I told my partner I wanted an open relationship were anything but unique. My partner’s suggestion that we find a woman we could date together and my suggestion that we maybe look for another couple to date are not original ideas in the slightest. In fact, there’s even a name for male/female couples who look for a bisexual woman (AKA a unicorn) to date: unicorn hunters.
From our perspective as an established couple, it initially felt like a less intimidating avenue for us to explore because it prioritizes us as a couple and sounded like something we could explore together—but prioritizing our relationship would mean that we weren’t prioritizing other partners we would theoretically be adding.
It can often be overlooked that the people you want to add to your relationship are very real people with their own thoughts and feelings, who need to be treated as such. When you add a new partner into your relationship there’s not just one relationship, there are actually four separate ones; you and your partner, you and the new person, your partner and the new person, and the relationship between you and both people.
Consider things you might not have thought of or assumptions you’ve made as someone who is part of a couple:
• If you’re adding a new person to your relationship to explore non-monogamy together, what kind of interactions do you picture having with the third person when you’re not together.
• If you’re looking to build a relationship with this new person, and there’s a work event where you can bring your partner, who do you bring?
• What if your current partner decides they don’t want to see the new partner anymore, do you also stop seeing them?
• How will you all behave in public together?
• What about family holidays? Would this new person be included, and if so how would they be introduced?
And in thinking about all of these questions it might not have occurred to you that you’re theoretically setting all of the terms of this relationship, which disempowers your new person.
Whether everything I’ve mentioned is relevant to the style of ethical non-monogamy you’re interested in, the bottom line is that you need consider other people’s feelings, have open and honest communication and make sure everyone is consenting and on the same page with their expectations.
2. Do your homework
When you’re opening up a monogamous relationship, there’s a lot to learn, and even more to unlearn when it comes to non-monogamy. For one thing, there’s a whole lot of terminology that you may have never heard before. Knowing some of the basic terms is helpful when you’re reading up on non-monogamy and when you’re discussing it.
Almost more importantly is all the things you need to unlearn, and at the top of that list is likely remembering that your feelings for someone else don’t detract from your existing relationships, and your partner’s feelings for other people don’t detract from what they feel for you. There’s a lot of cultural baggage we carry around about monogamy that can be difficult to shake for even the most open-minded of people.
It’s helpful when you and your partner are also having a discussion based on shared knowledge, so grab a book and both read it and then discuss your thoughts. Some great options to start with are Building Open Relationships, Opening Up, The Ethical Slut, and More than Two. I also found it really helpful to learn from other’s people by reading sites like Poly Role Models and The Open Photo Project, or by following the conversations in non-monogamy and polyamory focused facebook groups.
3. Take baby steps
In many couples (well, at least in mine) there is one partner who is the driving force behind opening up the relationship, even if both people are on the same page. If you’re that person (which I was), try to resist the urge to sign up and flirt on every dating app and immediately lining up a date for every night of the week. It’s tempting, I know, but it’s probably going to feel very jarring to your partner and possibly even to you. Take it slow—there’s no rush or timeline for how it’s supposed to look when people open their relationship.
The step that couples often forget when opening up a relationship is disentanglement. Even in the healthiest of monogamous relationships, it’s very easy to develop a certain level of codependency. If you’re a couple that’s used to doing everything together, start with exploring hobbies separately. Before running off to meet new potential romantic partners, pick one or two nights a week to explore an interest of yours separate from your partner—like joining a bowling team or going to a workout class. It’s a great way to make new friends and start getting comfortable with having more independence from your relationship, which will make the transition easier when you start going on dates and developing intimate relationships (whatever that looks like for you) with other people.
4. Discuss what you want your non-monogamous relationship to look like
Before involving other people, think about what you both want your open relationship to look like—because the options are endless.
Being familiar with some of the common terms and relationship structures people often use because it can serve as a jumping off point for a discussion, both when thinking about what you’re looking for and when discussing it with a partner. That said, the most important lesson I’ve learned from opening up my relationship is that there is no wrong way to have a relationship as long as all the people involved are comfortable with your arrangement. Think about how you define things and discuss it with your partner.
Do you want to have sex with other people but not let emotion get involved? How does each of you define sex? Do you want to have other intimate romantic relationships with other people? How does each of you define intimacy or closeness? Are you looking keep a hierarchical structure where you are each other’s “primary partner,” and what does that entail? Do you want to be friends with your partner’s partners, is it important that you all be able to spend time together, or do you prefer to keep everything separate?
Every open relationship is different, and as long as you have open and honest communication and consent, there’s no wrong way to structure your relationship. It can literally be whatever you want it to be, so think about what you’re really looking for. Open communication is essential to making any relationship work, and it’s especially important in changing the structure and boundaries of your relationship.
That said, keep in mind that things may not turn out exactly as you planned, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
5. Discuss where your boundaries are, and set a time to revisit them
Chances are you and your partner are not going to be comfortable with exactly the same things right off the bat. Discuss where both of your current comfort levels are and create boundaries that everyone can be okay with and then set time down the road to check in with each other and reevaluate.
For most people, change is a slow, uncomfortable process. Opening up a monogamous is a daunting task; if your comfort zone is broader than your partner’s it can be easy to get restless or impatient with boundaries that feel restrictive, and if you’re the partner with the narrower comfort zone it’s easy to end up feeling stressed and rushed.
Setting a timeline can be helpful for both parties— knowing when you’ll be able to discuss your boundaries again can help the one partner feel less impatient since there’s a set time for discussion, which in turn can help the other partner feel less rushed or stressed.
Be upfront about where your current boundaries are when you start dating new people and allow them to choose whether or not they’re comfortable with any boundaries or agreements that are currently in place.
6. Communication: Figure out what you need, and ask for it
The solution to most relationship issues, whether or not you’re opening up your relationship, boils down to one thing: communication.
This sounds so simple, but it’s the hardest item on this list—and it’s important in any relationship regardless of whether you’re monogamous or not. What you need is also going to be a moving target, which means you need to be aware of how you’re feeling so you can communicate it with your partner or partners.
Effective communication is a skill, and it’s often one we’re not taught growing up. Use techniques like non-violent communication to help you discuss touchy topics without judging or blaming each other.
Before you can communicate what you want and need, you need to figure out what those things are, and that in itself can be challenging. If that’s something you really struggle with, and your budget/insurance allows for it, consider talking to a therapist who can help figure those things out. “The more clear you become about who you are, what you want, and what makes you tick emotionally, the better a relationship partner you will be” (Tristan Taormino, Opening Up).
There’s no right way to open up a relationship, no right way to be in a relationship, and no timeline that things are “supposed to” happen on. Figure out what’s right for you and be honest and upfront with your partner(s) and you’ll figure things out.
If there are any other tips you think are helpful, let us know in the comments below!
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Thanks for writing this! This is such an important topic and you’re making really good points, and I hope this is going to make things easier for more and more people. One of my favorite things you’ve written!
Thanks so much for the kind words Ann!! I appreciate the feedback!