Help! My Partner Wants to “Open Up” Our Relationship
You never saw it coming. Your partner said, “We need to talk,” and you immediately began searching your memory banks: What did I do? Did I forget to pay the phone bill? Or take out the trash? Nope. Nothing so benign, something far scarier: they* want to change your monogamous relationship to … what? Something else. Why? What does this mean?
Why an Open Relationship?
First, a little reassurance is in order. There is nothing “wrong” with you, or with them. You are and will be okay. But why is this happening? You will need to conduct a little investigation into the specifics of your situation, but the options are numerous and many of them spring from the idea that one person cannot be another person’s everything. That your partner should meet every single one of your needs is a cultural construct that is often unrealistic and nearly unachievable. The idealized story goes something like this: person meets person, and in a whirlwind of romance the two come together in blissful harmony, they more or less agree on everything, have the same interests, love each other’s friends and family, support each other through work and family stress, agree about financial allocations, and, of course, are entirely sexually compatible. Does this sound like your relationship? Perhaps not.
Many couples work things out between them, perhaps leaning on friends or family for support. Others consider the possibility that adding additional people to the mix could make everyone happier. This is where the idea of “opening up,” or Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM), comes in. CNM is a blanket term used to describe non-traditional relationships including, but not limited to, open relationships, swinging, and polyamory**. Changing the nature of your twosome could fall into one of these general areas, but what that means to the two of you will be unique.
Things Will Change
Once you have had “the talk,” your relationship will never be quite the same again. That’s okay. You’ll consider what course to chart in this new phase of your relationship. If opening up your relationship is an attempt to fix what is broken, you should consider putting down this article and packing a bag. However, if you and your partner have a respectful, secure, loving relationship to begin with, opening up could be an option for you. Many partners travel this road because the sexual intensity between the two of them has decreased over time. Others hope that the inclusion of additional partners will result in all parties being a little bit happier. Whatever the reasons, you or your partner are ready to give something new a try.
The Path Forward – Talk to Each Other
Once you’ve had “the talk,” what happens next? More talking. Success in any type of CNM relationship depends on sincere, honest, and vulnerable communication. Initially, it is a good idea to explore with your partner what “opening up” means to them. Listen to them with openness and curiosity, and then look inward to see how that sits with you. Ask questions, and do not make assumptions. Be wary of potentially loaded words like “reasonable” without defining what reasonable means. (I may think it is perfectly reasonable to come home at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning; you, however, may think it is irresponsible and disrespectful.)
Poor communication and misunderstanding are common challenges and will have to be addressed thoughtfully on an ongoing basis. Another common challenge that partners face during the initial stages of opening up is how they can protect themselves from getting hurt. One way partners opening up for the first time attempt to avoid feeling their feelings is to establish “rules.” Loads and loads of rules. Rules are typically designed in an attempt to mitigate any possible feelings of discomfort in the future. For example, you cannot take a date to our favorite restaurant, or you will not engage in this or that particular sexual position with someone else. In reality, rules limit the exploration and experience in a number of ways, and may have unforeseen consequences. Other, currently unknown, humans will be involved with the two of you at some point, and they have feelings too! Trying to control everyone and everything so that you never have to experience discomfort definitely doesn’t work. So what does work? You may have guessed it: more talking. Direct and clear communication about how you feel when something causes you discomfort is the best way to get your needs met.
As you embark on your journey, consider community. Look online for support groups and other like-minded individuals or couples. Read books about the particular type of consensual non-monogamy you are considering. Improve your communication skills. Consider enlisting a therapist to help you explore the discomforts that arise for you, or a couple’s therapist to help you and your partner navigate the challenges that arise between the two of you (make sure this therapist is familiar with the lifestyle you are pursuing). This is a journey, and it is OK, in fact, it is recommended, to ask for help along the way.
* A quick note about pronoun selection. I adhere to the now widespread use of “they” as an all-inclusive singular pronoun.
** “Open relationships” refer to sexual connections with others outside the primary relationship; “swinging” is a partner activity of a sexual nature; “polyamory” is a bit more complex, but refers to romantic and sexual connections with others outside of the primary relationship in a wide variety of configurations.
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