Over the years, I’ve been asked about what being open means to me, why I practice polyamory and plenty of questions of what my relationships are like. People are curious about how I feel about various dynamics that are intriguing or unsettling. After answering those questions, a typical response is “That sounds great! I just don’t think I can do that.” I’ve known some (including former lovers of mine) to sour over the notion of open relationships when the tricky balancing act ended in a pratfall. As a flawed human who is constantly learning, I have and will continue to, mess up (and so will you!). These are just my thoughts, themselves imperfect and incomplete.
Several books have been written on various aspects of practicing polyamory, and I won’t be giving advice on how to open up as a couple or how to conduct an open marriage/serious relationship; that comes with a lot of unique challenges outside of the scope of this blog. Perhaps in a future post.
Instead, the theme here really is the idea that you are opening up yourself regardless of your relationship status. Such a drastically different way of expressing love leads to change; I want to prepare you for that change.
Do it Because You Want To
Maybe your partner wants to open your relationship, or maybe all the cool kids are doing it, and hey you are just as woke as they are. But such an endeavor is so emotionally complicated, it is hard to do well unless you fully embrace your motivations behind it. I was interested initially because I wanted to overcome jealousy and possessiveness. Curiosity, challenging your comfort levels, and personal growth are great reasons to think about polyamory. But operating outside of capacity usually leads nowhere good. First and foremost, do it for yourself, and make sure you’re ready for what’s to come.
You’ll most likely have to…
Adjust your Definition of What a Relationship is and is for
Polyamory is not, in my opinion, monogamy + (extra sex/another monogamous partner/doing whatever you want). Read a book I’ll recommend below or talk to another poly person, and they’ll gleefully talk about nomenclature, dynamics that are allowed/not allowed, what kind of hierarchical partnership they have, etc. Hi! I’m sexually nonmonogamous with my descriptive secondary, and romantically monogamous with my prescriptive primary, although we’ve been talking about entering a polycule with our metamours. I’ve seen so many people attempt to replicate dynamics of a monogamous relationship, namely these: commitment and loyalty (don’t leave me!), emotional possessiveness (you can fuck him, just don’t love him), and quid pro quo or negotiations (we each see our secondaries 5 times a month).
To simplify, I’ll grossly overgeneralize the difference between monogamous and open relationships. In monogamy, relationships inadvertently become situations where mutual survival and quality of life are inextricably linked, with separation coming with damage to one or both parties. This has its advantages, and many have opted for this for good reason.
However, that conflicts with my value of what a relationship should do, and truly what an open relationship must do. A person receives a relationship to be empowered and gives a relationship to empower the other person. That is it. Not unconditional love, not unconditional loyalty, but simply to unconditionally work towards increasing the quality of life and survival of the other person. If the relationship fails to do that, it needs to be scaled back for the benefit of either individual. If the relationship succeeds, it can be built for mutual enjoyment.
Polyamory is having multiple relationships, that although not equally serious, are all equally valuable. Competition has no place here, and priority can only be decided by everyone affected. Compassion is the only insurance that everyone will have each other’s best interest at heart. The trend here is that relationships tend to be less serious and but more intimate and trusting. Lives are not typically built together because, with such mutual empowerment, they don’t need to be. Some will find this sad. Others will find it liberating. Yet I have found with such freedom I have brought more intention to the relationships I do choose to build, I am more available with an open heart, and I am more empowering myself to give the freedom, without fear, that others will themselves enjoy.
Check Yourself, Emotionally
Jealousy. Insecurity. Territorial and possessive behavior. Fear. Attachment trauma. Loneliness. Understanding and wanting the benefits of an open relationship does not mean you’re ready to handle it, which can mean that you can both hurt yourself and your partners. Understand where you’re at. Open relationships will require more honesty than you’re used to, so your own emotional capacity is a good place to start.
We are so incredibly hurt in this world. We are all so flawed. And as social creatures, we evolved to have a small community of people support us throughout our whole life, not just one partner. But polyamory is not a replacement for tribalism, it won’t satisfy all your needs and fears. And letting go of traditional ideas marriage or a life partner commitment can be especially scary. Understand that you will be empowering someone to have a great life and potentially leave you by building emotional bonds with other people. That requires trust and resilience.
But you can be a healthy (enough) person while being imperfect. Just know where you are at. And remember, your partners are also just humans.
Learn to Create and Hold New Boundaries
This one is tantamount to any relationship success. If you are ready to move forward with a new perspective on relationships, understand that not everyone will. Our culture values sacrifice, compromise in disagreements, and even tolerance of mistreatment. Ultimately, we are conditioned to compete against our partners for our own needs. Hypocrisy, double standards, incentivized dishonesty, and cheating thrive in closed relationships. Your goal is to make sure they don’t in your open relationship.
A boundary is knowing what you are able and willing to do, and how you want your relationship to work for you. A boundary is control of your own behavior, intimately linked with your emotional capacity. It is stepping back from a conversation when you are being interrupted and know you may start yelling. It is holding the values of condoms during sex. It is standards of treatment that you have defined for yourself that you want from a partner.
However, boundaries cannot control someone else’s behavior. Holding boundaries strongly does not mean coercing someone to do what you want or stop doing something that simply triggers hurt feelings. No matter how jealous you are, you cannot use your boundary to convince someone to break up with a partner. You cannot use a boundary to prevent them from making their relationship more serious with someone else. Simply put, boundaries regard behavior towards you from another person, not what they choose to do for themselves or other relationships.
Because relationships are always about empowering the other person, if you find yourself in a compromising situation, a violated boundary is an indication that it is time for you to step back in some way or another. Have a strategy to do that. Find a way to express your needs without starting a de-escalation war of mutual boundary impositions that leads to a breakup. Remove yourself from situations that are volatile emotionally. Don’t be afraid to scale things down, because nothing will stop you from starting them back up once you are safe. You are most likely out of your element anyway, but the good news is this: Strong boundaries upfront encourage respect from your partner.
Change your Expectations of Yourself and Your Partner
In a word, this basically means reinterpreting people’s behavior. Opening an existing relationship can be very tough (as stated earlier I won’t be giving much advice on this, check recommended reading) because even though you may be going slow and taking baby steps, you partner is acting differently. Previously, that person was closed with you, and now they are exploring other relationships. They are changing, and you don’t know what that change means for you.
This is not because you intrinsically relate having sex with someone else as loving you less. That’s just what it used to mean, and it’s hard to let go of that. Give yourself these expectations:
my partner will be interested in new people and that’s okay
my partner will love other people and still love me
my partner will fuck other people and still stay with me
I will empower my partner and my partner will empower me
I will empower my partner, and hold my boundaries if I need to
We build up narratives in our head so easily that we will give someone support as they build a life that would be more fun to live without us, that they will have so many opportunities and we will not. Give yourself the notion that open is the default, and you’ll find yourself scared and hurting less when they behave according to, not against, your new expectations.
Explore the Three Kinds of Overlapping Love
Because open relationships come with a certain kind of liberation as described above, I have come up with the idea that there are three kinds of love you feel for people: platonic, romantic, and sexual. As you change, as your expectations change, as your relationship dynamics change, you will find the way you feel about people change. When you are so free to explore feelings, when you slowly let go of ideas such as “sex comes with romance,” “jealousy indicates love,” and “friendships can be ruined with too much intimacy,” new combinations of emotions that previously didn’t go together feel…normal. Separate the ideas of commitment and exclusivity, romance and commitment, and perhaps explore new ideas such as romance and friendship, with sex intermingled where it is desired.
But there is one more: a new feeling unique to open relationships, an emotion so powerful it will create a romance never before experienced. It is called compersion. A union of empathy and romance, it is our reward for setting free our greatest love we ever felt. It will develop in time, but it requires first that we feel safe in our relationship. More on that here.
We are in a time of transition. Not everyone is open, we are the trailblazers. I may be an eternal optimist, but I believe such a community building dynamic is an important part of the world peace movement. We need strong ties. Exclusivity breaks those down. I imagine a world where our lovers are truly our friends: they become people we network with and build a community. With sex and romance, our powerful feelings of intimacy and vulnerability are never be protected but shared.
Break the mindset of love scarcity. The love we share with new people is in abundance and only grows with us, together, through age and time. It will be hard, new things always are. And you may feel frustrated and alone at times. But even if you choose to practice closed relationships, I hope you reflect on these principles and perhaps grow your love to a more vulnerable, trusting, and open state.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you are interested in more aspects, I’ll recommend the three books I’ve read.
Sex at Dawn by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan
-This is a book mainly focused on the anthropology of nonmonogamy in tribal and historical cultures. With a biting tone, it challenges conventional ideas that humans are naturally monogamous and proffers evidence of a much more open romantic social structure
More Than Two by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux
-Here’s your comprehensive guide to opening your relationship with your partner. It covers topics from jealousy to communication to scheduling and is written in a very relatable and available tone. It’s the Bible kids. Buy it when you’re ready to open up with your love.
Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
-This book has a great sex-positive message. It’s an in-your-face read written by unapologetically weird and kinky authors. I’m very comfortable with my weirdness and sex positivity already so I didn’t get much out of it, but you might 🙂