Okay, so you’re in a monogamous relationship, you love your partner, and everything is mostly awesome.
Except there’s this one thing. And it’s so hard to talk about.
After however many years of partnership you’ve enjoyed together, there’s something in you that craves more. More sex, different sex, more love, sexy flings, or maybe you’re interested in exploring group play with your partner, which can mean anything from threesomes to full-blown play parties.
Whatever it is that you’re craving, you’re hopefully a person who values integrity and communication, and you want your partner to be on board with your desires. You know that lies and deception will be the foundational cracks that destroy everything you’ve built together, and you’re determined to do this right. So how do you tell them without creating a catastrophic event in your central relationship?
First off, before you breathe a word of these ideas to your partner, you’ve gotta do some serious work on your own.
Start by asking yourself: Is your relationship on solid ground, or are you trying to save a rocky connection with openness? If the latter is true, I’m gonna stop you from making a terrible mistake right now. If your relationship is damaged and suffering, opening it up will only hasten its end. I mean, if you want out, then go for it! You won’t hear any judgements from me—I’ve been there. The very first time I ever tried openness was with a boyfriend I knew I no longer wanted to be with. It was a last ditch effort to save a failing relationship, and it did not work. But it did allow me to get out of that relationship much faster than I probably would have otherwise. In my case, that was a good thing.
That being said, if you want to preserve your primary relationship, opening it up is probably not going to magically fix all your problems. Even bringing up the idea of an open relationship can be intensely destabilizing, so you want you and your sweetie to be on the most solid ground possible before you broach the subject. If that’s not currently the case, get into counseling, start changing the way you communicate and relate to each other, and build the trust and security you’ll need to tackle this adventure together.
Second question you need to ask yourself: What are your reasons for wanting to open up, and are you fully secure in those reasons? Your partner deserves a nuanced explanation of what it is you’re missing that you’d like to gain by opening up your relationship, and it’s vital that you don’t harbor any guilt or shame surrounding your desires. If part of you feels guilty for feeling the way you do, it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to advocate for yourself with a partner who’s used to monogamy.
Our cultural narratives are damning to those who crave arrangements that are outside the norm. We’re called selfish and immature on the regular, in spite of the fact that this way of conducting relationships actually requires highly advanced communication skills and the fostering of unconditional love, another advanced emotional skill. This narrative, however flawed, means your partner may feel strongly that they have the moral high ground when discussing this with you. If any part of you also believes that, you’re going to have a very tough time not getting beaten down by your own shame in the face of your partner’s fear.
Let’s assume that you’ve got all that figured out. You and your lovebug are tighter than a go-go dancer’s corset, and you feel confident and self-assured about your reasons for wanting openness. You still most likely have a bumpy road ahead of you, and it’s important to be very sensitive to your partner’s emotional needs in order to prepare them for what will, at best, be an uncomfortable series of conversations.
Again, in our culture, we’re force-fed ideas that make people extremely resistant to even considering non-monogamy, and it’s important to be sensitive to that. If your partner believes, like most people do, that it’s only possible to love one person romantically at a time, or that having attractions or feelings for others means the central relationship is irrevocably damaged, then reversing these core beliefs is going to be the most difficult part of this process. These are deeply held beliefs in our culture.
They’re completely untrue, but the emotional attachment that we develop to them is extremely challenging to release. It took me years of self-work and experimentation to get these ideas out of my own heart and mind, so be prepared for a long process of slowly, gently encouraging your partner to examine these core beliefs and find the inherent flaws in them. Prepare to be endlessly patient, calm, loving, and compassionate as you attempt this transition.
I recommend beginning the process with a period of reinforcement of your primary relationship. Before bringing up openness, spend a few weeks or even months putting extra effort into making sure your partner feels loved and supported by you; do everything you can to let them know how committed you are to building a life with them. Show daily appreciation and affection, and put effort into making your partner smile, laugh, and generally feel happier than they did before interacting with you.
Think of every moment of amplified connection as a protective balm you’re applying to gird your relationship against any potentially destabilizing event. There’s really no amount of this that’s too much, so keep going with this preparatory reinforcement of your relationship until you feel that you have the best chance of beginning this conversation without an immediate devolution into full-on freak-out. You want your partner to feel loved, secure, supported, valued, and calm.
When you feel ready, start small. You know your partner. You might be with someone who’s able to have calm intellectual discussions about emotionally difficult topics, and in that case, starting “small” might mean going straight to: “Have you ever thought of the idea of an open relationship? Like, for us?” Or you might be with someone you know is keenly devoted to the dream of lifelong monogamy, who you know has issues with anger, jealousy, or low self-worth, and in that case, a gentle start might be something much softer, like bringing up friends you know who have an open relationship (or it can be a non- monogamous celebrity couple if you have no non-monogamous friends).
You might email an article about alternative relationship styles with a note saying, “I found this article interesting and I’d love to hear your thoughts after reading. I love you!” You’ll have to read your audience to know how small to start, and once you do, gauge their reaction carefully. If you sense a firmly locked door, you’ll know you need to be even gentler and more reassuring throughout this process. Remember, your partner’s first gut reaction to this revelation will very likely be a deep, panicky fear that they’re losing you. That’s one of the worst feelings in the world. Understand that and do everything you can to assuage their fear.
These small first steps will hopefully have the natural effect of starting an ongoing conversation around the topic of non- monogamy, and eventually, the moment will come when you feel it’s time to share with your partner that this is something you’re genuinely interested in exploring together. When you get to this stage, it’s essential that you make sure your partner knows this isn’t about them not being “enough” for you. Rather, it’s about increasing the amount of love, passion, and excitement in both of your lives.
You would be wise to begin and end every conversation you have about this with statements that reassure your partner. “I love you and our life together, and I’m deeply committed to that. This isn’t something I’ve actually acted on or would ever act on without your full consent. It’s just something I’ve been wanting to talk about and potentially explore together. You’re my top priority and the most important person in my life.”
You can also start working to help your partner confront the flawed cultural beliefs most of us hold dear. For example, why is it that every other type of love is considered infinite and abundant, but we believe romantic love is limited to one person at a time? If you find a new platonic friend that you adore, that doesn’t automatically translate to you ending all of your other friendships in order to preserve the new friendship. That would be considered insane, toxic behavior. It’s the same with every other kind of love—the love for your family, your children, is never limited to just one person at a time.
So why do we assume romantic love works the same way, especially when there’s abundant evidence that it doesn’t? Even in monogamous relationships, people fall in love and cheat and even leave their primary relationships all the time. We’re never safe from losing our loves. But what if we all agreed that a new love doesn’t instantly invalidate an existing love? Then there’s no need to end the primary relationship because someone new showed up.
Open relationships actually increase the likelihood of preserving your central relationship because the same pitfalls that destroy monogamous relationships won’t destroy an open one as easily. New secondary relationships can actually enhance and strengthen your primary relationship by allowing both of you to see each other and yourselves in a new, sexier light.
I have one partner who has chosen to be monogamous with me, knowing that I’m polyamorous and will continue to operate that way. This is his first experience with an open relationship, and he’s been wonderfully patient in trying to understand it. This very morning, he asked me whether beginning a new romantic relationship affects the way I feel about my other partners. I asked him if making a new friend has an effect on his existing friendships. He said yes, that it usually enriches them. I said, “Exactly.”
You can also introduce the concept of compersion, a beautiful word that essentially means the opposite of jealousy. Compersion is the ability to feel genuine happiness for your partner when they experience sex or love with someone else. It’s one of the noblest ways to love a romantic partner because it’s devoid of ego, insecurity, and fear. It requires you to love yourself enough to know that another person’s love in no way diminishes you, and it requires you to love your partner enough to want them to have as many joyful, pleasurable experiences on this earth as possible.
Developing compersion in oneself is a topic that could fill an entire book, and I’ll cover it in more depth in a future essay. For now, just know that it’s possible to convert jealousy into compersion by fostering the ability to love your partner unconditionally. In my life, that’s become a spiritual practice, and it’s one of the many reasons I believe open relationships have the power to introduce us to ways of living and loving that are far more expansive and heart-opening than the culturally accepted prescription for romantic love.
Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged by a strong initial negative reaction, which will most likely be what you get when you start this conversation, and don’t expect this to happen overnight. The last time I took on this task, it took nine patient months of returning to the conversation again and again, until my partner was on board with opening up. Depending on how strong the resistance in your partner is, it could take much longer than that. But stay calm, loving, patient, and strong in your conviction that this is something that would increase the joy in your life, and keep returning to it as gently as you can.
People are much more capable of change and evolution than we often give them credit for, and you have to believe that your partner is capable of loving both you and themselves enough to overcome their fear of losing you. Never resort to ultimatums or threats of leaving if they don’t acquiesce. This is about tackling a problem together, not forcing your loved one to do something they aren’t ready for.
In the end, it all comes down to unconditional love—both for yourself and your partner. They may never be able to get on board with the idea of openness, and you may have to make a difficult decision. You may leave the relationship in search of one that’s more compatible with your desires. You may decide to stay committed to your partner and put your desires on the shelf. Or you may decide, like many, many people do, to just start having your own relationships on the side without your partner knowing. This last strategy is one that I understand and don’t judge, but I also believe that we can do better. With focused, unconditional love, compassion, and empathy, anything is possible.
If you have questions about your specific situation and would like my insight or advice, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’d be happy to help in any way I can. If you’d like to read more on the topic of open relationships, or would like resources to share with your partner, I love The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton, Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, and Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.
I wish you open love and freedom of sexual expression in the very near future, and best of luck in creating the sex and love life of your dreams.