There’s no “right” way to be in a relationship.
You’re not alone if you’ve noticed that non-monogamy and open relationships seem to be more popular lately. Open relationships are closer to the mainstream today than they have been in the past, and many folks are becoming more accepting of folks who practice non-monogamy.
Monogamous relationships are still very much the default, but many people are now exploring what kind of relationship structure works best for them. Having the freedom to explore the kind of relationship that works best for you is as exciting as it can be intimidating. After all, where should you start when thinking about opening up your relationship?
Our years of experience as couples counselors have taught us that the best place to begin when opening up your relationship is to talk about it.
Communicating effectively is necessary in any relationship, but it’s especially important in open relationships.
Why communication is the key for non-monogamy
Many people get the idea to open up their relationship without realizing what a monumental undertaking it is, communication wise. Partners that have the most success with open relationships are partners that have learned to communicate, even about hard or unpleasant topics.
Open relationships can seem intimidating or unpleasant because the idea of talking about all of the things that make us feel insecure, abandoned, unloved, or jealous sounds scary. Here’s the thing though: These topics are going to come up in your relationship, whether you want them to or not. This is true even if you’re not looking to open up your relationship!
Being proactive and discussing things with your partner before opening up your relationship can help you start off with a solid foundation and have a plan for when tough feelings come up. Getting comfortable with having difficult conversations before you open your relationship can give you some confidence that you can handle whatever comes your way.
Before you consider opening up your relationship, make sure to talk about these 5 things:
Your goals for opening the relationship
What is each of you hoping that opening up the relationship will bring to the table? What will opening things up contribute to the relationship? It might be tricky to find the words to answer this one, but think it over and consider why you think non-monogamy is the right choice for you and your relationship.
What do you expect this arrangement to look like for the both of you long-term? Are you hoping to grow closer to each other? Improve your communication skills? Explore different kinds of connection? Deal with differing libidos in your relationship? Try to share how you feel this will impact your current relationship with each other.
It’s also crucial to work on any problems that are currently impacting your relationship before opening things up. One goal that people often have for non-monogamy is improving their current relationships. Opening up the relationship won’t fix the problems you currently have, even if you hope that will be the case. It’s important to work toward solving those problems or finding ways to cope with them before adding a new dynamic to your relationship.
Your expectations and boundaries
There’s no way to open up a relationship in an ethical way without talking about your expectations and boundaries. Making sure that everyone is on the same page with regard to expectations and boundaries is essential when opening up a relationship. When everyone knows what the expectations and the boundaries are, things will go more smoothly. When things are unclear, on the other hand, it can be hard to navigate what is allowed and what is not.
In this conversation with your partner, get really clear on each other’s expectations and boundaries. This is the point where you discuss exactly what is and isn’t on the table. Think through the style of relationship that you’re looking for so you can be prepared to discuss your expectations and boundaries. Learning about different types of non-monogamous relationships and the terms used to describe it can help you get specific about your expectations.
How do you envision this looking in practice? Are you looking for a partner together or on your own? Are you just looking for sexual connections outside of your relationship, or are romantic connections on the table as well? Will you be practicing hierarchical polyamory or non-hierarchical? Are there certain sexual boundaries that you’d like each other to respect? Do you have veto power over each other’s partners and connections? Do you want to hear the details of your partner’s other connections, or should they be kept private? These are all important things to think and talk about with your partner before you open up your relationship.
How you plan to deal with conflict + difficult emotions
Conflict is a part of all relationships, so it’s helpful to consider how you plan to deal with conflict before it arises and you’re emotionally activated. Try to think through different scenarios and make plans for how you’d like to respond. Consider reading through books or memoirs by non-monogamous folks to get an idea of what kind of situations may arise.
One emotion that you may want to have a plan for jealousy. Everyone feels jealous from time to time, but feeling jealous doesn’t mean you need to act on it in a way that controls your partner. Expect that finding your way in this new dynamic will take some time, and you can both be sensitive to that.
Find ways to work through jealousy or uncomfortable feelings so you have options to turn to when jealousy or discomfort comes up. Emotions don’t last forever, but it often feels like they will never end when they’re distressing to you. Making sure you know what coping skills you can turn to in the moment can give you some peace of mind.
For example, if you are worried about how you’ll feel when your partner is on a date, have a list of coping skills ready to use so that you don’t freeze in the moment. It may also be helpful to have a set time to reconnect with one another after you’ve been out with someone else, especially when you’re adjusting to this new structure.
The logistics of non-monogamy
There’s a joke in the non-monogamy community that having multiple partners means getting really good at using Google Calendar. When you’re juggling more than one relationship at a time, it can be tricky to work out the logistics of how it will work. Try to give it some thought ahead of time, and talk about how you expect to handle the logistics with your partner.
How much time do you expect to spend with new partners? How much time do you expect to spend with your current partner? How will events and celebrations be divided between partners? What happens when one relationship needs more attention than another? What if one of you wants to move in with a new partner at some point? How will household labor and childcare be divided? What are the circumstances under which you would close your relationship back up? How will that affect other partners and connections?
What steps you want to take to begin
Once you’ve talked about the nitty-gritty details of opening up your relationship with your partner, you can make a plan to get started. Talk about how you plan to begin this new dynamic.
Do you plan to get on dating apps or ask for friends to set you up? Will you be spending free time looking for new partners? Will you be looking for partners together? Do you want to help each other get ready for dates? Are you looking to talk everything through with a couples counselor who works with all relationship orientations? Make a plan together of how you’ll begin this new stage of your relationship.
Tips for getting through difficult conversations in your relationship
Talking about topics that are emotionally activating can be painful, and it’s natural to want to avoid feeling that discomfort. However, as we’ve said, communication is the key to successful open relationships. Here are some suggestions to get through difficult conversations in your relationship:
- Be open in your posture, make eye contact if comfortable for you, face each other. Consider your body language in addition to what you’re saying.
- Listen to understand what your partner is saying, not to respond or defend yourself
- Write down what you want to say so you don’t forget
- Don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions before your partner has finished speaking
- Take time to calm down or digest each other’s sides before responding (it’s okay to take a break when you’re emotionally overwhelmed)
It might be hard to talk about some of these topics sometimes, but talking about it is the only way to make sure you’re on the same page. Brushing things under the rug will only lead to further resentment and distress, so having these conversations is a proactive way to strengthen your relationship before you open it up.
If you and your partner are considering opening up your relationship, going over the details and the what-ifs can help you understand what you’re agreeing to and feel comfortable talking about these topics. Finding a polyamory-affirming couples therapist can also be helpful when navigating non-monogamy. Many couples counselors, including ours, have experience working with all kinds of relationship structures, and can be an invaluable source of support as you navigate these tough conversations.