9 Questions To Ask Before You Open Up Your Relationship
It’s 2018, and polyamory is finally something of a household word. Polyamorous people don’t believe romance must occur between only two people. A poly relationship could consist of three people who are all in love with each other, one person who is dating two people separately, or any number of multi-partner arrangements. The increased visibility of the lifestyle has led to more people considering the idea of opening up their relationship.
Consensual non-monogamy — which is the umbrella term that includes polyamory as well as other types of non-monogamy like swinging — is steadily rising in popularity. A 2016 study found one in five people engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy at some point in their life, and experts estimate about 4 to 5 percent of Americans are in some form of consensually non-monogamous arrangement at any given time. (For reference, a 2018 Gallup poll found 4.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, which suggests being non-monogamous might be just as common as being gay or trans.)
For those of us who run in pretty traditional circles with only exposure to the types of relationships you see in the movies, it can be easy to assume open relationships are exclusively for the uncommitted. But consensual non-monogamy is in fact a perfectly normal, healthy, and ethical lifestyle that many couples and people enjoy with a lot of success and satisfaction. I’ve personally been in both consensually non-monogamous relationships and traditional monogamous ones throughout my life, and I’ve also spent a lot of time at poly cocktails, socials, and sex parties, socializing with people who’ve been in happy, consensually non-monogamous relationships for years and years.
If you’re currently in a committed monogamous relationship and considering whether an open relationship is right for you, your first step is to read, read, and read some more. There are so many wonderful resources about polyamory and consensual non-monogamy accessible to us these days; The Ethical Slut is heralded as something of a poly bible, or simply Google around for the words “polyamory,” “open relationship,” and “consensual non-monogamy” and read the articles that come up. This is by no means a new-age or taboo topic; it’s been written about extensively, and there’s seemingly no end to the reading material.
You can also attend poly-oriented events: alternative relationships coach Effy Blue hosts so-called “Curious Fox” meetups for people who want to explore the lifestyle, and sex researcher Dr. Zhana Vrangalova hosts educational workshops and panels on the topic regularly as well. Or simply search around Meetup.com for poly meetups in your city. You can definitely attend as an observer even if you’re not in a poly relationship yourself.
If you’ve already done your research and are now considering introducing non-monogamy into your own relationship, here are a few questions to help you and your partner discuss the idea. These questions will help you examine what it would mean to open up your relationship, decide if it’s right for you two in particular, and communicate expectations in advance so you’re set up for success should you decide to move forward with opening up the doors.
1. What kind of open relationship do you want?
There are all sorts of different arrangements that fall under the umbrella of “open relationship.” It could mean you two are going to individually be sleeping with other people. It could mean you two are going to seek out sexual experiences with other people together in a swinging or group scenario, but neither of you will be sexually exploring without the other. It could mean you two are going to be actually going out on dates with other people but keeping each other as your primary partner. Or perhaps you’re now both going to have a second partner and will be seeking love with another person. Or maybe it means that you’re no longer going to be each other’s primary partner at all.
It’s up to you and your partner to determine exactly what you want your relationship to look like. Take some time to think about exactly what kind of open relationship would bring you joy and excitement and then talk to your partner about it to see if they’re on the same page. You should definitely come to an agreement about what the “rules” or expectations are before you officially dive back into the mating pool.
2. How much time do you each have, and how much time do you expect to spend with each other?
Typically the desire to open up your relationship stems from a sense of restlessness, a desire for something fresh or exciting, or plain ol’ horniness. So when people are deciding what kind of open relationship they want, they’re thinking mostly about what would be pleasurable and less about what’s practical. For example, you might love the idea of having three different boyfriends, but be real for a second: Would you actually have time for three separate, full relationships? Would you be able to see each person at least once week, in addition to work and friends and whatever else you do in your life?
Before you open up your relationship, get real about your and your current partner’s schedule. Discuss how much time you both want to spend with each other — for example, will you be okay going from hanging out every other day to only hanging out once a week because you’ll both have other partners you need to see? What are the expectations? How will you organize your time? A lot of polyamorous couples use shared Google calendars to plan out their romantic lives and make sure all their partners are getting the quality time they need. Consider whether you’ll need such a system to be put in place.
3. What are your and your partner’s boundaries?
Consider what your comfort levels are around a variety of different situations that are bound to pop up: For example, are you allowed to bring a date back home to your shared apartment for sex, or will that freak your partner out? Can your friends meet your new flames, or is that a total no-no? Do you expect your partner to prioritize texting you back when she’s on a date? It could also be a weirdly specific boundary that only makes sense to you: Museums are our thing, and it’ll really bum me out if you bring another girl to a cool museum instead of bringing me.
Are certain activities off limits? Kissing others is okay but no sex? Sex is okay but one-night stands only? P-in-V sex is okay but no oral because the latter is harder to protect from STI risks? Again, this is all about getting specific and deciding on logistics before a situation comes up that could potentially be hurtful to one or both of you. The more you two discuss together in advance, the better prepared you’ll be to handle anything that comes your way as you embark on this new phase of your relationship.
4. How do you respond to jealousy?
Obviously, this is a huge one. Research suggests some people may be more naturally predisposed to feeling jealousy than others (i.e. some people have more jealousy-prone personalities than others do, just like some people might be more or less responsible, more or less shy, more or less extroverted, etc). That means it’s possible that some people are simply better suited to open relationships than others are. Really take into consideration whether you think you’ll be able to emotionally handle any green feels that will inevitably come your way as you two start seeing new people.
Even if you do think you’ll be able to cope with being jealous every now and then, consider the ways you typically respond to jealousy: Do you tend to get cold and standoffish? Do you tend to get really emotional and cry a lot? Do you tend to become mistrusting and clingy? Discuss these with your partner in advance so you both know what to expect, and figure out what each of you can do to make the other person feel safe, heard, and loved when jealousy does occur. What do you want your partner to do when you’re jealous? What do they want you to do when they’re jealous?
Consider having a protocol in place that you can both commit to whenever one person is feeling the green: Maybe it means you guys spend a whole weekend together curled up on the couch and talking about your future together, for example. Maybe it means putting other dates on hold while you two are working through the feelings.
5. Do you and your partner have a system in place for dealing with conflict?
In addition to having a protocol around jealousy, you should also consider discussing in advance how you both want to deal with any other conflicts that arise. For example, my partner and I have agreed that we’re always going to be open with each other about any negative or hurt feelings we’re having about each other or the relationship; we don’t dodge questions, say “it’s nothing,” or say “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” We’ve agreed to always just be totally upfront with each other as soon as the issue comes up.
Many experts recommend this type of open communication style when it comes to conflict management, but you might find that you’re someone who’ll need a night to think it over and wants to sit down for a conversation the following day. Talk to your partner about how you both want to handle these types of conflicts before you open up your relationship. Also consider setting up understandings such as not seeing other people when one of you is angry, for example.
6. How much detail do you want to know about your partner’s new flings?
When I practiced poly with one of my former partners, we had a rule of total and complete transparency — we told each other everything about our dates and the people we were sleeping with. But some people definitely don’t want that. You might prefer to know nothing at all about who your partner is spending time with. Discuss with your partner in advance what each of your expectations are around communication before you open up your relationship. Do you want to know about every date he’s going on beforehand? Do you need to check in before you decide to go home with someone you just met at the bar? The next morning, is it chill to come home to your partner and gush about how hot your lay from last night was?
7. What are your jealousy “triggers”?
Oftentimes people have certain “triggers” that consistently make them jealous, upset, or simply uneasy. For example, I’ve heard of non-monogamous people who don’t care in the least about their partner having sex with others — except when that sex was happening in their shared bed. You might hate the feeling of smelling someone else’s perfume on your pillows. Or maybe the feeling of seeing your partner hold hands with another man drives you crazy. What are the small things that you know tend to unleash your green? Talk to your partner about these triggers, and make sure you know theirs as well so you can both avoid unnecessarily upsetting the other.
8. How will you make sure both parties are feeling secure and satisfied over time?
Many polyamorous couples have in place a system of regular check-ins. For example, once a month or even once week, you might agree with your partner to sit down and have a conversation checking in on how both of you are feeling about the arrangement. The great thing about having these conversations pre-scheduled is that nothing ever gets pushed under the carpet, and you’re actively creating time and space to listen to each other. It never feels scary to bring something up that’s bothering you because you’ve built in time where you both expect these conversations to happen.
9. Do you trust your partner?
Before you open up your relationship, spend a good deal of time sitting with this question. At the end of the day, non-monogamous relationships are built on the principle of trust. You’re trusting that both of you are going to be completely honest, communicative, respectful, and committed to your relationship as defined. Is the person you’re with someone you can truly trust to do all these things?
If you decide you don’t trust your partner right now, don’t panic and assume that means you don’t love them enough (and likewise if they say they don’t trust you). Trust is not something that’s finite and stagnant; it’s something that builds over time. If non-monogamy is something you’re both interested in but simply not ready for yet, that’s okay. Just give it time and see if that changes. You might find you’ll never be able to trust your partner, and perhaps the two of you are not a right fight. You might find that you do trust your partner but simply don’t emotionally have it in you to withstand the jealousy that might come. Or you might finally find that you trust them and yourself, and you’re finally ready to embark on a great exploratory journey together.